Debt-Reduction and Hair

DH = Dear Husband
                When the hi-tech bust happened around the start of the millennium and we experienced DH’s loss of income, one of the things we did to economize was to buy a hair-cutting kit.  It cost around $30.00 and came complete with a buzzer, comb-like attachments, scissors, clips, an instruction manual, and a video demo. Within months, we had easily saved ourselves the cost of the kit, and over a decade later, I’d say we’ve avoided spending thousands of dollars in visits to the hair salon and barber shop.

My Smug Frugal Lack of Vanity

                It is not uncommon for a man to get his haircuts at home. But here’s the thing: DH cut my hair too. Every single woman who has found out has said something along the lines of, “I would never let my husband touch my hair!” I had a bit of smug pride in my frugal lack of vanity.
I was in my late thirties then, and I remember being quite committed, in keeping with my “frugal lack of vanity”, to the idea of letting my hair go gray when the time came. The time came in my early forties, and I caved. I started to dye my hair. Hmmm . . . Not much lack of vanity in that case. But I was frugal. Most women I knew had their colouring and hi-lighting done professionally – in one case, to the tune of $200 every six weeks. I, on the other hand, was spending about $10 every two months. So I managed to salvage some of my smugness.

My Pixie Cut Trauma

Many women experience at some point in their lives a deeply troubling hair episode. I’m no exception. When I was a child, the youngest of five, my mother would have my hair cut “pixie” style. “Pixie” is a cute word (and Michelle Williams, above, wears it beautifully), but I developed a strong loathing for it. Like my sisters, I was often mistaken for a boy, and I found it mortifying to an extent I can’t adequately convey. As soon as I was old enough to have a say in my hair style, I let it grow.

Robert Plant and the Trigger Effect

The whole being-mistaken-for-a-boy trauma was decades in the past when I walked into school one day and greeted a student of mine – a good-natured boy and a bit of a hippie – who was strumming his guitar in the hallway. “Miss,” he said in a flash of recognition and admiration, “your hair is like Robert Plant’s.” It was an innocent musing, but you can guess what feelings it triggered in me. Robert Plant is a boy! As soon as I had time, I googled images of the guitarist for Led Zeppelin, and it was undeniable. My hair looked like Robert Plant’s. I bought a hair straightener.

Straw Hair Dilemma

Fast-forward to this past spring. After years of dyeing my own hair and straightening it far too often, it turned into straw. It was a dramatic transition that left me with two options:  treat my damaged hair, or cut it off. I chose the former, but I didn’t know what to do. On the advice of my daughters, their friends, and a concerned student, I applied everything from olive oil to Moroccan oil to expensive shampoos and conditioners that promised miracles. I got softer straw for my efforts.

Hair Care, Discretionary Money, and Gender

DH and I each have a discretionary fund from which we purchase, among many other things, products like shampoo and conditioner, and services like haircuts if we so choose. I approached DH, ready to negotiate.  I explained to him my belief that we weren’t operating on a level playing field. Hair care for women is simply much more expensive than hair care for men – except in the case of those admirable women who really do let their hair go gray and who carry off the Robert-Plant-Pouf with dignity. I told him that I didn’t want to cut off all my straw hair, that I wanted a professional to have a go at it because it was clearly beyond me, and that I didn’t think it was fair for me to have to use my discretionary money to do so. No negotiation followed. “I know that most women go to salons to get their hair done. You should be able to,” DH said. In fact there was, in his BNI group (a networking group of self-employed business people) a woman who owned a spa. He would touch base with her and we’d get this thing rolling.
I have been to my free consult. I have bought hair repairing product – with money from our joint account – and I have made a first appointment with my very likable and knowledgeable hair stylist. I will probably see her every two months or so. Again, without draining my discretionary fund. Will this have a negative impact on our debt-reduction efforts? I don’t think so. Part of debt-reduction is to take care of yourself so that you don’t burn out and give up. And part of good financial management is to get real. My discussion with DH was real – open, honest, frank. I believe that in being mindful of this new expense, we’ll become that much more mindful of our money in general. But you can think differently. I believe we’ve made a good decision, and I’m grateful for DH’s understanding. I am also very happy to give up entirely any remnants of smug pride in my “frugal lack of vanity.”

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I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

Card Cutting as Part of Debt Reduction? Why It Didn’t Happen

DH = Dear Husband
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
                I was certain that in my debt reduction efforts this summer, I would cut my credit card. It didn’t happen.

Why did I want to make the cut?

1. I’m following Dave Ramsey’s advice in getting out of debt. He says, “Stop using credit cards.”
2. Statistics indicate that people spend more when they use credit cards.
3. Studies show that people pay less attention to price and that they forget how much they’ve spent when they use credit cards.
4. Points and rewards offered by credit card companies distract us from the consideration that if we used cash instead of credit, we’d spend less and save more real money than any points could be worth.
5. Credit card companies make their profits from people who get sucked into credit card debt – and stay there.

