Yann Martel’s Visit To Our School – His Old High School

Yann Martel speaking to our students

Yann Martel’s favourite teachers

I remember finding out, after reading Life of Pi, that’s its author Yann Martel was Canadian. Like most Canadians, I’m always proud when I realize that one of our own has achieved great success on the world stage. And Life of Pi was a great success – exponentially so when it was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 2012.

Last year, a journalist phoned the high school where I work as a teacher and librarian. He had been interviewing Yann Martel about his favourite teachers, and two of them had retired from our school. Did we know how to get in touch with them?

What?! I thought at the time. Yann Martel was a student at our school? An old yearbook proved it to be true! For a few years in the late ’70s, he had walked our corridors. We were able to get the contact information for the two retired teachers, and the journalist expressed his gratitude. I asked him if he would be willing to give me the contact information for Martel’s publicist. “We would love to have him visit our school the next time he’s in town,” I explained. “We are pretty proud to know that he was a student here.”


The journalist gave me the publicist’s contact information, and I spent some time creating an e-mail message to send to her. The book Life of Pi suggested to me that its author loved multi-cultural diversity.  Asian, European, and North American influences weave together in the novel with the faiths of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and even animism to produce a rich, abundant whole of many dimensions. And I knew what our school had been in the late ’70s. It had been like my own, neighbouring high school at the same time: white middle-class. In the years since, our hallways and classrooms have been enriched by the presence of students from over 60 nations from around the world. More faiths, more languages, more cultures than found even in Life of Pi. I thought that Martel would appreciate that fact, and I wrote of it in the e-mail message that I sent off to his publicist at the end of March 2015. It was a long shot, and as the weeks went by without response, I accepted that it wasn’t going to go anywhere.

Fast forward to mid-June of 2015, and my incredulous delight at seeing in my e-mail inbox the name of Yann Martel. He apologized for the delay. Explained that he and his wife had just welcomed their fourth child into the family. That things had been especially busy as he was finishing up his next book. And that he would be happy to visit our school “one of these years.” I was thrilled! What a friendly, humble, considerate person! A few more back-and-forth messages confirmed his interest in the school – “Glad to hear it’s more diverse than it used to be,” he said – and his genuine intention of visiting at some point.

Book tour for The High Mountains of Portugal

Fast forward again to this past week – with me at home recovering from a muscle spasm in my neck (more on that later). I had heard of Martel’s new book, The High Mountains of Portugaland of the fact that our city would be included in his tour to launch the novel. “He’s going to be speaking downtown this Friday evening,” came the e-mail from a fellow fan. “Hope to see you there!” I had no idea for how long he would be in Ottawa. Without knowing whether or not he would still be here next week when I was back at work, I decided to send him an e-mail. Would he be able to visit the school while he was in town? Even just for a few minutes? “I’m sure your time is not your own at this point, but I wanted to extend the invitation.”

I was to find out later that his visit to our city would last less than 24 hours. At home Friday morning, around 11:00 – just before going to a physio appointment for my neck – I checked my e-mail. Lucky I did! There was a message from someone I didn’t know. “Yann passed on your email to me. I am the publicist looking after his schedule in Ottawa. I just called the school but I was not able to reach you. I hope you receive this email. Yann does have some time but it is later in the day at 3:00pm. If that timing works I would be happy to bring him to the school for a short visit.” Today! I thought. In a matter of hours! It didn’t matter that his visit would be short. It didn’t matter that we wouldn’t really be prepared for it. I phoned the school, e-mailed staff with the news, and dashed off to my physio appointment.

Welcome back, Yann Martel!

It felt good to be back at work a little earlier than the doctor had ordered. There was a buzz of excitement in the library as students and staff moved tables aside and lined up rows of chairs for the arrival of our special guest. Soon, the English classes that had been invited to attend the event came through the library doors. Students were impressed at the thought of seeing the man behind the movie Life of Pi. For the teachers, it was something more. For one in particular, the prospect of meeting Yann Martel was beyond exciting; it was overwhelming. By 2:50, all chairs were filled, and we just had to wait. “We’re on our way!” the publicist had texted me.

