PF Progress Without Margin = Mess-up

Ever felt like you had a stone in the pit of your stomach after you messed up?

DH = Dear Husband

That moment you realized you’d messed up

Think of a time when you realized you had messed up. When you realized you had made a pretty glaring error in judgement. When you found yourself thinking, How did I let that happen? Why did I ignore all of the multiple indicators that should have led me a different way? Once you have your mess-up time in mind, can you call back the way you felt? That, my friends, is how I’m feeling now.

It was an error in judgement at work, and I won’t go into details. I’ll just say that I left work yesterday with the angst of a stone in my gut, went directly up to my room when I got home, and since everyone else was happily occupied, I was able to give way to the longing to stay there for the rest of the afternoon, through the evening, and overnight. I woke up this morning in the same clothes I’d worn in the afternoon. Silver lining? I had a great sleep.

Connection to debt-reduction? Margin

Have I painted a pathetic enough picture of my Friday night? And what’s the point in relation to debt reduction? Well, I’m trying to find one, and I think I’ve got it: I don’t think I would have made that error in judgement if I hadn’t been so swamped. End of school year wrap-up, graduation preparations, summer school co-op placements to find, two blog sites on the go – on top of household and family. Some people can take this kind of multiple-responsibility package in stride. But I can’t. And I know that about myself. So why didn’t I establish the boundaries that I know I need to function at my best?

I remember seeing a film entitled Margin about fifteen years ago. I can’t find it on Google – I only remember the title, and by now, there are so many videos and books using that word. The video I’m referring to is about 20 years old, and it focuses upon the widespread need in our culture to step back and simplify. The professor who narrates makes the point that when it comes to our collective management of time, we leave little to no margin. There is no time for the experience of anticipation. There is no time for reflection or rest. It’s just one task after another after another … And it’s not good.

When I consider what it is that propels me onto a margin-less treadmill, it’s ultimately consumerism – and debt. We work hard so that we can pay off what we purchased yesterday. We burn out, and we purchase for today as a means of self-medication. On credit. So that we need to work hard tomorrow to pay for it. And even though DH and I have this figured out now, and we’re not purchasing with a debt that our future selves will have to pay, we’re still left with the consequences and debt of our habits from the past. We’re making great headway. But even in our progress towards debt-freedom, we need margin. And I think that’s my point.

Tension between inspiration and nagging

Anyone trying to get out of debt has to change things up. Spend less, earn more, devote time to tracking and budgeting. That’s it in a nutshell, but within that nutshell, there are all kinds of variations. Reading about measures of extreme frugality can inspire me – but it can also have the effect of nagging at me. Why aren’t YOU cutting back more? Opportunities to take on additional paid work, in my case teaching summer school, can bring on encouraging windfalls and take out big chunks of debt – but again, there’s that nagging. You could teach night school or Saturday school and earn still more. Even with budgeting and tracking, there’s a continuum. No end of spreadsheets and analysis and finding ways to tweak the details.

Beware: self-defeating path ahead

If you’re invested in turning your personal finances around, you’ve probably experienced this tension between inspiration and nagging. Inherent in the whole effort is the danger of a self-defeating path:

  • You feel inspired to reach a new level (of frugality or income or analysis of your finances)
  • Once you attain that level, you get a nagging sense that it’s not enough  because others are doing more.
  • You either burn out or get defensive.
  • Burnout leads you to quit
  • Defensiveness makes you uninspired and stuck.

I don’t want to burn out, and I don’t want to wall myself in defenses. But I do want some margin. And of course, now that the regular school year is over, I have it. I can focus on summer school without doing double duty. I went into June knowing that I would be dealing with work overload, but I didn’t set myself up to manage it well. It’s just one month, I thought. I can do it. No. I couldn’t. At least not well. And I have this stone in the pit of my gut as a result. Regarding my mess-up at work, if I’d built in more margin for myself, it wouldn’t have happened. I’d have taken the time to consult, to research, to rework. But as it was, things were rushed and cramped. A recipe for messing up.

Right now, I’d like to self-medicate by dropping $150 or so on a 90-minute massage. That would work – for about 90 minutes. But I won’t do that. I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’m just glad I’ll have the margin necessary to figure it out. And by next Saturday, I promise I won’t be so glum.


Can you relate to that tight rope between inspiration and nagging? Do you manage to build margin in your life? Have you ever messed up and felt AWFUL about it?

 

 

 

Business Debt ELIMINATED! Debt-Free Except for the Mortgage

Cycling on our good old bikes

  • DH = Dear Husband
  • DD1 = Dear First Daughter

“I think we can do it . . . today.”

