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Responding To The Massacre in Orlando

Our school’s response to the massacre in Orlando.

  • C = colleague in the LGBT community
  • F = childhood friend in the LGBT community
  • DH = dear husband

Yesterday I told C, who reads my blog, that I wanted to post about the massacre in Orlando, but that I didn’t know if I should just include a photo of our school’s card or if I should also share how the past week has played out for me personally. “It’s never ‘all about me,’ ” I said to her, “but this time it’s REALLY not about me. As someone in the LGBT community, what would speak more to you?” C encouraged me to tell my personal story. “People who read your blog want to know about you,” she said. “Write your response. Make it clear that you’re writing as a white woman who is hetero and Christian, and acknowledge the privilege in that identity.” 

So that’s what I’m doing.

Where I was when I found out

F is a childhood friend I hadn’t seen for five years. She lives in the U.S. now, but she and her siblings returned to town a couple of weeks ago to attend a family wedding. They stayed together at a house in the old neighbourhood, and F made arrangements to get together with some of her friends from school days. She asked me if she could stay overnight at our place last Saturday night. Her brother and his friends were going to be having an old style house party, and she didn’t want to stick around for it.

So F came to our place last Saturday afternoon. She, DH, and I had a wonderful visit. Faith and finances ended up being the centre of much of our conversation. F has explored different religions, and she has a unique insight into the message of Christ, to which she is returning. She’s also had a financial wake-up call, and she was very interested in hearing about our journey out of debt. F listened to the podcast of our talk at church from 2014, and she cried. “I can relate to this SO much!”

Our low-key visit included three meals, a long walk with the dog, and a failed effort to watch a movie. (I fell asleep.) Sunday afternoon, I drove F back to the house where she was staying with her siblings. She would be flying home on Monday, and she promised it would not take another five years for her to come back to town. As I started my drive back home, I turned on the car radio. So for me, it was just after I’d dropped off my dear friend – who identifies as a lesbian – that I found out about the mass murder in Orlando of people targeted for their sexual orientation.

What could I do?

The news left me in a fog of shock for days. Too much to process. So much hate.

As I drove to work Monday morning, my head swimming with new details that kept emerging, I was determined to harness within me a simmering chaos of sadness, rage, incredulity, powerlessness . . . – and to DO something. I’m a teacher, and I work in a high school library. I thought of staff and students in the LGBT community. If I was feeling this raw, how were they feeling?

The idea of a card came to mind. I’d write a card to establish a stand against the hatred of the weekend’s massacre, and to extend empathy to the the LGBT population in our school. Only one voice – but hopefully one that would be magnified by the signatures of others. A big card. With lots of white space for names.

As soon as I could get to my computer in the school library, I started to write the words for the card in great big font. “I’ll need to ask someone else to read this before I do anything with it,” I thought as I approached the end. A voice surprised me. “OK, now I have to hug you.” It was C. I stood up to hug her, sensing the brutal impact that the shooting had had on her. “There’s something I want you to read,” I said. “I’ve already read it,” she told me. “I could see it over your shoulder.” I shared my idea for the card with her, and she was behind it.

The principal gave his approval. I glued the message to a bristol board along with pieces of blank paper. And by the time the 9:00 bell had rung to signal the beginning of the school day, staff and students in our very multi-cultural school had started to sign it.

My first devotional reading after the Orlando massacre

I have never succeeded in establishing a daily habit of reading the Bible, but I want to. It had been many days since I had done a proper devotional reading when I finally picked up my Bible again Tuesday morning. I found my bookmark half way through Acts 10. It’s a long chapter, and clearly, I hadn’t made it through the whole thing last time I’d read. Starting at verse 23, I soon came to these words, spoken by the apostle Peter, in verse 28: “But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” I am keenly aware of other verses in scripture. This is nevertheless the one that my readings brought me to just at that time.

To the LGBT community in the bloggosphere

Communities overlap. And within this pf bloggosphere, there is an LGBT community. I want you to know that I stand against the targeted hatred of last weekend’s massacre. With you, I mourn the loss of lives cut short. With you, I will continue to strive towards a world in which such atrocities have no place.


Your comments are welcome.

 

May 2016 – 4th Anniversary of Debt-Reduction: $150,000 Down!

DH = Dear Husband
DD1 = Dear First Daughter
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

Happy 4th anniversary for our journey out of debt!

And it IS happy. This anniversary feels different from the first three, and I think I know why.
  • For this anniversary, we are only dealing with our mortgage debt. No more consumer debt. No more business debt. That’s a first.
  • For this anniversary, we are backed up by an almost-full emergency fund – one that will see us through 3-6 months of possible income loss. That’s a first.
  • For this anniversary, we have less debt to pay off than we have already paid off. We’re well past the half way mark. That’s a first.
  • For this anniversary, we are focused on savings & investments as well as debt-reduction. We’re following Dave Ramsey’s steps, and when only the mortgage is left, significant savings start. The satisfaction of paying off debt is the redemption of past errors. The satisfaction of saving is the opening of future possibilities. We’re feeling our possibilities. That’s a first.
Four years ago, here is where we sat:
Start of June 2012:  Total Debt = $257,400
Debt #1 New Car Debt – $8,600
Debt #2 Old Car & Course & Dog Debt – $12,800
Debt #3 Business Debt – $80,800
Debt #4 Mortgage – $155,000
End of May 2016:  Total Debt = $106,700
Debt #1 New Car Debt – $0
Debt #2 Old Car & Course & Dog Debt – $0
Debt #3 Business Debt – $0
Debt #4 Mortgage – $106,700
We’ve paid off a total of $150,700, and we have $106,700 to go.

Our best year yet?

