Archive - January 2018

Getting Away From “All-Or-Nothing” Compulsions

DH = Dear Husband

A history of maxing out financially

A month ago, I tried to explain one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2018: “A less S.M.A.R.T goal that I have is to fine-tune the self-discipline that I’ve been building over these last 5 years … I’d like to take another step away from the ‘all-or-nothing’ financial compulsion that I’ve always had.”

I definitely have a compulsion towards maxing out. Financially, it manifested itself in different ways over the years:

  • As a teenager, I’d spend all of my allowance before the month was up and beg and whine for an advance on my next month’s allowance.
  • In my twenties, I would go into credit card debt and overdraft on a regular basis, counting on my next pay to get me out of both holes.
  • In my thirties, I wanted it all: a big house; part-time as opposed to full-time work; multiple activities for our 3 children; cleaning service; gym membership; plenty of “treat-yourself-therapy” like going out to restaurants.

Then life stepped in – in the form of DH’s job loss,  followed by years of career uncertainty and financial stress – and forced a change. A slow, stubbornly reluctant change it was too – even though all circumstances combined to send the message loud and clear: “You need to change!!”

Maxing out in other areas

Most people are in too much debt, and for those of us who have come to recognize it and try to do something about it, there’s something else we eventually have to acknowledge: The poor choices we’ve made financially are not rooted in a lack of math skills; they’re rooted in character flaws.

One of the character flaws I’ve had to acknowledge in myself is linked to this maxing out tendency. It’s the flaw of living reactively instead of proactively. Again it has manifested itself in different ways:

  • “I’m SO tired! I’ll just do the dishes and make my lunch in the morning.” (= Time crunch for morning commute.)
  • “I don’t feel like going to the gym, so I just won’t exercise today.” (= The no-work-out blahs.)
  • “I got caught up in Netfilx. I won’t have time to clean the house today.” (= Burden of accumulating to-do list.)
  • “This is delicious! I’ll just eat one more… OK, another one… Now this one is the last one…” (= Feeling full & gaining weight.)

Fine-tuning self-discipline: morning commute

Just as it took a significant rock-bottom experience to get me to become proactive in managing our personal finances, the rock-bottom experience came into play for my morning commute. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a series of snow storms resulted in 3 consecutive commutes of 3 hours, 2 hours, and 1.5 hours each for my normally 40-minute drive to work.  It was truly life-suckingly awful!

Since that week, however, I have not had a single time crunch commute. I’ve been way more proactive about getting myself prepared for work with plenty of time to spare. I used to think in terms of “How late can I go and still get there on time?” Now, I have no desire to cut it close. I want to give room for unexpected traffic slow downs so that there is no need for white-knuckle commuting. And if I arrive at work earlier than I need to – as I usually do now – that’s not a problem at all.

Stepping away from “all-or-nothing” fitness

I have written multiple times about my poor performance with discretionary money management. It was to help my personal discretionary account that I decided to quit my gym membership at the end of last summer. Much to my surprise, that move resulted in more regular exercise for me.

When I had the gym membership, I would think in all-or-nothing terms. Either I would drive to the gym, take the cardio class, do weights, drive home, shower – or I would do nothing. Now, I’ll go for a 40 minute snow shoe or  a half hour run – or a walk. It’s OK not to do a full-on work-out (that takes over 2 hours when you add the drive time). Getting lower-key physical exercise on a regular basis is just fine.

Proactive house-cleaning

As I wrote two weeks ago, house-cleaning is so much easier to do when the task is shared. After years of doing it on my own with resentment and without ever getting on top of it – it is relatively pleasant now to do my share of it every weekend, knowing others are doing their part. It doesn’t take the will-power to do it that it used to.  It’s easy to find the self-discipline to keep on top of house-cleaning now that it isn’t so draining.

Self-disciplined eating? (Oh well…)

I hope to “fine-tune the self-discipline” of eating too, but I haven’t yet. I had a “This is delicious! I’ll just eat one more…” experience yesterday … AND the day before.

But I think it’s coming. True, proactive self-discipline – as opposed to compulsion on the highly controlled end of the spectrum – has the potential to be widely applied. It’s had a positive impact on my finances, commuting, fitness, and house-cleaning. I believe food is next : )

Do you find that as you develop self-discipline in one area, it spreads to another? Or do you find that self-discipline is specific – that is doesn’t transfer? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of flickr.

Reading Aloud: An Old-Fashioned, Frugal Pastime

  • DD2 = Dear 2nd Daughter
  • DD3 = Dear 3rd Daughter

My mom’s odd practice of reading aloud

My mother had the odd habit of reading aloud. On her own.