Last Saturday, DH came upstairs. He’d been working non-stop, a strange burst of business having recently erupted. I was getting my Saturday morning blog post ready to publish. “I think we can do it . . .” He paused, “. . . today.” I didn’t have to ask what “it” was. He was saying that we could pay off the business debt. The debt that was just shy of $81,000 in December of 2012. The debt that we had been paying off for over 30 months. The debt that I had really, REALLY wanted to pay off at the end of May to mark the 3rd anniversary of our journey out of all debt. The debt that I had resigned myself to having around for another couple of months. And now, only two weeks later, DH was saying we could do it.

In that surreal moment, I deliberately chose calm. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Maybe it would be a good idea to wait until the end of the month.” “Yeah,” DH agreed. I strongly suspected that he was calling my bluff. That he thought I’d say, “No, no! Let’s go now!” I was the impatient one after all. He was the measured, logical, careful one. “OK,” I said instead.

Silence . . . until DH broke it. “Let’s go now.”

Our progress symbolized

We got on our bicycles. His is 20 years old. Mine is a double hand-me-down. It was my dad’s until he gave it to DD1 in 2006, and then mine since DD1 moved out west in 2011. We cycled to the bank and deposited that last $5,500 remaining on our business debt. Tim Hortons was just across the parking lot, but we didn’t even discuss the idea of indulging in a celebratory coffee or muffin. We cycled home. Slowly. A bit stunned. Chatting disjointedly about the beauty of the day. And what we had just done.

I think that so much of our excursion to the bank symbolizes our progress from having:

  • $21,000 in consumer debt
  • $81,000 in business debt
  • $155,000 in mortgage debt
  • a household debt-to-income ratio* of 254% – way above the record breaking Canadian average of 164%

– to having:

  • no consumer debt
  • no business debt
  • $128,000 in mortgage debt
  • a household debt-to-income ratio* of  113% – way below the record breaking Canadian average of 164%

We decided to cycle instead of drive over to the bank. Since starting our journey out of debt, we’ve become more attuned to the richness of simple pleasures. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a distance of 5 km (3 miles). Why would we drive? We weren’t cycling to save on gas. But we did save on gas. Our capacity to enjoy the simple things has developed with less travel and more soaking in the local scene. Less dining out and more slow home cooking. Fewer nights on the town for things like big screen movies, plays, concerts, and comedy clubs – and more nights at home playing board games, watching small screen movies, hanging out with friends and family.

Our bicycles are old. For many years, we continued to ride those bikes because of DH’s uncertain employment and low income. After DH’s home business got off the ground, we had the means to buy new – but we didn’t. Our debt-free mission has meant not only old bikes, but an old van. It turned 16 in January. It’s meant old furniture and old carpets – all thinning out, tearing, faded, and stained here and there, after 17 years of not-so-gentle use by a family of five with three growing children. We live in a neighbourhood where bikes, cars, furniture, and carpets are often new and shiny. We have chosen not to worry about keeping up with the Jonses. As long as it still functions, we choose old.

We made an event of it. DH and I almost never go to the bank together to deposit cheques. But this was a super significant milestone – not only debt-free except for the mortgage, but also a passing of the half-way point on our total debt. Our focus on debt reduction has heightened our awareness of our numbers when it comes to personal finances. I used to be the poster child for unconscious spending and chaotic money management. I honestly couldn’t have told you what our debts were for, how much they added up to, what bills we paid, what our groceries cost, how much we spent on gifts, how much we spent in restaurants and coffee shops … My head was entirely in the sand. But I’ve yanked it out, and I’m intentional about joining DH in looking at all the details. And as we address those details, the bigger picture comes into focus too, and we’re able to mark the milestones as we pass them.

We didn’t buy anything at Tim Hortons. Later, as we had planned in advance, we did indulge in some sparkling wine (left over from the New Year) and a wonderful meal at DH’s favourite restaurant. But Timmie’s wasn’t in our plans – so we didn’t go. It used to be that I would spend on impulse regularly. I haven’t completely eliminated that tendency, but in the last three years, I have spent far less on spontaneous urges to buy snacks and meals, and nothing on unplanned clothing or gift purchases. When we spend, it’s almost always because we’ve planned and budgeted for it.

DH and I cycled to the bank together. Our journey out of debt is something we have taken on together. I have a friend who often mentions that ever since DH and I started working on our finances, she has seen plenty of evidence of a better relationship overall. More joking, affection, respect. I have politely accepted her observations without necessarily believing them. But then DD1 – who has been living away from home for the last four years and only sees us once every six months or so – recently told me that she has noticed it too. Who knew that the drudgery of making budgets and tracking expenditures together would have a bonding impact?

Initial changes?

