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

Step Into My Time Machine: Highlights Of My 30s

I turned 40 last month, and in the weeks leading up to the big day, I couldn't help but reflect on the previous decade. Overall, my 30s were a wild, fun ride, and although I have clearly made some career and financial mistakes, I regret very, very little about any of it.

Want to take a trip back in time with me? 

Age 30-32:

When I turned 30, we had just purchased our own home in a bedroom community outside a big city. Although I wasn't a fan of the neighborhood - too cookie cutter - I loved everything about our cozy little house. It was the first time I'd lived in a place that felt like home. We were also the proud, exhausted parents of a two year old who refused to sleep through the night (he didn't sleep through the night until he was five).

My little dude, back when his motto was,
"Sleep is for the weak!"
This was 2008 - Great Recession time. We were lucky. Other than the fact that the value of our house plummeted right after we bought it, we didn't feel the direct effects of the economic downturn because both Fortysomething and I were working as contractors in online higher education. Many people went back to school when they lost their jobs, and universities couldn't seem to hire instructors fast enough to keep up with the pace of registration. We were able to teach as many classes as we wanted to. Financially speaking, 2008 and 2009 were actually banner years for us. We made over $100,000 in 2009 from contract work and were able to pay off $30K in credit card debt that we'd amassed in the previous decade.

The upshot was that we were earning a good income, but we were chained to our computers all. the. time. I despised it. We'd just moved to town, so we didn't know many people, and we didn't know how to meet anyone because we were so busy working within the confines of our house. I often felt trapped and miserable. I wanted to throw my computer out the window and smash my desk to smithereens with a sledgehammer. 

Age 32-35:

Frustrated with my dead-end career, I researched graduate school opportunities at local universities and applied to a program in the physical sciences. I landed a full ride complete with health insurance, tuition, and a small teaching stipend. Initially, I was nervous about being one of the older students in the department, but it turned out to be an excellent fit. Every day was full of new information and new adventures and I just soaked it all in. 

Plus, I got to travel. I presented at conferences throughout the United States, conducted fieldwork in the southwest and South America, and even traveled to the Caribbean and Italy (twice!) I missed my family while I was abroad, but I'm not ashamed to say that I relished every moment of these experiences. (Sidenote: when I ask my son now how he felt about me being away for weeks at a time when he was little, his response is usually, "Huh? Where'd you go? CAN I GO?" so it's nice to know that I don't need to hang onto any guilt in that department.)

My favorite part of graduate school was the fieldwork and the labwork, but I was also a good teacher. I had creative ideas for the classroom, and students liked me. People kept telling me that I should teach. I kept trying to explain that I don't actually enjoy human interaction that much, but I kind of got pigeonholed. My advisors pigeonholed me and I pigeonholed myself. It is my one regret from my grad school experience.

Fieldwork in the desert = heaven on Earth
Also heaven: when you have to present at a conference in Florence, Italy. DARN.
Financially, these were not great years for us. I wasn't making much money. Fortysomething - who was also the primary parent during this time and didn't question it once because gender roles aren't his thing - busted his butt with contract work to make sure that the mortgage and bills got paid. I'll admit that I was almost completely checked out of the money side of things, especially when I was traveling. The credit card debt crept back up again.

Age 35-38:

Because my graduate program was committed to helping people obtain their degrees in a timely fashion, I defended my dissertation and earned my doctorate exactly four years after I started my PhD. I don't think I've ever been more proud of myself.

My family was also relieved that grad school was done.
The academic job market is a shitshow, but I somehow managed to find a tenure-track teaching position with my very first application. In retrospect, it's probably because everyone else took one look at that particular job ad and thought, "NO WAY IN HELL." The school was located a tiny, middle-of-nowhere Midwest town populated by lots of corn and a few people. Not really my cup of tea, location-wise, but it sounded like an adventure, and I'm always up for that. So we sold our house (at almost the exact same price for which we bought it), packed up the moving truck, and headed north for a glorious new life in the academic ivory tower.


