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

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The Pros and Cons of Side Hustling

As most of you are already aware (thanks to my not-so-subtle kvetching), my current work life consists of both my full-time job and a side hustle, an online teaching gig that I tackle in whatever open pockets of time I can find in the evenings and over the weekend. I decided to take on this extra work for two reasons. One, we wanted to build up an emergency fund and sinking fund, something that would take forever and a day to accomplish if we were relying entirely on our salaries; and two, we wanted to speed up our debt elimination process (we’ve currently mapped it out over a five-year timespan, but we want to shorten that as much as possible). 

Both Fortysomething and I found side gigs we can live with and have been investing our time in them for a little over a month.

Her side hustle is napping.
Many folks in the personal finance/debt elimination circles see side hustling as an efficient way to make up lost financial ground. Generally, I agree. But I also think it’s not a strategy that will work for everyone: it’s such a tradeoff between time and money. So one of my main questions when I decided to give side hustling a chance was, Will it be worth it for me?

TL;DR: Generally, yes, but the SH life comes with both pros and cons.

First, the pros:

Not surprisingly, it brings in some extra cashola. Our gigs generate an extra $1200 or so a month, a sum that currently goes straight into the emergency/sinking fund (though we may end up using some of it to increase our grocery budget because both Fortysomething and The Kiddo are bottomless pits when it comes to food). Our budget is pretty tight, and the amount we can allocate for savings via our steady income stream is limited. Thus, side hustle savings is a major boon for us.

It offers a safety net through job diversification. I don’t know how many of you are as paranoid as I am, but here’s an admission: I’m always worried about losing my job. I’ve had this fear from the very first day that I commenced my very first job as an administrative assistant. My boss was a family friend and the likelihood of me getting canned was, despite my obvious inexperience, pretty much zero, but such rationalization is no match for my brain, which prefers to wallow in worst case scenarios. In my mind, no matter how secure my position might seem, there’s always a chance that it could slip through my fingers tomorrow. Having a side hustle makes me feel like I have a safety net in the event that my employer decides to downsize or reorganize. Damn, would that be a problem, but at least I’d have some stopgap measures in place to staunch depletion of savings.

It helps me avoid stressing about my day job. I have a tendency to come home and fret about any lingering problems or negative experiences I might have had at the office. I’ve been known to spend entire evenings obsessing about the day, which of course is completely pointless and unproductive. (Okay, so in rereading this, I sound pretty neurotic. Which may be true.) With a side hustle, though, I don’t have time for endless rumination. I’m forced to shift gears. The upshot is that I'm more refreshed and mentally ready for the day when I head to my office each morning.

It presents an opportunity to dabble in something I enjoy. A side hustle should be fun – or at least mildly pleasant. I’m enthusiastic about teaching because it gives me an opportunity to immerse myself in science, something I don’t get to think about in my regular line of work. Geeking out about topics like star clusters, genetic engineering, and earthquake prediction with a bunch of enthusiastic undergrads? I can happily live with that. 

To be honest, I feel pretty passionate about what I’m doing in this side hustle, and that in itself makes me want to continue. 

And now the cons:

Also not surprisingly, it eats up a lot of time. I spend at least 12-15 hours per week on the side hustle. The nature of my work dictates that I’m in my virtual classroom every single day to answer questions, participate in discussion forums, and grade. By the time I’ve walked home from work, made dinner, and finished my online class checklist, I am usually way past ready for bed. My free time has definitely dwindled. Fortysomething devotes anywhere from half to one full day of his weekend for his work, which means less rest for his weary teacher brain and less time for us to go explore the world as a family.

The VEF loves our side gigs because it means we spend 
more time at home, paying attention to her.
Occasionally, it can be frustrating. My interactions with my students are overwhelmingly positive. Every now and then, though, something will come up: a student disagrees with a grade, for example, or there’s a misinterpretation of instructions and an ensuing angry email. Or my supervisor decides to tack on an extra outreach initiative and wants it done an hour ago. It happens, and when it does, I sometimes question whether the job is worth it.

