August Check-in: I’m Doing It Wrong

I just turned my 19 goals upside down. I’m much better for it.

Turn that frown upside down. Also dinner. Also your goals. (Squirrel contorting at a bird feeder, photo by Sheila Brown, Public Domain Pics).


It’s finally September!

We’re about two weeks away from my husband’s teaching stipend being restored.


As you may imagine, I am pretty relieved.

Klaus of Sprockets gets me. Now I’m as happy as a little girl.

No one is looking forward to getting back on track more than I am. That said, these past few months have reminded me of something critical: When the financial math simply won’t work for you, when you just don’t have enough money, no matter how much you skimp or which belt you tighten, the goal becomes maintaining hope.

That requires something more than money. It requires rest, relaxation, and joy — things that can be in even scarcer supply than money when you are broke.

When I looked at all the goals I started with this year, I realized that a whole bunch of them related to hope, by way of joy and relaxation— and I’ve been neglecting most of them. So while we sank deeper in debt this summer, I did something life-giving.

Three Free Things I Did to Get Richer in August

More Relaxing at Home: Free.

As early as June, I was spending a little more time reading, and a lot more time in the hammock outside. In August, I kicked that activity into, uh, low gear.

Less Screen Time on My Dumb Device: Free.

What made the difference was a “device diet” that started on a sort of whim during an argument with my husband. I don’t want to TMI anyone, but the long and short of it is that even though I started the fight, by the end of it I realized it was my behavior that would have to change. I was too distracted, too absorbed in the latest Tweet or an after-hours work email that could wait or some random flotsam that had washed up on the ragged shore of my consciousness and demanded to be Googled. (Cast of The Warriors? Why is fiber good for me? Where is Malta?).

I vowed that, from 6 pm to 6 am, I would be off my phone unless it rang. I would stay off my laptop, too. This made some things hard, of course. For example, it means I couldn’t do any micro-gig work. It also prompted me to dust off the old chicken timer for cooking and a clock that was in my office for my bedside alarm. I started to charge my phone two rooms from our bedroom.

After only two days, I was clearer-headed and sustained about twice the attention I once had. I was calmer. I didn’t immediately look for an activity to fill five minutes, even when I was out and had my phone with me. I got an immense amount of reading done.

Cooking, Puttering, Schmoozing (Okay, that’s six things total): Free.

Then, even weirder things began to happen. I started to enjoy cooking again, just puttering in the kitchen, doing the dance from counter to fridge to oven and stove. Conversations with my husband were less fragmented, much deeper (what the fight had been about). My son told me I was more fun to be with. We all laughed more.

Okay. But What the Hell Happened With My Money?

Mostly the same old from July. We’re broke as fuck. I did improve my habits so, so slightly. Specifically, I…

  • rebooted the budget. I’m tracking our spending and crayoning within the lines again. We have $4,500 in new credit card debt from this summer shortfall to obliterate by year’s end, and a balance transfer of $1,000 to take care of by late next year. So it’s back to a form of Financial Detox, with cash spending only, as much as possible.
  • knocked down our car and roof debt. I paid extra on the car and roof debts so that I could bring them to $15,999 and $3,997, respectively. It feels good to say those two debts are now under $20,000. I’ll take what I can get!

The numbers.

Total debt: $498,818.

Credit card & consumer debt, including our car loan is a whopping $11,582, back in the five digits after a sweet, sweet low of $6,777 in May, when we restructured our debt. I’m not kidding myself: it will take months to recover, and then the holidays will hit.

Net worth: $80,431.

Life and Budget Goals: Flipping the Script.

The new item 1 (formerly ranked at 10) is my big, big win this month, making everything else eventually possible. My addiction to my phone was the logjam preventing me from living my life. I’d known it for years — in that way, it’s not unlike my debt problem, and really turning it around will take some time.

