DH = Dear Husband
Dave Ramsey says that when you’ve paid off the mortgage, you find that the grass in the yard feels different under your feet.  Two days ago, DH went to the bank to finish off our debt for our 2011 Ford Focus, and I can tell you that the gas pedal feels different under my foot!  If you had told me in May that we’d have our first debt paid off in the first week of September, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Debt #1 sat at $8,600 when we started this journey, and it’s gone!

Update on our medical insurance story

We’ve not yet been reimbursed for the $2,500 emergency medical deposit that DH had to pay during his business trip to the U.S. in July.  We paid the VISA bill which included that deposit in the last week of August, and we killed off Debt #1 in the first week of September.  I phoned my insurance company yesterday to see how things were looking, and if all goes well, we’ll have that $2,500 cheque in about two weeks.  It will go directly against Debt #2.
I’ll tell you something:  it didn’t used to be this way.  It used to be that if DH and I knew that money was coming our way – say an income tax refund  – we’d come up with all sorts of ways to spend it.  We’d get so fixated on whatever it was we “needed” that we’d buy it before the money came in.  Then when it did come in, we’d spend it again.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of Ramsey’s call to have focused intensity in paying off debt.  You can wander into debt, but you can’t wander out of it.  It’s not a “go-with-the-flow” kind of thing.  In our first steps out of debt, DH and I have had to adopt an in-your-face intentionality. 

“You Only Live Once”

The school year has started.  “How was your summer?” is a question that staff and students ask and answer many times during the first few days back.  I often said, in answering this question from staff, that I’d taught summer school.  In response to the “But why?” perplexity that generally followed, I answered frankly that I was trying to get out of debt.  “You’ll always have it,” sighed one colleague, with a wistful shake of the head in acceptance of this inevitability.  Benjamin Franklin once said, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.”  I think that our generation would add, “. . . and debt.”  
In the course of this same conversation, my colleague, who had done something wonderful – and expensive – during the summer, said, “You only live once.”  I must admit that that one gets to me at times.  Besides our society’s sense of entitlement to instant gratification, I think that we live somewhat in the shadow of doom these days.  The fragility of the world economy; environmental alarm over our abused planet; uncertain peace amidst ever-present threats of war . . . It makes paying off your car loan seem rather trite.  Then there’s the tragic prominence of cancer and other illnesses that remind us of our mortality.  It all justifies the idea of living-to-the-full-now-while-you-can.  And living to the full now, of course, requires spending money that you don’t have (so that you can be in bondage to your lender later).   But after all is said and done, while it’s possible that I could drop dead the day after we pay off our mortgage, I really would rather die debt-free and have an inheritance to pass on to my children than die debt-ridden and leave behind a burden. 
So much for the worst case scenarios.  Now let’s consider the possibility that the world isn’t due to end, and that I’m still a few decades good to go.  I foresee living out of debt as living more abundantly.  More to spend; bigger plans to save for; generous, powerful giving; and the absence of a life-sucking weight that so many of us have come to accept as inevitable.  I imagine the lightness that will replace it once all debt is gone, and I think this lightness of being motivates me more than anything.  And imagine what we could do with regards to innovations to help the environment; medical research; poverty; and threats of aggression if nations got rid of their debts.  “You only live once.”  So live well, and set yourself up to live abundantly.  On to Debt #2!
Ramsey advises to pay off debts from smallest to largest.  He says it gives that “lose weight quickly!” encouragement.  He’s right.  We lost $8,600 worth of financial fat in three months with the elimination of Debt #1.  Debt #2 sits at $12,800, and if all goes well, we should have it paid off in five months – in January.   We will expect the unexpected, just as we did when we started.  A big repair bill for the van and an emergency medical bill from the U.S. were not in our agenda for the past three months, but they happened. There are no guarantees.  But there are plenty of reasons to hope.

Debtor’s Relapse

DH = Dear Husband
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
CF1 & CF2 = Two Church Friends

My poor record with  discretionary $

                I must be a magnet to debt.  In my last post, I explained that DH and I had decided a year ago October to allot ourselves the amount of $600 per month for discretionary spending.  I quickly got into debt in my discretionary fund, and from February of this year, I have been diligent in working my way out.  I said that this month, I had managed to “claw my way” up to zero in my discretionary fund.  But I haven’t.  I’m still $200 in the hole.  I remember at the beginning of August thinking, “I’m going to be operating on the positive side of zero all month.  Finally!”  I obviously felt my triumph too soon.  And I think that in allowing myself to feel it, I relaxed my resolve and sabotaged my chances. 
               Ramsey challenges us to identify our weaknesses in spending.  What is it that you find it very hard to resist buying?  For him, it was cars.  For me, it’s food.  Food prepared by someone else.  I have spent more on treats and meals out in the last week than I did during the two previous months combined – maybe even the three or four previous months.  I find myself reluctant to calculate an actual sum, but I’ll  face it:
        three ice cream treats with DD3:  one after a bike ride; one after a long walk with extended famiy; one after a soccer tournament  $35
        dinner at the market downtown with CF1 and CF2  $25
        breakfast and lunch with DD3 during a road trip   $35
        snacks and lunch with DD3 during her soccer tournament  $20
        lunch at the market downtown with DD2 and DD3   $40
That comes to a grand total of $150 for treats and meals out over the period of a week.  This after months of stoically denying myself!  I was truly miserable when I realized I would be ending yet another month in discretionary debt.  I’m waxing more philosophical now.
               There is nothing wrong with any single one of these expenditures.  Even the grand total wouldn’t be a problem if I’d been operating in the black.  It’s the fact that I indulged in so many in such a short period of time when I was so close to getting out of my own mini-debt that’s the problem.  I don’t think that the answer lies in micro-management.  I could have prepared snacks and lunch for DD3’s tournament – but her team was ranked 14th out of 16, and we thought our day would be over by noon.  We had no idea her team would make it to the finals and that we wouldn’t be home until 3:00.  I could have spent less on each outing, but I don’t want to go that route.  Something in me rises up against the idea of economizing a treat.  Avoid expensive restaurants, but get what you really want when you dine or snack out.  No, the thought of micro-management just irritates me.  I need an answer to the broader question: “What was going on?”