I was able, as a tiny child, to identify “Mommy’s book,” and I knew somehow that when Mommy was reading out loud, I was not to interrupt. My brother, in giving his eulogy for Mom at her funeral service 2 months ago, said, “In the lean years with young children, Mom proved she could handle anything — as long as she could read for an hour or two every afternoon. One of her quirks was that she read to herself aloud –and she would do this at full voice, with great expression, as if she were addressing a classroom of 30 students.”

I remember a friend coming over to my place mid-afternoon one day when Mom happened to be reading. We passed by her in silence, receiving the smile and the raised eyebrow of greeting that said, “I see you, and you are welcome, but I can’t say anything to you right now. I’m reading.” We walked into the kitchen to get a snack, and my friend finally broke the silence. “Ruth!” she whispered in agitation. “Your mom is reading out loud!” I had realized by this point that not all mothers did, but I wasn’t fully aware of how weird it was. My friend continued, “And she’s putting SO much expression into it!”

A life-long habit

Right up to her last days, Mom continued her expressive daily reading. My sister, who along with her husband had taken Mom to Italy only 2 months before her death, shared this story at Mom’s service:

“Mom would read aloud on the deck of our cruise ship cabin. She would send Mark and me off to the gym or out for a hike so she could have the space all to herself. Little did she know that an audience was gathering next door. We met our neighbours in the hall one day and they told me how they loved the way I was reading so expressively to my elderly mother. I resisted the urge to accept this ill-informed compliment and corrected them. It was all mom!

They had been inviting their friends to their room, all of them leaning into our shared wall, listening as Mom brought The Goldfinch to life for them. As they left, they said they would be recommending on their cruise evaluation form that Mom be hired onto the ship’s entertainment staff. ‘Reading time with Jane’ would surely be a hit!”

Wisdom in frugal leisure from the past

I remember one young mother speaking to me after Mom’s funeral service. “Your mom was so smart to do her reading every day! She knew what she needed to do to make it all work!”

Storytelling was a form of entertainment as far back as when people first started to gather around a fire. And reading aloud was a common form of leisure right up until the middle of the last century. Cable TV, Netflix, and Youtube have largely replaced the joy of reading, and they’ve all but obliterated the practice of reading aloud.

The only contexts where reading aloud is at all common today are those involving children: the classroom, where teachers test the skill of their students, and the home, where parents read to their young children before bedtime.

True confession: I love reading aloud too

I suppose it’s not surprising that having been raised by an out-loud-reader, I was drawn to reading aloud myself. I used to love reading bed time stories to my children, and I tried to make the nightly ritual last for as many years as possible. Eventually, each of my 3 daughters told me enough was enough, and I accepted it with regret. (My eldest was 16 years old. After having read all of Jane Austen’s novels to her, I started on Dickens. We made it half way through David Copperfield when she gently told me it was time to cease. She finished the book on her own. Sigh…)

As a high school teacher at a school with many English language learners, I was thrilled to find out that one of the best ways to promote proficiency in English was to read aloud to students! I took full advantage of that permission for as long as I was a classroom teacher. Now, as the teacher-librarian, my once-yearly Jane Austen Book Club gives me only the rare occasion to indulge in reading aloud.

An unexpected opportunity: sick daughters

Last weekend, my two youngest went to Toronto in advance of seeing Lana Del Rey in concert Monday night. They thoroughly loved the event. But almost as soon as they arrived back at their cousin’s apartment, where they were staying, DD2 felt sick. I had heard that the flu was particularly bad this year, and DD2 got it with a vengeance. Nothing stayed down. She couldn’t eat or drink. Within a matter of a few days, she would lose 15 pounds.

DD3 soon showed signs of the flu as well, and the two sisters were stuck in Toronto all day Tuesday – unable to take their scheduled bus ride home. Their bewildered cousin continued to host them until they were able to leave on Wednesday – and then she got sick too.

Reverting to childhood comforts

DD2 lives downtown, but she came home to stay for her days of recovery. DD3, who did not at first  suffer as severely as her sister, came down with a fever. By the time Saturday rolled around, they were both able to eat most foods. And while they were still weak, they were no longer completely incapacitated.

It was DD2 who asked me: “Mom, can you read to me?” Yes!! I ended up reading The Rosie Project, by  Graeme C. Simsion, and they loved it! For hours, we were sprawled out on DD3’s bed, giggling at the sweet awkwardness of Don Tillman’s observations and conversations through the first several chapters of the book (which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it).

