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

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Winning, March 2019 Edition

I usually feel jubilant when writing our sort-of monthly posts for the Winning series. It's an opportunity for us to stop and reflect on what's going well in our financial journey. So far, we’ve celebrated paying off debts, saving money, and watching our net worth increase - all notable money wins, all worth cheering for.

But I want to be totally honest with you: this month, I don’t feel like much of a winner. I feel... kinda like a loser. A very confused 40-year-old loser who can’t get her life together and who's financially behind. Someone who's suddenly comparing herself to others and coming up short.

On a rational level, I know that I’m being ten thousand times harder on myself than I would be on anyone else. On an emotional level, though, I’m struggling to keep my head above water. (It's not pretty, I know. Also, you don't have to tell me I'm not a loser. I just feel loser-y.)

My new therapist (I'm doing something good for myself!) says I get to define my narrative in whatever way I choose. The problem is that said narrative is currently being held captive by the brain troll that lives in the deep, dark recesses of my mind. The brain troll has been keeping a careful record of all of my failures and shortcomings and has now constructed a long, sad story that he'd like to etch into stone. I'm trying to wrest that narrative away from him, but he's got a strong grip.

It’s quite the mental kerfuffle.

Nevertheless, here we are at the end of the month, and it's time to write about some wins. And there are wins. There are always some wins. In the spirit of creating my own narrative, here they are:

1. I’ve put $1600 into retirement in the last two months. Thanks, employer match!

Half of that money has come from an employer match, arguably one of the best things this company has to offer. Even better, the match vests immediately. If I leave, it’s still mine. I don’t have to give it back. Yasssssss. And that's just me. Fortysomething has also been socking away retirement money. We're late to the retirement savings party, but... we're here now!


2. Our March budget is on point. 

Because we’re hoarding as much cash as possible right now, we haven’t been buying any unnecessary items or going out to eat. We’ve actually reined in our grocery bill a little bit (if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that our grocery bill is our Achilles' heel). This is the most on track we’ve been in a while. Icing on the cake: we'll be able to throw $200 into savings (!), which is especially gratifying given all of the extra expenses that came up this month.


3. The emergency/FU fund is growing!

We currently have about $5000 in our emergency fund, and it will grow to over $7000 when our tax refund arrives. If the need arises, that's enough to see us through for several months. Two years ago, we didn't even have a savings account, so that's some pretty substantial progress. Our goal is to grow the emergency fund to a little more than $10K this year.

4. I haven't quit my job. Yet.

This is quite a feat considering that I've been thisclose to pulling the plug about 10 times in the last three weeks. I'm trying hard to make it work because a) I have no motivation to look for another job right now and b) I like getting paid. Also, c) I'll know when it's time to walk away. That moment hasn't come yet. Blah blah persistence blah.

In an effort to make it work, I'm trying different strategies to see which ones are most helpful for my productivity. I've learned that I feel less overwhelmed when I work in short blocks of time and when I start earlier in the day (despite the fact that I'm not a morning person). I've also learned that putting in more effort doesn't always yield better results, so maybe half-assing it is the key?

Or... maybe the key is not sleeping much?


I really don't know. I'm taking it a day at a time, and I could change my mind tomorrow. But for now, here I am. And you know, I really have to give myself some credit: I've proven to myself that I can persist through difficult job situations.

Take that, brain troll.

What about you? What are some of your recent wins, financial and/or otherwise?

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A Reluctant Advice-Giver's Best Financial Advice

Like many people (probably almost everyone?), I often feel like an imposter. I especially feel like an imposter as a personal finance blogger.

An implogger, if you will. Ha.

Why? Because people generally visit personal finance blogs for advice: How to pay off debt. How to invest. How to save. And I rarely try to tell anyone how to do any of that. Instead, I just talk about our experiences in the hope that maybe some part of our story will resonate with someone.

Why giving advice is not my thing

I give very little advice on this blog for a few reasons.

One is that I don’t feel qualified. As of today, we’re a little less than $38K in debt, our net worth is less than zero, and I'm thinking about quitting my job without having a new one in place. Sure, we’ve made some big changes and some massive progress over the past two years, but we’re still in the hole, and I don’t expect anyone to look at us and be like, Brilliant! Let’s do it that way. 

Plus, I don't have a finance or accounting degree. I'm an armchair personal finance enthusiast. There are other people who are more qualified and can give you better guidance than I can.

The other reason I don't give advice is that every situation is so unique that many one-size-fits-all approaches don't work for everyone. Maybe the Dave Ramseys of the world - people who benefit from packaging up advice and selling it in neat little bundles - would disagree, but I get really, really hung up on the exceptions to the rule.