Addiction and

                 I’ve been very interested in addictions for a number of years now, and I believe that truths about physical addictions have a very real application to broader behavioural habits.  An internet search of “relapse” soon brought me to Addictions and  Addiction and Recovery Information for Individuals, Families and Health Professionals.  I found some good information on this site.  There are actually two stages of withdrawal from an addiction, as I learned.  The first stage, the acute stage, lasts for a few weeks.  The second one, the post-acute stage, is less intense in its physical symptoms than the first one, but more intense in its emotional and psychological symptoms.  It’s a stage that occurs because brain chemistry is reaching a new normal, and resulting chemical fluctuations bring on the symptoms. They include mood swings, anxiety, variable concentration, and disturbed sleep.  


               “Post-acute withdrawal can be a trigger for relapse. You’ll go for weeks without any withdrawal symptoms, and then one day you’ll wake up and your withdrawal will hit you like a ton of bricks. You’ll have slept badly. You’ll be in a bad mood. Your energy will be low. And if you’re not prepared for it . . . then you’ll get caught off guard . . . (“Post-Acute Withdrawal [PAWS]”).  I would have to say that the “bad sleep and bad mood” thing has been happening.  If I step back, I should not be surprised.  The end of August is typically a twitchy time for students and teachers alike.  Furthermore, it looks like we aren’t going to get our refund from DH’s emergency trip to the hospital in the U.S. before the end of this month (see post “A+ For July: Soured By Emergency”), so we won’t be able to put anything against our debt for August.  And another furthermore:  the $2,500 deposit he had to pay represents less than half of the total bill.  If we don’t get reimbursed, we’ll owe another $3,700.  Ramsey says that most Americans who file for bankruptcy do so because of medical emergencies.  I can see why!
               With such big numbers menacing over my head, it’s no wonder that my vigilance with smaller numbers, like $25 for a dinner or $35 for ice cream treats, slipped.  And with school starting so soon, it’s no wonder that I wanted to soak in the last of summer in the way that makes me feel the best:  by eating delicious food prepared by someone else.
               Addictions and offers advice for people facing PAWS:  recognize that this stage of withdrawal usually lasts for two years; be patient and take it one day at a time; accept the uncomfortable feelings that come with PAWS and know that they will pass; practice self-care and don’t overbook yourself.  Typically, the addict feels shame and guilt after a relapse.  I felt shame and guilt when I realized how poorly I’d done this month – especially last week – in my efforts to get back to the positive side of zero in my discretionary fund.  I felt a sense of defeat.  “I will always be hopeless with money.  I will always be debt-ridden.”
               Now I’m choosing a different response.  I’m stepping back and recognizing why I slipped.  I’m learning that I’ll be facing symptoms of withdrawal for a long time.  I’ll expect PAWS, and I’ll be good to myself when they scratch. 

Discretionary Money: His and Hers

 DH = Dear Husband
DD1 = Dear First Daughter

Shared accounts? Separate accounts? Both?

               Dr. Phil believes that spouses should have separate accounts so that each partner has independence and discretionary money.  Dave Ramsey believes that couples should share accounts and work together towards unified financial vision, priorities, and goals.  What to do?
               DH and I have always shared our accounts, but there are certain areas where our money ideals are not the same.  He generally wins when it comes to arguments surrounding money matters, partly because he has a stronger will and partly because my track record is worse and I have more financial self-doubt.  There is a thing that happens, though, when one spouse habitually gives more sway to the other in financial decision making, no matter how sound the reason:  resentment builds. 
               Almost a year ago, long before we began our journey out of debt the Ramsey way, we agreed to set aside an amount of money for each of us to use for discretionary spending.  $600 per month seemed like a whole lot of money to me when we first started in October 2011, even though it was to cover many expenditures:  gifts; charitable donations; our clothes; restaurant meals; activities like gym memberships or courses; shampoo, shaving cream, tooth paste, etc.  We could even save for trips if we played it right.  And it was enough, I thought, for me to take on what DH had always spoken against as trivial:  braces for our daughters.  DD2 got them in November.  My benefits pay half of orthodontic costs, but half of a lot is still a lot.  For me it meant paying $400 from my discretionary money initially, and I’m continuing to pay $100 per month until November 2013.  Then Christmas happened.  And then I signed up for a gym membership in the New Year.  Early in 2012, I was terribly in debt in my discretionary fund.  Braces, Christmas presents, and gym memberships are all good and worthy.  It was just very thoughtless for me to have spent so much all at once.  I was likely acting under the intoxicating influence of the rush of freedom I felt at having this discretionary money.  There was no pacing, no measure.
               I mentioned in an earlier post that we no longer pay cleaners every two weeks and that we are saving $200 per month as a result – money which is going against debt.  I didn’t mention that it was going against my own discretionary debt.  I think I’ll finally crawl out of the hole I dug for myself with this week-end’s cleaning.  It’s been a humbling process.  A colleague with whom I’ve shared our adventures in debt repayment asked me, “How are you going to get out of your big debt if you got into debt with your own discretionary money?”  It’s a good question.  There’s no false humility when I say that my money sense has been very underdeveloped.  A sobering recognition of flawed judgement and the taking on of consequences are hopefully going to result in my discretionary fund growing on the positive side of zero.


