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

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We Didn't Want To Make This Choice Yet



Stop Trying To Make Normal Happen


Welp. It's the weekend, which is typically when my partner's school prefers to send out long, nail-bitey emails to employees. And sure enough, one showed up in the inbox today.

The gist of it is that they're planning to re-open school by the end of September, calling teachers back to the classroom much sooner than we were predicting. I'm disappointed. Secretly, I was holding out hope that the school and district would decide to limit in-person learning until January 2021. 

Although we'll technically meet Arizona's stated reopening metrics (~5% or less positivity rate, <100/100,000 cases for at least two weeks, COVID test turnaround time of three days or less), Fortysomething and I don't feel ready. From a science-based, data-driven perspective, we just don't think it's a good idea:

1. All of the health professionals I've been listening to, including virologists and epidemiologists, seem to agree that a combination of testing and contact tracing should serve as the foundation of a strong return-to-school plan. Testing and contact tracing are particularly important given the prevalence of asymptomatic COVID transmission. But that's simply not going to happen. Although everyone is expected to wear masks and conduct daily self-administered health checks, nobody - not kids, not teachers, not staff - is required to get tested prior to returning to the building. 

Moreover, there's no plan to test anyone throughout the year or notify potential contacts of those who are diagnosed with COVID. Every time someone asks admin what will happen if a kid or teacher tests positive (will whole classrooms quarantine? For how long?), they deflect or ignore the question.

2. Social distancing will be impossible in many classes. Some kids will continue with online learning (including my kid), but a recent school survey indicates that the majority of students plan to return to the classroom. The fact that the school relaxed enrollment limits this year and ended up with more students than ever makes social distancing all the more challenging.

3. Flu and cold season will ramp up soon. Ah, a potpourri of viruses! To school administrators, this is apparently the perfect time to bring large groups of people together in enclosed, poorly-ventilated, windowless spaces, despite the fact that enclosed, poorly-ventilated, windowless spaces represent the ideal environment for COVID transmission. 

4. It's unnecessary. Our school has already opened its doors to students who need supervision during the day. Everyone else is learning at home. It's a good compromise in that it meets everyone's needs while maintaining social distancing as much as possible. Online learning hasn't been perfect, but overall, it's been going pretty well. Why does everyone need to come back to the classroom?

5. I'm not convinced the school is considering vulnerable populations at all. Racial and ethnic minority groups appear to be at increased risk in this pandemic, for various reasons. We have kids who come into school from the nearby reservation... the same reservation that's lost hundreds of people to COVID since the spring. We have kids who live in multigenerational households. We have kids who live with their grandparents.

Who's making the decision to reopen? Rich white people, mostly. (Oop, I just checked. Everyone in our charter's leadership is white. Wow! Yay diversity! Hurrah representation!) 

6. Also, some teachers and staff have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk. No worries. Admin doesn't care, so it isn't an issue!

7. My partner and I are in our 40s. Yes, we're both healthy (knock on wood), but COVID seems to have a greater impact on people the older they are. There are plenty of examples of people in their 30s, 40s, and beyond who've had bad reactions to the virus (hospitalization, debilitation, death) even if they had no prior medical conditions. And even relatively minor bouts of COVID seem to leave a lasting physiological mark on most people who catch the virus. We certainly can't eliminate our risk, but we'd like to minimize it.

8. If he goes back, we won't see anyone else the entire year. I already don't know when I'll feel comfortable seeing my family or my partner's family again, but I certainly won't feel comfortable with it if we're at greater risk of exposing them to the virus.


Drawing the Line and Getting Prepared


Back in early July, I wrote a post about how we're not into playing Russian roulette with our lives

That hasn't changed. The plan remains the same: walk away when teachers are required to return to the classroom. It still seems like the most logical choice for us given the situation. 

I was just hoping we'd have a few more months to prepare.

I've spent the better part of today fighting off a panic attack. I'm trying to keep my cool by reminding myself that we will (probably) be okay if and when he quits:

-We have about six months of expenses in savings.

-He's got several contract jobs in the works for this fall.

-I still have my part-time job.

-I'm searching for additional job opportunities and have made at least a little headway on that (still waiting to hear back about the results of my recent interview).

-He's going to see if a leave of absence is an option.

-He'll be less stressed out and probably sleep better. 

But nevertheless, being in this position is anxiety-provoking.

This isn't where we'd be if it weren't for this damn pandemic. This isn't a choice we wanted to make. And financially, it sucks: we'll be losing employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement.

