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

Finances After 40 #4: FIREstarting After 40 (Latestarterfire's Story)

Our fourth installment of Finances After 40 comes to us from latestarterfire, a 47-year-old Australian blogger who writes about her journey to FIRE (financial independence/retire early) at latestarterfire.com. 

The path to FI is full of well-prepared, determined 20- and 30-somethings marching towards a life of financial freedom. But what if your early retirement epiphany happens a little later than that? Enter Latestarterfire, who brings a unique perspective, experience, and example to the personal finance community. I'm thrilled she's sharing her story with us. She's inspired me, and I know she'll inspire others, too.

Waking Up To An Epiphany

Hello, I am latestarterfire from Australia! Thank you very much for allowing me to share my story at The 76k Project.

I dreaded my 47th birthday - I don't know why, precisely. Just that I woke up one day, really stressed and anxious that I would be retiring with not 'enough'. At this stage, I did not know what my 'enough' was or when I could possibly retire.

I panicked merely at the thought of retirement being on my horizon. After all, retirement was for the oldies, not me. What would I do in retirement? What if I hadn't saved enough for retirement? How do I know how much I would need after I retired, to sustain me for the rest of my life?

"I want to add an 'older' voice to the mix - as someone who discovered FIRE later in life."

Coincidentally, ABC TV was advertising a new podcast about personal finance aimed at women, hosted by comedian Claire Hooper. As I quite liked Claire Hooper as a comedian, I started listening. It was fun and hilarious and I felt hey, this personal finance thing wasn't that hard or intimidating after all.

Then I was introduced to my first personal finance book, The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape, a phenomenally popular personal finance guru who has been described as having a cult following. From him, I learned about investing in low-cost listed investment companies (LICs) and exchange-traded funds.

While googling "how to calculate how much I need in retirement", I stumbled across the FIRE community and discovered there were people who retired in their 30s - I mean, wow! Here I am, panicking about retiring at 65...

As I read more and more blogs and listened to podcasts, I wondered if I too could achieve FIRE even though I was such a late starter. I decided to try anyway.

I must admit, I do feel old in this space of young 20s and 30s who are crushing it with frugality, minimalism and living with intention on their relentless journeys to FI. It is one of the reasons I started blogging - I want to add an 'older' voice to the mix as someone who discovered FIRE later in life. Many of the bloggers and podcasters in their 40s have already reached FIRE - that was how it came across to me, anyway.

Looking Back

My Twenties

I spent my twenties and thirties working very hard - lots of long hours - 12 or more hour days, 60-hour weeks or more, earning a decent wage as a health professional. I never earned six figures but was privileged to have a company car to use. This benefit alone has saved me thousands of dollars in petrol, insurance and registration fees over the years.

My only financial goal was to save enough to put down a deposit for a house. Owning a house was every Australian's dream - maybe it still is, but stratospheric property prices have made it very difficult for today's 20-somethings. My parents, especially my Mum, had also drummed that into me: owning your house provides you with security. So I saved for this deposit.

In the meantime, I also spent lots of money. Even back then, property prices were increasing rapidly. I would be discouraged by what I could afford and after so many open house inspections and missing out at auctions, I would decide to go on a holiday instead - to New Zealand, China, Europe, Singapore, Malaysia, the Whitsundays.

I was and am still not very good at delayed gratification.

My Thirties

Eventually, I saved enough to buy a townhouse in my early 30s and put down a nearly 60% deposit. My mortgage was very manageable and I had no other debt. My salary was deposited directly into my loan account. And as long as I was ahead in my repayments, I could withdraw the extra payments whenever I needed it.

My parents taught me to be debt averse, to never borrow money for depreciating assets such as a car. They nagged me to pay off my mortgage quickly. But I was also seduced by the conventional wisdom that everyone has debt these days, and that it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy yourself while paying off a mortgage. After all, one has to live.

"For me, the security that comes with a paid off home is priceless. No one can kick me out of this house. I will always have a roof over my head."

So I continued to go on holidays - to Italy, France, London, the US. And I proceeded to fill my house with stuff - I loved buying things 'for the house'. I enrolled in short courses - baking and cake decorating, mainly.