We were back in the old days. Not just our old days – the days of their childhood – but the days when reading aloud was a normal leisure activity – even among adults – even healthy ones. So thoroughly enjoyable! And frugal to boot!

Reading aloud: Is it in my future? (I hope so!)

DD2, about 90% recovered, has gone back downtown, but I’m hoping that DD3 will want to finish the book. And not on her own. I would love to read a chapter or two a day to her over the next week or two. And while I don’t think I’ll ever take up my mother’s odd practice of reading out loud alone – I need an audience of at least one –  I do hope I’ll continue to find excuses to read aloud in the years ahead.

Did either of your parents do something that nobody else’s parent did? Are there old-fashioned, frugal pastimes that you enjoy? Can you help me think of more excuses to read aloud in the years to come? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of

Frugality, Housework, Household Dynamics

  • DH = Dear Husband
  • DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

Giving up cleaning service for debt-reduction

When we first started our journey out of debt in June of 2012, one of the expenses we let go was a house cleaning service once every two weeks. It was a good frugal move, saving us $200 per month. It was also the most challenging move of our overall mission to get out of debt.

“Why?” you might ask. “What’s the big deal with housework? Everyone’s got to do it. Just do it!”

I’ve tried to give an answer to that question in various posts over the years. Here is one I gave 5 years ago:

“I hate cleaning. Most people don’t like cleaning, but what I’m talking about goes way beyond the general dislike. It’s a uniquely fierce loathing. I’m able to discern it in others when they have it, and I feel an automatic bond with them. But most people don’t understand. They have a ‘suck it up, Princess’ attitude to any whining, so I pick my audience carefully when the need to vent arises.”

A month later, I wrote:

“With DH’s constant work, I’m doing the grocery shopping, the driving of our children to their activities, the cooking, the dishes, dog-walking, logistical arrangements to make plans come together…  And all this on top of my day job… I brought this fact to DH’s attention last week, and he acknowledged it. ‘So why don’t we hire cleaners again?’ I asked. He recoiled at the thought and committed to house-cleaning on Saturday morning. We would both put in four hours, and get it done. I agreed and said nothing about my doubts. As I suspected, Saturday came and went with no house-cleaning. He had too much work to do. I did not take up the slack. And that’s how I plan to play it. Let the dust bunnies take over.”

What about getting the kids to help?

5 years ago, we had a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old living with us. (Our eldest was studying away from home.) Why couldn’t our daughters do the housework with me and get it done? That is a very, very good question, and the answer is not easy for me to acknowledge. There was some significant dysfunction in our family dynamics at that time, and DH and I could not make the whole “team work” thing happen.

Some parents manage to get through the teen years without upheaval. If you are in that category of parent, that’s great, and no doubt you did a number of things right to make that happen. We aren’t in that category. We had years of significant issues, and combined with DH’s career crisis and our financial mess it was tough. To-the-breaking-point tough. Could we have managed things better and avoided that chapter of hell? Certainly the money-stress had been of our making and it compounded all other stresses. Apart from that, I don’t know. What I do know is that at that point, we could not make family house-cleaning function.

Housework = something I wanted to outsource

So housework was a heavy burden for me. Something I didn’t like – that I resented – and that my energy levels were too low to do well. Just after the 3-year mark of our journey out of debt, we reached the milestone of having paid off everything except for the mortgage. We gave ourselves permission to hire cleaners again.

Another thing I gave myself permission to do after reaching that milestone was to stop teaching summer school. For the first 4 summers of our journey out of debt, I took on summer school as a way to earn extra income to bring the debt down. Now, since I was taking my summers off, we canceled the cleaning service for July and August because I had lots of time to do it myself.

Functional family housecleaning

Last summer, as September approached I decided I didn’t want to hire the cleaning service again for the school year. “Let’s try again to do it ourselves,” I said to DH. And we have. And it’s working! I think there’s a good chance we will never hire cleaners again.

The house-cleaning is divided into 3 parts:

  • I clean about half of the house.
  • DH and DD3 each clean about a quarter of the house.

Every weekend, I spend 3 or 4 hours cleaning. And it’s perfectly fine. It’s not the burden I found it to be 5 years ago. Why not?

  • I find it SO MUCH easier to clean when I know that other people in the household are doing their share of it too. When we happen to clean at the same time, it’s elevated to a strong bonding experience that verges on pleasant. (For real!)
  • Since I’m not doing it all myself, I’m not left with that depleted-but-still-not-on-top-of-it discouragement. I’m NOT depleted. We ARE on top of it!
  • The elements of dysfunction in our household have largely disappeared. There is no war to wage to make shared housework happen.