What were my obstacles to credit card cutting?

1. DH isn’t for it. He recognizes the pitfalls of credit cards to society in general, but like many people, he believes that he is winning the credit card game:
-He pays off his cards each month.
– He doesn’t believe that he personally spends more because of his use of credit cards.
– Credit cards allow him to travel and to buy online conveniently.
– He takes advantage of the points he earns.
2. In order to get a Visa debit card, I would have to open an account at a bank that charges service fees. At the beginning of our journey out of debt, DH and I switched to PC Financial, a small bank with no service fees (See “A Mess and anEmergency”). PC Financial, unfortunately, does not issue Visa debit cards. Does it make sense to pay service fees to use a Visa debit card when we pay no interest with our Visa credit card? Probably not.
3. As DH has pointed out, the small emergency fund that we have now – $1,000 as recommended by Ramsey – has not always been enough to cover the unexpected expenses we’ve had to pay in the last year. Most notably, DH had to pay $2,500 last July because of an emergency visit to a hospital in the U.S. His credit card came in very handy at that time.

 What has to happen to make “the cut” tenable?

                I was surprised at how disappointed I was to concede defeat in my determination to cut my credit card. I don’t see it as a permanent defeat though. Things might change to make the cut more tenable:
1. Visa debit cards might become more common in Canada. I have learned that Canada is behind our neighbours to the south in terms of the Visa debit card. I phoned PC Financial this week and asked if they would consider issuing it. The person I spoke with said that many people had made the same request, and that he would forward mine. The day I can get a Visa debit card without having to pay service fees to do so, I will.
2. At a later stage of our journey out of debt, we will save a large emergency fund – as recommended by Ramsey. Once we have it, DH will probably feel confident enough to let go the idea of credit-card-as-safety-net in the case of unexpected expenses.
3. DH might become as convinced as I am that getting rid of our credit cards would be a good idea. I don’t think that I’ll be the one to convince him though.
                I think that the main reason why I wanted to cut my credit card was, to borrow a phrase from Jack Black’s character in The School of Rock, to “stick-it-to-the-man”. I wanted to disengage from the credit card companies and their campaign to encourage consumer spending and to profit from consumer debt. DH and I responded to Visa’s “Smallenfreuden” initiative with our own “Cuttenfreuden” effort, but in the end, we won’t experience “the joy of cutting credit cards into small pieces.” At least not now.

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I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

Steering the Next Generation Clear of Debt: My Visit with DD1

DD1 = Dear First Daughter
DH = Dear Husband
I am in the middle of my week out west visiting DD1, and it’s going to take all of my self-discipline to turn my thoughts towards the journey out of debt that is supposed to be the focus of this blog. I’m getting a lovely glimpse of what life-after-debt could be. A mountain hike; jogs along the sea-wall; a downtown shopping expedition; meals out at Thai, Malaysian, Italian, and Japanese restaurants; indulgent reading ; a nap every single afternoon . . . I say bring it on. So I’ll harness my attention and keep steering in the direction of debt-freedom – which is looking awfully good right about now.

DD1: Employed!

A few days before I flew out west, DD1 received a job offer. In the spring, she completed her master’s degree, and this summer she worked as a coach. Her intention for the fall was to take a year off school, find a job, and make decisions about her education/career direction. The job she was offered is one that fits her area of study. It is with a large and long-established company, and it includes a very decent starting salary. Great, great news for DD1! The thing is, she had to start work this week. Just as I had to start my summer job the week DH flew DD1 home to surprise me for my birthday (See post “Gazelle Intenseon Debt-Reduction . . .”), she has had to start work the week of my visit. That’s life, and it’s all good.

“What financial advice can you give me?”

          The situation has afforded the opportunity to talk about money matters. For DD1, who managed to graduate without a cent in student debt, work has always been a means to pay for rent, food, tuition, and books. Things are different now. The pay will be significantly higher. Expenses, with no school fees, will be significantly lower. “What financial advice can you give me?” she asked. (Yes, she actually asked.) My advice was to stay out of debt and to save as much as possible. When she asked how much she should save, she made it a point to tell me that she doesn’t want to be a miser. (As if I would advise that!) She’s at a point where parental input is welcome – but only in the context of her autonomy. So I respectfully offered the advice of Dave Ramsey, our debt-reduction guru: “Save 15% of your gross income.” We figured out what that would be, and DD1 seems confident that she can do it – though she’s not committed. “I don’t need to buy a car. I’m not at the point where I’m thinking of buying a house,” she said. It is hard to save without a specific goal, but I promised her that no matter what direction her life takes, she’ll be very grateful for her savings.