The biggest mistake I made then was to stop making extra contributions to my superannuation, my retirement account. My employer continued to make their compulsory contributions. I was content now as I had achieved my goal of owning a house (even though I still owed the bank at this stage).

My Forties

In my early forties, an opportunity came up to part own a business - I took it. I still worked part time in the original business. Financially, it was a mistake. I used the equity I'd built up in my house. It was tough - we did not make any money. But I learned that I could live with a lot less and still survive. After 3 years or so, I walked away from the business and returned to my previous full-time role.

I've since paid off my mortgage completely and can really say I own my home. This is probably my biggest financial achievement. It was such a weight off my shoulders. I know there are great debates in the FIRE community about whether to own or rent. For me, the security that comes with a paid off home is priceless. No one can kick me out of this house. I will always have a roof over my head.

Being single also plays a big part in me wanting to be financially secure. There is no backup plan - I am it. I cannot rely on anyone else. At times, this is scary. Especially as I age.

"Don't drift. Pay attention to your life, your finances, your relationships, your work. Stay engaged."

In your forties, retirement is looming whether you like it or not, whether you are prepared for it or not. Health care and aged care are potentially two big unpredictable upcoming expenses. In Australia, the heath care system is very good (particularly if you compare it with the US, sorry!) but I would still buy private health insurance for peace of mind. I do not want to depend solely on the public system and be at the mercy of waiting lists for surgery.

Aged care is another matter. The federal government funds part of the cost but as yet, I do not understand how it works fully. The standards of living arrangements differ greatly, with some new facilities looking like 5-star hotels while others are run down and dilapidated. I would like to be able to choose a level of care that I am comfortable with, not be forced to live in a run-down facility that smells of urine.

Additionally, there is dementia in my family so at the back of my mind, I wonder if I too will be susceptible to the disease. If dementia is in my future, then I need to make doubly sure that at the very least, my finances are in order and that I will not be a burden on anyone.

Advice For Other Women

I drifted through life, particularly after I bought my house. So my advice is don’t drift! Pay attention to your life, your finances, your relationships, your work. Stay engaged.

Looking back with perfect hindsight, I should have continued to salary sacrifice into my superannuation. That would have boosted my retirement savings. I weep now to think of the opportunity costs with compound interest. As I did not care or think about my finances, I certainly never cared about what sort of investment vehicle my superannuation was in. Even though it was my money, it didn't feel like it. Because I wouldn't be able to touch it till I turned 60 - and hey, that is decades away. I still have time to worry about such boring things. I should have chosen the high growth option and be 100% invested in equities. Instead, I just left it in the default balanced option. Ah, another lost opportunity.

"Let compound interest do the hard work. You won't then wake up in a cold sweat at 47 years old wondering if you have saved enough to retire at 65."

So my advice to young people in your 20s and 30s is to think about retirement, whether or not you want to retire early. Keep chipping away and save towards that retirement - contribute towards whatever retirement accounts you have at your disposal. Let compound interest do the hard work. You won't then wake up in a cold sweat at 47 years old wondering if you have saved enough to retire at 65.

Looking Forward

"This is the decade where I realise there is no dress rehearsal for life. This is it."

Strangely, taking action to sort out my finances after discovering FIRE in my late forties has led me to question how I live my life and where I would like my future to be heading. This is totally unexpected. But it makes perfect sense. Why else would you agonise over ways to increase savings rate, frugality, side hustles, living with less crap if you don't know how you want to use that money?

I have always been a workaholic - work always came first. I am not overly ambitious but I do want to do a good job and be good at my job. However, the stress is now getting to me. I honestly don't know if age is an issue or that I've come to my limits after years of working in a demanding job. Or perhaps I am less resilient because I now yearn to retire. And I'm sick of being time poor - coming home mentally and physically drained every night. So I am learning to live with intention and carve some time out of my day/week to think about what I want out of life and dream a little.

This is the decade where I realise there is no dress rehearsal for life. This is it.

It goes without saying that it has been a huge learning curve since discovering the FIRE movement. It's not just the numbers and how-to nuts and bolts of the various strategies. That is the 'easy' part for me - automating savings and investments then leaving time to do its thing ... (Mind you, there is a lot of calculation and recalculation!)

