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

Winning AND RANTING, September 2019 Edition

Welcome to another edition of Winning, the consistently inconsistent series in which the $76K family celebrates its financial achievements, from the substantial to the minuscule. The last time I wrote one of these was in... March. Oops. The last few months have felt very messy and uncertain with respect to budgeting and employment. I wasn't up to celebrating, so the series got moved to the back burner.

Six months later, the leaves are changing colors, the nights are getting colder, and both $76K adults are bringing in paychecks again. Time to get back to winning.

To be honest, I'm still not feeling particularly celebratory. I haven't found a way to adequately organize and articulate what's been stewing away in my brain regarding money, but what I can say is that lately, it often has me seeing red - both on my own family's behalf and on the behalf of other people who struggle to pay their bills and meet their financial obligations.

Personally, I feel frustrated by the simple fact that there isn't enough money to fund all of the important things:

  • Rent
  • Student loan repayment
  • Retirement
  • Health insurance 
  • Sinking fund
  • Vacation/hobby fund 

More generally, although I've long been aware of the broader problems that are so intricately woven into personal finance, quitting my job, losing my employer-sponsored health insurance, and cobbling together a rather bare-bones budget have elevated those issues in my mind. I think about systemic inequality a lot, and I'm frustrated by the deepening and widening gap between those with financial security and those without. I'm even more frustrated by the shitty advice and the needless judgment dumped on people who are in debt and/or living paycheck to paycheck and/or barely getting by (if they're getting by at all).

ETA: Clarification for the person/people who are apparently confused by the above comments: I am not saying that me feeling stressed about my bills is systemic inequality. I am not saying that I am not privileged (the fact that I was able to go part time to take care of my health is a privilege). I am not saying that me having to quit my job = the universe shitting on me. Yeah, I realize it was a choice. A good choice.


1. Bills are stressful on a limited budget.

2. I think about systemic inequality more than I used to because I now see how easy it would be to fall off a financial cliff. Even if you HAVE some resources, it can be like walking a narrow ridgeline with nothing but air below, thanks to the price of healthcare, rising costs of college tuition and rent, and stagnating wages. Welcome to 'Merica, 2019! So then add in situations where someone is being oppressed, overtly or subtly, by someone specific or by outdated societal norms, and they've got limited finances... It's worrying.

Does that make sense or do I need to spell it out in easier words? If it's just that you don't believe in inequality, then this is the wrong blog for you and you should go somewhere else. Find another smug rich stoic, and together the two of you can talk about how dumb and lazy the rest of us are. Just don't do it here.

Anyway, that mini tirade might be fodder for a longer post at some point.

Moving on to September wins:

1. We paid our rent! We paid our health insurance! We paid all the bills! This is a win.

2. We're thisclose to meeting our emergency fund goal. Just $200 to go! Related win: we didn't dip into our emergency fund this month even though we were a little more lax about spending than we usually are. We went out to eat a couple of times, I bought some not-cheap moisturizer, and my kid talked us into getting a fish tank, which came with a lot of unexpected (to me) accouterments: heater, gravel, plants, decor/fish hiding spaces, water testing kit, water conditioning kit, etc. I was picturing a happy little goldfish in a $5 bowl, but... that's not what happened. Oh well. It looks nice, the cat loves it, and the kiddo is learning about aqueous chemistry and nitrogen cycling.

3. I was offered extra hours at work. I'm slated to work 18 hours per week, but thanks to a big project with a non-negotiable deadline, I've been asked to work 30 hours a week for the foreseeable future (probably through October and maybe November). Money-wise, this is obviously a good thing. We'll be able to sock some cash away into a sinking fund for car repairs. However, the project we're working on is energy-intensive and a bit stressful. I'm glad it's not something I'll have to do indefinitely.

I continue to scour the job boards for a full-time, with-benefits job that I think I could manage, but man, there is really not much out there in the way of well-paying, reliable, halfway-enjoyable employment. Except for benefits (the pay could be a bit better, too, but isn't that always the case), I feel like I've hit the jackpot with my current part-time gig.