          It is generally accepted that parents want their children to “do better” than they have. I think this truth is often understood in terms of career advancement and material acquisition. For my part, I don’t cherish dreams of DD1 buying a bigger home in a more prestigious part of town than ours. But I do feel enormous satisfaction in seeing her start out on the right financial foot. She stands a very good chance of side-stepping the whole quagmire of debt that has been an underlying stress for her parents all our adult lives. At her age, DH and I were just starting to multiply our respective debts. She, on the other hand, is about to start multiplying her savings. And multiplication is what happens either way. Good money management won’t be the answer to all of life’s problems or yearnings, but if she continues along this trajectory, she’ll set herself up to meet the challenges that will come her way unencumbered by the burden debt is. She’ll set herself up to have the freedom of choice when opportunities present themselves. That’s huge.

          This is a great vacation week. Social and family visits; rest; fun; beautiful mountain and ocean views; fabulous food. But what can compare to motherly pride in a daughter who is “doing better” than her mom?      

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I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

Debt and Receiving Gifts: Enabling or Encouraging?

FFC = Friend from Childhood
FFCM = Friend from Childhoods’ Mom
DD1 = Dear First Daughter
DH = Dear Husband
                 A friend from my childhood (FFC) was among the guests at my 50th birthday party in June, as was her mom (FFCM). After greeting them at the door, I opened the cards they had brought. Both FFC and her mom are readers of this blog, so they were in the know about our debts and the details of our journey out of debt so far. They knew, for instance, that I had planned to travel out west to visit DD1 this summer, using money from my discretionary fund that I would “carefully budget” over the months. They knew that I had not budgeted carefully enough and that a very sweet gesture on the part of DH – who cashed in his fifteen-months change jar and gave me the $600 total – allowed me to buy my plane ticket. (See post from June 1: “Discretionary Spending . . .”)
                FFC had included $100 in my birthday card, along with a wish for a great trip. When I opened FFCM’s card, I became weepy. “Oh come on now,” she said. “It’s just a 50 with an extra 0.” The generosity of FFC and FFCM had set me up to cover the expenses of my week out west. There would be no stress in calling a cab or in taking the ferry. I’d be able to treat DD1 to some meals out and maybe a play.
                So have I been spoiled? I think so. DH provided for the plane ticket. FFC and FFCM ensured an abundance of spending money. This was supposed to be the big test to see if I could manage a discretionary fund well enough over the course of a year to take a much desired trip. As it turned out, I failed – but I’m still going on the trip. Am I being enabled? I don’t think so.

Enabling? or generously helping?

                “Are You Empowering or Enabling?”is an article written July 11, 2012 by Drs. Morteza and Karen Khaleghi for Psychology Today. “In one sense, ‘enabling’ has the same meaning as ‘empowering.’  It means lending a hand to help people accomplish things they could not do by themselves. More recently, however, it has developed the specialized meaning of offering help that perpetuates rather than solves a problem.  A parent who allows a child to stay home from school because he hasn’t studied for a test is enabling irresponsibility.” As a society, I believe we are waking up to the fact that tough love is sometimes the best love to offer. Asserting firm boundaries; saying “no”; letting people live with the consequences of their actions; avoiding the tendency to rescue friends and family from a mess of their own making; sending that son to school – when he hasn’t bothered to study – to face that test. It’s a much needed societal shift.
                But is there still room for the encouragement of a helping hand? For mercy instead of justice?
In the words of Shakespeare, mercy “is twice blest / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes / . . . It is an attribute to God himself.” So how do you judge whether it’s best to go with your generous instinct or to withhold? Morteza and Khaleghi offer a checklist of questions to distinguish between enabling and empowering. Among the questions are these two:
  •  Do you find yourself resenting the responsibilities you take on?
  • Do you continue to offer help when it is never appreciated or acknowledged?
              FFC and FFCM were glowing when they offered me those birthday cards, just as DH clearly felt blessed when he handed over that money from his change jar. There was no resentment on their parts. And what about my part? Was the help offered appreciated? Very deeply.
                Yesterday, I submitted my summer school marks and started my holiday. In two days, I’ll be flying out west to see DD1. Some would say, “You deserve it!” Others would say, “You don’t.” But I wouldn’t say either. I would say that I’ve received a gift for which I’m very grateful. And I intend to enjoy it thoroughly. I would say I’m blessed.