I’ve already noticed little changes. Someone asked me yesterday why I had chosen to teach summer school, and I said, “We want to pay off the mortgage before we retire.” Her response was, “Yep. That’s the smart thing to do. Get rid of that mortgage.” I always used to say something like, “We’re trying to get out of debt. My husband lost his job in the high-tech bust and we got ourselves into quite a debt hole.” The response would usually be a respectful and somewhat sympathetic nod of the head. So there’s been a shift. I’m no longer the object of sympathy. I’m “smart”.

About a year and half ago, a friend of DH’s shared a YouTube audio recording of Anthony de Mello, and we found it to be a great listen. One of the things de Mello said that has stuck with me was that happiness is not found in the acquisition of things. It’s found in the shedding of things. By “things”, he meant material goods, all kinds of dependencies, and limiting beliefs that we stubbornly cling to. Debt is one of those things that needs to be shed in a pursuit of happiness. Debt that is accumulated in a drive for “lifestyle” and material goods, in bondage to dependencies, and in a tenacious effort to support limiting beliefs. We’ve dropped a burden. And in the absence of that weight there’s a strange lightness. A bit of a giddiness. A new happiness.


Your comments are welcome.

* To calculate your debt-to-income ratio, divide your total debt (including mortgage) by your total take-home income (after taxes).

 

Reflections From My 90-Year Old Mother

Today’s preacher – on her 90th birthday last November

I sat down at the computer this morning, ready to write a post about a significant expense that is coming our way. I wrote about DH’s “brace-lift” over at Fruclassity a couple of days ago, and I was prepared to share an even more significant new expense today. But when I sat down, “my gut”, as Laurie put it in a recent post, told me not to. At least not today.

What I feel led to post today is a 7-minute audio recording of my mother. She is 90 years old, and I want to be like her when I grow up. She is frail, but she still volunteers on church committees and in the community, helping the elderly (!) and the physically and mentally challenged. She still hosts bridge parties and has a great network of friends.

At one of her church committee meetings, she presented the “opening reflection”. The church minister was so impressed with it that she asked my mom to present it to the whole congregation. In February, she did. Two of my sisters and I were able to attend the service, and we were so moved. So proud.

Do you  have 7 minutes? If you listen and are touched by her words, please leave a comment. I’ll share it with my mom.

(Click “Listen to the audio recording”. I tried to embed the recording, but it’s much clearer this way.)

 


Your comments are welcome. I’ll share them with my mom.

 

 

Monopoly and Debt Repayment

  • DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
  • DH = Dear Husband

DD3 vs. me

One of the byproducts of our more frugal lifestyle is that we stay in and do things like play board games more often. I tried to teach DD3, when we first ramped up the frequency of our Monopoly games, to DO something with her money. She would pass Go, collect $200 . . . and then just let that money sit there. She wouldn’t buy every property she landed on as I did. “You’ve got to buy more properties,” I explained, “to increase your chances of getting a full set so that you can put up houses and hotels. That’s how you win.” And when she finally did secure a full property set, she wouldn’t get houses as soon as she could afford them. I’d think to myself, She’s got all of those properties and all of that money, but it’s not doing her any good. For my part, I would max out in my house-buying, keeping just enough money aside in case I landed on one of DD3’s more dangerous properties. DD3, on the other hand, would take forever to spend $300 from her $2,000 stash for one house per space. Why not buy two? Why not three? You’ve got the money! I found it frustrating, but I kept my mouth shut. She would just have to learn the hard way.

My “bad luck”

Inevitably, things would go wrong. For me. The stash of cash I kept “just in case” would drain quickly in one unfortunate round:

  • A Chance card: “Pay poor tax of $15”.
  • The Luxury Tax space: $75.
  • A Community Chest card: “Pay hospital $100.”
  • The Go To Jail space (no $200 for passing Go this time). $50 to get out of jail.
  • Then – Arrgh! A landing  on DD3’s property with the house on it.

My cash already drained, I’d have to mortgage one of my properties. The beginning of the end for me. Just bad luck, I thought the first few times. But when bad luck keeps revisiting, you have to take a closer look. Maybe there was something to be learned from DD3’s stubborn insistence upon saving – her painfully measured way of spending. And maybe I needed to take a closer look at my own game. Why such a compulsion to spend as much as possible and to save as little as possible?

A close look at losing in real time

With a new awareness of DD3’s superior Monopoly wisdom, I played with her again a couple of times this past week. Same results! Only this time, I was conscious of each disastrous step in real time. Here are a couple of snapshots of my thinking:

  • Ugh! I didn’t buy a green property last time around, and here I am landing on one again. I’d have two now if I’d bought the first time. If I land on a green again next round, I’ll kick myself for not having taken advantage of this opportunity.
  • DD3 has 3 houses on each of her orange properties – and over $2,000 in cash. I have the advantage of owning more properties, but I only have $400. Still, I’d better buy some houses because I have to benefit from my property advantage.

