Debt #2 Eliminated! First Semi-Annual Report

DH = Dear Husband

On the right track – and it’s weird!

November has been a month of monetary abundance. (See post “Debt and Guilt . . .”)  A few weeks ago, we dared to hope that with our insurance reimbursement, DH’s expenses claim, and my three-paycheque month, we might be able to finish off Debt #2 by November 30.  As it turns out, we didn’t even need to wait for my third pay.  This past week, DH and I drove to the bank and eliminated Debt #2!
“Do you feel secure not having Debt #2 anymore?” DH asked me as we exited the bank.  We both felt a giddy light-headedness and a slight loss of equilibrium, but I thought he was joking.  “It’s been with us for at least five years, and now it’s gone.”   While driving from the bank to the wholesale grocery store we’d gone to a thousand times before, we sat in stunned silence.  DH got confused about where he was and almost made a wrong turn.  Getting out of debt is disorienting!  Who would have thought it?
The end of November marks the first six months on our journey out of debt, and it’s time to look back at our progress.  We’ve focused on Debts #1 and #2, but our mortgage has also decreased. 
Start of June:  Total Debt = $257, 400
#1 New Car Debt – $8,600
#2 Old Car & Course Debt – $12,800
#3 Business Debt – $80,800
#4 Mortgage – $155,000
End of Novemeber:  Total Debt = $231, 400
#1 – $0
#2 – $0
#3 Business Debt – $80, 830
#4 Mortgage – $150, 570
               We’ve paid a grand total of $26,000 off of our debt in six months!  If we had never listened to or read Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover – if we had continued with the course we were on in the spring of 2012 – things would be significantly different.  Remember, we weren’t terrible with money at that time.  We were paying $1,000 per month off of our new car; $600 per month extra on our mortgage; and $700 per month off of the business debt.  On a regular basis, we were paying $2,300 off of our debt – that’s on top of the regular mortgage payment – each month.  That’s not bad.
               But not every month was regular.  We weren’t working together, mainly because I had a strong aversion to financial details; we weren’t communicating about money matters except to bicker.  As a result, we were never current.  Tax bills and Visa bills and regular monthly payments and sudden needs/wants were coming in chaotically, leaving us (mainly DH) with no sense of our actual financial status at any given time.  So we would occasionally skip our debt repayment, or even back track on it.  Last spring, for instance, DH borrowed $3000 from our line of credit for Debt #1 so that we could pay our property tax bill.  Although $2,300 in debt repayment, on top of the regular mortgage payment, was our goal every month, we did not always attain that goal.
               My guess is that if we hadn’t started this focused journey out of debt, we would have paid off about $17,000 (including mortgage) in the last six months.  That means we’ve paid $9,000 more than we otherwise would have.  We’ve increased our debt repayment by about 50%.  Last spring, we failed to maintain regular payments, on top of the mortgage, of $2,300 per month.  For the past six months, we have averaged over $3,500 per month.
               If you asked me how, I’d have some quick answers:  I taught summer school for the first time in fourteen years; I didn’t go with DH to his annual convention as I had the previous two summers; DH and I spent much less on our anniversary than we had the previous two years; we no longer pay for house-cleaning; we missed our camping trip due to DH’s illness; we sold some items on Kijiji.  But I’d have less tangible answers too:  I have faced down my aversion to the details of money matters and have become  a partner with DH in the management of our household finances; DH and I are recognizing our own agents of inner-sabotage – things like guilt and worry and self-identification with middle-class debt (more on that later); when there has been more money than we expected, we’ve resisted the temptation to indulge and have put more against debt; we’re learning to identify the fine line between needs and wants.
               At the beginning of June, I compared our journey out of debt to a 10 km road race (see post “Here We Go!”).  “If you’ve ever taken part in a road race,” I wrote, “you know how effortless it feels at the beginning.  Surrounded by fellow runners, cheered on by well-wishers, adrenaline pumping, barely conscious of your legs beneath you . . .  It’s as if you are carried by the crowds through that first kilometer or so.”  Well, we’ve completed the first kilometer.  One tenth of our debt is gone.  We’re doing so much better than I would have thought possible.  And now that the adrenaline is subsiding, now that the psyched determination of the start is quieter, now that we feel the effort we’re expending, it’s going to be our challenge to keep pace.  The second kilometer of a road race is still pretty sweet.  I say bring it on.

