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.

Debt Repayment On Hold

 DH = Dear Husband

Our uncertain American medical costs

“We’ve sent a request for medical records to your husband’s physician to rule out the possibility of a pre-existing condition.”  That’s what I was told two days ago when I phoned my work insurance company.
It’s been almost two full months since DH had his emergency visit to a hospital in the U.S. – and the numbers keep getting scarier.  First, there was the $2,500 deposit that he had to pay up front.  After a couple of weeks, we received an itemized receipt amounting to $6, 300.  About a week ago, I received a call from a poor woman whose job it was to inform me that the bill for the emergency physician was being sent.  I call her “poor” because although I am generally very polite with front-line people who bear unwelcome news – they aren’t the ones making the decisions – I temporarily lost my filter, and I’m pretty sure she felt the full force of my shock and outrage.  “Is $6,000 not enough for you?!”  I quickly got a grip and behaved myself as she calmly explained the difference between the bill for the hospital and the bill for the attending physician.  Again, I found myself thinking, How do Americans manage?  Ramsey has advice in his book Total Money Makeover regarding health insurance.  I merely skimmed through it since it doesn’t apply to Canadians, but I would encourage all Americans to act upon it. 

“Pre-existing condition”

Two weeks ago, I was told by this same insurance company that the reimbursement cheque for $2,500 would probably be sent out in about a week’s time. So something has changed.  This new concern with a “pre-existing condition” raised my alarm.  As the American election approaches, news coverage of the platforms espoused by the two contenders increases.  To most Canadians, who are used to a medi-care system that covers almost everything, I think the term “pre-existing condition” has taken on shades of terror – a precursor to “We won’t help you.  Fork over the money.”  
“That makes me scared,” I told the representative from the insurance company, “because [DH] did have a gallbladder attack in May.”  It wasn’t news to her since I had filled in the claim forms honestly.  She gave me some reassurance with regards to the definition of a pre-existing condition, but clearly someone in the chain of command has chosen to pursue this possibility.  DH and I have hashed over what the emergency doctor told him in May.  Was his directive to have the gallbladder removed firm?  Was it time-sensitive?  Didn’t he say that DH should not have it removed before going camping in August since he wasn’t supposed to do any heavy lifting for four weeks after the surgery?  Or was he really saying “Don’t camp” with that warning?  He told DH not to eat fatty foods in the mean-time, so he didn’t.  Does that count for something?  We can’t know now.  One way or another, sooner or later, this thing will be resolved.  We have little control over the outcome. 

On hold

So we’re on hold with regards to debt repayment.  We have to be prepared to cough up about another $4,000 if the powers-that-be decide we can’t be covered for that emergency visit to the American hospital in July.  It’s having an impact on our plans.  For instance, in October, DH and I will be celebrating our anniversary.  For the last two anniversaries, since DH’s franchise has proven to be successful, we have indulged in an overnight romantic get-away at the resort where we spent our honeymoon.  Very lovely, very romantic – complete with dinner, breakfast, massages – and very expensive, coming in at about $800.00.  This year, we’ll make a really nice meal and buy a bottle of wine.  We’re also selling things.  I remember reading Ramsey’s advice to have a garage sale, and thinking, We don’t have anything to sell.  But we do.  Only we’ve done it online.  DH has already sold two musical instruments that have been lying around since our older daughters were in middle-school band.  $300 right there.  There is also a very spiffy desk that DH used to use in his office that is now disassembled and leaning up against the wall in our spare bedroom.  And if we look around with “gazelle intensity”, I’m sure we’ll find there is more that we can sell.

What matters

I was a little off yesterday when I went in to work, and a colleague asked me what was up.  I told her about the medical bill and our waiting game.  “Well, first of all, is [DH] OK?” she asked.  I said he was 100%.  “Then that’s all that matters!” she said.  Didn’t I feel like a shallow shmuck.  She followed up with this piece of wisdom:  “If a problem can be solved with money, it isn’t really a problem.”  She’s allowed to do that since she’s older than I am.  I thanked her, and I really have chosen to absorb this set-back with grace.  We’re on hold, but we’re not off track.

DEBT #2: The Story Behind a Dead-Weight Debt

 DH = Dear Husband
“Signing you up for that course was nuts,” I recently said to DH as I thought about Debt #2.  He was putting something in the dishwasher, and without skipping a beat, he just looked over at me and said, “Totally.”
Debt #1 was for a car that we’re still driving.  Debt #2 was for a car that we’re no longer driving and for a two-year part-time interest course that DH took when he had almost no employment.  With his current business, DH has no time to pursue that interest.  So it’s a completely dead-weight debt.  We have nothing to show for it.  It’s just a $12,800 line of credit that’s been sitting there, requiring monthly interest payments to the tune of about $40 per month over the last five years.  On top of the debt itself, we’ve spent roughly $2,400 to service it.  Ugh!

