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

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The Autumn of 2019 Was A Century Ago

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what I was doing last year at this time. For some reason - maybe because so much of 2020 has been exceptionally monotonous from a daily routine standpoint (not from a national goings-on standpoint - that's very different) - I recall clearly what I was doing in September and October of 2019:

1. I was preparing for a long-ish, grueling mountain race. On October 5, I hit the trails with several dozen other (better qualified) participants and, despite tripping over rocks multiple times, running out of water, losing a toenail, and nearly rolling ass-over-teakettle down the final hill, managed to slog my way through the whole thing. When I was done, I felt like a real runner and couldn't wait to participate in more events like it. On the heels of that successful day, my endorphin-powered self eagerly paid big money for a big multi-day stage race to take place in August of 2020. (Bye, money. I shall never see thee again.)

2. I was getting ready to go to CentsPositive! When I sign up for things involving a gathering of people I've never met, massive regret usually starts to wash over me as the big day approaches. I get nervous and self-conscious and have to fight the urge to change my mind and stay home. This time, however, I was just excited. The beautiful autumn weekend in Seattle with a room full of other lady finance geeks did not disappoint. I was sick the entire time (good LORD, can you imagine going anywhere now with a fever and cough?!?), but I truly enjoyed every moment and felt so empowered by the other women who attended. 

3. Fortysomething was teaching science to high schoolers and generally loving it (or liking it well enough). He'd received a raise and a bit of a promotion. The plan was for him to hang onto the job until he was ready to retire. 

My kid was finally finding his groove at school. Our lives were settling into an equilibrium.

I remember feeling very hopeful about the year ahead. I was going to run! A lot! And have adventures! And ramp up my blog! And participate in more personal finance events! And focus on doing things I love! And we were going to keep saving, but we were also going to spend money on the things we valued.

And then... 


A year later, things are so different:

1. What running? I have been running a little more lately than I was a few months ago, but it's not the same. If I had to participate in that stage race tomorrow, I'd probably make it, like, five miles. At this point, running still feels like a chore rather than the escape it used to be. When I run, I want to tune out. I don't want to have to think about masks and distancing and how far six feet actually is and the snot rocket that appears to be blowing my way. 

Instead, I've shifted from running to weight training, which I can do at home. Alone. Away from the maskless. I'd still rather be running, but this is far more relaxing. Also, now I have arm muscles.

2. That CentsPositive trip was the last big trip I went on. Not that we were ever planning any major vacations in 2020, but it's still mindboggling to me that I've essentially been in the same town for almost 12 months straight. We're considering a Vrbo weekend in Phoenix at some point this fall if finances allow (big, big if) because we're starting to feel kind of stir crazy after months in isolation.

3. The job situation has completely changed. Fortysomething's final day was last Friday, and now he's making himself comfortable in freelancer land. As I write this, he's happily ensconced on the couch in sweatpants and a t-shirt, brainstorming for a project he's excited about. 

Goodbye, health insurance. Goodbye, retirement fund. But hello, free time, hello, creativity, and hello, freedom from terrible administrators. 

4. The Kiddo will be learning online this year. On one hand, he seems to be thriving academically. A lot of the stressors of in-person school - like having to get from one class to the next in a short amount of time, trying to keep track of all of his papers and books and whatnot, and figuring out how to deal with the disruptive kids in class - are now non-issues. He can just focus on his schoolwork. On the other hand, he hasn't hung out with anyone other than family since March. 

5. I've decided to write a book. I've always wanted to do it but was too scared to do it, and also I didn't want to write about something I didn't care about, so I've been hunting for a project for more than a year, ever since I quit the Job from Hell. Inspiration didn't strike until last week. Since then, I've been writing every day for 45 minutes. Shockingly for me, it involves giving advice, which is a new one for me. But for once, I feel like I have something to say that might be helpful for other people.