One of these days, I’ll make a graph of our progress, but for now, I’ll continue to list the numbers. Our average debt reduction per year has been $37,675, but our actual debt-reduction each year has varied quite a bit.
  1. Year #1: $50,000 – The year of big motivation and no major expenses.
  2. Year #2: $28,000 – The year of multiple major expenses: a new roof + a rotted tree cut down + our dog’s surgery + DH’s accountant’s advice = over $21,000. Our biggest accomplishment for Year #2 was the fact that we didn’t take on debt in meeting any of these expenses. We paid for each outright.
  3. Year #3: $45,000 – The year of steady effort and no major expenses.
  4. Year #4: $27,000 – Our lowest year in terms of debt-reduction numbers, but I think it’s been our best year yet.

Here’s why:

Renovations paid outright

After we paid off the last of the business debt in the summer of 2015, we went ahead with our plans to renovate. DH’s home business office had long been too small, and we re-jigged our house to better accommodate it. The combined living room and dining room space became his office. His old office became a TV room. Our family room became a dining room with a sitting area.

These changes included electrical work, new flooring, new office equipment, and new furniture. Although DH installed the hardwood and did the electrical work himself, and although we shopped carefully, it was an expensive undertaking – coming in at about $12,000. It was a practical move, but also an allowed indulgence. We’d had the same furniture and carpeting for 17 years, and they’d had heavy use at the hands and feet of three growing daughters over that time. Everything was WORN, and we were more than ready for a change. If we hadn’t been on our journey out of debt, we would have bought new furniture much earlier. Instead, we waited until we had paid off all non-mortgage debt AND saved up enough to pay for the renovations and furniture outright.

Emergency fund almost full

We finished our renovations in December, and in January, we ramped up our savings for our big emergency fund. According to Dave Ramsey, a mini-emergency fund of about $1,000 is needed before any debt-reduction begins. The mini-emergency fund keeps unexpected expenses, like car repairs, from being a ticket back into debt. Once all non-mortgage debt is paid off though, it’s time to save for the big emergency fund – “to protcet yourself against life’s bigger surprises like the loss of a job.”

DH and I calculated how much we would need if he suddenly wasn’t able to run his home business – for whatever reason. We figured out how much we’d need to cover the expenses involved in closing the business and to see us through 6 months – either to sell the house and downsize or to give him time to find other work – and we actually reached that number in May . . . but then had to dip into it . . .  so it isn’t quite full yet.

Our May “emergency” resulted from DH’s extremely low business revenues for the month. DH’s income varies wildly from month to month, and May was his lowest one ever. To give some perspective, his revenues for May of 2016 amounted to only 16% of his revenues for June of 2015 (his highest month ever). The low income was easily supplemented by our savings, and although it would be nice to say, “We now have a full emergency fund,” it’s a wonderful sign of our new financial reality that we can say, “We were prepared for the unexpected, and what would have been a major stress a few years ago was barely a blip.”

Funding DD2’s living expenses

Another thing we did last summer after having paid off the business debt was to grant DD2 her long desired wish to move out and live closer to campus for her last two years of university. Our house is in the suburbs, and her school is downtown. Taking the bus to and from campus wasn’t such a big deal, but she’s also on the track team, and getting to the indoor track for training through the winter months would sometimes take as long as 2 hours. Add to that the need for part-time work, and it all just amounted to a draining lifestyle for everyone concerned.

It’s a hefty amount we give her each month to pay for her part of the rent in shared student housing and to cover her groceries, but it’s been worth it to foot the bill. And we’re maintaining firm boundaries in our financial support. We’re not enabling any poor money management in her. A couple of weeks ago, DD2 lost her job. It wasn’t her fault, and everything in me wanted to rescue her. But we held our line and were prepared to have her postpone her final year if necessary. No need to go there though! DD2 applied like mad to as many places as she could, and three days ago, she was accepted to a new position. Better location. Better pay. Better job. Better hours. Win-win-win-win! DD2 can walk to classes and cycle to work. She takes an easy bus ride to her training. She has had her best academic year to date, and last week-end she got a personal best time in one of her track events. She’ll be heading to Nationals next month.

More good news about our kids

Forgive me for bragging about my kids, but I really want to point out the inter-generational ripple effects of good financial health.

DD1 gained what I might call a “negative benefit” from our years of financial stress – which were characterized by unemployment and debt. She decided as a teenager that she would not make our mistakes. She has managed her finances carefully since that time, and she graduated without student debt three years ago. Eager to impart to her a “positive benefit” after starting our journey out of debt, I advised her to save 15% of her gross income once she started working. “What am I saving for?” she asked at the time. “I don’t need a car, and I don’t want a house.” I promised her that she would eventually want something, and that she would be very grateful for the savings. 15% of a low income adds up over three years, and this year, DD1 did indeed want something: She wanted to go to law school. This September, she will. And it looks like her first and second years will be covered by a combination of savings, scholarships, and part-time work.

DD3 had the benefit of being still quite young when we started to get our money act together. She’s heard more than she has cared to hear about the importance of delayed gratification, the ability say “no” to friends who always want to spend money, the freedom of choice that results from saving . . . When she started her first part-time job last summer, she automatically put 50% of her pay into a savings account – without being told to do so. She has some as yet uncertain goals for her savings – like living in a different city in a few years – and some very certain goals – like flying out west to visit DD1 for two weeks in July. As for a future career, she informs me on some days that she’s going to be a bar tender. On other days, she leans more towards working in the community with the developmentally delayed. She is free to choose her path as far as we’re concerned. And she’s setting herself up to have that freedom of choice. DD3 is experiencing the power of her own good management of her personal finances. And she’s still in high school.

Yes, our best year yet!

