Know Your Spending Triggers

Y’all, it’s been a spendy month, and it’s not even over until Thursday.

I had a lot of expenses pop up this month. Some planned, some unplanned. And the biggest one is yet to come–on Wednesday, I have an appointment at the DMV to register my car and switch my license over. I’ve used the online calculator on the DMV website, and it’s going to cost a pretty penny. Or about 30,000 pretty pennies. 

I’ve gone over on my grocery budget for this month as well. Last month, I was officially diagnosed with IBS, so I’ve been trying to live that low-FODMAP life. I’m a vegetarian, and protein has always been a challenge for me; now, however, it’s even worse, because I’ve discovered my triggers include beans and soy (and eggs, which I already knew about). So, this month I’ve been investing in more yogurt and pea protein powders, protein bars, etc. than I usually would consume, in an effort to meet my protein goals while also not feeling like my stomach is going to explode (fun!). 

I also got my first haircut in about two years, which put me back about $108*. I got my hair cut at the mall–which was a BIG MISTAKE. BIG. HUGE.

Julia Roberts calling me out for getting my hair cut at the mall.

I’ve been needing a couple new sweaters for work, so I figured I’d just pop into a few places to see if I could find any I liked. Well, I needed socks too (I told myself), so I got a pair of those. And I don’t really go to the mall that much (or, really, ever), so I guess I might as well stop by Sephora while I was in the neighborhood and get a new eyebrow pencil. My eyeliner is a little low as well, so I might as well pick up some more of that too…

You can see where this is going. Please, learn from my mistakes.

If we want to save money, it’s important for us to know our own triggers. 

I have two main triggers that I’m aware of. The first is plunking down a large chunk of money at once, especially at the beginning of the day or month. The second is ‘being in the neighborhood.’

Let’s address the first one. If I spend a lot of money at once, it’s like a switch gets flipped in my brain. I’ve already been bad by spending more money than I had intended; so, at that point, I might as well be as bad as I want to. After spending $108 on a haircut, what’s the matter with throwing $12 at an eyebrow pencil? Additionally, knowing that I’m going to have a big expense at some point in the month–for example, a cool $350 for everything associated with getting my car registered–seems to throw me off the savings track as well. Instead of keeping me ‘good’ for the rest of the month, my brain has gone into ‘fuck it’ mode. ‘Well, fuck it, I’m already spending more than I want to this month, I might as well get X, Y, Z.’ 

Being ‘in the neighborhood’ is also an excuse that I’ve used to much recently. I go through stages of being a hermit locked up in my apartment spending all my time watching Netflix, followed by highly productive phases of going out on long hikes, visiting friends, getting errands done, etc. When I’m in my hermit mode (which is probably default mode, if I’m being totally honest), I’ll start my day or weekend with the best of intentions of hitting up the grocery store after work or finally going to get an oil change. However, by the time work is over or I’m done at the gym, I usually want to go home. I’ll put it off for another day, I say to myself, and weeks go by without me going anywhere unless I have an appointment. I’ve been needing a new eyebrow pencil for a couple weeks now; I haven’t purchased one because I would have to make a special trip for it. However, because I was in the neighborhood, I went ahead and bought one. But then I thought to myself, when will I really be at the mall again? I’m in the neighborhood, so I might as well pick up x, y, z…

Me vs. Sephora, on a bad day.

That’s when whims turn into losses. I’m definitely an advocate of combining errands to save time, money, and fuel, but not when those ‘errands’ turn into ‘grazing,’ a behavior which comes out in full force when I don’t make a list. 

Being in the neighborhood also causes problems in my more extroverted phases. If I’m out and about and find myself close to Trader Joe’s (which is across town from me), I’ll just pop in because I like their english muffins and cheap coffee. I did this the other day, when I was getting my smog check. However, I didn’t really need to buy groceries. I would have been perfectly fine if I had waited until my regular weekend shopping trip. But I was thinking of a mindset of time scarcity–well, I don’t know if I’ll have time to go later, so if I’m in the neighborhood, I can get these things now. Even if I didn’t need english muffins, because I still had half a loaf of bread at home. 

These are just a few examples of my spending triggers. By identifying my issues, I can be more mindful of them in the future. 

In the instance of my car, if I know I’m going to have to spend that much money on such a purchase, perhaps I should consider putting it in a separate account and saving up over time instead of taking it all at once. If I know I’m going to have to make one major purchase in a month, I should consider scheduling other major purchases for the next month. And if I find myself just in the neighborhood, I should reflect on my purchases–do I really need more english muffins, or am I just buying them because I’m feeling a false moment of scarcity provided by locational opportunity? This is where sticking with a list, and with set grocery shopping days, comes in handy.

So how bad was this month, really? Although I haven’t registered the car yet, according to my calculations, I should still technically be in the black for the month, and I’ve already made my trifecta payments. However, if I want to save more for my future, I need to get my spending (and my reactions to my triggers!) under control. 

What are your spending triggers, and how do you avoid them? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

* I just want to say that this was totally worth it, though. The lady who cut my hair did a lovely job, and I’m really glad I don’t have the hair of a neglected third-grader anymore. 

Reallocating, or, Changing Your Spending Plan Categories

When you first start reading about personal finance, there are several big pieces of advice that you’re given to follow: pay off high-interest consumer debt, create an emergency fund, and invest in your 401k (especially if it comes with an employer match–free money, baby!). 

