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

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It's The End Of July As We Know It

...and I've written a grand total of two posts this month. Three, if you count the Finances After 40 contribution by It's A Kate Life, but those were her words, not mine, so I can't take credit there.

It's not that I don't want to blog. I do. But July just felt so up in the air. I kept telling myself that as soon as things settle down, as soon as I figure things out, I'll write.

Things didn't settle down and I really didn't figure anything out. Hence, no writing. Until now.

July In Review: Wildfires, Video Games, And Getting Back To Work

In July, we wrapped up a vacation to Disneyland. My kid spent several hours a week practicing for soccer and participating in weekend matches. My partner read like it was his job and worked on one of his side hustles. We lazed around, ate ice cream, and played video games (I'm now dangerous in Beach Buggy, so watch out).

At the end of the month, a wildfire started about a mile from our house and grew rapidly. It unsettled our neighborhood and our entire community. Nobody was prepared for it. Unlike early 2018, which was scary dry and led to the precautionary closure of an entire forest for more than a month, we had a wet winter and a drizzly spring this year. As a result, information about fire danger was sparse, and there was generally less awareness despite the fact that we had almost no rain in June. Nobody's said it officially, but the fire was almost certainly human-caused.

The level of stress fueled by the fire was off the charts. It was palpable. I and everyone I knew spent the last part of July obsessing about wind direction, air quality, the safety of the animals in the forest, possible evacuation routes, where we would go if we were evacuated, whether our houses would be okay, and whether our friends' houses would be okay. Luckily, the firefighters and hotshots were able to get in there quickly and prevent a total disaster. As of today, the fire is mostly contained, and people have now turned their attention to the increased flooding that the fire scar is likely to cause when it rains.

I had petsitting gigs lined up almost every day this month and brought in a grand total of $429 (after Rover fees and taxes) for what in retrospect felt like a lot of work. My bookings included one incredibly stressful housesitting situation with an unexpectedly territorial dog who refused to let me get within six feet of her (it was nobody's fault, but it was still terrible for everyone involved). The experience cooled me a bit to the entire endeavor and made me feel wary of taking on new clients without careful consideration.

The thing about Rover, though, is that it really is the Uber of pet care. People don't want you to spend hours assessing whether you and their pet are a good fit; they just want you to say yes to the job and show up so that they can go on their last-minute vacation. Usually, it works out. Now I know that sometimes it doesn't.

I realized that if I want to continue petsitting, make money at it, and set myself up for both safety and success, I probably need to branch off and create my own business, one where the emphasis is on forming lasting relationships with clients who have trained their pets and want to pay a decent wage for someone to look after their fur babies. But am I ready to take on my own endeavor and everything that entails? I don't know yet. For now, I'll keep going with Rover - but I'll be much pickier about who I say yes to.

Lastly, I applied for several jobs in June and in July, thereby signaling the beginning of the end of my career break. Wrapping up my self-imposed sabbatical wasn't planned. I just a) got bored and b) started daydreaming about what we could do with an increased income. I was ignored or ghosted by several companies, but two of my applications led to interviews. One "interview" was actually more of an informal meeting for a part-time online teaching job that was essentially created for me after I applied for a different position that had already been filled. The other was a much more typical interview for a full-time lab manager job. I was offered the part-time position (yay!) and am waiting to hear back about the second.

Money Talk

So given that this is supposed to be a debt blog, where are we at with money?

It turns out that we're in pretty good shape. Thanks to Fortysomething's side hustle and his bonuses, we were actually able to put money into savings this month, bringing our total emergency fund to $8700. We didn't have to dip into savings at all in June or July.

My new part-time job is supposed to generate 10-12 hours of work a week. Whether that work will be truly consistent remains to be seen (I'm always skeptical until it actually happens), but if it is, I should be able to earn around $800 a month. If I can make an additional $200 a month from petsitting, we will break even - meaning that we won't have to touch our savings account for regular monthly expenses. That's exciting!

With one more bonus in the works, it's also possible that (and this blows my mind) we'll meet our $10K emergency fund goal that we set at the beginning of the year.