In the end, I had to mortgage two of those green properties I felt compelled to buy. And when DD3 had hotels on her orange properties, I landed on one – cash strapped. Those houses I’d bought did nothing for me. It was game over.

Connections to my real money management?

I can see two connections between my modus operandi in Monopoly and my real life personal finances:

  1. My discretionary account is always bone dry by the end of each month. While DH manages to save a little from his discretionary allowance (exactly the same as mine) – to the point where he can go away for a week-end of snowboarding – I consistently spend it all, often cheating and borrowing from the next month before it arrives.
  2. My disagreement with DH last week stemmed from my greater desire to get rid of our money (in a positive way – by paying off debt) than to save it. I referred to our savings as “sucking my momentum”.

Soul searching

Mrs. Frugalwoods wrote an excellent post this past week about her former fear of spending. “Saving money isn’t the worst default position …” she noted. “The problem is that I was saving from a place of fear, not a place of strength.” If I try to identify the “place” from which I have rid myself of money throughout my whole life – clearly including the present – I would have to say it has been a place of panic. It’s even evident in my thoughts and advice on Monopoly.

  • “You’ve got to buy more . . . That’s how you win.”
  • I would max out in my house-buying …
  • … I’ll kick myself for not having taken advantage of this opportunity.
  • … I’d better buy some houses because I have to benefit from my property advantage.

These are not thoughts and words of calm confidence; there’s a tense compulsion to them. A fear that time and chance are going to pass me by. A dread that the future will provide no opportunity. Maybe I’ve got the youngest-of-5 syndrome? Make a mad dash to the counter to get a cookie before they’re all gone. I’ve got to mellow out. I’ve got to have more faith. More confidence that no mad dash is necessary – that there’s a cookie on the counter with my name on it, and it’s not going anywhere until I get there.

Looking ahead

We’re coming to a point in our “Total Money Makeover” (Dave Ramsey style), when savings will play just as great a role as paying off the mortgage – the last debt standing. There will be a hefty emergency fund to save. There will be greater investments towards our retirement. There will be short-term savings for cars, furnace, air-conditioning. All this in the face of soon-to-be greater expenses. (More on that later.) We will have to be measured in all aspects of our finances, and there will be no room for my panic.

Awareness is the first step to any positive outcome, and so I’m hopeful that I can get a handle on my money-ridding compulsion. I used to spend it all chaotically. In the last 3 years, I’ve thrown it against debt, hand over fist. I have to learn how to just hold it. Save it. Watch it grow. A few lessons from DD3, a few more games of Monopoly – it might just do the trick.


Does fear play a role in your management of finances? A fear of spending and a compulsion to save? A panic to spend and an aversion to saving? What’s your strategy in Monopoly? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

 

3rd Anniversary of Debt Reduction: $123,000 Down

Authenticity in blog-writing

From day one of writing this blog, I said I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted to give a genuine picture of what it looks like to get out of debt. Much of the debt-reduction advice and testimonial out there has a  “Rah-rah!” tone to it, and I’m all for it. Sometimes, I’m leading the cheer. But not today. It’s our third anniversary of debt-reduction, and our numbers show great progress, so what’s my problem?

My disagreement with DH re. accidental TFSA

I feel rather petty admitting to it, but I really wanted to have Debt #3, our business debt, paid off by the end of May. Why? So that we could reach a hugely significant milestone on this anniversary date, and I could write for my title of today’s post, “3rd Anniversary of Debt Reduction: Debt #3 ELIMINATED!” It could have been, but DH and I are in a disagreement, and he is winning. Debt #3 today sits at $5,500, down from an original $80,800. Way down. But still there.

In April 2012, just a month before we started our journey out of debt, we opened up a tax-free savings account (TFSA), and began depositing $101 per month into it. We were floundering at the time, knowing that our finances were in a mess, knowing that we needed to reduce debt and save, but having no strategy. Once we read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, we had our starting strategy:

  • Have a small emergency fund on hand ($1,000) and take part in any employer matching program that might be offered through your work for retirement savings.
  • Otherwise, focus exclusively on debt-reduction, starting with the smallest debt, until you are debt-free except for the mortgage.
  • Save a big emergency fund.

