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

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Things I Did Not Do In 2017, and Things We Did Instead

I dragged out my list of 2017 resolutions and realized that a) I had too many resolutions and b) I had a 50% success rate:

1. Travel to somewhere out of the country. Nope. Did not happen. Wish it had happened, but I didn't have the money for it... so, probably a good resolution to break.

2. Run an ultramarathon. Nope again. I got injured in February and spent the better part of the year recovering.

3. Earn my running coach certification. I took the class, I aced the test... and then I lost steam and never finished the program. Note to self: stop not finishing things.

4. Spend less time on Facebook. No, though I wish I had. If there's one resolution I want to declare for 2018, it's this. And I'm for serious this time!

5. Volunteer. Be an activist. Participate. I kind of did this. I attended some rallies and made near-daily phone calls to members of Congress. I'm still trying to find my helping niche, one that doesn't deplete me mentally and leave me feeling despondent and depressed. 

6. Maintain a minimalist lifestyle. Yes! We managed to do this mainly because saving money and paying down debt (see below) became major priorities. Reducing credit card balance = less money for random crap at Target.

7. Qualify for good insurance. YES! I did this, too, thanks to the job I landed in February.

8. Generate less consumer waste. Sort of! We're using less plastic now than we did in 2016. I want to take this to the next level and stop purchasing anything wrapped in plastic. That's going to be tough. We'll keep working on it.

What's funny about this list is that none these resolutions pertain to finances, and yet that became the focus of our year once we had our debt epiphany. So although I failed to accomplish all of the things I thought I wanted to accomplish, we actually ended up with a handful of other major achievements that we feel incredibly proud of and that weren't even on our radar a year ago:

3. We made a budget and stuck to it. Well, with the exception of December, when we kind of buried the budget and pretended it didn't exist. But! We didn't go further into debt, so I'm not going to beat myself up about it. Back on track in January!

4. We paid off over $9000 in debt since June (look for a detailed update next week!)

5. We stashed $6000 into savings.

6. I got a full-time job in February.

7. In July, Fortysomething landed a full-time teaching job that he absolutely loves.

8. I found a higher-paying job better suited to my skills and experience. That's right: the day after Christmas, I received a job offer from the company I've been interviewing with over the last month. It'll be more time-consuming than my current gig, but my salary will be significantly higher, I'll be able to work from home, and I'll get to use my science knowledge and skills.

9. I made new friends, joined two clubs, and became more immersed in my community. 

In other words, 2017 was not what I expected it to be. It surprised me, and we surprised ourselves. So this time around, my only resolutions will be to spend less time on Facebook, pay off our credit card debt, and keep sticking to our budget, all of which I'm pretty sure I/we can accomplish. 

Aside from that, I'm going to play it by ear and let life unfold.

What about you? Did you meet your 2017 resolutions? Do you have any resolutions for 2018? And what surprised you this past year?

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Winning, December/Holiday 2017 Edition

Somehow, in spite of the fact that I'm drowning in three million things to do because I take on way too much every.single.time, I have once again managed to NOT forget about Winning, a monthly series in which I identify three concrete ways we're succeeding in this long, slow, sometimes maddening debt-paydown journey. 

That said, this particular post is going to be a bit short because it's Christmas and I am currently being circled by three yelling children who are demanding food/games/entertainment/my undivided attention. The second I sit down to do anything on my computer, their Spidey senses kick in and they rally together in an effort to distract me. Which is fine. I've just gotta work fast here, folks.


So here it is: three ways we're WINNING in December 2017:

(1) We currently have over $3000 in our savings account. I know this sum is practically nothing for some folks, but consider the fact that - like 34% of Americans - we had nothing in savings back in April. As in, we didn't even have a savings account back in April. We're putting most of our money towards debt, but building a "financial airbag" that can cushion us in the event of an emergency is also important to us.


(2) We were able to travel across the country to visit family for the holidays, and we paid for it outright. Again, this is unheard of for us. In the past, we'd charge all of our travel to the credit card and worry about it later... much, much later. This time, we saved up the money first, then booked the flights and hotel. That felt like a real accomplishment.

(3) We've been blogging for six months! Spoiler alert: we plan to keep doing so. Personally, blogging about our experience helps me stay motivated, and it's introduced me to some of the many amazing writers in the personal finance community. It's worth it. We're committed.


So tell us: what are your wins this month? We want to know! Big pre-emptive high fives to you.
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The Connection Between My Mental Health and My Debt

Among a few other mental health conditions that I've been diagnosed with over the years, major depression is something I grapple with on a regular, long-term basis. I can pinpoint the exact month and year it showed up. I was 12. It was February. One day I was happy and stable; the next, I was not. Depression latched on, its grip relentless, and it hasn't let up since.

I knew something was wrong (the suicidal thoughts and obsessive need to plan my own funeral clued me in), but it wasn't until I was 31 years old - a couple of years after my son was born - that I finally saw a therapist and a psychiatrist, got a diagnosis, and figured out how to ride out depressive episodes in a relatively healthy-ish way.

This means that I spent almost 20 years of my life wrestling with mental illness pretty much on my own. If that sounds like a terrible idea, you're right, but I did everything in my power to hide my condition. I chose coping mechanisms that largely masked the chaos in my brain rather than calling attention to it. No drugs, alcohol, or reckless behavior for me: I grew up in a super-conservative household and was too afraid of an unsavory afterlife to engage in anything that risky. 

Instead, my coping mechanisms included the following strategies:
  • Pushing myself to achieve perfection at school. I made A's throughout high school and graduated summa cum laude from college, not because I cared that much about the subject matter (don't ask me to recall anything from Physics II or Differential Equations), but because I just wanted to get everything right.
  • Pushing myself to be the perfect Christian teenager. This went out the window in college, but in high school, my squeaky clean image was everything to me.
  • Sleeping (all the time, especially during bad depressive episodes)
  • Eating (any time I wasn't sleeping)
  • Traveling. A lot. And here's where the debt part comes in...
Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do, and for various reasons. Before starting therapy, I used travel as a means of escape. Oddly, only when I was completely out of my element in an unfamiliar place did I feel stable, competent, and happy. Thus, I did whatever I could to travel whenever I could. 

