Let’s face it: Now is no time to go about firming your resolve. If you are reading this and you are not under constant daily stress, woo-hoo for you, but chances are you’re one of us: FUBAR seven ways from Sunday, unsure who you are anymore, caught up in a daily routine that is most notable for its banality within the bizarre continuation of a global pandemic and the near-miss of a full-blown Constitutional crisis in the US that now gives way to hopeful signs amid a slow, simmering brew of grievance, mistrust, and the collective narcissistic head trips of a whole lotta white people.
You might have kids underfoot as you read this, or older parents noisily rearranging your kitchen in the next room (or, like me, an adult son who is sleeping 16 hours a day and making candles to cope with his worries about a dystopian future).
You might be self-soothing with endless Bernie Mittens memes. I know I am.
Maybe you have no pants on during your workday, yet look like a LOFT model from the waist up. Or maybe you didn’t even nail the above-the-waist look.
Maybe your sartorial choices were reinvigorated during Inauguration Week. Honestly, you’d have to have no pulse to disengage from the Coat Parade.
Maybe you’re increasing your meds or putting off the tele-appointment with your doctor. Maybe you’re still making sourdough or reading Proust, or maybe you’ve discovered that cheese doodles and doomscrolling are your sentimental education. Maybe you finally got vaccinated. More likely, you are still uninoculated, and worried about the next maskless creep to come screaming in your face.
Me, I’ve been mainlining Nutella since March and waiting for change.
This Thing Called a Future
So when New Year’s Day rolled around, guess what? I had nothing. I was so out of practice thinking about the future that I had no resolution whatsoever, let alone resolutions, plural.
What I had were needs. Desperate needs.
- I need to go outside more, and get exercise.
- I need to focus my creativity on some longstanding writing projects I’ve never been able to get off the ground or complete.
- Related to both of these, I desperately need to focus.
- Oh, and yeah: I still need to get out of debt.
I couldn’t handle a long laundry list of resolutions, but a breezy one- or two-off of aspirations wasn’t going to cut it, either. I needed something in the middle: two or three manageable things that would influence my bottom line by the end of the year. Actions.
Two or three manageable things that would influence my bottom line by the end of the year. Actions.
So here’s what I did. I gave thought to the habits that will help me get where I want to go this year. I applied plenty of compassion and realistic boundaries, and here is what I came up with:
Wear shoes to work every day. I’m one of the lucky people who only needs to get out of bed and sit down to a laptop to start my day. The downside is that I’ve gotten sloppy, just shy of pajama bottoms but also barefoot most of the time (Fun fact: Did you know that at-home foot injuries have gone up during COVID-19? Put on your fluffies).
I need to walk every day, and I need a break to clear my head, so that means a logical time would be to take a walk at noon. Yet day after day, I find myself procrastinating for the craziest range of reasons, till I realized one of the most consistent excuses is not having my shoes on. As weird as it sounds, since I started putting on my shoes every day, the likelihood of me taking a walk at noon has increased by at least 50%.
Write morning pages. I am more than a little embarrassed to admit what a snob I am: I have actively avoided reading or using Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for decades because I thought I was too good for it.
Well, guess what?
I am using Cameron’s core suggestion now, trying to write a full three pages in longhand each morning. It helps me stay off my phone first thing in the morning. It has helped me generate new material for my long-overdue projects. Some days, especially around January 6, it boosted my mood and gave me hope. On those pages I can vent, dream, kvetch, wrestle, and work stuff out.
Rein in my record keeping. My spreadsheets and tracking had gotten completely out of hand over the past decade. Among other things, I was keeping ten years’ worth of figures on all of my debts and assets in one spreadsheet, then diversifying it to different views of the same information, linking cells to try to get automation going, messing them up sometimes when my parameters changed. With account closings, transfers to new accounts, and the like, the time it took to update things was getting silly.
While I do recommend long-term record-keeping— I learned a lot these past ten years — there comes a time to archive and move on. For me, that time is now.