                I have many big plans for that fund over the next year.  Probably too many and too big, so I’ll have to take on the challenge of measured forethought and restraint.  I remember once talking with a friend who said that he was good with money when he had none – because he knew how to deprive himself; and he was good with money when he had lots – because he knew how to spend.  He just wasn’t good with that in-between state of having some-but-not-enough.  I think he summed it up nicely, and I realize that his dilemma is mine as well.  It results in a cycle of abundance and scarcity that gives no opportunity for real growth.  I also realize that the “-but-not-enough” part is an illusion created by immaturity or greed or the chronic state of dissatisfaction fostered in our ad-saturated society.  The “some” part is enough.   
It will be a real test for me to have some money in my discretionary pot, and to counter the “-but-not-enough” attitude that I know will rear its destructive head.  I have been focused and diligent working my way up to zero.   I have never managed focused diligence above zero.  It might well harbinger things to come.  I believe that DH and I will more likely do well with our whole income once we’re out of debt if we manage to do well with our discretionary money now.  He, by the way, has done well.  And though somewhat incredulous at my folly initially, he’s been gracious with me as I’ve gradually clawed my way to the surface over the last half year. 
My biggest goal for the year to come, in terms of my discretionary money, is to save enough to go and visit DD1 next summer.  As it is, we see her only once a year, at Christmas time when we fly her home.  The Christmas visit lasts for a good month, but there are too many other months between one December and the next, and I miss her terribly.  In August of 2013, I plan to fly out to see her for ten days or so, but I will only allow myself to do so if I stay out of debt in my discretionary fund and if I actually manage to save.  Having a goal like this will probably help me to do just that.
For DH and me, sharing bank accounts is workable, and I believe that our decision to have separate spending money will make it work even better.  It offsets the resentment that had been accumulating in me as a result of our established pattern of financial argument followed by my self-doubt and giving in.  It allows us to recognize our individual flaws and to fine-tune our individual habits.  I believe that we will function more effectively as a team because of it. 

Boundaries In A Land Of Entitlement

DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

“Games” debtors play

           “Scientists tell us that rats . . . will give themselves painful electric shocks rather than endure prolonged boredom . . . the anticipation of torment is exciting in itself, and then there’s the thrill that accompanies risky behaviour . . . Whatever else debt may be, it can also – it seems – have entertainment value, even for the debtor himself.  Like the rats and their self-induced electric shocks, we’d rather have something painful happening to us than nothing happening to us at all” (Atwood, 83 & 86). 
Margaret Atwood’s book Payback, published in 2008 and based on her lecture series of the same title, gives pause for thought.  One part of it that hits close to home for me is her focus on Eric Berne’s book, Games People Play, published in 1964.  “Debtor”, according to Berne, is one of the games we play.  He says, “Paying off the mortgage gives the individual a purpose in life.”  What a sad thought!  And yet here I am blogging about debt repayment.  Hmmm . . .  People like me play the game “Debtor” fairly.  We follow the rules and strive to pay every cent.  Berne identifies another type of player – a cheating player – whom he calls “Try and Collect”. 
This cheater avoids paying back the creditor and often causes the creditor to give up – thus resulting in a win for Try-and-Collect.  Alternatively, the creditor might get aggressive and enlist the support of the law to get payment from the cheater.  In such cases, Try-and-Collect feels victimized.  “The debtor can then position himself as a put-upon victim and paint the creditor as a truly bad person who, because of his badness, does not deserve to be paid.  The obtaining of goods on credit, the avoidance of payment, the thrill of the chase, the anger at the creditor, and the acting out of victimhood all come with their own jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards . . .” (Atwood, 85).

Debtor as “victim”

It seems incredible to me that people would feel victimized at having to fulfill their end of a bargain, the conditions of which they agreed to in the first place.  Yet in my own extended adolescence, I did just that in relation to my parents.  I played the Try-and-Collect role, often with victory.  And when there was insistence on their part, I felt genuinely victimized.  What’s with that?

Culture of entitlement in schools

           Every generation of middle-aged adults seems to have something alarming to say about the adolescents of their day. Children today are tyrants.  They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.”  So said Socrates sometime around 400 B.C.  I’m with him.  I’ve been a teacher of adolescents for over twenty years, and I am astounded at the sense of entitlement that so many demonstrate.  I`m also dismayed at the extent to which our society promotes this sense of entitlement.  The Ministry of Education under whose authority I work mandated several years ago for policies to be implemented in the classroom “to promote student success”:  assignments submitted past the deadline were to be accepted; marks could not be deducted for late work; students who failed tests and assignments needed opportunities to redo them; a teacher could not give a mark of zero – even if the work had not been done.  The result was extreme frustration on many fronts.  Teachers were deluged with late assignments in the last few weeks or even days of term and unable to mark them effectively.  Students who previously had been motivated by the deadline to hand in assignments now couldn’t find it in themselves to produce.  The need to study for tests was eliminated by endless opportunities to take retests.  Community colleges and universities complained that new students were not prepared for post-secondary education.

In praise of boundaries

               As a reformed entitled adolescent, I can attest to the fact that a lack of boundaries does no good; it does not “promote success” of any kind.  We flourish when we`re made accountable to fulfill high expectations.  Otherwise, we wilt.  And yet with my own children, I have at times been guilty of the same enabling that I criticize in education.  I remember once shopping for a birthday gift with DD2 when she was five years old.  I had DD3 attached to me in an infant sling, and the hand of my five-year-old pulled me towards a display of porcelain dolls.  I allowed her to select the doll she wanted to give to the birthday girl, and I picked it up, ready to make the purchase.  DD2 then flew into a tantrum.  It was no fair for Larissa to get a porcelain doll unless she got one too.  “I want it! Ahhh!” she screamed.  “It” was the bride doll, and soon everyone knew it.  I felt the vulnerability typical of a baby-toting mom with a screaming young child in a store.  Embarrassed shoppers looked away; irritated shoppers cast cold glances my way.  You already know what I did.  I came out of the store with two dolls that day.  One was a bride.
               Ramsey speaks of the pandemic “I want it now!” attitude that has swept America – and I would say the West in general.  It’s like a collective tantrum.  And while DD2’s individual fuss earned her a doll that day, this collective tantrum has earned millions of people crippling debt, just as it has earned entire nations their teetering economies.  I have learned the importance of my own need for lines drawn in the sand, and I have learned the importance of drawing them for my children.  It is not a comfortable lesson to learn.  We have suffered through a sharp learning curve.  I believe that my Ministry of Education needs to recognize the harm caused by an absence of parameters.  Similarly, banks and credit card companies need to be held accountable for the attitudes they foster with their apparent lack of boundaries – especially insofar as they deal with young people.  Atwood notes “. . . an epidemic of debt among over-eighteens, especially college students:  credit card companies target them, and the students rush out and spend the maximum . . . Since neurologists are now telling us that the adolescent brain is quite different from the adult one, and not really capable of doing the long-term buy-now, pay-later math, this ought to be considered child exploitation” (Atwood, p. 8)  What is true for individuals is true for families, communities, and nations:  We need parameters and guidelines; we need rules of the game.  Try-and-Collect Debtors need to get their thrills another way.
It sounds simple:  “Don’t give people what they want just because they`ll have a tantrum if you don`t.”  So does, “Don’t spend money unless you have it.” And yet most of us are in debt.  Ramsay says that the road out of debt is simple – but that doesn’t make it easy; it’s tough.  That goes double for asserting boundaries in an entitled society.   We need to tough it out and turn around – on both micro- and macro- scales.  There’s something better out there for this “I want it” generation.  I believe it’s possible for all of us who play Debtor to acquire “jolt-of-brain-chemical rewards” from feats of wisdom in money matters.  I should know.  It’s happened for me. 