4. Our total debt continues to decrease, albeit at a snail's pace. You can check out our latest debt update here. Our total is now under $37,000. If we keep up this pace, we'll have this baby paid off in... 11 years.

Hang on a sec. I need to go bang my head on my desk.

Ideally, by the end of 2019, we'll be able to bring our student loan payment up to $500/month (in which case we'll have it paid off in eight years), but I don't want to count on that. See above re: competing budgetary interests.

In short, I feel conflicted and a little frustrated, but it is what it is, and we're celebrating anyway.

What about you? Do you relate to the "not enough money to go around" situation and/or do you have any financial wins to share this month?
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Closing the Income Gap

I'm just popping on to this here olde blog to say that

We have some discretionary income again!

My part-time work hours have ramped up. I was initially offered 12 hours per week, then 15. Someone quit. I took on some of their responsibilities, so now I'm on the books for 18 hours per week. Today, my boss told me that I can work 30 hours per week for the next month or so because management is starting to get anxious about meeting an upcoming deadline.

For September, anyway, we'll exceed our expenses by at least $300. It's going straight into savings.

*whispering* We may hit our e-fund goal this month.

Woot woot.

If the same thing happens next month, it's sinking funds time!

Yes, I certainly find it problematic that my company won't offer me health insurance or other benefits, but honestly, I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing and can't imagine ditching this gig for a random 8-to-5 desk job. Especially because my daily schedule looks something like this:

     6:30 AM: Wake up; drink coffee
     7:15 AM: Get kid out the door
     7:30 AM: Run and breakfast
     9:30 AM-ish: Work for however many hours
     If time in afternoon: Laundry or random television show watching or trips to library
     4 PM: Help kid get snack and organize homework

Is there another job that's going to afford me this level of flexibility? With benefits? And no micromanagement?

When that unicorn canters into town, I'm there. Until then, I'll stick with what I've got.

Another piece of news: I'm putting Rover on hold. I love that I have it in my back pocket in case I need to earn some quick cash. At any moment, I could unlock my profile and adjust my settings to guarantee some bookings. But I feel like I have enough on my plate, and I don't want to burn out by taking on unnecessary side jobs.
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I Won A Plutus Award!

A few days ago, on the last day of FinCon 2019, The $76K Project won the Plutus Foundation's Best Debt Freedom Blog award, presented by Sandy of Yes, I Am Cheap.

Thank you so much to Sandy, the Plutus Foundation, the people who decided my blog was worth nominating, and the panelists who made the final decision. Oh, and JD Roth of Get Rich Slowly, who accepted the award on my behalf. You guys rock.

The win meant a lot to me. Because I wasn't at FinCon (I mean, how do you maintain your credibility as an in-process debt freedom blogger while shelling out hundreds of dollars for a conference across the country) and had a bunch of stuff going on at the end of last week, I'd completely forgotten about the awards ceremony. I found out about the win while I was out on a run; my phone started pinging like mad. You can bet that news put some extra pep in my step.

The weird thing about winning this award now is that I've been feeling rather conflicted about The $76K Project. I don't know if it's useful for anyone. It's supposed to be a debt freedom blog, but... I rarely give advice on how to tackle debt. I can tell you what we've done, but I cannot in good conscience prescribe a specific approach for getting your finances in order because (a) everyone's circumstances are so different and (b) what do I know. We still have student loan debt, and given that I recently transitioned to a part-time job with no benefits, we're gonna be hanging onto that debt for a while. A long, long while.

If someone were to take a quick peek at our finances and offer advice on how to press the gas on this whole process, I'm pretty sure I know what they'd say:

     Get a higher-paying job!

     Move to an area with a lower cost of living!

     Find a cheaper apartment!

And although the sentiment behind the advice would be appreciated, I'd apply none of it - because that advice doesn't mesh with our current circumstances:

      I had a higher-paying job. It made me depressed, stressed, anxious, and mentally unwell.

     For the first time ever, we live in a place we love, in a community we adore. Plus, the sunshine helps my mood, and that is no small thing.