When Debt Falls Off the Radar of Significance

DH = Dear Husband
Every week before I post, with a couple of exceptions, I read my entry to DH to get his feedback.  For the first time, this week he gave it the thumbs down.  “I know what happened, and even I was confused,” he said.  “People won’t understand, and they’ll get bored.”  Believe it or not, I’ve come to appreciate his brutal honesty.  But I maintain the right to disagree.  And I do.  A crisis arose this week, the details of which I cannot disclose.  According to Dave Ramsey, the average household takes seven years to get out of debt.  Chances are, at least one crisis is going to take place in that period of time for any given household – a crisis that overtakes everything and pushes concerns about money and debt off the radar.  I believe it’s honest and of value for me to write about it.  But if I’m wrong, if you share DH’s opinion, please excuse me this once:
               There are times when money matters lose any significance.  Imagine, for instance, that your spouse goes to the clinic complaining of fatigue and that the doctor discovers a lump.  Or that you’re looking for a book in the room of your teenager, whose recent moodiness you thought was natural, and you find a stash of ecstasy pills under the bed.  Or that your sister calls you in fear of her husband – a man you’ve long considered a brother – because he’s been abusing her for years and things are escalating.  It’s none of the above, but you get the idea of the magnitude.
               Adrenaline takes over and you morph into a state of hyper focus and purpose.  Your plan of action is exactly what it should be, and you execute it with superhuman competence.  Only when the initial crisis is in hand are you overtaken by the cloud of shock.  Considerations of cheap parking or clever snack-packing to avoid purchases of food are not even remotely possible.  Every ounce of energy has to be channelled towards the monumental task of putting one foot in front of the other.  And it’s OK when you trip in your efforts to do so.  When you drive right into the median (no harm done) or when you can’t find the money you’ve just taken out of the bank machine because you’ve put it in the most unlikely compartment of your wallet.
               But this is a blog about financial management and debt repayment, and now that I’m able to step back a bit, I can see manifestations of the change in habits that we’ve adopted over the last few months.   I’ve been a long way from pristine.  My stoic resistance to buying treats gave way to a flood of Band-Aid spending.  Chicken wings, panini, donairs.  Egg rolls for everyone.  More Tim Hortons than I can count.  I knew even as I purchased that I was investing in the superficial for short-term feel-good value.  And I knew that it was OK to do so.  I can tell you that at an earlier chapter of my life, I would have invested more heavily in more lavish distractions.  A shopping spree perhaps.  Or an impulsive week-end trip.  We’ll only spend so much money on Band-Aids now – and that’s on automatic pilot, not conscious willpower.  Improved habits keep working even when you’re not thinking.  Even when you couldn’t care less about them.  They’re habits.
The cloud is thinning out.  I have returned to work and have found myself able to function – even to engage in joking banter with staff and students.  I can drive without incident.  At home, we’re making birthday plans and Christmas plans.  Once again we bear in mind such things as the discount hours when turning on the washing machine.  
I can honestly say that my outlook is one of hope.  As Leonard Cohen wrote so insightfully in “Athem”, “There is a crack, a crack in everything /  That’s how the light gets in.”  I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t at some point or other in their lives suffered a shattering blow.  If we handle these times poorly – if we draw tightly into ourselves in defensive fear or anger– we keep the light out and become bitter.  But if we handle them well, with hearts that are vulnerable but open, the light reaches us powerfully, and we become better – more compassionate; more patient; more understanding; more loving and wise.  We become richer in the way that matters most.

Debt Reduction and Guilt: Facing the Sabotage from Within

 
DH = Dear Husband
Our attack on Debt #2 has begun in earnest.  This week, we received our reimbursement cheque from the insurance company.  (See post “Debt and Uncertainty . . .”)  That’s $2,589.15.  And then there’s the amount of money we set aside in October.  It was impressive, partly because we sold two musical instruments and an office desk that had been collecting dust in our house for years.  So another $2,872.  This month, we are setting aside $2,600 for our November debt repayment.
12,800
-2,589
-2,872
-2,600
$4,739
               But that’s not the end of it.  I get paid every two weeks, so twice a year I have a three-paycheque month.  This year, November is one of them.  Furthermore, DH, who works out of our home, is preparing his annual expenses claim this month.  It is possible that we will have Debt #2 completely paid off by November 30.  It is almost certain that we will have it paid off by the New Year.  Unbelievable!

Money Guilt

               When I first listened to the CD version of The Total Money Makeover, I was struck by Dave Ramsey’s assertion that personality traits become more pronounced as debt is discarded and wealth is gained.  In particular, I remember him saying that if you often feel guilty, you’re going to feel even more guilt as your wealth accumulates.  I thought to myself at the time, I’m going to have to watch out for that one.  Well here it is!  I feel a distinct discomfort about our good fortune this month. Even DH said one morning this week, completely out of the blue, “I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable not having any debt.”  What’s with that? 
               In talking about this bizarre discomfort, DH and I both admitted to having thoughts that served to give a twisted reassurance: 
        Things are good now, but it will all balance out; we’ll probably have a really bad couple of months ahead.  Might as well make the most of it now.
        This is an impressive month, but we still have years of debt repayment ahead of us.
        We’re on track to pay off our debt in five years, but we’ll be so close to retirement by then that we won’t have a chance to build up our equity.
        My union is starting to take action.  There’s a possibility that we’ll lose some income for a while.
I have tried to figure out the root of my reluctance to embrace financial success.  In the end,
I would have to say that my comfort with financial struggle originates from faulty interpretations of the Bible.  Even faulty interpretations that I shed years ago, at least on an intellectual level, are apparently still at work in me:
              
