Debt Elimination Update: November

November did not go according to plan, but I still enjoyed Thanksgiving, my work trip, and our wonderful houseguests from Korea who are returning home today.  I did notice that a lot of intentional frugal changes (cooking at home more, reducing mindless shopping, fixing stuff ourselves) have become habitual.

Which means… I made it to over $10,000 paid off this year! Actually–in just 10 months!  Woohoo!  If December goes according to plan, we’ll also be under $20,000 owed in consumer debt.  I’m very excited about our progress.

Progress from November:

  • Tried to increase Zero Spend Days. I am finding that it brings greater awareness to all my purchases and causes me to be more intentional with every purchase.  In November, we had $0 spending on 6 days out of 30: the 8, 15, 18, 19, 22, and 27.  That’s 20% of days with zero spending!  I hope to increase it to two days/week minimum in December.
  • Opened a 529 account for H.  When my father passed, some of the insurance money established a generous college trust for J and my niece.  H wasn’t yet born.  I wanted to open the account before the end of the year to get a bit of a tax bonus this year and to apply for a state contribution next year.  The minimum contribution to open an account was $250 (or $25/month recurring).  Before this debt payoff process, I wouldn’t have let myself utilize this program until my finances were fully “in order.”  However, by paying more attention to our numbers, I’m setting up a savings plan for next year that includes this account.
  • Progress on Credit Cards.  Here are the numbers for the end of November:
    • Home Improvement Loan: $1,100.00
    • AmEx: $7,600.00
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% for 8 more months): $2,863.00
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% for 12 more months): $8,720.00
    • TOTAL: $20,283.00
    • Amount paid off this month: $958.00
    • Amount paid off TOTAL: $10,673.00

My goal for December is to bring the amount owed to under $20,000 total and to “catch up” on the total debt reduction (including student loans, roof loan, and mortgage) so that going forward I will be able to report additional debt reduction beyond the consumer debt payoff.  I need to pay off the Home Improvement Loan in full by the end of January to avoid deferred interest charges, so I’ll be directing as much as possible to that loan.

Goals for December:

  1. Remember that you have purchased all the gifts you need for J’s birthday and for Christmas.  Avoid last-minute temptations.
  2. Continue shopping, alcohol, fast food, and Facebook ban.
  3. Decluttering challenge for December.

Declutter December Challenge: 31 days, 496 things

I have written before about my interest in minimalism and some of my challenges in undertaking the project of decluttering in a meaningful, significant way.  One of the earlier blogs I followed when I was learning about minimalism was Becoming Minimalist.  I always enjoyed Joshua Becker’s patient, invitational, caring voice in his writing about minimalism.  While he is a convert who sings the praises and the promise of minimalism, he never feels as judgmental or extreme in his zeal as some other bloggers who write on the same topics.  However, now that I have a family, I have begun to appreciate Becker’s advice in a whole new light.

I just finished reading his book The More of Less.  I am feeling inspired by his words and his call to action.  I have been making excuses not to get started because I am afraid of realizing just how disconnected I have become from my own desire to own less and enjoy the things I value more.  However, through my meditation, I am becoming more accepting of who I am.  This is giving me permission to examine the parts of myself I believe do not relate to what I value and who I really want to be (not who I aspire to be–which is not who I am).

The combination of these ideas has made me commit to ridding my house of things I do not need, want, use, or enjoy in December.  I’d like to get rid of one item on December 1, two items on December 2, and so on until December 31.  This way, I can start small, but build momentum.  At the end of the month, I will have rid my house of 496 items.  I feel that this exercise pairs nicely with the old song “On the first day of Christmas…”

I will give myself the gift of freedom this holiday season.  Anyone care to join me?

Zero Spend Days

November was shaping up to be a bit of a high-spend month for us with two planned trips out of town (one for my work, one for Thanksgiving) and houseguests from Korea.  In an effort to maintain our progress towards debt repayment, I’ve decided to challenge myself to have as many $0 spending days as possible this month–a minimum of one per week.

My goal with this challenge was to encourage more mindful spending practices.  At first, it was causing some bad habits, like on days a bill was paid that $0 spending wasn’t possible, I’d give myself permission to buy a soda or coffee.  Also, last week was an especially trying emotional week for me, and there were a couple days I succumbed to emotional spending that otherwise would have been successful $0 spend days, and that felt overwhelming.