There's always an exception to the rule.

For example, some popular finance gurus would tell you that

You should pay off all your debt before you start saving more than a skeleton emergency fund. 

But what if...

...you have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and it’s going to take you years to pay it off?

...you live in a high-cost-of-living area and a skeleton emergency fund won’t cover even one month of rent in the event that you lose your job?

...you have health conditions that are likely to worsen over time or kids who need braces or a roof that’s leaking water into your living quarters?

Or one of my favorites:

Only change jobs if your salary will increase. 

But what if... 

...your current job is making you miserable and you need to get out before you lose your mind?

...the new job has lower pay but better benefits?

...the lower-paying job comes with fewer hours and less stress? Alternatively, what if the lower-paying job means more hours but also more purpose and enjoyment?

The exceptions make giving advice difficult. I don’t know your particular situation. I don’t know your history, I don’t know your hang-ups, and I don’t know whether what I say is going to motivate you or take the wind out of your sails. Furthermore, any advice I can give to you is probably something you've already heard. You've likely made a list of your options already.

Let's face it: Deep down, you probably already know what you need to do.

But here's some advice I feel comfortable sharing

Still, let's pretend you took a wrong turn on the Internet and have come here looking for guidance of some sort. I don't want you to leave completely empty handed. In fact, I do have some suggestions that I'd feel comfortable sharing with pretty much anyone:

1. Do your best with what you’ve got, and give yourself credit for that.

We all have different jobs, salaries, obligations, and costs of living. Our savings accounts and our debt loads vary. So do our priorities.

But no matter where you're at, you can still do something with what you've got. You can probably cut something from your budget, put something into savings, do something to get yourself one step closer to your goals. But what you don't have to do is compare your financial situation to anyone else's. If you're doing your best, you're on the right track.

2. Pay off your debt when you can, at a rate that is commensurate with your budget and your needs, and celebrate the small wins.

I don't know about you, but I have a weakness for articles with captivating titles like I Paid Off My $400K Student Loan in Two Months! 

Cool and yay, but most of us are not in the position to do the same.

If you have debt, pay it off in a manner that aligns with your income and budget and that facilitates sustainable progress. (Sidenote #1: To experiment with different debt paydown scenarios, I use the What's the Cost calculator.) Even if it's going to take longer than other people say it should. Too bad. This is your life, not theirs, and if you've found a payoff approach that works for you, then again, you're doing it right. There is no one right way to pay off debt.

Furthermore, I'm a big believer in setting small, achievable goals and celebrating each win. You paid off $50 of debt this month? YOU ARE A CHAMPION. Pat yourself on the back and find a (free or low-cost) way to congratulate yourself for that achievement.

3. Pay yourself first.

Okay, fine. This is the epitome of one-size-fits-all personal finance advice, and everybody gives it. But that's because there are so many people and things ready and willing to separate us from our money as soon as it hits our wallets. Even if it's just a few dollars, honor yourself and your hard work by socking away some of your cash when you get paid. Yes, you have bills to pay and debt to demolish, but you deserve to keep some of that hard-earned money for yourself.

4. If you have money to give, share it with people who would benefit from it.

Having money that you can use for yourself is nice, but having money that can benefit others is powerful. So use that power. Don't hoard your money - share some of it with others. (Sidenote #2: If you're looking to give, consider donating to Uriah and his family. Uriah is a music-loving little superhero who's fighting a rare form of childhood cancer. He's amazing.)

5. Figure out what your priorities are, and let your financial choices reflect those priorities. 

In our family, we don't care that much about nice clothes, good haircuts, or new cars - so we rarely purchase them. We do, on the other hand, invest in things like going out to eat and road trips; those are experiences that bring us together and that we all enjoy. Other people have different priorities and thus different budgets and assets.

Hi. If you're trying, you're on your way.

If you're making an effort to get or keep your finances in order, well, I'm that annoying lady who's standing on the sidelines, jumping up and down, waving a participation trophy, telling you that you're doing a damn good job. Because you are. In my mind, if you're making an effort, if you're reflecting on your finances and making an effort to put yourself in the best position possible, you're doing it right. At the very least, you're well on your way.

What about you? Do you have any financial advice that you'd feel comfortable sharing with pretty much anyone? What advice, financial or otherwise, has been most helpful for you?
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I Don't Actually Know, But Here's The March Budget

Now that it's almost the end of March, I figure it's a good time to share our March budget. I didn't post it earlier because a) I forgot (this happens regularly, which is why I post our monthly budget approximately 5 times a year) and b) I didn't know what was going on with my job and therefore couldn't set the budget in stone. 