The hard part is having the courage to live the life I want to live (and find out what that is!) This is where the FIRE community is really brilliant - there are so many inspiring people living lives that inspire me and that I am continuously learning from.  I am looking forward to the future now, not with trepidation and fear but with enthusiasm and zest.

Retirement - here I come!

Where To Connect With Latestarterfire

Her Blog: Latestarterfire
Twitter: @latestarterfire
Email: info@latestarterfire.com

Thank you, everyone, for your support! I would love to support you on your journey too so feel free to drop me a line :)
Read More
, , ,

My Career Break One Month In: Ask Me Anything!

Four weeks ago, I pulled the plug on the worst job I've ever had (a job that capped off a series of other not-so-great employment situations) and embarked on an indefinite career break.
In the 28 days since then, I've been doing a lot of what I thought I'd do with my time off: blogging, cooking, running, working out, learning Italian, catching up on Netflix series, spending time with my son, napping, daydreaming, and basically letting myself meander. I've also done a few things I wasn't planning on, like applying to a couple of dream jobs, starting a petsitting business, and meeting some of my favorite personal finance bloggers.

I don't always have something specific to do, but I'm rarely bored. As trite as it sounds, it's been everything I hoped it would be and more.

To celebrate my first month of freedom, I took to Twitter and invited (begged?) people to ask me anything about the experience so far. Props to those of you who indulged me. Here's what some of you wanted to know:

How did people you know IRL react to your decision?

There's an Olin Miller quote that says, "You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do!" It's so true. Almost everyone I told has been supportive, at least to my face, but I suspect many of them are thinking nothing more than, Cool, that's nice. Friends and family who are happy in their work have congratulated me for doing what's best for my well-being; those who are dissatisfied with their work lives have generally expressed a desire to walk away from their jobs, too.

My break has spurred some really thought-provoking conversations with a few of my friends about workplace culture and expectations. Almost everyone has a handful of nightmare stories about previous or current employers. Clearly, we have to advocate for ourselves - which may include walking away if we're being treated unfairly or subjected to unsustainable circumstances.

I did encounter one particularly awkward situation right after I quit. I was with a group of people, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn't, and everyone had to take turns saying what they did for a living, which in my opinion is a strange way to introduce yourself. My response was met with polite silence. I was feeling raw and self-conscious, so that was hard for me. I've also encountered people who want to give me unsolicited career advice. I know they're trying to help, but I wish they'd ask first.

Do you wish you'd done it sooner/pulled the plug this way from your prior position?

Hindsight being 20/20, I wish I'd never taken the last job at all. Had I known what it would actually be like or that my employer wouldn't pay me my final paycheck (that's right, they've ghosted me, and I may never see that money), I would have never pursued the position. I suppose I wish I'd stuck with my former job for a few more months, saved as much money as possible, and then quit to take some time off, which was actually something I started considering early last year. But I jumped into the most recent job because I saw it as an opportunity to learn some new skills and grow my career in a different direction.

In reality, my work hasn't been working for me for years (I'm sure it's partly me, but friends have also told me that I've had a string of really bad luck with jobs), and a career break was probably inevitable at some point. It was just a matter of when.

What is the thing you're missing about your job? 

This question stopped me in my tracks because it made me realize that the only thing I miss about my most recent job and the two before that is the paycheck. That's it. I do not miss the stress, the micromanagement, the unclear expectations, the many pointless tasks, the lack of room for creativity, or the feeling of being a cog in a big machine designed to make substantial money for a handful of people.

Note to self: the next job cannot be anything like the previous three jobs.

What’s been the scariest thing you’ve experienced in this career break?

For me, the scariest thing is not knowing what's next. I wish I could say that I have some sort of plan, but... I really don't. By nature, I'm a planner; I like to have a sense of what my next move is. In this case, though, I have no idea. Few things sound good to me at the moment, in part because I feel so burned (and hurt, if I'm being honest) by my last job. I'm terrified of getting into another bad situation.

For now, my strategy is to sit tight (thinking back to that "what to do when you get lost" analogy in my quitting post) and go with what feels good to me. Applying for full-time jobs willy nilly, scrambling to land freelance work, and networking for the sake of finding an "in" don't feel right at the moment. Spending time with friends and family, exercising, chilling out, and working on my own creative projects (like this blog) do. The same goes for petsitting. I have no idea whether that'll be an occasional fun gig or whether it will turn into something that brings in some reliable income, but it's something that energizes me, so I'm pursuing it.