So although we paid off less in Year #4 than we did in each of the first three years of our journey out of debt, it’s been a great year! Our past of poor financial health is giving way to a strong present reality, and it’s opening up doors to our future – and into the next generation.


Your comments are welcome : )

*Image courtesy of Lenny&Meriel

Thanks for reading our report for May ’16! Please check out my weekly posts at Fruclassity.

Books for Attawapiskat: Ready to Learn?

By the end of the day yesterday, even more packages had arrived than those featured above.

Yes, this is still a blog about one couple’s journey out of debt – mine and my husband’s. And I will get back to that topic soon. Just not today.

Thank you!

I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone who has bought a book for the initiative that I wrote about last week. As you can see from the photo above, in just 1 week, we have received so many generous donations of books for the youth of Attawapiskat, a northern First Nations community in crisis. I personally have never been involved in something like this – that takes off through social networking. E-mails, Facebook, Twitter, blogs . . . They can certainly work their magic.

First Nations issues: It’s time to learn

Our Board of Education has, for the past several years, made a real push to have First Nations issues taught. I’ve been very, very slow to respond – partly because I feel so inadequately educated in this area myself. A younger teacher approached me about this a few months ago, and she said that the thing to do is to just start teaching even very basic lessons – because most of us know very little. When I went through school, I never even heard about the residential school system – which was ongoing at the time. (The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.) And as I grew up in a family and a church that encouraged an awareness of social issues, the plight of First Nations people in my own country was somehow never on my radar. I knew there were problems, but they baffled me, and the unacknowledged, silent belief that I have to admit I carried was that the root of the problems must lie with the First Nations people themselves.

I responded to the advice my young colleague gave me by offering to give a brief presentation on the history of the residential school system to the class of any teacher in our school who was interested. As it turns out, last week, the same week our Books for Attawapiskat initiative was unfolding, I gave my first lesson. I had significant angst as I prepared it – given my own ignorance, and having to make decisions about the level of detail to go into, what to focus upon,  what to leave out – all while making it fit neatly into one self-contained period of 75 minutes. I was nervous about giving my first presentation, but it went well.

As I prepared for it, the most significant thing I learned was the concept of intergenerational trauma. If a person has grown up in an institution, separated from family and community, and has been forbidden to speak the language, engage in the spiritual practices, wear the clothes, eat the food, develop the skills of his/her heritage – if that person has grown up silenced and micro-managed, every expression of self squashed, every minute of the day and night scheduled – if that person has grown up within a culture of normalized abuse, physical, mental, emotional, and even sexual – and then that person at the age of 18 is sent out either to return home or to make it in the world at large – what chance does that person have to find his/her place? Anywhere? As a spouse, a parent, a worker, a community member or leader, how functional is that person going to be? Now multiply that person by tens of thousands of people over seven generations. “Get over it,” just doesn’t cut it, does it.

The wake-up can lead to new strength

In both personal terms and in terms of society at large, the wake-up moment can allow for powerful change. As a debt-blogger, I know how important it was for me to “wake up” to the self-sabotaging personal finance chaos that paved the way to my own experience of financial distress. I have friends who have had a wake-up to alcoholism, drug addiction, or to negative patterns of codependency in relationships. As we survey history, it’s common for us to respond with, “How could they have let THAT happen? Couldn’t they see what was going on?” And no doubt, future generations will look back at us and wonder the same thing. As societies, we have wake-up moments too. We humans are so adept in our strategies of denial, and it’s very hard to break through them. But when we do, paradigm shifts happen. I know. My husband and I  have paid off 60% of our total debt.

There. It will be back to our journey out of debt next time. Thanks again to everyone who has supported our school’s initiative to help a First Nations community in crisis. We can now receive packages until May 19, so it isn’t too late to buy a book for the youth of Attawapikat.


 

Thanks for reading our report for April ’16! Please check out my weekly posts at Fruclassity.

Attawapiskat: Buy a Book – Support the Youth’s Vision of a Library

We are out of our depth in knowing how to respond . . .

Attawapiskat is a First Nations community of about 2,000 people located in northern Ontario. Earlier this month, Canadians were shocked by a cluster of suicide attempts among the community’s youth: 11 attempts in a single day.

As our collective focus turns in bewilderment to the realities of communities like Attawapiskat, Canadians are learning ugly truths about our history and our present. Uncomfortable personal prejudices are being exposed – and challenged. And while so many of us – whether Canadian or not – want to DO something about it, we are out of our depth in knowing how to respond to such depressing tragedy.

But we’ve been given some clues on how to “change the narrative”

In a recent Ottawa Citizen article, Elizabeth Payne writes, “A group of youth from the community . . . have held summits in recent days and have vowed to change the narrative in Attawapiskat, helping youth and others to find more outlets and support to reduce depression and suicide attempts, and to put the community onto a more positive path.”

Among the things that the youth of Attawapiskat have identified as part their vision for this changed narrative? A library.

The students and staff of Ridgemont High School in Ottawa would like to help make that vision come true. Here is a list of books that has been created by an English teacher at the school, in consultation with a contact person in Attawapiskat as well as youth from outside of the community who know which books young people like to read. We will need to have books ready to ship by Friday May 13, so please consider buying one now:

Click here to buy a book for the youth of Attawapiskat. When young people in crisis ask for a library, it’s time to listen.

* Image courtesy of Vijetha Vijayan

March 2016 Update: Temptation to Put Savings Against Debt

Mould developing on our stucco finish? Yikes! Motivations to save . . . 