Career crisis in slow motion

Yet I can’t be too harsh.  We were at a real low point when we made those choices.  When I refer to DH’s career crisis, I speak in terms of its having happened ten years ago.  That’s not quite accurate.  Like most crises, it was years in the making.  He lost his first hi-tech job, one he’d had for thirteen years, in 1998 as the company gradually went out of business.  He soon found a lucrative government contract job, to do with Y2K, which lasted for about a year.  Then early in 2000, he gained employment with NORTEL, the biggest and best of Canada’s hi-tech companies.  His salary was fabulous and there were perks at every turn.  I resigned from my part-time teaching job to fulfill a dream of being a stay-at-home mom.  Life was sweet.
NORTEL went down like the Titanic.  No one could believe that this monolithic company was sinking.  60,000 people – two-thirds of the staff – were laid-off in 2001.  DH got his notice late in the year.  I went back to work as a supply teacher.  I hoped that our need for my income would be temporary.
DH found employment again with a smaller hi-tech company.  But there was an atmosphere of impending doom as company after company in the region failed.  After a year and a half, in 2003, this company also closed.  DH worked a little while for a start-up company that never ended up getting financed.  He then went through an interview process for another company, but after twelve interviews, he was not hired.  (By the way, that company ended up failing too.)  At this point, he’d lost heart, and I supported him in going another route.  Again, I was hoping that after a year or two of his finding his way, I’d be able to stop working.

The wilderness years

It actually took six years.  And for those six years, we were like the tribes of Israel wandering in the wilderness.  There was no clear path for DH to take, so when we became aware of a certain interest course, it seemed like a good idea for DH to take it.  It didn’t register with us at the time that we couldn’t afford it.  At the same time, a pastor friend who was doing the kind of business DH now does hired him for jobs now and then.  With time, this pastor asked DH to take over some of his work.  It was a good thing, but there was not nearly enough work or income in it to support a family.  Meanwhile, I was teaching full-time, and I realized that I would never be a stay-at-home mom again.  It truly broke my heart. 

Back to work – needing a car

The silver lining for me was that after a sloppy re-entry into teaching, I ended up at a school I never would have chosen of my own volition, and I LOVED it.  It’s an urban, multi-cultural school with students from all over the world, many of them recent immigrants, and a staff that is cohesive, quirky, and all about the students.  It’s the best school on the planet, and I felt blessed to be a part of it, even while I was aching to be at home.  It’s far away, both in literal and figurative terms, from the neat, prosperous suburb where we live, so getting to work was an issue.  For the first year and a half, I took the bus.  Over an hour each way.  I was a pathetic picture of drudgery, marking papers on the bus two to three hours each day – that is, when I was lucky enough to get a seat.  The odd time I drove the van, it took me about 30 minutes.  Hmmm . . .
Time and time again, I told DH I needed a car to get to work.  He, who was navigating our finances without any help from me (see previous post “Reflect Upon Where You Started . . .”), was aware of our scary debt situation, and always said “We can’t afford it.”  One week, when his job took him out of town, I had coffee with a neighbour, and I made a decision.  I would buy a car while he was away. 
I phoned a couple of car dealerships, and at one, the name of the salesman was familiar.  “Did you go to (name of school) High School?” I asked him.  “Yes!” he answered.  “I taught you,” I said.  “I owe you!” he answered.  My former student sold me the demo car that his own pregnant wife had been driving.  I didn’t have the wherewithal to note that the car was not my style.  It had a big fat spoiler at the back.  But I didn’t care.  I needed a car to get me to work, and this one would do it.  And it was inexpensive for a new car since it had been a demo.  I ended up saying that I would buy it with DH’s blessing.
When DH got home, he was surprised at my news.  He came to the Ford dealership with me and got a real kick out of the car.  I guess he saw how determined I was – and it didn’t hurt that he really enjoyed being behind that wheel.   We leased the sporty 2007 Ford Focus for four years.  It made a huge difference for me to be able to drive to work and back.  Although I became more and more embarrassed about the spoiler, I drove it until the end of the lease.  And that’s where the story of Debt #1 comes in.  (See post “Behind Every Debt, There’s a Story . . .”)

Alternative plot line?

What should we have done instead of incurring that debt?  I think that DH should have worked the night shift at a local wholesale store while he slowly made his way in the business he would eventually take on full-time.  He should not have taken that course (even though I encouraged him to do so at the time).  And I should have bought a used car instead of leasing a new one.  But we were shell-shocked; in denial; wandering in the wilderness.  And we didn’t have the perspective we now have – or the money sense that we’ve gained.  “If I’d been working the night shift at the store, I might not have been able to take on the jobs that led to my business,” DH says.  Although he agrees that our choices at the time were nuts, when I ask him what he would do differently, he says, “Nothing.”  And so, with empathetic understanding and not much regret, we’re going to tackle our dead-weight Debt #2.

DEBT #1: ELIMINATED!

 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 Recovery.org

                 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 Recovery.org:  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.  

“PAWS”

               “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 Recovery.org 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.

“Some-but-not-enough”

                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.

DFF

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.