I have a friend who has often pointed out that since DH and I started our journey out of debt, our relationship has so clearly grown stronger. I haven’t always seen it, but in this instance I’m really struck by it. When a couple can work together to keep the house clean, it’s a VERY GOOD sign. When they can lead their children to take part in the effort, EVEN BETTER. A whole lot has to be going right for household house-cleaning to be done fairly, consistently, and well.

Ripple effects of debt-reduction

How have we managed to get from Point A to Point B? Just as I don’t have a complete understanding of how Point A happened in the first place, I can’t say definitively what has made things get better. But I do believe this: In facing our debt head-on, DH and I have had to deal with many of our respective character flaws, and we’ve had to confront areas of miscommunication and misunderstanding. As we’ve worked on these things, ALL areas of life have improved – not just our finances. Our household relationships are better. And we make a fine house-cleaning team.

Do you hate housework? Or is it not a big deal for you? How did your family deal with housework as you were growing up? If you live with others now, does everyone do their share of the housework? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Hyperbole and a Half

Commuting Blues = Early Retirement Goal

It’s Sunday evening, and there’s a lovely view outside. The snow is falling, and since it’s been falling for a few hours, everything looks like a Christmas card. This is the kind of scene that makes winter look inviting. The caption could be, “Get out your toboggan!” Or, “Time to get your skis on!” Or, “Walkin’ in a winter wonderland!”

But for me, and for thousands like me, the message is this: “Tomorrow’s commute to work is going to be brutal! Leave at least an hour early.”

3 commutes from hell in one week

The second last Tuesday before holidays, I left the house at 7:20, trying to stifle a nagging thought at the back of my mind that I’d blown it: I was going to be late for work. The snow was falling rather gracefully, so I tried to convince myself I could still make it in to my job – at a high school – by 8:00. In a burst of proactive decision-making, I chose a different route – one my colleague had sworn was always reliable. Within 10 minutes, I knew something was up.

It took another two hours for me to find out what that something was: a lane closure at about the half-way point, caused by an accident. I pulled into work at 10:15, my soul sucked dry by the 3-hour commute. “I NEVER want to go through that again,” I thought.

The next day, a Wednesday, snow still falling, I was on the road just after 7:00 … And I walked into work just before the 9:00 bell.

Thursday, I left for work at 6:45. “Not taking any chances,” I thought. But even then, my normally 40-minute commute to work more than doubled to an hour-and-a-half.

FIRE types blast commuting

Early retirement bloggers have nothing good  to say about commuting. They live close to their places of work, and they bus, cycle, or walk to get there. In a post from 2011, Mr. Money Mustache itemizes the evils of a 40-minute commute over the long-term – wasted money, wasted time, stress, danger … And he doesn’t even include snow storms.

Whenever conversations about work-life balance arise, I speak as the FIRE types do, and argue for intentionally setting up close to work to avoid long commutes. But for me, it’s too late. The costs, financial and otherwise, of moving out of our home don’t make sense – especially since DH is established here in his home business. And the idea of trying to find work at a school closer to home? I am so much happier at my current school than I have been at any other. That counts for something, and I’m not willing to give it up – especially this close to retirement.

Retirement miscalculation & MMM’s less-$-needed

I recently realized a huge oversight I had made in calculating my retirement year and income. The upshot of it was that while I correctly identified June of 2019 as the earliest I could qualify for a pension, I overestimated that pension by $8,000 annually. My pension income would actually be only half of my current income if I took that 2019 retirement date. “You might have to work longer,” DH said. I agreed.

But when I was sitting in traffic for 3 hours that Tuesday morning, I thought it would be worth at least $8,000 per year NOT to have to commute anymore.

Another Mr. Money Mustache concept is this: if you get used to frugal living, not only can you retire earlier thanks to more money saved and invested, you can also retire earlier because your expenses, having become lower with a simpler lifestyle, can be funded with less money.

My financial freedom date: still June 2019

My $8,000 per year miscalculation is no small deal, but I believe we can set things up so that the lower-than-anticipated income will be more than enough. If we play it right, I should be able to say “Good-bye” to the morning commute in another year and a half. That thought helps me face it for the short term.

As the snow continues to fall outside, I’m mentally preparing myself for a very early start tomorrow morning. My plan is to leave by 6:15.

Do you have a long commute to work? Is there something you can do to change it? Or do you feel stuck with it until retirement? Could you live on 50% of your income in retirement? Your comments are welcome.