DH = Dear Husband

Recap & our numbers

It’s the first Saturday of a new month – time for an update. To recap the whole story, DH and I have been on a journey out of debt since June of 2012 when our total debts added up to $257,000:

  • $21,000 in consumer debt
  • $81,000 debt for DH’s home business
  • $155,000 for our mortgage

We’d paid off the last of our consumer debt by the end of 2012. We paid off the last of our business debt in June of 2015. Following the steps outlined in Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, we started a two-pronged approach once we were debt-free except for the mortgage:

  1. We increased our savings, with an initial goal of building up a big emergency fund to see us through 3-6 months of loss of income.
  2. We started to pay down the mortgage as aggressively as possible.

Our mortgage now sits at $112,308.

Our emergency fund is 91% full. (DH does not want me to share dollar amounts when it comes to our assets.)

What if . . . ?

The next big milestone we’ll reach in our debt-reduction is to break the six-figure barrier. It will be a sweet moment when we go below $100,000. And here’s the temptation: we could do it now – by putting most of our emergency fund savings against the mortgage.

My history with savings

Saving has always been a challenge for me. In my discretionary account, I have set several savings goals for myself, but I have not achieved one of them. If I have any amount of money in my pocket, my purse, or my bank account, my compulsion is to spend it – despite the best of intentions. It has been this way since I was a teenager who spent all of her allowance – well before month’s end. “There’s a hole in your pocket,” a friend told me when I was a university student. “Money won’t stay in it.”

The big step forward I’ve made in terms of savings has been that since June of 2012, DH and I have not once used debt to pay for anything. Whether it was a new roof, a big vet bill, or home renovations, we have saved up for each big expense and paid for it outright. That is not something we EVER did before we started tackling our debts. But even now that I’m on track in many ways, when there is no specific goal – when I’m saving just to save “because it’s a good thing to do,” I don’t follow through. 

Good thing I’ve had a pension plan to invest in all of these years! I’m going to have a decent retirement income – not because of my own wisdom, but because of dumb luck. I had absolutely no appreciation for the Teachers’ Pension Plan when I started out in my career, financial head deeply stuck in the sand. It did not motivate my job choice. Nevertheless, with no say in the matter, I’ve been investing in it steadily all these years, and it will serve us well.

Why we’re following through with savings now

We’ve made great progress in our plan to save up an emergency fund for 2 reasons. And now we’ve got a third reason too:

  1. The concept of “emergency” isn’t vague for us. We know what “loss of income” is like. For six years, DH was underemployed/unemployed after the high-tech bust a decade and a half ago. He’s been running a successful home business for six years now, but there are no guarantees. Injury, illness, a shift in the industry . . . It’s not inconceivable that he might suffer a second “loss of income.” We really are motivated to have a 6-months buffer in case that happens.
  2. We have some big ticket item expenses on the horizon. Our van is 17 years old – and it looks it. We have enormous respect for that ’99 Dodge Caravan, and we’ll drive it until it breathes its last. Hopefully, it’s got another 17 years to go, but more likely, it will give out any day now. We plan not go into debt to replace it when that time comes, so even when our emergency fund is at 100%, we’ll have a motivation to keep on saving. Our furnace and A/C are turning 18 years old this year. They’ll need to be replaced soon too.
  3. Our house was built in 1998, and most of the houses on our street as well as an adjacent street were built within a year or two before or after it. The builder offered the option of a stucco finish on the outside, and we, like many others, chose it. About 5 years ago, some home owners started to notice a growing mould on the stucco finish. Apparently, the builder took the quick-and-easy route when it came to preparing for it, and the mould is a result. As far as I know, two owners have refinished their stucco. I know that one of them paid about $60,000 for it – and that was for a house that is smaller than ours. Ugh! Someone has sent around a flyer stirring up the idea of a lawsuit against the builder. Who knows what we’re in for? Whatever it is, we want to be ready for it.

Blessing in disguise?

Sometimes, we’re able to recognize a blessing in disguise, and I’m seeing one here. Our impending but not-yet-urgent needs to replace vehicle, furnace, A/C, and possibly stucco finish (YIKES!) are keeping us on our toes. And I in particular am in need of this kind of motivation to follow through on that very basic of financial fitness practices: saving.


Do you find it challenge to follow through with savings? What makes you more likely to follow through? Your comments are welcome.

Thanks for reading our report for March ’16! Please check out my weekly posts at Fruclassity.

 

February 2016 Report: Resolutions vs. Reality: Canadian Household Debt – Frozen

Frozen: Time for our household debt and debt-to-income ratio to melt down

DH = Dear Husband

Resolutions unmet – and becoming less possible

“Paying down debt will be a New Year’s resolution for a growing number of Canadians . . . Debt repayment has been cited as the top financial priority in CIBC’s annual survey for five years in a row.” The CBC ‘s report at the end of 2014 confirmed what I had seen at the bank for the second year in a row: a hand-out about Canadians’ top financial goals for the coming year. I saw a similar hand-out at the end of 2015. And guess what? Debt-repayment was still our top financial priority.

But our numbers suggest that we haven’t done so well at sticking to our resolutions. Average Canadian household debt keeps rising. And our average debt-to-income ratio keeps rising too – meaning that we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll succeed at tackling our debts. “In an analysis examining the economic risks of rising household debt, the Parliamentary Budget Officer predicts that the debt-to-income ratio will hit its highest level since 1990, reaching 174 per cent later this year, up from 171 per cent at the end of last year . . .” wrote The Globe and Mail’s Tasmin McMahon January 19, 2016. ‘That will leave Canadian households ‘increasingly vulnerable to negative shocks,’ such as rising interest rates or a drop in income’ . . .”

Debt-to-income ratio: “the acid test”

A household’s debt-to-income ratio is its total debt (credit cards, student loans, car loans, lines of credit, mortgages) divided by total take-home pay. In her book Broke: How Debt Bankrupts the Middle Class, Katherine Porter includes the work of Robert Lawless. “The acid test for the ability to service debts,” Lawless states, “is the ratio of debt to income” (Porter, p. 111).