Faulty interpretation #1:  All rich people are bad.  Look at the rich young ruler.  (Mark 10:17-27)  He refused to sell all his worldly possessions as Jesus asked him to do.  That’s when Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Revisiting interpretation #1:  Clearly, Jesus didn’t believe that all rich people were bad.  In his parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31), the father is wealthy enough to have servants, jewelry, fine clothes, and a fattened calf.   And he is a good guy.  In the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), the hero is wealthy enough to transport a severely injured man to safety and to pay for his medical care and lodging.  Joanna, one of the women who supported Jesus financially (Luke 8:3), was clearly wealthy.  The centurion who implored Jesus to heal his servant acknowledged his own wealth and power.  And of him, Jesus said, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8: 5-10)  As for the rich young ruler, if we continue reading Jesus’ commentary, we see that it is in this very context – that of the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of God – that Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
Faulty interpretation #2:  The Bible says that money is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10)
Revisiting interpretation #2:  Look up 1 Timothy 6:10.  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  Money is not the root of evil; love of money is what brings the piercing of grief.  As for the management of money, there is a great deal of advice in the Bible on that topic, so clearly, it’s important.  Don’t borrow money because you’ll end up being enslaved to the lender; your character is of more worth than your money; don’t give your heart to money; before you take on an investment, make sure that you can pay for it; don’t be lazy or you’ll end up poor; work hard so that you won’t be in need; give to the poor; be generous . . .  Biblical monetary advice urges calculated wisdom combined with a guarding of the heart.  It warns against the foolishness that can lead to financial ruin just as it warns against the worship of money.  In his parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9) Jesus tells of a woman who, after losing money, decides to “light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it,” and then calls her friends and neighbours and says, “Rejoice with me.”  He doesn’t say, “She realized that it was only money, so it wasn’t worthy of her notice.”  It was worthy of her notice – and her time and her effort and her celebration. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that money is evil. 
               I’m going to stare down the guilt that is making me less that absolutely thrilled with our fantastic progress this month.  It’s a joy-killer – a life-muzzler.  It stems from a theology that is oppressive and inaccurate.  The woman in the parable lit a lamp, just as we have shone a light on our financial mess; she swept the house, just as we have tidied up our accounts; she searched carefully, just as we have searched for ways to manage better.   And when she succeeded, she rejoiced! 

Debt and Uncertainty: The Challenge of Being in Limbo

DH = Dear Husband
“I phoned yesterday,” I told the person at my work insurance company on Friday, “and was told that it would take three to five business days for you to wrap up my file.   But I thought I’d phone today just in case you already have it all resolved – and I can have a really nice week-end.”  Or a really bad week-end.  But at least I’d know.  The woman on the other end of the phone had to go away for a few moments.
To review our insurance drama, which has kept our debt repayment on hold for over two months, I have to take you back to the end of July.  For his business franchise, DH went to an American city for an annual convention, and in a stroke of bad luck, had a gallbladder attack twelve hours prior to his flight home.  At a nearby hospital, he had to pay a $2,500 deposit for a few hours of emergency treatment before going to the airport.  We later found out that bills for the hospital visit totaled $6,500.   After a flurry of e-mails, faxes, and phone calls to get our insurance claim going, we had to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.  DH had had a gallbladder attack in May, so the possibility of a pre-existing condition  – which would eliminate our chance of any coverage – was being investigated.  There was little I could do besides periodically check in to see how things were progressing.

Grace in Limbo

The psychology of uncertainty is tough.  I have never been comfortable in a state of limbo. Whether in employment, in relationships, in questions regarding health or finances, I function best when I know where things stand.   I am sometimes struck by the grace with which certain people absorb the limbo in their lives.  They carry on day-to-day with relative serenity even if they’re waiting to find out whether or not their job contract will be extended; even if they’re not sure of the feelings of their love interest; even if the doctors haven’t yet determined a diagnosis; even while waiting for an insurance claim to be processed.  If it’s a grace that can be acquired, I’d like to grow some more of it because limbo is a recurring theme in every life.
DH is better at dealing with uncertainty than I am, so it was my challenge to face this state of limbo as best I could and not to let worry over it sabotage other areas of my life.  Dale Carnegie says that when you’re inclined to worry about something, consider what the worst case scenario might be, accept it, and move forward.  In our situation, the worst case scenario was that we would not be reimbursed for the $2,500 deposit and that we would have to pay an additional $4,000.  This would be frustrating by any standard.  We were feeling triumphant at the end of July, on the verge of paying off the $8,600 which was Debt #1, and to be stuck with the possibility of $6,500 in bills right then was extremely aggravating.  It played into the belief I apparently harbour deep in my subconscious that no matter how much you try to save or how much you try to pay off, circumstances will undo it. 

Up

There’s a brief playing out of this belief at the wonderful beginning of the movie Up, when Carl and Ellie try to save money for their dream of adventure in travel.  Over and over again, they put their spare change into the savings bottle.  Over and over again, they take a hammer to the bottle and smash it to pay for car repairs, medical bills, damage to the house . . .   And Ellie ends up dying before their dreams can be fulfilled.  I just watched that segment on Youtube to get the details right.  It still makes me weepy.

 Perspective

It took the words of a wise colleague to snap me out of my frustration.  (See end of post “On Hold”.)  She reminded me that DH’s health was the thing that mattered most.  She said, “Any problem that can be solved with money is not a problem.”  It seems like a false statement to someone struggling with debt, but debt is not really a money problem to begin with.  It’s a money management problem.  I decided then that no matter which scenario came to pass, I would keep managing well.  At a previous chapter in my life, I might have responded to the uncertainty of our situation by throwing up my hands in defeat, sticking my head back in the sand, and ordering take-out; but at this time, I determined to continue in my vigilance.  We have put money aside with the understanding that it would either go towards the additional $4,000 in medical bills or towards debt.  I would have to say that worry has not sabotaged other areas of my life.  Perhaps I am growing some of that limbo-absorbing grace.
The woman at the insurance company eventually came back to the phone yesterday.  “We sent your cheque out in the mail this morning.”  We’re getting reimbursed.  No more limbo.  Sweet, sweet news!  Debt #2, which sits at $12,800 will soon be attacked on all sides – by the insurance cheque as well as by what we’ve put aside for October, which has been awaiting marching orders, and by our November amount, which has yet to be calculated.  I’ll know the numbers by next week.  For now, I’m happy just to soak it all in and to know where I stand.  No hammer required.  The change in the bottle adding up!