Inspired by writers like Michelle Jackson (Michelle is Money Hungry) and Hiro Nishimura, my plan is to self-publish and see how it goes. Worst case scenario: nobody wants it and it doesn't sell. I can live with that. But I think I've landed on a subject that some people will care about, and I'm excited to write about it.

(I'll share more about the topic in a few weeks, assuming I don't decide it's a shit idea and abandon it altogether.)

So... yeah. Things have changed, and I suppose in some small, individual ways they've changed for the better. I feel like we're making the best of the situation as a family. But this whole year is still so awful, and I just hope that next year we're all looking back on it from a better place.
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Another Job Bites The Dust


Update: No sooner had I finished writing this than Fortysomething came in to let me know he's officially resigned. Apparently, someone he trusted told his boss he was thinking about leaving (loyalty, it's a beautiful thing). His boss then contacted him to find out what was going on. So he was forced to quit a bit sooner than planned.

Well, this is it: within the next two days, Fortysomething will put in his notice and leave his job unless there are some major last-minute policy changes.

Although this isn't going to be an entirely depressing/blah post, and although I've known for months that this job might not work out, I must say that I'm disappointed that we find ourselves in this position. He's worked at this place for more than three years. He used to talk all the time about how he was probably going to stay through retirement. He enjoyed teaching science to middle and high schoolers. He had a great rapport with them and with his colleagues. He recently received a raise, and he was going to be eligible for a pretty hefty retirement fund match in 2021. 

It was nice.

And then: COVID.

Teachers and students started off the 2020-2021 school year entirely online. For the first few weeks, administration appeared to be making thoughtful decisions with the best interests of everyone in mind. They invested in new technology and ensured that all of the kids had Internet access. They opened their doors every day to the limited number of students needing supervision while their parents were at work. Everyone seemed to be getting into a groove with virtual learning. Technical problems were surprisingly rare and short-lived. It wasn't a perfect approach, but it was a rational approach.

Then something - I don't know what - changed. All of a sudden, admin decided it NEEDED to get everybody back in the classroom ASAP. A series of hastily prepared and, frankly, scary decisions were rolled out very quickly. The reopening strategies they've chosen represent a potpourri of what seem like the worst possible options (I started listing them all, but the list got too long and ranty, so I cut it). 

Teachers have pushed back with scientific papers, county and statewide data, and proposals for a more thoughtful reopening, but leadership has been entirely disinterested in the opinions and concerns of workers on the ground. They're opening, come hell or high water or another surge in cases.

I know a few people who are going to tell us we're overreacting, but for us, it doesn't make sense for him to return under such brazenly unsafe conditions given what we know about how COVID operates. So he's out. At least for now, he'll be focusing on some short-term contract work.

Here's what we've done to prepare for this shift in employment:

Income and savings: We've been saving as much as possible since the pandemic began, so at least for a minute, our emergency fund is looking better than ever. We'll deploy it if we have to, but we're hoping that we can cover all expenses through the rest of 2020 with our combined part-time/contract income. 

Health insurance: We'll be losing Fortysomething's employer-sponsored health insurance, which is perhaps the scariest aspect of this entire situation. I don't receive insurance through my employer. We should have coverage through the end of this month. After that, we can access either COBRA ($$$$$$$$) or short-term insurance. When open enrollment becomes available, we'll apply for a subsidized ACA plan for 2021 and just hope that the program doesn't disappear entirely.

Job search: I've been applying for full-time and part-time jobs since the early spring of 2020. Fortysomething has as well, though he'll be ramping that up a bit once he has more time. We've decided that we're open to job opportunities elsewhere in the state and country, which will give us more options.

Vacations and fun things: On hold through the rest of 2020. The pandemic makes not traveling for an entire year a little easier to accept.

Housing: Our lease runs through next May. Even if we have no new employment in 2021, we should be able to cover our rent each month until then. If things are looking decent financially, we'll probably re-up for another year. If not, I don't know. I really don't.

