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

Finances After 40 #3: Demolishing Debt, Building Security (Lisa's Story)

Photo credit: Rafael J.M. Souza

The third installment of Finances After 40 features Lisa, a 55-year-old writer whose blog, The Traumatized Budget, chronicles her journey to eliminate debt and secure a more stable future. In addition to her beautiful and engaging prose, one thing I love about Lisa is her transparency. Although her writing sparkles with humor and optimism, she never shies away from sharing the difficult aspects of her financial overhaul. She's relatable, compassionate, and real. I'm excited to share her story here. 

Take it away, Lisa!

A Passionate Life


I’ve been a pretty passionate literary writer – fiction and literary essay – for many years, but I’ve channeled it increasingly into blogging and humor. I’ve also been passionate about walking, just plain walking. It’s an ordinary miracle I never get enough of.

I’ve got a fine arts background, first in theatre and then later as a creative writer. I have a novel out from 2002, and essays and such in some reviews. In recent years, I’ve had more and more trouble getting traction on the time or frame of mind to do meaningful writing of this kind. I think I lost my fire for it. Blogging has been a great outlet, and my interest in money blogging made me realize I can be funny—something that’s not as apparent in my literary work, which frankly tends to be obsessed with grief and death.

"We’re struggling to make ends meet in a middle-class way: the wolf is not at the front door, but is lurking around in the back."

I worked, stubbornly, for myself for about 20 years and finally realized I can’t sustain it, so I returned to a full-time job in 2017. There’s virtually no way for a self-employed person to create the safety net for themself that an employed person has, if the employment is decent (much of it in America is not, which makes me angry). I now work in the nonprofit world in communications around how communities are developed and how we can make them more satisfying, beautiful, and equitable places to live and work.

Lisa's Current Financial Situation


My situation isn’t dire, but I’ve fallen short of real long-term security. We’re struggling to make ends meet in a middle-class way: the wolf is not at the front door, but is lurking around in the back.

I made some supremely bad choices in the years after my first husband died (I was 36 with a new baby), and some pretty good ones mixed in over the years. Most of my good choices were for quality of life instead of money. Not that you can’t have both, but, uh, looks like you can’t have both: choose money or time, I think. I was part-time and under-employed for years so I could write useless beautiful prose and hang out with my son, who’s pretty great. My third marriage is to a fantastic man who…is sorta like me in this respect. A humanist in a capitalist world. SO. My husband is a full-time grad student, not yet on the job market but earning some as a teaching fellow.

"My two big mistakes were failing to maintain a consistent budget and failing to save for the short term. We’re remedying that now."

We had so-so retirement savings, enormous credit card debt, and virtually no emergency cushion in September 2018 when I realized it couldn’t continue. My two big mistakes were failing to maintain a consistent budget and failing to save for the short term. We’re remedying that now, and we refinanced into a HELOC to help with deferred home repairs and to pay down our debt faster. It’s still really touch and go.

Our biggest challenge right now is getting enough money to keep my son in college, and making home repairs, all while trying to save and stave off debt. As we are emerging from the first phase of panic and tight budgeting, I always worry that I will become comfortable again, and start to slip and overspend.

The future is a scary place to me. I have, honestly, a fairly dark vision of it. I mainly want to make sure my son is not burdened by a financial mess and that I leave him enough to help him make choices and have some financial agency and freedom in his life. I hope I don’t die in debt.

An Artist Looks Back


I found a way to parlay my skills as a writer into really deep, satisfying work that has sustained me pretty well. I don’t regret working for myself for many years, or working part time, or pursuing the thankless profession of teaching for ten years—it was an amazing way to live—I just wish I’d seen the writing on the wall sooner and gotten a full-time office job at, say, age 45.

"I wish that young women in particular and artists in general had access to financial literacy and learned early that to be a great, independent thinker and doer and revolutionary, you must be able to participate in your own financial future."

But I don’t think I really worried about saving for retirement in my twenties, and my thirties were spent in a lot of distraction because of grief and child-rearing. I was just trying to get by. I think I wore my “artist badge” with such pride that serious thought about money felt “beneath me” until I was well into my forties. Even then, I remained more concerned about taking care of people's needs in the moment than saving seriously. I wish that young women in particular and artists in general had access to financial literacy and learned early that to be a great, independent thinker and doer and revolutionary, you must be able to participate in your own financial future. Like it or not.

I was so focused on the Sisyphean cycle of paying down debt for all those years (or is Tantalus a better comparison?) that I did not focus on how powerful short-term emergency savings are. I wish I’d given that more attention.

Finances After 40: Lisa's Perspective


For those who have raised children, the enormous financial sacrifice for most of us cannot ever be repaid in money. It’s just gone. It's not only the outlay for childcare -- which costs anywhere from $9,600 per year for one child to upwards of $20,000 in some states, by varying estimates, and has risen about 8 percent in the last several years -- but also the time lost to working at your full potential, or at all. Although I'm a slightly special case because I was widowed (or am I? One in four families are headed by single parents), I worked part time or below my abilities for nearly two decades so I could be at least a partly present parent.