So speaking of my job...

First, an update

I haven't quit my job.

Yup. It's practically a miracle. I've been on the verge of walking out about four times in the past week, but here I am, still hanging on by my pinky.

After writing that post, I was engulfed in a giant fuzzy blanket of virtual support and love. Who knew the Internet could be such a kind place? Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of you who posted a comment, sent me a DM, or Tweeted at me to offer encouragement and/or commiseration. Thanks for sharing your own stories with me; I felt honored to read them. (Clearly, there are a lot of people in similar situations. I'm sorry we're going through this.) And thank you to those of you who were probably thinking STOP BEING SUCH A MESS AND PULL IT TOGETHER LADY but who wisely chose to keep it to yourselves. 

Anyway, fortified by your encouragement, I set aside the idea of quitting for a moment and did some other things instead: I contacted HR, explained my health condition, and asked if we could discuss accommodations. I took three days off from work with HR's blessing. I caught up on sleep. I found a therapist and attended my first session with him. I read a book about anxiety. I went to the library and the park. And I finally met with my boss, who agreed to let me train at a slightly slower pace. 

All of the things I did were good, practical, proactive steps - things you're supposed to do when you're on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was so proud of myself that I was tempted turn around and pen a jazzy, rah-rah article entitled How To Kick Your Mental Issues Out the Door in Seven Easy Steps. After all, it's always empowering to take control of a tough situation, and I did that. I also learned some key lessons - for example, if you want your employer to help you, sometimes you have to be a giant pain in the ass. Huzzah!

In reality, though, I'm nowhere close to being able to write a self-congratulatory post about my brain or my career. I'm still having trouble sleeping, I'm still struggling to keep up at work, I'm still questioning whether the job is sustainable, and I'm still worried about my health. I still feel like I need a break, and I'm still really nervous about ditching standard employment and leaping into who knows what.

It's just that now I have a little breathing room to figure out my next move. 

My current goal, however pitiful it might seem, is to make it to the end of next week - payday. That's all I can commit to right now. After that? Maybe I'll vow to stay for another two weeks. Or maybe I won't. I'm taking it paycheck by paycheck.

Speaking of paychecks, that brings me full circle back to the March budget. I'm glad I haven't quit because this month... wow. It's been the month of a thousand expenses. 

The March budget (ouch)

We were hit with four major expenses in March, and they did a number on our budget. Here's the rundown:

1. Southwest card annual fee ($149): Every year, I tell myself I'm going to cancel my Southwest card because the annual fee just isn't worth it. Every year, I don't. And this year, I got reeled in by the new Priority card, so I upgraded... thereby saddling myself with an even steeper annual fee (I don't think I'm doing this right). It may be an okay move if I actually travel a couple of times this year. If not, I have until next February to cancel or downgrade.

2. Car registration renewal ($131): We always seem to forget about this until the bill shows up in the mail.

3. Campground membership fee ($545): A few months ago, I divulged that we purchased a campground membership while we were living in an RV. Campground memberships are great if you're an RVer but pointless if you're not. Ours comes with an annual fee. I don't want to talk about it. (We do still use the campgrounds, but it's not like we're there every week - more like a few times a year.)

4. Rent increase ($100): Our rent will go up this month. I'm not happy about it, but when the management company made the big announcement, we weren't in the mood to pack up and move again. We'll make do for another year and then decide whether to stay in this place or leave. Rent where we live is high, to say the least, and finding something less expensive but still liveable isn't as easy as it sounds. 

Total additional money flying out the door in March: $925

Other items of note:

Electric bill: Our electric bill this month is ridiculous ($320). Until last week, it was damp and cold, and we experienced a major snowstorm. The heater was working overtime. I suspect that the numerous baths I took to try to de-stress myself also contributed to our energy costs. From here on out, I'll stick to short showers.

Savings: Our bank account seems to be bleeding right now, but I'm still determined to shuffle $300 into the emergency fund (which is quickly becoming an FU fund, given the job situation).

Student loan: Admittedly, we're still in a holding pattern here, and at best, that's probably not going to change until later in the year. Our slow progress is a bit dispiriting after so many months of rapid progress, but sometimes it's not possible to go all-out.

Retirement and HSA: What the budget doesn't show is the money going straight into our retirement funds and our HSA. Including employer matches, that total comes out to something like $1600/month. I'm thrilled with that. 

The nitty-gritty budget breakdown for March:

What about you? How's your March budget looking? Have you had any major or unexpected expenses recently? 
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Five of My Favorite Frugal Instant Pot Recipes

A few months ago, right around the holidays, several of my favorite personal finance bloggers took to Twitter to announce that they were the proud new owners of Instant Pots - high-tech pressure cookers that are all the rage in the cooking community. (I'm making that up. I know nothing about the cooking community. The cooking community may, in fact, harbor a deep resentment towards Instant Pots.)