Closing In On Debt #1

DH = Dear Husband
DDF = Debt-Free Friend
               There’s nothing like removing an infected gallbladder to make a man more pleasant.  DH is home from the hospital and worthy of the D (for “Dear”) in his code name once again.  We’ve created an August budget, and the amount we’ve set aside will either finish off Debt #1, our car debt, or pay off the VISA bill for DH’s emergency hospital visit in the U.S. (see last post) if it isn’t reimbursed in full or on time.  
Even if our first debt-kill ends up being delayed by a month, it’s still a cause for celebration.  Before we adopted the Ramsay way, we were paying off our car at $1,000 per month – which is impressive.  We felt encouraged at the thought of having it fully paid in the spring of 2013.  Now that we’ve applied Ramsay’s game plan, we might have it paid off this month.  And if it’s next month, we’ll still be half a year ahead of schedule.


I plan to mark each significant milestone of our debt repayment with a dinner to honour the person who got us started on this journey.  I’ll call her DFF for Debt-Free Friend.  DFF has known us for years, and just as she has always been aware of our financial struggles, we have always been aware that when it comes to money, she functions outside the norm.  She almost always uses cash.  She knows prices and rates and sales and deals to an incredibly detailed degree.  She maintains fierce boundaries defining what she will purchase and what she will not.  She’s a stay-at-home mother of four, and after twenty years of one good but very middle-class income, she is not only mortgage-free, but has huge investments in mutual funds and her children’s post-secondary education.  On top of this, her whole family has enjoyed adventures in travel that DH and I – with our higher income – can only wonder at.  DFF was our friend when we suffered the storm of DH’s career crisis – a storm that brought us to our knees financially because we hadn’t set ourselves up to weather it.  We were friends with DFF when she suffered her storm – but the difference was that her financial house was built on a rock instead of sand, and what a difference that makes! 
Ramsey says that nobody is born with financial intelligence, but I think that DFF might be the exception to prove that rule.  When she got her first babysitting job at age fourteen, she started keeping written track of her income and expenditures.  At age twenty-one, earning a very small income, she made her first investment in real estate.  She says her parents didn’t teach her to do this – she just did it.  One thing with regards to her upbringing that I believe planted the seeds to her money-smarts is that she remembers going to the bank with her parents and being familiar with the ongoing dialogue of their budgeting.  Money matters were not kept secret in her family.  They were part of the conversation, and she joined in that conversation as a child.
DFF has tried to drop hints and give advice over the years, but I always considered the plane of her wisdom to be on such a different level from mine as to make it non-transferrable. I blanked out and didn’t take it in.  I think it was in March of this year that she brought over Dave Ramsey’s book, Total Money Makeover, in both print and CD format, after asking if we’d be interested in taking a look/listen.  She’d seen Ramsey on a video presentation at her church and had been impressed.  It took two months before I slipped that CD into my car in May, but once I did, there was no turning back.  DH was equally hooked.  We both “got it”, and we started our journey out of debt in June.  DFF has been our most enthusiastic cheerleader.
I sometimes wish that we had heard about Ramsey years ago, but then I think we might have blanked him out if we had.  We were so consumed with worry over DH’s career.  I don’t think we had the capacity to take it in – to “get it” – until this year.  So the timing has been just right.  And we are grateful to DFF who has been willing over the years to keep trying – persistently but gently – to help us adopt a new way.  At last, it has taken.  And here we are, close to celebrating our first significant milestone, looking forward to honouring our friend.

A+ For July: Soured By Emergency

DH = Dear Husband
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

My summer school students all passed their course, and for those who just squeaked by 50%, it was cause for great jubilation.  Isaac, who ended up with 51%, was visibly relieved.  I asked him (again) why he hadn’t handed in a particular assignment; it would have raised his mark significantly.  “I figured I’d pass without it,” he said.  I challenged him on the risk he’d taken and on his willingness to compromise his potential.  He told me he had to go and meet his friends.  I said, “I’m preaching to you, Isaac.”  He mustered a humble, reflective demeanor, but I have doubts as to the life-changing impact of my words.

 Why we earned an A+ . . .

Three of my students achieved A level marks.  H and I earned an A+.  The goal we set for July was to pay $3,700 off of our debt, and that is what we’ve done.  This success was managed through big efforts, like my taking on a summer job, and small efforts, like H’s work to fix up a couple of old bicycles so that we wouldn’t need to purchase a new one for DD3.  It means that Debt #1, our car debt, which had a starting point at the beginning of June of $8,600, is now at $2,400.  I should feel happy about it.
Another big decision we made this month was that I would not accompany H to his annual convention.  His franchise, which is American-owned, holds a convention each summer in a U.S. city, and for both the 2010 and 2011 get-aways, I joined him.  This year I stayed home with the purpose of intensifying our debt repayment.  I would both earn money at work and not spend money on this trip.  Mission accomplished.  Sort of.

