Want It & Can Afford It. But Not Buying.

Our ’99 Dodge Caravan has seen better days, but it’s still driving.

DH = Dear Husband

Ramsey’s indicator of financial wisdom

In May of 2012, I read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover – the book that inspired us to start our journey out of debt. I remember a section in which Ramsey describes something that to me seemed strange.

  • You are out of the debt trap.
  • With enough money on hand, you look at something you’ve been wanting to buy.
  • You choose not to buy it.

I was annoyed by that image. With an eye-rolling attitude, I thought, “Why would you choose not to buy something you wanted if you were debt-free and had the money to buy it?” I couldn’t understand why, according to Ramsey, such odd behaviour was an indicator of financial wisdom.

1999: Purchase of van on credit

Our Dodge Caravan just passed its 19th birthday. When we bought it in February of 1999, I was eight months pregnant with our 3rd child, and the mini-van era of our growing family began. Of course we borrowed to buy the van – because that’s what we did for all large purchases.

2009: Couldn’t afford to replace it

By year 10, our van had become a source of embarrassment for our 3 daughters. Their friends’ parents drove much newer and cooler vehicles. But there was no way we were going to replace it. In 2009, we were just coming out of a 6-year limbo in DH’s career – and still living its resulting financial distress. Although DH started a promising new business that year, we had no idea if it would fly. Much to our children’s mortification, we kept driving the van.

2012: Journey out of debt = No new car in budget

When it became clear that DH’s new business was succeeding, we felt a great relief! No more money crunch! We could go back to normal living!

But as we did “normal” – with more restaurant meals, a bit of travel, a new car for me … – we felt uneasy. Something didn’t feel right.

I first listened to the CD version of The Total Money Makeover after a friend had loaned it to me, and a light went on. “We’re in too much debt!” I realized. DH was likewise convinced, and the two of us became psyched to become debt-free!

So although we were no longer in the financial-crunch mode that we’d been in before, we were on fire to pay off our debts, and there was no room in our “gazelle intense” budget to replace our then 14-year-old van. Sorry kids!

2016: When only a 5-figure mortgage was left …

In the fall of 2016, over 4 years into our journey out of debt, we reached a significant milestone. Of our original grand total $257,000 in consumer, business, and mortgage debt, only the mortgage remained. And that mortgage had crossed the $100,000 line! From 6 to 5 figures! It was a great feeling! The finish line was in sight!

In the throes of this celebration, DH pulled up in our driveway one day driving a new Dodge Journey.

I knew that our then 17-year-old van could die any day and that DH wanted to replace it, when the day came, with a Dodge Journey. “This is just a test drive!” he insisted when I was clearly less than thrilled. It was a whole year later when he admitted, “That was a close call.”

A 5-figure debt is definitely better than a 6-figure debt, but we were going for 0 figures. We kept driving our old van.

And now?

A few days ago, DH approached me with a print-out from a used car business in our city. (Notice we’re planning to buy used now.) A 2016 Dodge Journey was available. Extremely low mileage. Almost 40% off the cost for new. We could pay for it outright without postponing our debt-freedom date of September this year.

There were good reasons to go for it.

  • The van can’t last much longer.
  • This is exactly the kind of gently-used vehicle we plan to get as a replacement.
  • There is something to be said for buying proactively – in advance of the van dying.

On the other hand …

  • The van is not giving us any trouble.
  • If it did suddenly die, there would be no panic to buy immediately. We’d be a one-car family for a while, and we’d wait for the right used car to come along again.

We’re still driving the van.

Does this mean we’ve reached financial wisdom?

We’re within spitting distance of debt-freedom. We want a new-to-us vehicle. We can afford one that is just what we’re looking for. But we’re choosing not to.

How did this happen? How did I go from an eye-rolling, “Why would you choose not to buy …” to actually choosing not to buy? And how did DH go from a celebratory “test-drive” to agreeing with me in choosing not to buy? Have we reached that elusive state of financial wisdom Ramsey writes about?

Well, have we? Your comments are welcome.


The Hot Mess of Lifestyle Change

DH = Dear husband

Vegan panic-eating

An unexpected thing has happened since our household embarked on plant-based eating a month ago: I gained weight. Ever since we started our vegan experiment, I’ve been panic-eating. Why the panic? With no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy to stick to my bones, I’m afraid I’ll get hungry. Why this fear of hunger? When I need food, I don’t just get hungry; I get hangry – and it’s not pretty. So lots of proactive eating to avoid the hanger of hunger these days.

Before going plant-based, this panic didn’t happen. There was always a quick snack at hand – either at home in the fridge or pantry, or at work in my lunch bag. In weak moments, there was easy access to the cafeteria and vending machine too. Getting food to eat was a no-brainer. Now each meal takes planning, grocery shopping for strange new ingredients, focused prep-time. Quick snacks are rarely at hand.

So when there’s food in front of me, my instinct says, “Eat as much as you can while you have the chance!”

Scarcity mindset

Despite the fact that we in North America today are surrounded by ridiculous amounts of food, I’m feeling the scarcity of readily available plant-based options. I’m sure it’s a temporary feeling – one that will lessen as we learn more recipes and become more expert at prepping snacks and meals.

I would have guessed that a scarcity mindset would lead me to portion out our labour-intensive meals carefully. If there’s a true limit to the food going around, isn’t it more rational to make it last as long as possible? Yes, but who said anything about rationality? Especially when hanger is in the balance?

When frugality is perceived as scarcity

When DH and I started our journey out of debt, we decided to include in our budget discretionary allowances for each of us. Our respective discretionary accounts cover some essential items that have a broad range of price-points – like shampoo and clothing – as well as non-essentials like movie tickets and restaurant meals. We each get a generous monthly amount – $600.