The new, cleaner workbook I have created slims the metrics way down. I only track net worth and the difference between credit card debt and other debt, not trying to get a sense of every aspect of my financial behavior over the year. While that may change again one day, this is the system I need now.
My workbook also incorporates my budget in another tab, so I can see it all in one document. I’m still keeping more than one budget — a master in a spreadsheet and a running tally in YNAB that is getting a little out of plumb in ways I can’t figure out — so I think I will simplify further this year.
In fact, it’s time for me to make my own revisit to my own old post about the several ways to budget. I’d like to evolve my budget style this year from counting every penny — which I think is a must when your budget is tight — to a Paula Pant No-Budget approach that emphasizes saving first and amore relaxed approach after you hit that target (a better system when you have a little play in your daily cash flow, which we finally have after 20+ years).
I’d like to evolve my budget style from counting every penny
I will confess, I do have a few aspirations for the year.
- Be healthier than when I started.
- Retire the medical debt from 2017, which is finally under $1,000 now.
- Have fewer specific debts (all those little pots to piss in).
Why I Won’t Lower My Debt in 2021
I’d love to add “lower my debt” to that list. But in 2021, that ain’t happening.
Here’s why: we have to borrow for my son’s education for one. more. year.
We will nearly wipe out our net worth before it’s over, and then begins the slow crawl back to solvency — with me a year away from 60 at that point, and my husband not far behind. My son already has told us he wants to go to grad school, and at this moment, I don’t think we can help. If he does it sooner rather than later, he will go into grad school with more than $20,000 in debt already. Of his own. Unless —
You can bet that I am watching closely to see whether Senators Warren and Schumer’s call to President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every debtor will go forward. While most coverage of this option has rightly focused on the huge burden on people under 40, especially people my son’s age ,the Senators’ recent op-ed drills down on the silent killer that student loan debt is for people over 50 in America, many of us carrying our own debt and some of our children’s through parent loans:
- More than 37% percent of people over 50 are in default on their student loans.
- More than 70% of garnished Social Security payments are for outstanding student loans.
- The collective debt people over 50 in the US carried for student loans was $47 billion in 2004. Today, it’s $289.5 billion.
An Executive Order for loan forgiveness of up to $50,000 per qualified taxpayer could mean debt relief in six figures for me and my family, and significant relief for many of you. I love that there is no apparent age cap on their proposal. They really see us.
And remind the haters: the proposal is not a blank check. I can’t think of an institution in America, save perhaps community colleges (bless them), for which $50,000 is adequate to cover an education anymore. In my family, enacting this proposal would only cancel my remaining debt of about $23,000, the parent loan of $30,000 I took out for my son’s education, the $20,000+ of my son’s current debt, and only one-fifth of my husband’s huge debt. We’ll still be paying off loans for decades, but it will be scaled to what we can manage, and we can save better for retirement and make large purchases and deferred house repairs that stimulate the economy.
Anyway, I’ve said enough about that for now.
Invest in Your Habits, Invest in Yourself
I’m not saying “don’t have goals at all,” but rather, invest in the habits, the things you’ll do, rather than the things you want. That’s all the more important this year, when all of us are collectively trying to cope with an ongoing crisis even as we try to heal from crises just past.
While I know that I want the things I aspire to, they’re not the measuring sticks against which I will measure my success at the end of the year. I will ask myself, not what I got, but what I did. By which I mean, for myself and my family, to the best of my ability, given *gestures at everything.*
I will ask myself, not what I got, but what I did.
It all starts with a habit mindset, rather than a goals obsession. It is a kindness to yourself — and a marvelous way to focus — to say, “I will do this thing that’s not so hard each day,” instead of “I will scale Mountain X with the might of a thousand warriors.” Chances are, the little habits will give you what you need to scale mountaintops, just a little at a time.
More to the point, what they will surely give you is better daily habits. And since no time actually exists except now, maybe that’s the best way to live. So go get some new habits, and don’t lose your nerve.
The Traumatized Budget has a newsletter! Want a monthly round-up of tips, tricks, and encouragement to get a grip on your money? Subscribe here.