Treats While Getting Out Of Debt

Temptation on a drive from work

I was driving home from work last Friday when a familiar craving hit me.  I wanted Chinese food.  I’d been there before, and I recognized the pre-existing conditions.  Days were getting shorter; temperatures had dipped; work had an element of extra stress.  The best egg rolls in the world are prepared at a restaurant only a little out of the way of my homeward route.  Two egg rolls with plum sauce would do it.  Maybe some sweet and sour chicken balls too.  But how much would that cost?  Probably over $10.  Wouldn’t that be a purchase I’d regret?  I’m prone to death by a thousand cuts, and wouldn’t this be one such cut?  The crunch of the eggroll beckoned until the last possible moment, but I made a left turn onto the highway and steered clear of the restaurant.
Triumph?  Not exactly.  I still had the craving.  And it was Friday.  Was life to be devoid of any charm just because I was getting out of debt?  Wasn’t it OK to have a treat at the end of the work week?  I remembered recently talking to someone who’d said that her friend, an extremely good money manager, treated herself to a 99-cent download of a song at the end of each week – and then I got an idea.  At the bargain grocery store nearby, I knew that there were frozen Chinese dumplings for just over $2.  I made another left turn.  This was triumph.  I had my treat, and I got to feel financially wise at the same time.

Treat envy

I’m always amazed at work to see the number of staff and even students who come into school in the morning with a Tim Hortons or a Starbucks paper coffee cup in their hands, often with a little paper bag on the side.  Is that a muffin?  I find myself wondering with slight longing.  Or a bagel?  I bring my breakfast and lunch to work, and I belong to a coffee club in which members take turns providing cans of coffee and cartons of milk and cream.  I used to spend about $2 per day on treats like muffins and coffee, and every once in a while I’d buy breakfast on my way into work, or I’d pop out for lunch.  Not anymore.  I do feel an “atta-girl!” pride in having adopted and maintained these financially prudent habits, but I become wistful at times.  Even while sipping perfectly good java from the coffee club, I can’t help but sigh at the sight of a happy colleague with a Tim Hortons cup in hand.
I could try to analyze this longing and overcome it, but I’ve found a way to navigate it.  There is a woman at work who doesn’t have a car, and almost every day, I drive her home or close to home.  She originally asked if she could pay me to help with gas, but I said “No”.  She was insistent about contributing in some way, so I took her at her word and made a suggestion.  I said, “How about a treat at Tim Hortons once in a while?”  And that’s what we’ve done.  This week, I had a coffee and a donut.  Last week, it was a cheese croissant and an ice-cap.  This is the most brilliant arrangement ever! 

The question of sweating the small stuff

I know that it’s possible to look at such musings as ridiculously nit-picky.  “Buy your egg rolls already!” you might say.  And there is a philosophical paradigm that makes my pondering of treats a misguided effort.  “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” goes the saying, “. . . and it’s all small stuff.”  I’m sweating small expenditures only as a means to an end:  to develop new habits to help me get out of debt.  And I’m getting out of debt as a means to an end:  to have financial freedom so that I don’t have to sweat the small stuff.   
In Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, there is an account of an ancient tree in Colorado that ends up dying an unlikely death.   “During the course of its long life it was struck by lightning fourteen times, and the innumerable avalanches and storms of four centuries thundered past it.  It survived them all.  In the end, however, an army of beetles attacked the tree and leveled it to the ground.  The insects ate their way through the bark and gradually destroyed the inner strength of the tree by their tiny but incessant attacks.  A forest giant which age had not withered, nor lightning blasted, nor storms subdued, fell at last before beetles so small that a man could crush them between his forefinger and his thumb” (Carnegie).  I always thought that Carnegie’s point here was that it is wise to deal with the small things – the beetles – because they can kill you.  But most people seem to interpret it as a message against allowing small things to worry us.  Hmmm .  .  .
I think that every person who is trying to pay off debt has to deal with the issue of treats in a way that works for him or her.  I do know certain individuals who absolutely never buy treats.  They’re the ones who say things like, “Why would I pay for something that I can make myself?”  But I for one am not wired that way, and if I thought that I had to shut down that side of life completely in order to succeed at debt reduction, I’d probably give up on my journey out of debt.  Fortunately, I’m finding that there is plenty of room for manoeuver in this area, and I’m spending a fraction of what I used to spend on it.   I’m choosing to keep the treat factor alive; I’m just modifying it so that I don’t experience death by a thousand cuts – or debt by a thousand lattes.  I’m dealing with the beetles so that they don’t do me in.

Debt and Numbers: Making the Stats Personal

 DH = Dear Husband

Canadians’ debt: ‘in danger zone’

               “Canada’s debt soars into danger zone”.  So read the headline for Barrie McKenna’s article in the Globe and Mail this past Monday (October 15, 2012).  Canada’s average household debt-to-income ratio has reached 163%.  Apparently, 160% is regarded as the threshold to avoid – the point that signaled economic catastrophe in the U.S. and Europe – and Canadians have surpassed it.  Only a few months ago, I was completely immune to statistics like this.  There was a certain numbness surrounding my brain that prevented the significance of numbers from penetrating to my consciousness.  But this week, I was eager to know:  How do we fit into those stats?
               DH and I started to punch in numbers, and we found that we were incredibly on the mark, hitting the average almost exactly.  There’s something comforting about being average – even if that average is in the “danger zone”.  Through my school’s online library, I have easy access to Statistics Canada’s Social Trends Magazine, and in researching the debt-to-income ratio, I came across an article written by Matt Hurst, April 21, 2011 (Catalogue no. 11-008).  In “Debt and family type in Canada” he touches upon a recent history of family debt-to-income ratio.  In 1990, it was at 93%.  In 1994, debt first surpassed income.  By 2009, it had hit 148%.  (Hurst)  This week, we’ve reached 163%.