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I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

Debt and Denial

DH = Dear Husband
            We called two arborists this week and asked them to look at the sugar maple in our backyard. Both confirmed that the tree is rotting, that it’s a hazard, and that it has to come down. Our maple is at least a century old, possibly two, and a majestic beauty that towers above the house and spreads a canopy of leafy loveliness over our small yard, graciously filtering the light that comes into our home.  A rare treasure here in the suburbs.
      We’ve noticed for a long time that the tree’s branches have been dying off. DH cut down the first dead bough several years ago, but as more and more of them died – some the size of tree trunks – it became clear that a specialist would have to take a look. One day at the start of spring this year, when nobody was home, a branch fell off in a wind storm, landing with such a colossal thud at the back of our yard that a neighbour ran out to see what disaster had occurred. So it’s a sad but necessary thing. We’ve got the process in motion to have our grand old sugar maple cut down. It’s going to cost us $2,000. Ugh!
                The question is: Why didn’t we call in the arborists that day in March when it was made absolutely clear the tree was a hazard? Why did it take us until August to call in the specialists? The branch that fell would have inflicted major damage to our house if it had been on the other side of the tree. And if someone had been standing under it at the time . . .
                The only explanation I can come up with is that we were in denial. “We’ll have to get the tree looked at,” we have said dozens of times over the last few years. And since the big branch fell in the spring, we have regularly looked up at it and spotted other rotting limbs. “See that huge branch going up right over our bedroom? If it falls off, it will go right through the roof.” In a 2008 article about the phenomenon of denial in business, David Reuben and Richard Tedlow state, “. . . as so often happens with denial, the key issues are obvious in real time. They do not require hindsight” (Reuben, 2008).

Debt: A Fertile Breeding Ground For Denial

                So why the denial when it was so obvious? When we were even talking about it? The tree is lovely, and it’s got history for us, so there will be a real loss. But I don’t think that’s the main reason for our delay. In the spring, DH’s business had slowed down to the point that we weren’t able to make payments against our debt. We feared, whether consciously or not, that getting the tree looked at would entail a significant expense that we couldn’t afford. At that time in particular, such an expense would have been dreadful.  “They preferred denial,” say Reuben and Tedlow of four American tire companies in the 1960s who were dealing with the threat of France’s Michelin radial tires. “If the radial revolution were too terrible to be true, then it could not be true – because if it were, it would be too terrible” (Reuben). Likewise, it was too terrible for us to pay thousands to deal with our tree when we were financially strapped. So it could not be true – because if it were, it would be too terrible.
                I wonder how many other debt-ridden people are in denial about issues of personal safety and security?  I wonder to what extent governments and international companies are in denial about matters such as rotting infrastructure and hazardous business practices? No doubt it’s not a simple matter, and no doubt there are many reasons underlying denial, but I’m sure that debt provides a fertile breeding ground for it.

Denial: A False Peace

                In their article, Reuben and Tedlow observe Abraham Lincoln’s response to tensions in the U.S. as the Civil War intensified. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” the President said before Congress late in 1862. “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country” (Reuben, 2008).
                “Disenthrall” is a great word, and while I believe it’s true that denial involves an avoidance of some type of suffering, it does not truly engender an “enthralled” state of being. There’s a lingering angst when denial is at play. And the longer the denial goes on, the more foundational its accompanying angst becomes – the more difficult to discern as it blends into the background.
                Tuesday evening, we signed papers and shook hands with the arborist who will cut down our beloved sugar maple. That night at around midnight, we were wakened by violent claps of thunder coming right on the heels of stunning lightning bolts that I swore were just outside our window. It’s been a long time since I’ve been scared during a thunderstorm, but my first response was abject terror. Was it going to happen now? Was lightning going to strike the tree and send it crashing down on us? My fear was out of proportion, but it wasn’t new. That tree has been the root of a gnawing malaise for months – even years. As much as I apparently dreaded facing the facts, paying the expense, and accepting the loss in my state of denial, I now find myself eager to have the deed done. The end of denial has meant we’ve had to face negative realities head on, but for that very reason, it has also brought with it a profound, unexpected relief. We’ve risen with the occasion, we’re taking action, and we’re going to be safe.

Ruben, David, and Richard S. Tedlow. "The dangers of wishful thinking: too many U.S. businesses (including tires, supermarkets, and information technology) havebeen infected with the disease of denial, Richard S. Tedlow and David Ruben of the Harvard Business School show. The answer? In Lincoln's words, 'We must disenthrall ourselves.'."  The American [Washington, DC] 2.1 (2008): 86+. General OneFile. Web. 10 Aug. 2013.

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I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

Yo-yo Debting: Breaking the Pattern

 DH = Dear Husband      
             DH and I are having painfully slow progress in reducing Debt #3. Our business debt, which sat at $80,000 at the beginning of December, decreased dramatically when we first started to attack it. By the end of January it was down to $65,500. But half a year has passed since that time. The slowdown in DH’s business in the spring; a $900 van repair in June; an $800 vet bill in July; my soon-to-come $800 chiropractor bill – all have combined to put us on hold. We’ve been able to manage two payments of $2,500 each – one in February and one in May – leaving Debt #3 hovering around $60,000.
We had our first quote for a new roof this week. $10,000. Ugh! So we’ll be holding steady at least until the end of August as we put my summer school pay and DH’s summer business earnings aside to pay for the big roof bill. I would much rather put $10,000 against our debt and bring it down to $50,000 in one fell swoop. We could use a little shot of encouragement at this point in our debt-reduction efforts.
But if we look at it in a different light, there’s actually something very good happening here: We will pay for our roof with money that we have. We won’t extend our line of credit. Never before have we paid for something so expensive without increasing our debt to do so.

