(But what, exactly, did we make?)

Neon sign: Change. Ross Findon for Unsplash

I’m not too proud to admit that I didn’t really realize this is also the end of a decade until about two days before the new year.

Yes, I had the whole year to get that, and I still didn’t catch on till now. It’s kind of a theme for the 2010s and me.

(I know a lot of you think it’s not really the end till December 31, and the beginning of the 20s will be next year. But I don’t have that kind of time, you know? Anyway, I actually think it’s both, and argued strenuously with my husband that each zero-ending year is a weird hinge between past and present. He stuck to the facts (“There was no Year Zero”), while I went characteristically metaphysical on his ass.

In the end, we decided to agree. (Actually, our resolution was even weirder. He saw my meta and took it to wibbly wobbly timey wimey, pointing out that every single year starts a new decade.

So. When you think about it.

Don’t think too hard.

Since I’m covering a decade with this post, it’s going to be TL;DR, so feel free to jump around.

The 10s: A Decade of WTF

Out in the world, 2010 was a year of recovery for a lot of us, after the Great Recession packed its wallop, a whole bunch of bankers responsible for it failed spectacularly to go to jail for the investment practices that led to it, although further down the food chain, the mess of suits over foreclosure frauds still simmers.

“…as financial institutions entered the market to lend money to homeowners and became the servicers of those loans, they were also able to create new markets for securities (such as an MBS or CDO), and profited at every step of the process by collecting fees for each transaction.” — What Really Caused the Recession? Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California Berkeley

It was also the watermark year when the growth of student loan debt began to consistently outpace mortgage loans and car loans.

Student loan debt has been on a steady, steep rise since at least 2003.: Peter G. Peterson Foundation

Watch how the little band represented by student loan debt lengthens in this chart below, which tracks consumer debt in the United States. At $13.5 trillion, it has now surpassed even the spike in 2008 and 2009 when so many of us were out of work or kicked out of our homes.

Tyler Durden, ZeroHedge

As it happens, April 2010 is when I decided to Fight the Power and beat my debt, just when the Power had pulled the rug out from under all our feet, and beating debt began to be a real level-up in play. 2010 is also the year I really began to reckon with my own student loan debt, acquired late in life and fortunately at the low interest rates that are now a thing of the past, when I decided an MFA from a private university would be a really, really neat idea for a single mom.

What prompted me to keep track of my finances was a disastrous tax mistake I sorta don’t regret. It’s a long story, but the gist is that I inherited money in 2009 without understanding the tax consequences, blew a wad of cash on tickets to Europe for my 11-year-old son and myself, and then the tax man came knocking with some bad news.

If I’d been wise to the tax thing at the beginning, we never would have gone to Europe. So, I am a little glad I was dumb at the time.

I’m not a whole lot smarter now, but at least I have been keeping spreadsheets for 10 years, and I also kept an earlier blog about my money until 2015. So I know some things. For example, I was quietly one of the first PF bloggers to question home ownership as a gospel truth.

What We Have L(earned)

What I can say about the last 9 years:

  • Depending on how you look at things, our net worth is moderately better, or in the toilet. If you do not count my husband’s student loan, which is a federal loan and thus solely his responsibility and dischargeable upon his death (yes, I’m morbid, Happy New Year, and don’t you ever flip your student loans from federal financing to private), our net worth has increased, even for all the serious ups and downs in the past decade (doomed relationships, sudden deaths, the hassles of being a working and underemployed single mom, serious medical challenges in my family, new student loan debt for my son, and downsizing to a house that is worth far less than our old house). After subtracting most of our debts (except that pesky big loan), we’re worth about $35,000 more than we were ten years ago. This is a pyrrhic victory: At age 56, now married when I was single, and with ten years of chances to save, I really should have more to show for myself. But it’s a positive number, and I’ll take it. Now, if instead you factor in my husband’s loan, which we must start paying as soon as he’s out of school again, and which realistically we will have to devote all or most of one salary to for a while, well…we’re kinda fucked. Tra la la.
  • Our gross assets are pretty stable. Again, we won’t win any prizes for brilliant investing, but considering that I siphoned funds from my IRA in 2015 and 2016 out of desperation, the fact that we do have a (barely adequate) nest egg for retirement and a nice home with a low mortgage is very happy-making. We fixed the roof, too.
  • I have slashed my student loan debt in half. YAY ME. Also, see above: it’s all federal, so if I croak tomorrow, that’s $24K my husband and kid won’t have to worry about. Take that, Betsy DeVos!
  • I have $64,000 less in mortgage debt (I also have a less valuable house, but that’s another story for another bullet list).
  • I have $5,000 less in car loan debt than I did in 2010.
  • I started the decade with over $2,000 in medical debt, and I’m ending it with over $2,000 in medical debt. Same shit, different disease. It’s almost always interest free, so there is that. Yet if anything does us in during the next decade, it will either be the student loan burden for three people, or this. In fact, you might say it’s already doing us in, because for 10 years I have never had a month without a medical payment of some kind, either for me or for my son; that’s untold thousands of dollars that I and 78,999,999 other Americans can’t save.
  • My consumer debt (credit cards only, for the purpose of this count, although I usually include my car loan in my regular counts) has been all over the map and back this decade. The worst year was July 2015, when we had more than $50,000 in consumer debt. I’m sad to say that April 2010 was one of the best years for consumer debt, with only about $8,000 on credit cards. We currently have more than $14,000 in consumer debt, the overwhelming majority of it in low- or no-interest offers. A considerable portion of that is hidden medical debt, including around $2,000 for our pets. For some reason, 2019 was a very fucked-up year in pet health for us. If you want to be really stringent, you’d add the $24,000 of remaining old debt we parked in a HELOC last year, bringing the full weight of consumer debt to $38,000.