Psychological vs. logical debtors

If the penalties aren’t too severe, advises Ramsey, put any savings you have against your debt. In my mind, that includes an accidental TFSA that has, over the last three years, quietly grown to just about $4,000. We could today cash in, find another $1,500, and Tah-Dah! But here is where our fundamental personality differences come into conflict:

  • I am a psychological debtor. Ramsey’s assertion that debt-reduction is more about psychology than it is about logic goes double for me. It’s why he advises paying off the smallest debt first. Logically, it makes more sense to focus upon the debt with the highest interest rate, but the encouragement that comes with being able to say, “I did it! It’s all gone!” is worth its weight in gold in terms of the motivation it gives debtors to keep forging ahead. For psychological debtors, encouragement and motivation are everything. Without them, we give up. For me, there would be HUGE encouragement and motivation in being able to say today – on our 3rd anniversary – that we had finally paid off our $80,800 beast of a business debt. It would mean WAY more to me than having a random (in my eyes) TFSA just sitting there on the sidelines sucking momentum.
  • DH is a logical debtor. It seems counter-intuitive that logic and debt should co-exist, but it’s a common enough phenomenon. Spin the numbers convincingly and make clever use of financial jargon, and many people come to a logical acceptance of debt as normal and benign – never mind sky-rocketing levels of household debt, financial stress, and bankruptcy. For us, it’s fortunate that our smallest debts happened to have the highest interest rates. No argument there. But for this situation, DH logically notes that in the long term, it makes no difference whether we pay off Debt #3 today or in two months from now. A careful man prone to worry, he also logically notes that we have significant expenses coming up, and that a cushion of savings will be a healthy thing to have.

I know that in the long-term, it doesn’t matter if Debt #3 gets killed off in July. The point is, I also feel frustrated by what I perceive as DH’s indifference to what motivates me towards our mutual goal. And I know that we have significant expenses coming up. I just don’t think it would be imprudent to pay off Debt #3 now and then refocus for what’s ahead. I like the neatness of finishing off this phase. I don’t like the sloppy indefinite sense I get with what DH is going for.

So there you have it. It’s the marriage thing and not being on the same page. That’s why I’m not feeling too peppy right now. Nevertheless, here are our numbers:

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 2015:  Total Debt = $134,400
Debt #1 New Car Debt – $0
Debt #2 Old Car & Course & Dog Debt – $0
Debt #3 Business Debt – $5,500
Debt #4 Mortgage – $128,900
A total of $123,000 in debt paid off in 3 years.

Looking back and looking ahead

I have just read the post that I wrote almost exactly 3 years ago when we were at the starting line. “Now it’s June, and DH and I are taking the proverbial first step on our journey out of debt,” I wrote. “Psyched by a vision of debt freedom, we feel a happy adrenaline – a hope-filled, united, optimistic energy.” I think that “united” is the key word we’re missing now. Hopefully, our awareness of this fact will lead us to find it again.

The most encouraging thing I get out of that 3-year-old post is what it reveals about our very optimistic expectations:  “In preparing our June budget, DH and I found that we didn’t have a lot of fat to trim.  That makes sense as we had to take many cuts off our living expenses when DH lost his first career …  The most significant change we’ve brought about with our budget is to follow Ramsey’s advice about paying off the smallest debt first – with intensity … With the aim of intensifying our repayment of Debt #1, we’re going to stop paying off the business debt and we’re going to stop topping up our mortgage payments.  These two changes mean that we will pay $2,300 off of Debt #1 in a regular month.” Apart from mortgage payments, we had ambitious hopes of a regular debt repayment rate of $2,300 per month. In fact, after three years of widely varying monthly repayments, we have averaged $2,700. We’ve exceeded our ridiculously high expectations by $400 per month, which over three years adds up to $14,400.

So for better or for worse, we’re on the right track. And as I look at the challenges ahead, whether income-related, expense-related, or relationship-related, I can only be encouraged. And, psychological debtor that I am, that’s exactly what I need.


Do you think that psychological or logical factors play a greater role in your personal finances? Your comments are welcome. (And it’s OK if you agree with DH : )

 

 

 

 

 

Debt-Stress & Rebel Teen (Part 2)

Still strong-willed … with a different focus.


Last Thursday, I posted an article that I wrote 3 years ago – but which I couldn’t post at the time – about the struggles my husband and I were having asserting financial boundaries for our second daughter. Today, I’m writing about how things have developed in the time since then. Without further ado, here is Part Two of DD2’s story.


 

DD2 = Dear second daughter
DH = Dear husband
Holding the line with our strong-willed teen
     “I absolutely love the idea of doing a joint savings account to help your daughter avoid student loan debt …” said Choncé in a comment after last week’s post. Three years ago, as I had written, DD2 was about to start university, and to help her avoid student debt, DH and I decided we would need to share an account with her – in order to oversee savings.
     Well, that plan did not pan out. Neither did any proactive suggestion that we made. With a roll of the eye and an irritated sigh, DD2 would say, “I know!” or “Quit telling me what to do!” All we could do was to maintain our boundaries and give the warning, “We will not bail you out if you cross the line.”
     “I know!”
Brick-wall, Jellyfish, and Backbone parenting styles

(Click to continue reading …)

Debt-Stress & Rebel Teen

I say the bride doll started it all.