I have no idea how much I spent on discretionary purchases each month before we started to attack our debt. What I do know is this: I always blew my discretionary allowance once it was defined – once it had limits. I’ve written so often about the frustration of not being able to get a grip on my discretionary spending. Now, I think I understand it. I’ve had a scarcity mindset about my money.


It’s a bit embarrassing to recognize that I perceive such a generous monthly allowance as “scarce”. Of course it’s enough – more than enough. In the same way, although I’m feeling the limits of what I can eat, experienced vegans will claim there’s nothing scarce about a plant-based diet. Grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits, legumes … There’s more than enough.

It’s a matter of habit and mindset adjustment. When you’re used to eating anything and you suddenly limit your diet, it’s easy to fall prey to perceived scarcity, and to react with panic-eating. And when you’re used to spending however much money on whatever purchase and you suddenly define the amount in that money supply, it’s easy to feel limited, and to react with panic-spending. “Buy now while you still can!”

Learning curves involved in lifestyle change are complicated! In this one personal case – one of many – our simple budget plan for discretionary spending ended up triggering a panic I wasn’t expecting, didn’t identify, and couldn’t overcome until I painstaking worked through it. Ugh!

Seamless lifestyle change? No!

Lifestyle changes are not seamless. But sometimes they’re presented that way. We’ve all seen commercials featuring beautifully slim, healthy, happy people who explain their don’t-you-just-want-to-be-like-me awesomeness by making casual claims like, “I started to exercise for 30 minutes every day, and I always have a  _________________  (insert name of food product) on hand to give me the energy I need … (pause long enough for a simpering smile) without giving me the calories I don’t want.”

Sometimes financial advice is presented in the same “This-is-seamless” way:

  • Prepare a budget to live below your means.
  • Never carry a credit card balance.
  • Don’t buy things until you’ve saved up for them.
  • Buy on sale.
  • Pay off your debts.
  • Buy a house only if you can pay off the mortgage in 15 years spending no more than 25% of your monthly take-home pay.
  • Set aside ____% (10? 20? 30?) to invest in your retirement.


Simple, right? Maybe in bullet points. But NOT easy when applied to the messiness of real life. For most people – especially those of us who have lived for years without any financial plan at all, there are multiple learning curves involved. And each one involves insecurity-riddled intention, frustrating inefficiency, and discouraging lapses in willpower. Again, ugh!

But I’m so glad that DH and I have tolerated our learning curves through the nearly 6 years of financial makeover that we’ve gone through to date. The most beautiful message that I can offer about our experience is that although it’s been messy, we’ve covered step after step after step towards the finish line. It’s hard to believe, but our journey out of all debt will be completed in just 6 more months!

Embrace the hot mess of change!

So let your life-change journey be messy! Tolerate whatever learning curve hits you with the full force of its  unexpected personal awkwardness and complexity. Whether you’re moving towards better health, better finances, better career, better relationships, there are tried-and-true ways of getting there. And while they look neat and tidy in their presentation form, they’ll be a hot mess when you apply them. That’s OK! Messiness never stopped anyone from getting to a desired destination. In fact, I’d say you won’t get anywhere worth going without it.

Have you ever made a real lifestyle change? Was it seamless? Or messy? Your comments are welcome.


Reduced Income Then vs. Now

DH = Dear husband

Roadblock to debt-reduction in the early days

In the first year of our journey out of debt – from June 2012 to June 2013 – we paid off more than we did in any of the 4 years that followed. $50,000 down! It was a year of good income with no extraordinary costs – unlike year #2 and the new roof and year #4 and the renovations. Our mission to reduce debt was fresh and fueled by lots of adrenaline.

Despite the great progress we made in that first year, there were two months  when we couldn’t put anything extra against our debts. Here was my response at the time:

“I haven’t been sleeping well lately … Thoughts of muffins, egg rolls, and melted cheese have beckoned to me from some deep recess of my brain, promising to be the answer.  Except for when the knot in my stomach has stifled my appetite … In both March and April, DH’s business was slow.  Remarkably slow.  After months of hyperactivity, the slow-down was at first a relief.   By the end of the first slow month, relief gave way to philosophy:  There are ups and downs in self-employment.  This won’t last.  After the second slow month, philosophy gave way to dread.”

Perspective from 5 years later

I have to muster up compassion for that angst of 5 years ago. From this perspective, I can say, “It was only 2 months!” as well as “You’ve had such great success in paying off debt so far! This blip will be absorbed.”

Of course I didn’t know it would be only 2 months then. DH’s business has always been subject to risk factors, and for all I knew, it was failing. And as for our progress up to that point, I actually had too-high ambitions. My original hope was that we’d pay off over $50,000 per year and be out of debt in 5 years. It wasn’t until later that I recognized that we were on a 7-year trek.

There’s something else I have to take into consideration. When I felt that angst, we were still over $200,000 in debt. We were still worse off than the record-breaking national average household debt-to-income ratio – and too old to be in that position. Yes, we’d made big strides forward, but we were still close to the poor financial health that was the starting point of our journey out of debt.

Our current roadblock

This past October, multiple stresses made our lives go off-kilter, and one of them had to do with DH’s business. Not able to disclose much (because DH didn’t want me to), I wrote “DH operates a home business, and there are always ups and downs with it – resulting in variable income, and variable debt-repayment. DH’s business is currently undergoing a stress test. We’re all feeling it. I can’t say much more than that.”

The change DH made in his business (which I completely supported) has resulted in significantly lower revenues for almost half a year now. It worries us, but I’m not being tormented by thoughts of “muffins, eggrolls, and melted cheese” promising to be the answer. And there’s  no knot in my stomach. No “dread”.