 . . . and why it might backfire

Twelve hours before his flight home, H experienced a gallstone attack.  He knew what it was because he’d suffered one in May.  At that time, he’d been advised to schedule surgery to have his gallbladder removed, and to avoid fat in the mean time.  A well-meaning (I’m sure) man subsequently told him that by eliminating fat from his diet, he could even keep his gallbladder – stones and all. Since he felt he couldn’t consider surgery until after he’d completed his big project from June, gone to the convention, and enjoyed our camping vacation, H maintained a very pristine regimen through May, June, and July.  No sign of gallstones.  And he became impressively trim into the bargain.  Even during his convention, he stuck to low-fat foods.  His gallbladder, however, had respect neither for his schedule nor his admirable diet.
The Canadian medical system is very different from the American medical system, and although H was aware of this fact, he was shocked by the $2,500 deposit he had to leave at the Emergency Department of the hospital closest to his hotel.  He was treated remarkably quickly though; his gallstone attack was confirmed, and his pain was eased by morphine.  H went straight from the hospital to the airport, just making his flight home.  Severely sleep deprived, slightly feverish, drugged but still suffering a lingering pain, worried about the $2,500 deposit, anxious about orders to be completed, and daunted by the work necessary to get ready for camping, H was in a prime-time foul mood when he arrived home Sunday evening. 
For two days, we all suffered.  I made phone calls and sent e-mails necessary to start the process of getting as much of that deposit back as possible through my work insurance.  H fulfilled his deadlines and dealt with customers, and while he managed to be perfectly charming with them, his wife and children were kept acutely aware of all physical and mental torments working on him.  But there was no question of actually doing anything about it because business was relentless.  Besides, he’d already taken care of scheduling an appointment with his surgeon for Wednesday evening.  I was walking a fine line, but part way through Tuesday morning, I told him I was going to phone his doctor.  Feeling increasingly miserable, he agreed to go to an appointment that afternoon – with the understanding that I would be home to serve a customer who was scheduled to come in.  His doctor told him to go to the hospital right away.  We went three hours later – after H had completed another order or two and set up his affairs for a holiday absence.  (He was still on track to go camping.)  Even as we were stepping out of the house to go to the hospital, his business phone rang.  Grunting in pain, he checked to see who was calling, noted it was not a current client, and in an act of sheer willpower, H did not answer the phone.
Emergency waits in Canadian hospitals can be punishing.  But not this time.  H shot up the ranks of priority to be admitted, pumped with morphine and antibiotics, within a couple of hours.  Another twenty-four hours of liquid-only diet saw him to his surgery.  His gallbladder had been severely infected, and he’s still in the hospital.  Needless to say, we won’t be camping this summer.

 Lessons learned

There is much to learn here.  First of all, don’t try to schedule gallbladder surgery conveniently into your day-planner; let it bump prior plans if you’ve suffered a gallstone attack.   And don’t count on the low-fat diet cure.  Secondly, be prepared with the proper medical insurance when traveling out of your country.  We are dealing with a more arduous and uncertain process because H didn’t have the all-important insurance card in hand.  (Somehow, that’s my fault.  But don’t get me started.)  Lastly, if you own a small business, make sure you have a way of shutting down quickly in the case of an emergency.  And keep your head about you so that you recognize an emergency when it happens.
I’m so glad that we didn’t wait another day to bring H to a doctor.  He’s going to be fine.  And despite (continuing) peak levels of irritation, I do have compassion for the suffering he has endured.  There is every possibility that I will be referring to him as DH (Dear Husband) again by the time of my next post – just no guarantee.
Thanks to Canada’s health care system, H’s stay in the hospital is not going to drain us financially.  There are expenses associated with it – like parking and the meals we buy during our visits – but those only make a minor dent in our small emergency reserve.  We decided to keep the $2,500 on our credit card, as we do all medical and dental expenses, with the hope of its being reimbursed by the time the VISA bill comes due at the end of August.  We’re in no position to prepare an August budget now.  We’ll have to let the dust settle a bit first.  At this point, I have the attitude of my student Isaac with his 51%.  Just let me get by.

Generosity While Paying Off Debt: My Dilemma

DH = Dear Husband
               My sister-in-law, the wife of DH’s brother, sent me an e-mail last month saying that her son and his wife would be going to a developing African nation to help build a school this summer, and that they needed to raise many thousands of dollars.  Would we be able to help out?  Such a good cause.  Such a great family.  Such a sweet couple.  Such a predicament!  I didn’t answer the e-mail for weeks.
               Ramsey says that getting out of debt requires a change of heart and that you will find out what your obstacles are as you pursue the goal.  For Ramsey, as for many men, it was the desire for shiny, spiffy new cars.  For me, it’s the desire for people’s approval.  Years ago, when Oprah talked about “the disease to please” and the need to “exercise your ‘no’ muscle”, I knew she was talking to me.  And I’ve come a long, long way.  But it’s still an obstacle.