  1. Be more analog each day, and enjoy more hands-on pursuits like reading offline, playing cards and board games, journaling, and coloring. Doing MANY times better!
  2. Get more of the 3 M’s: Music, Museums, and Movies (the one splurge we have kept is the trio of Hulu/Amazon Prime/Netflix; we’ll see if all three survive our budget hacking; for now, I plan to maximize our vice). I’m only doing well on one of the M’s, but on that, we’re doing well. This month, we watched Zoolander 1 and 2, Captain Marvel, re-watched my all-time favorite movie the Station Agent, Spiderman Into the Multiverse (which is absolutely incredible). But the winning movie for August, hands down, was Death of Stalin. MUST watch; it’s not what you think it is, and at the same time, it is everything you imagine.
  3. Perfect my handwriting, using the Spencer method, essentially a form of meditation for me. I got back to this in August, but also added a habit: writing a haiku a day for a stretch of days.
  4. Read more women and trans writers of color, queer writers, many more voices. I’m still reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the second book in In Search of Lost Time (affiliate links to IndieBound).
  5. Memorize two poems I have loved for years, which is way harder than you’d think. They are Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness” and Jane Hirshfield’s “Rebus.” I remain behind on this.
  6. Have a holiday fund that includes money to give to charity and to have a New Year’s Day party in 2020. Will focus on this in October.
  7. Prepare a financial advice document for my son that is relevant to his needs and puts him on a smart path to not fuck up like his mama did. Am really behind on this.
  8. Articulate and keep alive the ideas of one day dedicating time to teaching ESL, teaching in prisons, teaching to people who are caregivers, teaching to people without homes, studying herbal medicine, practicing mindfulness, and perhaps learning Reiki at last. Still thinking about it.
  9. Have a garden plan and budget for spring 2020. I have no plan, but I did blow $136 on a few perennials for this fall. I just couldn’t wait any longer, and it was money well spent. My shaggy garden looks nicer. I got a bee balm, a funny plant called an eckibeckia, (sort of a Labridoodle of plants)and a couple other cool things for the pollinators.
  10. Increase our saving rate to 10% by the end of the year (with a goal of 20% by the end of 2020). Our saving rate went down to less than 4% this summer, but I just increased my 401(k) contribution to 5% of my salary, leaving just 5% or so to go. If had just a little more wiggle room, we’d factor in my husband’s stipend and aim for 10 % overall. While I’m not sure that can happen this year, I’m applying the 1% principle to inch up our savings rate and I hope to meet this goal early next year.
  11. Make sure that every single debt goes down each month, if only by a dollar. inching downward again. I expect more dramatic gains in October when we’re caught up.
  12. Get my credit card debt usage to 50% (it was 66% on January 1). I’m at 49%, so just barely making this goal, with concern that I don’t take a turn for the worse.
  13. In hard numbers, pay down a total of $12,000 in all debt; $6,000 in consumer debt. This is a funky goal now because of the combined $48,000 or so in roof and parent college loan debt. I’ll be happy if we only have the car loan as consumer debt by the end of the year, and if we’ve chipped away at the high of our debt of about $498,000 right now.
  14. Abolish two particularly annoying debts of $500 and $700 each. Almost there. Still $300 to go.
  15. Save a total of $3,000 in emergency funds this year. Slowly climbing back uphill on this. We used that cushion this summer, and now have about $300 in various small accounts.
  16. Get a raise at work. I won’t be reporting further on this.
  17. Secure a roof and school loans. Done.
  18. Incur no more credit card debt this summer, which is our most difficult time. FAIL.
  19. Initiate contributions to my company’s HSA plan by September. Holding space for this.

I’ll tell you what else is a YUGE gain this month: my sanity. At the worst of our financial panic last fall, when I was planning to launch this blog, my mind ran a constant Habitrail of worry and math-making. I’d wake up at 4 am doing subtraction. No kidding. Now, again, my head is about half full of thoughts that are my own, with no price tag and no due date: I’m bringing spices and oils and fresh food to life, laughing with my family. Or I’m at my desk hastily penning a haiku before going off to the office. Or at the ocean at Balbec, watching young people in tennis clothes stroll by, or on a train hurtling North by night from a small town in the South, carrying a young man’s raw hopes and fears for the future, as he and I travel through the history and presence of human aspiration.

I’m in my life again, in other words. And that, as the credit card commercials say, is priceless.

Say, drop me a line and tell me how your plans are going. I’d love to hear your goals. Keep going — and don’t lose your nerve!

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I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

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