Side hustles often pay a pittance. I’ve dipped my toes into enough side hustles to know that many of them aren’t worth it (at least for me).  Case in point: last year I tried freelancing with Rev, a company that transcribes audio files and adds captions to videos. After my first week of dedicated caption-making (which involved listening to audio files over and over and over again), I raked in a grand total of… wait for it… $25. It didn’t take long before I quit*. The same goes for survey-focused outfits like Swagbucks and Inbox Dollars. Yeah, it’s kind of fun to take the occasional quiz or watch a short advertisement for a few points that eventually turn into a few dollars, but as a real revenue stream, they don’t seem worthwhile (If you’ve had a different experience, I would love to hear about it!) 

Basically, my time is valuable enough that I’m not going to dedicate myself to underpaid employment. One of the reasons I decided to pursue online teaching is that this particular school pays a wage that seems fair to me. Fortysomething's happy enough with his pay as well. I wish more side hustles offered higher wages and made the work more worthwhile. 

*(On the other hand, I did meet an experienced Rev captioner who earns upwards of $1500 a month. He’d figured out how to transcribe quickly, efficiently, and accurately, and he’d turned what started as a hobby into a full-time occupation. So I’m not saying Rev is a scam. I just didn’t want to put in months of nearly-free labor before getting to the point of being able to make some significant money.)

So will we stick with it? For now, absolutely yes. For me, at least, the pros far outweigh the cons. I have four more weeks to go in this class and have agreed to teach another section in November. The earnings from our side hustles will first fund our emergency and holiday accounts, and then we’ll use it to pay down debt. It’s hard to say no to that opportunity. Even with limited time and occasional frustrations, it’s a challenge we're happy to accept, at least for a season or two.

Disease Called Debt
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I'm just popping in for a couple of minutes to say that, well, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed.

Yes, I'm feeling overwhelmed with work + side hustle, but I knew that would be the case and was somewhat prepared to cope.

As the seasons change and as I approach my 39th birthday, I'm also overwhelmed by other questions and thoughts (I mean questions and thoughts aside from natural disasters, politics, and suffering, which occupy a big part of my headspace on a daily basis):
  • Was that career change (from academia) two years ago a good idea? I don't miss the stress of being a tenure-track professor, but I miss my area of specialty to the point that I feel almost homesick for it on a daily basis.
  • What are my career goals now? Do I even have a career goal, or is my goal simply to use my job as a way to live in a place I love, do the things I want to do, and get good health insurance? 
  • I keep thinking about starting my own business - it's something I've wanted to do for years - and I have some ideas... But at what point would I be ready to make that leap? Is it worth trying to map out a plan, or is that just a total pipe dream from a very privileged lady?
  • What are my goals - other than debt elimination! - and dreams? What are the things I love? How do I make those goals and dreams part of my life?
  • Man, life is short.
So I'll keep thinking on these things, and meanwhile, if you have anything to offer in the way of suggestions, advice, or your own experiences, please feel free to share! I'd love to get your thoughts.
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Winning, September 2017 Edition



It was an uncomfortably warm summer in our second-floor apartment with no air conditioning. The return of crisp temperatures is a massive relief. We're relishing the luxury of thick blankets at night, the tinge of bright colors spreading over the trees, and the coziness of autumn-themed baking and coffee making (remind me to share my favorite homemade pumpkin spice coffee recipe with you!)

After the usual end-of-summer, beginning-of-school upheaval, we've settled into a September routine. The Kiddo is busy with homework and video games. Fortysomething is constantly grading and making lesson plans. I'm juggling my day job and a side hustle. The Very Expensive Feline is sleeping all the time (except when she's supposed to, because nighttime is PARTAY TIME). On the weekends, we alternate between lounging around like slugs and getting outside to enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We're busy, but for the most part, we're enjoying it.

As I've done for the past few months, I want to motivate myself by identifying a few financial wins for September. Because let's be honest: even with our big long-term goals to inspire us, this debt repayment thing is a slog. Without this blog and massive amounts of encouragement from others and myself, I'm not sure I'd be willing to persist. Taking the time to identify what we're doing well is crucial to our long-term success. 