It can be very difficult to give your children financial wisdom if you don’t start from the get-go. I need to set the scene a bit here. I wrote this post almost three years ago. It’s about my 2nd daughter who was at that time a 17-year old with a big sense of entitlement. My husband and I were just starting the painful process of asserting strong, unified boundaries to put to an end what had been an extremely difficult time. As a relatively new blogger, I made the big mistake of posting this article before seeking my daughter’s consent. She read it and was upset – understandably. I rewrote it so that it was a more general piece. But I kept the original. And this week, she gave me permission to post it.

There will be two parts to this story. Today, you’ll read about “Before”. Next Thursday, you’ll read about “After”. Do you have teens who are challenging you beyond your limits? Take heart. You’re not alone. Don’t give up on your child or yourself. 

Click to continue reading . . . 


 

The “What Now?” Of Financial Goals

FFCF and I (with kittens) back in the day.

DD2 = Dear Second Daughter

FFCF = Financially Free Childhood Friend

DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

DH = Dear Husband

Arranging a “thank you” dinner

“When you are next in [the city] let us know. We’d like to host you for a ‘Thank you’ dinner for your support of [DD2]. Maybe you and your mom could come over? And my mom too?” I sent the e-mail message to a childhood friend of mine – financially independent for over 10 years now (I’ll call her FFCF for Financially Free Childhood Friend). She had given generous financial support to DD2, who is training for her sport at an intensive level, and I wanted to show our appreciation.

“I would love to come for dinner,” she responded. “And I will ask my Mom to join.  I will be in [the city] probably the third week of April and I will touch base with you then.” The third week of April came and went with no visit. FFCF had sprained her knee (on a boat in Florida as it turns out – hazards of financial freedom), and we’d have to have our dinner at a later date.

“Hey [Prudence], I’m in [the city] now.  Any chance you’re free tomorrow evening?” The message showed up Friday. “Mom and I would like to pop over with some Indian food dishes.  Shall we pick up your Mom and bring her with us?  Let me know if you’re free my dear.” What happened to the idea of my preparing a supper to thank her? Hmmm . . . Could I really let her do this?

Ripple effect of hosting without cooking

I could imagine her thought process. She was giving me late notice, and as she told me later, “I didn’t want you to have the stress of cooking a meal for us after your week at work.” Relative to me, she lives a life of more leisure, and she would feel a lack of balance in my scrambling to get things ready. A generous person who is happy to give, she knew her support for DD2 had been appreciated, and the point now was to make the visit happen when it was possible.

I accepted FFCF’s offer – which had the ripple effect of allowing Saturday to be quite lovely. It wasn’t a lazy day; it just didn’t involve any rush. My day included gardening, a heart-to-heart chat with DD3, a great work-out at the gym with DH, some housework, some grocery shopping, and some blogging. It was a productive day, but not a stressed one. I didn’t feel, as is too often the case, that I had more items on my to-do list than time to do them. Supper itself was delicious, and cleaning up afterwards was nothing. It was great to do some catching up, to reminisce, and to see our moms looking so happy to be there with us and each other.

The “What now?” of financial goals

“What do you think you’ll do when you retire?” FFCF asked at one point. It’s a question I’ve been giving some thought to these past couple of days. Mrs. Frugalwoods wrote a post entitled “Is Frugality Sustainable Without A Goal?” last week, and it made me think it was time for me to clarify my vision of debt freedom and financial freedom. So far, my goal has been a negative: not to have debt. But what is it that I DO want to have? Not so clear.

When FFCF asked her question, I just said what came to mind. “I’ll sleep in,” I started, “and I won’t rush . . . I’ll take the dog for walks, go for work-outs, socialize more, do some traveling . . .” Then I looked at her. “I’ll pretty well do what you’re doing now.” There’s not a real WOW! factor to my vision of financial freedom, but I think it’s just lovely. I’ll play the piano again. I’ll read more. I’ll get into different kinds of cooking. I’ll write and teach in some capacity. I’ll support good causes and  young athletes. And when I drop in on friends or family, I’ll bring Indian food.


 Does your vision of financial freedom involve a WOW! factor? Do you find that frugality is tough to sustain? Your comment are welcome : )

 

 

Debt-Reduction on Hold: Time to Batten Down the Hatches

Kipling didn’t write his poem “If” for debtors, but he could have.

DH = Dear Husband

Lesson #1: No “auto pilot” in $ management

One of the big lessons I’ve learned so far in our journey out of debt is that you can’t go into auto-pilot with your money management. I was talking about this yesterday with MT, a math teacher at my high school who is trying to get out of debt too. The financial variations that happen from month to month are highly irritating to people like us. Our long-established modus operendi has been auto-pilot – cruising along with no intentional focus on money logistics – and we’re still drawn to it. There’s a relentless consciousness that’s required. People long-accustomed to going with the flow, taking it as it comes, because “it will all come out in the wash” find this constant need to be on top of things wearing. Eventually, I’m hoping it will become second nature. But it hasn’t yet.