Now that I’m a bit further into the month, I feel that the challenge is starting to accomplish what I hoped it would.  I am more aware of what my family (and especially what–eek–I am) is spending day to day.  I have made significant efforts to create habits that will allow us to go longer between spending money (using up groceries, planning gas trips, choosing free entertainment, planning snacks and meals more completely, etc.).  These habits are starting to become part of my routine, which is counteracting the “permission” to spend that buying gas or groceries had been.  My family is getting into the Zero Spend Days challenge by proposing free activities, such as a walk in our neighborhood (see above picture of H making a silly face).

On November 8, 15, 18, and 19, our family spent $0 (also on October 31, so the once per week in November minimum has been met).  I find the spending report with $0s to be very motivating.  I feel the desire to keep a “streak” going whenever I can.  While November may still end up with higher than average spending, it’s not out of control, and I will definitely continue this challenge into December with a goal of at least two days each week with no spending and a no spend weekend.

Have you tried a Zero Spend Day challenge?  How did it go?

Struggling

This month has been a struggle for me to write.  I had planned to update more frequently and work on a novel for NaNoWriMo, but that has not panned out.  I believe there are many reasons for my stuggle, but rather than focus on those reasons, I want to talk about  what I’m doing to overcome the challenges.

I noticed, through my meditation and mindfulness practice, that I am using Facebook and phone games as a way to avoid feelings.  However, I end up feeling more mentally busy and cluttered when I finish these avoidance tasks.  I am also craving alcohol for reasons other than enjoyment of the experience.  For these reasons, I have decided to abstain from these things through the end of the year.  I feel more present after just one day away from mindless Facebook scrolling, and the relief of just knowing that alcohol is not an option for me is less stressful. Just like my shopping ban is letting me just throw sales announcements and coupons for Black Friday in the trash without giving any mental energy to considering whether or not to purchase anything.

I think an amazing amount of energy goes into “managing” unhealthy habits.  Saying “no” feels a lot like decluttering physical possessions.

Here I am, world.  Thanks for having me back.  I may continue to struggle, but at least I’m writing again.

Debt Elimination Project–October

October marked the beginnings of my journey into meditation and mindfulness.  I believe that this practice is very powerfully linked with how balanced and comfortable I felt about my progress financially this month.  I am spending more time observing my feelings and less time letting them control my behaviors and habits.

Progress from October:

  • Began a shopping ban.  I was unhappy with my spending on fast food, so I decided no more of that through the end of the year.  Also no clothes items of any kind for me.  Will consider how I’m allowed to replace items for 2019.
  • Getting more serious about controlling food waste and gardening.  I finally started a bin to compost food scraps, a freezer bag for veggie stock scraps, and improving the habit of remembering to put fruit/veggie waste there.  Min has become really interested in gardening the last few months, both kitchen scrap regrowth and now the purchase of some indoor “kits” to grow sprouts.  I read Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food which has a simple premise, “Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.”  However, his analysis of the food industry has me thinking about how food consumption connects to wastefulness and consumer culture in general.  This may be a future post.
  • Preparing for my (first ever) “business trip”.  I love to travel, but I’ve never had a job before that would pay for me to go somewhere else.  I’ll be attending a national conference in San Antionio, Texas at the start of November.  While business travel expenses are mostly reimbursed, it would be easy to go over allowed expenses if not planned.  I’m very excited!  One of my hopes is that in the future I can pair this annual conference with a vacation for my family.  One more reason to get out of debt, ASAP.
  • Progress on Credit Cards.  Here are the numbers for the end of October:
    • Home Improvement Loan: $1,800.00
    • AmEx: $7,600.00
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% for 9 more months): $2,891.00
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% for 12 more months): $8,950.00
    • TOTAL: $21,241.00
    • Amount paid off this month: $916.33 (my highest since March!)
    • Amount paid off TOTAL: $9,715.00

My goal for November is to hit the over $1,000 paid off in a single month, and of course more than $10,000 total.  I am on track to achieve both of those goals very soon!

Goals for November:

  1. Daily meditation and journal.
  2. Continue to add $100 back to the Emergency Fund for each of my second job paychecks until it is fully replenished to $1000 (it’s almost there).
  3. Shopping ban and fast food ban–continue it.

Debt Elimination Project–September

And we’re back full swing in debt-torching mode!  I feel so much better about the direction we are heading this month.  Our expenditures were finally back in line with our more regular spending and the extra money from the second job allowed me to rebuild the cushion of emergency funds to where I feel confidence moving forward, rather than fear.  For me, feeling that confidence in my ability to achieve the goal leads to better choices overall–both for my health and for my finances.