Our years of high debt-to-income ratio

Like many Canadians, DH and I lived above our means for many years. Our “negative shock” came in the form of DH’s job loss in the late ’90s and a subsequent roller coaster ride of high-tech employment uncertainty that lasted until 2003 – when he got off the roller coaster, and onto a period of under/unemployment that lasted for six years. In 2008, our debt-to-income ratio was 315%. We didn’t know it at the time, and for my part, I certainly wouldn’t have understood what it meant even if I did.

Included in Lawless’ work is a table showing the average debt-to-income ratio of Americans who filed for bankruptcy in 2007.  It was 322%. American and Canadian stats are never exactly the same, but the point is clear that by 2008, we were in a very precarious financial situation.

In 2009, our fortunes turned when DH invested in his own business. It was an encouraging time, and as the business succeeded, our hopes rose. So did our debts. By 2010, while our household income had increased, our business line of credit peaked, and our debt-to-income ratio hit 350%.

Our resolution to pay down debt

For a while, we enjoyed an uneasy peace, happy to be “back to normal”, but checked by a vague sense that “normal” was hazardous. Our aha! moment came in June 2012 with a listen to Dave Ramsey’s CD book, The Total Money Makeover. Debt. The hazard was debt.  And we made our resolution to pay it down. By this point, although we still didn’t know it, our debt-to-income ratio was over 250%.

My awareness of debt-to-income ratio came after we were a few months into our debt-reduction. As a new debt-blogger, I had developed an awareness of news relating to finances – the type of news that, previously, had always been white noise to me. DH and I had both heard that Canada’s average household debt-to-income ratio had reached a record-breaking 163%. “That’s almost exactly where we are,” DH said at the time. But as I did some research for a blog post about it, I realized that wasn’t the case. The debt-to-income ratio is calculated with take-home pay – not gross income as DH had thought – and for the first time, we realized just how worse-than-average we had been.

Fast-forward to March 2016: our debt-to-income ratio is 90%. Having paid off all consumer debt and all business debt, we’re left with a mortgage that is shrinking by the month.

How have we done it?

DH and I were typical of middle-class Canadians as we lived above our means. We were typical in our acceptance of debt as normal. We shot way past typical in terms of debt-to-income ratio when our “negative shock” hit. And we were typical in making a resolution to pay our debt down. But we haven’t been typical in the way we’ve followed through. Because unlike most middle-class Canadians, we have followed through.

Every once in a while, a story like Sean Cooper’s hits the news. The single 30-year-old paid off his $425,000 home after only three years. Living in the basement of his house so that he could earn rental income from the main floor, he worked three jobs and lived a life of extreme frugality to accomplish this feat. I admire Cooper.

But our story isn’t like that.

We haven’t sold or rented out our home or our cars. Our take-home income has risen a bit since 2012, but by no more than 10%. I think that most people, when they consider what is necessary to pay down their debts, get subjected to a bombardment of extremes in their mind’s eye. Rice and beans. Every night. Peeing into bottles like those people on reality TV. Dumpster diving. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here is how we have made debt-reduction a reality and not just a resolution:

  • After realizing that we wanted to get out of debt, we accepted the counter-intuitive idea that it wasn’t about the money. It was about us. DH and I each did some soul-searching to uncover our respective “money blueprints“, and we started our journey out of debt with an understanding that our biggest obstacles would come from ourselves.
  • We have let go the compulsion to compare ourselves to others. People make different incomes and have different expenses – not to mention different values and tastes. It’s impossible to know who is financing their lifestyle with debt and who isn’t. And it doesn’t matter. We’re playing out our story, not anyone else’s.
  • We have argued – many times. You can call it “working things out”, but that makes it sound pleasant. It often isn’t. But it’s much, much more effective than being in denial.
  • We have tracked our expenses so that we know where our money goes.
  • We have created monthly budgets to be more proactive about where our money goes. (We have been very imperfect in budgeting. But that’s OK! The practices of budgeting and tracking end up reducing what we spend even if we blow it – simply because they have the effect of making us conscious spenders rather than mindless spenders.)
  • We have distinguished between “wants” and “needs”. We’ve cut out many wants, but not all of them. With a philosophy of value-based spending, we’ve been intentional about allowing ourselves some indulgences, and we budget discretionary money for that purpose. For needs, we’ve been more frugal where possible. (For food, we spend about half the amount we used to.)
  • We have come to appreciate the simple things in life. When you’re not travelling or hitting the town, there is time to go for walks, play board games, and have people over for a meal.
  • We’ve become more mindful of occasional big expenses – like our new roof or our dog’s surgery – and when they are coming up, we save for them. Not once have we used debt to finance anything in our almost 4 years of debt-reduction. The question used to be, “Can we afford to make the payments?” Now, the question is, “Can we can afford to pay for it outright?”
  • We keep ourselves accountable. By talking to DH as well as friends and family about all things personal finance (I’ve actually had to rein in on these conversations. Many people are not comfortable with money talk, and some consider it a matter of complete privacy. I think that these are harmful attitudes, but that’s the way it is.) and by blogging and reading other personal finance blogs, I have never given us the option of forgetting our resolution to pay off our debt.

If you’re in debt, let this be your time to turn things around. You don’t have to be extreme, but you do have to make changes. Wake up, look in the mirror, and face what it is you have to deal with. You don’t have to have it all together to make your resolution a reality.


If you have succeeded in paying down debt, what point would you add to the list above? If you haven’t succeeded in paying down debt, what has been your biggest obstacle? Your comments are welcome.

Thanks for reading our report for February ’16! Please check out my weekly posts at Fruclassity.