     If we moved to a cheaper apartment, my partner would have to drive a long way to work and we'd be sharing walls. No more wall sharing.

People can think what they want, but at the end of the day, we have our non-negotiables, and we're not sacrificing them to get out of debt faster.

Because money isn't everything.

If all you're focusing on is your finances - whether that's paying off your student loan as quickly as possible or banking a few million bucks by the time you're 35 - you might find that you're pretty damn unhappy.

Personally? I don't think it's healthy to obsess about money for years on end, and I'm not going to. Our approach now is a blend of "Plan For The Future" and "YOLO".

All this to say: unsolicited advice is a tricky thing. Frankly, it is often completely useless (yes, I'll go there), usually influenced by the advice-giver's own unique experiences, and sometimes harmful (looking at you, Schmave Schmamsey). I don't like getting unsolicited advice. I feel more than a little squirmy giving it.

Which is why I question my efficacy as a debt freedom blogger. I'm not sure I'm a good example, and I can't tell you How To Get Out Of Debt In Ten Easy Steps! (You'll find some advice on this blog about budgeting and tracking expenses, but all of a dozen people have actually read those posts. As it turns out, budgeting and expense tracking are effective but also extremely dull, no matter how many ways the talking head money guys on cable television spin it.)

So. The plan moving forward is to continue with the blog but just keep telling our story. It may be boring, and it may be long, but hey, if you stick around for the next ten years, there might be a final chapter worth waiting for.
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Staying Afloat: 2019 Goals Check-In

My kid started seventh grade a few weeks ago, my birthday is in less than two months, and FinCon 2019 is a mere 48 hours away.

Though I can offer no scientific proof, trust me: time is accelerating.

Anyway, given that it's suddenly September 2 - 2/3 OF THE WAY THROUGH THE YEAR HOW IN THE WORLD - I figured now might be a good time to review our/my 2019 goals and see how we're doing.

Are we succeeding? Failing miserably? Somewhere in between?

Let's take a look.

Goal #1: Quit my current job. 
Status: Goal met! Twice!

That's right, folks: being the overachiever that I am, I met this goal two times by the end of April! First I quit the bullshit job that made me want to crawl under my desk and weep on a daily basis, and then I quit the exploitative job that made me want to crawl under my desk and weep every hour on the hour.

Things were so bad when I quit the second job that I felt like I was jumping off a cliff to get away from a hungry lion while wearing a hastily-donned parachute full of duct-taped holes (i.e., exhilarating! Terrifying! Nothing left to lose!) But the risk was worth it. It gave me the time and headspace I needed to land a job I (generally) enjoy with hours I can tolerate.

Goal #2: Pay off my student loan. 
Status: Goal met!

I paid off my student loan in March. We now owe less than $37,000 in total (on Fortysomething's student loan). You'll find our most recent debt update here.

Goal #3: Pay off our remaining medical bills.
Status: Goal met!

As of the beginning of the year, we still owed $1300 to the hospital for the Kiddo's appendectomy. We wiped out the balance by March.

Goal #4: Save $10,000 in our emergency fund.
Status: We're so close!

Here's what I wrote back in January about the rationale for this goal: "My impending job change makes me nervous. What if it doesn't work out? What if I suck as an editor? Or what if - GOD FORBID BECAUSE PLEASE CAN I ACTUALLY LIKE MY WORK FOR ONCE - I'm miserable again?"

Haha. Ha. Hahahahahahahahaha.

Anyway, as of this writing, we are 95% of the way there. Despite our tight budget, we may still meet this goal in 2019, especially if we're willing to take on some extra side gigs to make it happen.

Goal #5: Pay off our campground membership. 
Status: Not yet. 

We have less than $2000 left on this loan/membership. If we can make our current budget work without dipping into our emergency fund, I'll be tempted to pay it off by the end of the year. That would free up a little more than $100/month.

Goal #6: Achieve a positive net worth.
Status: Nope.

But again, we're not that far off. We probably won't hit this goal in 2019, but that's okay because we have less than $10K to go.