I've been an Instant Pot fan since we purchased ours three years ago while living in an RV, and I enthusiastically replied to my blogger friends to let them know that I'd share some recipes with them.

And then I... shared nothing with them. I'm a slacker.

But! Now that I have a few days off (to, you know, manage my mental breakdown), I've decided to share five of my favorite Instant Pot recipes. 

These recipes are:
  • inexpensive!
  • fast!
  • healthy!
  • vegan/vegetarian!
  • great for leftovers!
  • easy to make while you're also trying to get other things done!

They're also not fancy AT ALL, so if you're looking for that... you might want to find a real food blogger.

The five recipes I'm sharing today are:
  • Steamed Broccoli
  • Mashed Sweet Potatoes
  • Spicy Rice
  • Garlicky Black Beans
  • $76K Soup (aka vegetable soup with rice)


My Instant Pot is three years old. It's possible that yours is newer and better and has a slightly updated design. ALSO: Instant Pots are easy to use, but they create high pressure and steam. Both can be extremely dangerous. It's up to you to know how to use your Instant Pot safely. For example, sticking your face right over the steam vent when you release it is a terrible idea. Don't do that. Read the user manual if you're setting up your Instant Pot for the first time. 

Also, if you're scrolling through this post and thinking, Damn, 76, these pictures are shit... Well yeah. I'm not a food blogger or a photographer. My phone camera is about five years old and the lens is damaged. Remember, we're aiming for frugality here! 

Lastly, you'll note that I don't give serving sizes. I'm basically sharing the amounts that I make for my own 3-person family. My husband is a big guy, my kid is a ravenous pre-teen, and I have the appetite of a linebacker. We like to eat, so what we consider one portion size is probably larger than what many other people consider one portion size. Whatever. If you end up with extras, stick them in the fridge and eat them as leftovers.

What if I don't own an Instant Pot?

If you read this post and get inspired to buy your own Instant Pot (you should, it's awesome), consider purchasing one via this link. This is Frugal Pharmacist's Amazon affiliate link. Frugal Pharmacist is a blogger, pharmacist, and mom whose little boy Uriah is currently undergoing treatment for a rare childhood cancer (you can read his story here). The personal finance community is using her affiliate link as one way to help show support for her family. For additional ways to donate, check out this page

Tools of the trade

You'll need an Instant Pot, obviously. For some recipes, you may also need a steamer basket or a steamer rack:

For the recipes shown here, you'll mostly be using the Manual button (on newer models, the equivalent button is the "Pressure Cook" button):

The other thing to keep in mind is that the valve on the top of the Instant Pot needs to be sealed for all of these recipes. You'll unseal the valve to vent steam. If you don't put the valve in the sealed position, the steam will just vent continuously. That means pressure won't build up, and your food won't cook. (Note that not all recipes call for the valve to be placed in the unsealed position - it just depends on what you're cooking and how quickly you want to cook it.)

Valve in sealed position:

Valve in unsealed position:

Let's get cooking, shall we?

Steamed Broccoli

What you'll need:
  • Steamer basket
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2-3 heads of broccoli
  • Salt and/or pepper to taste
Time needed: ~10 minutes 

How to make it:

1. Separate the broccoli florets into bite-size pieces (whatever that means for you).
2. Cut the broccoli stems into ~1/2-inch slices.
3. Place the steamer basket into the Instant Pot. Place the broccoli into the steamer basket.
4. Add the 1/2 cup water.
5. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the valve is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
6. If you like your steamed broccoli pretty crisp, bring the time down to 0. If you like it a little softer, bring the time down to 1.
7. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. It won't take long at all, so don't wander off too far. Wait until it beeps to indicate it's done.
8. Stand back and use the end of a wooden spoon to release the vent valve. This will release A LOT of steam.
9. When the Instant Pot is done venting, open the lid.

Recommendations: Add some salt and pepper and eat the broccoli as a side. I also like to slice up some veggie sausages (of course, you can use carnivore sausages instead), fry them up, and mix them with the steamed broccoli for a protein- and veggie-rich meal.



Mashed Sweet Potatoes

These are the best things EVER. Super fast, super easy, and they never fail to impress. Here's a preview:

What you'll need:
  • Two medium to large sweet potatoes 
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/8 - 1/4 cup milk or milk alternative (I like to use almond milk)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Steamer rack
Time needed: ~35-40 minutes 

How to make it:

1. Wash the sweet potatoes. Leave the skin on.
2. Cut the sweet potatoes crosswise. Then cut each piece once along its length. Here's how they should look (sort of - I was using the wrong knife, so I really bungled this... But guess what? It doesn't matter! It still works!)

