Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Knock Knock...Is There Anyone Here?

Hi! *waving enthusiastically*

Remember me?

You know, the girl who, just under a year ago, started this blog as a tool to keep her accountable on her journey toward debt elimination? You know, the girl who, after 9 posts and one month, stopped blogging about her finances?

Well, I'm back. Surprise! [cue fireworks and confetti]

Photo from Morgue File
Honestly, when I started this blog and registered the domain, I had the best of intentions. No really! I did! Why else would I embarrass myself so thoroughly by announcing loudly - in comic sans - the dollar amount at which I was starting? Just in case you've forgotten, which is likely, that number was:

I am overjoyed to report I am starting 2012, nearly a year later, with a significantly lower number.

Now, I'll get to the actual number in a moment but, first, I wanted to talk a bit about how 2011 played out, where I stumbled, where I succeeded, and tell you some of the lessons I've learned since last we spoke about dollars and sense.

If you'll recall, this particular iteration of the "Pay Off Debt" game - a game I've been playing with myself for much of the last decade - began because of a #reverb10 writing prompt:

December 13, 2010: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it's not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen. What's your next step?
I was feeling like this prompt was particularly onerous because I had just examined my budget and debt load in the anticipation and planning of Great Vacation Adventure 2011 when it hit me...I wasn't in trouble with my finances - yet - but, if I didn't start addressing it soon, I could be - especially if an emergency arose.

In response to the prompt, I wrote:
...So I had to make a decision about 2011 and the aspirations for 2011. And, trust me, it was not a decision I particularly appreciated. But it's a fact of grown up life. There are a few things - and by things I mean bills - that need to be paid off before I think about grand adventures and tattoo removals and picking up the check time and again.

While I don't worry about money most of the time - and I know that's a big shocker because I worry about everything else down to the nub - this is ridiculous. I've been talking about getting myself entirely out of debt for, like, I don't even know how long (although if I went back and looked at the beginning of my budgetary spreadsheet, I'd know for certain which is a terrifying prospect) and yet...YET! I'm still not out of it?

I call bullshit on myself.
And I did call bullshit on myself then and again and again as 2011 flowed through toward 2012. Here's why:

The first few months of 2011 were rough, y'all, for many reasons having little to do with my own personal finances. In January, I realized I'd been unceremoniously dumped without actually being told and my birthday, January 20, was less than mediocre. My feelings were terribly hurt and, even though I was attempting to keep a positive outlook, it became harder and harder to do.


Because, in part, when Jane hurts, she spends money to make herself feel better and Jane didn't have any extra money to spend. I don't know very many people - women especially - who don't like to engage in a little "retail therapy" when they are feeling bad about themselves or their circumstances.

In February though, my situation seemed to be taking a turn for the better. I met a boy who seemed to like me. I certainly liked him. We began to see each other regularly and I was happy...when I wasn't angsty and miserable, exacerbated, in large part, by his chronic depression and his unemployed situation *sigh*. How I hate to admit it when I recognize I've fallen back into an unhealthy pattern.

Let me remind you about how I got this far in debt to begin with:
And then I acquired a live in boyfriend and I thought we would be together forever.


I got an even better job. We upsized to a bigger apartment. We bought his and hers computers. We bought him a car. We bought me a new car. We had cable television and high speed internet and cell phones. We ate out. A lot. We could afford it. We were a two-income household! Right?

Slowly but surely, the debt began to pile back on. As the relationship began to disintegrate, I began to spend recklessly attempting to, what? Buy his love back? Make us both happy? I can't answer that beyond saying the spending was most certainly psychologically driven.
From that same entry, let me also remind you of how I spend my discretionary income even now:
But what I do have a taste for is taking care of others. I donate a lot of my money to people who need it. I've also treated many a friend to suppers out, drinks, late night breakfast foods. I bake out of love. A lot. I (used to) entertain a lot. We've always had an open bar policy at The Grotto. I've also developed a taste for new and different dining experiences, fine wines, top shelf gin, and travel. Mostly though, my "discretionary income" has been used to cultivate and nurture my relationships.
I suppose what I was really saying (but didn't want to) is that my money goes toward buying love...even now.