So here it is: three ways we're winning this September:

(1) We're on a roll with side hustling. I started my online teaching gig a couple of weeks ago. As I mentioned in a previous post, it's definitely time consuming. The grading itself requires several hours of committed time each week; most of that has to be done later in the evening after a full day at my regular job. But on the plus side, I get to teach science! The opportunity to share my passion makes this extra responsibility more palatable.

(2) As of this writing, we have almost $2K in savings. The pay for the side hustle is decent, and we're putting every single penny of it straight into savings. Seeing that balance grow is gratifying because it shows us that our hard work is paying off, literally. At this time last year, we had next to nothing put aside for a rainy day. Thus, this is a big deal for us. I estimate that our emergency/holiday/sinking account will be fully funded by December. We're already more than halfway there. It's going to feel amazing to travel at the holidays and buy new tires without stressing over finances.

(3) We're finding more ways to entertain ourselves on the cheap. Gone are the days of going out to eat every few nights. Instead, we're making peace with home-cooked meals, offset by the very occasional restaurant treat. We also make every effort to avoid purchasing full-priced tickets for movies, festivals, concerts, and the like. We're constantly on the lookout for free stuff to do - and much to my surprise, there's plenty on offer. One example: last Friday we attended a free movie night hosted by a local nonprofit. This Friday, we're going to a star party at a local park. We're spending more time at the library, too, and participating in picnics and gatherings. Our newfound frugal ways seem to be strengthening our ties to our community.

Bonus win, because it's my blog and I can break the rules of three:

(4) I've been hiking and running more! My leg is almost all healed up (damn, IT band injuries are persistent), allowing me to hit the trails more often and for longer periods of time. I'm up to 5-6 miles of running per session, and I recently conquered one of the steepest hikes in our area.

So that's us! Tell us about you: what are your wins this month so far? What are you proud of?

Disease Called Debt
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What Should We Do With Our "Extra" Money?

It's crazy to think about it, but at this time last year, we had nothing in our savings account.

Well. Full disclosure: we didn't have a savings account.

We just had our checking account, the balance of which perpetually oscillated between a couple thousand dollars and nearly zero, depending on which bill was due when, how many late fees we'd accidentally accrued, and what impulse buy seemed like a good idea in the moment.

In April, we finally started saving. Our initial goal was to set aside $1000 for emergencies, a stopgap that would allow us to diligently follow our debt repayment plan even if the famous Murphy were to take a poop on our lives. So we earmarked a hundred dollars or so per paycheck to the emergency fund. Much to our surprise, we met that goal within a few months.

Now our savings is growing. The pace of growth was slow at first, but it's picking up speed thanks to our new side hustles. Fortysomething and I have agreed that any money generated via side employment should go straight into the savings account. But once it's in there, what to do with it?

We have three options:

(1) Keep the cash in savings and watch it blossom. This option appeals to me. A lot. I love the motivation that comes from watching our balance balloon. Having substantial savings at hand would also make us feel more secure in the event that something more catastrophic - such as a job loss - were to transpire.

(2) Put that cash to work and throw it at debt. The idea here is to set aside all of our "extra" money and make a monster debt payment at the end of each month (in addition to the $1600 we already allocate for debt). The obvious benefit of this is that we'll be able to pay off our debt faster. 

(3) Establish sinking and holiday funds. We currently have neither, but with our car begging for new tires and my parents begging us to visit them at the holidays, we need both.

Option #2 was our original choice. We just want to get out of debt, and the more money we devote to that goal, the faster it will happen. Eventually, though, we realized that the sinking and holiday funds are more pressing priorities. We do need new tires - in reality, we're overdue - and we do want to spend time with family, something I don't want to put off even though it requires purchasing pricey plane tickets for holiday travel. Debt repayment is important. It is not, however, everything.

Now, BEHOLD: our Holiday Travel/Sinking Fund:
  • New tires: $1000 (could be less than this, but I'd rather over-estimate)
  • Annual fee for Thousand Trails (more about this in a future post): $500
  • Air travel for three: $900 (my parents will contribute to airline tickets)
  • Gifts for 8+ people: $200
  • Activities while on trip: $250
  • TOTAL: $2850
Once the savings account hits $3850 (emergency fund + sinking fund + holiday fund), we'll put any money in excess of that towards additional debt repayment.