Sometimes I sit back and think about the frontier of this current moment. All of it is new. All of it feels uncertain and dangerous. The right choices are often not apparent. We weren't ready for this; we didn't know we'd have to make these decisions. And we have no real leadership to guide us. 

It didn't have to be this way, but here we all are, muddling through, doing our best, and crossing our fingers and toes that our tough choices in this moment will work out for us in the long run.

I hope we're making the right choice. I hope we feel confident in that choice. And if you're in a similar boat, I'm hoping you'll feel peace with your decisions, too.

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Mommin' It Up, Pandemic Style

 

It's 10 AM and so far this morning I have:

-run two loads of laundry

-unloaded the dishwasher

-washed the breakfast plates

-badgered the Kiddo to brush his teeth and get to (virtual) class on time

-cleaned the cat litter and fed the cat

-investigated a missing Target shipment

-checked our bank accounts

-done a smattering of "official" work (grading, etc.) 

Although I'm only a few hours into the day, this list is fairly representative of my daily activities in the COVIDtimes. Add in more cleaning, some baking, some managing of finances, some schoolwork assisting, some lunch making, and some working out, and that pretty much covers it. 

One thing I'm struggling with right now is, well, this. When I went to graduate school 10 years ago, I did so intending to land a full-time job that would mostly or entirely cover our expenses. Our plan was for me to be the breadwinner - a solid idea, considering that Fortysomething loves doing introverty, stay-at-home-dad things with a sprinkle of contract work when he feels like it, and I like being part of an organization (in theory) and having Society-Approved, Overachiever-Friendly Important Tasks to do. When I graduated and immediately landed a tenure-track job, I felt like everything I'd strived for was falling into place. I couldn't wait to be a career lady! 

Until my brain was like, Yeah, sorry, this isn't going to work.

What we've realized since then is that Fortysomething is better than I am at managing a full-time job. He doesn't suffer from anxiety and depression. He's never experienced insomnia. He isn't prone to panic attacks in the middle of meetings. When he makes a mistake on the job, he doesn't obsess over it. When someone tries to micromanage him, he nods, smiles, and proceeds to ignore them for as long as possible. Unexpected policy changes don't send his blood pressure skyrocketing. He doesn't love what he does, but he also knows how to compartmentalize.

So Fortysomething and I have switched roles. He's now the breadwinner by far, with his exhausting combination of teaching and contracting, and I am very much the active parent/homemaker, at least during the day. In the COVID era, this division of labor makes sense for us. He has time-consuming jobs that make money, and we need to sock away as much money as possible to ensure we can ride out this pandemic without backsliding financially. My income-generating job doesn't take much time, so I have more opportunities to cover the other necessary tasks in our household. 

(Important disclaimer: Fortysomething also contributes to the chores, including recycling, taking out the trash, putting in the grocery orders, and making dinner several times a week. I think our physical division of labor is pretty fair, though like many women, I take on more of the emotional labor.)

And let me say this: logically, I know the way we've divvied up our responsibilities is ideal, at least for now. I know I'm contributing in a meaningful way by ensuring that our household and finances are operating smoothly during this stressful time. I take pride in creating an environment that is clean, comfortable, and relaxing so that when they're done working at their computers all day, they can kick back and chill. I realize that having one parent who is always available to help out with online schooling is a major privilege. Besides, I love being a mom, and I enjoy managing our home life.

Sometimes, though, I still feel like it doesn't matter very much, like I'm futzing around all day while other people do Important Things That Contribute To Society. People can tell me that what I'm doing does matter, but sometimes it's hard to believe that. Maybe it's because I grew up in a very traditional household with a homemaker mom and engineer dad, and I saw day in and day out who got the respect and who didn't. Or maybe it's because I equate meaningful work with money, and the people doing supposedly meaningful work at home don't get paid anything for what they do. Maybe it's because everyone I graduated with is now doing cool research projects and applying for tenure/promotion while I'm baking cookies and trying to determine why the Internet has suddenly gone out.

My floundering career has been low-key bothering me for the past five years. The effects of the pandemic seem to have cast those insecurities into much sharper relief in my mind, especially in the weeks since Fortysomething and the Kiddo have gone back to work and school. I'm trying to find a way to move on. Sometimes where you thought you'd end up and where you worked really hard to end up isn't where you end up. That's life, but it takes a while to come to terms with it.

Has anyone else had this sort of experience? That is, has the pandemic forced you to grapple with issues that were previously lurking beneath the surface? Or tossed you into a role you weren't planning to occupy?