As a teenager, I was strategic and savvy about how I organized these escapes. My M.O. was something like this: I would sign up for a church-based missions trip, ask people in my congregation to contribute to said trip, and then head off on what was essentially a fully-funded excursion. (Disclaimer: This now seems awfully sneaky, but I wasn't really aware of why I was doing what I was doing while I was doing it, and I definitely gave my all to the mission of each expedition.) The trips didn't cure me of my mental highs and lows, but they would temporarily bring my emotional rollercoaster to a blessed halt.

Maybe it was the distraction of new surroundings. Maybe it was being away from triggers at home.  Maybe it was the high of not knowing what to expect. 

Whatever the reason, it worked.

By the time I graduated from high school, I'd been to Europe, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, and Venezuela, all on the church's dime. Most of these trips were anything but easy. In Haiti, I encountered poverty the likes of which I've never experienced before or since. In Mexico, on a Habitat for Humanity trip, I got food poisoning and spent the better part of a week huddled in an outhouse. During the first few days of my foreign exchange trip to Jamaica, I wound up trapped in a tiny shack in the Blue Mountains with an elderly couple who didn't speak English and who refused to let me leave (long story; ask me later). While none of these experiences were in any way comfortable, they somehow felt more tolerable than the emotions I lived with when I was home in my safe, suburban American neighborhood.

My mental health didn't improve much after high school, so despite my persistently limited income, I continued to seek escape through (non-budget) travel. Without the generous donations of churchgoers to see me through, I used the magic of credit cards to pay for several trips in the 13-year timespan between graduation and therapy:
  • The romantic getaway to a posh resort in St. Lucia 
  • The month-long hiking trip across the Alps 
  • The tall ship sailing expedition between England and the Canary Islands
  • The babymoon trip to Hawaii
  • The many, many mini-getaways to places within the continental U.S.
  • The cruise to the Bahamas
  • The trip to Europe
  • Wow, this list keeps getting longer...
  • Etc.
When I went back to graduate school, I chose a subject that would allow me to travel frequently. I added Montreal, Montserrat, Brazil, and Italy (twice) to my travel repertoire. During this time, my flight and hotel expenses were largely covered by grants, but these trips inevitably incurred multiple smaller expenses that coalesced as higher and higher balances on my credit card, which I had trouble paying off on a grad student salary.

In short: when I look at my debt, my gut reaction is to think, "I messed up." But on second glance, I see a long history of trying to cope. I see a survival strategy. That's why I am not shaming myself for any of this. I mean, I survived two decades of depression with no help. As long as that's the bottom line, does it matter what that entails? In debt or dead: I'll take the former.

I still struggle with depression. Some days are better than others, but although I have better coping mechanisms now, and great friends, and a supportive family, and manageable goals, and a blog that stokes my creativity, some days are still excruciating. I just do my best. I try to keep my credit card far, far away from Expedia and TripAdvisor.

If you're living with a mental illness, and if that illness is reflected in the way you spend money or the balance on your credit card, I just want to say that I get it. You did the best you could, given that you're living with a condition that is brutal, isolating, and relentless. You're doing it (or did it) so that you survive, and I give you massive, massive props for that.

And if, like me, you've made it out of the abyss with a boatload of debt, just know that there's still time to sort it out. The main thing is that you're here! Awesome, unmatchable you! Yes, money is important. Yes, saving is important. Yes, reducing debt is important. But you are more important. 

There is nothing more important than your life.

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November in Review

November vibes
Financially, two things stand out about November 2017:
  • It was a fairly spendy month. We came in at $14 over budget despite a generous allocation for miscellaneous items (darn it!)
  • We made our first Monster Debt Payment!

Yup, we spent more in November than we have in the previous few months. Not to make excuses (okay, I'm totally making excuses), but I attribute this to four fairly worthy expenses:
  • A mini-vacation to Phoenix for our wedding anniversary. We covered most of these expenses with money from our savings account, so with the exception of extra gas for the car, it didn't make much of a dent in our normal budget. It was a wonderful impromptu getaway, and one that refreshed all three of us.
  • Several unexpected trips to the doctor, resulting in $95 in copays. One visit was to my general practitioner to discuss my insomnia. The other two visits were to my dermatologist, who assessed and removed a suspect - but blessedly innocuous - mole. No regrets here, either, as health is a great asset. 
  • Clothes for The Kiddo's holiday concert. Per Murphy's Law, the choir director wanted clothes in the only two colors The Kiddo refuses to wear and does not feature in his wardrobe. Cue last-minute trip to Target.
  • Fortysomething's birthday celebration, including two meals out and presents. 
Birthday drink
We also overspent on groceries by $6, but I blame that on Thanksgiving.

Our big win in November was making our first Monster Debt payment. We ramped up our debt allocation from $1600 to $2200, per our new repayment plan.  Although it's always a little depressing to see our hard-earned money go straight to our creditors, it definitely made a significant dent. We divvied up the money in the following way:
  • Credit Card #2: $1330
  • Credit Card #3: $275
  • Student Loan #1: $201
  • Student Loan #2: $393

Goals versus reality (not all that different!):

In December, I'd really love to see us stick to our grocery and gift budgets, despite the excitement of the holiday season. 
Disease Called Debt
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The Only Holiday Craft I'll Ever Make: Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

I love the holidays, but I've never been that interested in the beat-down-the-doors-of-Best-Buy-to-get-a-killer-deal, purchase-a-million-presents-for-a-Pinterest-worthy-tree aspect of this time of year. It's not that I'm too cheap. I'm just too lazy, and honestly, an over-emphasis on buying stuff makes me feel kind of depressed.

This year, I decided I wanted to give presents that are:
  • Cost effective (we have a $200 gifting budget, which has to cover our immediate family plus our parents, our four siblings, and our siblings' kids)
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Homemade
  • But also not hard to make

A few months ago, I saw this video about cloth beeswax wraps, which can be used in place of plastic wrap to cover and store food. Another opportunity to ditch plastic and bolster my treehugger credibility? I was intrigued. So I found a few DIY tutorials and tried making my own. 


The verdict: Even for a novice (read: extremely untalented) crafter like myself, the wraps are super easy to make. Moreover, they're inexpensive, reusable, and - yes - they actually work. 