But what do we do when our financial reality changes, and it seems that we’ve possibly met some of our goals already? How do we choose how to change our spending plans?

Much like this chimp, I have some thinking to do. Image from pexels.com.

I recently took a look at my spending plan to tweak my in-case-of-emergency expense totals. In the event that I am laid off, how much money would I need to support myself, and what expenses would be sacrificed first?

There are some obvious ones–goodbye, climbing gym membership and Netflix–but there are some other expenses that aren’t as straightforward. For example, my housing is tied to my job. The organization I work for owns the building in which I live, which means I get to live in a studio in a HCOL area that costs about 2/3 of what rent would be if I paid market rental rates. This works for me as long as I keep this job. However, if I get laid off or choose to leave this job, I have 30 days to move. 

My current emergency account is calculated based off of keeping this apartment. However, if I were laid off from my current job, I know I wouldn’t want to look for another one in this area. No offense to all of you who absolutely love the south bay, but I haven’t exactly fallen in love with the area–I miss the Rocky Mountains, and snow, and not having to take more than one flight to see my family. None of my family lives in the area, and I have no “deep connections” to anyone or anything here–as such, if I lose this job, I would just move somewhere cheaper. 

At my current rent, I have 4.93 months of expenses covered. But is my monthly rate even accurate, if I would move anyway? Do I need to calculate at my current rental rate, or could I calculate at a lower one? 

More importantly, what would I do if I lost my job right now?

That’s pretty easy. I already have a ticket to Germany for December; I’d probably max the 30 days in my apartment here while putting in as many job applications as possible, throw all our furniture into monthly storage, and then fly out to the east coast to hang out with my family* for a month before heading to Germany to see my partner. And if I didn’t have a job by then–either back to mom’s to help her prepare her house to sell, or maybe spend some time job hunting while traveling in some low-cost locations.

Long story short, I had several numbers in my head. The first was six months of living expenses at my current rate. The second, which was higher, was $15,000. Why 15k? It covers a little over six months of my expenses, is enough to buy a new-to-me car if my 2007 Yaris decides to finally call it quits, and, frankly, it just seems like a nice big round number. But is that excessive, and is there a better way in which I could be using my paychecks? I’m currently throwing all this into a high-yield savings account, but at 1.8%, it’s not exactly the ideal place to make my money work for me. Additionally, I’m already on track to max out my IRA contributions for the year. So where should it go?

The way I see it, I have three main choices: put this money toward student loans, retirement, or invest. 

Student loans seems like it should be the obvious choice. I have over $40k of student loan debt at an average interest rate of 6.3%. As many financial advice books say, paying off student loans early is a guaranteed return–I won’t be losing any money, and I’ll have to pay these off eventually. At the current interest rate, though, it’s hard to decide–is my rate low enough to make me comfortable paying through the full 10 years, because the gains I would make in my other accounts would be more? Or would the money I lose to interest eat up anything I would make elsewhere? 

But there’s the psychological effect too–this $42k is hanging over my head, dragging me down and making me feel like I am in a financial panic, even though I know, logically, that I am not. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m pretty high strung, so maybe the sense of relief that would come with removing this debt faster would be worth the potential losses in other accounts. 

Another place my money could go is into retirement. I currently have a 401(a) retirement account with my employer. I do not receive any matching; they just give me 10% of each paycheck into that account. As long as I stay for two years, all that money is mine. I do, however, have the option of also starting a 403(b) account. This would use pretax money, so not only would I save for retirement, I would also lower my taxable income (which would be great, because, as I’m discovering, CA has a shit-ton of taxes–the highest income tax in the nation, to be exact). I just have to be comfortable knowing I can’t touch this money for about 27 years–although retirement savings is a long game, is it not?

Finally, this money could go into a non-retirement investment account. I would love to FIRE or FIOR, and an account like this would let me withdraw money before 59.5 without any penalties. As such, I could invest and know that I could access this money at any time. However, with that freedom also comes responsibility–namely, things like tax-loss harvesting and capital gains tax and a bunch of other shit that I have no idea what it is. Even though I keep trying to read more books, I still have no idea what I’m doing. So the thought of investing in an account like this still seems very overwhelming. I’ll get to that point… one day. But right now, I have a lot of other things on my plate to deal with. 

Besides, I have my Roth IRA. And though I know I shouldn’t touch that money until 59.5, knowing that I can access the deposits I’ve put into it, in case of emergency, does make me feel a little better. 

So what should I do? Loans, retirement, or non-retirement investments? 

I’m going to open a 403(b) for half of my emergency fund money, and put the other half toward student loans. I guess I just want to have my cake and eat it, too.

Realistically, though–with my interest rate, it’s hard to make a confident call. And although paying off my student loans early would give me some sort of psychological comfort, I would also have to face the reality that I put my retirement savings on hold, so when my loans are paid off, I wouldn’t have anything left to show for it. 

I currently have $500 going toward my emergency fund–I still plan on funneling $100/month toward it, but $200 will now go to a 403(b) and the other $200 will go to my student loans. This $200, plus my 401(a) money, plus my IRA, puts me at retirement savings of about 29% of my take-home pay. And $200 added to my current student loan spending plan amount is about $750, or about 150% of my estimated required payment**. I’ll be able to make a payment and a half each month. 

The whole point of this post is realizing that your financial goals may change–and that’s ok! Checking all your accounts every day might not be the healthiest thing to do, but every once in a while, you should look at your accounts, look at your numbers, and ask yourself: What would I do if I got fired this instant? 