Digging deep: examining my moral paradigm

               Each one of us operates according to a moral paradigm, whether or not we’re aware of it.  An atheist has a set of moral values, as does an agnostic, a Pagan, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Hindu.  My journey out of debt requires me to examine, define, and refine my own Christian values, and my sister-in-law’s e-mail really put me to the test.
               I remember a sermon I heard in the year following my recommitment to Christianity (after a serious lapse) eighteen years ago.  It had been filmed at a huge pastors’ convention, and our own pastor showed it for Sunday service Father’s Day of 1995.  He explained that the man speaking had had brain cancer and that he had died three days after the filming.  I recall these details because that sermon proved to be so pivotal for me.  It was based on Proverbs 29:25.  “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”  In what would be his last public address, this man established the fact that we are indeed all born with a legitimate need to be approved of.  The point was to fulfill this need through God’s approval and to avoid the trap of seeking people’s approval, as per the proverb.  Just as certain products that we purchase are stamped “Approved” by various regulatory organizations, he advocated for the wisdom in our own seeking to be stamped “Approved Of God”.   This dying man challenged the pastors in his audience to consider their good works, particularly in attracting large attendance at their churches and speaking engagements, and to be honest about whose approval they were really seeking.  Even though I was watching the filmed version of this sermon, and even though there was no panning of the original audience, I was struck by the palpability of the shame those pastors experienced as they recognized and were confronted by their own desire to seek the approval of people through their works – good as those works were.  And I had a “eureka moment”.  My own need to be approved fundamentally transferred from people to God.  It was very liberating.
               I do not subscribe to a legalistic approach to Christianity.  Christ is all about grace – not law. Still, there are undeniably rules.  The Ten Commandments stipulate, among other things, that we are not to commit murder, theft, or adultery.  Jesus taught that we are to be humble, to repent, and to forgive.  There are also clear messages about the importance of giving:
·        “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it . . . to be honoured by men . . . do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Mathew 6:2-4) 
·        Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
So we are to give to the needy; we are to give in secret; we are not to give reluctantly or as a duty; we are to give cheerfully. 
Then there is the whole matter of tithing. To tithe is to give ten percent of all you have, and it is a matter of great debate among Christians.  Furthermore, it stirs up feelings of guilt in me.  I am trying to get out of debt, and I’ll be straight:  I am not tithing.  Not even close.  If I tithed, I would not be doing so cheerfully, but in resentment of an imposed duty.  When I see the woman at church who counts the offering, I just want to say, “Sorry!”  I find myself wondering if all she sees is a stingy double-income couple with a big house.  I find myself hoping that she knows DH went through a long period of unemployment; that our van is really old; that I haven’t bought any new clothes in months.  “Fear of man brings a snare . . .”   I can’t let myself go down that road.  I do not need the approval of the people at my church.  (And of course it’s my own guilt that makes me uncomfortable, not the offering counter herself.)  In the end, I believe that God does approve of our efforts to get out of debt, and I believe that the grace of God is big enough to absorb that fact that our giving is going to be limited as a result.
I finally answered my sister-in-law’s e-mail.  I told her how much I admired her son and his wife for the wonderful work they had taken on, but that unfortunately we would not be supporting them financially because of our commitment to get out of debt.  I said that I truly wished it could be otherwise.  There was no response for quite some time.  “She’s angry,” I worried.  “She thinks we’re selfish and indifferent.” But I didn’t waver.  “Fear of man brings a snare . . .”  When I did receive a response – after she and her family had returned from vacation – it was full of acceptance and understanding, as well as a wish for all the best in our efforts to kill off debt.  Phew!  The people-pleaser in me was relieved.  I just can’t be motivated by that side of me. 
Ramsey advises still to give as we’re getting out of debt – just as he advises us still to invest in fun – and to recognize that generosity can mean time and work as well as money.  I am exercising my “no” muscle, and it’s hard.  But I’m also finding out that generosity is possible, and I’m discovering what it will look like for me while I’m on this journey out of debt. 

Fun Getting Out Of Debt?

DH = Dear Husband                                        CF1 = Church Friend 1
DD3 = Dear third daughter                           CF2 = Church Friend 2
DD2 = Dear second daughter
               I introduced myself to a new neighbour recently.  We had a brief, polite conversation which included her informing me that she played golf.  When I told her that I never golfed, she asked me what I did for fun.  “Not enough,” I replied.
Ramsey says that there are three purposes for money:  to have fun; to invest; and to give away.  Starting with purpose number one, he says that once you’re out of debt and your money is working for you, the doors open to new levels of fun.  My dream is to take my family hiking in the south of England before going on a Jane Austen tour.  That would be a new level of fun.  But in the meantime, says Ramsey, as you’re getting out of debt, don’t neglect to make small investments in fun.

All Work And No Play

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” goes the saying.  I’ve been feeling dull lately.  May and June are the craziest months of the year for anyone who works in a school.  The teachers’ pressure to get through the curriculum and mark, mark, mark; the students’ stress to complete assignments and study for exams; the whole staff’s efforts to make graduation ceremonies happen; the weird, summer-hungry energy that develops among students, requiring extra vigilance from equally summer-hungry staff . . .  It’s all relieved by the sudden crash of July.  Unless you teach summer school. 
Couple this with the fact that DH’s craziest months of the year are June and July.  He has a regular client who annually gives DH a very intensive bit of business that spreads out over these two months.  Although DH works at home, he is essentially not present these days.  Morning, noon, and night, he is working to get this job done and to manage other business that still comes his way.  As a result, I’m doing almost everything involved in running the household.  It is, of course, thrilling that DH’s business is succeeding.  It’s just that I’m tired.  Especially over the first couple of weeks of July, still recovering from June, after a morning of prep work and marking; an afternoon of teaching; an evening of making supper, doing the dishes, taking DD3 to her soccer, walking the dog . . . I didn’t so much fall asleep at night as I did slip into a coma.  Are we having fun yet?

Fun With DD3

Last week, I did some radical things.  First, I bought myself a book – Margaret Atwood’s Payback in which she studies the history of debt.  I considered being sensible and borrowing it from the library, but I gave in to my reckless desires and made the purchase.  That was just the beginning.  I subsequently took DD3 out for dinner.  DD2 was busy with her sport; DH was working; and I had a profound need to be served, as well as a slight guilt – about working in the summer when my youngest is still young – to be assuaged.  Following our pleasant and delicious meal, I told her I’d buy her a book.  She chose Nicholas Sparks’ The Last Dance.  And I chose Adele’s 21 CD.  We stopped at the coffee shop where her youth pastor works, and he treated her to a caramel latte.  Mother and daughter came home full, happy, and eager to enjoy our purchases.