So here it is, folks: the only crafting tutorial you're ever going to find on this blog:

Budget-Friendly Cloth Beeswax Wraps

What you'll need:
  • Cotton fabric: A legit environmentalist would cut up old clothes or blankets or something.  That's probably what you should do. Personally, I went to the local craft store and bought a bunch of inexpensive cotton fabric scraps in a variety of colors. These were displayed at the front of the store near the registers. They were pre-cut, meaning that I didn't have to ask anyone to help me with giant bolts of cloth. Introvert win! Cost of fabric: $8
  • Beeswax: I was sure I'd have to order this online, but it turns out that you can find beeswax at Michael's craft store alongside all of their candle-making supplies. I bought a big block of it, which would have been somewhat expensive had I not had a 50% off coupon. (Pro tip, even from this clueless crafter: Michael's offers so many discounts that you should never, ever purchase anything for full price.) Cost of beeswax: $10
  • Pinking shears: As I understand it, these mitigate fraying at the edge of the fabric. They also make a cool zig-zag cut. You can find these at most big stores. Cost of pinking shears: $10 or so
  • Cheese grater: You likely already have one of these, but unless you enjoy wax bits in your cheese, I recommend getting a second grater just for this craft. Cost of grater: less than $5
  • Parchment paper: Man, this stuff is nifty. Nothing sticks to it. It's in the same aisle as aluminum foil and - shudder - plastic wrap. Cost of parchment paper: less than $5
  • An oven or toaster oven. Disclaimer: please do not purchase an oven for the purpose of this craft. That is not in the spirit of making an inexpensive gift.
  • A small paintbrush. Any paintbrush will do. I stole the one that came with my kid's watercolor set. It worked great. He probably won't notice, but if he does, I'm going to play the indignance card and remind him who buys his bread and toothpaste. I'm not giving a price for this because every child I know has more paintbrushes than they could ever use, so go find one of those kids and "borrow" their art supplies. It'll be fine.

How to make your cloth beeswax wraps:

Step 1: Wash the fabric. Confession time: I skipped this step because we don't have a washer and drier in our apartment, and I was feeling impatient. You can see why crafting doesn't work out for me that often. Honestly, it really didn't seem to matter, but it's probably a good idea anyway, just so the colors in the fabric don't bleed. 

Step 2: Cut the fabric to desired size. I cut pieces to the following dimensions: 6"x6", 8"x8", and 9"x10".

Step 3: Grate the wax. I grated about half a cup at a time. Pro tip: Keep Bandaids on hand for when you accidentally grate your finger.

Step 4: Preheat your oven to 225 F. 250 F would probably be okay, too. They key is to not inadvertently burn your house down, as that is also not in the spirit of creating an inexpensive craft. If you're using a toaster oven, don't even bother with heating it up. More about this in a second.

Step 5: Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet, and place a piece of your cloth on the parchment paper.

Step 6: Sprinkle the cloth with wax. I wish I could tell you how much to use, but I sort of just eyeballed this. If you use too little, you can always add more; if you use too much, you can always sop it up with another piece of cloth.

Step 7: If you're using a regular oven, stick the baking sheet + cloth + wax into the oven for 5 minutes. If you're using a toaster oven, place the sheet on top of the toaster oven and set it to toast for 3-4 minutes. 

Step 8: Once the wax is melty, use the paintbrush to saturate the entire cloth. If you find that parts of the cloth are unsaturated, add more wax and repeat the melting process. By the time you're done, the cloth should be fully imbued with the wax, but it shouldn't be dripping, and chunks of wax shouldn't be falling off the cloth once it cools. If you find that you've been a bit wax happy, you can use another piece of cloth to sop it up. Or, you can be like me: throw your hands up in frustration and start over.

Step 9: Let the cloth cool. Logically, other DIYers recommend using clothing pins to hang them up, but I like to flip them around like pizza dough. It's fun and they cool fast.

Note: when covering dishes or bowls, the wrap isn't going to automatically stick to the sides the way plastic wrap does. You'll need to get it a bit warm and pliable first. I recommend sticking it in the microwave for 10-15 seconds.

To clean your wrap, just use dishwashing detergent and cold water. Get it nice and sudsy, and then rinse.

If you find that your wraps are looking a little worse for the wear, stick them back in a warm oven so that the wax can re-melt and redistribute.

If you try this, let me know how it goes! Happy budget-friendly treehugger holidays!
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Tentative Goals for 2018

As we hurtle into December, I find myself in that familiar end-of-year reflection headspace. I've been thinking a lot about our 2017 financial accomplishments and what we hope to accomplish in 2018.

Truth to tell, we went into 2017 with zero financial goals. Not a single one. Nevertheless, we found ourselves making progress, especially after we finally took a good hard look at our >$76K in debt in April and made the decision to dig ourselves out. And all in all, we've made some major progress:
  • Both Fortysomething and I found stable jobs with benefits in a town notorious for few job opportunities (I credit this to a combination of persistence and blatant luck). I'm beyond grateful that this happened.
  • We created a budget, and we've been fairly devoted to sticking to it.
  • We paid off one of our credit cards as well as our car loan.
  • By the end of December, we'll have reduced our debt by more than $8000.

We're going into the new year with a few big, specific goals:
  • Pay off our credit cards by May 2018. This is way ahead of the payoff schedule we developed a couple of months ago, but between side hustles and a tax refund (fingers crossed), we should be able to make it happen. 
  • Become homeowners by the end of the summer. I know there are pros and cons to home ownership. We totally get that it's expensive and that 10 different things are bound to break within a month of us moving in. Nevertheless, we feel it's worth it for us, especially given that a) rents here are exorbitant, b) we don't plan on leaving this town, like, ever, and c) living in an apartment complex is driving me insane. I'll write a longer post about this in the next few months.
  • For me, I want to find a job that better aligns with my education, experience, and interests. Yeah, I know I said that I was going to let this one go, but as it turns out, I really need to find something else. Working on it!
  • Put at least $600 a month into savings (not including retirement savings - we'll be doing that, too). Debt payoff is a priority, but we also need to set some money aside for emergencies, travel, and various annual fees.
  • Reassess our student loan repayments. We want to get these paid off as soon as possible, but depending on mortgage + salary of new job that I am determined to get, we may need to adjust. Hopefully, we'll be able to devote a big, BIG chunk of money to student loans each month.
What about you? What are some of your financial goals for 2018? Pay off some debt? Build your savings? Max out your retirement fund? Get a side hustle or two? Do tell!