“I’m going to talk,” I said to another teacher. “If I run out of things to say, will you take over?” He said he would, and I introduced our speaker to the students – before his arrival. I told them about his books and the blockbuster movie. I told them that he had attended our school, and about how this visit had come to be. When I did indeed run out of things to say, my colleague took over. “We’re always happy to host visiting authors,” he stated, “but I want you to understand that the person we are going to hear from today . . . is a rock star.” I was keeping a constant look-out, and then, there he was! Yann Martel had arrived.

A visit of just over ten minutes goes by too quickly. Most students needed to catch buses right after the bell rang at 3:10, but those who could stay lingered until he had to leave at 3:45 – to say thanks, shake hands, and take selfies with our guest. He had spoken of his time in high school, of his early efforts in writing, of the perspectives offered in Life of Pi. And our students got to see someone who had been in the same classrooms that they enter every day, and who had gone on to incredible success in the pursuit of what he loved. Hundreds of people bought tickets to see Martel Friday night. But our students had the honour of knowing that he considered it worthwhile to speak with them at no charge. And although he had a jam-packed visit of less than 24 hours to our city – Yann Martel had chosen to give one of those hours to the students of his old high school.


This post has nothing to do with our journey out of debt, but sometimes, something so cool happens that you have to share it : ) Have you read Life of Pi? Have you ever met someone who is a “rock star” to you? Your comments are welcome.


Debt Déjà Vu: Get out of Debt And STAY out!

The startling find I made while de-cluttering: Our debt-reduction chart . . . from 20 years ago!

DH = Dear Husband

“How To Get out of Debt And STAY out of Debt”

Every once in a while, I come across the title of a blog post that goes something like this: “How to Get out of Debt And STAY out of Debt.” My response to such titles has always been, Why would anyone need advice on how to “STAY” out of debt once they’ve dug their way out? – and I move on, in search of a post that speaks to me.

DH and I have been on a journey out of debt for three and a half years now. Our story is a common one: Bad money habits, followed by financial crisis – in our case, a prolonged period of under-employment for DH – followed by better fortune – in our case, DH’s successful launch of a home business – and the resolve to manage better. Since June of 2012, we’ve knocked an average of $3,300 per month off of our $257,000 grand total of consumer, business, and mortgage debt, leaving us with $116,000 (mortgage only) to go. Once it’s all gone, are we really going to need advice about how to “STAY” out of debt?

Déjà Vu

Over the Christmas holidays, I set aside an afternoon to de-clutter one bedroom cupboard. It was full of “keepsakes” – everything from our daughters’ childhood works of art, to years’ worth of birthday cards, to old newspaper clippings . . . I threw out about half of it and organized the rest. The most startling find of that afternoon’s effort was a hand-written chart, taped onto two pieces of large yellow construction paper glued together, with the title, “The Slow and Painful Death of our Massive Debt: March 1994-March 1997.” Déjà vu!

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Facing Debt = Remaking A Vision

  • RSL = Retired school leader
  • DH = Dear husband

A great party

I went to a retirement party Friday night (not the one featured above, but it was about that size), and it was one of those times when I was struck by how lucky I am to work where I do. I’m a teacher with a job in the library of a very multi-cultural, inner-city high school, and I’ve known since the moment I set foot in it that I wanted to spend the rest of my career there. I believe it all stems from the students, for many of whom the school is like a second home, but it definitely extends to the staff. In no other situation have I ever worked with such a supportive, encouraging, authentic group of people. Staff have come and gone over the years, but the work culture of our school is long-established, and it doesn’t alter with a changing cast of characters.

The party Friday night was filled with the familiar faces of former colleagues – teachers, technicians, office staff, department heads, custodians, vice-principals, principals – some whose career paths have moved them to different schools and others who are in retirement. It was just a fabulous event, and it thoroughly honoured the retiree in question – who was completely surprised by it.


When one of the “V.I.P.” guests arrived – one of the few who would be giving a speech – there was a widespread “Oh, look who’s here!” response among many – including me. I knew I’d have to wait my turn to have the chance to chat with this person – I’ll call her RSL for “Retired School Leader” – because she would be approached by a steady stream of friends. By this point in my career, I’ve worked with many different school administrators – that is, principals and vice-principals – and three stand out in my mind as being exceptional – as being true leaders who have served both staff and students with vision and passion. RSL is one of them.