People like MT and his wife have a regular income to work with. DH and I don’t. His home business varies a lot, with the fall and early winter months being the highest, and the spring months being the lowest. Even within those trends, there are unexpected twists. Last November, for instance, was surprisingly low. And March was surprisingly high. At the end of March, DH and I were so happy to put down a big payment against our business debt. It brought the beast, which had sat at $80,800 in December of 2012, down to 4-figures – to $9,500.

Lesson #2: Keep finances measured and buffered

I reported in my post “March Triumph” that as we maxed out on our debt payment to reach this milestone, I asked DH, “’Do you think we should wait to see how April pans out?’ He thought for a whole second. ‘No,’ was the answer.” There’s another lesson I’ve learned: It’s good to maintain a measured, buffered state in your personal finances – even if it seems to fly in the face of admirable efforts like paying off a big chunk of debt. But again, that measured discipline is SO hard. For people who used to be comfortable making extreme purchases and going into extreme debt, it’s easier to make extreme debt repayments when the going is good than it is to be moderate.

Lesson #3: Don’t set your heart on a promising outcome

In our excitement about approaching the end of our business debt, DH and I started to plan renovations to accommodate the greater space he needs for his home business. In my post on the topic a few weeks ago, I wrote “Soon – almost certainly by the end of July – we won’t have a business debt to pay down anymore.” There’s a third lesson I’ve learned: Don’t set your heart on a promising financial outcome. Even more importantly don’t start planning and acting as if it’s definite. There are no guarantees. I tend to be as swayed by hope as I am by disappointment.

“If”

In his poem “If”, Rudyard Kipling urges his reader not to be swayed by events: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same . . .” Kipling wrote the poem for his only son John, and the message at the end of it is that “if” he can manage to adopt all of the wisdom imparted, “you’ll be a Man my son!” (With capital M and exclamation mark included.) Well, I will never be a Man, but “if” I can manage to adopt these three lessons so that they become second nature to me, perhaps I will be Financially Wise.    !

So March was a “Triumph” (Kipling liked his capital letters) – but as it turns out, my cautionary question was one we should have paid more attention to. I just looked back at that post again: “In my ongoing efforts not to give way to emotion or impulse in money matters, I asked, ‘Do you think we should wait to see how April pans out?'” But even as I asked the question, I knew we’d go for the big payment. I was just giving lip service to what I knew was wisdom.

Possible strike action for me

We’ve always looked upon the “variable” part of our income as DH’s, but now, it’s my income that’s rocking the boat. It’s no secret that there are strikes in a growing number of boards of education in our part of the world. And it’s no secret that there is a strong chance that the same will happen locally. I’m not allowed to engage in political banter online, and that’s not what I’m doing. I’m saying there’s a good chance our finances are going to take a hit soon. I’ve know that a strike was a possibility for a while now, but I hoped it would be avoided. There’s still a chance that it will be, but every day unresolved is another day closer to . . . “Disaster”.

On hold

We’re trying to get Zen about it. It’s beyond our control; we just have to do what we can to be prepared. April was a fairly typical slow spring month for DH, so any debt-repayment we would have made would have been small. But we’re not paying off anything. We’re on hold. To lower expenses, we’re thinking of things like super-frugal groceries, less driving, and cutting discretionary funds. May already looks very promising in terms of DH’s business, but that just makes our delayed renovations more frustrating. He could really use the work space now.

“And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’” Sometimes, when we do our best, we make great progress in our journey out of debt. At other times, when we do our best, we manage to hold steady. Of course I’d rather make great progress. But patience is huge in this game. So is “Will”. Our challenge for May – and possibly beyond – will be to hold on.

Do you find it hard to stay steady with the ups and downs of personal finance? Your comments are welcome.

 

Author’s Visit Sparks Insight on Motivation for Debt-Reduction

Sean Michaels speaks to about 130 students in our school library.

Guest author in the school library

In the transition between his presentation and a brief Q & A segment, I spoke out. “You’ve presented your story in a such a humble, laid-back way, yet you’ve won this amazing award. We’re just so proud of you! It’s an honour to have you here speaking with us.” I had never before interrupted a guest author’s talk to say such a thing, but the subsequent burst of applause from staff and students in the library let me know I was expressing what we all felt. Friday morning, an author visited our high school to share with about 130 students the story behind his first published novel.  For students who are budding writers, sculptors, painters, actors, or musicians, it is a real eye-opener to hear a first-hand account about what might be involved in making the art of their passion a part of their lives.

