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

The Pros And Cons Of Working As Part-Time Adjunct Faculty

It's been about six months since I started working part-time, and because I've found myself reflecting on the experience over the last couple of weeks, I figured I'd share those thoughts here on the blog.

My Current Part-Time Job

I've worked in higher education - online higher education, specifically - for a long time. I landed in this field accidentally: as a graduate student, I cut my teeth on a Blackboard-based class that nobody else wanted to teach, and opportunities snowballed for me during the online education bonanza of the early to middle aughts. I never intended for this to be my area of expertise, though, especially because there are several aspects of it that I don't particularly like or believe in. 

Going back for my PhD was an attempt to branch out and away from online education. Because I have so much experience and know all the lingo, it's also the realm where finding work has always been pretty easy. So here I am... again.

My current position entails a combination of teaching (more like coaching, as there are no live classes and all of my student interactions occur via email or phone), grading, and curriculum development and design. I work entirely from home on an hourly basis. I'm allowed to put in up to 20 hours per week (and I always, always work 20 hours, because I want that money!). Although I have two bosses, my communication with them is sporadic, and our online meetings are few and far between.

What I Like About My Part-Time Job

1. The flexibility. This is by far the biggest perk. I work when I want to work, and I set my own schedule. I have plenty of time each day to run, conduct petsitting drop-ins (not every day, but some days), read, mess around on Twitter (I'm working on not doing that as much), blog, cook, help my kid with homework, and tidy up the house. My life feels way more relaxed than when I was working full-time, and I think those benefits get passed on to my family.

2. The work itself. I'm comfortable interacting with my students, I usually enjoy reviewing their work, and I get a kick out of the curriculum design aspect of things. It requires subject matter expertise and creativity, and when I can utilize both, I really get in the zone.

3. The autonomy. Although my bosses will occasionally ask me to do something specific, they generally let me run the show with the courses I facilitate. I never feel like someone is breathing down my neck - an extremely welcome change from my previous two jobs, where my every move was recorded, analyzed, and critiqued. This being higher education, where the trend is always, ALWAYS towards micromanagement, I know my autonomy could dissolve at any time. But I'll appreciate it while I have it.

4. My immediate colleagues and supervisors are friendly, professional, and reasonable. This is a huge plus given that I had the opposite experience in previous workplaces. Even online, and even in a setting where my communication with other instructors is pretty minimal, collegiality makes a huge difference. Also, despite the negatives (see below), I feel like the higher-ups have acceptable expectations of me that reflect the limitations of what this job can offer.

In sum: as far as adjuncting goes, this is probably as good as it gets.

What Bothers Me About My Part-Time Job

At the same time, now that I'm six months in, I find myself wondering whether this position is viable over the long term. It is definitely not perfect. There are a few things that rankle me about it:

1. The pay. If I work as much as I can every week of the year, without taking any time off, I'll make a little over $20K annually (before taxes). Obviously, I can't expect to make as much as I did when I was working 40 hours a week, but given my education and expertise, the pay is low. Everyone in my position supposedly makes the same wage that I do, so I'm not sure how to approach management about a raise. It doesn't feel like the right time. Maybe at the one-year mark.

2. No benefits. To be honest, this is the part of the job that bothers me the most, both personally and in principle. It's not just that I don't get health insurance or access to a retirement account; it's that my employer actively works to ensure that I will never get those benefits. The way they do this is by dividing what could easily be full-time roles between two half-time people.

Moreover, I am officially listed as a temporary employee, meaning that my employer could let me go for any or no reason on any given day, without any repercussions. But in reality, my role and my colleagues' roles are critical: this entire program is dependent on a cadre of adjunct faculty. Without us, there would be no program at all. Without us, the organization would not be reaping the financial rewards of an online education option.

Note: If I had benefits, everything else on the "cons" list would be easier to accept. Part-time workers should receive benefits. Period.

3. People in my field don't take me seriously. They just don't. Former colleagues basically act as if I've left the discipline altogether. If you aren't a REAL professor or a REAL researcher, you are a washed-up, second-rate hack (fellow adjuncts, I know you know what I mean). Elitism runs rampant in higher education, and there's no greater evidence of this than the way in which adjuncts are treated by people who have the same level of education and experience that they do. Being kicked out of the club makes me very sad, and I try not to think about it.

