A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

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Winning, January 2019 Edition: Jobs, Self-Care, Goals

I'm popping in to give a quick update on life stuff and some recent wins, since I hate to go more than a week without posting to the blog. I have a few more professional-ish posts in the hopper (one about creating an updated budget, one about the pitfalls of giving advice in the personal finance space, one about our modified student loan payoff plan), but before those go live, I need to get through the next few days. For now, I'll go with more of an informal two-friends-catching-up-over-coffee post.

1. Job Transition

Old Job is officially over! Thank the baby Jesus. I've returned all of the equipment and the only thing left to do is cash my final paycheck when it arrives next week (I wish it'd arrive sooner because the $150 in our checking account has to tide us over for the next nine days).

As for New Job, it starts tomorrow. I've received my company computer and attendant gear, and my calendar is already packed with meetings and training. Looks like this is really happening!

To be completely honest, I feel more anxious and skeptical than excited. Anxious because I'm always worried that something will go wrong or that I'll totally suck in my role, and skeptical because after five years of lackluster jobs, I have a hard time believing that I will ever find work that I enjoy. I feel like I am doomed to be disappointed in, and unfulfilled by, any job I take. If this one doesn't pan out, I really don't know what I will do. At that point I think I'd have to focus on freelancing and/or building my own business.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. Hopefully these feelings of uneasiness reflect nothing more than first-day jitters.

(No need to point out that I am a neurotic worrywart. Trust me, I'm aware!)

2. Self-Care

I had one week of freedom between jobs and I used it to take care of some mundane but necessary tasks that I've been putting off. In particular, I went to the doctor for my preventative well-woman exam and had some routine blood work done. I wanted to slide them in before Old Job insurance runs out at the end of this month.

My doctor and I spent some time weighing the pros and cons of mammograms (I'll probably hold off on that for now) and colonoscopies (given a family history of colon cancer). I ended up having a FIT test, which is a non-invasive test that can help diagnose colon polyps or cancer. Waiting for test results makes me nervous - because I get nervous about everything - but I'm proud of myself for getting it done.

Go to the doctor, people! Use those preventative care benefits! And get your flu shot if you haven't done so yet.

3. Goals

Brag moment: I am kicking butt with my 2019 goals. Not just the money ones, but the health ones, too. Over the past few weeks I have:
  • consumed at least 64 oz. of water every single day (I don't think this has EVER happened before!)
  • worked out 4-6 days per week 
  • meditated 5 days per week
As a result, I feel a little bit calmer and way more hydrated, have more energy, and can see more muscle definition in my arms and legs. And my hair looks better! I keep thinking I'm imagining that last one, but I swear it's softer and fuller.

You already know about my other January goal wins, namely paying off my student loan. Next up: eliminate remaining medical bills.

Tell me how you're doing! How are you feeling about your own job/career? Have you made progress on your goals? What forms of self-care are working well for you?

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21 Months Later, My Student Loan Is GONE

Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash

(Note: I wrote this yesterday evening but wanted to let it sit for a few hours before sharing it with the blogging world.)

Today was a big day.

Today I paid off the last $3500 on my student loan. The student loan I’ve been carting around since 2003

Yes, this loan has been in my life for almost 16 freaking years. If it were my child, it would be a teenager practicing for its driving test.

When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t planning to pay it off. I was going to wait until I was a week or two into my new job so that I could be certain of my next paycheck. But you know how sometimes you get a wild hair? That’s how it's been with this loan for the last month or so. I just need it out of my life. I need to delete it as a budget line item so that we can turn our attention to other things, like our remaining medical bills and Fortysomething’s loan.

To cover it, I took the money out of our emergency fund. The e-fund isn’t empty - there’s still a cushion there - but I’d be lying if I said that the lower balance doesn’t make me nervous. I’m a worrier and fully expect that something could go wrong at any moment.