3. Place the sweet potatoes on the steamer rack flesh side down.
4. Add 1 cup water.
5. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
6. Adjust the time to 10 minutes.
7. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 10 more minutes.
8. After the 10 minutes are up, release the valve. Very little steam should emerge at this point.
9. Open the lid. The sweet potatoes should be fork tender. 
10. Peel the skin off. Yep, it'll come straight off, like so:

11. Place the peeled sweet potatoes in a bowl. Mash them with a fork. Add the salt and almond milk. 

12. Mash it all up a little more, and... done!

Recommendations: Add more or less salt and milk to taste. You can let these cool and store them in the fridge for later. They heat up nicely in the microwave or on the stove.

Spicy Rice

You can make perfectly cooked, tasty rice in about 30 minutes using the Instant Pot. For flavoring, you can use a bouillon cube OR a little salt OR some salsa (shown above - salsa's great if you want a kick). Regardless, it's super easy.

What you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups dry brown rice
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube OR 1/2 cup salsa OR salt to taste
  • Water:
    • 3 cups if you're using a bouillon cube or salt
    • 2.5 cups if you're using salsa
Time needed: 40 minutes

How to make it:

1. Dump the rice into the Instant Pot.
2. Add the salsa or bouillon cube.
3. Add the water (see above for amounts).
4. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
5. Adjust the time to 23 minutes.
6. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 10 more minutes.

7. After the 10 minutes are up, release the valve. Very little steam should emerge at this point.

Recommendations: Use this for rice and beans, tacos, rice casserole, whatever you usually use rice for. The rice stores very well in the fridge. Make a big batch on Sunday, and eat the leftovers for lunch the rest of the week.

Need to adjust the amount of rice you're making? No problem. Just maintain a 1:2 ratio between the rice and the liquid. For example, if you measure out 1 cup of rice, add 2 cups of liquid (salsa counts as part of the liquid in this recipe).

Garlicky Black Beans

Canned black beans are inexpensive, but I'd argue that they're not as tasty as black beans made from scratch. This recipe cuts the cooking time - from dry beans to ready to eat - to about an hour and a half.

What you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups dry black beans
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube 
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 cups water
  • Optional: hot sauce of your choice

Time needed: 80-90 minutes

How to make it:

1. Rinse the beans and remove any rocky bits or weird-looking pieces (occasionally you'll find little pieces of gravel in a bag of beans - totally normal).
2. Chop the garlic into little pieces.
3. Add the beans, garlic, and bouillon cube to the Instant Pot. Pour in the water. Add a few splashes of hot sauce if you're into that.
4. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
6. Adjust the time to 60 minutes.
7. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 15 more minutes.
8. After the 15 minutes are up, release the valve. Very little steam should emerge at this point.

I don't know how to make beans look attractive in a photo, but they taste good.

Recommendations: I like to serve these with Spicy Rice or quinoa or in Buddha bowls (basically a bowl of rice or quinoa plus a variety of veggies and protein). The beans store well in the fridge and make great leftovers.

$76K Soup

What you'll need:
  • 1/4 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 carrots
  • 3 small tomatoes
  • 12 new potatoes (new potatoes = small potatoes)
  • 1 cup of dry brown rice 
  • Hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 bouillon cube
  • 8 cups of water
  • Handful of chopped kale or spinach (optional)

How to make it:

1. Wash the carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes.
2. Cut the carrots into thin slices. Cut the potatoes into 4 quarters. Dice the tomatoes and onion. Chop the garlic.

3. Dump the veggies into the Instant Pot. Add the rice.
4. Drop in a bouillon cube. Add a few splashes of hot sauce, if desired.
5. Add the 8 cups of water.
6. Place the lid on the Instant Pot. Make sure the lid is in the sealed position. Select "Manual" or "Pressure Cook" depending on your Instant Pot model.
7. Adjust the time to 30 minutes.
8. Let the Instant Pot do its thing. When it beeps to indicate it's done, ignore it. Let it sit for 20 more minutes. (A lot of water = a lot of steam, so I like to give soups some extra time to simmer down - HA! - before releasing the valve.)
9. After the 10 minutes are up, release the valve using the end of a wooden spoon. Be prepared for some steam.
10. If you're adding kale or spinach, toss it into the soup and latch the lid back into place for two minutes. The heat will wilt the greens so that they're tender enough to eat.
11. Add additional salt to taste.