See how you answer that question, and adjust your financial goals accordingly. 

* I recognize that the ability to just say I would go hang out with my mom is definitely a privilege–a lot of people don’t have that as a viable option, either because they don’t have any living family, or they have a bad relationship with their family, or their family simply couldn’t help support them. However, not only would my mom be absolutely thrilled to have me back for a little bit, but she would also get a bunch of labor from me in regards to cleaning and fixing the garage, painting, helping put down new carpet, etc. etc. etc. 

** This payment is estimated because my loans are still in their grace period. I graduated in June but won’t be required to make payments until January. However, I’ve used some calculators to estimate what my payment will be and have already budgeted for it/started paying these loans back. Once January rolls around, I’ll know the actually payment amount, and maybe consider refinancing with a lower interest rate.

Ignoring Common Money-Saving Tips, or Things I’m Not Willing to Compromise On

A big part of the FI movement is streamlining your expenses and finding ways to increase your savings rate by either (a) increasing your income or (b) drastically reducing the amount of money you spend*. You should locate all the fat in your budget and trim it, leaving only the absolute essentials and squirreling away the rest into your FIRE fund. Common tips for doing this include things like cancelling monthly subscriptions, splitting rent costs, moving, getting side hustles, etc. Could I be incorporating some of those things into my life? Yes. Am I willing to consider some of those things? Honestly, no. 

Fancy gym memberships should be the first to go. BUT I JUST CAN’T QUIT YOU. Image from pexels.com.

Here are three things I’m not willing to compromise in order to achieve FI faster: 

Living without Roommates

Right now, I live alone, and I intend to keep it that way. I do have a serious romantic/life partner, but he is currently out of the country living his dreams, etc., which means he is not available to live with me and, erego, split my rent in half. Eventually, two will become one again, and rent will be easier to pay. As it is, I am living on my own.

I am not willing to compromise on that.

Here’s the thing: I have IBS. And what that means is that I use the bathroom a lot. Sometimes I have to use the bathroom very suddenly. And if someone strolls into the bathroom to take a nice long shower and get ready for their big night out, it can create a very uncomfortable situation for me. And while I (apparently) don’t mind explaining my embarrassing situations to strangers on the internet, I’m not looking to go into roommate interviews and having to reveal all the secrets of my bowels just to have people choose another roommate anyway because my bodily functions gross them out. 

Maybe if there was a situation in which I could have my own bathroom, I would consider getting a roommate. However, I also hate people and love quiet and cleanliness, so as far as keeping stress levels low, it’s not ideal. And while I live in a HCOL area, my current apartment is subsidized by my employer, which means I am essentially saving nearly the same amount as what I would save if I had a roommate, give or take a hundred bucks a month.

To me, the extra hundo is worth the peace of mind.

Once my lease runs out, and if I don’t get a renewal, I might be singing a different tune. But I have until June to worry about that. 

My Gym Membership

My gym membership is approximately $100/month, which I know may seem like an astronomically frivolous expense to a lot of people. However, it’s a specialty gym–a climbing gym. Climbing is one of my favorite hobbies, and other than hiking (which is difficult to fit in after a full eight to nine hour day at work), is pretty much the only real ‘active’ activity that I do to stay in shape. Gym memberships are often listed as one of the first things that should be axed when slimming down your budget (and, indeed, if I lost my job, would be something I would consider taking off), and it’s usually accompanied with such reasoning as (a) you can work out anywhere, (b) running is free, (c) there’s probably a park or somewhere with pull-up bars that you can just hop on and get in shape, and (d) you’re not really going that much anyway.

While those are all valid points, they don’t translate well to climbing. The only way to truly get better at climbing is to climb. There are definitely a lot of add-on and cross-training activities that can be accomplished–hang-boarding, pull-ups, etc.–but to be active in the sport, one needs to either have enough free time to go outdoors several times a week or keep their muscles moving indoors on plastic rocks. 

Additionally, I don’t really love basic workouts. I get bored. I have to watch a movie on the elliptical, because if I don’t, I just keep counting down every second until I can stop. And if I haven’t had fun climbing first, I’m not motivated to just go into the gym and hop on the treadmill or do my pull-ups. Climbing provides me with a mental puzzle to solve in order to successfully complete the exercise. And because I’m vain and want to solve all these puzzles**, I’ll try really hard to do it. 

What it boils down to is this:

  1. Climbing is fun
  2. I will not work out unless it is fun
  3. Erego, if I do not have the opportunity to do some climbing, I will probably not be very motivated to work out

One way to view the gym membership is as an investment–I’m making an investment in my current and future health, which will hopefully pay off by reducing the chance of any major medical issues that can be prevented by keeping myself in shape.***

Moving to a LCOL Area

Another way which is touted as a route to FIRE is moving to a LCOL area. However, this is not possible with all jobs–and my job in particular. I work in an education-adjacent not-for-profit sector, and jobs that pay as well as my current one are few and far between. If I moved to a low cost of living area, I would possibly be able to accomplish the same savings rate by percentage, but I would have far less money to save. My partner’s job is also relatively location-dependent–he’s studying language and cultural/refugee issues, and if he would like to actively pursue employment related to those fields, we’ll probably end up back in NY or DC (although he says he doesn’t mind going back to teaching, but once again, teachers make very different salaries in different places). If we moved before July 2021, I’d also lose my 10% retirement from my employer (it’s not even a match–they just give me 10% once I meet two years, back-dated to my first pay period. They just give it to me!!!!) and I’d have to pay back the $4,000 in moving money they reimbursed me. So, a move would currently cost us about $19,000 before we even shipped a single chair. 