Nevertheless, this debt needs to go. There’s never going to be a perfect time to get rid of it. Today simply seemed like the day, and although the decision was more emotional than practical, it is done.

Honestly, the moment I submitted the payment felt pretty anticlimactic:


But as the afternoon went on, my excitement grew:


And I’m pretty sure that by the time my balance officially registers as $0, this will be me:


A short history of our debt repayment 

We have now been at this debt repayment thing for 21 months. In that time we have paid off:

  • our car loan (paid off in October 2017)
  • a credit card (paid off in July 2017)
  • a second credit card (paid off in February 2018)
  • a third credit card (paid off in July 2018)
  • and now the student loan!

(Originally, my student loan started off at >$20K, but after so many years and multiple loan companies, I can't remember what the exact number was.)

Total paid off so far: $39,000

Imperfect but persistent

It's worth noting that although we’ve made sacrifices throughout our debt repayment journey, there are also plenty of things we haven’t sacrificed. We’ve gone on some (affordable) vacations, eaten at overpriced restaurants, purchased Christmas and birthday presents, and paid for activities for our child. We live in a rental that takes up approximately 1/3 of our income (sigh). We exceed our grocery budget almost every month.

Could we be managing our money better? Could we be living on less? Undoubtedly yes, but even with our imperfect approach, we’re still making strides. I attribute our progress in large part to livable wages and our budget, but I think persistence plays a bigger role than any other factor.

For us, persistence is the real key. 

The crazy thing is that after all this time we’re still only halfway there. We have $38K to go - more than that, if you count our medical bills and no-longer-a-secret campground membership.

On the other hand, we are halfway there. We’ve eliminated half of our debt in less than two years. These debts are gone from our lives forever.

And that feels fucking phenomenal.

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19 for '19: My Goals For The New Year

By now you already know that I love a set of fresh new goals! 

I've given a lot of thought to the things I want to focus on and accomplish in 2019. If it's going to be on my goals list, it has to be something I'm excited about doing, something I really care about and can commit to. This year I've decided that I want to focus on money, travel, and health, with some blogging goals thrown in just for fun. These are the things I'm thinking about lately. These are the things I want to work on.

So without further ado, here's my carefully-curated (cringing as I write the c-word there) list of 19 goals for 2019:

Job Goals

1. Quit my current job. This is my only employment-related goal for 2019, and hey look, I've already achieved it! I've decided to forgo other job goals for this year. Anything I could come up with would be almost entirely dependent on the employer, and there are too many unknowns as I change careers. I want to make goals that I have full control over. Completed January 2019.

Money Goals

Like last year, money will be a big focus for us in 2019 - but instead of directing all of our attention to debt repayment, we're also going to make saving a priority:

2. Pay off my student loan. The current balance sits at $3,500. My feeling is that this loan just needs to go away. I'm sick of seeing it on my monthly spreadsheet! It's taking every ounce of willpower for me not to obliterate it right this second with money from our emergency fund, but I'll wait until I'm safely ensconced in my next position. Then? It's gone.  Projected completion: February 2019.

3. Pay off our remaining medical bills. Last March my kid landed in the hospital with appendicitis. We're still chipping away at the bill and as of this writing have $1,300 to go. We've been using our HSA to make our monthly payments, but now that I'm changing jobs and insurance providers, I think we're going to eliminate these bills altogether. It'll be one less thing on our plate. I'll use my Southwest credit card so that we can rake in some points, and then we'll pay off the balance. Projected completion: February 2019.

4. Save $10,000 in our emergency fund. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that we've been embroiled in a long, ongoing mental tug of war between paying off debt and saving for a rainy day. Since last summer we've put most of our disposable income towards debt repayment.

But my impending job change makes me nervous. What if it doesn't work out? What if I suck as an editor? Or what if - GOD FORBID BECAUSE PLEASE CAN I ACTUALLY LIKE MY WORK FOR ONCE - I'm miserable again?