Through the first 4 months of 2011, I, miraculously, was able to maintain my budgetary sanity. I didn't overspend. I paid down my debt as I'd anticipated. But, as it became clear the relationship was rapidly approaching bottom, I pulled out all the monetary stops and tried one last-ditch attempt to hold onto his affection...

And it backfired.


Not because I'd done anything wrong, per se. It was all just...wrong.

For awhile, I didn't care about anything. Not myself, not money, not debt. I stumbled over a broken heart and tried to soothe it by spending a bit recklessly, once again, on people and nurturing my relationships.

And then, Memorial Day weekend turned into a medical bad dream. Lex, non-husband extraordinaire, uninsured, suffered a serious back injury and was forced to take several weeks off work. Suddenly, I was struck by the knowledge that, if anything should happen to him or his job, we were 100% dependent upon me and my income to support us. I was in no position to support two people on my income with my then debt load.

Luckily, it didn't come to that but he never did go back to work full time. Shortly after he suffered his injury, he was told his position was turning into an independent contractor, as-needed, position. Which, it turns out, means, on average, 10-15 hours a week.

That was precisely the incentive I needed to get myself back on track.

Once again, I stopped picking up the checks, I stopped socializing so much, I began questing for the cheapest box wine my palate would tolerate (thus far, Fish Eye pinot grigio, retail $15.39). I was still miserable but at least I was making progress after a 2-month hiatus.


After that, I continued to plug away at my debt, paycheck after paycheck until, in August, I paid off a loan - the first of my bills to be 100% paid off. It felt pretty good. Emotionally though, I was still miserable, bitter, hurt, sad, rejected and dejected, with my self-confidence shattered - and there didn't seem to be a salve - a remedy - near at hand. Until...

My BFF (and 2nd non-husband), Acr0nym, and I decided to take a vacation together in September. Could I afford it? No. Not financially. Could I afford not to go? No. Not emotionally. In September, the battle between debt reduction vs. emotional well-being was waged and won by the fact that I had to do something - anything - to improve my mental state, debt reduction be damned.

Thus, he and I set out on a road trip across middle America. You can read it about it here, if you'd like. We were (mostly) frugal. We drove and got good gas mileage. We stayed in motels that never exceeded $80 a night. We brought food and liquor from home, imbibing mostly in our motel rooms. We splurged on only one meal. We were (mostly) careful with our souvenir budgets. The trip, all told, between the two of us, cost less than $1,200 over the course of 5 nights for food, lodging, gas, gifts, entry fees, and entertainment. Not bad.

But it was a setback financially.

Stumble? Yes...and no. Financially, most definitely. Emotionally? It was the best thing I could have possibly done for myself. I call it an emotional win and financial draw.

What was a success financially was that, upon return, I hopped right back on the budget bandwagon and put even more effort into paying off debt.

Since then, I've paid off :the last of my student loans and one credit card. In 10 days, I'll pay off the balance of another card. Once that happens, I'll have 3 remaining cards to pay off. Two are my highest balance cards. One is my lowest balance-lowest interest card. The latter I'm saving for last for several reasons. Most notably because it is tied to my bi-monthly paycheck and I have a specified amount - minimal amount - sent there automatically every time I'm paid.

Regardless, in 2011, I paid off:

*  2 loans
*  1 credit card and
*  came close to paying off a second card.

The snowball effect is fully executed. Having just 3 accounts paid in full has freed up several hundred dollars a month that can now be thrown - larger, faster, harder - at the bulk.

As a consequence, my outstanding debt, as of January 1, is:


I feel great about that! (Notice I didn't even put it in comic sans this time, that's how great I feel about it.)

If you're math-phobic, that means I've paid off $4,806.62 or 27% of my debt.