What anxieties have changed, disappeared, or have been replaced by something new? 

Although my anxiety has not disappeared since quitting, it is now manageable. Some of my mental health issues are innate: I'll always be prone to anxiety and depression. For example, I felt pretty panicky yesterday, but with some focused breathing and exercise, I was able to work through it by lunchtime. Other aspects of my mental health are clearly exacerbated by certain situations (like impossible 60-hour work weeks!) Take away the negative situation, and boom, I'm calmer, more relaxed, and more in control. I think that last one is really important for me: I hate feeling like someone else is in charge of what I do hour to hour, minute to minute, all day and on a daily basis. It makes me feel trapped.

My hunch is that many modern workplaces, with their unrelenting focus on productivity, personality, metrics, and feedback, are breeding grounds for mental health issues. Once I distanced myself from that toxic brew, I felt better immediately.

Are you finding it easier or harder to stay on your new budget?

Easier! It's been a thousand times easier to adhere to our budget now that I'm on a career break, and I think there are two reasons for that. One, we know we have to conserve our money, and we have an enormous incentive to do so. Every penny we don't spend is a penny we can use to buy more time. Time feels more important than anything right now, and if sticking to the budget means I can afford a longer break, well, I'll stick to the budget.

Two, because I feel less stressed out (see above), I don't feel the need to look for diversions or stress relief. For example, going out to eat used to be a way for me/us to let off some steam after a long week of work. Our evenings are so much more relaxed now. Eating dinner at home provides the same benefits as going out used to do.

It helps that we have a little miscellaneous spending ($100/month) built into the budget. For the most part, we're using that money to purchase things for our son, like replacements for his ripped pants (I don't know how, but he destroys them) and admission to the summer soccer league. Although we want him to understand why we're on a tight budget, we don't want him to miss out on all the things he needs and cares about.

In reality, I don't feel like we're missing out on much. If anything, we feel richer in time.

Would this career break have been possible if you were a single parent or had a spouse that also wasn’t working full time?

I think it would have, but it would have taken far more planning and saving. My partner's salary covers about 3/4 of our monthly expenses; our savings cover the rest. Therefore, I have quite a bit of runway for this break even though we don't have tens of thousands of dollars in our bank account. If I were a single parent or had a spouse that wasn't working full time, I would have wanted to have at least a year's salary in savings (maybe more) before calling it quits. It would have taken a long time to accumulate that money.

What would you tell someone considering similar?

First, I would tell everyone - EVERYONE, even people who are happy at work and have no current desire to leave - to start saving now. You need an emergency/FU fund because you never know what will happen at work. Gone are the days of employer loyalty and workplace stability. All it takes is one reorganization, one bad boss, or one poorly conceived office policy to throw your entire work life into disarray.

If you're even slightly unhappy in your job right now, this is the time to save aggressively. Sure, it's possible that your situation will improve or that you will develop effective coping skills, but it's also possible that your situation will continue to erode or that all the coping skills in the world won't be enough to shield you from the BS being thrown your way. Depending on your salary and your budget, it could take you months (or longer) to build a sufficient FU fund. So don't wait. Begin contributing to that FU fund ASAP, and save enough that you could sustain yourself for an extended period of time without a salary. (I know that sounds much easier than it actually is.)

Second, I would also say that if your job is seriously impacting your health, you need to get out. Personally, my sleeping habits are my canary in the coal mine. If my job is making me feel so stressed out and anxious that I can't sleep at night, it's time to leave. On the same note, if your job is making you feel suicidal and your coping strategies aren't working, you need to leave as soon as possible - even if your safety net is flimsier than you'd like it to be. I know others would disagree, but as someone who's been in that situation, staying can be incredibly dangerous. (I feel obligated to say that if you are suicidal, you need to prioritize yourself and reach out for support. In the U.S., contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or, if you're like me and hate the phone, send a free and confidential text to the Crisis Text Line.)

Third, if you do have a financial cushion and you want to leave, just go for it. Let's face it: unless you've achieved financial independence, there will probably never be a great time to quit your job and take a break. So yes, it is a bit risky, but with a little planning, you'll figure it out.