"Have very, very, VERY hard conversations with anyone you consider as a partner... Don’t be an enabler or caregiver to someone with money problems."

Also, I can feel the noose tightening in the marketplace as I approach age 60. Part of my work is in earned and social media. I try to imagine myself projecting the same energy and passion into those hectic media at age 60, 65…I try to imagine an employer wanting that from me, or trusting me to know all the right sassy turns of phrase and edgy approaches to multimedia. I’m not sure I will have it, or if I do, whether it will be appreciated. I think job discrimination due to age must plague the vast majority of women over 50—thankfully not as much over 40, I hope, but there too, I bet.

Lisa's Advice For Savings And Relationships


Save consistently into two buckets: a short-term and a long-term. Have a retirement fund but also have the most you can in more liquid funds for emergencies. Play with your money, sure, but do it judiciously. If you brunch or have drinks with friends a lot, pick one or two weekends a month and set aside the money you would have spent into savings. Same with eating out on a whim—invest some time in planning and cooking. Pack your lunch. I must have pissed away so much money on these frivolous things—don’t deprive yourself, but don’t waste it away like I did.

"Save consistently into two buckets: a short-term and a long-term. Have a retirement fund but also have the most you can in more liquid funds for emergencies."

Have very, very, VERY hard conversations with anyone you consider as a partner. Find out exactly what, if anything, they owe, to whom, whether they have a history of delinquencies or other issues with money. This can be hard to discern. Don’t be an enabler or caregiver to someone with money problems.

Recommended Resources


1. I check Credit Karma all the time, although it is not a full replacement for checking with each of the three credit unions regularly and getting your free credit report each year. Credit freezes are now absolutely free under the law, so to protect yourself from fraud, join up. Just Google the credit union in question – say, "Transunion Credit Freeze" – and you should get the instructions.

2. We recently joined a credit union—they are hands-down the best source to go to for virtually any kind of financing, though different ones offer different products, so check first. Their car loans are typically many points lower than from other sources, and their home and home equity loans are, too.

3. I have also had great experiences with personal loan funds like Upstart and Lending Club; there are others now, too, like Prosper. That can be a wise first step out of bad debt if your credit rating has not yet been shredded.

4. I’ve loved shopping through Upromise for years, and have paid about $800 toward my college loans over the years just doing ordinary online shopping with them. They make it hard to find out how to pay down an existing student loan, and may have stopped offering that option now, but you can also get cash-back from them as well.

5. Last but not least, I swear by my Safeway grocery store app. The company that owns them owns a lot of national chains; other groceries have reward apps also. We save about 30% on our groceries that way.

Where To Connect With Lisa


Her blog: The Traumatized Budget
Her newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/The_Traumatized_Budget
Twitter: @cheapbohemian
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11 comments:

  1. Great stuff, and it's nice to hear from a woman in her 50s in addition to us gals in our 40s. It's interesting to hear her perspective and job concerns.

    It sounds like she's doing great with a suboptimal situation, taking responsibility for her part but also just making the best of some pretty bad cards dealt to her. I think that's about all any of us can do. In fact, it's probably more than many of us do.

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    1. Thank you kindly. We don't often stop to think about the financial consequences of grief, divorce and other traumas. And some of the effects last for years. I think my decision making was really impaired in some ways, while in others it was rock solid. It wasn't a straight line of recovery, for sure.

      By the way, I like your recent post about feeling "unmotivated" and feeling fine about that. We underestimate how important it is to just be; even the phrase "recharging" implies that rest and open-endedness should never be the default. I like seeing that you are contented right now!

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  2. Thanks for this insight!

    My attention was caught with your wolf analogy. One of my fave songs is Holes by Passenger because of this line:

    the wolf's just a puppy and the door's double locked so why you gottaworry me for

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    1. I love imagining my backyard wolf as just a little puppy!

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  3. "A humanist in a capitalist world." I might steal that (with credit) for my tagline. (only somewhat joking ;-) ) I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Thanks for giving me a new writer to enjoy.

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    1. Grab it if you'd like. Ideas should (sometimes, at least) be free and freely shared. If you are a member of the club, I give you this phrase strings-free.

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  4. Reading this post after listening to Chelsea from Smart Money Mamas on ChooseFI this morning... will be finally filling out that emergency binder ASAP. Definitely something that’s been overlooked and sat on my someday to do list for far too long.

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  5. I loved the variety of resources she shared and the advice in her story overall. Having the difficult conversations about money with loved ones is so important and I glad she gave voice to it.

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    1. I was worried they were too obvious and simple...but if they were, I guess i would have learned them years ago, huh? :-D

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