Michaels’ early writing

Sean Michaels (who had to clarify that he was neither the wrestler nor the porn star of the same name) was a local high school student at the turn of the millennium. He loved to write, and as a teenager, he started a website with a few friends called Tang Monkey – about everything from music to ice cream. In an aside Friday, he said he is now embarrassed by what he wrote during his adolescence but that he recognizes in those early posts the 10,000 hours of practice that, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, lead to mastery. After high school, Michaels went away to university, and as he earned his degree, he launched the website Said the Gramaphone, an MP3 blog still going today – that in 2003 was one of the first of its kind. Upon graduation, Michaels knew that he wanted to make writing a central part of his life, but he also knew that he was in no position to make a living off of his writing. End of story? No.

How Michaels set up his early adult life for writing

Here is the first part of his story that blew me away: Michaels decided to find a job that would cover the bills and that would also, and more importantly, leave him with enough energy at the end of the day to write. So the recent university graduate became a part-time legal secretary.

I don’t know about you, but all sorts of questions come to my mind about that move: What did your parents say? What did your friends think? Did people judge you for taking on part-time work? Did men judge you for working in a position typically held by women? Did you feel pressured to justify your decision? Did you feel uncertain as your friends accepted full-time jobs that paid well and allowed them to buy cars and houses? Did you feel not-quite-grown-up?

For six years, from 2004-2010, Michaels centred his life around his first novel. He worked his part-time job, kept up his blog, took on the occasional paid writing assignment for print publications covering the music scene – and wrote at least 300 words per day for his book. It took four years to complete and edit the novel. One year to find a literary agent and edit some more. And another year of countless rejections before . . .

. . . he put his unpublished manuscript in a drawer. It’s still there.

Here is the second part of his story that blew me away: He started to work on his second novel.

Again, questions: Didn’t you feel frustrated? Didn’t you feel defeated? Didn’t you feel depressed? Didn’t you feel you’d wasted 6 years of your life for nothing? What did your parents think? What did your friends say? Did you feel the need to justify your decision to try again?

For three years, Michaels worked on a story based on the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian scientist who in 1928 invented the theremin – an electronic musical instrument that is played without touch. In 2014, his novel was published. In 2014, Sean Michaels, author of Us Conductors, won the Giller Prize, the highest literary honour in Canada – and at $100,000, the most lucrative literary prize in the English speaking world.

For the love of writing

More than once, Michaels came back to this point: “I had to remind myself why I was doing this. It wasn’t for money, and it wasn’t for fame. I was doing it because I loved to write.” After his first novel went into that drawer, any sense of defeat was overcome. He had loved writing it. After his second novel won the Giller Prize, he consciously steered his head away from the intoxicating swirl of success. He had loved writing it.

I can’t fathom the clear-sightedness and the deep, quiet confidence it must have taken for Michaels to have pursued his passion for writing so persistently. So intentionally. So practically. Many people harbour the dream to incorporate their art into their lives, but few take those nuts-and-bolts steps required to make it a reality. Few can withstand the obstacles and rejections. And even fewer reach the point at which they’re satisfied to do what they love to do – without reference to money or recognition. I’m sure Michaels struggled with the fate of his first novel, and I’m sure he is thrilled with the success of his second novel. But I hope and believe that in the end, he will continue to make writing a part of his life for the simple reason that he still loves it.

What does this have to do with debt-reduction?

Those of us who are working our way out of debt have to be inspired. Our society is set up to normalize debt and glorify spending, so anyone trying to become debt-free faces pressures to capitulate. Besides societal forces, some of us also have to contend with our own sabotaging habits and thought processes. It’s a relentless effort, requiring mundane, detailed strategies that often feel like drudgery and deprivation. The “Why?” has to be pretty enticing. Is it for the love of financial freedom itself? I don’t think it can be. It’s got to be for love of the life that freedom promises. The only question is, do we even know what that looks like?

What would you do if you were financially free to do it?

After work on Friday, I was talking with a friend who said, “I don’t even know what I want, and I feel like I’ve wasted my life.” In her teen years and early twenties, she had felt powerless against the strong scripting she had absorbed from her family. The script was: Get a job after high school and wait until you get married. It struck me as incredibly sad.

Many of us who are fighting down debt are motivated by a negative: We’ve experienced the life-sucking pain of financial distress, and we want to shield ourselves against a recurrence of it. But I don’t think that negative motivation is enough.

Sean Michaels knew as a teenager that he wanted to write, and he set up his life – financially and otherwise – to follow that desire. There was no vagueness, no confusion in his pursuit. I think that many of us who have gone astray financially have done so because of a lack of clarity. A confusion of advice, societal and family scripting, peer pressures . . . And our authentic desires have become lost in a muddle of competing messages. Let’s find them again – and pursue them for simple love. I can’t think of a better motivation.


 What would you do if you were financially free to do it? Does the answer to that question motivate you? Your comments are welcome.