Yo-yo Debting

“Yo-yo dieting” is a term that is now part of the vernacular. A person loses twenty pounds, but gains back twenty-five. And then goes on a diet again. The cycle repeats itself, usually resulting in an overall weight gain. When I google “yo-yo dieting”, lots of links come up. But when I google “yo-yo debting”, nothing appears. I’m surprised because the yo-yo effect has got to be as common for debt as it is for diet.
DH and I were certainly well entrenched in a pattern of yo-yo debting before we began our journey out of debt just over a year ago. We would buy a car, for instance, and go into debt. Diligently, we would pay it down, but then another big expense – like a purchase of furniture or a vacation splurge – would put us further in the red. Again, we would conscientiously work away at it, but then we would need to buy a new car again (and it would be new), so up went the debt. And although we put impressive extra payments against the mortgage of our first home, we bought our second larger home before the first was paid off. You get the idea. Yoyo debting.

Parellels Between Yo-yo Dieting and Yo-yo Debting

                In January of this year, The Journal of International Women’s Studies published an article by Huda Iqbal, Ahmed Qazi, and Harshad Keval entitled, “At war with their bodies or at war with their minds? A glimpse into the lives and minds of female yo-yo dieters–the curtain has lifted in U.K.?” As I read the article, I was struck by many parallels between yo-yo dieting and yo-yo debting.

Media: Producing Dissatisfaction

“Previous literature has highlighted the negative impact of being exposed to the thin ideal (in U.S.A.) as portrayed by the media . . . [It is] associated with dissatisfaction of body image, concerns with weight, and disordered eating behavior” (Iqbal et al. 2013).
In terms of consumerism, the media disseminates the message, “Buy this, and you’ll be happy! Get it on credit now and pay later because you deserve it! Why wait? Everyone else has it. You don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t.” The whole purpose of advertising is to create dissatisfaction in consumers so that they’ll buy. So just as media images of the thin body ideal create a dissatisfaction which contributes to “disordered eating behaviour” – like yo-yo dieting, the media’s propagation of consumerism creates a dissatisfaction which contributes to “disordered spending behaviour” – like yo-yo debting.
Stress: Binging
“ . . . Sally confided: ‘Stress is one of . . . the impacts . . . when you’ve got so many problems going on and a lot of things getting to you, that puts yo-yo dieting on . . . for me, it’s just stress . . .”(Iqbal et al. 2013).
I know that stress correlates directly with my money management. It’s a mathematical certainty that when I feel overwhelmed by a combination of work, family, household, and social obligations, I spend more money. In my case, I spend it on restaurant meals and treats, but I know other people who spend their stress money on more expensive things like shopping sprees and trips. Stresscan trigger the binge eating involved in yo-yo dieting, and it can trigger the binge spendinginvolved in yo-yo debting too.
Influence of Uncertainty: Confusion
“’When I was a kid, I was really skinny . . . And then after my puberty . . . when I started gaining a little bit of weight . . . I was still below the average but . . . I had . . . pressure because my sisters were . . . really thin. I was not fat (before) but I was bigger than they were and I had a really … thin mom and so I was easily compared . . .’” (Iqbal et al. 2013).
The question, “What is the right body size and shape?” is as impossible as the question, “How much is enough materially?” Many people feel torn between a grateful recognition that their needs are met and a pressure to keep up with the Joneses. Just as there is no point at which “You have achieved the ideal body,” there is no point at which “You have made it” in our materialistic world. There is always a bigger house to buy; more exotic travel to experience; the latest fashions to purchase. Sociocultural influences fosterconfusion about what is a healthy body size, and they foster confusion about what constitutes material sufficiency. In both cases, this confusion can bring on the yo-yo effect.
Personal Powerlessness: Vicious Cycles
“This phenomenon portrays a vicious cycle . . . ‘I think you are depressed as you’re doing the yo-yo dieting as you’re desperate to do anything just to lose that weight quickly and . . . you falsely raised hope to yourself and there was no quick result there so you tend to. . . start blaming yourself’” (Iqbal et. al 2013).
A person who helps lead Debtors Anonymous in my community generously shared his insight with me when I contacted him by e-mail to ask some questions. He confirmed that people who join DA have hit a wall of despair. “I myself tried for several years to stop debting and begin paying off my debt,” he shared, “but was unable to do that.” A depressing sense ofpersonal powerlessness, both in terms of weight management and money management defeats people’s efforts to overcome, fueling the yo-yo effect.
As I consider the last year, I recognize the ups and downs of our journey out of debt so far. And while I really don’t like the holding pattern in which we’ve been stuck for the last six months, I have to acknowledge a real triumph in the midst of it. We’ve broken free of yo-yo debting.