And if I can earn more than $200 a month by petsitting, we can even start a vacation fund (which we've determined is something we all want) and/or just throw more at our campground membership and student loan debt.

If I'm offered the full-time job and accept it? Financially, we'll be in really good shape even though the salary is lower than it should be.

In other words, so far, this career break has not led to a financial implosion. Even if I don't go back to full-time work and even if I do have to find another health insurance solution, we will probably be okay. It's a huge relief.

Part-Time Freelance Or Full-Time Traditional?

I'm now at a point where I'm figuring out whether I want to pursue a more flexible but lower-paying, part-time lifestyle or a more traditional but higher-paying, full-time lifestyle. When I quit my last job, I was aiming for the former - and I've managed to create that exact situation in a little more than three months. Go me!

But I'm not ruling out the possibility of the latter. I think a regular full-time job could work out if it's the right job. In retrospect, the last three jobs were so not the right jobs, but I couldn't see that because I had no room to stand back and gain some perspective. (Also, I had brainwashed myself into thinking that I had to have another job before leaving.)

The right job would use my skills and experience, be of interest to me, allow me to interact in person with cool coworkers, give me autonomy, and respect my personal time. The right job would not exceed 40 hours a week. The right job would have me working for a boss who won't micromanage and doesn't need to know where I am or what I'm doing every minute of the day. The right job would give me the stability of health benefits and a retirement fund.

If I can have all that, then maybe.

That said, I'm holding off on applying for anything else right now. Per my recent Twitter rant, the job application and interview process seems like a dog and pony show to me, and I generally abhor it. I want to get started with my part-time job and see how the full-time opportunity pans out. If it doesn't materialize, I'll probably experiment with part-time work life for a while just to see how it goes.

Where This Blog Is Going

For the past six months, I've written almost exclusively about work satisfaction, mental health, and unconventional career choices. I'll continue to pursue those topics when I feel like it and when the opportunity arises, but I also want to get back to what this blog was when I first started, which was a personal record of our financial journey.

Instead of writing less often, I'd like to write more often - but more in the vein of what A Dime At A Time does on her debt blog. In other words, I'd like to write shorter posts more often.

Moreover, I'm okay with keeping it personal and not feeling the need to craft something exceptional every time I'm faced with a blank page.
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Finances After 40 #6: Saving On A Single Income (Kate's Story)

Photo by Nicole Harrington

Welcome to the 6th installment of Finances After 40! This week, we're featuring Kate from It's A Kate Life. Kate is in her early 40s. She works in corporate accounting, is a devoted cat friend (see below - GOOD HUMAN ALERT), and has a wealth of actionable advice to share. She's living on a single income and is absolutely acing the whole saving-for-the-future thing. I've been following her for a couple of years on Twitter, so I was thrilled when she volunteered to contribute to this series. I knew she was a badass, but I was not really prepared for this level of badassery. You'll see what I mean...

Take it away, Kate!

About Kate

I live in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) in Minnesota. I’ve lived here my entire life. The quality of life is good overall, but the past few winters have gotten me thinking about other places I’d consider living that aren’t quite as extreme. It’s tough enduring winter temperatures around -20 and summer temperatures that can reach 100.

I’m single and don’t have any kids. My family consists of my parents (still married after 52 years!), an older brother and a sister-in-law. My parents also live in the Twin Cities and my brother and his wife live in Wisconsin.

Most of my career has been spent doing corporate accounting, although I’ve also worked in finance. I’ve worked across many industries including retail, medical supplies, advertising and education. I’m a numbers person so this career has suited me well and I wouldn’t change anything. I have a Bachelor’s in Economics and an MBA.

I was a homeowner for 18 years and sold my house in April. I now rent an apartment and chose to put the proceeds into a savings account in case I decide I’d like to buy another house in the future. So far I’m enjoying being a renter, so I don’t foresee this happening.

"Ten years ago I had a negative net worth and now my net worth is about 21x my current expenses."