I also have big expenses that I don’t want to compromise on–for example, my student loans. Once my grace period ends in January , I will have to start paying around $500/month to pay these off (although I’m making estimated monthly payments now). If I move to a LCOL area and make less money, I could change my repayment plan to be income-based, but I don’t want to spend 20 years paying off what could be paid off in nine. Additionally, while my debt amount feels high to me, it’s not high enough to grant me the freedom-after-twenty-years-of-payment perks that income-based repayment plans (IBRP) offer, nor am I confident that Public Service Loan Forgiveness will exist in ten years (nor do I want to limit myself to only working at nonprofits for a decade in the hope that one day the government will forgive my loans). 

Additionally, moving to a LCOL area generally involves some sort of compromise in regards to public transit and walkability. Right now, I can walk to work, to the grocery store, to a movie theater and mall (not that I go to the mall that often, but whatever), several bars and restaurants, etc. This means I use my car much less. Even though gas in California is currently over $4.00/gallon, I only spent $35 on it last month. I drive to the gym and to go hiking. That’s about it. And that’s something I would have to compromise if I moved. 

For now, staying put is worth it.  The benefits described above–the solace that comes with living alone, the health benefits (physical and mental!) gained from my gym membership, and the salary and perks of my current job–outweigh the potential benefits by compromising on these three issues. While I believe its important to plan for my future, I know that it shouldn’t come at a sacrifice to my current mental health.

How about you? Are there certain measures that may make you reach your FIRE number quicker, but would seriously compromise your quality of life? Feel free to share in the comments.

*A combination of both is usually advocated, but one is usually easier to accomplish than the other.

**And there’s definitely some self-esteem issues combined with wanting to smash the patriarchy and gender norms in here, etc. etc. etc. I AM SMART AND STRONG AND I CAN DO IT, SO GET OUT OF MY WAAAYYY!!!!
***Please note that this is a very able-bodied viewpoint. Not everyone has the ability to work-out, sign up for a gym, etc., and not going to the gym is a totally valid lifestyle, etc. etc. etc. For a much better/more eloquent exploration of the intersection between FIRE, personal finance, perceived health issues, and fat-shaming/fat-phobia, please view this excellent post on Owning the Stars titled ‘The FIRE Movement’s Fatphobia Problem.

I Met with a Financial Advisor

Image from pexels.com.

Last week I met with a financial advisor.

It was one of the benefits of my job. I work at a large organization that runs a number of “wellness” programs through the HR department. While I ignore a lot of them — house buying workshops, financing your child’s education, etc. etc. — I was intrigued by the one-on-one appointments with an independent financial consultant. So I signed up. Because, hey, it was free, and maybe I would learn something new!

I came prepared and sailed into the tiny conference room with my laptop filled with files and files of conspiracy-theorist level spreadsheets. We’re talking budgets, account totals, and lists of everything I have bought/spent for the last 18 months. As soon as I showed the advisor my screen, his eyes lit up with joy. “I’ve never had anyone come into the first meeting as prepared as you,” he said.

Which, honestly, makes we worry for my coworkers. But I digress.

Before getting really down and dirty with the numbers, he asked me a few background questions. What have I been doing with my finances? What are my goals? Am I married? Do I have student loans? Etc. etc. etc. After getting a handle on my situation, he asked me what my goals were. I said I had two main goals: (1) pay off my student loans and (2) be able to completely retire at 59.5, if I choose to.

One is a truth and one is a lie. 

Frankly, I would like to FIOR (be financially independent and optionally retire–in my case, semi-retire) by 50. Of course, that’s a lie too. I’d like to FIOR by 45. Saying it out loud makes me feel foolish, though, as if it is an impossible dream, and not wanting to have the dream squashed, I told him 59.5, when I can start taking money from my retirement accounts. I’m 32 right now, and thirteen years just doesn’t seem that doable, given my current HCOL area and student loan debt. But it’s there, in my heart (and no longer a secret, since I’m putting it in my blog, I guess). 

We looked at my student loans first. I have two big direct unsubsidized loans from the federal government. Each loan is approximately $20,000, and because I took them out in two different years, one has an interest rate of 6% and the other 6.6%. I’m currently in my grace period, so I don’t have an exact monthly payment amount yet, but I’ve calculated them to be a little less than $500 a month. Of course, like, a full $200 of that is just interest. He suggested refinancing, but here’s where my anxiety creeps in–keeping my federal loans comes with perks, such as hardship deferments and things like that, which I would lose if I refinanced. However, I plan on paying my loans off as quickly as possible anyway, so does deferment availability matter anyway? 

(I’m still looking into this. If I can find somewhere that will refinance me at like 3.5% or less and allows for early pay-offs, I might do it. But that’s for future S to figure out.)

Then, we looked at the amounts I was putting away for retirement and where. I have a traditional IRA, but was advised to switch to a Roth. This is something I have been thinking of for a while anyway, mainly since I learned that you can take out what you’ve put into a Roth* at any time, since it’s already been taxed. This is something that I have worried about–I know it’s sensible to put as much into retirement as possible, but there’s a nagging ‘what-if’ worry in the back of my mind that makes me hesitate. 