However, there was another small stumble I haven't mentioned. I had planned to build up emergency reserves at the same time I was paying off accounts. This didn't happen. I started to but stopped. I'm not sure why. I think I just liked having the extra cushion in my pocket and the extra cushion, month after month, got spent along with all the rest of my money.

While I didn't build up my savings as I'd planned though, I did feel triumphant time and again as minor emergencies arose because I found myself able to pay for them with cash - new tires, new brakes, new car battery, the lubrication of my sway bar bushings (that's what she said) - while continuing to pay down debt. I was able to replenish worn out items from my wardrobe - especially a new bathrobe and underpants - without taking away funds designated to debt reduction.

Those are all my stumbles and my successes in a nutshell. So now...

What I've learned:

I am an emotional spender. There is a reason I spend my money on people rather than things. First, I love to take care of people. I love to donate money to people I love who are in need. I love to buy little presents for people I love just because. I love to treat people I love to nice meals and nice things. Some of this - although not all - is because my self-worth is tied to my ability to do just that. When I can't do nice things for nice people, I often feel guilty, unlovable, worthless, selfish.

Because I'm an emotional spender, when I can't socialize - or socialize in the ways I'm used to - I sometimes feel isolated and, at times, forgotten.

I've also learned there are so many people less fortunate than me. I am in a position to pay everything off - relatively easily and in a short amount of time - so that I can live and breathe without much financial care. A good friend, whose income is much less than mine and whose debt load is/was more (in income to debt ratio terms), found herself in dire straights this summer when she needed to replace the engine in her car. While I would have panicked slightly and then been able to re-arrange my budget to accommodate the $1,500 repair, backsliding only a little, it took her months to come up with the money to repair her car and she is still indebted to a handful of people who helped her out as much as they could (yes, Lex and I helped). But for the grace of [insert deity here] go I.

I've learned that philanthropy is in my nature. I found myself donating $20 here and $25 there toward people and projects to which I had little connection. I didn't benefit directly from these donations. I donated because it made me feel good to help someone I didn't know who was in need. Altruism doesn't exist, I don't think, but sometimes we get close to it - what I've heard described as enlightened self-interest - when the only reason we've done a good deed is so that we can feel good about ourselves.

Most importantly, I've learned budgets are not concrete, set in stone, be all and end all, documents. They are fluid, living creatures. They are guidelines. Sometimes, the numbers won't jibe with what we need to do for our emotional selves, for our desperate friends, for our unexpected expenses.

Life happens outside of our spreadsheets.

And sometimes, we have to add extra columns and rows to our spreadsheets to accommodate life.

Because, you know what? Life, not numbers, is what it's all about.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Weekend Warrior

I have a problem with weekends.

No, wait.

I don't personally have a problem with the weekends themselves - they are, after all, two days off in a row from anything resembling productivity. What I really have is a problem not spending money on the weekends.

During the week, I just don't spend money. Last week, in fact, I didn't even withdraw my allowance until Friday morning. And, when I did make the withdrawal? 100 clams felt like A LOT of money to a girl who'd not spent a penny in 6 days.


Then all of a sudden it was Friday evening and there was stuff to buy. for Mr. P. in partial payment for installing my brakes. And wine, you know, because it's me. And coffee - the excellent Coda Coffee I buy directly from the roaster because I can.

70 bucks flew out of my wallet and I'd not even begun to have "fun" yet.


Although, in fairness, I did take the coffee money out of the grocery budget because both Lex and I drink it thus it's a household expense. Still...that's quite a bit of cash Crap.

I'm proud of myself though. I reached Monday morning with $25 of last week's allowance intact - enough to purchase a new fan for my bedroom which has been ordered (because do you want to know what you cannot find at any store in February? That's right. A fan). And, once again, I find myself with a wad of unspent cash in my Prada knockoff wallet after having withdrawn this week's allowance.

And yet, part of me dreads the weekend. Because $20 here and $20 there really adds up fast. Pretty soon, it'll be Monday again and I'm feeling broke before it's even arrived.