4. I have to use my own computer. For multiple reasons, I disagree with this policy. If I'm doing online work for a big organization, said organization should supply me with the necessary equipment so that I'm not putting in extra miles on my own equipment. Moreover, I'd prefer to not view student information on my personal computer, as technically, my equipment could be seized if there's a work-related investigation of some sort.

5. No advancement opportunities. I suppose I could apply for my boss's role if she quits. But it's more of a management role than an instructional or designer role, and I'm not sure I want that. Instead, what I'd really like is the option to move into a full-time instructor role, which doesn't exist.

6. I get bored. While I don't want to work 50-60 hours a week as I did in my last job, and while I appreciate the flexibility, I think I'd be more satisfied with my work if it required more like 30 hours a week (I had the opportunity to put in extra time last fall and found that six hours a day was ideal) and if I had some real options for professional development. 

7. I have way, way more to give. This is something I thought about a lot last week. I could be doing so much more with the knowledge and experience that I have. Instead, I often feel that they're going to waste. I just don't know how to make that happen without ending up too far on the other end of the spectrum and overworking myself. That balance is so elusive. Although I look at the job boards on a daily basis, I haven't seen anything locally or online that fits the bill (but I'll continue to look!)

As I write this, I realize that I am probably not alone. I know there are other people out there in similar situations, especially people with PhDs who now find themselves in less-than-ideal adjunct roles.

I'd love to know what you think:

Have you ever worked part-time? What was that experience like?

And if you're working as an adjunct or part-time instructor in higher education, how do you handle the low pay and lack of growth opportunities?

Please note: Before giving off-the-cuff advice, please consider that most people don't really need advice when they're just sharing an experience (sorry, guys, I'm burned out on unsolicited advice). Yes, I have talked to my supervisors about benefits. Yes, I asked about a computer. Yes, I keep an eye on the job boards. No, I cannot just waltz in and demand more money, as pretty much anyone who's been in this position will understand. Yes, I am grateful for what I have. No, I will not be writing a gratitude list. Thanks!
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Why We Decided Not To Buy A House

Hello, $76K readers! Just checking in with an update. Not sure yet whether it'll be a short one or a long one, as I'm not feeling particularly blogger-y today. But when I started The $76K Project, I promised myself that I'd document all of the major steps along this journey. So here I am, a reluctant writer chaining herself to her keyboard.

As I outlined a couple of weeks ago, two of our 2020 goals were to (1) figure out what we're doing about our current housing situation and (2) apply for a home loan. As of today, January 19, we can check both of those items off the list. Whoop! High five!

We Spend A LOT On Housing

Housing has been an ongoing concern for us because it's a major chunk of our budget. Currently, our baseline monthly income (not including petsitting earnings, bonuses, or Fortysomething's occasional freelance work) is about $4600. Rent for our two-bedroom, two-bath duplex - where we've lived for nearly two years now - is $2200. That means we spend just under 50% of our income on housing, which is... a lot. It's especially a lot now that I'm working part-time and purchasing my own health insurance.

Sooooo... we've been trying to figure out whether to stay put and deal with an anticipated rent hike in the spring (more on that in a moment) or throw our hats into the housebuying ring. (A third option is to move to another rental, but rent here is high across the board, so it doesn't seem worthwhile.)

To see how much of a loan we're actually qualified for, we completed a home loan pre-approval application. We gathered and submitted all of the paperwork (so much paperwork) and agreed to a credit check, and within a couple of days, we learned that we were pre-approved for up to $375K. We enlisted the help of a Realtor and started perusing the listings.

But at the same time, we were questioning whether we really want to buy and whether it's a smart financial move.

Housebuying: The Pros...

Although I have some issues with where we live, we generally love it here and can't see ourselves leaving - at least, not before our kid graduates from high school. Personally, I have never been as attached to a place as I am to this place. I feel very, very connected to our town, its surroundings, and the outdoors. I love the mountains, I love the trees, I love the climate and the sunshine, and I love the trails. From a nature perspective, I love everything about it.

Anyway, seeing as how we don't intend to move anytime soon, we'd love to find a way to stabilize our housing costs and make them a little more manageable. At least at first glance, buying seems like a good way to do that: the mortgage is your mortgage; unlike the rent, it's not going to go up every year.