Disease Called Debt
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An Impromptu Getaway to the Desert

I'm popping in real quick with an update because I'm worried that if I don't get a blog post up tonight, it might not happen for another week. The past few days have been crazy, and the weekend's shaping up to be just as packed. But I wanted to share the deets on our recent spur-of-the-moment mini-trip.

First, let me get situated.


Late November had us spending more than usual. That's mostly due to the impromptu anniversary trip we took to Phoenix right after Thanksgiving. We woke up on Black Friday figuring that we'd lay low and laze around for the long weekend, but Fortysomething just *happened* to check Expedia and discovered some great deals in the desert. The Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch was offering 50% off their rooms for the weekend, so we snagged two nights at the special rate, threw clothing and swimsuits into a bag, hopped into the car, and got our mini-vacay on. 


(Sidenote: This isn't intended to be a hotel review, but I would absolutely recommend this resort. It's a little on the older side and the interior feels like a cross between a wine cellar and a WWII bunker, but it's well maintained and the pool is amazing. Plus, when we discovered that the people next door were prone to loud, ummmm, interactions, the front desk was able to move us to a quieter room immediately. Also, 50% off.)

While we were there, we hit up the ever-wondrous Trader Joe's for snacks and went out to eat at some pretty fantastic (and relatively affordable) dining spots, all of which we would recommend if you're in the Phoenix area: Scramble (a breakfast restaurant with vegan options), Pomo Pizzeria (wood-fired pizza, also with vegan options), and FreshMint (a casual Vietnamese restaurant with - you guessed it! - vegan options). I guess I should add Panera to that list, too, since The Kiddo is obsessed with it and insisted we have lunch there.

Other than hanging out at the pool, we met up with some relatives and tried to hike Camelback Mountain. I say "tried" because it turns out that there are two trails on Camelback, one that you could describe as Difficult But Doable and one that's Pretty Near Impossible. I accidentally took us to the latter. The hike came to an abrupt end when we found ourselves staring up what basically amounted to a cliff face with a handrail and the Kiddo refused to take another step. We turned around and went to Papago Park instead.

Phoenix in its smoggy winter glory
Papago Park

Phoenix isn't really my cup of tea for most of the year - it's too dang hot - but in the winter, I adore it. Sometimes you just need some sunshine.

Ah, you savvy personal finance people are asking, that's nice. But what was the cost?

The breakdown:

Hotel, including all taxes and fees (2 nights): $258.58

Food, including all restaurant meals and grocery trips: $204.56

Total cost: $463.14

Inexpensive? No, but Fortysomething and I didn't buy each other any presents, and the time away together on our anniversary was priceless. We covered our expenses with money from our travel fund. Granted, we weren't planning on doing that, but I feel absolutely comfortable with our decision to do so. 

After all, money is meant to be used... on the things you really value and care about. And for us, this trip fit that bill.

Disease Called Debt
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Winning, November 2017 Edition

I almost - but not quite! - slacked off on posting the November edition of WINNING, a series in which I identify our accomplishments in an effort to stay positive and motivated throughout our debt repayment journey


As hard as this season has been with respect to my job and the never-ending slog of digging out of our financial hole, we've had several financial and personal wins lately:

(1) Per our new and improved repayment plan (I've dubbed it The Monster Repayment PlanTM), we dedicated $2200 to debt repayment this month!:
  • $1330 to Credit Card #2
  • $275 to Credit Card #3
  • $201 to Student Loan #1
  • $393 to Student Loan #2
If this plan is sustainable (and I think it is), we'll pay off both credit cards by the end of next August - possibly earlier, if we get a tax refund and work bonuses.


(2) Thanks to Win #1, we now have a total debt load of less than $70K (to be precise, it stands at $69,771). That's still a lot of debt, but considering that we started off at close to $78K last April, we've made some major progress. It feels amazing to hit this benchmark.


(3) Despite the hefty repayment sums dictated by The Monster Repayment PlanTM, we'll still be able to put $600 into savings this month. That brings our total emergency/sinking fund to almost $3000.


(4) I finally made a decision about our 2018 health insurance. The choice was between my current traditional PPO plan and a lower-premium high deductible health plan plus health savings account. After asking for tons of advice (thanks, blogosphere!) and crunching the numbers, I settled on the latter. We'll spend $100 less per month on premiums, while my employer will funnel an additional $110 per month into the HSA. Honestly, I couldn't pass up the free money. Plus, the maximum out-of-pocket is $4000; while that's no small sum, we feel it's something we can cover if we need to.


(5) Fortysomething received two major accolades at work: He won a teaching grant for his classroom, and he earned a teaching award from the students and administration. Although he's been in his current position for only four months, it's clear he's absolutely thriving and sees this gig as a long-term commitment (which promotes long-term job stability, which in turn promotes longer-term financial stability).


Progress! It's happening! It's really happening!

What about you? What are some of your recent financial accomplishments? (I want to know!)

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Update: Work and Life Epiphanies

Recently, I've written extensively about work anxiety, insomnia, and the sustainability (or... non-sustainability?) of my people-oriented, customer-facing job. I've talked about how my doctor recommended that I actually quit my current gig, even if I don't have something else lined up with which to replace it. I've seriously considered the possibility of going it alone, taking on contract work, turning to the marketplace for my health insurance, and crossing my fingers that it will all work out.

If I sounded like I was agonizing over what to do, I was. I am. Trying to analyze difficult circumstances and make big life decisions is an uphill battle, especially when you're depressed, sleep-deprived, and not thinking all that rationally.

This past week has been better. Work has slowed down. My sleep has improved (it's still not great, but at least I'm not staying up for multiple nights in a row). PLUS, I've had not one but TWO epiphanies that helped me view my job conundrum in a whole new light:

Epiphany #1: Maybe the issue is not so much the requirements of my current job as the fact that I'm still grieving the loss of my previous career. I won't go into the whole story here, but I used to be a college professor at a small, idyllic liberal arts school. After my first year of instructing a handful of introductory science courses, I started to suspect that teaching wasn't my calling. I was decent at it - my evaluations were good, and I connected with my students - but I hated the grading, I hated the bureaucracy, I HATED faculty meetings, and I hated the whole tenure process. I stuck it out for two more terms just to make sure it wasn't simply first year doldrums. I resigned after the second year feeling 100 percent certain that I was making the right decision. Fast forward a few months: I applied for my current job on a whim and landed it primarily because I had some solid transferable skills (including the ability to pass as a people person).