So I'm attempting to come up with ideas to:

A) continue to be social for $10 a pop or less,
B) not sound like I'm constantly whining to all my friends about not having any money,
C) encourage other people who are also attempting to be frugal not to overspend, and
D) I don't even know what.

Here are some of the things I've come up with:

1) A Frugal Wine Tasting Party - everyone brings a bottle of wine that cost $10 or less and yet, is still ranked 90 or above by at least one nationally recognized wine authority.

2) Recession potluck parties with a traveling bar - the Ducks & Puppies tried this once. We all got together, brought a dish, brought a bottle and a mixer, and proceeded to have a great time! Except...I would have spent about half as much if I'd just gone out to dinner. The problem, I discovered, is that buying a bottle of liquor for each party is too expensive and doesn't (or shouldn't) get all drunked up in one night. Thus, the traveling bar idea. Each person contributes a bottle and whatever is left over gets stored and taken to the next recession potluck party.

3) Card/game nights. I love cards...and games of all kinds.

4) Photo walks. Not a penny has to be spent walking around outdoors. Except it's February. And we're in the throes of subzero temperatures again. But Sunday? Hello, bi-polar Colorado weather! 60° and sunshine.

5) A build-our-own lasagna/pizza party. Each person brings one or two ingredients and then we have "fun" putting it all together...and then eating it.

6) Movie nights. I have a whirly pop and it's portable. Best. Popcorn. Ever.

So those are some of the ideas I've come up with. Of course, they all take planning and they all require houses which are likely not mine as I don't really have the space to entertain more than 6 - although I've hosted up to 14...just not comfortably.

What would you all recommend? I want to know.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

One Down, Twenty-Three More to Go

Technically, I can't really count January, 2011 because I didn't start my debt reductionist ways in earnest until mid-month. And, with birthdays (my own) and car repairs and car tags all falling within a 2-week period, it was, mostly, a draw.

January is a very, very long month, y'all. And, as you can see, typically a costly one.

As long as January was though, I have exciting news! Not only did I navigate birthdays (my own), car repairs, and car tags in the same 2-week period, I managed to make it through the entire month of January without incurring anymore debt and I managed to pay $100 extra toward existing debt. This was due, in large part, to the birthday money from the Mom and the Dad - thank you for the oil change and help with new tires! - in addition to some extra planning on my part for the car tags and extra expected birthday activities.

Also, I have some additional exciting news! February? Really, REALLY short.

This makes a happy difference to those of us who are paid either once monthly (hello, State and/or education employees) or, like me, twice monthly. This is, in fact, why January felt like the longest month on record. Because of the way holidays and pay days fell, the first pay period was 17 days between checks and the second pay period was 18 painfully long days. February though...February rocks! Not only is the first pay period a normal 16-day stretch but the second? 12 lovely days.

I'm hoping to have a little extra savings at the end of the month due to its shortness.

By the way, because I get paid on the 1st and 16th, I will report my numerical progress mid-month which is when I've cycled through all my bills. That means the number I shouted out to you a couple of weeks ago? Was, in reality, higher prior to January 15 given that I'd just finished paying all my January bills.

I'm also happy (and not-so-secretly pleased) to report that yet another friend, DM, has jumped aboard this party train and yesterday officially began her own financial plan.

I'm irrepressibly optimistic. I will make this work. It is working. With a little help from my friends.

One month down. Just twenty-three more months to go.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Let's Talk About Debt, Baby

"I'd rather admit to cheating on my significant other than admit to making a foolish mistake with my money." - A Friend

From the moment I published the first post on this blog, people I know and people I don't have been quietly contacting me privately to say, "Me too".

Thank you. Knowing you are out there, knowing you've made some of the same decisions I have, gives me the courage to keep talking.

I started this blog for a couple of reasons:

1) I didn't want Infinite Wisdom to become only about money as I clearly have a lot to say on the subject, and
2) I figured if I talked about it - the struggles, the victories, the misshaps - so that others could hear and watch, I would hold myself much more accountable.

After all, it's much easier to disappoint myself than to disappoint you - whoever you are.