Shifting Down a Gear in Blogging

Ergonomics: My new laptop stand raises up my screen so that I don’t have to bend my head and strain my neck.

DH = Dear Husband

Muscle spasm in my neck . . . and a wake-up call

Saturday January 23, I woke up with a bad head-ache, and it didn’t go away with Tylenol or Advil. I tried to go to work on Monday the 25th, but I had to leave in the early afternoon because the head-ache just took over. It was worrisome when we didn’t know what was causing it – since I don’t have a history of prolonged head-aches – to the extent that on day 6, I followed my doctor’s orders and went in for an emergency CT scan. When the results of that test came back negative, further check-ups resulted in the discovery of a muscle spasm in my neck.

I ended up missing almost two weeks of work, and besides taking prescribed anti-inflammatory medication, I got help from a physiotherapist as well as an occupational therapist. Good posture has always been a struggle for me (the fate of many tall girls of my generation who slouched to be shorter), and in default mode, my neck and head strain forward. I have to work at keeping my shoulders back and my chin tucked in. Through my consultation with the occupational therapist, I realized that both at home and at work, I wasn’t well set up ergonomically. My computer screens in both settings were too low, requiring my head to bend down, putting a strain on my neck.

I bought a laptop stand for home, and my place of work provides ergonomic assessments and solutions, so all is on track for a healthy outcome. The thing is, my neck spasm episode made me realize that I spend too much time on computers. At work, in a high school library, about 50% of my day is spent looking at a monitor. And at home, I blog. There isn’t much I can do about computer time at work, so the modification has to come from my time at home. From blogging.

How to reduce computer time?

If you’ve been following our journey out of debt for any amount of time, you no doubt know that I write a weekly post here at Prudence Debtfree, and a weekly post at Fruclassity, a site that I run along with fellow debt-blogger Laurie, from The Frugal Farmer. I see the two blogs are serving different purposes. Prudence Debtfree tells our story – DH’s and mine – as we make our way to debt-freedom. Fruclassity is a meeting place for people who are on the road to debt-freedom and financial freedom, providing a forum to explore different strategies and points of view when it comes to all things personal finance.

Prudence Debtfree

I started writing as Prudence Debtfree in May of 2012 when DH and I were getting set to start our journey out of debt. We took our first steps in June of  2012 with a total debt – consumer debt, business debt, mortgage debt – of $257,000, and a debt-to-income ratio that was way above the national average, not to mention way too high for people our age. Since that time, we have paid off all consumer debt and all business debt, besides making our regular mortgage payments, and we’re now down to a total debt of $114,000 – mortgage only. Our debt-to-income ratio is now way below average. It’s strange to say it, but relatively speaking, our personal finances are in good shape.

Fruclassity

Laurie and I started Fruclassity less than a year ago, with a mission to provide a welcoming, open place for people trying to get to a state of better financial health. Laurie and I had a lot in common:

  • a history of flawed money management
  • a wake-up call in the form of job loss (our husbands’)
  • a determination to pay off debt
  • the experience of both encouragement and obstacles on the way to debt-freedom

We also each knew that while we admired the “badasses” of frugality – like Mr. Money Mustache –  we weren’t total subscribers to that extreme. And so Fruclassity was born. A combination of “frugality” and “class”. For the not-so-badass.

A choice to make

In knowing I had to cut back, I had to decide where: Prudence Debtfree? or Fruclassity? A tough choice! I love both of them. But here is where I am in my thinking:

DH and I are now on the last long stretch of our journey to debt-freedom. We’ve got a plan in place for steady savings as well as debt repayments, and we plan to execute it until our mortgage is $0. In all likelihood, that will take another three and a half years. I think that personal stories of debt-reduction are very important in an era when levels of personal debt are at record breaking highs and compromising so many lives. So I don’t want to stop telling ours.

Much as my personal vision for debt-freedom inspires me, the vision behind Fruclassity inspires me more. I believe that Western society as a whole is ready for a tipping point – away from debt, excess, waste – and that our individual stories will more quickly and constructively usher in that tipping point if they work together. Fruclassity‘s mandate aligns so well with that belief. And so I’m choosing to give it the priority.

I’ll continue to give updates on our personal journey to debt-freedom here at Prudence Debtfree – once per month. You’ll see our first monthly update starting next Saturday. On a weekly basis, I’ll link to whatever it is I’ve written for Fruclassity. Nothing is set in stone, and I can always shift again some time down the road, but for now, that’s my blogging plan.

Thank you

Let me just say how much I appreciate you for reading our story. I am so grateful for people who comment regularly, and for people who make the point of letting me know – in person, by e-mail, or maybe even a single comment  – that they’ve found something at Prudence Debtfree to help them along in their own situation. My stats suggest there are many more readers I don’t hear from, and I thank you too. I hope you’ll all keep coming by, whether to check on our latest monthly update or to be linked to Fruclassity – where I know you will continue to find allies as you harness your efforts and move against the grain towards financial health, confidence, and freedom.


Have you ever experienced a computer-related physical strain? Have you ever had to make the choice to cut back on something you love? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

Heavy Debt: One Shovelful At A Time

The plow left a heavy, dense snow bank at the end of our driveway.

  • DH = Dear Husband
  • DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

Snowstorm

Where I live, we got 20 inches (51 cm) of snow Tuesday. “I’m going snowboarding with Phil tonight. I’ll be leaving before you get home,” DH told me over the phone when I was still at work. DH loves snowboarding on freshly fallen powder, and conditions were too ideal to pass up. He sounded a bit tentative though, and I wanted to reassure him. “Great! Have fun!” I said. He told me that he had already shoveled the driveway twice and that he would again before he left . . . “but the plow hasn’t come by yet.”