What's your favorite Instant Pot recipe? 

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My Job vs. My Mental Health: At A Crossroads

This is a long post about my mental health in the context of modern work culture.

(Note: I've written two other posts about mental health and money: The Connection Between My Mental Health and My Debt and When Your Mental Health Affects Your Financial Well-Being)

Publicly sharing my mental health challenges isn't easy for me, in part because there's so much skepticism surrounding those of us who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Are these illnesses real? Are we complaining too much? Not getting enough vitamin D? Do we just need to try harder? Have more grit? Be more resilient? I know some people will read this post, roll their eyes, and think, Suck it up, Buttercup. Life is hard.

Most people dealing with mental illness have tried everything from hot baths to medication to therapy. We're well aware of treatment options, and frankly, "You should try x, y, and z"-type advice isn't particularly helpful. Same goes for "Look on the bright side" or "Make a gratitude list" or "Others have it worse". These statements send the message that mental illness is a choice, and we're choosing to feel the way we do. But we live with this stuff, and we know that nobody who's experienced it would choose it. Most of us have probably tried all the things, and oftentimes we feel guilty for not being able improve the situation even when we really, really want to.

If you haven't been in this position, I'm genuinely glad for you. I simply ask that you be open to the possibility that some conditions are more complicated and intractable than they might seem from the outside.

I talk about my mental health on this blog because it's something that continues to affect my life, my relationships, and my financial security. I know other people have experienced this, too, and I want them to know they're not alone. I want me to know I'm not alone.

So here's what's going on.

I'm failing.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that my new job is not going well. I think I have potential as an editor, but an extremely heavy workload combined with accumulated burnout has created a perfect storm of anxiety, insomnia, self-loathing, and a sense of hopelessness. I feel like I'm drowning.

When I interviewed for my current job, I was told by multiple people that they work a standard schedule: 40 hours a week, occasionally more when things get busy. That sounded perfect, and during my interviews, I expressed my desire for a work-life balance that would allow me to flourish at work and in other aspects of my life. I felt like we were all on the same page.

Now I think they were lying to me.

Here's how my job works: each week, we're required to meet a certain word count quota. For the first two months of training, our quota increases every week. It was relatively low in the first couple of weeks, and I was able to meet my targets. But in the third week, when the word count quota really ramped up, I started to struggle. A forty-hour schedule wasn't cutting it. I began extending my workday and logging in for a few hours on the weekend. 

We're required to not only meet our quotas and deadlines but also adhere to strict quality standards. During training, our edits are reviewed, critiqued, and graded. We receive constant feedback (much of which is contradictory, but that's beside the point). Now, more than halfway through training, I'm hanging on by my fingernails just to get the work done. Finding and correcting every error in a timely fashion seems absolutely impossible.

I'm working 9-10 hours a day, including Saturday, and I've developed anxiety-related insomnia. Every single night goes something like this: 10 PM: kind of tired. 11 PM: still not asleep. Midnight: still awake. 2 AM: I am wide awake and will never sleep again. 3 AM: FUCK HOW AM I STILL AWAKE. And nothing - not warm baths, not reading, not yoga, not soothing music, not sleep podcasts, not pretending that I didn't want to go to sleep anyway! - seems to work. The only thing that knocks me out is Benadryl, but that leaves me feeling drugged the next day.

It's a never-ending cycle: the anxiety causes insomnia, the insomnia makes me feel strung-out and anxious, and on and on.

Aside from being completely exhausted, I'm snappy, and I feel totally panicked most of the time. The crazy thing is that over the next few weeks, my quota is scheduled to further increase by more than a third of the current word count. I can't wrap my head around it, and I don't understand how even the most experienced editors reach their quotas while submitting high-quality edits. I suspect they don't; that, or they're working every single day, all day long. 

(Last night I logged into Glassdoor and took a good hard look at the reviews for my company. It's clear I'm not alone: many people are floundering, and turnover is apparently sky-high. I have quite a knack for finding exploitative employers!)

A history of grappling with work-related anxiety

The truth is, this experience probably wouldn't be so terrible - or at least, it wouldn't be so terrible this early on - if it weren't for the fact that I'm now at a critical point of accumulated burnout. What's happening now is just another iteration of what's been going on since I finished graduate school. For the past four years, my anxiety has dogged me in every single job I've worked:

Job 1: Two years, assistant professor. Worked non-stop, as one does as a tenure-track professor. Developed panic attacks; at one point, had a massive panic attack in front of 100 students. Occasionally lost the ability to speak while lecturing. Cried on the kitchen floor every morning. Felt suicidal. Coping mechanisms: Saw a therapist regularly. Took meds. Worked out like crazy. Meditated. Found a new job.