What I didn't know would happen, and it is a most unexpected and happy surprise, is that now I'm talking, so are some of you and not just to me but to each other!

Case in point: I went out to my favorite hang out last night with the BFF. Mid-way through the night, the topic of this blog came up and, pretty soon, a half dozen of us were standing around freely sharing how much we owed and why, what we were doing and prepared to do to pay it down/off, sharing the mistakes we'd made, giving each other support and suggestions for ways to cut expenses to free up cash.

It. Felt. So. Good!

There wasn't any shame. We weren't hiding in shame behind our walls of debt. We weren't even peeking around them. For a little while, we all opened the windows of our debt houses and began to clear the air, asking each other to come visit. It was inspiring and affirming, to say the least.

Crap. I hate to admit this but, I think perhaps I've managed to form a support group. Although, hopefully, one without meetings and group hugs. I hate meetings (and group hugs). There are way too many of them in this world already. I'd rather just figure out ways to have fun together for cheap.

But if it's helping us all to talk about it? Then I'm all for it. Just, you know, let's keep the group hugging down to a minimum, OK? Thanks.

Photo Credit: mothergeorge

Friday, January 28, 2011

Interlude: Monkey Wrenches

There are precisely two steps virtually all debt experts will tell you to do BEFORE you start trying to get out of debt:

1) Build up a savings of $1,000 and
2) Destroy all credit cards.

You may have noticed I've glossed over those just a bit - particularly #2.

The reasoning behind these steps is quite sound. If you have savings to pull you through a minor emergency, you won't rely on your cards...especially if those cards aren't there to be relied upon.

How many of you have the "emergency credit card" for all things emergency? And those of you who do keep an emergency credit card, when was the last time you charged a non-emergency purchase on it?

Recently, a friend of mine told me how her son had gotten promoted but his new position required him to wear dress slacks to work...something he didn't have. So she gave him the go ahead to put the pants on the "emergency" credit card rather than giving him the cash to go buy pants. Why? Because she didn't have the cash to give him and he needed new pants.

Was this an emergency or a good reason to teach him the benefits of the Goodwill store?

I won't answer that. It's not my business to decide what is an emergency to someone else and what is not. Surely, I have no business pointing my bossy little finger in anyone's face when it comes to using credit cards improperly. But it does beg the question...what exactly is a credit card-worthy emergency?

Now, the reason why I jumped into the debt-reduction pool before I'd built up savings - against the advice of every financial expert living and dead - and began treading water for dear life prior to building up savings is because, just like with the purchases I've been known to put on my cards, I have a wee tiny problem with instant gratification. Impulse control. I made the decision to do this thing and by gum! I wanted to start Right. This. Second. The sooner I start, the sooner I'm done...right?

I figured hey! I'll build the savings a bit at a time while I'm paying down the debt and everything will be G-R-O-O-V-Y. You know this though, because I outlined it in Part II of my plan. Was that just yesterday?


I've known I needed new tires for quite some time. I've known it. I planned for it. And I was able to wait until there was a super duper sale on them at my local Firestone. So, this morning, I headed out to aforementioned Firestone to get my car some new rubbery goodness and to give her a good old lube job for good measure...also planned.

What I'd not planned on was hearing that I needed new front brake pads and how!

Jane: How long do I have?
Car Guy: A best. Maybe.

That's the kind of diagnosis no one wants to hear from a doctor or a mechanic.

So here I am. I've got no savings because I don't get paid until Tuesday and my budget's been honed down to give me just enough to toss $40 from that paycheck into savings for emergencies. Emergencies kinda like this one.

Luckily, this emergency isn't a whopper. The mechanic quoted me $160+tax for the brake pads and installation. I took it under advisement, left the store, got in my car, and panicked...just a little. What the hell am I going to do? After I luxuriated in that panic for a few minutes, I took a few deep breaths and said to myself, "OK, Self. What have we got to cover this? We've got that $80 extra payment you were going to send in to your card company. There! That's half of it right there. And we've got the $40 we were going to put into savings for just such an emergency. We're approximately $50 shy then. What now?"