I was surprised when, after a warm hug and “Hello!”, RSL asked if she would be able to talk with me. “Of course!” I said, and we found a table out of the way. “Do you remember when you and your husband started to make an effort to get out of debt?” she asked me. I nodded a yes. “Well, that’s a goal I have now too.” For the next several minutes, I listened as she described her circumstances. She’s actually in a strong position overall – but with more debt than she’d like to have included in the equation. I asked about different options, and she welcomed my questions, answering in detail. Although I have grown more and more comfortable talking about personal finances with different people (to the extent that I have had to learn to hold back and filter what I say), I’m aware that for most people, open and frank discussions about money are rare, if not non-existent.

Stepping into a vision

Soon, others came to our table, as I knew they would, to have their chance to talk with RSL. We established that she’d keep me posted, and our conversation ended. I felt so touched to have been sought out by her in this way. It wasn’t the first time a colleague had talked to me about personal finances. Several staff members and even some students know about my quest to become completely debt-free, and on occasion, one will stop by to talk about a success, a stress, or an uncertainty in money management. One fellow teacher recently came to the library and asked me, “Can I borrow that life-changing book?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was the Dave Ramsey book that has guided us on our journey out of debt, The Total Money Makeover (Canadians, choose this link for the book.) I was happy to lend it to him. I love being that person.

I think in the case of RSL, I felt a particular honour in having been approached for this talk because there was a reversal of roles involved. When we had worked together, I was the one seeking guidance from her – whether about a certain student or the ins and outs of scheduling an event – and here she was, reaching out to me for support, as someone who understood the pursuit of stronger finances that she had taken on.

In the very first post I wrote for this site, two weeks before our journey out of debt began in June of 2012, I lamented the vision I’d had in my youth of my older self. “We’re in a position now that’s so different from the one I envisioned as a young woman.  I imagined that we’d coast through our 50s with the ease of prosperity, the satisfaction of well-established careers, and the dignity of being in a position to give back to our church and community.  Instead, we are financially tight, putting a lot of time and effort into making DH’s new career succeed, giving very little in terms of time and money.  And we’re in debt.  Far too much debt for people our age.” I believe now that my talk with RSL Friday night awakened me to the welcome realization that I’ve been stepping into that lamented vision. It’s not that I’m living the life I described. After all, we’re still financially tight, and we’re still time-strapped on a day to day basis. But I am, as it turns out, in a position to give in a significant way.

I’m not giving as much money as I hope to, but I’m giving my alliance to people who have had a wake-up call in their finances. And although financial advice comes at us all from every angle, not everyone has a financial confidant – a safe person who gets it. Again, I love being that person.

I remember a pastor once saying, “Your point of greatest weakness will be your point of ministry.” I was definitely very weak in managing money – right from my teen years when I’d whine and beg my parents to give me an advance on my monthly allowance because I regularly drained it by mid-month. Now, as I get stronger, I’m so glad to be a support to other people who are also trying to turn things around. “We’re in a position now that’s so different from the one I envisioned as a young woman,” I lamented as we approached the starting line of our journey out of debt. But I don’t lament it anymore. Because it’s developed into something rich.

Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of a weakness turning into a strength? Do you ever have open and frank conversations about personal finances with the people in your life? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Tony Webster


Debt and Disney? No (for a 2nd time)

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

Family vacation plans

We were all sitting at the restaurant table a few days before Christmas. It was DH’s annual “Thank you” to the family for accommodating his business in our home, and this year’s event was particularly special. “How would you all like to join me in Florida this July?” he asked. A whole-family meal at a restaurant is rare enough for us. A whole-family vacation of this magnitude has never happened.

DH goes on two annual business trips – one in the spring and one in July. For the past few years, the July location has been Orlando, and we have often wondered if we could piggy-back a family Disney experience onto that business trip. It would be a relatively frugal vacation – taking place in July when prices are lower, and having some expenses covered by the business. We actually made plans to go in 2013, but DH had a some slow business months, and we decided that “relatively frugal” wasn’t good enough. We were focused on debt-reduction, and that meant summer school teaching for me and flying solo for DH.

But this year was going to be different. We reached a milestone in our journey out of debt in June of 2015: Debt-free except for the mortgage! We would loosen up a bit and treat ourselves to some “wants” as opposed to just “needs” before buckling down for the mortgage-kill. In the fall and winter, we did some needed (to expand DH’s business space) renovations, and allowed ourselves to buy some wanted furniture. Another thing we had planned to treat ourselves to was this relatively frugal family trip to Florida in the summer.