“What if my car blows up, and I have to spend my whole emergency fund, and then I get fired?”

“What if my mom’s house gets blown away in the next hurricane and she needs some liquid cash to get back on her feet?”

“What if I get some rare cancer not covered by my insurance and it costs ten million dollars?”

“What if Godzilla comes and smashes my apartment and I have nowhere to live?”

Knowing that this money isn’t necessarily 100% tied up until 59.5 does put me a bit more at ease. Even though I don’t plan on needing it until I am eligible to receive dividends, viewing it as a super catastrophic kablammo emergency fund that supplements my own, normal, less life-or-death emergency fund makes me feel better about putting so much of my cash into it. 

After retirement plans, we spoke briefly about other types of investing. He beamed at me, eyes twinkling. “I usually don’t even talk about this kind of thing in these consultations, but I think you can handle it,” he said, while reaching for an investment brochure. We talked about the different types of funds and asset diversification, and picked out a few things to try–some REITs, Index Funds, Emerging Market funds, etc. 

(I have a list of exact funds**, but this leads us to another issue–how to get my money to these funds. I’ve been trying to get some things set up through Fidelity and Vanguard, but both processes have been mildly frustrating, to say the least. Looks like I’ll have to actually call a human…) 

Overall, I enjoyed the experience, although he was a little pushy in emphasizing “unexpected surprises” like accidently having a kid (“My partner and I don’t plan on having any,” I said. “Well, you never know what nature has planned for you!” he replied. And I bit my tongue, saying to myself “That’s why birth control and termination options exist.” BUT THAT’S A WHOLE ‘NOTHER ISSUE.)

While I didn’t necessary learn anything new in the appointment (I’ve done a LOT of googling, reading financial blogs, etc.), I found it valuable in that it gave me some assurance that I’m already doing some things right. It clarified a few things about my own finances that I still found fuzzy, and it also gave me a little push to pursue some opportunities that I had been thinking about, but that my own risk-aversion (and generally change-resistant nature) had prevented me from already doing. 

All in all, it was pretty fun! I would say if you have the opportunity to take place in a meeting like this, do it. Even if you don’t necessarily learn anything that will make you change your financial goals and methods, it’s always nice to have a second (and hopefully, more experienced or knowledgable?) set of eyes go over your numbers and assure you that you won’t be eating cat food at seventy

* Contributions, not earnings

** I signed a paper that said he and/or the university and/or his company was not to be held legally responsible if I lost all my money, FYI

The Thing About Money, Part 4: Retirement, or, I don’t want to be old and poor

(This is the fourth post in a six-post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, one of the things that scares me about my current debt load/financial situation in general is not having enough money to retire on. 

This worry isn’t without warrant. According to this 2018 survey, 42% of Americans have “less than $10,000 saved” for retirement. 42%. So, pretty much half of us (assuming this excludes children–Why haven’t you opened an IRA yet, little Timmy?). This is especially true of millennials; 57% of us have less than $10,000 saved (GUESS WHO HAS TWO THUMBS AND IS IN THE CLUB? THIS GIRL!!!!). 14% don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Nothing. Zero. Nada. 

This is a problem.

As per the National Council on Aging, “over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.” A full third of senior households don’t have any money left over by the end of the month, and some have to go into debt just to meet their basic living expenses. And even if they get social security, on average, women get $4500 less a year because they paid less into the system (and this number is even worse for women of color). Many elderly people are working well into their seventies, but eventually, there comes a time when their bodies just can’t do it anymore. 

There’s a big joke about having to eat cat food into one’s retirement, but it seems like there are people who are actually out there doing it. Frankly, I don’t want to be one of those people. 

You bet your ass I will push Mittens right out of line to get to that Fancy Feast. Photo from pexels.com.

This is a multigenerational issue. In a previously-mentioned episode of Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby talks to her parents about their retirement plans. Her mom laughs and says “You’re my retirement plan.” She includes something along the lines of how they’ve invested so much in Gaby and pretty much that they expect her to help support her parents in their retirement. This is an incredible amount of stress to place on one’s child. And some parents live longer than we expect, which means we could be taking care of them after our own retirement*. 

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about my mom. She’s about to retire from the military, so she has a guaranteed paycheck and affordable medical care for the rest of her life. The knowledge that she’ll be taken care of takes a great weight off of me; she’s too proud to ever ask for help, but I would have given it to her, had she needed it. But she doesn’t. And I’m super grateful, because now I have the freedom to only worry about myself.

Unfortunately, the reverse of this situation is the reality for people as well. Many parents of adult children are having to delay or are not adequately saving for retirement because their children still need support, either with general expenses or, often, student loans. It’s completely understandable why someone would want to help their children, especially if they’re struggling; however, this seems like a good time to remind everyone of what they tell you on planes–put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. 

I don’t want this to be my future, for myself or my mother. 

Like my mother, I am also too proud to ask for help if I need it, unless I’m in an incredibly desperate situation. There was one–exactly one–situation when I had to call my step-dad for emergency support, and it still ranks as one of the most shameful moments of my life. After I graduated college, I was trying to support myself on the only job I could get at the time–minimum wage at a local bagel shop. Parking was notoriously hard in my neighborhood, so I often played roulette with spaces in random apartment buildings. One morning I walked to my car to find it booted. The cost to remove the boot? $200. 

I did not have $200.