Comments are welcome!

I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)


Gratitude While Getting Out of Debt

DH = Dear Husband
I remember talking once with a fellow student, during my university days, who was exasperated by her acne. She felt a bit silly about her distress even though it was real. “Hello Doctor,” she play-acted, with a combination of mock anguish and apology, “I know that there are people starving in different parts of the world . . . But I have pimples!” So often when one person frets about something, another person will say, “If you consider what some people are going through, it’s really not that big a deal.” And although that may be true, at best, it’s an annoying response. It’s a guilt trap that makes people suppress their complaint and that does nothing to acknowledge or heal it. So I commiserated with my friend in her pimpled distress.

A student’s burden

But there are times when the truth of bigger suffering blindsides me, and it simply annihilates my own complaint. Not by my will or effort –but by its own power. Yesterday, I was visiting my students at their work placements. Our school board is teamed up with a municipal organization that supports low income youth, and some of my students, as beneficiaries of this organization, are getting paid to do their work placements. It’s a great initiative. Since they are getting paid, these students are especially encouraged to take on the attitude of employees at their placements – to be punctual, reliable, and to accept instructions cheerfully.
            Occasionally I have to address issues of tardiness or a slack attitude, and as I met with one student yesterday, I perceived signs indicating that I needed to spell out some boundaries. She seemed sullen. She had a specific complaint that came across as petty. To me, it looked like a case of laziness – a lack of self-discipline. I asked questions, and she gave me brief, half-hearted answers, avoiding eye-contact. Then she blurted out, “I’ve got a lot going on at home.”  As I continued to listen, she looked me in the eye, her voice became stronger, and her story came spilling out. She was born in a war-torn country and as a young child, witnessed the murder of her mother. After fleeing to Canada with her father and siblings, she took on family responsibilities at a very young age. She is house-keeper, cook, and care-giver.  100% of the money she earns from her work placement goes to support the family – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “Everybody has nice things and they have the good life,” she said, “but we don’t. We don’t always have the best meals and stuff, so I’m glad to help out.”
My assessment had been so thoroughly wrong. Lazy? This young woman works harder than anyone else I know. Bad attitude? I’m inspired by her unspoiled willingness to make things work for her family. Her young life has been one of monumental tragedy and struggle, but I hadn’t seen it. She hides it well. You can bet that I addressed her “complaint” differently after I became aware of her history and situation. I offered empathy and encouragement. She was grateful.
What have I been down about lately? The stressful learning curve involved in my summer school job (See post “Debt-Reductions and ‘Stretching’”); the stall in our debt-reduction due to a slow-down in DH’s business in the spring; the fact that we need to spend thousands on a new roof. I haven’t shamed myself into having a better perspective on these things. I haven’t said, “How can I believe I have it rough when my student deals with so much more?” The revelations of her story and the realization of my completely wrong judgement have combined as a double force to jolt me out of complaint. I can take on a learning curve. DH’s business is getting back on track, and our rate of debt-reduction will go up again – after we save up and pay for a new roof. No need to worry about us. We’re OK.
Gratitude, we are told, is essential for happiness. But it’s hard to muster up gratitude consciously– no matter how much we have to be grateful for. It seems to come of its own accord. Sometimes it wells up in rushes of joy. Sometimes it seeps in through rest and serenity. Yesterday, it came in shockwaves through the humbling testimony of one who manages to be grateful in the face of so much loss.

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A Debt Owed to The People of Lac Mégantic

This week, I can’t focus on my own debt. My thoughts are upon the debt owed to the people of Lac Mégantic, Québec. By whom? How? I don’t know. The scene unfolded like a horror movie.  A runaway train carrying oil picked up speed as it approached the town in the early hours of July 6, derailed downtown, and exploded into an inferno that leveled thirty buildings and killed forty-seven people. The remains of the dead have been identified at a cruelly slow pace, so thorough was the destruction.

Protest in Maine Nine Days Before Disaster

“Six Maine residents were arrested late Thursday night after a larger group of climate activists blockaded a set of tracks passing through the small town of Fairfield in order to prevent a train carrying 70,000 barrels of “fracked” oil headed to a refinery in neighboring New Brunswick, Canada.”  So begins Jon Queally’s article, published June 28 in Common Dreams. “ . . . [T]he  protesters at the scene erected a large scaffold over the tracks and held signs reading ‘Trains for people, not for oil’ and ‘This train’s bound for Gory’ (pun intended).”

