July 2019 Check-In: We Are Still Not Okay

The summer did us in, but we vow to rally this fall.

Empty tank. By Kristel Rae Barton at PublicDomainPictures.

Let’s start with some wins.

  • In July, my income from this blog went up by nearly 100% over last month. I made $5.95 from my readers, and I’m thrilled about it. Not even being ironic. If I can pick up nearly ten bucks in two months when I barely posted, then I think things will just get better as we go along. I’m excited, and grateful to Medium for this platform.
  • My survey-taking and microtask work earned me $23 in July. I covered my coffee habit! (Want to become a microtasker? Check out my post here.)
  • I discovered Bookscouter, and just put together an order of books with one of the sellers they list, which will net me about $16, postage paid. If you haven’t looked into book buy-backs, I encourage you to do so, especially at this time of year with school starting. (note: the link above is an affiliate link; costs you nothing but benefits me if you click. I never affiliate with products I have not tried and approve of).
  • We found money! A small TIAA-CREF retirement fund that my husband had lost track of has turned out to be worth three times what we thought.

That retirement fund is modest indeed, and no one’s going to make the mortgage with my side income just yet, but money is a mental game, not just a bottom line. We really needed some wins to feel encouraged this month.

So much for the good stuff.

Debbie Downer was very much with us this month.

During the slump in July, with one-third less income and $48,000 in new loans to pay down, we…

  • stopped budgeting. I know, I know! I promise we will start it up again this fall. Thing is, I started out trying to, but we basically do not have the money for everything in our regular budget, so it was a futile and depressing exercise. I continued to track spending, although that, too, proved challenging.
  • kept saving. I did stop my $25/month contribution to my IRA, and we used up a lot of our emergency savings, but we continue to build it back, and I have automated deductions at work for my 401(k)
  • carefully reintroduced credit cards and started to use reward points to get through the summer. Right up through July, we were able to keep up with credit card payments completely— by which I mean, we obsessively kept them at zero balances. This month, I learned that the only balance you actually have to pay each month to avoid interest is last month’s balance, called your statement balance and, uh, listed on your statement. This month we’ll be struggling: accumulated expenses and an unexpected trip have tipped us back into the thousands of dollars on our cards.
  • took on a $1,200 balance transfer at .99% until December 2020. I am super not-thrilled about getting back into the churn with this, but my husband needs a $400 parking permit for school now, and pairing it with a payment on our highest statement balance for another card seemed the wisest choice, IF — -and this is a big, agonizing if — I can stay disciplined and focused and pay the sucker down on time.

I am exceedingly nervous now that I’ve brought back two of the three “money-saving” practices that caused me financial problems in the past. I’m not at all sure how this will go. We may have to go back to doing everything with cash-only this fall, if we can’t rein in the consumer debt as soon as J. is getting paid again.

The numbers.

Total debt: $497,217, pretty much as predicted in June.

Credit card & consumer debt, including our car loan: $8,701. This won’t be any better at the end of August or even at the end of September. We have two hard months ahead.

Net worth: $88,368. Significantly down. Yet, we are better off than 16.6 million Americans as I write this. That’s not right.

Budget and Life Goals: The Monthly Reckoning

I have some victories here, but I have to tell you the summer has me beat, for the most part.

  1. Increase our saving rate to 10% by the end of the year (with a goal of 20% by the end of 2020). We’re nowhere close, is the short answer. Our savings still hovers around 3%. Some budget advocates will tell you to count debt reduction as savings. That’s a nice thought, but I am more of a purist. I’d like to get to 5% by year’s end, of actual savings.
  2. Make sure that every single debt goes down each month, if only by a dollar. Um…not happening with the credit cards at the moment. Everything else is stellar.
  3. Get my credit card debt usage to 50% (it was 66% on January 1). I’m at 43%, but only because the newest YUGE loan of $30,000 for my son’s college hasn’t yet made it to the credit bureaus. The best thing I have going for me is that my lower-interest loans — for my home, HELOC, car, and student loan — pay down rapidly because so much of each payment is principal. Steady on. I may not make 50% by December, but I’m hopeful.
  4. In hard numbers, pay down a total of $12,000 in all debt; $6,000 in consumer debt. We lost every inch of traction and restarted the clock when we refinanced our credit card debt and took on two new loans. There is currently nothing to report here but loss. This late in the year, I can predict that we will not make this ambitious goal, nor could we ever have. My balance sheet shows that we’ve actually paid something like $9,000 down on the house, the car, and student loan since January, but these are a drop in the bucket compared with the continuing mudslide of “good” debt we took on the house and A.’s education. Our triumph in 2019 will be that we restructured and qualified for more debt. Judged by that metric, we have reduced our consumer debt by three times our goal: $19,000 is accounted for now in lower-interest, better-performing loans.
  5. Abolish two particularly annoying debts of $500 and $700 each. Almost there. $300 to go.
  6. Save a total of $3,000 in emergency funds this year. We got very, very close before the summer. I am curious to know how close we can get to recovering this loss by the end of the year.
  7. Get a raise at work. I won’t be reporting further on this.
  8. Secure a roof and school loans. This was a victory. We did it. But it’s bittersweet. That’s a ton more red on the balance sheet because of it.
  9. Incur no more credit card debt this summer, which is our most difficult time. Nope, we’re sinking. I have hope we can recover by the end of the year.
  10. Be more analog each day, and enjoy more hands-on pursuits like reading offline, playing cards and board games, journaling, and coloring. Doing better!
  11. 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). Not nearly enough.
  12. Perfect my handwriting, using the Spencer method, essentially a form of meditation for me. Nope, not happening.
  13. Read more women and trans writers of color, starting with Claudia Rankine’s clear-sighted, wrenching Citizen (affiliate link to IndieBound). I’m still reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and need to step it up. In terms of reading generally (and, as it happens, reading of a queer, Jewish writer) I have finished Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first book in In Search of Lost Time. I am now moving on to the next volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. (affiliate links to IndieBound)
  14. 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.
  15. 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 the fall.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. Have a garden plan and budget for spring 2020. Haven’t started.
  19. Initiate contributions to my company’s HSA plan by September. Holding space for this.

I’ve been reading Ramit Sethi off and on, and he asks readers to define their “rich life.” The things I keep thinking of seem pathetically low-hanging fruit, like, not to be a burden to my son, and to have the money to buy things to pot plants and create a garden. I’m not dreaming of travel or gourmet experiences or jewels or hot cars. Just to be able to keep my home in repair, leave my son something, plant a few flowers. I am sad that we just really can’t do these things yet. I’m aware, though, that we have way more privilege going into this than many, many people. I’m hoping to clear time and mental space to write about that more and not always focus on myself. Maybe that’s part of a rich life.

I’m hoping for better times soon. For all of us.

Say, drop me a line and tell me how your plans for the new year 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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