I have one cat, who is diabetic and requires insulin injections every 12 hours. He was diagnosed 3.5 years ago and it drastically changed my life. Because I don’t trust anyone else to care for him and I live alone, I haven’t taken any trips since 2015 and my social calendar is coordinated around his feeding and shot schedule. Fortunately, my employer is understanding and knows that I can only be in the office during certain hours. I adore him and don’t view this as a sacrifice. He’s not going to live forever (he’s almost 14 already) and I’m happy to do whatever I can to give him the best life possible.

I’m in a great place financially. Ten years ago I had a negative net worth and now my net worth is about 21x my current expenses. My salary (including an annual bonus) is enough to max out my 401k, Roth, and HSA and still allow me to put a little bit of money into a brokerage account each payday.

Although I might consider myself FI at 25x expenses, I wouldn’t pull the trigger on early retirement until I had at least 33x expenses. But rather than use a basic calculation, I have an Excel file the projects all my account balances through age 55. Seeing the account balances each year provides a better illustration than using a simple multiplier.

Looking Towards The Future: FI Goals, Medical Costs, And Living Arrangements

Medical costs never crossed my mind when I was younger. I just figured that insurance would always be good enough to cover any kind of medical expense. As we’re seeing with increased costs and the decline of insurance coverage, this just isn’t the case anymore. This is the one thing that actually keeps me up at night and I really hope that there are changes that make healthcare affordable for everyone, not just the wealthy.

"The idea I’m trying to pitch to friends is that we should all live in the same building so we can help and keep an eye on each other, but still maintain independence and privacy. A few friends joke that we should buy a house together, similar to the Golden Girls, but this is something I’d actually consider."

While my parents are doing fine financially, I consider them to be an indirect impact on my finances. The main reason I want to pursue FIRE is to give me the option of leaving the workforce so I can help care for them and spend more time with them. They’d be in their mid-80s if I retired at 55. I never want it to be a question of whether I should continue working or leave the workforce to help them. They always come first.

I also never thought about what would happen as I got older and couldn’t live independently anymore. I don’t have plans to marry and I don’t have kids to care for me, so this is something I’m still trying to plan for. The idea I’m trying to pitch to friends is that we should all live in the same building (either renting apartments or owning condos) so we can help and keep an eye on each other, but still maintain independence and privacy. A few friends joke that we should buy a house together, similar to the Golden Girls, but this is something I’d actually consider. One friend plans to buy property in Oregon and has offered to let some of us put tiny houses on it. I’m glad that we are having conversations now and really happy that we agree that we’re all kind of in this together. As the cost of aging increases, it’s important to adopt a community mindset.

I’m really fortunate that I’ve been able to save and invest as much as I can. My main challenge is ensuring I’m doing enough and allocating my money effectively so I can reach my FI goal. Taxes are on my mind, as far as wondering if I should reduce my 401k contributions and put that money into my brokerage account while tax rates are low. There are so many scenarios and variables to consider. I’m sure in the end these things won’t push the needle very much, since contributions matter the most.

I’m hoping to reach FI by the time I’m 50 and I’d like to have the option to retire by the time I’m 55. Of course, healthcare will play a major role in this decision. I have an autoimmune disease that’s easily managed now, but it’s entirely possible that I’ll develop another one or inherit one of the many health problems my parents have (i.e. type II diabetes, glaucoma, high blood pressure). Because of this, I might be forced to continue working until I’m eligible for Medicare.

"Women this age are in the 'sandwich generation,' so they’re often caring for kids and starting to help care for their parents. It’s not hard to understand why they feel stretched so thin financially and in regards to their time."

Hopefully investing as much as I can and being conscientious of my spending will be enough to get me there. How the market acts during this time is completely out of my control.

Reflecting On Past Choices

I really wish that I hadn’t spent as much money in my 20s as I did. Shopping with friends was an easy pastime and I constantly gave into peer pressure and the idea that it wasn’t a big deal because I’d make more as I got older. Not only was it a waste of money, but it bothers me to think of the environmental impact as well.