It is eerie to read these words in light of the Lac Mégantic disaster – just nine days after the protest in Maine.  “One of those arrested, 63-year old Read Brugger from the town of Freedom, was clear about his motivations. ‘We feel there has not been enough awareness about the millions of gallons of crude shell oil that shipped across Maine each month,’ . . . [T]he campaigners acknowledged their concerns go beyond even the dire threats faced by Maine communities if one of these trains derails or a spill occurs.”

The horror-movie quality of the catastrophe at first overwhelmed its unspeakable tragedy. But as time passes and shock is processed, the human face of Lac Mégantic becomes clearer. A father who was approaching his neighbourhood and saw the train crash into his home – where two young daughters and their mother lay sleeping. “Mes filles!  Mes filles!” he cried out as the flames soared. A teenager who saw the train moving at an oddly fast pace and mused, “Imagine if it derails? And explodes?” She is now haunted by an irrational but powerful guilt for not texting friends to warn them. The agonized search for remains through the rubble. Such utter wretchedness.

We are admonished to leave politics out of personal tragedy at times like this, but there is a fury of effort to root out the causes and bring them to light – motivated, I believe, by a desire to honour the dead and to stand by survivors. The details are confused and uncertain at this point as different assertions are made: Train cars that weren’t thick enough to hold the oil safely. A regulation allowing for a single engineer to park the train and leave it alone overnight.  A sloppy sequence of events surrounding the sputtering, smoking, unmanned train that cried out, “There is a problem here!” but that was in the end ignored. Under-staffing all around.  

The prophetic protesters of Maine feel the horrifying significance of their efforts.  Two days after the disaster, Read Brugger, one of the six arrested on June 27, spoke with Jay Field of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. “The tragedy at Lac-Megantic is the inevitable result of a system that has lost its moral compass.”

Support for Lac Mégantic

The Red Cross is providing relief to the community of Lac Mégantic. To give, you can call 1-800-418-1111 or go to the Red Cross website at To contribute $5, text REDCROSSQC to 30333. Canadian banks and some credit unions are accepting donations until August 9.

Que Dieu soit avec vous dans votre détresse.

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I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)

Debt Reduction and “Stretching” (almost snapping)

DD1 = Dear First Daughter
“A sizable part of who we are is ordained by our genes, by our brains, by our nervous systems.  And yet . . . we have free will and can use it to shape our personalities . . . We might call this the ‘rubber band theory’ of personality.  We are like rubber bands at rest.  We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so far” (Cain 117-118).   I used this gem from Susan Cain’s book Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking to open my post of March 22.  My focus was DD1 and the “stretching” she had done to avoid debt.  In her case, she had creatively financed a trip to New York City to do some research for her thesis.  She got out of her comfort zone, worked hard, savoured the satisfaction of success – and spent an evening at a karaoke bar singing with fourth year Julliard students into the bargain.  (See Post  “DD1’s Debt-Avoidance: ‘Stretching’ & Living Large”.)
Today I use Cain’s bit of wisdom to set up my own experience in the last week. I’d like to emphasize her last few words:  “We are elastic and can stretch ourselves, but only so far.”  I applied to teach summer school again this year – something I did last year as part of our debt reduction efforts.  The course I took on is truly a great one.  It offers students the chance to get credits by working in employment sectors that they want to pursue in the future – everything from retail to childcare; from graphic design to scientific research.  The teacher, besides leading a few in-class sessions, finds and sets up the students’ placements, and monitors the students’ progress through constant communication with them and with their work supervisors.  So it’s a wonderful blend of education and the broader world of work.
Terrific as the program is, I had a rough start.  I was hired late and had a chaos of paper work to sort out and no time for proper preparation.  But that was nothing compared to the real problem:  In the fifteen years that have elapsed since I last taught the course, technology has transformed it.  My principle method of communicating with students back in the day was via landline telephone.  Students often don’t even have landline phones now, and if they do, they certainly don’t use them.  They rarely use their e-mail accounts.  What do they do?  They text.  Until two days ago, I had never owned a cell phone.