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Pandemic-Induced Emotional Whiplash


What's New This Week

It's been a rough week. I've been taking notes on what I've done and how I've felt each day, and the words "bored," "lonely," and "depressed" keep coming up. I remind myself over and over again that it's normal to feel these things given all that's happening in my life and in the world. I'm worried about my extended family (my parents sounded low the last time I talked to them, and they're making some questionable choices in terms of socializing), stressed about Fortysomething's job, frustrated by the feeling that I'm not doing anything meaningful, sad that my local friendships are withering due to lack of in-person contact, and sometimes overwhelmed by my kid's school schedule (I'm so glad he's online, but it does come with a new set of challenges that will take some time to address). 

I've toyed with talk therapy and even considered antidepressants (please no advice on therapy and/or medication thank youuuu), but what I think I really need is a change of scenery. I need a vacation. I need to get away from all of this stuff for a week or two. Which won't happen right now because (a) we feel like a pandemic is not a good time to travel, a belief we continue to hang onto despite the fact that everyone else seems to be on the road and (b) school and work are back in session. 

Anyway, point being, just as I underestimated the importance of human interaction in my life, I underestimated the importance of making plans and adventuring for keeping me sane.

Other, less-morose highlights from the past two weeks:

-Finished a workout program (6 Weeks of The Work) for the second time

-Deep cleaned parts of the kitchen

-Made bagels and soft pretzels from scratch (successful on both accounts)

-Mastered the art of my kid's F1 game on the XBox (no more crashing into walls and/or other cars!)

-Went running for the first time in a few months! 

-Started watching the second season of Umbrella Academy

-Listened to a few true crime podcasts

-Worked (but my work has kind of slowed because I wrapped up a project I was working on)

-Applied for a couple of jobs

Speaking of which...


The Job Front

I really need to keep myself busier, so I've applied for a few additional online teaching jobs over the past few weeks. One of them seemed particularly right for me. I was able to tick off all the boxes in terms of qualifications and experience. Plus, in a refreshing turn of events, the job ad offered a comprehensive overview of pay (not great, but not terrible), training expectations, and course responsibilities. The class is already set up; I can tweak it, but the material, syllabus, etc. are all ready to go. I have a Zoom interview scheduled for next week. If I can just remember how to formulate complete sentences, I may have a shot at this!

Meanwhile, Fortysomething received another contract invitation from his side hustle. That makes three contract offers for this fall: two major opportunities and one smaller one. This is great news except that, oh yeah, he still has a full-time teaching gig. The next few months are going to be extremely busy for him if his school decides to keep everyone home through December. We have no idea what they will decide to do. It looks like it could go either way; many parents and even teachers want a return to in-person learning starting in September. We hope to know more by Friday.

This whole whiplash-inducing "teachers-are-heroes-oh-wait-no-they-are-assholes-for-not-wanting-to-have-full-classrooms-during-a-pandemic" situation that's unfolded over the summer has taken a toll on his desire to teach. It's demoralizing. I can tell that what he really wants to do at this point is work for himself, and I don't blame him. Too bad healthcare is so expensive.

Sometimes I feel like we're hastily trying to board up the windows and throw down the sandbags before the storm hits, and crossing our fingers it'll be good enough to keep out the worst of the weather.


This Week's Expenses

Aside from the usual (groceries, student loan payment, etc.), we forked over $75 to rent a camera for the Kiddo's photography class and $50 or so on other school supplies. Fortysomething also spent a chunk of his upcoming contract earnings on a new computer. It's been at least five years since we upgraded our home technology, so as hard as it is to wave goodbye to that money, this investment (that's really what it is - by purchasing this equipment, he has the opportunity to snag contracts that will make a big impact on our savings) needed to happen. 

So that's this week in Coronatimes. How have you been?

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Our Financial Journey Three Years In


Last year, right before quitting The Job From Hell, I posted a comprehensive update describing our progress over the two years we'd been working to improve our financial situation. Since then, several things have changed:

    1. I left the hellish job and took a career break. (I have never - not even once - regretted this decision, though it felt like a gamble.)

    2. I started a part-time, no-benefits job that I generally like. It's probably a dead end, but for now, it's a reliable gig that allows me to keep a toe or two in academia. 

    3. We refinanced our remaining student loan.

    4. The pandemic happened. Yayyyyyy such a fun surprise, life. 0/10 do not recommend.

Given these changes, I figured I'd post another update. Disclaimer: I don't know what, exactly, is acceptable to disclose in a global crisis. On one hand, I feel guilty for being in an okay financial spot, and that part of me thinks I should keep quiet. On the other hand, I've had people encourage me to share more. Plus, this blog is a personal record. If I don't write it down, I won't remember it. 