Eyes around the restaurant table lit up as our daughters took in the suggestion. I could see their minds attempting to process the idea:  Mom and Dad are going to pay the bill for a trip? What!? The concept was certainly welcome, and we made sure that each dughter would be able to arrange to take the time for it. DD1, who works out west, said that she’d be able make it. DD2, a university track athlete who has an intensive summer season, said that the timing worked for her. DD3 would book time off her part-time job – no problem there! She was the most excited about the proposed trip. She’s always wanted to go to Disney. So there was an added glow to the annual restaurant meal as we indulged in plans for one shared hotel room in Florida, with a hotel pool and Disney World close by.

The low Canadian dollar: a wake-up

The Christmas rush is always insane for DH’s business. It’s a welcome dose of insanity, but it takes its toll in terms of sleep deprivation and a complete absence of work-life balance. It’s all work-work-work. Still, the money is great, and we were looking forward to putting a healthy extra sum aside to beef up the emergency fund that we’re now saving. (According to Dave Ramsey’s steps to a total money makeover, after paying off all non-mortgage debt, it’s time to save up a big emergency fund to cover 3-6 months of income-loss.) We had some lingering renovation expenses to cover, as well as a vet bill and a car repair, so we knew the amount wouldn’t be astronomical – but we had every reason to expect it to be healthy.

At the beginning of January, DH reconciled his business accounts for the Christmas-rush months. His jaw dropped as he realized how emptied they were. The Canadian dollar has been in steep decline lately. Through 2013, our dollar was pretty well worth a U.S. dollar. A slow, expected decline warped into a sheer descent when the price of oil dropped in 2015. It’s still dropping, along with the value of our dollar. Yikes! For DH, it meant that all of the goods and services he had purchased for his business leading up to Christmas – most of which come from the U.S. – were that much more expensive. For every $1 in expenses, he’d paid $1.45. When those expenses are in the thousands . . . You get the idea. There was no extra to put towards our emergency fund. All extras were drained by the low Canadian dollar.

It was a sobering moment, and a reminder that anyone’s power over personal finances is limited. When international economic forces come into play, the only power we have is to respond to them – like surfers on the ocean, responding the waves over which they have no control. With this in-your-face wake-up to the impact of our low dollar, DH and I quickly realized that a family trip to Florida this year was just not a good idea.

Silver Lining

For us, it was a minor disappointment, but I felt awful about telling our daughters. Yes, they’re all big girls – one in her teens and two in their twenties – but we’d all been so happy about the planned trip, and I hated the thought of going back on our word. “If it makes a difference, I don’t have to go,” said DD1, who was soon to fly back west. There was no way we would make the trip affordable by excluding her from it, but I couldn’t help but be moved by her gentle offer. What a sweet-heart! I explained the situation to DD2 in a text message. She had gone to Florida for training (on her own dime) Dec. 26, and she too had experienced the stark reality of a low Canadian dollar in the U.S. “I know. It’s brutal : (” She texted back. No complaint about the changed plans – just a first-hand understanding of the circumstances. DD2 has come such a long way in her acceptance of our situation and our goals for debt-freedom. DH was the one to tell DD3, the keenest of all of us to go to Disney (and facing a thwarted plan to go there for the second time). “How did she respond?” I asked him later. “She was fine,” he said. “I told her we’d do something else, and she just said OK.” In the time since, DD3 has had plenty of opportunity to complain about it to me. But she hasn’t.

I was expecting at least a sigh and an eye-roll. I was prepared for whining and complaint. But what our daughters’ responses tell me is that they are unspoiled. They’re accepting of our limitations, and gracious about our stymied plans. And that’s a silver lining I have to appreciate. It’s an indication of good character that bodes well for their future. It’s even better than Disney.

Have you ever had to cancel fun plans because of finances? Have you ever felt the impact of economic forces beyond your control on your own personal finances? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of HaloFan1993


How To Retire With Enough Money: And How To Know What Enough Is

Teresa Ghilarducci

It is difficult to give a succinct introduction to Teresa Ghilarducci. A labor economist and expert in retirement security, Ghilarducci’s career has included her twenty-five years as a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame, her two appointments by President Clinton to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporatioin advisory board, and her current position as director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis. Dr. Ghilarducci, deeply concerned by the looming retirement crisis, has written How To Retire With Enough Money: And How To Know What Enough Is, a concise, single-sit read of 116 pages.