At least, that's what I'm telling myself. I'll let you know how that goes.

Lastly, if you do take a career break, realize that it's like any big life change in that it involves an adjustment period. You're going from doing a lot all the time to doing perhaps not that much. Slowing down can be a challenge, and it's easy to feel guilty for not being productive. For me, that sense of "I'm so lazy" lasted about a week. Then I started to lean hard into those afternoon naps.

Did your outlook on life change?

I think I've always been kind of resistant to traditional work, which is probably one reason why I've struggled so much in my previous jobs. I've been happiest in low-stakes part-time jobs, in jobs with lots of time spent outdoors, or when I've had the freedom to approach tasks and problems without being micromanaged. This career break is reminding me that I'm at my best when I'm not trying to stuff myself into a situation that I'm clearly not designed for, and I hope I won't try to do that anymore. It's also reminding me that contrary to the unremitting message that our capitalist society sends to us, there are many ways to approach life and work, especially if one is willing to live frugally. Although there is nothing wrong with 9 to 5 work - in many ways, it's ideal - there are other options, too.

Career breaks are becoming more common and more popular. I'm choosing to believe that decent companies won't hold it against you when you're ready to jump back into the employment pool. In fact, some people - like this guy (who, granted, is probably rich) - take career breaks on a regular basis because they see them as a way to stay fresh in their fields:

What’s surprised you the most during your career intermission?

I've been most surprised by how this intermission seems to be impacting my family in positive ways. There's a part of me that feels guilty for not bringing in an income, for expecting my family to adhere to a tight budget, and for putting the aggressive repayment of my partner's student loan on hold - not that Fortysomething has ever indicated that he's resentful of any of these things. In reality, everyone seems happier now that I'm more relaxed. My kid gets as much time as he needs with me when he comes home from school; we go over homework, study for tests, and talk about his day without me having to worry about getting back to work. My partner just seems relieved that I'm not crying and ranting on a daily basis. It's clear to me that my job stress was putting a strain on our relationship. That strain is gone now.

Read More
, ,

Stretching Our Budget While Living On One Income

As I begin writing this, I'm 19 days into my career break. Almost three weeks ago, I fired my employer and walked away. I didn't know what I was walking to, and I still don't. My main goal was simply to distance myself from the flaming bag of dog poop that was my last job.

I'm happy to say that since then, my anxiety has plummeted, I'm less irritable, and I've been able to think more clearly. I'm no longer running on fumes. I'm not making decisions based on fear. People I see on a regular basis have told me that I look different, as if a weight has been lifted.

Nevertheless, I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night to a herd of questions thundering through my brain. What do I want to do next? How many months will our money really last? Will our side hustles pan out this summer? Why aren't there more part-time gigs listed on the job boards? What if I never get hired for another job ever again? 

Just Breathe

I calm myself down by reminding myself of a few things:

First, we've budgeted for this break as carefully as possible given the circumstances. At best, I can afford to be unemployed until the end of the year; at worst - if unexpected expenses come up or Fortysomething's bonus is less than we've predicted - we still have several months of runway.

Second, we've spent the last two years saving and budgeting, and we've developed wallet-friendly habits and strategies that are pretty much second nature by now. For example, we have only one car; Fortysomething and the Kiddo walk to work and school, and we usually spend less than $30 a month on gas. We don't go on expensive vacations. We don't impulse buy. We don't spend unnecessarily on things like home decor or new clothes. We've cut way down on going out to eat, and when we do, we often use a gift card. By slowly changing our habits over a long period of time, we've acclimated to a relatively frugal lifestyle. That's paying off for us now.

Lastly, we've recently implemented several additional, effective measures to conserve our savings and staunch the flow of cash from our bank account. Some of these measures involve us bringing more money in, while other measures involve spending less. Either way, they're helping us stretch our savings as far as possible, which is important because we can't afford to live on one income indefinitely. This career break comes with an expiration date.

Five Ways We're Stretching Our Budget

1. Fortysomething adjusted his W-4. 

As soon as I quit my job, Fortysomething met with his payroll administrator and updated his W-4. Previously, he'd been claiming zero allowances; now he's claiming two, which means less of his paycheck gets funneled to taxes. The upshot is that his paycheck has increased by approximately $180/month.