Progress from September:

  • Stopped charging things on cards I’m paying off.  In an effort to mitigate the crazy outflow of cash and not turn our main card (paid off each month) into another consumer debt to pay off, I used some of the cards I’m paying off below to charge daily expenses.  This is a way to lie to yourself about what you’re really doing.  This had to come to a full halt.  It has.
  • Got back in the green. July and August were both red months for net income (meaning we had more going out than coming in) because of 1) the roof replacement and 2) travel and high spending.  Since starting this journey in February, those are the only two months that have been red (compared to last year which had only three months in all of 2017 that were green), but having those months back to back was quite disheartening.  Being back on the positive side feels amazing!
  • Adjustment to working two jobs.  Obviously, working 12-16 hours a week part time changes my lifestyle quite a bit.  I’ve been adjusting to the “new normal” of working a second job.  At first, it was a bit of a struggle (and I allowed myself to start drinking the dreaded Diet Coke again–ugh!), but now that I’m a month in, the main things I’ve found less time for are television shows, social media, and reading.  The only one that’s been even a bit of a downer is the last one, but it’s ok.  Especially because returning to crisis work has been a powerful boost to my mental health.  I missed direct service more than I realized.
  • Progress on Credit Cards.  Here are the numbers for the end of September:
    • Home Improvement Loan: $2,200.00
    • AmEx: $7,687.33
    • Balance Transfer 1 (0% for 11 more months): $2,920
    • Balance Transfer 2 (0% for 13 more months): $9,350.00
    • TOTAL: $22,157.33
    • Amount paid off this month: $600.00 (yes, I played around with adding a few bucks to one payment to make this number exact)
    • Amount paid off TOTAL: $8,798.67

The numbers do not quite reflect as significant a gain as I felt this month was an improvement to the context of my financial life, but I anticipate laying the foundation this month will allow for even greater progress in October.  I’m hoping to hit more than $10,000 paid off well before the end of the year.

Goals for October

  1. I have some major medical stuff coming up this month (tests, appointments, etc.)–I want to maintain my healthy routine even with the anxiety this produces.  Continue to work out and avoid fast food.
  2. Add $100 back to the Emergency Fund for each of my second job paychecks until it is fully replenished to $1000.
  3. Adopt the thirty day wait rule for all non-consumable purchases.

Teaching as a Career: Getting Right with Getting Paid

Time published a feature this week about the state of teacher pay in America.  The story of teachers being underpaid for their level of education (usually master’s degree or equivalent) and hours worked is nothing new.  The story highlights the ambivalence teachers feel about their jobs–the powerful, emotional, almost spiritual call to educate young people and the humiliation of being unable to live as a respectable middle class professional.   The major flaw of our educational system is that it cannot function without the extra contractual contributions of those employed by it.

The system depends on the personal (and financial) sacrifice of teachers.

I am in my 15th year of post-collegiate full time employment; I have spent 13 of those years in a classroom as a teacher (although three of them were in another country).  I absolutely love teaching.  There is no greater feeling in the world than having a front row seat to kids learning and knowing you were a small part of that process.  However, in recent years, I often felt that I had to choose between giving to my students and to my own children.  I don’t think teachers should be in that position; I certainly don’t want my children’s teachers to feel burdened by that choice.

Why teach?

When I was growing up, I believed that making career (or any) decision based on anything as crass as “salary” or “benefits” was inferior to idealistic pursuit of passion, artistic vision, and altruism.  I wanted to make the world a better, more beautiful, more intelligent place.  I thought people who accumulated wealth and pursued high salaries were morally flawed.  I recognize now that this kind of belief is bred from growing up in economic abundance and educational privilege (both of my parents had Ph.D.s), but also my parents fostered a healthy sense of idealism about work.  They volunteered with Peace Corps and worked in careers that served the public good, rather than for commercial gain (though offered lucrative positions to work for tobacco companies or in weapons development).

As my college graduation loomed, I became more practical.  I didn’t want to continue to be economically dependent on my parents, but I had followed my intellectual passions and chosen courses of study that were less financially rewarded than the sciences.  I realized that as much as I would love to be an artist (writer or theater at the time), I couldn’t survive without consistent health benefits and was crap at competitive self-promotion (a component of success in those fields). I was interested in becoming a college professor in the humanities, but the cutthroat nature of graduate school for many years, only to end up not being able to have much control over where you lived or worked (because only three tenure-track positions in your area exist in the country) was unappealing.

There is a cultural pressure on young people to view work and employment as spiritual fulfillment rather than contractual exchange.  It can lead to exploitation.

I spent some time figuring out what I could do that would allow me to work with the passion I valued and still eke out a reasonable lifestyle (I was fine with frugality, but health benefits were a nonnegotiable for me).  I decided I would try public school teaching; if I hated it, I would stop.  I loved it.  However, teaching in America, like the professionals profiled in the article, burned me out (more than once) with its extreme demands and compensation that necessitated second jobs.