DIY era of retirement planning: a failure

Retirement in America has a history. The retirement crisis, already in evidence with the number of elderly living in poverty, did not develop without context. Ghilarducci takes a look back to the 1960s until the mid-1990s, a period of time when 75% of full-time American workers retired with a pension plan. Mandatory deductions were made throughout their careers and were supplemented by contributions from employers. The money was invested and managed by professionals, ensuring workers a guaranteed income after retirement.

The 401(k), originally used by high-income earners for a tax break on money set aside for retirement, gained popularity in the late 1990s. Employers found it cheaper to provide 401(k) matching programs than traditional pension plans. Furthermore, risk was shifted from employer to employee. The Do-It-Yourself era of retirement planning had begun, and it depended upon the employee to:

  • voluntarily save
  • have sufficient savvy to find low-risk, low-fee investments
  • keep his/her head through the ups and downs of the market
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New Year’s Resolution for 2016: Build up Core (Personal Finance) Strength

90 seconds into my first plank of 2016

DH = Dear Husband

My new dress

Christmas morning, I opened up DH’s main gift to me – a beautiful dress.


My new dress

We have three daughters, and it’s always a fairly big deal around here when I get a new item of clothing. It’s not something that happens often. “Go try it on!” they urged me.

“Now?” I asked. “You’ll wait?”

There were still several presents under the tree, but gift-opening would be put on hold while I slipped into the downstairs bathroom to try on my new dress. It fit well, but there was no way I was going to model it. “Give me a second!” I yelled, dashing upstairs. The dress comes in at the waist snuggly – a little too snuggly. I have lamented for some time the stubborn presence of my baby-bump-without-a-baby, but this gift was just bringing it into far too sharp a focus. What to do? Four people were waiting for me.


My new dress with “shapewear” now required (ugh!)

I remember as a girl being fascinated by my mother’s girdles. They looked like pieces of medieval armor. I didn’t quite understand why anyone would want to wear them, and I wondered if I would when I was all grown up. “Girdles” of today are much more subtle and sleek than those of my mother’s era. “Shapewear” they’re called – to conjure up images of fitness I suspect – and they do look like something you might see at the gym. But the “shape” here has nothing to do with getting into shape. It has to do with literal shaping – moulding. Squeeze yourself into that thing, and any baby-bump-without-a-baby is obliterated.

When I came down the stairs, ready to model, it was all, “Oooh Mom!” “That looks great!” “Are you going to wear it tonight?” I did wear it Christmas night. And New Year’s Eve too. But I had also formed my resolution: For Christmas of 2016, I will not have to resort to “shapewear” to put on that dress.

My plank-a-day resolution

I have tried in the past to resolve upon regular workouts, but with only limited success. I actually enjoy physical exercise. The “regular” part stumps me. It’s no small deal, in the midst of a busy week, to carve out regular blocks of an hour or two to change, stretch, work-out, cool down, shower. Irregular is the best I can do. But “regular” is what brings results, and therein has been my dilemma.

So what about changing up that block of time? From 1-2 hours down to 2-5 minutes? There is never a day – barring extreme situations like injury or illness – when I can’t put aside a few minutes. It doesn’t matter how busy things get, how tired I am, how bad the weather is . . . It’s always possible to find a few minutes.

And I will. Every day, I will do a plank. Every day. I’m putting that stake in the ground. I’ll start at 2 minutes, but each month, my goal will be to increase by 15 seconds so that by the end of 2016, I’ll be holding a 5-minute daily plank. I’ll still skate, ski, run, cycle, and do cardio-kickboxing – hopefully often. But I’ll do a plank. Every. Day.

Benefits of core strength

While the motive behind my personal plank-a-day resolution is one of vanity, there are loftier reasons to pursue core strength. “Core exercises improve your balance and stability,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “Core exercises train the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen to work in harmony. This leads to better balance and stability, whether on the playing field or in daily activities. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles.”

Core strength in personal finances

DH and I are in the fourth year of our journey out of debt, and we’ve made great progress. Following Dave Ramsey’s steps to a “total money makeover”, we have:

  • paid off our consumer debts ($21,000)
  • paid off our business debt ($81,000)
  • made headway in saving an emergency fund to see us through 6 months of income loss (50% funded)
  • made steady payments against our mortgage ($37,000 down)

We’ve paid a whopping $139,000 off of our original total debt of $257,000. We’ve got $118,000 to go. No problem. We’ve got this, right?