I had 3 choices.

1) Take the $50 from the mad money budget which does have a bit of wriggle room...but not much.
2) Shop around for a better deal...if I can find it.
3) Drive up to where my cards are being stored and retrieve one in order to buy new brakes.

Ah yes! There it is - that #3. I'll bet you were wondering if I'd gone so far as to destroy my cards like a good little debt reductionist. And the answer to that? Is a resounding NO.

It's purely psychological and indicative of just what a hold those cards have over me. I am fully aware of it. There is this gnawing little voice chewing in my ear saying, "But what if there's a revolution? What if the zombie apocalypse happens? What if, gawd forbid, the Tea Party gains control of Congress?!" I'll tell you what happens...I flee. And I shall flee by using my credit cards without a second thought to it.

Photo Credit: Yet Another Dave

Those are real emergencies. And, as I've demonstrated, emergencies come up just when you least expect them.

So, I didn't destroy my cards even though I know I'm supposed to. They tell me credit cards are a safety net and I don't need a safety net. Clearly, these people have never been faced with the zombie apocalypse without a net.

Instead, I put my cards in an envelope, drove it to the "wilds" of the suburban north, and watched as my BFF, Matt, put them into his fire safe...and then closed the door with the sound of finality.

That's where the cards are. They still exist, I can still get them if I absolutely must, but in order to do so, I have to drive a fair piece, get past Matt, get past the other Matt, and get past the fire safe door. I'm fairly certain that's about as destroyed and inaccessible as they're going to least, for now, while I'm finding my footing and get more comfortable with the way things will have to be from now on.

Hopefully, the Matts won't be the first men down during the apocalypse...or the Tea Party revolution.

Back to my brake replacement options then. I eliminated #3 right away (VICTORY!) leaving myself with #1 and #2. While I am horrible at asserting myself and asking for better deals, it seemed to me I'd be best off learning how to meet these challenges head on and try to negotiate as much as I can to, hopefully, keep myself from derailing.

I let my fingers do the walking then. I made calls to a couple of garages, I comparison shopped around the internet, and then, in desperation, I put an inquiry out to a friend who'd just had her own brakes done by another of our mutual friends - a friend who is a mechanic and also owns the equipment to do this kind of work. Turns out, our friend is not only willing to help me out, he'll get me the parts at cost, and charge me a most reasonable amount for labor. I expect to save about $70. My appointment with him is next week. Crisis averted.

Thank goodness for a large circle of friends whose talents are many and varied.

Will I stop paying down debt in order to build savings, pushing my plan back an additional 4 months?


I'm sticking to The Plan.

But I may re-evaluate how much I set aside each month for contingency and split the extra payments in half for awhile to give myself a better cushion while still working toward the ultimate goal.

In spite of the panic, today was a good day. I got new, quality tires and a long-overdue oil change, I found out I did not immediately jump for my credit card, and I advocated for myself and didn't take the bad news lying down. Victory, at least in this first battle, is mine.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Plan, Part II: Cents and Sensibility

Photo Courtesy of Fun Fragrance

It's time (and not of the Hammer variety).

It's time to talk about the "B" word - that obnoxiously critical little tool needed to gain financial stability. The tool that's been mocking me daily for four years.

That's right. The Budget.

I have been actively budgeting and tracking my income and actual expenses now since January 1, 2007. In some places, it's truly cringeworthy. However, in light of my current circumstances - what I am attempting to do through this blog and my newfound debt-reductionist attitude - I'm awfully glad I have it.


Because it is a historical record of the last four years of my financial life. It is the most accurate, longest-running representation of My Bad I could have ever hoped to produce and I don't have to do it from memory...a good thing as memory often fails us when it's softening up the details.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. - George Santayana

So, rather than examining it as a confirmation of my failures as a responsible adult, I chose to review it with an objective eye, combing it for what I can easily improve, learning from my mistakes.

There was some surprisingly good news!