So I cried. I called the number on the boot and cried on the phone with the company, cried when some random man showed up to take the boot off, cried when he ran my almost-maxed-out credit card, and cried on my way to work, wondering how I was going to pay rent the next week. After work, I did the unthinkable–

I called my step-dad and asked for help. 

And cried some more. And he, sweet man–full of remorse from years of alcoholism and still feeling like he needed to buy my love to make up for it–he transferred some money into my high school savings account so I could write a rent check without it bouncing and get a few groceries for the week. I felt like shit. I felt like the smallest, most pathetic, most useless human on the face of the earth. I felt manipulative for calling him, because I knew he would help me, because I was too embarrassed to talk to my own mother. 

I am still embarrassed when I think of this story. 

However, I tell this story to remind myself of why saving is so important. I don’t ever want to rely on anyone else again for my support. Additionally, I have no children to care for me and currently no intention to have any, nor, if I do, would I expect them to care for me. That’s not their job. As such, I need to make efforts now to ensure that my finances are ok later. 

I currently have a tiny bit of money stashed away for retirement. As in, like, less than $5000. Additionally, I worked overseas for a full three and a half years, so that’s three and a half years I didn’t pay into social security. I’m in my thirties, and even though retirement seems like it’s a long way away, I don’t think I’m going to make it into old age gracefully if I don’t drastically change things now. 

However, there is a part of me that wonders if it’s even worth the effort. Should I worry about “the market” when climate change is going to cause “Human Civilization to crumble” by the time 2050 rolls around (aka when I’m 63)? Should I instead be stockpiling clean water, bullets, and sunscreen? (I talked about this a bit in my first post, so I’m stopping my existential ramble… now.)

Assuming we are still alive in 2050 and not slaves to our computers or in a war against an army of machines, I will need some retirement savings. 

It’s not easy. Since starting my new job, I’ve budgeted a pretty good chunk–about $500/month–to go into an IRA. Even with the rest of my expenses and my student loan payments, I should be able to keep this up at least through June. But then I might get kicked out of my employer-owned housing, and that $500/month might have to be added to my rent just so I can find a place to live (three cheers for the south bay). 

I recently cancelled my cell phone insurance and photoshop monthly plan, in an effort to save some more money. I tell myself that if I keep playing with my spreadsheets and adjusting my numbers by five dollars here, ten dollars there, I will somehow feel like I am not going to end up old and destitute, only to have my body tossed in a pauper’s field with the gravel barely covering my bones, where on windy days the dirt blows away and you can see my skull (Oh Milat—why did you stare at the mayor?)

But this is why I need to start now. As the oft-quoted Einstein supposedly said, compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe. I have about thirty years to get this powerful force to work for, and not against, me. So, next week, let’s take a good hard look at my budget. 

* This may be behind a paywall. I’ll work on posting more sources that are open access, but your local library may have a subscription through which you can access this article.

The Thing About Money, Part 3: Student Loans, or, How debt scares the hell out of me

(This is the third post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money, Part I.)

I have $43,188.99 in student debt.

$40,328 is principal, and $2,860.99 (or 7%) is interest. The only reason the interest is so low is because I made a few payments here and there while still in school. On $20,500 worth of loans, I have an APR of 6.6%. On the other $19,828, I have an APR of 6%. 

This amount of debt makes me sick to my stomach. 

Counting each and every cent. Image from pexels.com.

In my 32 years of life on this earth, I have never personally had a negative net worth past $2,000. That was in consumer credit card debt I accumulated while struggling to find a post-college job that paid a living wage. I paid that amount off soon after I got a new job, and I’ve been in the positive ever since–until I started grad school. My current net worth is in the negative $20,000s. In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, “How is such a sum to be repaid?” 

(Of course, that was about an elopement. And I don’t have a handsome and conveniently rich Mr. Darcy to dispatch thousands of dollars to my aid.)

I’m not alone. Collectively, students in the United States owe a total of over $1.5 trillion in student loans. Per NerdWallet, the “average U.S. household with student debt owes $47,671.” Undergraduates finishing up in 2017 owe an average of $28,650 each. And this number can change depending on the field you go into–I owe over $40,000, and I am in a subset of education that is not known for paying well (as is the field in general). Medical students owe, on average, almost $200,000 a pop. According to this article from 2015, social work graduates can owe upwards of $60,000 in debt and expect starting salaries of only $41,000. These are all essential fields. Unfortunately, not all of these fields pay well. 

And all of us in these essential fields have a story. Here’s mine.: 

My student loan debt was just to pay for my master’s degree. I was very blessed in that I didn’t need to take out loans to fund my undergraduate education. My biological parents split when I was three, and my mom and stepdad divorced when I was sixteen or so. As such, my mom was the only parent on my FAFSA. 

With a combination of grants and scholarships, my mom as the sole income provider for our family, working several jobs through college, and the decision to turn down my NYU acceptance for a more affordable in-state school (a decision which I regret only a little bit, but mostly not at all), I was able to graduate in 2009 with my BA in English, during the Great Recession. I bounced around a few minor jobs after that (including working for minimum wage for the first time since high school) and finally landed in South Korea, where I spent three and a half years teaching English to high school and college students. 

I’m confident that making the decision to move overseas is the only thing that helped me have a stable career trajectory in my twenties. 