Sidenote: Definitely check with someone who's actually a money expert, but if you're currently claiming zero allowances on your W-4 and you're paying off debt or dealing with a tight budget, making a similar adjustment may be worthwhile for you. Your tax refund won't be as large, but the "extra" money you bring in throughout the year can catalyze your debt payoff and/or give you more financial breathing room. The W-4 form includes a series of questions that can help you determine how many allowances to claim.

2. We've cut our grocery bill.

Admittedly, our grocery bill has always been a bit high. Okay, really high. Food is expensive here, we like to eat, we're big on fresh produce, excuses excuses, and so on and so forth. In the past, we've spent as much as $900/month on groceries!

Our grocery bill presents a prime opportunity for us to save some money. We're taking three specific steps to cut our costs in this area:

We're couponing. I can't take credit for that; it's all Fortysomething's doing, and he's getting good at it. Last weekend, his efforts saved us about $25.

We're planning out our dinners, always our most expensive meals, in advance. We don't go so far as to schedule specific meals for specific days, but we assemble a list of options to choose from. This week, we've got tacos, pizza, salad, mac n' cheese, veggie burgers, and huevos rancheros on the docket. These meals are all easy to make and relatively cheap.

Homemade pizza to please both meat eaters and vegetarians

We're shopping just once a week. We've learned that we spend less money on groceries if we shop for everything all at once. If we hit up the store multiple times in a given week, we tend to spend more in total.

Our current goal is to spend no more than $150/week on food and see if we can slowly reduce that total over time.

3.  We're using Swagbucks to earn gift cards for essentials. 

If you're not familiar with it, Swagbucks is a site where you can earn points by completing tasks (like taking surveys and printing grocery coupons) and cash in those points for a variety of gift cards. Fortysomething and I each spend less than ten minutes on the site per day, and we easily rack up at least 2000 points per month. We then use our points to buy Amazon or Visa gift cards when they go on sale; in turn, we use the gift cards purchase essentials like toilet paper and shampoo. Even in a lean Swagbucks month, we'll earn at least $20-$25 in gift cards.

I would rather use my points to buy chocolate and wine, but okay

4. We found affordable, relatively comprehensive short-term health insurance for the Kiddo and me. 

In a previous post, I walked through our various career break health insurance options. These included an expensive, high-deductible ACA plan (we do not qualify for a subsidy); Fortysomething's expensive, employer-sponsored family insurance; and a short-term insurance plan. We decided to pursue the third option. The application process was quick and easy, and we were approved within 24 hours. 

Short-term insurance doesn't cover preexisting conditions and comes with some strange stipulations (for example, you can't check into a hospital for non-emergency care on a Friday or Saturday night). However, the plan we chose features a relatively low deductible, a low out-of-pocket maximum, 20/80 coinsurance, TeleDoc support, and dental coverage for $295/month. The coverage will last for six months; at that point, we can extend it for another six months. 

Is this an ideal solution? Not really, given the limitations of the plan and the fact that these short-term options will make Obamacare more expensive, but none of our options seemed particularly good. At least we have affordable coverage in the event of an emergency.

5. We've curbed our energy consumption. 

Thank goodness for spring: we no longer have to turn on the heat, and it's cool enough that we don't need to use the air conditioner yet. We spoke to our energy company and learned that costs spike between 3 PM and 8 PM Monday through Friday, so especially during that window, we won't be doing laundry, running the dishwasher, or taking long showers. We anticipate that by being more conservative in our energy use, we'll save about $100/month. Bonus: using less energy is good for the environment!

We've acclimated to this temperature, but it took months

Next Goal: Obtain Supplemental Income (But Only If It's Something I Want To Do)

Of course, the best thing we can do to support this career break is to bring in some extra income. My goal is to eventually find a part-time job or a steady freelancing gig. In the meantime, I want to experiment with side hustles.

The caveats: it has to be a job I actually want to do, and it can't cause needless stress. While I have the opportunity, I'd like to give myself some practice in selecting and doing work that I actually feel good about. For now, the only side hustle I can think of that doesn't induce mild panic is pet sitting, so I signed up for Rover, which is sort of the Uber of the pet care world. I like animals. I have some experience (I used to work at an animal shelter), and hanging out with dogs and cats is fun for me. So I'm offering dog walking and in-home pet sitting... and guess what? Someone actually booked me to look after their pet this weekend. I'm not getting paid much, but I'm hoping a positive review will help me attract more business. (Shameless advertising: If you're interested in using Rover for the first time or becoming a Rover sitter, here's my referral code. For new Rover users, you'll get $20 off your first booking.)