...And The Cons

Nevertheless, we also recognized that there would be some major hurdles associated with buying at this point in time:

(1) $375K is A LOT of money. A breathtaking amount of money. A sum that kept me up at night once I learned that someone was actually willing to lend us that much. Do we want to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt when we've just managed to get our heads above water?

(2) We don't have much of a down payment. We could use the $10K in our savings account, but then... we would have no savings.

(3) When we ran the numbers, we realized that we could end up paying between $150-$200K in interest over the life of the loan. Obviously, we could curb that total by paying off the mortgage sooner, but it's likely that even under the best circumstances, we'd still end up paying tens of thousands of dollars in interest.

(4) Housing in our area is expensive, but that doesn't mean these are turnkey properties. In reality, anything less than $400K will likely need work. As renters, we don't have to worry about that. If something breaks, the landlord fixes it. If the roof leaks, the landlord takes care of it. If the lightbulbs burn out in the kitchen, they'll replace them. We do... nothing.

(5) The monthly numbers would be roughly the same. Ideally, buying a house would allow us to cut our monthly housing expenses by several hundreds of dollars, but realistically, after factoring in the mortgage itself, taxes, and PMI, it would probably be a wash.

(6) We'd likely have to depend on other people for help with the down payment and closing costs - and I want us to be self-sufficient. One reason we pursued homeownership was that a family member offered to help out. That offer changed over the weeks, and as more and more strings were attached, it became less and less appealing. If we're going to buy, I don't want to deal with any of that. I want to be able to do it without assistance.

(7) We love our current rental. With the high rent come numerous benefits that align with our interests and values: there's a trail literally right out the front door, Fortysomething and the Kiddo can walk to work/school (a real boon in inclement weather), and we need only one car (and use it rather sparingly). Because we're centrally located, we can get to any side of town in minutes. And we have beautiful views. Honestly, I can't imagine living anywhere better.

Our Choice: Keep Renting And Play It By Ear

A few days after we were pre-approved for a mortgage, Fortysomething talked to our landlord about what would happen if we decided to break our lease. During that conversation, the landlord offered to lower our rent - not by a lot, but lower it nonetheless - and lock it in for the next 1.5 years. (Note: we tried negotiating our rent last year and got nowhere with that; I guess us telling them we were looking to buy was a gamechanger.)

It didn't take us long to decide that, at least for now, continuing to rent is the way to go. Neither option is great, but with renting, we don't have that burden of debt on our shoulders. We don't have to worry about moving across town, or gathering a huge chunk of money for the down payment and closing costs, or finding a way to replace/repair the appliances that will inevitably break within the first six months of homeownership.

Sometimes you have to try something to see if you really want to pursue it. I'm glad we applied for the loan and started this process because it showed us that it's not the right time. It's amazing how crystal clear that became, and how quickly.

When this lease is up for renewal, I suppose we'll just play it by ear. Maybe we'll be ready to buy then. Maybe not. You can't know everything in advance, and that's okay.
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How We Finally Achieved a Positive Net Worth

Okay, real talk? That title is just an SEO gimmick. We all know I suck at how-to posts.

What I'm really here to say is simply that

according to Personal Capital

we have finally crossed the red/green line into positive net worth territory!

It has been... a road.

Our Net Worth Story In Graphs

This first graph spans November 2017 to now. The starting number on the left is something like -$65,000. That doesn't really capture the whole picture, though, because we started overhauling our budget in April of 2017, when our net worth was more like -$80,000:

Okey dokey. Moving on to the next graph, which covers the last year. In January of 2019, our net worth was -$23,000ish:

Finally, here's our net worth over the past three months:

The jump you see on the right doesn't reflect some magic injection of cash. It reflects the fact that until a few weeks ago, Personal Capital was unable to deal with our multiple eTrade accounts. Now it can, and so it's finally registering an IRA that contains some fairly high-performing stocks.

(Did you see what I did there? I sound like I know what I'm talking about! I'm practically an investment expert now.)

So we're in the green! Just in time to consider dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into buying a house!