Not quite.

We’re switching gears now. Past the point of putting all of our focus upon debt-repayment, we now require more . . . balance. Short-term savings; emergency savings; investments; mortgage payments; and an increase in giving. I felt more directed and sure when it was all about paying off our consumer and business debts. Intensive focus. Big changes. It was satisfying. Now, our progress is spread out, slower, smaller, and to me at least, less satisfying.

I’ve come to recognize in this journey out of debt how impatient I am. Impatience played a big role in getting us into our debt-ridden state (“I want it NOW!”), and I don’t want it to sabotage the financial health we’ve been building – any more than I want my belly to sabotage my new dress. I need the core strength – the stability and balance – of patience in my approach to our shifted financial goals. Muscles in the human pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen ideally work in harmony. Efforts towards our savings, investments, mortgage payments, and giving can also progress towards an ideal of harmony. No rush. Slow, steady, progress. Balance. Stability. Just breathe . . . and hold a little longer . . . like a plank.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? Do you find it difficult to maintain the balanced steadiness needed to develop core strength in personal finances? Do you wear “shapewear”? Your comments are welcome.

Just a note on planks. 2 minutes is actually a fairly long plank. If you’re just starting to work on core strength, don’t be discouraged if you can only hold a plank for a matter of seconds. Start where your are : ) 

Merry Christmas!

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

I’ll be back next year : )

Christmas time is crazy for us, and there’s no getting around  it. DH is working around the clock as his home business has warped into hyper drive for the Christmas rush. The concept of balance is just that – a concept – with no basis in reality. Life is good – it’s just jam-packed. And so I’m going to bow out of the online world until the New Year.

I’m enjoying DD1’s visit home from the west coast – yay! And I’m looking forward to DD2 joining us at home after she writes her last exam for the semester tonight (yep – an exam Saturday night) – yay! DD3 just started her holidays from her high school – and so did I (I’m a teacher) – yay! There will be visits, shopping, card-writing, gift-wrapping, and baking ahead – as well as preparations to host the big family dinner on the 25th. 23 people this year. I love this stuff! We’re doing it all on a budget, but there’s a large dose of chaos involved, and this is not our most stellar time of year in terms of sticking to it. I’ll report later on how we manage.

I’d like to wish you a wonderful holiday season, and if you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very merry one : ) See you in 2016!



*Image courtesy of Vicious-Speed via Wikimedia Commons

Judgment In Personal Finance: It’s All Wrong

Irritated by someone’s poor financial management

Last weekend, as I was walking our dog, I found myself thinking of someone I know who has been struggling with her finances since long before I met her. She is a woman who worked with me for a few years, and the last time I happened to see her, money was still an issue. I found myself feeling a judgmental irritation. To me – and to others – it is obvious what she needs to do to improve her financial situation.

The impact of childhood sexual abuse

She was sexually abused as a child. The thought came to me out of nowhere. And it was true. It was something that she had confided in me and that we had discussed many times. An abuse that had lasted for years at the hands of someone in the family. And nothing had been done about it. When she had tried to bring it to light, she was the one who was rejected.

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*Photo courtesy of Sunny

Feeling Gross from Spending (Good sign – I think)

Not the way we planned it. Our dining-room set joins the items to go on Kijiji.

John’s diet and planned “cheat”

I remember my friend and colleague John (who is featured at Fruclassity this week) telling me about a Sunday morning visit to the pancake house with his daughters. He had been following a strict diet for a prolonged period, and this pancake breakfast was a planned cheat. He was looking forward to the indulgence, and he ordered the option that had been his regular choice before he had started his diet. Yum! A stack of pancakes! So different from the apples and cucumbers I’d seen him munching at work.

He couldn’t make it through half of them. They made him feel gross.

Not a nice feeling, but a good sign! It meant that John’s “normal” was changing. The foods that had tempted him all through his life were not so tempting anymore. There wouldn’t be quite so much effort, so much “self-denial” required for him to continue his healthier diet.