Frogs and hot water        

“The story goes that if you drop a frog into boiling water, he will sense the pain and immediately jump out.  However, if you put a frog in room-temperature water . . . and . . . gradually turn the water up to boiling, the frog will not sense the change.  The frog is lured to his death by gradual change” (Ramsey, 13).  This illustration, from Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, provides a lens through which to view the rise in Canada’s average debt-to-income ratio by 70 percentage points over 22 years.  The water is getting hot, but we’re in denial.  It’s been so gradual, and it still feels comfortable.
My comfort at being average was lessened by a sobering fact.  At 53 and 49 years of age, DH and I are too old to be average.  “Younger Canadians (aged 19 to 34 or aged 35 to 49) were more likely to have debt than Canadians aged 50 to 64. This corresponds with the lifecycle. Younger households take on debt to purchase homes and related goods early in the life cycle and then spend the following years paying off the debt. Trends in average debt levels generally mirror these results:  debt levels were lower for 50- to 64-year olds . . .” (Hurst, 43)  Any remaining vestiges of comfort in being average disappeared when I realized something else in my research.  DH and I had the math wrong.  We had been dividing our debt by our gross income.  To get your debt-to-income ratio, you have to take your total debt (credit cards, line of credit, car debt, mortgage), and divide it by your after-tax income.   After punching in those numbers, I find that we’re way above the average.  We’re at 226%.   Ugh!  

A generational divide

A handful of people at my work know that I write this blog.  After my radio interview was aired at the beginning of this week, one of my colleagues in the know approached me and said, “People aren’t going to be able to relate to you.  Your debt isn’t that bad.  You have a mortgage and a business debt – those aren’t bad debts.  Some people live pay cheque to pay cheque and have creditors calling them . . .”  Her response differed sharply from my mother’s.  When Mom found out that our debt was over $250,000, she said she was stunned.  “You and [DH] will have to live like you’re poor.  You won’t be able to retire.  You’ll just have to keep working.”  What accounts for this difference in attitude?  It’s a generation thing.  My colleague is in the 34-49 age group, and she’s comfortable in her own debt, which she tells me is bigger than mine.  My mother and father, on the other hand were debt-free by the time they’d turned 40.   I find myself appreciating the wisdom of my parents.
Another colleague at work quit smoking after 32 years, and this summer, she celebrated her first anniversary of being smoke-free.  I asked her what had accounted for her success.   She had tried several times to quit smoking over the years.  What made this time different?  “I was sick of being sick,” she said.  On other occasions, she had tried to quit because her doctors had told her to.  This time, she quit because she wanted to.  Although the hazards of smoking have been indisputable for decades, she had to be personally convinced of them before she could succeed.  I think it’s the same with debt.  The alarm bells are ringing.  We’re in the danger zone.  But unless individuals are personally convinced, we won’t do much about it. 
I remember thinking, after DH had lost his hi-tech job and we were more strapped and stressed than we could stand, “What is God doing?”  I’m a Christian, and the Bible says that God loves us and that even hardships are for our benefit.  I could see no benefit to the crush we experienced.  But I do now.  It made us sick of being financially sick.  It took that kind of a trial by fire for us to feel the heat, and it inclined us to be receptive to an invitation out of debt.    The water is way too hot.  We’re jumping out.

Welcome to New Readers

               Prudence was interviewed on the radio earlier this week (click interview to hear it), and a lot of people have checked out my blog as a result.  I’d just like to give a quick introduction to those of you who are new readers. 
  •  I post once per week – every Saturday morning. 
  •  If you become my Facebook friend (look for Prudence Debtfree), you’ll receive a notification every time I publish a new post.
My husband (I refer to him as DH for Dear Husband) and I began our journey out of debt in June 2012.  We started out with four debts totaling just over $257,000:
#1 New Car Debt – $8,600
#2 Old Car & Course Debt – $12,800
#3 Business Debt – $80,800
#4 Mortgage – $155,000
Inspired by the book Total Money Makeover, by Dave Ramsey, we have been tackling our debts one at a time, from the smallest to the largest.  We have already eliminated Debt #1! 
            No matter what your starting point or what your income, if you’re trying to get out of debt, you’ll encounter challenges.  So far, we have dealt with a hefty van repair for $1,300 – something you might expect for a fourteen-year-old vehicle – and an emergency medical bill from the U.S.  That one shocked us.  At the end of July, DH was on a business trip in the U.S. when he suffered a gallbladder attack and had to see a doctor.  His hospital visit lasted only about five hours, but he had to pay a “deposit” of $2,500.  If that wasn’t bad enough, we later found out that the total bill was actually $6,500!  We are still waiting to see if my insurance through work will cover the cost or if we’re going to have to pay an additional $4,000.  So we are facing obstacles, but I can tell you that they aren’t pushing us off track.
            If you decide to start a journey out of debt, you will also face obstacles that don’t come from the big bad world, but that come from your home – and yourself.  First of all, you might encounter marital challenges.  Although DH and I are in full agreement about our mission to get out of debt, we don’t always agree when it comes to how we spend the money that we still need to spend.  Secondly, you might encounter challenges with your children.  We have three daughters (I refer to them as DD1, DD2, and DD3 for Dear First, Second, and Third Daughters), and they aren’t always thrilled with the tightened grip on our household money – especially when their friends’ parents seem to be so much more generous.  Lastly, you will definitely encounter challenges within yourself.  I’m finding that the habits that got me into debt in the first place are tough to break, and I’ve had to do some soul searching to try and overcome them.
            In the different posts of my blog, I reflect upon the challenges; celebrate the victories; mourn the setbacks; and try to keep accountable.  I invite you to join me.  No matter what your debt; no matter what your income; no matter what realities in your life make it difficult for you to tackle debt – I believe that the same principles apply to all of us.  I welcome your comments.  When I started the blog, I envisioned the formation of a sort of “Debt Watchers” community – similar to the Weight Watchers community – online.  I believe we can encourage each other.  Feel free to share your goals, your challenges, your advice.  Let’s take this journey together.