Fun With CF1 & CF2

This wild behaviour continued last Friday after work when I got together with my two friends from church.  I’ll call them Church Friend 1 (CF1) and Church Friend 2 (CF2).  About ten months ago, the three of us chatted after service one Sunday and found that we couldn’t stop.  “We’ll have to get together,” said CF1.  And we have.  Almost every Friday evening since that Sunday, the three of us have met in one house or another, and it has been a remarkable blessing for each one of us.  We always talk.  We often pray for each other.  We sometimes eat and watch a movie.  On occasion, we have a drink. 
Last Friday was very hot and humid, and as I drove to CF2’s house from work (she offered to host us for bar-b-q hamburgers), I decided I wanted to have a beer.  I don’t drink often though, and I didn’t know where the beer store was.  When I arrived at CF2’s house, I shared my dilemma with her, but she wasn’t much help because she didn’t know where the beer store was either.  CF1 soon arrived, and we looked to her for answers, but to no avail.  Finally, the young woman who boards at CF2’s house advised us to go to the liquor store where foreign beer is sold.  She told us where it was.
We decided that we’d all go together, and each of us ended up with a six-pack or a four-pack of something or other in hand.  As we made our way to the cash register, CF2 bumped into her next-door neighbour.  “Are you all friends from work?” she asked.  CF2 said no, and then there was an awkward silence.  I decided to break it.  “We’re friends from church,” I said.  “We’re the church ladies.”  This neighbour got a kick out of “the church ladies” at the liquor store, and CF1 in particular broke into a giggle fit.  We went back to CF2’s place where I had my beer and our host put on the bar-b-q.  Only she burned her first three burgers because we were talking so much and she didn’t want to miss anything.  Take two on the burgers, but this time she brought us out to her back yard so that she could keep an eye on our meal and talk at the same time.  Her next door neighbour, happily home from the liquor store and playing cards in her back yard, threatened to call the cops with all the smoke and laughter going on over the fence.  It was fun!  And it cost me about $10.  As we were getting ready to leave later on, CF1 wrote “love” in the dust covering CF2’s furniture.  That’s the kind of friendship we have.
So fun can happen, even when you’re getting out of debt.  It often does take a bit of money, but I sometimes wonder if more money really would allow for more fun.  Would I have had more fun with DD3 if we’d eaten at a fancier restaurant or bought more expensive items than books and a CD?  I don’t think so.  Would I have had more fun with my friends if we’d met at a country club?  You can’t burn hamburgers and write in the dust at a country club.  I definitely look forward to the day when I can take that dream vacation in England.  But I know that while fun can be set up, it can’t be bought.  And it’s best when it catches me by surprise in unlikely situations – like the liquor store with my church ladies – or cruising in my car, Adele tunes blaring, on the road to summer school.  

A Temptation Back Into Debt

               DD1 = Dear First Daughter
               DH = Dear Husband
“Sweetheart, I want you to quit your job and apply for a student loan.”  It’s hard to believe that Prudence Debtfree would utter such words, but I did – in speaking with DD1 on the phone this week.  Ramsey warns that as soon as you swear off debt, something will happen to tempt you right back into it.  For some, it takes a major car repair; for others, a child who needs braces.  I know what it has taken for me.

DDI’s Story

               DD1 is getting her master’s degree at a university on the west coast.  I have many reasons to be proud of her – academic and athletic achievement among them – but I would have to say that recently, given my newly acquired obsession with debt, I’m most proud of her money management.  DD1 was about ten years old when our financial ship started sinking.  The background to her teen years was her parents’ financial drowning.  Our anxiety filled the air, and she absorbed it.
               She excelled in athletics in her early teens, first as a competitive swimmer, and then in a sport that involved swimming.  As an older teen, she started to compete nationally and even internationally.  Throughout these years, DH’s career suffered its multiple wounds from the hi-tech bust, stalled, and then came to a dead stop before DH slowly found his way to his current business.  We didn’t have the funds to send our daughter around the world for competitions.  Nevertheless, she did compete in fifteen different countries on three different continents.  DD1 had a coach who believed in her and allowed her to train younger athletes instead of pay fees; she had a mother who found sponsors to provide her with air mile points and cash; and she had an incredibly positive disposition that made her believe anything was possible.  And it seemed everything was.
               In grade twelve she worked hard for scholarship grades, and she got them.  Through her undergraduate years at a university in our city, she worked hard for more scholarship grades while participating in two varsity teams as well as her main sport outside of university, and she got them.  She’s about to enter her second year of a master’s degree, and she doesn’t have a cent of student debt.  Our education savings plan paid for roughly half of her undergrad education, but none of her graduate studies.  She’s managed the balance on her own.  DD1 is passionate about a new sport now, but she continues to coach swimming as a means of income. 
               At the beginning of this summer, she was surprised by a tuition bill.  She thought that she had the choice either to continue studies through the summer or to wait until the fall to resume them.  Due to the conditions of her main scholarship though, she actually didn’t have that choice, and she was faced with an unexpected bill for $1,600.  She was able to pay it!  My cup runneth over.  How did I – steeped in a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of debt – produce such a child?