Fine, Here's How We Did It

For the sake of truth in advertising, here's how we went from negative net worth to positive net worth:

1. Got rid of some, but not all, debt (see: this blog).

2. Saved some money in our emergency fund.

3. Put more money into investments once we paid off our highest-interest debt.

Again, steps 1-3 took us almost three years, more than 2.5 years of which I tracked every single expense and obsessively policed my family's spending. It was sometimes fun, sometimes not. Often not, TBH.

So how's that for a jazzy how-to?

Things To Remember If You're Fixing Your Finances (From A Non-Expert Who Is Still Way Behind)

I keep making comparisons between long distance running and personal finance because they have one key thing in common: for us middle- to back-of-the-packers, progress essentially boils down to putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over again, even when it's tiring, boring, and painful. Even when it feels like everyone and their pet newt is flying past us. Even when we're so far behind that all of the gummy worms and lemonade powder are gone when we finally reach the next aid station.

(Sorry. I might be taking this analogy too far.)

Here's what I'd tell other people in similar situations:

1. It takes time. For most people, everything money-related takes time. Don't get discouraged by the clickbaity "I paid off $1 million dollars in three weeks!" articles. Trust me, there's always a secret inheritance or surprise property sale involved.

2. Your net worth is in no way tied to your worth as a person. There's literally (I love that word, even when I use it improperly) no correlation. You can be the most amazing, giving, wonderful person in the world without money. You can be Scrooge McDuck rich and also be a total life-sucking shithead.

3. Seriously, the secret sauce to personal finance is to keep taking small steps. It's going to feel like you're going absolutely nowhere sometimes, but if you're moving forward - even just a little - you're progressing.

That is all. That's all I've got in the way of advice.

I'm the next Suze Orman, I know.

Anyway, this "crossing into the green!" thing is kind of arbitrary, but it still feels good, and I wanted to share it.

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Putting My 2020 Goal-Setting Strategy Into Action

2020, You Don't Impress Me Much (Yet)

It's January 4th, and at the moment, I'm not really feeling the new decade.

(Sorry if the cheerful blog pic is misleading. I typed "disappointing new year" and "unimpressed 2020" into the Pexels search engine, but I guess those tags aren't trending.)

Maybe it's all the shit going on in the news: the intense heatwaves and massive fires in Australia, the scary unrest in the Middle East, the rise in hate crimes throughout the world, and the criminals... er, politicians... currently running the U.S. government.

Maybe I'm not over my emotional holiday hangover.

Maybe it's my stupid BFFs, anxiety and depression.

Or maybe it's that I'm still carrying baggage from 2019 (and earlier).

Maybe it's all of these and more!

...Yeah, probably that one.

My 2020 Goal-Setting Strategy

This year, I have a strong sense of having to start over, which maybe sounds exciting but doesn't feel exciting. Also, I still have this sense of being lost, which is disconcerting because I wasn't expecting to feel lost at 41.

Where am I? How did I get here? Where did I go wrong? Where am I going? Shouldn’t I know these things by now? 

So in 2020, in an effort to get more grounded, I’m shaping my yearly goals around the things I'm most excited about. I’ve chosen a couple of big challenges, but I’ve also purposely set myself up for what I hope will be some easy wins around things I love.

Additionally, I'm focusing less on work-related goals this year than I have in the past. I feel like I don't have much control over my current employment situation. I like what I’m doing now and don't want to rock the boat, but I wish my company was more invested in me. I worry about the longevity of my assignment (after studying my pay stub the other day, I realized that I’m actually assigned to the “Temporary Employee” pool).

At the moment, though, I don’t quite know how to make a change, or what change I’d even make. Jumping into something new for the sake of a higher paycheck seems like a bad idea.

So I’m letting it be and taking the wait-and-see track. If my current opportunity ends, I’ll figure out something else. And in the meantime, we’re brainstorming ways to cut costs elsewhere so that unexpected changes won’t affect us as much, and I'm taking advantage of my flexible schedule.

Anyway. After much thought, here's a list of my 2020 goals:

Running Goals

1. Participate in the 3-day stage race option at the TransRockies Run in August. This is my big event for the year! You can read about why I selected this race and why I'm so excited about it here.  

2. Participate in my town's summer race series. It's $200 for all six races; I'll be able to participate in five. At $40 per race (including t-shirts!), I figure that's a pretty good deal. Plus, it's local, so I won't have to spend much on gas to get to each event.