Shopping While Getting Out Of Debt

 YSC = Young Stylish Colleague
DH = Dear Husband
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
               About twenty-two years ago, I made it onto a local TV news broadcast.  I was at a shopping mall in December when I saw a familiar-looking woman with a microphone in her hand and a cameraman at her side.  She had just finished speaking with a shopper and was scanning the faces around her with purposeful intensity – until I realized she was making a bee-line towards me.
               “Are you Christmas shopping?” she asked, her face transformed by a gregarious friendliness.   I told her I was.  She asked something about my spending – was I sticking to a budget – or something like that.  I admitted to her that my spending had gone out of control but that I had bought some great Christmas gifts.  “Well, how are you going to pay for it all?” she asked.  “I’ll worry about that in January,” I answered with a coy smile.  “Cut! That’s a good one.”  My new friend was clearly pleased with what she’d lighted upon.  I can’t remember if I ever saw that news show, but my mom did.  She, who knew my bad money habits all too well, had a mixed reaction.  She groaned with dread at her daughter’s carelessness but said I looked cute.  Mom has referred to that TV clip occasionally over the years, her dread always balanced by her reassurance of my cuteness – as if that somehow made it OK.

Cute:  The Enemy of Progress

               I was a young adult on her own by this point; an independent grown-up who had ostensibly left her childish ways behind.   I had a vague awareness of the fact that my income management skills were non-existent, but it never really seemed to matter.  Every time I stumbled, I resorted to my cutesy confessions, and life went on.  I have come to recognize the prevalence of “cute” as a coping mechanism for people who know that that they should change their habits for better physical or financial health, but who persist in the same, comfortable rut.  “I tried so hard to be good, but that cupcake just called out to me,” says the person on a diet.   “I had my gym bag at the door all ready to go, but the couch got in the way of my workout,” says the person trying to get in shape.  “I planned to get only what I’d come for, but that hat wouldn’t leave me alone until I bought it,” says the person trying to rein in spending.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the self-deprecating smiles – the passive, disarming tone of voice – both male and female.  The male is more complacent, loud, and funny; the female is mock-earnest and sweetly helpless.  Either way, it’s difficult to counter Cute with anything but a chuckle. 
               My own inner-cutie-pie has been kept at bay over the last few months as DH and I have taken on our journey out of debt.  She tries to pop up every once in a while, but I stare her down with a level gaze, and she skitters back into the shadows.  I know she’s lurking there.  She’s not harmless.  Her charm is deceptive.  She’s a fake, and she wants to derail my progress.  Good-bye cutie-pie!  The grown-up is emerging.

YSC

               But even grown-ups need clothes.  I went shopping this past Wednesday after work, and there was nothing cute about it.  Full of determination to do it right, I sought out an expert.  I’ll call her YSC for Young Stylish Colleague.  She’s a teacher whom I mentored at the start of her career, and she has all of the qualities of the shopper I want to become.  YSC dresses very well.  In her last year at our school, for our Academy Awards Night, students voted her the best-dressed teacher.  I knew she didn’t have a lot of money.  She had grown up with poverty at her doorstep, and she had left home at an early age.  Somehow, she didn’t miss a beat:  finished high school; went to university; got into teachers’ college; and at a time when jobs in education are heart-breakingly hard to come by, secured a teaching position.  I can tell you one thing:  She didn’t come this far by being cute.  Part-time jobs through school; tight, tight money management; taking on the obstacles in her path with a clear head . . . YSC’s success has been the outcome of her purpose and intention.  Insofar as shopping goes, there is no compromise in style; no compromise in quality; no compromise in price.  She is now my mentor.
               I took $200 cash with me to the shopping mall where we had arranged to meet.  YSC told me that our goal was to buy six items.  Her cool confidence was way beyond me, but I completely trusted it.  We went to sales racks  – to clothing that was not at the entrance – not featured on the mannequins.  This territory was unfamiliar to me.  YSC picked out shirts, pants, a scarf and a skirt that I would not even have seen had I been on my own.  If I expressed hesitation, she convinced me to give it a try, but didn’t push if I remained hesitant.  Once, I pointed out a shirt that I’d probably get on my own.  “That shirt has ‘MOM’ written all over it,” she said.  “But I am a mom,” I told her.  “Not here, you’re not.”
               I came home with seven items.  The only thing YSC got out of the evening was dinner at the food court.  I felt rather badly about that, but she assured me that she’d appreciated the experience too.  Ever industrious, she is thinking of becoming a professional shopper on the side, and our Wednesday evening excursion gave her an encouraging taste for it.  She certainly has my recommendation.  When I arrived home, DH was out of the house, but I gave a fashion show to DD2 and DD3.  They hovered just outside my door and kept telling me to hurry up.  Each time I stepped out, I was greeted by cheers and smiles and approving comments.  My children were proud of their mother for having purchased clothes that didn’t say “MOM”.  For his part, DH said to me this morning, “You’re dressing like a woman.”
               Working on money habits is like working on food habits.  With smoking, you can quit.  But you can’t quit eating; and you can’t quit spending.  So those of us who are money or food challenged have the very hard task of adopting new habits.  But we don’t have to do it alone.  There are experts all around us – just look.  And the thing about experts is that it’s a pleasure for them to use their expertise.  With YSC’s help, I’ve taken many steps away from that cute shopper once featured on the news.  I think the friendly TV reporter would be disappointed if she interviewed me now.