Other than that, I have no idea what I'd like my other side hustles to be or what I might pursue as a job. I'm just letting it be and going after the things that excite and energize me.

What are some creative ways you've stretched your income during times when the budget was tight? If you found yourself a side hustle to help bridge the gap, what was it, and was it worth it?
Read More

Finances After 40 #3: Demolishing Debt, Building Security (Lisa's Story)

Photo credit: Rafael J.M. Souza

The third installment of Finances After 40 features Lisa, a 55-year-old writer whose blog, The Traumatized Budget, chronicles her journey to eliminate debt and secure a more stable future. In addition to her beautiful and engaging prose, one thing I love about Lisa is her transparency. Although her writing sparkles with humor and optimism, she never shies away from sharing the difficult aspects of her financial overhaul. She's relatable, compassionate, and real. I'm excited to share her story here. 

Take it away, Lisa!

A Passionate Life

I’ve been a pretty passionate literary writer – fiction and literary essay – for many years, but I’ve channeled it increasingly into blogging and humor. I’ve also been passionate about walking, just plain walking. It’s an ordinary miracle I never get enough of.

I’ve got a fine arts background, first in theatre and then later as a creative writer. I have a novel out from 2002, and essays and such in some reviews. In recent years, I’ve had more and more trouble getting traction on the time or frame of mind to do meaningful writing of this kind. I think I lost my fire for it. Blogging has been a great outlet, and my interest in money blogging made me realize I can be funny—something that’s not as apparent in my literary work, which frankly tends to be obsessed with grief and death.

"We’re struggling to make ends meet in a middle-class way: the wolf is not at the front door, but is lurking around in the back."

I worked, stubbornly, for myself for about 20 years and finally realized I can’t sustain it, so I returned to a full-time job in 2017. There’s virtually no way for a self-employed person to create the safety net for themself that an employed person has, if the employment is decent (much of it in America is not, which makes me angry). I now work in the nonprofit world in communications around how communities are developed and how we can make them more satisfying, beautiful, and equitable places to live and work.

Lisa's Current Financial Situation

My situation isn’t dire, but I’ve fallen short of real long-term security. We’re struggling to make ends meet in a middle-class way: the wolf is not at the front door, but is lurking around in the back.

I made some supremely bad choices in the years after my first husband died (I was 36 with a new baby), and some pretty good ones mixed in over the years. Most of my good choices were for quality of life instead of money. Not that you can’t have both, but, uh, looks like you can’t have both: choose money or time, I think. I was part-time and under-employed for years so I could write useless beautiful prose and hang out with my son, who’s pretty great. My third marriage is to a fantastic man who…is sorta like me in this respect. A humanist in a capitalist world. SO. My husband is a full-time grad student, not yet on the job market but earning some as a teaching fellow.

"My two big mistakes were failing to maintain a consistent budget and failing to save for the short term. We’re remedying that now."

We had so-so retirement savings, enormous credit card debt, and virtually no emergency cushion in September 2018 when I realized it couldn’t continue. My two big mistakes were failing to maintain a consistent budget and failing to save for the short term. We’re remedying that now, and we refinanced into a HELOC to help with deferred home repairs and to pay down our debt faster. It’s still really touch and go.

Our biggest challenge right now is getting enough money to keep my son in college, and making home repairs, all while trying to save and stave off debt. As we are emerging from the first phase of panic and tight budgeting, I always worry that I will become comfortable again, and start to slip and overspend.

The future is a scary place to me. I have, honestly, a fairly dark vision of it. I mainly want to make sure my son is not burdened by a financial mess and that I leave him enough to help him make choices and have some financial agency and freedom in his life. I hope I don’t die in debt.

An Artist Looks Back

I found a way to parlay my skills as a writer into really deep, satisfying work that has sustained me pretty well. I don’t regret working for myself for many years, or working part time, or pursuing the thankless profession of teaching for ten years—it was an amazing way to live—I just wish I’d seen the writing on the wall sooner and gotten a full-time office job at, say, age 45.