While I don't miss teaching (like, at all), I do miss science and the science community. Being a professor was my entry card into that world. I miss it the way you might miss an old flame whom you loved deeply, but who just wasn't right for you. Do I regret the breakup? No, but that doesn't make the grief any easier.

I've been in this current job for almost 10 months, and over that time, I've scoured the job ads almost every day, searching for a science gig in my town for which I'm qualified. Nothing's panned out, but I keep hunting. And hunting. And hunting.

The problem with this never-ending job search is that I always feel like I have one foot out the door at my current place of employment. This week, I realized that a sizable chunk of my stress comes from being in that position - in, but not all in; always searching for something different instead of investing in what I already have; constantly pining for the past. Busy times are always stressful, but I'm pretty sure they're even more stressful if your mind isn't totally in the game.

So I've made a decision: I'm going to apply for one more job that popped up in my search last week, and then that's it. For the next few months, I'm just going to focus on my current work. I'm going to invest myself in this job. That doesn't mean I'll do this forever, but I desperately need a break from the what-ifs. If other opportunities present themselves in the meantime, I'll consider them... but I'm taking a break from actively seeking them out.

Epiphany #2: My primary goal right now isn't to find my dream job. It's to get out of debt. Clearly the two aren't mutually exclusive; I may eventually land said dream job AND get out of debt. But if we're just talking goals and which one I want to focus on right now, it's doing what I can to help my family establish a stronger financial foundation so that we have more freedom in the future (and you know what? That is a perfectly legitimate, laudable goal.)

So no, I will not be quitting my current job, which offers excellent benefits, requires very little thought outside of the nine to five, allows me to work with people I genuinely adore, and generally provides exactly the kind of stability we need in order to reach our zero debt goals. Instead, I'll be making more of an effort to give what I can to the job and seeking out in-house opportunities to utilize my strengths and experience.

That said, I will be actively working to reduce my work stress, especially during this current slow period. I'll be finding a good therapist between now and January. That way, when things pick up again, I'll have better coping skills and someone I can turn to when I just need to vent. 

I've made my decision, and just by doing that, I feel so much better.

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October Budget Review: Grumbly Progress

When I was 24 years old, I hiked through the Alps. We started in Germany and wended our way down to Italy via Austria. I had little previous hiking experience, so the first few days consisted of blistery foot pain, utter exhaustion, frequent spills (I'm not the most coordinated person you'll ever meet), and constant hunger. But I didn't really care, because every time I looked up, I caught another glorious view of the mountains. Far off in the distance was our destination, and I knew we were going to get there one day. In those first few hard days, those views sustained me.

Fast forward three weeks: I'd transformed into a seasoned and efficient hiker. I could walk all day long with just a brief rest at lunch. My calloused feet were inured to my stiff boots and the rocky ground. I'd figured out how to pace myself, and I wasn't tripping as much. 

You'd think, then, that the trip became easier with time - but it really didn't. The further we traveled and the stronger I became physically, the more mentally worn down I felt. By the time we arrived at the Italian border, I was sick of eating rehydrated food, sick of going to bed in my stinky sleeping bag, sick of the same four trail ditties that my trail buddies would sing on repeat, and generally sick of walking. The views were nice, sure - but I just wanted to get to my destination and take a shower, thank you very much. 

Had someone come by and offered to drive me the rest of the way, I probably would have said yes.

Despite the fact that so many aspects of the hike became easier with time, there seemed to be an inverse correlation between time on the trail and mental stamina.

I've noticed a similar phenomenon with our debt repayment. At first we were clueless and clunky with our budget. We regularly over-spent. On several occasions, we forgot to account for all of our bills and accrued late fees. We made plenty of mistakes -  but we kept going because we felt thrilled at the thought of creating a better financial situation for ourselves.

Fast forward six months. We don't make those rookie mistakes anymore, and the budget is dialed in. Take October 2017, for example:

Sure, we went a bit over in the "Other" category (I blame my birthday), but we still came in $20 under budget. For the most part, we spent what we planned to spend. We even put $500 into savings... and we paid off the car. This month, we're ramping up our debt allocation to $2200 so that we can put our repayment into overdrive.

We're doing almost as well as we possibly could be doing, and yet the main thing I feel about this debt repayment process right now - and here's where I keep it real (and whiny!) - is that I'm sick of it. I'm sick of being in debt, and I'm sick of digging out of it. I'm sick of seeing thousands of dollars go to our creditors each month instead of into our own savings and investment accounts. 

That's how I would characterize our journey in October of 2017: We're doing it, and we're doing it well, but we're not particularly happy about it. This journey is long, and exhausting, and frustrating. I mean, we're totally getting there... It's just not always fun. But we're moving forward, one grumbly step at a time.

Now that I've got that out of my system...

How did your October go?

P.S. That Alpine backpacking trip? It was one of the most worthwhile experiences of my life. I look back and appreciate all of it - the good and the bad, the inspiring and the painful. And that's how I'm hoping to see this debt repayment journey when I reflect on it in a few years.

Disease Called Debt

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Sometimes, You Can't Just Walk Out.

I've been dealing with some intense work-related anxiety (see previous work issues post here, where I explain what bothers me about my job despite my awesome coworkers, considerate boss, and amazing benefits). The anxiety has, in turn, sparked a debilitating wave of insomnia the likes of which I've never experienced before. I've gone entire nights without sleeping; earlier this week, I went almost two nights without sleeping and was nearly delusional by the time I finally conked out at 4 AM. Zzzquil has become largely ineffective because I've used it so often that I've developed a tolerance. I've blazed through all of my sick days and even dipped into my vacation time. I've lost five pounds without trying.

Fearing that I'd get fired or at least hauled in by HR for a friendly chat, and utterly tired of being tired, I called my doctor and begged for a same-day appointment to discuss my options. She did the usual physical tests, all of which were normal, and then dove into an extensive mental health questionnaire. I broke down when she asked how often I feel overwhelmed (answer: Every. Single. Day.)

She sat down and looked me in the eye.

"Listen to me," she said. "I can give you a prescription for a sleeping pill. We can talk about some cognitive behavioral therapy. But my honest opinion is that this job is becoming toxic for you. You need a new job. Ditch what you're doing, because it isn't good for you."