Romance While Getting Out Of Debt

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

Expensive romance

Roses.  Chocolates.  Wine.  Gifts.  Restaurants.  Week-ends away.  Exotic destinations.  Diamonds.  Romance can be pricey.  Two years ago, when DH marked the first year of his business franchise, we felt encouraged by his new career after years of uncertainty, and we invested in some expensive romance.  When our anniversary came around, we indulged in an overnight get-away at the resort where we’d spent our honeymoon.  There were chocolate dipped strawberries waiting for us in our room.  We each had an hour-long massage, and then we got all dressed up for dinner.  Before heading down to the dining area, we opened the champagne we’d had cooling on ice and toasted our years together.  A delicious dinner; a swim; a huge breakfast the next morning; a set of pretty bad but very fun tennis; a walk through the pathways surrounding the resort . . .  Very romantic.   We did the same after DH’s second successful year in business.  But not this year.

Can romance be bought?

Is romance possible when you’re getting out of debt?  Romance is sort of like fun.  It can be set up, but it can’t be bought.  I remember one of my sisters once telling me of a woman who had gone to Toronto for a week-end get-away with her boyfriend.  When my sister asked her how it had gone, she’d said, “If I told you about the restaurants and the places we visited, you’d think we had a wonderful time.  But it was awful.”  They broke up soon afterwards.  On the other hand, it is possible to experience moments of incredible romance in very unlikely situations.  Early in my teaching career, I remember supervising a particular set of year-end exams in the school gymnasium.  A boy who was already seated looked up at a girl who had just arrived and exchanged a silent greeting with her.  She soon passed by, but the smile remained on his flushed face as he awkwardly looked down at the cover page of his exam, forehead leaning on both hands, unable to do anything else with the glow that had overtaken him.  I couldn’t help but smile myself.  Young love in the exam hall; it was so sweet. 

Frugal romance

So it wasn’t just the resort and the chocolate covered strawberries that made it happen for us on those two anniversary get-aways.  On their own, the trappings of romance are completely devoid of romance itself.  This year, on our journey out of debt, our unspoken hope was to make the romance happen without quite so many trappings.  Leading up to last week-end, I asked DD2 and DD3 if they could sleep over at friends’ houses Saturday night.  “Why?” asked DD2.  “It’s our anniversary,” I answered.  After brief pause, DD2 yelled out a very loud and suggestive “Whooooo-hoo!” and started texting arrangements.  I understand that it’s good for children to witness evidence of affection between their parents – though they certainly don’t want to see too much of it.  DD3, who always challenges me when she wants to watch a movie that I have said is inappropriate, recently saw us dancing to Adel’s One and Only in the kitchen.  She said that she was scarred for life and that she’d never be able to listen to Adel again.  So it was a fortunate thing that both DD2 and DD3 were able to leave Saturday night, and that they were spared the sight of us dancing to the same song in the family room.
Besides the impromptu dancing – which, by the way, was not a part of our experience at the resort – we ate a meal that we’d prepared together, and that was just as delicious as any restaurant fare.  We ate in style – I in my dress and DH in his suit.  We toasted with champagne, and DH surprised me with a gift:  season two of Downton Abbey.  The best television series ever.  DD2, who did not go to her friend’s house until quite late, washed the dishes for us as we watched the first episode.  (Big points for DD2!)  Sunday morning we slept in, skipped church, and went out for a pretty classy breakfast. 
               It didn’t hurt that things have been going well for us lately.  DD1 has reason to be cautiously optimistic about her respiratory issue.  (See post “A Temptation Back Into Debt”)  DH has completely recovered from his gallbladder surgery in the summer.  Our athletic DD2, who suffered a freak injury just before she was to start university and had to be withdrawn from her first semester, has come a long way in her recovery.  For a healthy family, we’ve had a bizarre string of medical issues lately – I broke my toe into the bargain, and hobbled around with an air cast through September – so a general return to health has been a real bonus.  DH had a great September in his business – a fine start to his fourth year; DD1, who is studying for her master’s degree out west, found a promising part-time job writing for web sites; DD2 is handling the delay to her university start well, and will work and save money until she starts her courses in January.  As we sat across that breakfast table from each other, DH and I were basking in a certain satisfied gratitude for hardships weathered together and overcome.
               Later on in the week, we calculated the cost of our anniversary celebration and compared it to last year’s.  The resort get-away came in at about $850; this year’s stay-at-home anniversary came in at about $120.  I’m sure that once we’re out of debt, we’ll choose to go back to our honeymoon resort for that first week-end in October, but the question remains:  Is romance possible when you’re getting out of debt?  I’m here to tell you it is.