The difference? We’re in much, much better financial shape now than we were 5 years ago. Our remaining debt is a small mortgage that we’ll pay off later this year, and we’re cushioned by savings. We’re way, way below the national average for household debt.

What if? back then vs. What if? now

I did my best back then to get out of the discouraged funk I was in. “If I answer the ‘What if?’ questions, I come up with, ‘We’ll stop the business.  We’ll sell the house and move into a smaller one.  DH will look for another job.  I won’t retire as soon as I’d planned.’  Disappointing, but not the end of the world.”

Now there’s a difference when I answer “What if?” DH can keep the business going at a reduced level and start a phase of semi-retirement. I’ll retire in 2019 as planned, and we’ll see at that time if it would be wisest to stop the business and sell the house or not.

Freedom from financial stress

Good financial health doesn’t mean that worry goes completely away or that the passive, head-in-sand money management approach is an option. We do have worries about this extended blip in DH’s business, and we’re having to focus as we navigate through it. But it’s not overwhelming. It’s not distressing or depressing. And I promise you that it would have been 5 years ago.

Have you ever been through a time when reduced income was very stressful? Are you well cushioned with savings to see yourself through an unexpected reduction in income? Your comments are welcome.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Our Vegan Experiment

My breakfast of choice these days.

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

“It’s not an experiment,” DH says. “And I don’t use the word ‘vegan’; it’s got connotations of religious radicalism. I just say I’ve switched to a plant-based diet.”

I, on the other hand, can’t be sure it’s a permanent lifestyle change. I’ve tried this before. A few years ago, I ate vegan for 6 weeks, but I found it wasn’t sustainable. The big difference this time is  that I’m not doing it alone.

DH, DD3 and I have been eating more and more plant-based meals over the last two weeks as we’ve gradually finished off the meat and dairy foods in our fridge. The last of our items – butter and frozen fish – are going home with DD2 at the end of this Family Day long weekend. (And I hate to admit it, but we threw out our mayonnaise and left-over meatballs.)

The catalyst for our switch to plant-based eating

I think we were fertile ground for this kind of diet change. I have always been fairly health conscious, and DH has become more and more so – surpassing me – over the last decade. But our catalyst was DD3, now the only of our three children still living at home. “I want you to watch What The Health with me,” she first said several months ago.

In January, I finally did. Then DH watched it. A few days later, led once more by DD3, he watched Cowspiracy. And just like that, we were all committed to going full-on vegan – “for at least a month,” I said. But I was the only one who said that.

These documentaries were our tipping point, bringing home issues that had long registered on our cousciousness, but not enough to prompt significant changes. I’m reluctant to dwell on them here, probably because like DH, I’m aware that it can come across as “religious radicalism.” So just in point form I’ll say that we’re concerned about the following:

  • our health
  • the environment
  • cruelty to animals
  • sustainability of food production for the world’s population
  • water conservation

Our transition to plant-based foods

“So what are we going to eat?” was my big question.

DD3 showed me a video of Avant-Garde Vegan in an effort to assure me of all the delicious plant-based recipes there are out there. “You should buy the Oh She Glows cookbooks,” she told me. I did. We all poured over the recipes, ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over possibilities.

Our first vegan meals were staggeringly delicious. The breakfast you see above, the shepherd’s pie you see below, and the lentil-walnut loaf you don’t see at all – because in my excitement about eating it, I forgot to take a photo of it – convinced us that we would be happy to eat this food forever.

Time-consuming meal prep

I used to think salads took a long time to make. Ha! These vegan recipes are definitely time-consuming. The only way for us to sustain a plant-based diet for the long term will be to share the burden of meal prep. So far, so good. We’re still excited by it all. Sometimes, the kitchen verges on chaos with all three of us chopping, blending, and re-checking our respective recipes. With practice, I’m sure we’ll get more efficient. Right now, there is no flow – and plenty of painstaking effort.

We used to be in the habit of grocery shopping only once per week, but on Saturday alone, DH had to go out 3 times as we kept realizing that we were missing ingredients. Again, I hope we get more efficient with time. And the dirty dishes we produce!

As a step towards efficiency, we bought a basic Vitamix blender – in addition to the small Ninja we already had. Not a cheap purchase, and a real indication of DH’s commitment. “We didn’t buy that expensive blender for an ‘experiment.'” The onion and mushrooms (with lentils) you see on the left, neatly chopped by me, took far longer to prepare than the onion, celery, garlic, ground flax seed, and ground oat flour (with lentils) you see on the right, split-second chopped or ground by DH using our blenders.


Connection to personal finances?

This is a personal finance blog about our journey out of debt, and here I am talking about food. But if you’ve given focus to money-management for any amount of time, you already know that it’s connected to e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Including food.

At this point, I can’t say how a plant-based diet will impact our finances. So far, of course, it’s cost us. The cookbooks, the blender, the need to stock up on strange ingredients we’d never even heard of before … I’ll be able to talk more about our vegan grocery budget once it’s become the new normal.

Parallels between our shifts in finances and food

Apart from the dollar amounts involved, this shift in eating reminds me in many ways of our shift in money-management almost six years ago.

  • We had a financial wake-up moment after listening to the CD version of Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover – like our food wake-up after watching What the Health.
  • We had to get rid of old habits and make the effort to work out new ways of managing our money – like getting rid of our meat and dairy habits and putting in the effort to learn new ways of doing meal prep.
  • An ongoing fine-tuning of our money-management meant messiness in the form of tracking our spending, working out details of our budget, having disagreements, and facing conflicts – just like the mess involved in our inefficient grocery shopping, dishes, and intense/chaotic meal prep now.
  • We needed a team effort to change our finances – and it’s a team effort to change our food.