I've job-hopped enough that the writing is on the proverbial wall: I need to have some funds in reserve. $10K would allow us to meet our financial obligations for 5-6 months without too much stress. Projected completion: August 2019.

5. Pay off our campground membership. Secret debt alert!: we have another loan that I've never talked about, though I've included it in our monthly budgets. It's for a campground membership that we bought when we were RVing around the country. Had we continued to live a nomadic existence (our original plan was to be on the road for years), it would have been worth it. But we stopped much sooner than we'd anticipated and as a result we're saddled with what turned out to be a pretty silly and expensive decision*. I'm sure an hour of focused therapy would help me figure out why I chose to reveal our other debts and not this one, but whatever the reason, I'm sharing it now. Surprise! Our current balance is $2,500. Projected completion: September 2019.

*If any of you are RVers and are interested in purchasing our campground membership, let me know and we can chat. It's through Thousand Trails. We have at least 2.5 years left on the membership.

6. Achieve a positive net worth. This is a big one for us! We've been in the red for so long. This year will be a turning point for us: between paying off debt and saving, we should be able to bring our net worth above ground in 2019. Projected completion: Fall 2019.

7. Max out my HSA. Once I change jobs, I'll have a new high deductible insurance plan with an HSA. I don't think we can go wrong by saving up for medical expenses, so I'd like to max it out this year. The maximum family contribution for 2019 is $7,000. My employer will contribute up to $1,500 if I participate in their wellness program, so I'll be responsible for around $5,500. Projected completion: End of year.

8. Attend a financial workshop or retreat. Watching so many of my friends in personal finance attend these gatherings and have such a great time has given me a serious case of PF FOMO! Big events like FinCon make me anxious, so I'm looking instead at Lola Retreat or CentsPositive. Projected completion: Depends on the event and when it takes place.

Health Goals

9, 10, and 11: At least four days a week, I want to:

  • meditate for 10-15 minutes.
  • work out.
  • drink 64 ounces of water.
I'm already pretty good about working out on most days, but my water consumption is spotty and I'm still in the early stages of developing a meditation practice. In 2019, I'm going to tighten up these habits and make them part of my everyday routine because I can tell they make me a happier and more balanced person. For this week, anyway, it's so far, so good!:

Projected completion: Year-long goal.

Travel Goals

12. Get my passport renewed. I should have done this last year when it first expired, but typical me: I put it off. I want to get it done this year but will wait until the shutdown has ended. Projected completion: Summer 2019.

13. Attend mini family reunion at Disneyland. A few months ago, my family decided that it'd be fun to take all of the kids to Disneyland. I'm not a huge fan of the parks or the Disney empire in general, but I do want my son to spend time with his cousins, so we're going to make it happen. Projected completion: Summer 2019.

14. Visit family in the Northeast. We were planning to visit my husband's family last summer, but then The Kiddo ended up in the hospital and our travel cash got diverted to medical bills. Knock on wood, we will head east this year to see everyone and catch up. Projected completion: Summer 2019.

15. Visit family in the Pacific Northwest. This might be pushing it. After all, travel is expensive. But if I use my Southwest points, I should be able to organize this trip at little to no cost. Projected completion: Fall 2019.

Blogging Goals

I hesitate to make goals related to the blog because I'm afraid they'll deter me instead of motivate me. I've been blogging for nearly two years without any set schedule or structure, and that haphazard approach seems to be working for me. But that said, there are a couple of things I really want to do:

16. Comment on or share three posts, four times per week. I've received a wealth of support for my blog, and I want to make sure I'm supporting other bloggers in turn. I haven't been great about this so far but am planning to improve in 2019. Projected completion: Year-long goal.