We lived in a moldy house with a rent of $500 per month. My salary wasn't anything to write home about, but given the rock-bottom cost of living in the area and the fact that Fortysomething was still doing well with contract work, we didn't have to worry about money. We paid off some of our credit card debt and upped our student loan payments.

Exploring our new area
I quickly realized that the job itself was a dud, in no small part because my school announced budget cuts right as we were moving in. Disconcerting, to say the least. Halfway through the first semester, I almost had a nervous breakdown (for a variety of reasons - another story for another time). I forced myself to finish out the year and decided that I just needed to give the job a chance. The first year of academia is hard for everyone, I told myself. Give it another go. But the second year was also hell and involved another brush with severe mental illness, so in the spring of that year I announced to the dean that I would not be returning in the fall.

Fortysomething was still working as a contractor and I was feeling totally lost, so we did what seemed like the most logical thing at the time, which was to sell everything we owned, buy an RV, and start traveling around the country. For six months we lived as vagabonds, saw some amazing scenery and landmarks, and bonded as a family. We intended to travel indefinitely. Then we rolled into our current town and immediately fell in love. We meant to leave. We just... didn't.

This sign in Austin, TX summed up our philosophy.
Note: At some point I'll have to write a post about full-time RVing. It's actually a very affordable way to live and we truly enjoyed it. 15/10, would do again.

Age 38-40: 

New town! No job! Money got tight. I applied for a part-time hourly position at REI and landed the gig. Much to my surprise, I loved it. I loved not being confined to a desk, loved learning about hiking and climbing, loved talking about the outdoors with coworkers and customers, and loved the culture of the company. But it paid next to nothing, and this is an expensive town. So I started looking for other work.

I found a position at the local university and quickly realized that meeting with 16-20 students every day was not my idea of a good time. When will this introvert learn? I lasted about a year. 

Back to the classified ads. This time I found a position as an online course instructor. I applied, interviewed, hit it off with my boss, and thought I'd found my dream job... which explains where I am now. My boss left unexpectedly and since then I've struggled. It isn't lost on me that at 40, my job is similar to the job I had at 30, though my pay and benefits are much better. My feelings about said job are also similar. 

And so here I am!

I've actually been working on this post for the past few days and almost gave up on it twice. But then I started to relish the walk down memory lane and see it as an opportunity: an opportunity to reflect on what works for me and what doesn't. 

What I've learned from looking back and writing this post is that...
  • ...throwing myself into new situations doesn't faze me. 
  • ...my family is awesome (I already knew that).
  • ...I'm at my best when I'm having an adventure.
  • ...I need to stop trying to force myself into job situations that are clearly not working for me. 
  • ...it feels good to look back and see all the things I'm proud of.


  1. I feel like I got to know you a bit! My wife is finishing up her PhD but isn't a hundred percent sure she wants to even try for tenure track or even academia. I also started in teaching (middle school Language Arts) but realized immediately that it was not for me. It takes a specific type of person.

    One of these days we'll have to make that game night happen!

  2. I love this!!! I feel like I know you so much better now!! You have done some awesome stuff in the past decade! Loved reading about it. :)

  3. I needed this post! I threw myself into this year at Boise and it's not working out. I feel lost and kind of depressed quite frankly, and looking for work is never fun, but it CAN have good outcomes! As my friend once told me, and I will tell you, "you have a colorfully woven tapestry!"

  4. I enjoyed your story - very cool to get to know you a little bit. I would definitely love to read about your RV life adventures. Also - I am also in the field of online education, with absolutely zero desire to ever actually teach a course. Have you ever considered Instructional Design (my line of work) as a career path?

  5. Great story and an interesting read! I have struggled with your dilemma - which is that I am so vested in something that its difficult to start something else from scratch. I can imagine that with a PHD you are struggling with doing something unrelated. I bet your co-workers at REI were impressed though! Keep us posted!