We started out $257,000 in debt in June of 2012, and even after the first month, we were encouraged by how far we’d come. Almost 6 years later, we’re grateful to our former selves for undergoing the paradigm shift involved in our financial makeover. Our remaining debt is $37,000 – just a small mortgage that will be gone by October of this year.

In the same way, we’re encouraged now by our victories in switching to a plant-based diet. If DH is right and this isn’t just an experiment, I believe that in 6 years we’ll be grateful to our present-day selves for undergoing this paradigm shift for our health.

Have you seen What the Health? Have you tried a plant-based diet? What connections between food and finances have you noticed? Your comments are welcome.


In Praise of Snowshoeing: Physical, Financial, and Mental Health

Snowshoeing out from our backyard with my daughter (who took the photo).

The personal finance bloggosphere is filled with comparisons between financial and physical fitness, and many FIRE bloggers are also marathon runners, tri-athletes, hikers… The “badass” way to go about physical fitness is to do it without paying a gym membership, but that presents challenges for some of us.

Obstacles to free physical work-outs in the winter

Snow covers my part of the world for a solid 4-5 months per year, and it limits free fitness options. Swimming? Not a chance! Cycling? It happens, but only with an element of danger and lots of odd gear. Running? On a mild winter day, packed snow on side-walks and paths, sure. But that’s not the way most winter days happen around here. Severe cold snaps, icy conditions, deep snow, and strong winds often make winter running very iffy.

“Well, what about skiing?” you might ask. Sure, but it’s not free! The costs of skis, poles, boots, and helmet – even second hand – add up, especially when combined with the expense of ski passes.

“Cross-country skiing is free,” you might say. “And outdoor skating is too.” True. But while you can step outside your front door to run or cycle in the summer, most of us can’t cross-country ski or skate with as much convenience. Usually there’s a significant drive involved. On a weekend, no problem. After a day of work? Not always appealing.

Snowshoeing: frugal and user-friendly

The answer to these obstacles? Snowshoeing!

“But it’s not free! You have to pay for the snowshoes.” True. The cost of snowshoes is on par with the cost of running shoes or a bathing suit, and it’s less than the cost of a bike. In other words, it’s in line with the expense of gearing up for “free” summer work-outs.

“There’s still a drive involved, and you said that’s ‘not always appealing.'” The expanse of nature necessary for a decent cross country ski is way bigger that the space needed for good snowshoeing. Chances are you can walk to a place that works for snowshoeing – a local park, for instance. And if you do need to drive, it will almost certainly be a short drive. You don’t need vast tracts of open land to snowshoe.

“What about the whole ‘severe cold snaps, icy conditions, deep snow, and strong winds’ thing?” You can snowshoe in all of the above as long as you bundle up (and use snowshoes with ice grips). The only condition that might limit your snowshoeing is a winter thaw that melts the snow – in which case you can put on your running shoes and go for a jog.

“But I’ve never done it before! It’s too hard.” No it’s not! Skating, skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing all require unique skill sets. Snowshoeing doesn’t. If you can walk, you can snowshoe.

Snowshoeing and physical health

According to this article at Snowshoes.com: Your Guide to Winter Adventure we can burn from 420-1,000 calories per hour during a snowshoe trek. It’s a sport that accommodates a wide range of athleticism. If you’re a newbie or not in great physical shape, it’s fine to snowshoe for a slow-paced 15 minutes. As you get stronger and more fit, go for longer periods of time, speed up, and include hills.

In the article, Dr. Declan Connolly of the University of Vermont is quoted: “‘Snowshoeing is an effective, low impact, and safe form of exercise to change body composition. It burns up to twice the number of calories as walking at the same speed … Snowshoeing utilizes major muscle groups which, when combined with a higher metabolic rate in cold weather and the added resistance of moving through snow, results in a high-energy activity.'”

Snowshoeing and mental health

SAD (seasonal affective disorder) strikes many of us who live where winter happens. Symptoms include low energy, problems with sleeping, and a general sluggishness.  I remember talking with a colleague about my own siginificant case of SAD last winter. “You know what made a difference for me this winter?” he said. “Cross-country skiing. Just being outside made a difference.”

He’s not the kind of guy to give pat answers to problems, but I thought that he was over-simplifying things. Still, I took his advice to heart this winter – via regular snowshoeing – and it seems to be making a difference!

The Mayo Clinic, offering “lifestyle remedies” to SAD advises the same:

  • Get outside. Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise and other types of physical activity help relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. Being more fit can make you feel better about yourself, too, which can lift your mood.

Snowshoeing: What’s not to love?

It’s cheap, easy, and convenient. It offers a great physical workout and an effective remedy to SAD through the winter months. You can do it on your own or with others. What’s not to love about snowshoeing?

Your comments are welcome.

When Young Adult Children Need Help: Rescue or Coach?

  • DD2 = Dear second daughter
  • DD3 = Dear third daughter
  • DH = Dear husband

The phone call

I woke up to the phone ringing. The bright digits of my old clock radio impressed the time upon me: 5:08 am. I got up swiftly, fully awake. Full of worry. “What’s happened?” I wondered. Our two youngest had bussed to Toronto for a Lana Del Rey concert, and my first guess was that they were in some kind of trouble.

“Mom?” It was DD2’s shaky, weepy voice. “I think I’ve got food poisoning.”