Then she brought in an in-house therapist to chat with me. The therapist had the same opinion: "Life is too short to be unhappy at work. Sometimes you just have to walk away. Nothing is worth more than your health."

I get what they're saying. Health is wealth: not going to argue with that. And there have been days when the easiest thing in the world would have been to get up from my desk, pick up my coat, and walk out for good. I'm 100 percent certain that I would have felt immediate relief. Maybe I'd even be able to sleep.

But here's the thing: for the sake of my family and our finances, I can't just walk out; I think it's irresponsible/naive/flippant of anyone to suggest I should do so. Sure, I might feel better for a day or three, but then reality would set in. How would we pay our bills? How would we deal with our debt? Would we have to purchase health insurance via the Marketplace? (I'm all for healthcare that includes those of us with pre-existing conditions, but my premiums would be three times what they are now.) What's worse: financial stress or job stress? 

If we lived in a big city with a wealth of employment options, I might be able to get away with giving notice before having something else lined up. But here, jobs are scarce; I competed with at least 50 other applicants for my current gig. It's not as simple as just sending out a couple of resumes. Finding another job will take months. 

Right now, I'm willing to look for other work (and have been doing so for weeks), but I'm unwilling to walk away from financial stability. I just need to find a way to handle the stress of my job. I'm already doing things like getting outside at lunchtime, enjoying my interactions with coworkers, meditating for a few minutes a day, taking deep breaths in between clients, and appreciating that I have a job, but there must be something else I can do to improve my situation in the short term. 

Or at least, improve it enough so that I can sleep. (The sleeping pill my doctor prescribed is hit or miss: some nights it knocks me out within minutes; other nights, it almost seems to have the opposite effect, making me feel wide awake instead of drowsy. Maybe there's a better option out there.)

My biggest fear right now is that this won't improve, I'll continue having to miss work, and I'll be forced to quit because I literally can't do my job. 

I don't know what the answer is, exactly, so I guess we'll wait and see. But for now, I'm forging ahead, plans (and salary) intact. 

If you've been there, done this, I would love to know how you handled it. I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place right now, and although I know I'll figure it out eventually, it's definitely a trying time.

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Help Me Out Here: Picking A Health Insurance Plan

Fun fact: when I was pregnant with The Kiddo - this was in the pre-Obamacare days when pregnancy was considered a pre-existing condition-slash-disease - I was completely uninsured. Yup. We paid for nine months of prenatal care, ambulance transport, a hospital stay, a blessed epidural, and a C-section completely out of pocket.

I do not recommend this approach. 

There's a longer story here, one I will share in the future, but the point I want to make in this post is that I don't take health insurance for granted. Ever. I have great coverage now, and I'm thankful for it every single day. Everyone deserves this kind of security in their lives. (Surely we can make this happen, America.)

Given our past health insurance nightmare and our current debt reduction mission, I am super uptight when it comes to picking health insurance. Open enrollment rolls around and I obsess. This time, I've narrowed it down to two possibilities. Although I've spent the last week weighing the pros and cons of both, I can't decide:

(Note: Fortysomething has complete coverage through his work, so my insurance covers myself and The Kiddo.)

Option 1: Preferred PPO

Monthly premium: $150
Family deductible: $500
Maximum out-of-pocket: $2000
Preventative care: $0
Mental health: $0 after deductible met
Office visit co-pay: $35 after deductible met

Pros: The premium is totally reasonable (see "but" below), max OOP is low, deductible is decent, mental health costs nada (which is amazing)

Cons: BUT my paycheck is laughable to begin with. I really don't make that much, so the $150/month premium matters. The co-pays matter. The Kiddo and I are - knock on wood - pretty healthy. We don't have any ongoing prescriptions, and the amount we spend per year on medical expenses is usually far less than the $1800 we'd spend on the premium. 

Option 2: High Deductible Health Plan + HSA

Monthly premium: $52
Family deductible: $2700
Maximum out-of-pocket: $4000
Preventative care: $0
Mental health: 10% after deductible met
Office visits: 10% after deductible met

Yearly employer contribution: $1400
My (self-imposed) minimum contribution per year: $1300
Max contribution allowed: $6,900

Pros: My employer would be giving me extra money (the thought of this makes me so happy); money put into HSA is pre-tax; HSA rolls over from year to year. I could use my HSA when I go to the doctor.

Cons: What if we end up in the ER in, like, January? We won't have much money in the HSA yet, and we'd have to dig into regular savings. (I could also set up an FSA when I enroll in benefits.)

Both plans are great... I'm just being all nitpicky and Type A about this. 

What do you think? What would you choose? Or... is this kind of a wash, with both options being equally good?
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Six Month Progress Report and An Ambitious New Plan

As I mentioned in a recent post, we've been on our debt repayment journey for the past six months. It was back in April of 2017 that we assessed our debtload, made a budget, and started allocating $1600 a month towards repayment of our $76K+ in credit card, car loan, and student loan debt.

This was what our debt looked like by June, the month I started tracking every single penny (keep in mind that our actual starting amount in April was even higher... but I don't know what it was because I wasn't documenting the total at that point):

Talk about some big, bad numbers.

Six months after setting off on this journey, I can tell you that we've made some major progress, and we're more motivated than ever. Some highlights:

(1) We paid off Credit Card #1. We did this at the end of July, once we realized that we had enough money in savings to make it happen. Although the original balance of $1553 was nowhere near as high as the other CC balances, paying it off felt like a big accomplishment, and it motivated us. Plus, it freed up another $150 for CC#2.

(2) We ditched our car loan! We paid it off last week as my 39th birthday present. With a balance of only $600, I just wanted to say goodbye to this monthly bill. So we shuffled some money from savings to checking, called the bank, and made it happen. That's another $300 we can allocate to CC#2.

(3) We saved some money! Right now, we have an emergency fund of $1000 and a holiday/sinking fund of about $1200. We're planning to continue contributing ~$600 a month to savings. Yes, paying off debt is the priority, but we also want to build a more secure financial safety net. Our savings account is one component of that endeavor.

(4) We increased our incomes by taking on worthwhile side hustles. I'm kind of obsessed with the side hustle concept right now because it's really helped us with respect to saving and debt repayment. We were able to pay off CC#1 and the car earlier than planned in large part because we had those extra earnings available.