I’m really proud that I’ve always contributed to a 401k. At some points, it might have only been 1% (i.e. when I first bought my house) but I always put something away, no matter how small. I’m mostly proud of paying off my house within 14 years of buying it. Beyond that, I’m proud of constructing a life where I can contribute the maximum limits to my 401k, Roth, and HSA and still live a great life.

Perspectives On Finances After 40

One of the easier parts of being older is that most of my friends don’t want to spend a lot of money when we get together. They have other expenses (mainly kids) and I’ve benefited from this. So, as someone who is single and childless, I only have to think about myself. My main concerns are the cost of healthcare and the possibility that my parents will need money for a nursing home in 10-15 years.

"For the single and childless, we have the challenge of saving enough money on a single income to ensure we can retire comfortably and pay for expenses for care when we’re in our 80s and 90s."

Women this age are in the “sandwich generation,” so they’re often caring for kids and starting to help care for their parents. It’s not hard to understand why they feel stretched so thin financially and in regards to their time.

For the single and childless, we have the challenge of saving enough money on a single income to ensure we can retire comfortably and pay for expenses for care when we’re in our 80s and 90s. It’s also important to ensure we have a good support system as we get older. It’s easy for friendships to fade as your friends get married and have kids, but the key is to be flexible and understanding to help keep these friendships going.

Kate's Advice And Recommendations

Always save money, no matter how little it is. Think about what you want your future to look like and take steps to help you get there. While it’s fine to anticipate getting married, don’t include a second income in any of your projections. Know that there are so many other ways than the traditional idea of working until you’re old enough for Social Security. You have the ability to create whatever life you want, as long as you have the determination to get there.

"Always save money, no matter how little it is. Think about what you want your future to look like and take steps to help you get there."

As polarizing as she is, Suze Orman can be credited with helping me turn my finances around. I watched her show every week on CNBC in the early 2000s. What I like best about her is how she makes the connection between emotions and money. My favorite Suze-ism is “When you feel less than, you spend more than.” She taught me to identify how I’m feeling if I get the urge to spend money on a want. If it’s boredom, I snap out of it immediately.

Mr. Money Mustache can be credited for teaching me about FIRE, specifically his post titled The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement. This was intriguing to me and drove me to learn more, which lead to so many blogs: Root of Good, Go Curry Cracker, Our Next Life, and lots more.

For books, I’m a fan of The Simple Path to Wealth by Jim Collins (I’ve given this to a few people as gifts) and Work Optional by Tanja Hester.

When I was starting out, I would go to the library every week and pick out 5 books from the personal finance section. Now there’s so much information in the form of blogs. I’d urge people to seek out blogs that not only represent where they currently are in their financial journey but also read blogs representing where it is you want to be.

Where To Connect With Kate

Twitter: @itsakatelife
Blog: It's A Kate Life
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Career Break Musings: Letting Go?

"I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” - Brene Brown

I haven't felt up to writing super-long posts lately. Ideas, sentences, and paragraphs are sloshing around in my brain, but I lack the motivation to pull them together in a coherent, complete way. It just seems like too much work requiring too much energy.

But at the same time, I know these thoughts need to get onto a page. That's what I've always done to work through complicated situations: throw words onto paper and see what those ideas look like on the outside.

It helps. It always helps.


Still Lost But I Guess It's Cool?

In my post about quitting, I compared my career path to being inexorably lost in the woods and my indefinite sabbatical to sitting down on a tree stump to wait for either help or an epiphany. I'd spent more than four years stumbling pell-mell through the employment wilderness, searching for the right path and getting more and more lost instead (as if I'd started out in the Adirondacks and somehow wound up in, like, Death Valley), and I felt done. Pass the sleeping pad and the trail mix.


It's been nearly 2.5 months since I took a seat, and I'm still here. No unicorn or recruiter has come to rescue me, and it appears that what was left of my career map has disintegrated altogether. Nevertheless, it's kind of nice here in Whoknowsville. I've set up a metaphorical hammock, am gathering wood for my metaphorical fire, and am learning to hunt metaphorical squirrels!