Job 2: One year, academic advisor. Generally 40 hours a week, with weeks of 10-12 hour days in the summer. During particularly busy times, completely lost my words, making advising meetings awkward and torturous. Regularly broke out in a cold sweat. Developed severe insomnia and at one point didn't sleep for nearly three days. Coping mechanisms: Sleeping pills. Spent time with friends and family. Ran. Took walks around my office building. Found a new job.

Job 3: One year, online educator. 40 hours a week from home, which I thought would solve all of my work problems. Job was not as advertised; I was more of a salesperson than a teacher. Expected to make people do things they didn't want to do. Employer was obsessed with metrics, metrics, metrics. Nothing was ever good enough. You met your goal? WHY DIDN'T YOU SET A BIGGER GOAL. Had panic attacks on the regular. Often couldn't find my words when meeting with students (this seems to be one of my biggest anxiety symptoms). Coping mechanisms: Everything. Meditation. Healthy eating. Working out. Power poses. Frequent vacations.

Found a new job.

And now here I am.

Disclosing my anxiety 

Earlier this week, I decided that as much as I don't like to advertise my wobbly mental health, nobody can help me if they don't know I need help. So I decided to take a chance and send an SOS to my manager, something I've never done before at work. I've never, ever disclosed my anxiety and depression or admitted that I'm having trouble. It just doesn't feel like a safe thing to do in a world of at-will employment. Usually, I just take some sick days and try to figure it out on my own.

But since one of my employer's stated values is vulnerability, and since I need to find a way to make this job sustainable, I decided it was worth letting my guard down and taking a chance.

I wrote a detailed email to my boss explaining that I deal with anxiety and anxiety-related insomnia and that I'm struggling in a major way. I emphasized that I enjoy the job itself but that I can't keep up with the pace. I let her know that I really, really want this to work out, but I also want to protect my health. And I offered some possible solutions, namely, slowing the pace of training or dropping down to a part-time schedule. Although working part-time would mean I'd lose my company-sponsored health insurance, it would also allow me to have some semblance of work-life balance.

My boss wrote back and thanked me for my candidness. She said she'd talk to her boss and come back to me the next day with some options.

And the next day? She came back to me with... no options at all. She didn't offer any empathy or suggestions. She didn't comment on my proposed solutions. She didn't say anything about her meeting with her boss. Instead, she sent a brief, two-line reply and said she'll meet with me in 10 days (she's going out of town) to "check in". She asked me to consider what I can do to improve my situation. 

In the meantime, my workload is slated to increase and my quota will be even higher next week. 

At a crossroads

Although there are many things in my life that are going extremely well, work has been a disaster. I'm tired of trying so hard and finding myself in the same situation every time. I'm exhausted and depleted, and I feel like I'm on the verge of having a nervous breakdown. I've been able to last at least a year in my previous jobs, but this time, the situation feels different. I'll be amazed if I survive next week.

Employment is not supposed to be an endurance sport. It shouldn't be this hard. But for people with anxiety or other mental health conditions, modern workplace culture is fraught with obstacles: heavy workloads, an obsession with metrics, constant feedback, and micromanagement. Companies expect loyalty, time, self-sacrifice, gratitude, and unwavering devotion to the bottom line. Moreover, they want it all at the lowest cost possible. Some of us (...most of us?) can't give all that without destroying ourselves in the process.

Nevertheless, I'm ashamed. Embarrassed. Frustrated. Why am I having so much trouble being an employee? Why can't I do what millions and millions of people do every day? Why can't I live up to my education? Why can't I just go to work, do my job, come home, and repeat? Am I lazy? Am I not trying hard enough? Are my expectations too high?

But here’s the thing. It’s not a matter of not wanting to do my job. It’s not a matter of laziness or an unwillingness to try. I’m a hard worker; I give it my all, and I've always delivered.

Until now. If work is an endurance race, my brain seems to be walking off the course. It is done. 

Time to hit the pause button

Anxiety is an illness like any other serious illness in that it can be completely debilitating. However, it's also largely invisible - especially if you’re one of those people who’s been living with it for so long that you are an absolute expert at hiding it. Sometimes, the people who look the happiest, who seem the most stable and the most determined, are the people being crushed from the inside out. The invisible nature of mental illness is what makes it particularly insidious and dangerous. It means that it's often the person who's living with the illness who has to make the call when things have reached a breaking point. And that's a very, very difficult call to make, especially when you're not functioning at your optimal level.

But I've been living with this a long time. I know myself, and I'm ready to make that tough call - if not right now, very soon.