"I wish that young women in particular and artists in general had access to financial literacy and learned early that to be a great, independent thinker and doer and revolutionary, you must be able to participate in your own financial future."

But I don’t think I really worried about saving for retirement in my twenties, and my thirties were spent in a lot of distraction because of grief and child-rearing. I was just trying to get by. I think I wore my “artist badge” with such pride that serious thought about money felt “beneath me” until I was well into my forties. Even then, I remained more concerned about taking care of people's needs in the moment than saving seriously. I wish that young women in particular and artists in general had access to financial literacy and learned early that to be a great, independent thinker and doer and revolutionary, you must be able to participate in your own financial future. Like it or not.

I was so focused on the Sisyphean cycle of paying down debt for all those years (or is Tantalus a better comparison?) that I did not focus on how powerful short-term emergency savings are. I wish I’d given that more attention.

Finances After 40: Lisa's Perspective

For those who have raised children, the enormous financial sacrifice for most of us cannot ever be repaid in money. It’s just gone. It's not only the outlay for childcare -- which costs anywhere from $9,600 per year for one child to upwards of $20,000 in some states, by varying estimates, and has risen about 8 percent in the last several years -- but also the time lost to working at your full potential, or at all. Although I'm a slightly special case because I was widowed (or am I? One in four families are headed by single parents), I worked part time or below my abilities for nearly two decades so I could be at least a partly present parent.

"Have very, very, VERY hard conversations with anyone you consider as a partner... Don’t be an enabler or caregiver to someone with money problems."

Also, I can feel the noose tightening in the marketplace as I approach age 60. Part of my work is in earned and social media. I try to imagine myself projecting the same energy and passion into those hectic media at age 60, 65…I try to imagine an employer wanting that from me, or trusting me to know all the right sassy turns of phrase and edgy approaches to multimedia. I’m not sure I will have it, or if I do, whether it will be appreciated. I think job discrimination due to age must plague the vast majority of women over 50—thankfully not as much over 40, I hope, but there too, I bet.

Lisa's Advice For Savings And Relationships

Save consistently into two buckets: a short-term and a long-term. Have a retirement fund but also have the most you can in more liquid funds for emergencies. Play with your money, sure, but do it judiciously. If you brunch or have drinks with friends a lot, pick one or two weekends a month and set aside the money you would have spent into savings. Same with eating out on a whim—invest some time in planning and cooking. Pack your lunch. I must have pissed away so much money on these frivolous things—don’t deprive yourself, but don’t waste it away like I did.

"Save consistently into two buckets: a short-term and a long-term. Have a retirement fund but also have the most you can in more liquid funds for emergencies."

Have very, very, VERY hard conversations with anyone you consider as a partner. Find out exactly what, if anything, they owe, to whom, whether they have a history of delinquencies or other issues with money. This can be hard to discern. Don’t be an enabler or caregiver to someone with money problems.

Recommended Resources

1. I check Credit Karma all the time, although it is not a full replacement for checking with each of the three credit unions regularly and getting your free credit report each year. Credit freezes are now absolutely free under the law, so to protect yourself from fraud, join up. Just Google the credit union in question – say, "Transunion Credit Freeze" – and you should get the instructions.

2. We recently joined a credit union—they are hands-down the best source to go to for virtually any kind of financing, though different ones offer different products, so check first. Their car loans are typically many points lower than from other sources, and their home and home equity loans are, too.

3. I have also had great experiences with personal loan funds like Upstart and Lending Club; there are others now, too, like Prosper. That can be a wise first step out of bad debt if your credit rating has not yet been shredded.

4. I’ve loved shopping through Upromise for years, and have paid about $800 toward my college loans over the years just doing ordinary online shopping with them. They make it hard to find out how to pay down an existing student loan, and may have stopped offering that option now, but you can also get cash-back from them as well.

5. Last but not least, I swear by my Safeway grocery store app. The company that owns them owns a lot of national chains; other groceries have reward apps also. We save about 30% on our groceries that way.

Where To Connect With Lisa

Her blog: The Traumatized Budget
Her newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/The_Traumatized_Budget
Twitter: @cheapbohemian
Read More