I'm trying not to get too far ahead of myself, but I do worry about what will happen next spring if one of us doesn't have a new job lined up or a buttload of contract work in the hopper. In that case, we couldn't afford to keep living here, and... I have no idea where we'd go instead. I'm not panicking about it, but I'm definitely mulling over next steps. I want to have some ideas and options lined up just in case. Maybe RV life is back on the table as a possibility?

There are some benefits to this new arrangement, and I'll cover those in another post when I've come to terms with everything. For now, yeah, we're fine. It's a bummer, but I'm glad we're doing what we know is best for us, and I'm glad we've wrapped this up after months of worrying about it.

ALSO: For another post by someone whose plans and income got derailed by COVID, check out Return of the Budget by my friend at Table for One. 

COVID can suck it. 

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Conjuring Up My Financially Carefree Past Self


In 2016, I quit an academic job that I'd tried to make work for two long, difficult, and mentally draining years. My brain was basically silly putty by the end of it; I wasn't ready to jump straight into a new job. Instead, we decided to buy an RV and travel around the country for as long as possible. We sold almost all of our stuff, including our furniture, kitchenware, and most of our clothes. We loaded up what few belongings remained, and off we went to spend a sweltering (but honestly rather lovely) summer in Texas.

Looking back at past me, I'm like

via GIPHY

Our status at the time we got the hell out of Dodge:

-We had enough savings to cover a few months of expenses

-We had lots and lots of debt (see: the title of this blog)

-We had "health insurance" that probably wasn't legit, now that I think about it

-We did not have normal or reliable jobs (Fortysomething had contract work, but if I recall, it was pretty spotty; meanwhile, I was in training to teach some online courses, but since our Internet was really touch and go, I don't think I ever actually did?)

AND YET we bought (financed) an RV, traveled to various parts of the south and west, lived in state parks on the cheap (where we were often the only people there, because who vacations in Texas in July?), subsisted on ice cream and tacos, and generally had a grand old time.

I worried about tire blowouts in the middle of nowhere, the mysterious leak that emerged from beneath the sink, the cat getting carsick, and mold, but I do not remember losing sleep over finances. 

When we rolled into our current town and decided to stay, we didn't wonder whether we could make it work. We just... made it work. I got a job at REI and then at the local college. He found a teaching position. I started this blog. We got our money in order, and it was fine!

via GIPHY

Fast forward to now, the fabulous year of 2020. Fortysomething's planning to quit any day now, but he has multiple freelance contracts in the works. My job is small but steady (knock on wood). We have more in savings than ever before, and we know how to budget. 

Yet, this is me for the past week:

via GIPHY

I AM FREAKING OUT

I mean, I'm completely on board with him quitting given that we're in the midst of a global pandemic featuring a silently spreading virus that has killed more than 180,000 people in the U.S. to date, but the financially responsible me of 2020 is having trouble letting go of regular paychecks and employer-sponsored health insurance.

Although I will readily admit that 2016 me was pretty clueless in many ways, she was also more optimistic than 2020 me (understandable). She had this certainty that things would work out somehow. 

Was she financially responsible? 

Not really. 

Worse off? 

In some ways, no.

Until this past week, I didn't realize just how much my mentality has changed. I've gained a lot of knowledge, skills, and good habits, and at this point, they're pretty ingrained. But while it is indeed great to be in a better financial position four years later, I don't want to lose the part of me that was willing to take risks, either, because risk-taking has generally been a positive experience for me and my family. I also don't want to lose the part of me that was able to look uncertainty in the face and not lose sleep over it.

So, 2016 me, COME BACK! I need you and your carefree, "money isn't everything!" mentality. I can't promise that I'll stop compulsively reworking the budget, and I can't promise that you can go back to vanlife anytime soon, but with your help, I do promise to chill out a little and trust that it'll work out. 

P.S. Part of the reason I'm hyperventilating is that I didn't get that job I interviewed for. Took it a bit hard yesterday. It's probably for the best in some ways, but nevertheless, it's a bummer.

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