Why leave teaching?

I recently accepted a promotion to a leadership position in education, coordinating a large program for my school district.  A major reason I pursued leadership positions outside of the classroom was the need to increase my salary to remain the sole income provider for our family.  (Yes, younger me would have said I was “selling out,” but that’s too simplistic).  While I know I am still contributing to the good of public education–and in some ways I have greater influence, my new position more appropriately compensates the time and expertise I provide, thus taking fewer resources (emotional and financial) from my own family.

Our culture has not yet changed the commonplace expectation of personal sacrifice for the average teacher.  If anything, this expectation is worse than when I started teaching 15 years ago, because now teachers are supposed to be human shields against gun violence in schools while also educating every student to pass demanding tests of skills that build on skills they never mastered in previous grades.  As a teacher, I saw minimal changes in salary or benefits from when I began, despite my increased skills and experience.  While this has been true of other middle class professions during this same time period, few professionals are so demonized for stating this truth out loud.

How do we fix it?

I believe our country could reform the duties and compensation of teachers to enable educators to do their jobs without disadvantaging their own families, thus making it a more attractive profession to talented, ambitious young people from a variety of backgrounds.  It’s simple: increase salaries and planning time; reduce class sizes and testing.  This would require a significant commitment of public funds, which we are unwilling to give.  For now, teaching will only be attractive to people who do not need to care about supporting families (or even themselves unless they are frugal) through their work.  I fully support educators’ efforts to use collective bargaining to obtain appropriate compensation and more reasonable working conditions.  Unfortunately, most of the people in power right now don’t care much about changing the status quo of education.

Students deserve educators who are treated and paid like the highly skilled professionals they are.

Until then, I will continue to balance my idealistic commitment to public education with the very real need to support my own family (and sanity) through work.  However, I no longer judge those who leave the profession to pursue more lucrative careers.  They aren’t less committed to the students they educate, they just can’t sacrifice any more.

Budget Buster: Vacation Spending

We love family travel experiences, even though they are not the most frugal option for entertainment.  However, when returning from a trip or vacation, there is another challenge to the budget, one that is not always acknowledged or talked about: the vacation spending mindset.

When traveling, out of both necessity and desire to fully embrace the experience of a different environment, I often spend money on things I would not allow myself to in the day to day.  In our recent trip to Korea, we ate out frequently (of course–you have to partake of great food opportunities in foreign countries), bought unnecessary snacks (cheap Korean ice cream at convenience stores are worthy of their own separate discussion), and shopped for presents and goods unavailable (or much more expensive) back in the U.S.  We also paid for luxury transportation (taxis and trains), overnight accommodation, and entrance fees (museums, temples, and one spa resort) so often they became habitual.  All of these are part of great vacation and travel spending, but they can shift your mindset and habits when you return home if you are not careful.

Since our return, it has been quite tempting to go out for drinks with friends (like we did in Korea), take my kids to a venue with entrance fees (instead of the free place across the street), or shop for a few new items of clothing and shoes (to match my new Korean purse).  I must own that I have given into that temptation much more frequently than I should have these last few weeks–to the tune of about $300 in additional spending just because I had become acclimated to the increased spending when I was on vacation.  So, in addition to struggling this month with paying the credit card bill that covered all of our vacation expenses (no international fee), I have created a bigger problem for myself by maintaining that “vacation spending” mindset while I’m no longer traveling.

The reality is that I have no legit reason for spending like I’m still on vacation.  The restaurants I visited are ones I have access to at any time, the friends I’ve seen live within a 15 minute drive of my house, and the clothing and shoes I bought will be conveniently available to purchase once I’ve paid off the debt.  These are not experience purchases, they are raw consumerism.

Furthermore, I have a tendency to give up on healthy goals I’ve set if they seem unattainable because of one bad day, week, or month.  Therefore this vacation spending mindset, coming after the real increased expense of the vacation itself is a potential recipe for disaster.  I have definitely felt that pull of “why bother trying?” as I see the bills adding up and the debt not going down.  I have to remind myself that personal finance success is all about the long term.  I am getting back on track by writing this post; it’s always a work in progress here.

While I wish I had “caught” myself earlier in my self-destruction, I’m grateful that the damage is now limited to this lesson learned.  I am committed to getting out of the burden of this debt as quickly as possible so that I can have more travel and vacation opportunities in the future–this time the money budgeted and saved in advance and so I can spend it guilt-free!  I know that I can make progress on my debt through frugal living and be happy and healthy doing so with my family.