After coming back stateside in 2014, I moved to New York City, where I worked at an artisanal nut milk company, a terrible for-profit medical school, and an international exchange nonprofit (that had a heavy endowment but, instead of paying its workers a living wage, threw us two big parties a year with all the free booze we could drink and acted like saints for it). While there, I started volunteering somewhere and discovered a deep passion for a field I hadn’t previously given a real look at. I threw myself into the volunteer work, and I deeply enjoyed it–but to do it professionally, I needed a master’s. 

It was 100% my decision to go back to school. By choosing the program I did (in-person at a private school with no online component), I knew I would be paying a bit more, but I thought it would be worth it. I chose an in-person only program because the curriculum and experiences required made it seem like it had more credibility to it* (although–surprise!–they added an online program in my second year, which had been in the works for multiple years, and which the school didn’t think worth mentioning to us). And while I am one of the lucky ones from my program that was able to find a full time job after graduation (although it took a cross-country move), a number of my fellow graduates are still looking. 

Most of my courses were taught by busy adjuncts who were professionals in the field but not professional educators. Some were taught by adjuncts who weren’t contacted by the university until a week before classes were supposed to start. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t hold the degrees for the program for which they were teaching. Some were taught by adjuncts who didn’t bother to show up on the first day of class (which, on a quarter system, is 10% of class time), who cancelled because they were sick and didn’t make up the class (instead touting it as some sort of favor to us), or who let us out after an hour of what was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour class (two-and-a-half hours that we paid for, regardless of actual time spent). I mention this not to shit on adjuncts–after all, adjuncts make up the backbone of higher education and are often asked to teach under shitty conditions–but to show that, despite the astronomical tuition, I was not receiving the education that was advertised. Frankly, my education was not a priority for most of my instructors (although I can’t blame them–if you lack resources like time and money, you can only do so much). My university did not hold up their end of the bargain. As per the above linked article,

“If you are paying for a college education today, you are paying comparatively more money than previous generations have paid — nearly $70,000 in annual tuition, room and board, and fees at America’s most expensive schools — to be educated by a more poorly-resourced, poorly paid, and potentially poorly-motivated group of educators.”

– Dan Edmonds

So here I am, over $40,000 in debt, with a degree that some in my profession have started arguing only acts as a barrier to entry and shouldn’t even be a requirement for employment (although, for gainful employment, it most certainly still is). And for those of you who say I should have tried to get more scholarships and worked harder, please note that I applied for (and received) multiple scholarships as well as worked two to three jobs at any given time. During my last year, I worked full-time, went to school full-time, and worked a part-time job on top of that. And I still have negative $43,188.99 to show for it. 

The purpose of The Thing About Money series is for me to examine my relationship with money to understand why I have a hard time with it. In this instance, money is a heavy weight that is dragging me down with it. My student loans make me feel buried. That $43,188.99 plus future interest is getting in the way of my retirement (which we’ll talk about next week). It’s making me worry about ever saving up enough to put a downpayment on a house. It’s making me worry about how to pay off the loans and my rent next year (I live in a HCOL area for my job, and while thankfully this year’s rent is slightly subsidized, there’s no guarantee for next year). I have an emergency fund (once again, I feel the need to defend myself–I am a Good Poor!).

Is this debt the result of choices I willingly made? Yes. However, is this debt also emblematic of major problems with my university and the higher education system in general? Also yes. But as I feel powerless to change the system, I guess I just have to figure out a way to work within it. 

So that’s my story. What’s your student loan story? Feel free to include it in the comments. I’m sure it’s a doozy. 

*Please note that I am not claiming that all online degree programs are not reputable nor worth it. However, a recent study found that 53% of survey respondents thought that people learned less or much less in online degree programs as compared with residential ones. I never wanted my education questioned, so I went with a residential program. However, as explored above, perhaps that was a huge mistake on my part.

The Thing About Money, Part 2: Foundations, or, I grew up learning money was bad

(This is the second post in a six post series titled The Thing About Money. Click to read The Thing About Money Part I.)

When I was very young, my family was poor. Looking through baby pictures one time, I saw that we were in what appeared to be an apartment with two large beds in one room. When I asked my mom where we were living, she said it was a hotel. At one point, my parents were so poor that they couldn’t afford a security deposit on an apartment. But then dad joined the military (or maybe he was already in the military? Things in the early days are vague, and frankly, I’m not interested in discussing them too much). I remember one house that must have been military–it was in a townhouse, and we must have just moved, because I remember a room full of boxes that my brother and I played in.  

But then my mom and dad divorced, and we were poor again. Single mother with two kids living in a trailer in nowhere rural Maryland poor. I didn’t notice–my mom did a lot of things with my brother and I that were free (taking us to the park, the library, etc.) so we were always busy and happy. Every year or so the pajama fairy would visit while we were at the babysitter’s and put a new-to-us pair of pajamas on our beds. When it was just us, it was a non-issue. 

Ye olde change jar. Image from pexels.com.

But then I started school.

Things were better–my stepdad was in the military and mom was working full-time–but money worries were still a theme in my family. When we went back-to-school shopping, my brother and I looked longingly at the trapper keepers and dinosaur-shaped erasers, but always came home with the basics (although if we asked nicely, we got to pick two novelty folders–mine were usually Lisa Frank or Marvin the Martian. My brother opted for Hot Wheels or Taz.). Classmates would bring capri suns and fancy lunchables with build-your-own pizzas to lunch, and I would have my flip-top plastic bag with peanut butter and jelly. New clothes came from the Goodwill. We were clothed, fed, and taken care of–my parents did what they could for us. But I couldn’t help noticing the things the other kids had, and I knew that I couldn’t have them, even if I asked. Eventually, I didn’t want to ask anymore. 