Not the worst of the possibilities that had flashed through my brain, but the floodgates of maternal compassion were set to open

“It started right when we got back from the concert,” she continued. “I had a stomach ache, and when I threw up I thought I’d feel better, but I didn’t. I just kept throwing up. I’ve been up all night. I tried to take a sip of water, but I threw it up right away… Just a sec. I have to puke.” I waited, cringed at the sound effects. “There’s nothing left,” she said when she returned to the phone. “But it doesn’t stop.”

Poor thing!!

The bus tickets

DD2 and DD3 were staying at their cousin’s apartment in Toronto, and there was no way they’d be able to use the bus tickets they’d bought for their return trip home later that day – a Tuesday. I texted DD3 and advised her to contact the bus station to see if it would be possible to get a refund or to exchange their Tuesday tickets for Wednesday tickets. “I’ve thrown up 5 times today,” she texted back. Two sick daughters!

I went to work and kept my cell phone close at hand. “If you need me, just call and I’ll take the day off and drive to get you,” I’d told them. Was it food poisoning? The flu? Maybe salmonella? It was so frustrating to have them five hours away!

They found out that they’d be able to get bus tickets for the next day at a 50% discount – $20 each. Not what we’d hoped for, but it wouldn’t break the bank. The concert and all other costs associated with it were on them, not us.

DH’s brick wall vs. my jellyfish

In her book Kids Are Worth It, Barbara Coloroso identifies three types of parents:

  1. The “brick wall” parent is domineering and inflexible.
  2. The “jellyfish” parent sets no boundaries and is infinitely flexible.
  3. The “backbone” parent asserts structure with a degree of flexibility.

Coloroso presents the backbone parent as the ideal. She advises brick wall parents to loosen up, and jellyfish parents to toughen up. Most parents are inclined one way or the other away from the ideal, but all of us can fine-tune our way to the structured flexibility of a backbone.

DH and I learned about Coloroso’s parenting continuum years ago, and since that time, he has been moving away from his brick wall as I have been moving away from my jellyfish. I don’t know if either of us has actually reached Coloroso’s backbone ideal, but we’re both closer to it than we were when we started out.

Bus terminal troubles

DD2 and DD3 stayed at my niece’s apartment for an extra day. My poor niece came down with the flu that Thursday – confirming that it was the flu all along. On Wednesday, our daughters weren’t yet well enough to eat, but they thought they could manage the bus ride home, and DD2 phoned Greyhound to confirm the time of departure and cost of the tickets.

“11:30. $40 each,” said one phone attendant. What about the 50% discount? “There is no discount,” she insisted.

DD2 phoned again. “11:30, and since you get a 50% discount, it will be $20 each,” said a different attendant.

When they got to the terminal, they explained their situation to one of the ticket-sellers. “You won’t be able to buy a ticket from us right now,” she said. “Our computers are down. Here’s a number to call to get your tickets.” DD2 phoned, explained her situation, was put on hold … Dial tone.

Back to the ticket-seller. “Try this number,” she said. DD2 phoned the new number and explained the situation yet again. “We can’t give you a discount” was the answer she got.

DH responds

Tired, hungry, and still sick, DD2 phoned home. DH runs his business out of our house, so he was the one to answer. He listened, commiserated … and coached her not to give up. “There must be someone there who can do something about this,” he said. “Find that person and explain your situation again. Emphasize the discount policy you were told about. And don’t be put off. Just stand there until you get your answer.”

DD2 soon phoned him back – gleefully. She had spoken with the attendant directing passengers for the bus they were hoping to take. She explained the sickness, the cancelled ticket, the mixed messages about a 50% discount, the downed computers, and the unresponsive phone service. The attendant considered, consulted, and came back to answer.

“There’s room on this bus. Go ahead. No charge.”

DH then phoned me to let me know all was well. Our sick daughters were on their way home, and soon I’d be able to lavish them with molly-coddling (which I did very frugally). DD2 had lost 15 pounds and DD3 developed a fever. Mollycoddling was definitely appropriate.

Good thing I didn’t get that call!

It’s a good thing DH received that tortured call from the bus terminal. I know what I would have done if I had answered: “Just phone that first number again and buy the tickets at full price. We’ll pay.” I’m sure it’s a response they would have welcomed.

But they got so much more out of DH’s response. It gave them the opportunity to …

  • … learn not to give up even after multiple tries.
  • … discover the power of negotiation.
  • … develop confidence in their ability to work towards a solution.

There are times to rescue young adult children, but more often, there are times to coach them. It’s not always clear which option is called for. DH coached in a situation that I believe would have led many parents to rescue. I think our daughters got the best deal from him.

What would you have done? Do you tend to be a brick wall or a jellyfish? Your comments are welcome.



Getting Away From “All-Or-Nothing” Compulsions

DH = Dear Husband

A history of maxing out financially

A month ago, I tried to explain one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2018: “A less S.M.A.R.T goal that I have is to fine-tune the self-discipline that I’ve been building over these last 5 years … I’d like to take another step away from the ‘all-or-nothing’ financial compulsion that I’ve always had.”

I definitely have a compulsion towards maxing out. Financially, it manifested itself in different ways over the years:

  • As a teenager, I’d spend all of my allowance before the month was up and beg and whine for an advance on my next month’s allowance.
  • In my twenties, I would go into credit card debt and overdraft on a regular basis, counting on my next pay to get me out of both holes.
  • In my thirties, I wanted it all: a big house; part-time as opposed to full-time work; multiple activities for our 3 children; cleaning service; gym membership; plenty of “treat-yourself-therapy” like going out to restaurants.

Then life stepped in – in the form of DH’s job loss,  followed by years of career uncertainty and financial stress – and forced a change. A slow, stubbornly reluctant change it was too – even though all circumstances combined to send the message loud and clear: “You need to change!!”