(Jessica Helen Christ on a rice cake, that’s enough. I can’t look down that barrel for too long.)

The Decade in Good and Bad Decisions

  • I’m really proud of my old blog, Cheap Bohemian, which gave me my Twitter handle and taught me a lot about money, about myself, and about friendships. It ran for five years, and it honestly evolved (or devolved) into less of a frugality and finance blog and more of a blog just documenting life and love. I need to go repair a lot of broken links, and I will never get over the loss of an adorable third-party app that incentivized saving called PiggyMojo (ever use it? It was great). All in all, it was an excellent experience.
  • In 2008, my then-partner and I ended a relationship that was not serving either one of us well. We limped along in a twilight zone of sorta-dating for another year, but it was really over. I was not prepared for the way it would change my financial resilience, even though I thought I was.
  • In 2012, I married a man who’d been my best friend for a few years. Financially, the decision has had its ups and downs, but in this decade we will see our tenth anniversary and beyond. For me, who was widowed suddenly in 2000 and had a promising second commitment go south by 2008, that knowledge that we can make Year 10 — a decade! — is a sweet thing.
  • Also in 2012, someone close to me became chronically ill and it has impacted our finances annually. I myself have a chronic condition, which thankfully was in remission except in 2016 (Thanks, Trump), so it’s double trouble.
  • I refinanced my house four times from 2000 to 2012. In retrospect, I wish I’d made more of a plan for at least a couple of those decisions, or avoided them altogether. The starting mortgage was tiny by today’s standards, and I might have been able to sell a paid-for home at a much higher value when we moved in 2015, thereby substantially funding my son’s college or creating a solid fund for repairs to our current house.
  • I should have tried to save double what I did, monthly, in order to fund college for my son.
  • I should never have started to use balance transfers when I did, without the understanding that I now have. I am convinced that of all the mistakes I made in the ’10s, this is probably the most damaging in the longer term.
  • Grief is a helluva factor in so many money problems, yet as a culture we simply refuse to own it. Don’t even get me started on what happens when an honest person tries to address both the practical consequences and the complications grief and rage from living with inequity and racism — hoo boy, white people do not want to talk about THAT, and on a day to day basis, almost all people have a tough time examining how even individual, personal grief poisons our finances and our ability to get traction. So, I wish I’d been a little more tolerant and patient with my bad decisions during the last decade, understanding that the grief of even 10 years before that was still influencing me. I wish I’d shed the shame and used the energy sooner to connect with others and improve on my own terms. I am working on that now. I am proud of the fact that, although this is not precisely a personal finance win for me, I spent this decade re-educating myself to think in less racist ways, to try to be more actively anti-racist; the result is that I think my perspectives on money are sounder and more real.

Now before the “boot-strap bullies” get all up in arms with other stories of immigrant communities that found a way to get ahead in this country despite challenges, let me say this. No other group of people experienced what African Americans have on American soil. The only group that comes close are the Native Americans who also deserve their fair share of respect, support and/or reparations for what they’ve endured. “The Racial Wealth Gap: How Did We Get Here?” Rich and Regular.

2019 Was a Year That Was

In 2018, a tiny roof leak led to a big epiphany: I was not okay, financially speaking. I had all the credit America can dish out to a middle-class white lady with better-than-dismal career prospects. I had a home, a loving spouse, a great kid, and food in the fridge.

What I didn’t have was security against emergencies, freedom to choose my life, or self-respect. I set about to make a change.

As I did, I had to make peace with a framework for change that is radically different from the one I sought: It’s a concept I call Mega-Debt, and I hope to address it more in the coming year. The fact is that many of us have debts that won’t clear quickly even with all the side hustles, gig work, excellent credit, or passive income we can muster. What we need, instead of advice for quick fixes, is examples, companionship, and strategies for coping with debt over 10, 15, 20, and more years. It’s that simple, and that hard.