First of all, I discovered it wasn't that I lacked cash or didn't have enough to cover my required expenses. The biggest problem is that I hadn't adjusted my budget to reflect changes in spending on the necessities.

For example: I had been consistently budgeting $300 a month for groceries and $200 a month for my "mad money" - my phrase for extra maintenance, hair cuts, cocktails, entertainment - and then budgeting the rest toward paying more on my debt. Those amounts HAD NOT CHANGED in four years!

Now, initially, those amounts were appropriate. My living situation was quite different from what it is now and feeding one person, 4 years ago, was much more easily done on $300. Especially when my diet back then consisted mainly of cheese and crackers. I also didn't drink then. Ever. 18 months later however, my living situation would dramatically change as would both my grocery and mad money needs.

But the budget didn't change to reflect the change in my circumstances except to indicate a rise in rent.

In order to compensate for this, I found I was spending both the grocery and mad money on groceries and using the extra money (after I'd paid it to my credit card company) for mad money - often overspending there too.

What do you mean I'm overdrawn? I still have more checks! - Unknown

Brilliant, I am.

And for my next trick...

Additionally, it was also clear that there were certain annual expenses (such as car tag renewal and, until this year, additional income tax payments, among others) - expected, dreaded expenses - I willfully ignored until it was down to the wire to pay them.

What happens when I don't budget for something even though I know it's coming?

"Why, hello, Mr. Mastercard! How lovely to see you lazily lounging there in my Prada knockoff wallet. I've got a little job for you to do."


I never said I wouldn't embarrass myself thoroughly while airing my clearly dirty underwear for all of you to see.

Now, I would like to take a brief opportunity to point out two very important things I was doing exactly right. Things I'm quite proud of that have been and will continue to help me. 3 years ago, I began contributing to both my company's tax-deferred retirement plan and their flexible spending account plan.

I know I may never be able to officially retire. I don't really expect to. But I'm keeping myself out of a higher tax bracket now and building some savings. I also have the ability, in a truly catastrophic, dire emergency, to request a low-interest loan from that account, penalty free. I say dire because I can already feel the laser beams of disapproval emanating from the eyes of every financial advisor in the universe as if to say, "Have we taught you nothing?!"

Yes, financial advisor people, you totally have taught me. But I obviously haven't been listening. And I'll do what I have to do if it comes right down to it as a very last resort. I mean, the credit cards are a last resort so, you know, just before that. OK? Promise.

It's still savings, a nice little savings, and it's there. If I absolutely must. Which, right now, gives me some comfort.

As for the flexible spending account program, that's also pre-taxed money coming out of each paycheck and being set aside for me to use for medical/health-related expenses. Which means, for instance, if I have to have an emergency root canal and crown or have a health crisis and must be admitted to the hospital, my co-pays and deductible are funded.

So see? The lack of having any liquid savings of note isn't quite as scary as it first seemed. Right?

*crickets chirping*

Anyway! Back to my budget...

Perhaps the single most important aspect I uncovered during my budget review - and it took me some time to see it - is that, when I first designed it, I was quite clearly in the "painful purge" mindset. Meaning, I was in GET OUT OF DEBT FAST matter how much it hurt. So, it wasn't that the budget was exactly wrong, for some people it may have been just right, but, for me, it just wasn't reasonable or sustainable for any particular amount of time.

Anyway, after identifying my trouble spots or budgetary love handles, if you will, I gave a lot of thought about what I wanted to accomplish, tried to be completely honest with myself, and then I sat down earlier this month and did a complete overhaul of my budget.

My goals are three-fold:

1. Pay down my debt.
2. Save a little in a liquid account for minor emergencies.
3. Let myself enjoy my life and the process of being reasonable about my money.

Here are the major changes:

1. The grocery budget went up to $400. Additionally, Lex will contribute his own $400. This also covers consumable toiletries, paper products, laundry soap, laundry quarters, and the like. We are going to try to pare this down without sacrificing quality but, for now, it stands. I'd rather have extra at month end than not enough.