Our renovations

Our ongoing (but almost finished) renovations have been the big deal around here lately. To give a bit of context, we’ve been on a focused mission of debt-reduction since June of 2012, and although we have wanted new furniture and new flooring since even before that time, we’ve been on a “diet” – of budgets, tracking, earning extra income, saving, and putting as much against our debt as possible. Our diet did not allow for new furniture and flooring . . . until June of 2015 – when we paid off the last of our $102,000 non-mortgage debt.

Having hit that milestone, we gave ourselves permission to “indulge” – in the form of renovating. DH had long since outgrown his home business office, and for at least a year we’d planned “some day” to switch things up and give him more space.  But it wouldn’t just be a practical move to address needs; it would also be a move towards getting what we wanted. “Some day” had come!

Great! (at first)

Like John and his planned pancake house excursion, I looked forward to this “cheat”. Wooo-hoo! My initial endorphin rush was alarming, but I got it under control. We would go about everything without rush, taking frugal measures along the way. Yes, we would get what we wanted, but we wouldn’t go crazy.

The first several “bites” were delicious! After the practical work of moving DH’s home office to its larger space had been accomplished, we replaced the stained-beyond-reason carpet in his old office with hardwood, and bought furniture for a cozy new living-room (10′ x 10.5′). Here’s how it unfolded:


Stained-beyond-reason carpet from DH’s old office space.


Hardwood in same room.


Cozy little living-room.

The final step was the biggest. Our old family-room, a 17′ x 17′ space, was to become a combined dining-room and sitting room. Carpet was ripped up, hardwood installed, and we bought a new love-seat and two chairs along with an ottoman and tables for the sitting-room part. Here is how it went:


DH’s hardwood installation work in progress.


Sitting-room furnished.

The problem with our dining-room set . . .

We put our dining-room table and chairs in the other half of the combined room . . . and realized it didn’t work. Our table was too wide for the space. The chairs were too fussy and big. Could we put up with it? Like good soldiers of frugality fighting for debt-freedom? No. After devoting so much effort and money (that we’d saved in advance) to this plan, we couldn’t stand the idea of it being not-quite-right. So we’re buying a new dining-room table. I know!

Our old table and chairs are in fine form, and will hopefully fetch a good price on Kijiji. We have picked out a new table – one that is thinner, more rustic, with simple chairs and a bench – and the price is better than we’d thought we’d find. But this is not how we had planned it. This move will bring up our renovation expenses another significant notch. I feel like John must have felt by the time he got to that 3rd or 4th pancake in the stack on his plate. Enough already.

Unlike John, however, I can’t say that I regret the indulgence, and I don’t think we’d do our renovations any differently if we could. The point is, I’m longing for apples and cucumbers again. I’m looking forward to switching our focus back to our mission – to finish saving up our emergency fund and to start our assault against our mortgage. I’m a bit shell-shocked by all of the decision-making we’ve done for big-expense furniture and flooring. I want to get back to things like figuring out ways to come under budget in our groceries.

This is a new sensation for me. And just as John was taken aback by his inability to stomach his “normal” pancake house breakfast, I’m surprised too. But I recognize it as a good sign. “Normal” has changed for me – just as it did for John – and I’m eager to slip back into the patterns of our healthy financial diet.

Have you ever felt gross about spending? Have you ever become aware of a new normal? Your comments are welcome.


7th Semi-Annual Report: $137,000 Down – $120,000 To Go

Rocky and his injured dew claw. One of our expenses these days.

DH = Dear Husband

“Step back for periodic perspective,” I wrote last week. “7 years IS a long time, and you’re more likely to make it to the finish line if you take stock of the milestones you achieve along the way.” Well, it’s time once again for me to “take stock.” We’ve been on our journey out of debt for exactly 3.5 years now. According to our personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, we’re at the average half-way mark.

Our story

Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. Like the majority of North Americans – perhaps Westerners in general – DH and I considered debt to be a normal part of life. We had a mortgage, car payments, and credit card bills “just like everyone else.” We were gainfully employed with my part-time teaching position and his high-tech career, and we carried our debts very comfortably. Leading up to the turn of the millennium, we bought our big home (which came complete with a big mortgage). We were expecting our third child. And DH lost his job.

What followed was more than a decade of stress. DH went on a 5-year career roller coaster which included 3 well-paid positions . . . with companies that eventually went under in the high-tech bust of the era.  With all of the uncertainty, I returned to teaching full-time. When DH lost heart and decided to make a career shift, we were in for six years of no-man’s-land. Stress turned to distress. Those were miserable years.