DD1’s respiratory problem

               But enough of this brag-fest.  Here is the point:  DD1 started to notice a shortness of breath two years ago during her first summer with a full-time job coaching swimming.  It seemed to come and go, so she didn’t pay much attention to it at first.  After several months, it was still in evidence – though not always dramatically so – and she decided to seek medical attention.  Just before she flew out west to study, she saw a specialist in our city.  She had already left by the time the results came in.  Her lung capacity was limited.       I was dumbfounded and aching with worry.  This young, athletic, non-smoker had a respiratory problem?  DD1 was not to be derailed by such news.  She was confident that a diagnosis would be found and a treatment provided.  Visits with specialists came at an agonizingly slow pace.  The respiratory specialist.  The vocal cord specialist.  The throat specialist.  There was scarring on the lung tissue.  There was constriction in the throat.  More appointments.  More specialists.  A year later and there is still no definitive diagnosis and no certain treatment. 
A week ago, DD1 had to stop mid-way through a practice because her breathing was out of control.  She’s had to eliminate a certain aspect of her training due to breathing stress.  It’s getting worse and it’s impacting her more directly.  Even her own golden optimism has been rattled.
               As for my anxiety, it skyrocketed. I talked about the issue more often and with more people.  I prayed about it.  DH has always been adamant that the cause of her troubles has been her exposure to chlorine.  No doctor has acknowledged it as a possible root problem though, so DD1 has been convinced that it’s not.  I, on the other hand, have learned over the years that DH’s convictions are worth listening to – doctor or no doctor.  DH isn’t always pleasant in being right; it’s just that he so often is right.  Two people phoned me last week-end to tell me that they’d researched or had heard of or had witnessed evidence of chlorine’s detrimental impact on the respiratory system.  Furthermore, one of them told me that the pool in which DD1 first trained was notoriously bad for high levels of chlorine and poor air circulation.  So I made my call to DD1 and urged my unlikely advice.  Quit your coaching job!  Get away from chlorine!

DD1’s level-headed wisdom

She said, as I knew she would, that she couldn’t abandon her swim team in the middle of the summer season.  But she did agree not to coach through the fall and winter.  It’s no small deal for her.  She’s gone through hoops to get qualified; the pay is extremely good; and she enjoys her coaching job.  “But,” I said, “we’re talking about your health, and nothing is more important.  Just get a lower-paying job and work as much as you can.  It’s great the way you’ve managed to avoid student loans so far, but it won’t be the end of the world if you end up needing one.”  No, said DD1, she wouldn’t need to take out a loan.  She would put her name out there as a tutor and get paid at about the same rate.
               Why didn’t I think of that?  Tutoring is a pretty obvious option for a graduate student.  I think it’s because I have the mind of the debt-ridden.  The automatic answer to any problem is a loan.   The synapses of my brain have created a well-worn path to debt as a solution.  DD1, on the other hand, long ago resolved never to sink into the debt-hole of her parents, and the geography of her brain is marked by different pathways. Her solution is better. 
               I feel very good about this proactive step on her part.  The diagnosis is not yet defined and the solution is still uncertain, but I feel hopeful that this action plan will prove DH’s conviction right yet again.  In the meantime, I will strive to make DD1’s standard my own.  Full of hopeful possibility, and out of debt.

A Report Card for June and a Goal for July

DH = Dear Husband                                                                                                                                                  
DD3 = Dear Third Daughter
             DH and I assign different marks to our June debt reduction.  I give it a C- because we missed our goal by $1,500, but he gives it an A+.  Go figure.  Relative to my husband, I’m the positive one.  DH, the worrier, generally has a mission to dampen my enthusiasm if it passes a certain point.  So I was surprised by the elation he demonstrated at the end of June.  “It’s so great to be up-to-date with our money!  To know exactly how much we have and to know exactly where and when it’s all going.” 
Ramsey calls it “getting current”, and it’s something I didn’t really understand and didn’t at all appreciate when I first heard of it.  DH is the one who has been balancing the accounts and tracking our finances through the years, and it was always a burden for him to have to deal with things like unexpected VISA bills, lost receipts, and other slip ups that kept things chronically out of balance and one step out of time.  That burden completely lifted with our June budget and our vigilant timeliness in keeping track.  It didn’t matter to DH that we had less to put against our debt than hoped for; the relief of becoming current more than made up for it. 

“Gazelle Intensity”

And so, fuelled by DH’s pumped attitude, on we go with July.  Ramsey uses the expression “gazelle intensity” to refer to the focus that is necessary to get out of debt.  He gets the term from the Bible, Proverbs 6, which says, “Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hunter . . .” in reference to debt.  The gazelle is slower and weaker than its hunter the cheetah, just as each one of us is less powerful than the agents of debt that permeate our society.  But nineteen times out of twenty, says Ramsey, the gazelle can outmanoeuver the cheetah and stay clear of it.  Similarly, those of us trying to get out of debt must strategize our way out and away from it. 
In response to Ramsey’s call to be intentional, I applied to teach summer school this July.  Summer school is most often the domain of new teachers who want to work their way into the system, and of thirty-something teachers who have bought homes and started families and need the extra money.  The last time I taught summer school was fourteen years ago – the summer we moved into our current house.  Priority is given to the regular teachers of summer school, which I am not, but I did get a position.  It’s a half-time, afternoon assignment teaching students who need to make up their credit.
The response I got from my colleagues when I told them I had applied to teach summer school was one I have given to others over the years.  Why are you doing that?”  “Are you crazy?”  No!  Enjoy your summer!  We only have so much time on this planet, you know.”  Others just stared wide-eyed and jaw-dropped.  To each, I gave the same response:  “My husband and I are trying to get out of debt.”  That worked.  I don’t know if they felt compassion or respect, or if they were reflecting upon their own debts, but they graciously accepted my straightforward explanation.
My biggest concern about teaching summer school is DD3.  Her older sisters are busy with jobs, their sports, and their friends, but she is still too young to get a summer job or to go places on her own.  I prayed about teaching summer school with this concern in mind, and I feel blessed in that the position I was offered is half-time.  I started this week, and so far, DD3 is doing just fine.  Yesterday, she spent the afternoon at the home of a friend who has a swimming pool.   The day before was a quieter day at home, but since DH works at home, she wasn’t alone.  So without compromising too much, I’m helping to set up for a significant debt reduction in July. 
If all goes well (if our ‘99 van holds up) we will be putting $3,700 against Debt #1 at the end of the month.  In June, Debt #1 went from $8,600 to $6,100.  By the end of July, there’s a good chance it will sit at $2,400.  I’m so grateful that DH and I are on the same page, the same paragraph, the same word.  We’re in this thing together – I would have to say more so than for any other venture we’ve taken on as a team – and I believe we will free ourselves from “the hunter”.