3. Run a couple of other races in the southwestern U.S. Specifics TBD depending on what strikes my fancy, race costs, and how I'm feeling.

4. Get lighter so that I can run more efficiently. I'm thinking maybe 10 pounds? I don't know exactly. My strategy is to cut out the food that I eat more out of habit than hunger. I'm addressing this by writing down what I eat every day. Much like tracking my spending, tracking my food intake makes me more aware of what I'm consuming, and being more aware of what I'm consuming makes me less likely to over-indulge.

If this works, great. If not, eh, whatever. I am not dieting.

Money Goals

1. Maintain our current emergency fund. It's at $10K for now, which still kind of bowls me over every time I look at our bank statements. To me, our e-fund represents all the progress we've made with our finances over the past few years. Of course, we're willing to use it if we need to, but the goal is to always build it back up to its current level.

2. Increase Fortysomething's contributions to his retirement fund by 2% by the end of the year. We're currently sitting at 8%, plus a 5% match from his employer. We'd like to increase our contribution to 10%.

3. Make $150/mo after taxes from petsitting. I have two regular clients at this point and usually meet this earnings threshold every month. 

4. Put most, if not all, petsitting earnings into my IRA. Even without an employer-sponsored retirement fund, I really need to make sure I'm socking some money into investments. I'm already working on this: yesterday I moved a recent $16 payment into my IRA. It's not much, but it's something.

5. Achieve a positive net worth. Guys... we may have crossed this one off the list already! I'll be writing a dedicated post soon, but basically, some high-performing Apple stocks (Fortysomething loooooves Apple) seem to have pushed us over the line.

Life Goals

1. Figure out what we're going to do about housing. This is the year we're going to make some decisions and (I hope) figure out how to lower our housing costs, which eat up an enormous chunk of our budget. 

We could continue renting our place (we love it, but it's expensive, and the rent will almost certainly increase in the spring). We could rent a less wallet-busting place (though finding affordable local rentals that aren't falling apart or run by shady landlords can be extremely tricky). We could buy a home, if we can get a suitable loan (see #2). We could return to the RV lifestyle (I'm not totally opposed to the idea, but it would require some massive upheaval, which I'm not sure I'm up for). Or we could move somewhere else entirely (for multiple reasons, nobody's thrilled with that idea - but the option is on the table).

2. Apply for a home loan. We're hitting the ground running on this: we submitted a pre-approval application yesterday! Fortysomething and I are both skeptical about our prospects given our limited funds and expensive town, but for the sake of Life Goal #1, we need to see where we're at. If we can't get approved for an amount that's commensurate with local housing costs, well, at least we've narrowed down our options.

3. Get involved in trail cleanup/maintenance. I plan to get involved with the Arizona Trail Association and a local cleanup crew in my neighborhood. Considering how much time I spend on these trails, it's a great way to give back. I also hope this will help me meet some new people.

4. Go on an affordable date every other week. Fortysomething and I don't go out much, but now that our finances have improved and our kid can stay home alone for an hour or two, I'd like to establish kind of a standing appointment. I'm thinking local brewery, Sunday afternoons. A couple of pints and maybe a basket of chips won't set us back too much.

Blogging Goals

1. Continue publishing ~4 posts per month on average. I've been doing this already, so I'm not going to overthink it. Just keep on keeping on.

2. Amplify other female bloggers in the personal finance space. Truthfully, I'm not always very good about commenting on posts, but I really do want to encourage and support other writers, especially women. So each month, I'm going to pick three bloggers and share their work as much as possible. This month, it's The Traumatized Budget (love), K. Wright from Money the Wright Way (my Lola Retreat roomie and now a famous NY Times-published freelancer!), and Frugalish Physician at Table for One (fellow cat lady, board game aficionado, and all-around good human).

(Note: Clearly these ladies don't need my amplification; that's not what this is about. I just want to hold myself accountable for promoting the community in whatever small way I can.)

What about you? What are your 2020 goals, if any?

I hope 2020 isn't a total dumpster fire, and I hope you're having a good new decade so far.

Or if not, I hope it gets better, and fast. You deserve a wonderful year.

P.S. Please for the love of god nobody tell me to cheer up. You don't tell a depressed person to cheer up. You don't tell them to write a gratitude list. You don't tell them things could be worse. You give them some chocolate and congratulate them for showing up.

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