Back to the plan and attack the debt!

Summer time is particularly full of tempting spending “vacation” opportunities.  Do you have a vacation spending mindset that is stopping you from achieving your goals?  How do you get yourself back on track?

Book Review–The Year of Less

While traveling, I’ve set up a few posts to publish automatically in case I can’t always write from Korea.  Enjoy!

Ever since I moved to another country 7,000 miles from home with two suitcases and a cat, I have been intrigued with minimalism.  I really am happiest owning less stuff, doing fewer things, and consuming more mindfully.  However, I have a complex relationship with minimalism in practice, for more reasons than just the obvious: living with two children + husband makes minimalism quite challenging.  I’ll have to write a post about that someday.

Cait Flanders’s beautiful memoir, The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store, documenting her year-long shopping ban spoke to a deep, hidden, almost-forgotten part of my soul.  I have been following Cait as a blogger off and on over the years.  Her writing has always spoken to me for its honest, raw vulnerability and the purity of her blog as a space for sharing her thoughts and documenting her progress through life (rather than a creation to make money–as so many blogs are these days).  She has always been in this blogging thing because she is a writer.  Her craft is strong and this book was about much, much more than owning less stuff.

What was so powerful for me in Cait’s book was what I have noticed in my own work on gaining financial control of my life: the similarities between consumerism and addiction (hers: alcohol and food, mine: mostly just food, though I do have addictive tendencies in several aspects of my life) as ways to cope with emotions and problems that are uncomfortable, rather than addressing the source of the discomfort.  During Cait’s year long ban on shopping, she faces some intense challenges in her personal life that test her resolve in ways she had not anticipated.  Without the crutch of shopping, she has to sit with the feelings of loss and grief.

In fact, her book made me reflect profoundly enough on my own life that one of my personal “commandments” is inspired by this book and my pursuit of debt freedom and health: Satisfy the real need.  I am most vulnerable to eating something unhealthy or purchasing something I don’t really need or want when I have an unmet need that feels unbearable in the moment.  I often don’t need chocolate–I need to eat.  I don’t need to purchase new clothes–I need to feel confident in my new job.  I don’t need to pay lots of money for someone to fix my broken window screen–I need to trust that I can learn the skills to make that simple repair myself.

Note: Cait’s latest post indicates that she is stepping away from blogging for a moment.  I wish her the best and can’t wait to see what comes from her writing next!  In the meantime, I highly recommend her memoir!

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I only recommend services and products that I use.

Book Review: Broke Millennial

While traveling, I’ve set up a few posts to publish automatically in case I can’t always write from Korea.  Enjoy!

I can’t believe it took me this long to read Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together by Erin Lowry!  It’s a great book–especially for people who are just starting to put together their financial know-how.

This is the book about personal finance I will give my younger sister for Christmas.

Unlike me, she does not find personal finance very exciting to read about, but she is at a point in her life she is interested in learning how to get better with money.  Lowry breaks it down in fun (though occasionally gimmicky), clear ways.  She has tons of research sources (both from published books and interviews) and honors the reality that everyone’s situation and goals are different.  Many other personal finance books with her same audience (people in their 20s and early 30s) do not do as complete a job of addressing the details of credit cars, students loans, and budgeting strategies (along with other topics).  It’s a great book by a great writer!

My only minor negative?  The title.  It kept me from reading the book/website for a long time because I’m just outside of the “millennial” age range (and have a lot of #feelings about the characteristics attributed to that group and media directed specifically for their consumption).  But to be fair, I’m not a millennial, so I’m not really qualified to comment on the appeal of this book.

Every time I have come across Erin Lowry’s writing or video advice through another financial website, I admired her ability to frame complex financial steps in clear, palatable ways without diminishing or flattening the content. So while the name of her blog, Broke Millennial, made me hesitate, I couldn’t ignore the high quality of her work.  Eventually, I gave the book a shot, and I’m so glad I did!

Lowry’s book reminds me in tone and comprehensiveness to my own first educational text about personal finance, The Motley Fool: You Have More Than You Think – The Foolish Guide to Personal Finance, which I wrote about in my Reading Recommendations page.

If you feel like you want to know more about personal finance for young adults or have a millennial in your life that you love (looking at you parents of teens, teachers, etc.), read this book.  Heck, even if you just love a good story or two, Lowry’s vignettes from her childhood and discussions of merging her finances with her partner are worth it!  I even learned a bit about some of the more recent info about student loans and post-recession-recovery banking regulations.

Disclosure:  This post contains affiliate links.  I only recommend services and products that I use.

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