(5) In total, between June and now, we've dispatched more than $5900 in debt! If we count the debt we repaid in April and May, that total is >$7000 (To be honest, I'm too lazy to go back and calculate the precise number). Moreover, if we continue with our current rate of debt repayment ($1600/month), we will be completely out of debt by March of 2022:

(5) WE'VE DECIDED TO PUT OUR DEBT REPAYMENT INTO OVERDRIVE! After crunching the numbers again, I realized that if we increase our monthly debt repayment budget from $1600 to $2200 - something made possible by our side hustle income - we could be debt free BY NOVEMBER OF 2020. 

According to the $2200 plan, the payoff schedule looks more like this:

And this isn't including extra cash that could come our way in the form of raises, bonuses, or tax refunds, much of which would go right to debt repayment and further expedite the process.

I'm... astounded. I thought this would be a five-year process.

Of course, this new, ambitious plan depends on us maintaining our side hustles (Fortysomething and I both want to, but the gigs aren't guaranteed over the long term), and who knows what unexpected expenses could derail us, but I think it's worth a shot. Worst case scenario: we'll have to back off a bit if we have some tight months.

Bottom line: I'm thrilled with where we're at after half a year of highly imperfect yet dedicated debt repayment. Now we just have to keep going!

Disease Called Debt
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10 Things We've Learned About Debt Repayment

Although I started writing this blog back in June, we officially commenced our debt repayment journey six months ago, in April 2017. Our financial overhaul was inspired by a sudden, deep desire to offload our $76K in debt (consisting of credit cards, student loans, and a small car payment) so that we didn't have to go through our entire lives with that weight on our shoulders.

Something needed to change. We made a plan, constructed a budget for the first time ever, and dove in. Somewhat miraculously, we've stuck with the process for half a year. We've made plenty of mistakes along the way, but we've also made significant progress, something we'll share in more detail at the end of the month.

Let's face it: debt repayment is a long journey.
Maybe you're at that point, too. Maybe you're ready to take action and ditch the debt. If so, this post is for you. We can hardly call ourselves financial experts, but we do feel like we've learned some lessons that might be relevant to others who are on a similar path or who want to start their own debt-destroying journey:

(1) A long-term debt repayment plan composed of short-term benchmarks is essential. To develop our plan, we took a brutally honest inventory of all of our debt, including credit cards, student loans, and car loans; decided on a general repayment approach (we chose a hybrid of the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods); figured out how much money we could allocate to debt repayment each month (for us, that's $1600); and calculated how long the process would take via the What's the Cost debt repayment calculator

We also identified short-term benchmarks. These include credit card payoffs, payoff of our car loan, and establishment of a basic $1000 emergency fund.

Both the long-term plan and short-term goals are important. Obviously, the long-term plan is designed to get us to our overall goal, but given that it's going to take upwards of five years to achieve full debt repayment, we need the short-term benchmarks to stay motivated.

The Very Expensive Feline does not care about goals. Except nap goals.
(2) Budgeting is key. It's key for us, anyway. It helps us plan out our expenses and avoid accidental overdraft of our bank account (something we used to do on a fairly regular basis). It took us a while to configure a workable budget - the first two months or so were admittedly a bit of a mess -  but nowadays, we know what our monthly bills entail and when they're due, and we're taken by surprise far less often.

(3) That said, a budget is also a constantly-evolving entity. When I made our first budget back in April, I was under the impression that it should be the same from month to month, which led to frustration early on. Then I realized that a successful budget is a flexible budget, one that we can adjust depending on season-specific needs and one-time expenses. For instance, back in June when we had our fans running almost constantly in our hot little apartment, I budgeted for a higher energy bill. In October, I budgeted for the purchase of winter gear.

(4) Debt repayment requires difficult, sometimes painful decisions. As it turns out, when your salary is limited and you have debt repayment goals, you can't have everything you want. For instance, Fortysomething would love a new iPhone to replace the cheap flip phone he bought when his old phone died, but it's just not in the budget right now. (He's a total tech geek, so the whole flip phone thing is quite un-fun for him. I don't blame him a bit for feeling that way.) Vacation to a distant locale next summer? Probably not. New work clothes to replace my worn and fading work shirts? It can wait until the new year. Rental car when we visit relatives over Christmas? Nope, we'll just have to ask my dad if we can occasionally borrow his minivan. Fewer dinners out? Just the way it is now.

We're not suffering from real scarcity, so I can't complain much. But when you're used to getting what you want when you want it, putting the brakes on immediate gratification can be challenging. It can be tough to say no even when you know it's the right thing to do.

Exotic vacation? Nope. Just a trip to the local lake.
(5) Free activities are more abundant than they might seem. We were used to paying for entertainment - movies, festivals, concerts, etc. - so we thought relying on more free activities would be difficult. As it turns out, it really isn't. We've ditched anything with an entrance fee and have spent more time hiking and running outside, seeking out free movies and fairs, and hanging out with friends. The local paper offers a running list of no-charge activities, so we keep an eye on that and attend the events that look most appealing to us. 

Library books: always free.
(6) A side hustle can be a game changer. I've written extensively about our side hustles, gigs that brings in a few hundred extra dollars each month. Our regular income doesn't leave much room for savings - so instead, we use our side hustle earnings to beef up our savings account (once we reach our savings goal, the extra cash will go to debt repayment). It's a lot of extra work, and it's totally decimated my beloved evening Netflix veg fests, but I regret none of it. Aside from generating extra income, it gets my mind off of my regular job, gives me a chance to do something I love, and makes me feel more job secure. I highly recommend a side hustle if you're paying off debt.

(7) Even if your ultimate goal is debt repayment, you still need savings. We're determined to pay off our debt as soon as possible, so it's tempting to take any and all extra money and throw it at our credit cards. However, we realized early on that we also need a financial buffer in the event that an unexpected expense lands in our laps. We started by building up $1000 in emergency savings, then decided to add on a holiday/sinking fund. This way, if we do find ourselves saddled with an unforeseen expense, the monthly budget won't get derailed or sink us further into debt. We'll just cover it with savings.