*Images courtesy of Jeremy Jenum via flickr and




2018: Our Year of Debt-Freedom

DH = dear husband

As I looked ahead to our journey out of debt in May of 2012, I wrote, “According to my rough calculations, it will take just over five years for us to get there.  But I’m not very good at math, and I know that the unexpected will happen, so I’m not committed to the timing – just the direction of the journey:  out of debt.”

We’ve been following Dave Ramsey’s steps to debt-freedom, and in his book The Total Money Makeover, Ramsey says it takes the average household seven years to get there. As we progressed along our debt-repayment in those first couple of years, it became clear that we were falling in line with that 7-year average. Our projected debt-freedom date: June 2019.

The numbers from our starting point of June 2012:

  • Consumer Debt – $21,400
  • Business Debt – $80,800
  • Mortgage Debt – $155,000
  • Total Debt – $257,200
  • Emergency Fund – Non-existent
  • Investments – Not happening (except for my automatic pension contributions through work)

Our progress as of December 2017:

  • Consumer Debt – Paid
  • Business Debt – Paid
  • Mortgage Debt – $60,000
  • Total Debt – $60,000
  • Emergency Fund – Full
  • Investments – Happening on a regular monthly basis


My mom passed away in November. I remember how heartened and relieved she was when DH and I became focused on debt-reduction. She and my dad (who passed away in 2007) had always been frugal and money-wise, and my many years of financial mismanagement had bewildered and often frustrated them. Our turn-around was of satisfying significance to Mom, and she cheered us on. My sister who lives out west told me that when she would talk with Mom on the phone, Mom would often happily share our debt-reduction progress as part of her newsworthy family updates. I don’t think we ever get too old to enjoy making our parents proud, and a big part of the encouragement I’ve felt over the years in watching our debt numbers drop was in knowing how pleased my mom was about it.

So I write this next part with mixed feelings. The inheritance that I am receiving will move our date of debt-freedom up by about 8 months. Instead of June 2019, it will likely be September 2018.

We can put one lump sum against our mortgage once per year to a maximum of $18,000, and while we had planned to take advantage of that option for 2017, we had no illusions about being able to make the maximum payment. But we have. So to update our update:

  • Mortgage Debt – $42,000
  • Total Debt – $42,000

Of course I’m grateful. Of course it wouldn’t be this way if I had the choice.

Resolutions for 2018

No mortgage penalty

We’re not going to wipe out the mortgage and incur a penalty – no need to waste a cent going that route. We’ll put another maximum lump sum down and pay off the balance with regular monthly payments. That intention in itself is an indication of how far I’ve come. Impatience was a major root of the financial chaos in which I operated for years, and for me, it has been the biggest challenge of our journey out of debt. But I’m not giving in to it. The wisest thing to do is to take our time, pay off the mortgage without penalty, and invest the rest. So that’s what we’re doing.

The moving plank analogy

A less S.M.A.R.T goal that I have is to fine-tune the self-discipline that I’ve been building over these last 5 years. For 2016, my resolution involved a planking analogy. At the end of 2015, we had recently finished Ramsey’s Step #2 (pay off all non-mortgage debt), and were adjusting to steps #3 and #4 (save a big emergency fund and invest regularly). I had found the change difficult. For me, it was more satisfying to attack the debt full-on, with no diversions into savings and investments. I wrote: “I need the core strength – the stability and balance – of patience in my approach to our shifted financial goals. Muscles in the human pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen ideally work in harmony. Efforts towards our savings, investments, mortgage payments, and giving can also progress towards an ideal of harmony. No rush. Slow, steady, progress. Balance. Stability. Just breathe, and hold a little longer … like a plank.”

At the end of 2016, I managed to hold a 5-minute plank. And DH and I also succeeded in reaching a strong, steady habit of saving and investing as well as paying off debt. But I’ve learned something about planking: It’s much better to vary your planking position every 10-30 seconds than it is to hold a single position for several minutes. And I’d like to work that concept into the new steadiness of our personal finances.

I’d like to take another step away from the “all-or-nothing” financial compulsion that I’ve always had. This compulsion has moved from spending-max-out to intensive-debt-payoff to strictly-budgeted-savings/investments/mortgage-payments. The moves have been made in the right direction, and  we have healthier finances as a result. But now, while I want the same level of strength, I also want more flexibility – less “strict”. No surrender to chaos, but more ebb and flow within a strong, steady effort. Less set-in-stone, and more room to adjust … like a moving plank.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Pixabay.