17. Make $100 on the blog! I'm not that serious right now about building the blog or monetizing my content. I have no desire to dive into Pinterest or branch out on social media beyond Twitter. I just like sharing our story. But that said, my pageviews increased throughout 2018, and by the end of the year, I'd made a total of $10 (BIG MONEY!) I want to see if I can continue that trend in 2019. I hope to get there simply by increasing reader engagement and continuing to be genuine and consistent in my communication. We'll see if that's enough. Projected completion: End of year.

Fun Goal

18. Read two books per month and log them on Goodreads. I'm well on my way for January: I finished Defectors by Joseph Kanon (meh) and am a quarter of the way through Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (which is excellent so far). Projected completion: Year-long goal.

More Of An Intention Than A Goal

19. I'd like to worry less. That's not a goal, per se, because I don't know exactly how to make it happen. I'm a worrier by nature and always have been. What I do know is that life is a complicated mixture of good times and hard times, and while there are some things I have a say in and plenty I can plan for, there's so much that I can't control. I want to be able to enjoy my life without constantly wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. If anyone has ideas on how to turn this into an actionable goal, let me know!

What about you? What are your big (or small!) goals for 2019?

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How I Fought Through Burnout And Found A New Career

I did it. I finally did it! After months of searching and weeks of interviewing (and lots of waiting), I got a new job.


Better yet, after years of feeling like I was trapped in the wrong field, I got a new career. And that's a really, really big deal to me because for the longest time I thought I was stuck for good, a fear that sometimes kept me up at night and made me feel deeply regretful of certain choices I've made.

How did I end up on the wrong career path?

In the first week of my PhD program, my department's director of graduate studies asked me what my ultimate career goal was. I told him that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college. The truth was that I wasn't sure, but it seemed like the appropriate academic response. It seemed like something I should want to do.

I've always been vulnerable to the shoulds. 

The director took my response seriously and shared it with his colleagues. Soon all of the faculty knew what I (thought I) wanted to do with my life.

My department was small and supportive, and they gave me every opportunity to prepare for my future career. Throughout my four years of graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant and head teaching assistant, substituted when lecturers were out of the office, and attended teaching workshops and seminars. I even won a teaching award. 

My department's support was amazing, but I felt conflicted. When I was doing research - processing samples, working in the lab, analyzing my data - I felt centered and in control. I felt like I knew what I was doing. When I was teaching, I felt like I had to be someone else. I felt like I had to entertain my students to keep them engaged and justify the time they spent in my class. Standing at the podium, all eyes on me, made me uneasy. From the outside, though, I looked like I was doing it right. People kept telling me I was good at it, and I liked that.

In my final year of grad school, I applied for tenure-track teaching jobs. The job market in my field was unusually hot that season, and I landed a position right out of the gate as an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was exactly what I'd said I wanted to do. Feeling very lucky and very grateful, I signed my contract. My family moved to the middle of nowhere and I started writing lesson plans.

That was the beginning of the wrong career for me.

I worked as an assistant professor for two years. Once again, I gave the appearance of doing well. My lectures were lively and interactive, my students were pleasant to work with, I served on various committees, I made friends with the other faculty, and I earned an outstanding first-year review. Behind closed doors it was a different story. I was self-conscious, depressed, suicidal, and anxious. I hated living in the boonies. I hated the pressure of having to be in front of a classroom every day. I developed a stutter and started to lose my words mid-sentence. I cried on the kitchen floor most mornings before work. 

After the second year, I made the right decision to quit. We embarked on a six-month RV adventure across the country before landing in our new and expensive town, where it quickly became apparent that I'd need to make some money if we wanted to stay. Soon I found a job at a local university as a freshman academic advisor. I thought it'd be perfect for me: no teaching required, but I'd be able to deploy my experience in higher education. It didn't take long before I was once again feeling overwhelmed, this time by low pay, long hours, high stress, and the emotional toll that comes with trying to support a few hundred people who are going through an earth-shaking change in their lives. Within months, depression and anxiety returned, as did the stutter. I started job hunting.