Goal #7: Max out my HSA. 
Status: What HSA?

Before I left The Worst Job Ever, I was planning to max out my HDHP-associated HSA. Now that I'm working part-time with no employer-sponsored benefits, I don't contribute to one. That said, I still have about $1000 left in my previous HSA accounts.

Goal #8. Attend a financial workshop or retreat. 
Status: I'll meet this goal twice!

I attended Lola Retreat back in February after receiving a ticket scholarship. In October, I'll be going to CentsPositive in Seattle, thanks to a very kind hero in the personal finance community who offered to cover my registration costs.

Goals #9, 10, and 11: At least four days a week, meditate for 10-15 minutes, work out, and drink 64 ounces of water.
Status: Wellllll...

I was completely crushing these goals in the first quarter of the year. I fell off the meditation wagon while working the hellhole job, and I stopped tracking water intake back in April or May (although I definitely drink more of it than I used to).

But I'm doing great with working out. I run at least five days a week and lift weights twice a week. I've also been stretching for 15 minutes a day to improve my flexibility.

Goal #12: Get my passport renewed.
Status: Hasn't happened yet.

Because we have no immediate plans to travel internationally, and because passport renewal is kind of expensive, I just haven't gotten around to checking this one off the list. It isn't a top priority.

Goal #13: Attend mini family reunion at Disneyland. 
Status: Goal met!

In retrospect, I'm thrilled that I included a trip to Disney in my goals list. Remind me to do something similar every year. It felt great to count doing something fun and frivolous as a big win. 

Goal #14: Visit family in the northeast.
Status: No, but we did visit other relatives.

We didn't visit Fortysomething's family this year, but we did travel east to see my family.

God, travel is so freaking expensive. So. Expensive. It's a problem.

Goal #15: Visit family in the Pacific Northwest.
Status: It's going to happen!

Because CentsPositive is in Seattle, I'll be able to visit my family then.

Goal #16: Comment on or share three posts, four times per week.
Status: I'm trying?

I'm not meeting this goal right now. I don't read blogs every day. But when I do, I'm making more of an effort to comment and share.

Goal #17: Make $100 on the blog! 
Status: *snort*

I made this goal back when my AdSense account was still functional. Then I switched to my own domain... and I haven't been able to make it work since then. It's fine. I've decided that I probably won't make any money from this blog. The fact that I've been maintaining The $76K Project for two years now is a major success in and of itself.

Goal #18. Read two books per month and log them on Goodreads.
Status: Sort of.

I'm reading (mostly thrillers and mysteries). I'm not logging them on Goodreads. I probably never will.

Goal #19: I'd like to worry less. 

Maybe it has to do with the current political climate, or with the fact that the rainforest is burning down, or with my neverending midlife crisis, but I worry now more than ever. If I could make money from worrying, I would be Warren Buffett rich.

My sense is that a lot of this worry stems from this year's massive job upheaval. My whole professional identity has been completely dismantled, an experience that has been unsettling and kind of traumatizing. I'm still working through it. But my hope is that as I start from scratch and build a work life I actually want, my brain will settle down a little.

In short, it looks like we'll meet about half of our original 2019 goals. I think that's pretty darn good, especially considering how much has changed this year.

With that in mind, there are a couple of goals I'd like to add:

Goal #20: Avoid dipping into the emergency fund for regular monthly expenses. That is, I'd like to be able to cover our bills using just our monthly income. It'll be tight - the amount coming in is close to the amount going out - but I think we can do it.

Obviously, if an actual emergency arises, relying on the emergency fund will be a great move.

Goal #21: Make $1200/month from my online teaching job. My hours were recently increased, and they may increase again. I should be able to meet this goal. I can always supplement with Rover gigs if I need to.

Goal #22: Per my Life Elimination Diet, continue culling activities and obligations that are no longer serving me. Rover is still on the chopping block, but I haven't made any final decisions.

What about you? How are you doing with your 2019 goals? Which ones have you met? Which ones have you abandoned? (PSA: It's a great idea to abandon goals if they no longer apply!)
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