I keep reminding myself that while we're paying off debt, we also have to live our lives.

We have to strive for happiness and stability.

We have to avoid blowing our threadbare tires on the highway.

This savings fund will help us achieve all of those things. After that? Watch out, debt. We're coming for you.

Disease Called Debt
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A Season of Side Hustling

Y'all, I am 1.5 weeks into side hustling, and let me tell you: I need more hours in the day. Not that I'm complaining (much). The side hustle - an online teaching gig - will allow us to purchase new tires for our car and fund a holiday trip to see family. Moreover, my students are engaged and motivated, and I get to talk about science, my favorite subject. It's a fruitful opportunity for a variety of reasons.

But seriously. More hours. I need them.

Here's what my day looks like right now and pretty much what it will look like through December:

6 AM: Wake up, stumble around the kitchen in a daze for 30 minutes while getting absolutely nothing accomplished (to put it mildly, I am not a morning person), slug coffee, finally pull it together, make child's lunch, drink more coffee, make own lunch, get dressed, panic about not being able to find keys/shoes/some other vital item that has mysteriously disappeared in the last 12 hours.


7 AM: Pour another serving of coffee into travel mug. Say goodbye to the family, walk 2.5 miles to work, usually reach railroad tracks just as train is starting to pass through, curse train for next six minutes, speedwalk the rest of the way to office so as to avoid being late.


7:50 AM: Arrive! Beeline for the bathroom and change into fresh, unsweaty shirt before coworkers catch a whiff of any unprofessional odors.

8-Noon: Work, work, work, work, work.


Noon: Lunch! Cram food into face while reading personal finance blogs.


12:30-4:30 PM: Work, work, work, work, work.


4:30 PM: Walk home (uphill the whole way, of course). Get sweaty again.

5:20 PM: Arrive home, say hello to fellow exhausted family members, go for a run, take a shower.

6:30 PM: Make dinner per meal plan devised earlier in week. Sit down to eat with The Kiddo and Fortysomething. Sometimes converse. Sometimes share in communal catatonic silence.

7:30 PM: Log into online classroom. Participate in discussion forum. Answer questions. Post announcements. Grade.


9 PM: Start watching a show with Fortysomething. Give it my full effort. Get halfway through the show; start falling asleep. Discover that Fortysomething has also crashed out.


10 PM: Usually drooling onto my pillow by this point.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I keep reminding myself that sometimes we need to sacrifice short-term comfort for long-term goals. Historically, I haven't been too adept at this: my need for an immediate panacea to momentary discomfort/boredom/inconvenience is one of the reasons we're in so much debt. I'm committed to changing my perspective. For the next few months, for this season, I'm going to do what it takes to honor the future.

But I'm sure all of you other side-hustlers can attest to the fact that it isn't easy.

Tell me about your side hustle. How do you fit it into your day? How do you manage your time?

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Our Approach To Plant-Based Food Budgeting and Meal Planning

Some of you savvy folks have caught on to the fact that we're a plant-based family, meaning that we mostly* avoid eating meat, fish, and dairy products. We adopted this lifestyle last year when we realized that reducing the consumption of animal products is one of the most effective ways in which individuals can help cut greenhouse gas emissions. Fortysomething and I both have backgrounds in Earth Science. We've seen the reams of data indicating that atmospheric temperatures are rising and that human activity is the main culprit. Eliminating most animal products from our diet felt right for us, especially when we also considered the health benefits.

Quinoa salad: Always a winner
That said, I want to offer the disclaimer that I'm not here to convince you to go vegan. There are other blogs for that. If you're interested in giving up meat, you'll try it; let me know if you want tips or recipes. If you're not interested, a lecture from an Internet stranger isn't going to do anything other than piss you off. Sure, I'll encourage you to consume less meat and point you to this short TED talk on the benefits of being a "weekday vegetarian," but... what can I say? Changing the way you eat works only if you're really sold on making that change.