Hanging Onto A Pile Of Poop For Dear Life

Over the last few days, two people have reached out to ask me how I'm doing, which is very thoughtful. I haven't been sure how to respond. I'm... great? Confused? Relaxed? Frustrated? In a weird midlife twilight zone? Jonesing for gummy worms? All of the above?

So I've spent some time trying to work through my stack of mismatched thoughts.

In previous posts, I've shared that I went back to school for my PhD when I was in my early 30s. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. I was passionate about teaching, passionate about research, passionate about fieldwork, and passionate about my academic community. I finished in four years and landed a tenure-track job right away, which in my mind was a sure sign that I had done everything exactly right.

I thought I had found my calling. I thought I had it made.


But that's not how it went. Everything after my PhD was kind of a disaster. I taught for two years under the direction of a brain plagued by anxiety, in a department driven by testosterone, before calling it quits. (That one sentence doesn't adequately describe the complexity of the whole experience, but good enough for now.)

After I left, I couldn't bring myself to let go of academia entirely, so I went the "alt-ac" route.

My next job was as a college advisor.

The one after that was as an online instructor.

The Job From Hell was editing in my area of study.

In general, each position was worse than the one before it, but I never considered going for something completely outside of academia.

As my friend Lisa Munro, who also left the world of tenure-track academia, wrote last year in her post When Moving Forward Requires Letting Go, 

"I wasn’t sure what else I could possibly do and I desperately wanted to still have one foot in work that I still loved. Instead of directly participating in oppressive and exploitative academic systems, I found that as an alt-ac person whose work still relied on academic research production, I’d simply continued participating from the sidelines. Academia-lite."

Exactly. Exactly.

Here's the thing. Neither academia nor academia lite has been great to me or for me, to the point that I should probably go to therapy for the sole purpose of dealing with academia's aftermath. It's been very difficult in a way that's hard to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

In summary: I loved it, it treated me badly and made me feel terrible most of the time, and yet I can't seem to get over it because I loved it so much and because so much of my identity is wrapped up in it. So I keep taking whatever scraps it's willing to give me.

Now, as I start to scrounge the job boards and prepare applications, I find myself once again honing in on academia and its periphery like the proverbial moth to the flame.

Or as Lisa so beautifully put it,

"...in my now pseudo-academic life, I find myself trying too hard to still prove that I’m a smart person who deserved the career for which I’d invested a huge chunk of my life and a lot of money."

And maybe that's the problem. Maybe that's why I've started to feel so confused and conflicted over the last few weeks. I've been looking for jobs, and there's a deep chasm between what I feel I should be doing because it'll make me feel smart/needed/legitimate/worthy and what I want to be doing (if I give myself the space to admit what I actually want).

What's Holding Me Back From Letting Go?

Honestly, I think it's shame.

Everyone (not exaggerating, ev.er.y.one.) else I know who graduated from my program now has a top-notch job in our field of study. They've stayed focused, worked hard, and moved up.

Meanwhile, I've bounced around from job to job, lived in an RV for half a year, moved to two different cities, and am now... pet sitting. Don't get me wrong: I love it and am seriously thinking about trying to build a business. I love where I live. I appreciate my family and good health. In the grand scheme of things, we are doing fine.

But here I am, holding on with one hand to a career that has never worked and with the other hand to a giant bag of shame that grows heavier with time as I toss in more and more self-perceived failures. How am I supposed to try to grab onto something new? And... given what I'm holding onto, why am I not letting go?


One more quote from Lisa, because everything she says is so spot-on:

"...Here’s what I’m learning: saying yes to new possibilities, especially ones that seem risky and thrilling and exciting and make me feel dizzy and like I’m going to throw up often involves letting go of that which is no longer serving me. And letting go, even when necessary, still provokes strong feelings of loss on top of the huge amount of loss and heartache I already feel with the loss of my academic life. But sometimes letting go is a necessary part of moving forward."

I don't know what, exactly, letting go looks like yet, but I'm starting to think it's the key to figuring out what's next.
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