Maxing out in other areas

Most people are in too much debt, and for those of us who have come to recognize it and try to do something about it, there’s something else we eventually have to acknowledge: The poor choices we’ve made financially are not rooted in a lack of math skills; they’re rooted in character flaws.

One of the character flaws I’ve had to acknowledge in myself is linked to this maxing out tendency. It’s the flaw of living reactively instead of proactively. Again it has manifested itself in different ways:

  • “I’m SO tired! I’ll just do the dishes and make my lunch in the morning.” (= Time crunch for morning commute.)
  • “I don’t feel like going to the gym, so I just won’t exercise today.” (= The no-work-out blahs.)
  • “I got caught up in Netfilx. I won’t have time to clean the house today.” (= Burden of accumulating to-do list.)
  • “This is delicious! I’ll just eat one more… OK, another one… Now this one is the last one…” (= Feeling full & gaining weight.)

Fine-tuning self-discipline: morning commute

Just as it took a significant rock-bottom experience to get me to become proactive in managing our personal finances, the rock-bottom experience came into play for my morning commute. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a series of snow storms resulted in 3 consecutive commutes of 3 hours, 2 hours, and 1.5 hours each for my normally 40-minute drive to work.  It was truly life-suckingly awful!

Since that week, however, I have not had a single time crunch commute. I’ve been way more proactive about getting myself prepared for work with plenty of time to spare. I used to think in terms of “How late can I go and still get there on time?” Now, I have no desire to cut it close. I want to give room for unexpected traffic slow downs so that there is no need for white-knuckle commuting. And if I arrive at work earlier than I need to – as I usually do now – that’s not a problem at all.

Stepping away from “all-or-nothing” fitness

I have written multiple times about my poor performance with discretionary money management. It was to help my personal discretionary account that I decided to quit my gym membership at the end of last summer. Much to my surprise, that move resulted in more regular exercise for me.

When I had the gym membership, I would think in all-or-nothing terms. Either I would drive to the gym, take the cardio class, do weights, drive home, shower – or I would do nothing. Now, I’ll go for a 40 minute snow shoe or  a half hour run – or a walk. It’s OK not to do a full-on work-out (that takes over 2 hours when you add the drive time). Getting lower-key physical exercise on a regular basis is just fine.

Proactive house-cleaning

As I wrote two weeks ago, house-cleaning is so much easier to do when the task is shared. After years of doing it on my own with resentment and without ever getting on top of it – it is relatively pleasant now to do my share of it every weekend, knowing others are doing their part. It doesn’t take the will-power to do it that it used to.  It’s easy to find the self-discipline to keep on top of house-cleaning now that it isn’t so draining.

Self-disciplined eating? (Oh well…)

I hope to “fine-tune the self-discipline” of eating too, but I haven’t yet. I had a “This is delicious! I’ll just eat one more…” experience yesterday … AND the day before.

But I think it’s coming. True, proactive self-discipline – as opposed to compulsion on the highly controlled end of the spectrum – has the potential to be widely applied. It’s had a positive impact on my finances, commuting, fitness, and house-cleaning. I believe food is next : )

Do you find that as you develop self-discipline in one area, it spreads to another? Or do you find that self-discipline is specific – that is doesn’t transfer? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of flickr.

Reading Aloud: An Old-Fashioned, Frugal Pastime

  • DD2 = Dear 2nd Daughter
  • DD3 = Dear 3rd Daughter

My mom’s odd practice of reading aloud

My mother had the odd habit of reading aloud. On her own.

I was able, as a tiny child, to identify “Mommy’s book,” and I knew somehow that when Mommy was reading out loud, I was not to interrupt. My brother, in giving his eulogy for Mom at her funeral service 2 months ago, said, “In the lean years with young children, Mom proved she could handle anything — as long as she could read for an hour or two every afternoon. One of her quirks was that she read to herself aloud –and she would do this at full voice, with great expression, as if she were addressing a classroom of 30 students.”

I remember a friend coming over to my place mid-afternoon one day when Mom happened to be reading. We passed by her in silence, receiving the smile and the raised eyebrow of greeting that said, “I see you, and you are welcome, but I can’t say anything to you right now. I’m reading.” We walked into the kitchen to get a snack, and my friend finally broke the silence. “Ruth!” she whispered in agitation. “Your mom is reading out loud!” I had realized by this point that not all mothers did, but I wasn’t fully aware of how weird it was. My friend continued, “And she’s putting SO much expression into it!”

A life-long habit

Right up to her last days, Mom continued her expressive daily reading. My sister, who along with her husband had taken Mom to Italy only 2 months before her death, shared this story at Mom’s service:

“Mom would read aloud on the deck of our cruise ship cabin. She would send Mark and me off to the gym or out for a hike so she could have the space all to herself. Little did she know that an audience was gathering next door. We met our neighbours in the hall one day and they told me how they loved the way I was reading so expressively to my elderly mother. I resisted the urge to accept this ill-informed compliment and corrected them. It was all mom!

They had been inviting their friends to their room, all of them leaning into our shared wall, listening as Mom brought The Goldfinch to life for them. As they left, they said they would be recommending on their cruise evaluation form that Mom be hired onto the ship’s entertainment staff. ‘Reading time with Jane’ would surely be a hit!”

Wisdom in frugal leisure from the past

I remember one young mother speaking to me after Mom’s funeral service. “Your mom was so smart to do her reading every day! She knew what she needed to do to make it all work!”

Storytelling was a form of entertainment as far back as when people first started to gather around a fire. And reading aloud was a common form of leisure right up until the middle of the last century. Cable TV, Netflix, and Youtube have largely replaced the joy of reading, and they’ve all but obliterated the practice of reading aloud.