Light snow vs. plowed snow at the end of the driveway 

If you live in a place where snow happens, you know what that means. Snow that falls on your driveway is easy to shovel. It’s light and fluffy. But the snow that a plow leaves at the end of your driveway after clearing the street is a different thing altogether. It’s compressed. Hard. Heavy. (Click here to continue reading.)

Paying off The Mortgage: Start of Steady Pace for The Last Long Stretch

Lacing up for the last long stretch to the finish line. (I won’t forget my other shoe.)

DH = Dear Husband

Trouble hitting our stride

We’ve been having trouble hitting our stride in this last long stretch of our debt repayment. After paying off all consumer debt ($21,000) and all business debt ($81,000), we’re left with:

  • an emergency fund to save
  • long-term retirement to invest in
  • our remaining mortgage to pay off

We’re following Dave Ramsey’s steps as outlined in his book The Total Money Makeover, and I found our mission a lot more clear when it was all about paying off all non-mortgage debt (step #2). Since savings have become a significant part of our remaining steps, I’ve been conflicted.

  • What will be covered by the emergency fund?
  • What won’t be?
  • Will there be a definite line between our short-term savings and our retirement investments?
  • Should our long-term investments be untouchable (in Canada, that means RRSPs*)?
  • Or something from which we can withdraw if needed (TFSAs*)?
  • How much should we be putting against the mortgage as we save?
  • What do we do with extra money when DH has a good business month?
  • Do we cut back on savings or on the mortgage payment when he has a slow month?

When I don’t have clarity about where things are going, my financial mind easily slips back into the chaotic mush that it was when I chose to keep it in the sand. Yes, we’re trying to pay off the mortgage. Yes, we’re trying to save and invest. But what does that look like? We’ve been trying to figure that out for months now. And I’m happy to say that we’ve got it.

Our mortgage

We just renewed our mortgage, and in March, our new agreement will take effect. It’s a 4-year term for the remaining $114,000 owing, and our hope is that we’ll pay it off  early. We’ve increased our monthly payments from $1,087 to $1,500. We have the option to pay extra each month to a maximum of $3,000. We have the option to put down a single lump-sum amount each year to a maximum of $18,000. We also have the option of skipping one payment per year – more than one if we’ve put down extra payments in that same year, to a maximum that equals the total in extra payments.

Our savings

For our savings, we have 3 destinations.

  1. The emergency fund to cover 3-6 months of expenses in the case of a loss of income.
  2. The car fund. Our 2011 Ford Focus is going strong, but we also have a 1999 Dodge Caravan. It might last another 17 years (let’s hope!) but it could also conk out any time now.
  3. The furnace/AC fund. Our furnace and AC are going to turn 18-years-old this year. Again, we’re facing conk out at any time.

 

The line between e-fund & other savings?

The line between short-term savings & long-term investments?

The thing is, if our furnace died today, that would be an emergency (-40 with the wind chill). We would not be in a position to say, “We’ll just have to wait until our furnace/AC account is funded after the e-fund is full.” We would have to take from any and all savings accounts to pay for it.

The other thing is that once we have our e-fund fully saved, we won’t be able to say, “Done!” We’ll still have to keep saving for the other two accounts. We will need a very significant amount of accessible money relatively short-term before we start investing long-term.

So how do we play that out? And how do we play it out with our mortgage payoff goals on top of it?

Strategy for a “normal” month

In a normal month (what’s that?), we will put a fixed amount into our savings accounts which are all in TFSAs. I can’t tell you what that amount is because although DH is OK with me sharing our debt numbers, he’s not OK with me sharing our savings numbers. I will tell you that the amount equals 15% of DH’s gross income plus 5% of my gross income. 10% of my gross income is already being invested in my pension plan, so that means we’re on track to abide by Ramsey’s recommendation of investing 15% of gross income as we pay off the mortgage.

As I’ve said, once our e-fund is full, we’ll still need to save for the short term, so we’ll keep saving/investing in TFSAs until all 3 funds (emergency, car, furnace/AC) are at their target. At that point, we’ll start dividing our investments between our long-neglected RRSPs (in which we haven’t invested for 12 years – since DH’s career crisis) and more TFSAs. So in answer to the question, “Will there be a definite line between our short-term savings and our long-term retirement investments?” the answer is “No.” There will be a wide fuzzy line representing a large amount that could go either way.

In that same normal month, we will put an extra $700 against our mortgage, bringing it up from $1,500 to $2,200.

Strategy for “abnormal” months

When a month is not normal, this is what we’ll do:

If DH has a whopper month of business, we will put all extra income against the mortgage to a maximum of $3,000. Any additional extra money will go into yet another fund: one that will hopefully accumulate into a large lump-sum that we’ll be able to put against the mortgage once per year. So all extra income will target mortgage repayment.

If DH has a slow month of business, we will not put anything extra against the mortgage. If we can’t manage our payment of $1,500, we will …

  • supplement with money saved in the “lump sum” fund – and if there isn’t any, we will …
  • put less into our savings than the fixed monthly amount – and if there still isn’t enough, we will …
  • skip a mortgage payment.

Our “normal” mortgage payments of $2,200 per month won’t bring us to our finish line within less than four years. Our hope is that the “abnormal” good months will see us to that goal.

Does this all make sense to you? I hope it does, but I guess the important thing is that it makes sense to us. With savings and investments in the mix, our debt-repayment pace will be slower than it was before, and there’s still such a long way to go. But if that pace is steady, it won’t matter that it’s slower. We’ll still be making progress on this last long stretch to the finish line.


Do you have trouble finding the lines between savings and debt-repayment? Long-term investments and short-term savings? Your comments are welcome.