First of all, I'm taking this weekend off. I haven't met my quota. I'm behind. I don't know what will happen on Monday. But I need this time.

My immediate plan is to stick it out, but on my own terms. That is, I'll work 8-5 Monday through Friday and do what I can in that amount of time. This is purely a stop-gap measure. I won't meet my quotas, but at least for the immediate future, I'll still be getting paid.

I've also contacted HR to see if they can work with me on accommodations. The Fioneers encouraged me to do this (thank you so much for the support, Fioneers!) If my boss won't help me, maybe HR will.

Ultimately, though, the writing on the wall says that I need a career break. Taking a few months off is something I've been considering for over a year, and my body and mind are screaming at me to do it now. From a financial standpoint, it might be a terrible decision. Our emergency fund isn't large enough to cover us for more than a few months, we'd end up spending more on health insurance either through Fortysomething's work or through the ACA, and we'd have to live on a bare-bones budget. We would be contributing far less to our retirement accounts than we do now.

But stress takes a terrible toll. No amount of money is worth destroying my health. I'm not willing to throw it away.

Instead, I want to take some time to do the things I love: spend time with my family, hang out with friends, actually read the books for book club, write/blog, run, hike, cook dinner every night, volunteer at my son's school, tutor, be creative. I'd love to expand the blog. I'd love to establish a regular series, similar to what Tread Lightly, Retire Early does on her blog. I'd love to write some guest posts. I'd love to develop some collaborations with people in the personal finance community and work on some projects together.

Sometimes we need to hit the pause button. As one of my Twitter friends reminded me, I need to be there for my son and family. That's the most important thing.

Taking a time out from a work culture that values never stopping feels like a big risk. It would be a complete leap of faith - but it's a leap I'm seriously considering.

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Who Am I? What Year Is It? When Will I Get To Sleep?

I'm stopping in with a very informal post to say that

I. Am. Tired.

Not unhappy, but tired.

I haven't been sleeping well because I have job anxiety. This means that I get sleepy and go to bed by 10 PM...

...and then proceed to stare into the darkness for two or three hours before raiding pretzels from the pantry and knocking myself out with Benadryl.

Don't get me wrong: I don't dislike my new job. This gig is ten bajillion times better than the previous one. In fact, I rather enjoy the tasks assigned to me.

The problem is that there are so many of them. I don't know if I can keep up, and I'm not just saying that. I'm doing my best, but the work is still bleeding over into the evenings and the weekends.

I've always been pretty good at my jobs, even if I didn't like them. Even if I felt like I was completely half-assing the work.

This job?

I am triple-assing it, and I'm still not keeping up. I don't know how anyone in my position gets eight hours of sleep a night, eats three healthy meals, and takes Saturday and Sunday off. I assume nobody does.

At the beginning of the year, I promised myself that I'd drink 64 oz. of water a day and meditate and work out four days a week. Right now I'm managing to drink the water, but the workouts and the meditation keep getting put on the back burner. Are they important? Will they help me? Maybe so, but I get so overwhelmed by the thought of trying to do all the things. I can't let myself succumb to that feeling, and I need to put my time and energy into the thing that will pay me. So sometimes the meditation and/or working out get(s) put off.

My boss says that I'm doing well but that I need to pick up the pace. Otherwise, I'm going to be working 60 hours a week. At present, I'm working at least 50 hours a week. Regardless of how well I like what I'm doing, that's not sustainable for me.

And that's a really scary thing to say. I don't want to look for another job. I just don't. It took me months to find and interview for this position, and it was an exhausting, emotional, roller-coastery experience. As it is, I don't think anyone would want to hire me because my resume clearly shows that I am a shameless job-hopper who can't/won't stick with anything for more than a year.

In the meantime, I'm doing my best and hoping that I will figure it out. I'm also shoveling money into savings in case I need to pull the cord on the parachute. God, that's a terrifying thought. With our emergency fund and our tax refund, we'd be able to get through a few months without me bringing in a paycheck, but given that I have no idea what I'd do after that, it kind of feels like I shouldn't let my brain go there. Not working wouldn't be sustainable, either.

I just don't even know.

Is there anyone else who no longer knows what a normal and halfway enjoyable job looks like?

Are there any other 40-year-old women out there who have NO IDEA WHAT THE FUCK THEY'RE DOING?

Or is it just me?

Disclaimer, in the interest of my own sanity: I'm not looking for a pep talk. I'm not down on myself. This rant comes from a very practical place: this might work out, but it might not, because there are only so many hours in the day. I'm just taking it one step at a time, one day at a time, because that's all I can do. For once, I'm not frustrated with myself. This is the best I can do, and I'm satisfied with that.
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