In fifth grade, my school started an orchestra class, and I had to rent a viola to join. My parents bought me the wrong kind of shoulder rest but I was embarrassed to say we had to go back and buy a new one. I thought it would be too much money (which is silly, as renting the viola probably cost a lot more than a shoulder pad, but I was nine, so didn’t think about that). The other shoulder rest was a pad that made it easier to play. It was hard to play with mine, so I didn’t practice. I didn’t practice, so I didn’t want my parents to sign my practice log. I didn’t get my practice log signed, so I was in danger of failing class. Finally, my teacher called my parents, and I got the pad I needed all along. If I had just mentioned it to my parents at the beginning of the year, things would have been fine (and I would have been a lot better at playing the viola). But it cost money, so I didn’t want to ask. 

We had a yard sale one time so mom could raise money to go see a dentist for a problem with her teeth. It was summer, and it was hot. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac on the edges of town that didn’t get any thru-traffic. If you came to our street, it’s because you had a reason. We put ads in the paper, put up fliers, and got a few visitors, but I remember seeming like we had a whole lot leftover at the end of the day. I took it upon myself to count our earnings, and when I saw mom later, I told her how much we had made that day: about $73 dollars. She immediately burst into tears. I was horrified. 

Over and over again, the lessons I learned were that money was a problem that led to heartbreak and shame. 

This has very much shaped my adult life and my current attitudes about money. Money was something we always needed and never had enough of. Money was the reason we couldn’t get our air conditioner fixed and had to use painter’s plastic to section off the living room to trap what little cold air we could get out of a borrowed window unit. Money was why we snuck cookies into the movie theater instead of getting the brightly colored and highly coveted boxes of candy, and why we saw the movies at the theater across town after they’d been out for a few months. 

Now that I am an adult, I know that I am lucky we had air conditioning at all, or that we could go to the cheap movies–we always had something to eat and somewhere to sleep. But it was hard to go over to the freshly-built McMansions of friends, play with their vast collections of brand-new barbies, and not feel different. Less. Even the food they ate was different. My best friend in elementary and middle school, S, wasn’t rich, but she wasn’t poor either. Her parents always had nutritious, organic groceries. When I stayed over for dinner, I was almost always presented with some sort of mysterious organic vegetable and lentil soup that her mom had made from scratch. Although I am old enough now to know that is a far cry from filet mignon, it was also a very far cry from the hot dogs with store brand mac-and-cheese or dehydrated potatoes and canned corn we ate at my house. 

This continued into my teens and adulthood. My first serious boyfriend, T, was rich. He probably wouldn’t say that–after all, his dad was a transmission mechanic, a thoroughly blue-collar job, but they lived in a house that was bigger than two of mine put together and that had an in-ground swimming pool. And it had stairs (if you grew up in a trailer park or a shitty ranch house like I did, you know what it means to covet stairs). He dressed nice; his mom bought him clothes from places like Abercrombie and Aeropostale–coastal Carolina preppy, and they didn’t have those stores in our town, you had to drive an hour to the big mall in Wilmington to shop there (which, to me, was basically the other side of the world). 

Meanwhile, I would come over with my purple hair and wearing my Goodwill skirts or, when I finally got a minimum wage job slinging popcorn at the movie theater, my highly-clearanced hot topic cargo pants, and I could see the thoughts behind that woman’s face plain as day: trash. My youngest son has brought home trash. 

I still feel like people look at me and see white trash. 

Once again, I am reminded of a quote from 30 Rock:

“You’ve come a long way, haven’t you, Kenneth Ellen, with your cheap loafers and your page jacket? But you’ll always be a pig farmer’s son, boy, cause I smell fried baloney all over you.”

Poor is a stink that I feel I can never wash out. I feel like people smell it when they see the holes in my sweaters and my Payless (RIP) shoes. They smell it when I mispronounce big words I only ever read in books and never heard spoken aloud, or when I talk about not being able to afford to go home for both Christmas and Thanksgiving.

And I smell it, too. Even now, after getting my master’s and landing a new job that I like, after starting an IRA and a savings account and trying to learn about investing, I still smell it. 

This is my background with money. I am obsessed with it and scared of it but want more just the same, but I never seem to trust it, nor do I believe I will ever really have it. Money is a thing that other people have, and the lessons I’ve learned about money is that there’s never enough, and people know and look down on you because of that. 

In one of my favorite podcasts, Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn, Gaby Dunn talks to her parents about their attitudes toward money and spending as she was growing up. For example, Gaby’s mother is a lawyer, but she often takes favors from clients who can’t afford her services. When Gaby questions this practice, her mother explains her actions by saying that she worked a lot for children and felt like those children needed her help. And she also counters with–”Do you feel you were deprived of anything?

I feel like my mom would say the same to me. I was fed, clothed, housed, and safe. So is it fair to blame her for anything, if that’s what I’m even doing? Do I feel deprived? Should I just get over it, whatever it is? 

I’ve been trying to think of a snazzy way to wrap-up this post–you know, some sort of snappy final statement that sums up everything I have to say in a pithy one-liner. Drop the mic, etc. etc. etc. But I don’t think I have anything, so I guess I just hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into my weird anxiety-riddled background with money. What are your weird money thoughts? Feel free to explore in the comments.