 

* RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan) contributions are similar to 401(k) contributions in the US. The investment is not taxed until it is withdrawn, so it only makes sense to withdraw in retirement. A TFSA (Tax-Free Savings Account) is saved with after-tax money. There is no taxation upon withdrawal, so these funds are more flexible. It makes sense to withdraw either after retirement or before if needed.  

 

 

 

Yann Martel’s Visit To Our School – His Old High School

Yann Martel speaking to our students

Yann Martel’s favourite teachers

I remember finding out, after reading Life of Pi, that’s its author Yann Martel was Canadian. Like most Canadians, I’m always proud when I realize that one of our own has achieved great success on the world stage. And Life of Pi was a great success – exponentially so when it was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 2012.

Last year, a journalist phoned the high school where I work as a teacher and librarian. He had been interviewing Yann Martel about his favourite teachers, and two of them had retired from our school. Did we know how to get in touch with them?

What?! I thought at the time. Yann Martel was a student at our school? An old yearbook proved it to be true! For a few years in the late ’70s, he had walked our corridors. We were able to get the contact information for the two retired teachers, and the journalist expressed his gratitude. I asked him if he would be willing to give me the contact information for Martel’s publicist. “We would love to have him visit our school the next time he’s in town,” I explained. “We are pretty proud to know that he was a student here.”

Contact

The journalist gave me the publicist’s contact information, and I spent some time creating an e-mail message to send to her. The book Life of Pi suggested to me that its author loved multi-cultural diversity.  Asian, European, and North American influences weave together in the novel with the faiths of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and even animism to produce a rich, abundant whole of many dimensions. And I knew what our school had been in the late ’70s. It had been like my own, neighbouring high school at the same time: white middle-class. In the years since, our hallways and classrooms have been enriched by the presence of students from over 60 nations from around the world. More faiths, more languages, more cultures than found even in Life of Pi. I thought that Martel would appreciate that fact, and I wrote of it in the e-mail message that I sent off to his publicist at the end of March 2015. It was a long shot, and as the weeks went by without response, I accepted that it wasn’t going to go anywhere.

Fast forward to mid-June of 2015, and my incredulous delight at seeing in my e-mail inbox the name of Yann Martel. He apologized for the delay. Explained that he and his wife had just welcomed their fourth child into the family. That things had been especially busy as he was finishing up his next book. And that he would be happy to visit our school “one of these years.” I was thrilled! What a friendly, humble, considerate person! A few more back-and-forth messages confirmed his interest in the school – “Glad to hear it’s more diverse than it used to be,” he said – and his genuine intention of visiting at some point.

Book tour for The High Mountains of Portugal

Fast forward again to this past week – with me at home recovering from a muscle spasm in my neck (more on that later). I had heard of Martel’s new book, The High Mountains of Portugaland of the fact that our city would be included in his tour to launch the novel. “He’s going to be speaking downtown this Friday evening,” came the e-mail from a fellow fan. “Hope to see you there!” I had no idea for how long he would be in Ottawa. Without knowing whether or not he would still be here next week when I was back at work, I decided to send him an e-mail. Would he be able to visit the school while he was in town? Even just for a few minutes? “I’m sure your time is not your own at this point, but I wanted to extend the invitation.”

I was to find out later that his visit to our city would last less than 24 hours. At home Friday morning, around 11:00 – just before going to a physio appointment for my neck – I checked my e-mail. Lucky I did! There was a message from someone I didn’t know. “Yann passed on your email to me. I am the publicist looking after his schedule in Ottawa. I just called the school but I was not able to reach you. I hope you receive this email. Yann does have some time but it is later in the day at 3:00pm. If that timing works I would be happy to bring him to the school for a short visit.” Today! I thought. In a matter of hours! It didn’t matter that his visit would be short. It didn’t matter that we wouldn’t really be prepared for it. I phoned the school, e-mailed staff with the news, and dashed off to my physio appointment.

Welcome back, Yann Martel!

It felt good to be back at work a little earlier than the doctor had ordered. There was a buzz of excitement in the library as students and staff moved tables aside and lined up rows of chairs for the arrival of our special guest. Soon, the English classes that had been invited to attend the event came through the library doors. Students were impressed at the thought of seeing the man behind the movie Life of Pi. For the teachers, it was something more. For one in particular, the prospect of meeting Yann Martel was beyond exciting; it was overwhelming. By 2:50, all chairs were filled, and we just had to wait. “We’re on our way!” the publicist had texted me.

“I’m going to talk,” I said to another teacher. “If I run out of things to say, will you take over?” He said he would, and I introduced our speaker to the students – before his arrival. I told them about his books and the blockbuster movie. I told them that he had attended our school, and about how this visit had come to be. When I did indeed run out of things to say, my colleague took over. “We’re always happy to host visiting authors,” he stated, “but I want you to understand that the person we are going to hear from today . . . is a rock star.” I was keeping a constant look-out, and then, there he was! Yann Martel had arrived.

A visit of just over ten minutes goes by too quickly. Most students needed to catch buses right after the bell rang at 3:10, but those who could stay lingered until he had to leave at 3:45 – to say thanks, shake hands, and take selfies with our guest. He had spoken of his time in high school, of his early efforts in writing, of the perspectives offered in Life of Pi. And our students got to see someone who had been in the same classrooms that they enter every day, and who had gone on to incredible success in the pursuit of what he loved. Hundreds of people bought tickets to see Martel Friday night. But our students had the honour of knowing that he considered it worthwhile to speak with them at no charge. And although he had a jam-packed visit of less than 24 hours to our city – Yann Martel had chosen to give one of those hours to the students of his old high school.

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This post has nothing to do with our journey out of debt, but sometimes, something so cool happens that you have to share it : ) Have you read Life of Pi? Have you ever met someone who is a “rock star” to you? Your comments are welcome.