Vegan deep-dish pizza
The real purpose of this post is to share our approach to budgeting and meal planning for our plant-based diet, per a reader request. On a weekly basis, here's what that looks like:

(1) Like most of you, we set a weekly food budget. For the last couple of months, we've allocated $150/week for groceries. I know most other personal finance bloggers spend less than that, but for us, $150 is what keeps everyone fed and happy throughout the week, including The Kiddo, who never really stops eating. Our food budget allows for some treats, too, like popsicles and wine. I'll argue that treats are important: they prevent impulsive visits to Starbucks or the local brewery.

(2) I make a weekly meal plan. That plan is fairly loose for breakfast and lunch. We typically have cereal, toast, and/or fruit in the morning, depending on what each person is in the mood to eat. For lunch, Fortysomething and I enjoy leftovers from the previous night's dinner, and the Kiddo has a sandwich, apple, and crackers.

Weekend breakfast, featuring the most important food group: COFFEE
Dinners vary from week to week based on what I'm interested in making, whether I've found any new recipes to try, and how much time I'm going to have when I get home from work. I aim to come up with meals that feature real food, are fast and easy to prepare, make good leftovers, and don't require overly expensive ingredients. Risotto that requires truffle oil? Not happening.

(3) I create a detailed grocery list featuring plenty of produce. As much as possible, I focus on fresh ingredients rather than packaged foods. Obviously, fresh foods are healthier than their processed, boxed, frozen counterparts, but generally, they're also less pricey. Frozen meals, frozen pizzas, and vegan treats tend to be painfully expensive. As tasty as they are, it's usually not worth it, especially given how minuscule these products tend to be. So while we do buy some processed foods, such as vegan meatless crumbles for our nachos and crackers from The Kiddo's lunchbox, we try to limit ourselves.

In short: to be a budget-minded plant-eater, SAY YES to fruits and vegetables, SAY NO to most processed goods.

I like to divide my list into Produce, Dry Goods, and Cold Foods because
it makes grocery store navigation a little more efficient.
*PAUSE: Before someone looks at the list above and calls us out, I want to be totally upfront and acknowledge that the three of us are at various points on the vegan--meatlover spectrum. We're not true vegans, which is why I prefer to refer to our diet as "plant-based". Fortysomething eats only vegetarian/vegan foods at home, but he'll eat animal products if we go out to eat (rare these days) or if he encounters free barbecue. The Kiddo always has a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch, and he can't say no to sushi, salmon, or macaroni and cheese. As for me, I'm almost all in... Almost because if you give me a cheesy pizza straight from a wood-fired oven, I will not think twice about consuming it.

Anyway, here are our typical grocery store staples each week:
  • Produce: Apples, bananas, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, spinach, onions, broccoli (the one vegetable The Kiddo is happy to eat), corn, potatoes
Apples are a favorite snack around here.
  • Dry goods: Cereal, bread, bagels (so many bagels), pasta, rice, beans, quinoa, pretzels, crackers for school, mac n' cheese, Bob's Red Mill Pizza Mix

  • Cold: Turkey and cheese for The Kiddo, popsicles, orange juice, almond milk, firm or extra firm tofu, soy crumbles, vegan "cheese"
(4) Before going to the grocery store, we check for online coupons. We usually save $15-20 this way. I'll admit that we don't do a lot of shopping around because... well... we don't want to. Is that un-frugal of us? Fortysomething and I hate getting into the car, driving to one store, dealing with people (INTROVERT ALERT), getting back into the car, shuttling to another store... We do occasionally purchase items online, though, if we know we can get a better deal.

(5) I review our receipts to see how much we spent, what cost the most, and how much we saved through in-store coupons. If something was pricier than expected, we avoid purchasing the same product the next time around.

And that's about it! I love the simplicity of the food we eat. I love that in our own small way, we're having a positive effect on the planet that provides for us. And I love that we can do it, and make delicious food, well within our budget. 

Seared tofu and kale-cabbage salad

Disease Called Debt
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