Last year, all told, I cleared about $2,000 in additional income, for which I’m grateful, but it has not made much of a dent. While I am talking steps to address it, I’m also noticing the small wins that encourage me. Which brings me to…

Swoon, Part 1

I rejoined Twitter using my old handle, CheapBohemian, never expecting that I would find a real community there. Every single personal finance blogger I interact with is warm, real, and wonderful. I have to shout out to my probably #1 Girl Crush The $76K Project for being a mensch and early on (for reasons that mystify me still) promoting me to her deservedly large circle of colleagues and friends. There are so many people to shout out to. This is just a small sampling:

Find finance consultant Kassandra Dasent and other awesome voices interviewed in $76K’s series on Finances over 40.

The Financial Panther kind of blows my mind, and I will never attain his level of side gig suave, but a girl can dream.

Matt Lane is among the sanest, most thoughtful bloggers you could ask for when it comes to placing finances in the bigger context of politics, social movements, and work.

Peerless Money Mentor was one of the first bloggers I had an extended conversation with on twitter (yes! Those happen!) and I learned a lot from his decision to name his blog with an unapologetically superlative name although he’d started young and sometimes questions himself. Through him, I embraced my own voice a little more closely and vowed to fight off my own imposter syndrome. His blog is great; check it out.

K. Wright is another blogger who befriended me early; we compared notes about life in the sometimes-thankless sector of cause-oriented nonprofits. I’ve watched her take on a huge challenge to become a self-employed writer with kick-ass bylines in only the last year. Follow her!

Possibly the loopiest PF blogger I follow is Burrito Bowl Diaries. He presents a pretty damn near perfect amalgam of drawings with wit, a little bit like Math With Bad Drawings only with less math. Burrito Bowl doesn’t even stay on topic a lot of the time. My kind of guy.

Over here at Medium, I’ve fallen into a great community, too, led by Ben Le Fort and connecting me to Brian Thorp, Founder & CEO at Wealthtender, where I’m now contributing work. Medium is also where I have discovered Jennifer Taylor Chan, Esq and stayed in touch with Grokking Money along with a lot of other folks who make this work so much better (not forgetting readers like Tom Klitus, Tom Avila, and canny reader M.W., who is a private person and seems to have figured out how to make sure she’d not taggable.

Waaaaaay back in 2010, I followed a lot of the first wave of PF and FIRE blogs, but have to say that the one that stayed with me — and that I returned to last year when I resumed the journey —is Get Rich Slowly. It’s a comfort and a constant reminder that persistence can and will pay off.

Swoon Part 2

In November, this happened:

This WOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT SHOUTY

It’s not just that Neko Case followed me, y’all. It’s that my buddy Shaindel Beers — a beautiful human, poet, animal whisperer, and all around beautiful human who won’t mind a little redundancy — RECOMMENDED ME as a good PF blogger who doesn’t behave like a douche.

And I would not know Shaindel at all if it weren’t for an absolutely wild ride that began on Facebook in 2014 when a massive group movement called The Binders got started, which in turn led to a whole lot of splinter groups that were ultra-pinky-promise secret, and if I told you more, I’d have to fill your car with fedora-wearing MRAs.

And if you followed all of that, I pity you.

The takeaway is this: Neko Case thinks I’m okay. I can live to fight another day.

Stars and Fires

I don’t know how this whole section fits with my personal finance beat, and I don’t much care. I need to find a place to tell you that these days, we’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Next Generation. What started as a straightforward decision to catch up in preparation for the sublimely dark, imminent Picard, has now become a salve and a balm to our psyches in an upside-down time of Constitutional crisis, global wins for authoritarians, devastating fires and ecological collapse, and generalized xenophobic and racist bullshit bubbling up wherever we look.

I mean, I also have hope. Honest, I do. Especially when I watch Star Trek, or putter awkwardly in my garden, or feed the birds.

A Turn Toward the Nonlucrative

My old blog always did skew a bit toward the artistic and financially non-relevant, for example by posting poetry on Fridays. I feel that old pull now in this new blog. I know I will continue to post tips, tricks, and practical encouragements here and at Wealthtender in the new year. That said, I’d also like to open up the throttle a bit, and write at least an article or two about bigger issues that touch on but also go beyond our personal finance. I may even start posting poetry.

I leave you with this talk by Jenny Odell, whose book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was my last splurge of 2019, purchased at a little discount from Melville House. I hope it sets the tone for my year: It’s funny, wise, questioning, and altogether human. Those are qualities you can rarely make bank on, but you can always bank on them.

Need to start a budget? Check out these different approaches.

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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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