So with all that in mind, here's a peek under the hood of our firmly middle-class, slightly dinged-up financial vehicle. I've included the strategies we're employing in the various facets of our finances along with the changes we've seen over the past year or so.


Debt


Debt three years ago: >$76,000
Debt April 2019: ~$37,000
Debt August 2020: $34,713

Our current debt repayment strategy: Pay the monthly minimum on our recently-refinanced (to 4% interest rate) student loan.

What's changed in the past year: I figured I'd start here because paying off our debt was once the main focus of this blog. We started off with a mix of credit card, auto loan, and student loan debt. For a year or so, we were bringing in six figures from two full-time jobs. For the first time in our lives, we had money to spare. We were able to pay off everything except one student loan (which constitutes about half of our initial debt balance) by January 2019. 

We've slowed our roll since then, in part because our income has dropped by ~1/3 since our period of peak earning and in part because we realized we wanted to save more. In the past 15 months, we've paid off only ~$2K or so. However, after refinancing this past spring, we already see a difference in how quickly we can make a dent even with just the monthly minimum.

While I'd like to get this last debt paid off sooner rather than later, I'm comfortable putting the brakes on if it means that we have more liquid savings at our disposal, especially at a time when so much is up in the air



Savings


Savings three years ago: 0
Savings April 2019: $8500
Savings August 2020: $17,500

Our current savings strategy: Pay our bills, set aside a little money for fun/miscellaneous things, and save the rest. We also save most of every bonus that Fortysomething receives.

What's changed in the past year: We started ramping up our savings last spring because I knew I needed to quit my job. Our "windfall earnings" - bonuses, mostly, and then the stimulus check a couple of months ago - allowed us to squirrel away a lot in a short period of time. Not being able to do much or go anywhere this summer helped, too: we usually splurge on a vacation, and that didn't happen this year.

When we hit $10K in savings at the end of 2019, I remember thinking that we were all set. With a roaring economy, hoarding anything more than that seemed silly to me. But COVID-19 has completely upended my approach to savings. Instead of having three or four months' worth stashed away, I'd love to have a year of expenses on hand. That hasn't happened yet, and it probably won't - not right now. But it's certainly enough to get us through a few months, especially if Fortysomething leaves his job. 




Retirement


Retirement three years ago: ~$1000
Retirement April 2019: ~$17,000
Retirement August 2020: ~$35,000

Our current retirement savings strategy: Increase Fortysomething's employer-sponsored retirement contributions by 1-2% every year. His contribution is currently set to 10%, with a 3% match from his employer. We invest in index funds. Set it and forget it.

What's changed since last year: We've continued to contribute to Fortysomething's employer-sponsored retirement account, although back in March, we were seriously questioning the wisdom of tossing money into stocks. The weird behavior of the market still makes me a little uneasy, although whatever's happening is working in our favor at the moment.

This is a benefit that would truly suck to give up if he leaves his job because a) I don't have retirement benefits through my gig and b) his match increases every couple of years. I have an IRA that I occasionally contribute to, and he could open one, too. But the maximum contribution limits are so much lower than they are for 401Ks.




Net Worth


Net worth three years ago: -$65K
Net worth April 2019: -$13,600
Net worth August 2020: $19,500

Our current net worth strategy: We don't track our net worth regularly, and I try not to think about it too much.

What's changed since last year: We're finally in the green! 

I don't have a net worth graph because when we refinanced our student loan, I deleted the old one in Personal Capital, thereby screwing up our net worth history in the system. But I guess the main point here is that our net worth has increased quite a bit thanks to a combination of savings and investments (and the stock market doing its thing).


The Long Slog


There are a lot of inspiring stories out there about people who went from broke to rich in a span of a few years. Those narratives are motivating. However, I'm guessing there are far more untold stories that look like ours and that reflect years spent moving from a not-great financial situation to a better but not spectacular one. And that's fine! Progress is the key, even when it's not easy. Even when it's mainly gained through many, many small steps over many, many months.

I feel good about the financial improvements we've seen over the last year, although I'm worried about what the rest of 2020 holds. If we have to dip into savings, our situation could change rapidly. But what's the point of building financial security if you can't occasionally lean on it? So we'll just keep moving forward, taking it a day at a time, sharing with other people when we can, and hoping the intensity of the current crises wanes over the next few months.
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