Finally I found another employment opportunity - my current role. This one was in higher education, too. It gave me pause as clearly I'd struggled in my previous two jobs, but as an online instructor, I'd be able to work from home. My interactions with other humans would be buffered by distance, phones, and screens. Plus, I'd taught online before and hadn't totally hated it. I felt hopeful that perhaps this was the perfect fit. 

Within months it became evident that the position was little more than a thinly-veiled customer service role. The only students I interacted with were the ones who were unhappy, frustrated, and completely disinterested in the subject matter. I spent hours on the phone... and there was the stutter, right on cue, accompanied by the now all-too-familiar depression and anxiety.

This is what burnout looks like

Teachers aren't supposed to say these things, but here we are:

I've been working in higher education for more than 4.5 years, and I am spent. I am burnt out. I no longer wish to educate. I have no desire to try to motivate the unmotivated. I'm sick of administrations that expect me to convince people do things they clearly don't want to do. I am tired of having to make my area of specialty seem fun! and exciting! and applicable! so that students will want to engage with the education that they chose to pursue and pay for. I'm resentful of my job and sad that I'm using just a tiny fraction of the knowledge that I gained in graduate school. And while I empathize with the gut-wrenching hardships that so many students experience in their lives, I feel ill-equipped to help them navigate those challenges. I am not a counselor or a therapist. I am not their parent or friend. I'm just a science geek with questionable social skills.

Clearly something needed to change. 

Finding a new path

Several months ago I stumbled upon a job ad for a full-time academic editing position. I eyed it for a few days. I was intrigued yet doubtful: although I love writing, I have little editing experience and know next to nothing about grammar. But the application was brief and straightforward. I took an hour to fill it out, fully expecting to never receive a reply.

A few days later the company got back to me and asked me to try a test edit. I read through the manuscript and my stomach sank: it was a complicated piece of work. Where would I even begin? I almost deleted the message but finally decided to give it a shot. I set a timer, did what I could in 90 minutes, and returned my edits to the recruiter.

It must have passed muster because I was invited in for a preliminary interview. The interviewer's passion for the company and his work was obvious, and when he described the mission and culture of the organization, I felt a glimmer of excitement. I could picture myself in this role. It scared me because I started to really want it.

After a couple weeks of radio silence and some scheduling mishaps, I was invited back for two more interviews with various managers and other personnel. These, too, went well, though I had no idea how to answer some of the more technical questions. I kept expecting a "thanks but no thanks" email to materialize in my inbox.

Waiting... and more waiting... and then my references were contacted... 

and then suddenly there was a job offer!

Changing the things that aren't working

For me, the most amazing part of this isn't getting a new job. The amazing part is that my job life wasn't working for me and I found a way to change it. The result is that in a few weeks I will no longer work in higher education. I'll be an editor - or at least an editor-in-progress. 

I doubted myself at every. single. step. in this process. Putting myself out there was terrifying.  I felt like I wasn't smart enough, experienced enough, or articulate enough. I worried that they'd see my work history and dismiss me as a job hopper or notice my graduation year and think I'm too old. As unhappy as I am at my current job, part of me felt that staying put would be the better and safer option.

Still, I got out of my comfort zone and gave it my all. Every time they held up a new hoop, I made myself jump through it to the best of my ability. I told myself to focus on the process and what I could learn from it. I convinced myself that trying was a win in and of itself, an experience worth having regardless of the outcome.

I'm a worrier by nature, and so even though I'm excited, I'm also a little nervous. Okay, no. Really, really nervous. What if I give notice and then the new job somehow falls through? What if I give notice and the current place lets me go? What if I start the new job and I suck at it? And what about money? The new job pays less than the current one. We'll need to adjust our budget and extend our debt payoff goals. Financially, it's a big shift.

There are no guarantees, but then again, there are never any guarantees in life. So this year I've decided I'm taking some risks, and this is the first one. I'm going to take a chance on myself and see what happens because I think this next career step could be good. Really good.
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