Mickey Mouse and His Broom: Debt Illustrated in Fantasia

 DH = Dear Husband
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter

Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Mills & Mickey Mouse

“There’s a widespread folk motif about magic mills and their habit of not stopping.  A poor peasant acquires a hand mill that goes by itself and grinds out anything you ask it to, and so he becomes wealthy; but someone else gets hold of it, and starts it grinding some desired substance – in Grimm’s Fairy Tales it’s porridge – and then can’t turn it off, so the house and then the street fill up with porridge, dreadful thought. This plot is very close to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice motif that you may last have glimpsed in Walt Disney’s film Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice and the unstoppable robot taking the form of a broom and a pail of water.”  (Atwood, 109)
There were several parts of Margaret Atwood’s book Payback that I read out loud to DH.  This bit about mills and Mickey Mouse was an eye-opener for us, and it has now become a part of our lingo.  We have found that a reference to Mickey Mouse and his broom encapsulates the stuff of chaos in any facet of our lives that gets out of control.  At the end of July, when DH was fevered, in pain, stressed, and – as it turned out – hours away from emergency gallbladder surgery, his business phone kept ringing.  New clients, questions, orders – things that are usually welcome for a self-employed man – became demonic agents of relentless torment. “This is totally Mickey Mouse and his #!@&* broom,” he grunted.  (The expletives were free flowing right about that time.)

Fantasia

I had seen Fantasia years ago, so I knew what Atwood was describing, but I watched that particular segment again on Youtube.  Mickey Mouse, an apprentice to a sorcerer, has the job of fetching water from a fountain in two pails.  He carries the pails to large vat in the sorcerer’s cavern, dumps them in, and then goes back again to fetch more.  It’s a big vat and a laborious effort, so when the sorcerer leaves, Mickey tries on the old man’s magic hat in hopes of making his job easier.  The magic works, and his broom starts to tote the water.  Mickey Mouse happily kicks back, but before too long, the vat has overflowed, and the spellbound broom cannot be stopped in its course – back and forth between the fountain and the vat – and the whole cavern is flooded.  Mickey resorts to his axe and chops the broom into splinters, stopping the thing at last.  But then each splinter becomes a separate broom with the same mission, and the flooding intensifies.  What started as an apparent blessing becomes a curse.

Debt & Mickey’s broom

There is much about the reality of our debts that is illustrated by Mickey Mouse and his broom.  Our mortgage for instance, feel endless – like poor Mickey’s tired trips back and forth from the fountain to the vat.  Monthly payment after monthly payment after monthly payment . . . year after year.  Then there are the financial curve balls that we have to deal with.  They seem strategically planned to undermine our journey out of debt – just as Mickey’s efforts to destroy the broom are countered by the onslaught of an army of brooms.  From frequent irritations like van repairs, to random hits like the emergency U.S. medical bill in July, every step of our progress has met with an obstacle.
There is another aspect of our debt that is illustrated by the story of Mickey Mouse and his broom, but unlike our mortgage, which is already set in stone, and those financial curve balls, which are beyond our control, this one is within our power to handle.  It’s the force of our inner toddler – the insistent voice shouting, “I want it NOW!”  We’re getting the itch to buy. 
After fourteen years, a household shows signs of wear.  I’m noticing stains on our carpet.  The piano is out of tune, and its bench is cracked.  The furniture in our family room is visibly worn.  DH keeps talking about getting a sectional sofa and a flat screen TV.  My wardrobe is in dire need of sprucing up.  Today DD2 said to me, quite sweetly, as we got ready to walk the dog, “I want to sign you up for What Not to Wear.”  (It’s a reality TV show about unsuspecting people whose friends and families set them up for expert fashion make-overs.  It always ends with a party and happy tears.)  DH and I have no shortage of material wants. 

Mickey’s inner toddler

Mickey deals with his inner toddler – the one who says, “This work is so HARD!” – by sneakily putting on the sorcerer’s magic hat.  We, of course, have the option of taking out the credit card.  Abracadabra!  We could have it all!  But we know the curse that will result, and we’re committed to another strategy.  I’ve been working my way out of mortifying discretionary fund debt for over half a year now (see “Discretionary Money:  His and Hers”), mainly by taking on the house cleaning, for which we used to pay $100 every two weeks.  I’m essentially there now.  Not quite, but really close.  So in October, I plan to buy some clothes.  I have a young colleague who can dress like a model on a dime, and she’s agreed to be my coach.  She’ll take me on a bargain shopping spree, and I’ll end up looking like her.  All I have to do is drive where she tells me to go and buy lunch.  Furthermore, DH and I have agreed that as of October, we will share the cleaning, and that $100 every two weeks will go towards a mutual discretionary fund.  We can gradually save for a sectional sofa, a flat-screen TV, a repair for the piano bench, the services of a piano tuner . . . The thing is, we’ll pay cash. 
Delayed gratification is a tough habit to acquire, but we’re psyched.  Our past choices have us grinding out payments that we can’t turn off.  Random mishaps strive to derail our progress.  But DH and I are facing our inner toddlers and saying firmly, “You’ll have to wait.”  Mickey Mouse can keep his magic hat and his broom.  We’re not going there.