I remember once reading about the rate at which different types of people adopt new technologies.  At one extreme there are the keeners who can’t wait for the next gizmo to come out.  They buy, use, and talk about the latest device with obsessive enthusiasm.  A little further along the continuum are those who decide to jump in once the technology has become mainstream.  Then there are the reluctant users who wait until their lifestyles are negatively affected by not having the now very common gadget.  They grumble but admit defeat and join society in using the technology.  At the final extreme are the technophobes. According to the Urban Dictionary (a useful tool for both parents and teachers who don’t understand what teenagers are saying) a technophobe is “A person who is irrationally afraid of technology.”  These people don’t care how mainstream a device has become or how adversely impacted their lifestyle.  They will not venture into the world of said gizmo because doing so brings on a paralysis of panic that is far worse than any inconvenience they might endure by not using it.
True confession:  I’m a technophobe.  Only the unnerving levels of stress that I have experienced in the last week could have brought me to the point of purchasing a cell phone.  I won’t go into detail, but when I swear, it’s not a good sign.  And all sorts of letter bombs have been exploding from my mouth in the last few days.  It’s been sheer torture.
My students have been gracious with my inefficiency. (“Don’t worry about it, Miss.  My mom is hopeless with her cell phone.  She never uses it.”) My children have been helpful and encouraging in teaching me.  (“Now what did I tell you was the quick way to see your text message?  Good job, Mom!”) And my poor husband has agonized through the whole process by my side.  Over the last few days, I have not been fun to live with.  And I’ve gone through this in the name of debt reduction.  I honestly wanted to throw in the towel this week.  It’s not worth it, I thought.Forget it!  (Only “forget” was not the actual word that came to mind.)
My hope is that by the end of my summer school stint, I’ll be satisfied with a job well done, and I’ll smile at my initial shell-shock.  I’m not there yet.  Right now, I’m an elastic that has been stretched on a dungeon rack – a little too close to the breaking point.

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Gazelle Intense on Debt-Reduction (When I’d Rather Be Kicking Back)

DH = Dear Husband
DD1 = Dear First Daughter
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DFF = Debt-free Friend
                 Of all ingredients for successful debt-reduction, says Ramsey, “Total, sold-out, focused intensity is possibly the most important.  This means saying to yourself (and meaning it), To the exclusion of virtually everything else, I’m getting out of debt!” (Ramsey, p. 119-120)  In his book The Total Money Makeover, Ramsey coins the term “gazelle intensity”.  Although smaller and slower than the cheetah, nineteen times out of twenty, the gazelle manages to outmaneuver its predator.  “Likewise, the way out of debt is to outmaneuver the enemy and run for your life (Ramsey, p. 121).  One of the ways to outmaneuver debt is to take on more work. Last summer, for the first time in fifteen years, I taught summer school as part of our debt-reduction efforts.  I taught a single credit course half-time through the afternoons of July.  This summer, I’m teaching full-time for a double credit course.  That means I’m working mornings and afternoons through July and until mid-August.
                 I turned fifty years old last week.  I remember when Oprah turned fifty.   “I refuse to be fifty and fat!” she declared, starting out her day with a workout.  I can’t say “I refuse to be fifty and indebted,” because I started this journey too late for that to be my reality, but I can say, “I refuse to be fifty and complacent about debt.”  So I’m fighting debt through summer school.
                But I’d so much rather be camping with my family.  As part of my birthday celebration, DH flew DD1 home. He had her phone me from our driveway during my party, and then ring the doorbell in the middle of our conversation.  DH took the phone while I got the door, and there she was!  It was such a great moment.  Big points for DH!  We had a wonderful week-end visiting family and going out to the theatre (our first play since our journey out of debt began), and then it was off for a week of camping.  Our campground is only an hour away, so I have driven out to it every evening after work and driven home from it early every morning.   I’m exhausted.
                Someone once challenged my resolve to get out of debt by citing a study.  “On their deathbeds, people often say that they wish they had spent more time with their loved ones.  They never say that they wish they had worked harder.”   I stumbled through an answer at the time, and it still trips me up. I think there are two parts to the response I want to give.  First of all, staying out of debt to begin with does not mean working harder; it means managing finances better. The best manager of money I know is DFF, and she hasn’t worked outside the home since her first child was born almost twenty years ago. When crisis hit her – in a way that typically sends stay-at-home moms out of the home and back to work – she was able to keep her house and stay at home because her finances were in such fabulous shape.  So she is living proof that being debt-free means you can spend more time with loved ones.
The second part of my answer is this:  If you are already in a debt-ridden state and you want to get out of it, it’s true that you will likely work more to achieve that goal. But it’s as a means to an end, and that end is financial security which affords the freedom to spend time doing all the things your memory will cherish in your deathbed hour. I know that when my hour comes, I’ll be cherishing the memory of camping trips with my family more than the reminiscence of extra work I took on for a few summers.  But I also believe that this extra work will help set the scene for more of the memories I’ll cherish.
For now, I’m in focused debt-reduction mode, and it does come with its sacrifices.  But it’s Friday evening, and soon I’ll be picking up DD2 from work.  We’ll head out to the campground, and our whole family will be together for a week-end of camping and a trip to the amusement park we used to visit every year when our three daughters were younger.  Since DD1 moved out west over two years ago, these whole-family excursions have been few and far between.  So even though we’re in this chapter of gazelle intensity, I’m going to soak in every moment. And I know our week-end will become a memory I’ll cherish.

Comments are welcome!

I would love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to share your thoughts, offer advice, disagree, or ask questions. (Disrespectful comments will be deleted.)