In 2009, DH launched what would become a successful home business. Hurray! We were able to live “normally” again! And we did. But it didn’t feel right. “Normal” felt hazardous. We knew something was wrong . . . We just couldn’t put our finger on exactly what it was. In May of 2012, we read Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeoverand in June of 2012, we took the first of his steps in our journey out of debt.

Start of June, 2012:  Total Debt = $257, 400
#1 New Car Debt – $8,600
#2 Old Car & Course & Dog Debt – $12,800
#3 Business Debt – $80,800
#4 Mortgage – $155,000
End of November, 2015: Total Debt = $120,100
#1 New Car Debt – $0
#2 Old Car & Course & Dog Debt – $0
#3 Business Debt – $0
#4 Mortgage – $120,100

 A 312% rate of improvement

How wonderful to be able to write all of those zeros! It’s impossible to know where we would be now if we hadn’t read that book and started a focused, intentional debt-reduction, but here is something to consider: We were, as I’ve said, aware that “something was wrong” before June of 2012, and we had started to try to improve our situation. In the year before we officially started our journey out of debt, we conscientiously paid off close to $16,000. In the year after officially starting, we paid off $50,000. Same income. Same expenses. But a 312% improvement. Focused intention works!

A history of our numbers

Our progress hasn’t been steady. There have been big expenses along the way. In 2013, we had to buy a new roof  ($10,000). In that same year of debt-reduction, we had to cut down a rotting tree in our backyard ($2,000), and our dog had surgery for bladder stones ($4,500). Ugh! But even in those situations, there was a silver lining: We did not go into debt to finance these things! We ALWAYS used pay for the big expenses with debt.
Our numbers tell a story, and here they are for our first 3.5 years, broken down into semi-annual totals:
June 1 2012 – June 1 2013
#1 – 26,000
#2 – 24,000
June 1 2013 – June 1 2014
#3 – 16,000
#4 – 12,000
June 1 2014 – June 1 2015
#5 – 22,000
#6 – 23,000
June 1 2014 – today (Nov. 28, 2015)
#7 – 14,300

Current finances: sloppy

Right now, our money is going 3 ways:

  1. Towards big expenses.
  2. Towards paying off our mortgage.
  3. Towards saving up a big emergency fund. (Ramsey’s 3rd step – to cover 3-6 months of income loss.)

Big expenses these days include our renovations to give DH a bigger home office space. We’ve replaced flooring and furniture, and it looks great! I don’t mind expenses like this – especially since we’re spending money we’ve saved. Another big expense is our dog. Poor Rocky broke his dew claw and had to visit the vet. While there, we made arrangements to have some bad teeth removed. Estimate: $1,600. Ugh! That is an expense that I DO mind. (And though we love our dog dearly, I would advise anyone trying to get out of debt NOT to get a pet.) A third big expense is our car. It was scraped in the spring, and now that winter is coming we know we have to get it repaired, or we’re just inviting rust to give it an early death. Estimate: $1,200. Another ugh!

Since we paid off the business debt, we’ve been doubling up on our mortgage payments. Strictly speaking, we shouldn’t be doing that since the official step we’re on now is to save an emergency fund. But we’re so driven to debt-freedom, we can’t quite take our foot off the gas pedal of debt-reduction. We are scheduled to renew our mortgage in February, and our plan is to make June of 2019 our last payment date.

We are making some progress towards an emergency fund, but it’s slow – partly because of our current big expenses, and partly because of our mortgage double-ups. (Ah! Maybe we should reverse them. We can without penalty.)  I would be comfortable writing exactly what we’ve saved, but DH doesn’t want me to. He’s OK with me giving dollar amounts for our debts, but not for our savings. So I’ll just say that we’ve saved 35% of our emergency fund.

There’s a sloppiness to our finances right now that doesn’t sit well with me. I’m eager for the renovations to be done. I’m eager to focus on our emergency fund and bring it up to 100%. I’m eager to begin the regular investments (Ramsey’s 4th step) and mortgage payments that will see us to the finish line – hopefully in 3.5 years from now.

We have passed the half-way mark! We’ve paid off 53% of our original grand total debt. Time to tackle the rest.

Do you find it encouraging to step back and take stock when you’re working towards a long-term goal? Do you think we should reverse our mortgage double-ups to focus on our e-fund? Your comments are welcome.