This Aha! Moment Can Save Your Life

Or, how a leaky roof is leading me to financial security

Photo of colorful flying umbrellas by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

News Flash: We Are Not Okay

There were a shit-ton of life-happens events in our way these last several years. In ancient history, there was the widowhood that I never really recovered from, followed over the years by divorce and remarriage (yes, all three are costly). There’d been catastrophic medical bills that hit us nearly every year since 2012 (medical bills are a significant cause of American bankruptcy), and my decision to work independently for 20 years without being the world’s best saver has also had an impact (I went back to an office job in 2017). My husband’s undaunted quest to finally get his PhD as a (now) full-time grad student means we have about a salary and a half to work with (he gets a teaching stipend). Oh, and we are putting my son through college. The savings we curated for decades ran out in sophomore year.

What. The Fuck.

Flashback to September, when I happened to look up at our ceiling and see the leak.

How Fucked Is Our Debt? I Am So Glad You Asked.

The big, round, shiny number is $455,000.

But Guess What? January Is Already Better than September. Here’s How You Can Dig Out, Too.

Our all-time high of debt was actually six years ago. Since then, my husband and I have managed to reduce our debt by nearly $100,000, some of it by downsizing from an expensive location in the city to a less expensive place in the burbs in 2015. Perhaps more significantly, between September and now, we’ve reduced our debt by about $4,000 without (yet) making appreciably more substantial payments than before.

Yes, you have to budget.

Trust me, I have avoided this step for the longest time. On October 1, I took a deep breath and did something that, like quitting smoking, I have tried repeatedly but never gotten to work: I began to track every penny we spend.

Save first.

When I really, truly, looked at how fucked our credit card debt is again, after having reduced it to nearly nothing three years ago, I had to admit a hard truth: we’ve done okay on long-term savings, but our lack of short-term has hurt us repeatedly. I bought into the “wisdom” that you should pay down debt before saving, which is bullshit for people like you and me. If anything, save first. Dave Ramsey says so!

Take baby steps, and don’t peer too far down the well.

When I did an honest reckoning, I understood that some of this debt will be with us for five to seven years, and a few debts are likely to die with us (cough cough, student loans literally do, cough cough). If I kept that fact uppermost in mind, I’d probably be too discouraged to continue. Instead, I set reasonable goals and celebrate small victories. I try to set goals in terms of behavior changes, which I can control, at least as often as outcomes, which I can only partly control. Two of my goals, for example, are to increase my savings rate (behavior) and to get our credit card use down from 66 percent to 50 percent this year (outcome, and it was 79 percent when we started, so I’m getting there).

Don’t be a dick to yourself.

Look, if you want to buy a case of Diet Coke at the store every other week to take to work instead of using the vending machine, go ahead and do it. In fact, get crazy and buy the cans instead of the bottled, even though the latter is way cheaper and this makes you a Very Bad Person Who Is Poisoning the Universe With Aluminum (you can revisit this decision in a few months when your nerve is up). Make no mistake: going cold turkey off credit cards and changing your spending and saving habits is really really hard. Do what you can to make the transition as pleasant as possible.

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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