The only contexts where reading aloud is at all common today are those involving children: the classroom, where teachers test the skill of their students, and the home, where parents read to their young children before bedtime.

True confession: I love reading aloud too

I suppose it’s not surprising that having been raised by an out-loud-reader, I was drawn to reading aloud myself. I used to love reading bed time stories to my children, and I tried to make the nightly ritual last for as many years as possible. Eventually, each of my 3 daughters told me enough was enough, and I accepted it with regret. (My eldest was 16 years old. After having read all of Jane Austen’s novels to her, I started on Dickens. We made it half way through David Copperfield when she gently told me it was time to cease. She finished the book on her own. Sigh…)

As a high school teacher at a school with many English language learners, I was thrilled to find out that one of the best ways to promote proficiency in English was to read aloud to students! I took full advantage of that permission for as long as I was a classroom teacher. Now, as the teacher-librarian, my once-yearly Jane Austen Book Club gives me only the rare occasion to indulge in reading aloud.

An unexpected opportunity: sick daughters

Last weekend, my two youngest went to Toronto in advance of seeing Lana Del Rey in concert Monday night. They thoroughly loved the event. But almost as soon as they arrived back at their cousin’s apartment, where they were staying, DD2 felt sick. I had heard that the flu was particularly bad this year, and DD2 got it with a vengeance. Nothing stayed down. She couldn’t eat or drink. Within a matter of a few days, she would lose 15 pounds.

DD3 soon showed signs of the flu as well, and the two sisters were stuck in Toronto all day Tuesday – unable to take their scheduled bus ride home. Their bewildered cousin continued to host them until they were able to leave on Wednesday – and then she got sick too.

Reverting to childhood comforts

DD2 lives downtown, but she came home to stay for her days of recovery. DD3, who did not at first  suffer as severely as her sister, came down with a fever. By the time Saturday rolled around, they were both able to eat most foods. And while they were still weak, they were no longer completely incapacitated.

It was DD2 who asked me: “Mom, can you read to me?” Yes!! I ended up reading The Rosie Project, by  Graeme C. Simsion, and they loved it! For hours, we were sprawled out on DD3’s bed, giggling at the sweet awkwardness of Don Tillman’s observations and conversations through the first several chapters of the book (which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it).

We were back in the old days. Not just our old days – the days of their childhood – but the days when reading aloud was a normal leisure activity – even among adults – even healthy ones. So thoroughly enjoyable! And frugal to boot!

Reading aloud: Is it in my future? (I hope so!)

DD2, about 90% recovered, has gone back downtown, but I’m hoping that DD3 will want to finish the book. And not on her own. I would love to read a chapter or two a day to her over the next week or two. And while I don’t think I’ll ever take up my mother’s odd practice of reading out loud alone – I need an audience of at least one –  I do hope I’ll continue to find excuses to read aloud in the years ahead.

Did either of your parents do something that nobody else’s parent did? Are there old-fashioned, frugal pastimes that you enjoy? Can you help me think of more excuses to read aloud in the years to come? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of readaloud.info

Frugality, Housework, Household Dynamics

  • DH = Dear Husband
  • DD3 = Dear Third Daughter

Giving up cleaning service for debt-reduction

When we first started our journey out of debt in June of 2012, one of the expenses we let go was a house cleaning service once every two weeks. It was a good frugal move, saving us $200 per month. It was also the most challenging move of our overall mission to get out of debt.

“Why?” you might ask. “What’s the big deal with housework? Everyone’s got to do it. Just do it!”

I’ve tried to give an answer to that question in various posts over the years. Here is one I gave 5 years ago:

“I hate cleaning. Most people don’t like cleaning, but what I’m talking about goes way beyond the general dislike. It’s a uniquely fierce loathing. I’m able to discern it in others when they have it, and I feel an automatic bond with them. But most people don’t understand. They have a ‘suck it up, Princess’ attitude to any whining, so I pick my audience carefully when the need to vent arises.”

A month later, I wrote:

“With DH’s constant work, I’m doing the grocery shopping, the driving of our children to their activities, the cooking, the dishes, dog-walking, logistical arrangements to make plans come together…  And all this on top of my day job… I brought this fact to DH’s attention last week, and he acknowledged it. ‘So why don’t we hire cleaners again?’ I asked. He recoiled at the thought and committed to house-cleaning on Saturday morning. We would both put in four hours, and get it done. I agreed and said nothing about my doubts. As I suspected, Saturday came and went with no house-cleaning. He had too much work to do. I did not take up the slack. And that’s how I plan to play it. Let the dust bunnies take over.”

What about getting the kids to help?

5 years ago, we had a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old living with us. (Our eldest was studying away from home.) Why couldn’t our daughters do the housework with me and get it done? That is a very, very good question, and the answer is not easy for me to acknowledge. There was some significant dysfunction in our family dynamics at that time, and DH and I could not make the whole “team work” thing happen.

Some parents manage to get through the teen years without upheaval. If you are in that category of parent, that’s great, and no doubt you did a number of things right to make that happen. We aren’t in that category. We had years of significant issues, and combined with DH’s career crisis and our financial mess it was tough. To-the-breaking-point tough. Could we have managed things better and avoided that chapter of hell? Certainly the money-stress had been of our making and it compounded all other stresses. Apart from that, I don’t know. What I do know is that at that point, we could not make family house-cleaning function.

Housework = something I wanted to outsource

So housework was a heavy burden for me. Something I didn’t like – that I resented – and that my energy levels were too low to do well. Just after the 3-year mark of our journey out of debt, we reached the milestone of having paid off everything except for the mortgage. We gave ourselves permission to hire cleaners again.