2. The mad money line item went up too. I have given myself a $100/week allowance to be used for just...whatever. However, wine has to come out of mad money and not the grocery budget.

3. While the incidental line item didn't change ($80/month), it will truly be used for incidentals - auto maintenance, haircuts - things that come up frequently enough to expect and plan for but things that only come up every once in awhile. That $80 will go into my "high-yield" savings account (high-yield, HA! If you call 1.1% high-yield, that is. When I opened the account, the interest rate was at 4.5%) until needed.

4. Whatever is left unaccounted for on the budget after paying bills and myself has then been applied to my outstanding debt above the minimum payment already budgeted. I subscribe to the Debt Snowball philosophy - whereby I am working toward paying down my lowest balances first and working my way up to the highest balance last.

5. At month end, anything left over - even if it's a lonely nickel and including the cash in my wallet - will be swept over to my savings account to build up some liquidity until the savings account balance is at $1,000. After that, sweep and incidental funds will convert to debt payments until such time as the savings account dips below $1,000 at which time the process will revert back to the standard.

Following this plan, barring any unforeseen major events such as a loss of employment or limb (loss of limb is preferred...death and dismemberment insurance benefit and all), I will be debt free by January 31, 2013.

Slow and steady wins this race.

This budget, as you can see, isn't about getting out of debt as fast as possible. This budget is what I can maintain long term without A) losing my sanity and B) falling off the wagon and going on a binge. It's structured, certainly, but not choking me to death or making me cry.

And it's working so far.

While I didn't get to make a huge extra payment to my lowest balance card this month, I paid cash for my car tag renewals, have birthday money to put into savings (I used a little to register this domain and to buy a new mascara), and even have a little mad money left over to go out with the BFF this weekend.

We are going out this weekend, yes BFF?

And I didn't use my cards. Not even once.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Interlude: That Dirty American Secret

Do you want to know what appalls me the most about my debt?

No. It's not the dollar amount itself.

It's the shame I carry about all of it.

Even when I was fresh out of college and over $5,000 in debt, I didn't ever share the total debt I'd incurred with anyone save my Consumer Credit Counselor. Not even with my dad who had to have known it was extraordinary - and it was...then.

Until now, even Lex, my partner in nearly every way, didn't even know either my past high debt or my current high debt. Not even during those initial house-buying conversations did I reveal it to him I was so terribly ashamed by it.


Why are debt and spending habits such shameful things to discuss? Why is it the #1 most taboo topic among couples?

I've been pondering this over the last few days because I've realized how deeply distressed I was to talk to Lex about my financial situation. I didn't want to admit that I, as successful as I'd become, at any given moment, could be in financial turmoil.

In my humble opinion, I think I may know the answer.

America is a paradoxical society.

On the one hand, we have financial gurus telling us, "Debt is bad! No more debt! Get out of it as quickly as you can. Just say no to credit!"

On the other, we are subjected to offers of 0% financing, credit cards, buy now and pay laters. And then, even if we're able to "resist" the special offers or are ineligible for them, we are bombarded by commercials and advertising suggesting, no DEMANDING, we spend spend SPEND! Appealing to every instant gratification bones in our bodies.

Even our own government, by way of the stimulus money nearly all of us received (twice), expected us to buy until we couldn't buy anymore...with cash or stimulate the economy, save our country, get this country moving again.

After we'd already over-consumed to the point where our economy - and the world economy - collapsed from over-spending.


Please do not misunderstand. I blame no one for my financial situation except myself. I've done this to me. I've been doing this to me for years and long before the financial meltdown of 2007! However, given the culture in which I was raised, I have to wonder if the debt and subsequent shame hasn't been societally created?


Don't you think it's terribly silly to whisper bad, dog, bad! And then encourage said dog to engage in the very same behavior for which you've chastised it?

No wonder we're all ashamed of ourselves. No wonder we're all feeling so terribly guilty. No wonder we're embarrassed to confide in our most beloved partners what we've done.

Even when it's not a crime.

We're led to believe it is a crime. And maybe, just maybe, it actually is.