Big recent win for us: we used savings to pay in full for new tires.
(8) For maximum effectiveness, everyone in the household needs to get on the same financial page. We've found that unless we're all working towards the same goal, it's easy to get derailed. So we talk a lot about debt repayment and how it will benefit us in the long run in an effort to constantly motivate ourselves and each other. Everyone (even The Kiddo, though to a less specific degree) is aware of the budget and where we're at each month with respect to earnings and savings. Both Fortysomething and I are devoted to this debt repayment process and hold each other in check when it comes to planning and spending. Again, we don't always do it perfectly, but we're making progress.

Disclaimer: the VEP does not care about being on the same financial page.
She's kind of a rebel like that.
(9) Comparing yourself to others can be a debilitating mistake. I say this, and yet I have to admit that it's something I struggle with on a regular basis. It's all too easy to look around and think that everyone else is in a better financial situation than we are: they have their own houses, they take more interesting trips, they have more flexibility in terms of how they use their time... Every time I fall into this rabbit hole of comparison, however, I realize that it's completely unhelpful and enervating (and, because appearances can be deceiving, it may also be utterly inaccurate). So instead of playing the comparison game, I try to focus on everything our family has in terms of resources and opportunities. 

(10) You have to celebrate your wins. I try to do this each month in our "Winning" posts (recent examples here, here, and here). Celebrating our accomplishments - however small they might seem - helps us stay motivated and positive. They also counteract that tendency I have to compare myself to others. Debt repayment is a long road, so it's essential to acknowledge every benchmark and every example of habit change.

Onward to the next six months! I'm excited to see how much progress we make and what we learn in the process.

Disease Called Debt
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Keeping It Real: Job Struggle

Dearest Blogosphere:

I am going to be very honest with you, despite the fact that this may come across as a load of privileged whiny whining.

I am struggling with my job.

Really struggling.

Like, I cried before work this morning. And two mornings ago. I also kind of cried in my cubicle around 10 AM today, but I mopped myself up before anyone saw me.

I feel so anxious that I can't sleep without taking a sleeping pill. I've never had to do that before.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with my work environment. My coworkers are categorically wonderful. My boss is understanding. I have a standing desk, a double monitor, an ergonomic chair, an office plant, and access to a decent coffee maker, all of which make my work life pretty comfortable. Nobody gives me a hard time when I take a sick day. Although the salary isn't great, the benefits are outstanding. People don't walk away from benefits like these. They just don't.

So this is not a complaint about my employer or the people I work with.

The problem is me. My job is essentially a customer service job in that the primary job function is to assist customers - via email, phone, and in person. At least half of my day is spent in back-to-back meetings with people. While my gregarious, extroverted coworkers thrive in this environment, my introverted self wilts within the first hour. I literally lose my words. I struggle to talk, or sometimes even breathe. Cue panic attacks. (Have I ever mentioned my mental health issues? Yeah... I'll get to that sometime.)

Also? As it turns out, cubicles make me feel claustrophobic.

I keep landing jobs like this because I genuinely do like people. I genuinely care about their well being. But... I've come to realize (it's only taken, like, 15 years) that I mostly like and care about people from a distance. I need my space. I don't want to be in a job that requires constant in-person human interaction. Or really any face-to-face communication. Can't we all just do our thing and check in via email? Maybe Skype in a pinch?

In this job, I am like a water buffalo trying to pass as a giraffe. I feel like I am the wrong person for this job, and it's exhausting. 

What keeps me going is a) the health insurance and b) our debt repayment plan, which relies heavily on my paycheck. I want this debt gone, and if this is what it will take, I'll do it. I'm trying to keep my eye on my "why".

Again, I don't mean to whine, but if only for my own records of this whole financial overhaul, I want to keep it real. Doing things I don't like is, I suppose, part of this whole debt repayment thing.

So tell me: have you ever struggled with a job? How did you handle it - especially if you're a fellow introvert? (Also, please be kind, because putting this out there isn't easy.)
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Winning, October Edition

I almost wrote a post entitled Debt Sucks And I Want To Kick It In The Groin* - that's the headspace I've been in over the last few weeks - but then I decided to turn it around and focus on the positive. There IS some good stuff happening in the 76K Project financial world, and I want to take a few minutes to acknowledge it.

(1) We used allocated savings to pay for new tires. Total cost: around $800. We'd squirreled away this money several months ago, knowing that the tires on our little sedan were worn down and would need to be replaced before the winter. This is a massive departure from our former M.O. in situations like this: we used to toss every big, unbudgeted expense onto the credit card and then look away. Far, farrrrr away.

New tires = less stress when traveling to our favorite places.
What I like best about how this went down is that although the tires were pricy, we didn't have to fret about the bill. There was no stress involved because we were, for once, prepared. All we did was transfer the money from savings to checking (actually, we *did* put it on our credit card so that we could get the points, but then we immediately paid it off). 

Speaking from maaaaaany past experiences of this nature, trying to pay for something expensive... that you absolutely do need... when you absolutely don't have the money for it... is frustrating, exhausting, and demoralizing. To be able to avoid that emotional turmoil this time around is an amazing feeling and a huge win for us.

Bye, old tires!
(2) We still have money IN SAVINGS! Thanks to our overestimation of the cost of the tires and our continued side hustle revenue stream, we'll still be well on our way to meeting our Emergency/Holiday Travel/Sinking Fund goal, now set at a nice round $3000. 

On the topic of the savings account: due to some possible changes in the new year, we've decided to hold steady on debt repayment (for which we allocate $1600 a month and will continue to do so) and build up our savings account to several month's worth of expenses. Paying off the debt is critical, but so is having a financial cushion when life takes you in a new direction. More on that later, if and when the time is right to share. /vagueblogging

(3) Something I realized this morning: six months into our family finance overhaul, we're really committed to debt repayment and gaining more financial security. Evidence of this commitment:
  • Since April, we've created a detailed budget each month and tallied every single expense. 
  • We've cut way back on impulse spending. Gone are the days of last-minute Target purchases, impromptu runs to Starbucks, and every-other-day restaurant meals.
  • We have an emergency fund, holiday fund, and sinking fund now, and bit by bit, they're growing.
  • We're taking the long view when making decisions. There are things we would like to be doing RIGHT NOW, but we recognize that waiting and saving will make those things more doable and less stressful down the road. 

*I still want to kick debt in the groin, so maybe that's a topic for a future post.

Disease Called Debt
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