Another thing I gave myself permission to do after reaching that milestone was to stop teaching summer school. For the first 4 summers of our journey out of debt, I took on summer school as a way to earn extra income to bring the debt down. Now, since I was taking my summers off, we canceled the cleaning service for July and August because I had lots of time to do it myself.

Functional family housecleaning

Last summer, as September approached I decided I didn’t want to hire the cleaning service again for the school year. “Let’s try again to do it ourselves,” I said to DH. And we have. And it’s working! I think there’s a good chance we will never hire cleaners again.

The house-cleaning is divided into 3 parts:

  • I clean about half of the house.
  • DH and DD3 each clean about a quarter of the house.

Every weekend, I spend 3 or 4 hours cleaning. And it’s perfectly fine. It’s not the burden I found it to be 5 years ago. Why not?

  • I find it SO MUCH easier to clean when I know that other people in the household are doing their share of it too. When we happen to clean at the same time, it’s elevated to a strong bonding experience that verges on pleasant. (For real!)
  • Since I’m not doing it all myself, I’m not left with that depleted-but-still-not-on-top-of-it discouragement. I’m NOT depleted. We ARE on top of it!
  • The elements of dysfunction in our household have largely disappeared. There is no war to wage to make shared housework happen.

I have a friend who has often pointed out that since DH and I started our journey out of debt, our relationship has so clearly grown stronger. I haven’t always seen it, but in this instance I’m really struck by it. When a couple can work together to keep the house clean, it’s a VERY GOOD sign. When they can lead their children to take part in the effort, EVEN BETTER. A whole lot has to be going right for household house-cleaning to be done fairly, consistently, and well.

Ripple effects of debt-reduction

How have we managed to get from Point A to Point B? Just as I don’t have a complete understanding of how Point A happened in the first place, I can’t say definitively what has made things get better. But I do believe this: In facing our debt head-on, DH and I have had to deal with many of our respective character flaws, and we’ve had to confront areas of miscommunication and misunderstanding. As we’ve worked on these things, ALL areas of life have improved – not just our finances. Our household relationships are better. And we make a fine house-cleaning team.

Do you hate housework? Or is it not a big deal for you? How did your family deal with housework as you were growing up? If you live with others now, does everyone do their share of the housework? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Hyperbole and a Half

Commuting Blues = Early Retirement Goal

It’s Sunday evening, and there’s a lovely view outside. The snow is falling, and since it’s been falling for a few hours, everything looks like a Christmas card. This is the kind of scene that makes winter look inviting. The caption could be, “Get out your toboggan!” Or, “Time to get your skis on!” Or, “Walkin’ in a winter wonderland!”

But for me, and for thousands like me, the message is this: “Tomorrow’s commute to work is going to be brutal! Leave at least an hour early.”

3 commutes from hell in one week

The second last Tuesday before holidays, I left the house at 7:20, trying to stifle a nagging thought at the back of my mind that I’d blown it: I was going to be late for work. The snow was falling rather gracefully, so I tried to convince myself I could still make it in to my job – at a high school – by 8:00. In a burst of proactive decision-making, I chose a different route – one my colleague had sworn was always reliable. Within 10 minutes, I knew something was up.

It took another two hours for me to find out what that something was: a lane closure at about the half-way point, caused by an accident. I pulled into work at 10:15, my soul sucked dry by the 3-hour commute. “I NEVER want to go through that again,” I thought.

The next day, a Wednesday, snow still falling, I was on the road just after 7:00 … And I walked into work just before the 9:00 bell.

Thursday, I left for work at 6:45. “Not taking any chances,” I thought. But even then, my normally 40-minute commute to work more than doubled to an hour-and-a-half.

FIRE types blast commuting

Early retirement bloggers have nothing good  to say about commuting. They live close to their places of work, and they bus, cycle, or walk to get there. In a post from 2011, Mr. Money Mustache itemizes the evils of a 40-minute commute over the long-term – wasted money, wasted time, stress, danger … And he doesn’t even include snow storms.

Whenever conversations about work-life balance arise, I speak as the FIRE types do, and argue for intentionally setting up close to work to avoid long commutes. But for me, it’s too late. The costs, financial and otherwise, of moving out of our home don’t make sense – especially since DH is established here in his home business. And the idea of trying to find work at a school closer to home? I am so much happier at my current school than I have been at any other. That counts for something, and I’m not willing to give it up – especially this close to retirement.

Retirement miscalculation & MMM’s less-$-needed

I recently realized a huge oversight I had made in calculating my retirement year and income. The upshot of it was that while I correctly identified June of 2019 as the earliest I could qualify for a pension, I overestimated that pension by $8,000 annually. My pension income would actually be only half of my current income if I took that 2019 retirement date. “You might have to work longer,” DH said. I agreed.

But when I was sitting in traffic for 3 hours that Tuesday morning, I thought it would be worth at least $8,000 per year NOT to have to commute anymore.

Another Mr. Money Mustache concept is this: if you get used to frugal living, not only can you retire earlier thanks to more money saved and invested, you can also retire earlier because your expenses, having become lower with a simpler lifestyle, can be funded with less money.

My financial freedom date: still June 2019

My $8,000 per year miscalculation is no small deal, but I believe we can set things up so that the lower-than-anticipated income will be more than enough. If we play it right, I should be able to say “Good-bye” to the morning commute in another year and a half. That thought helps me face it for the short term.

As the snow continues to fall outside, I’m mentally preparing myself for a very early start tomorrow morning. My plan is to leave by 6:15.

Do you have a long commute to work? Is there something you can do to change it? Or do you feel stuck with it until retirement? Could you live on 50% of your income in retirement? Your comments are welcome.

*Images courtesy of Jeremy Jenum via flickr and Freephoto.com