October 18, 2012
Okay, before I begin, I know there are people who are suddenly thrust into debt due to circumstances totally beyond their control. This column is not about those people.
The truth is, as much as most of us do not want to face it, we chose our debt burdens. We did so by making less than optimal choices repeatedly. That retail therapy when we broke up with a partner, or lost a job; the need to have the latest shiny, new technology object the moment it’s offered for sale; those are choices.
For me, this slide into debt was a result of a number of choices:
- Choosing to buy my sister and myself digital cameras, when I could not really afford to do so,
- Choosing to spend money on indulgences such as Starbucks, rather than saving it
- Choosing to buy things instead of paying off my credit cards in total every month
- Choosing to retire before I had sufficient funds to do so
- Choosing to eat out once a week, even when it meant borrowing the money to do so
- Choosing to let payments slide
- Choosing to bail out my roommate from her various financial missteps
- Choosing to help friends in worse financial condition than I was
Those are the main choices that led to my situation. There are other reasons, to be sure, but if I had made better decisions when I could have, the impact of those things I could not control would not have been nearly as rough as they have been.
I am trying to do the internal work that will help me make better decisions and choices going forward, even as I am struggling to pay off the debts I have incurred — after swearing that I would never get into debt again (sigh).
It is a long process, and it is not fun, but it does need to be done. I pride myself on not running away from problems, especially if I have created them, so facing them squarely is the only way I know of to get myself out of this mess and not create another one.
The last time I dug myself out of most of my debt, I was able to keep from falling back in for over two years, so the history is that I am capable of making the choices to keep myself clear of problems. The trick is to remember the consequences of choices I have made in the past BEFORE I make the less optimal choices.
The final truth is that whether you chose your way into debt, or have landed there from some catastrophic occurrence, being in debt stinks. It’s uncomfortable, time-consuming, stress-inducing, and generally sucks the joy out of living. Choosing better, so that you can get out, and stay out, of debt may be hard, but being in debt is harder.
So, in my usual spirit of inquiry: Is your debt really the result of things beyond your control? If not, what are the choices you have made that put you into debt? What choices can you make going forward to ensure that you don’t incur greater debt while you are trying to climb out of the hole? What choices can you make that will keep you out of the hole once you get there?
August 18, 2012
This is from a place I never thought I would see again. I am back in the hole. While I can blame having to bail out the roommate and my sister for getting me here, the flat truth is that I’m the one who made the bad decisions that landed me here.
And this time, getting out is going to be a whole lot harder, because I do not have the steady income I once did. My pension check is $178.47/month. I now have medical issues I didn’t have when I was working and had health insurance. And I gained back all the weight I had lost, so I’ve that to do all over again, too.
However, I will get out of debt. I have made an arrangement with the worst of the creditors, and I am expecting some cash down the line that will go a long way to helping sort things out. I am also feeling a bit better, and more able to do some freelancing (as the infection was trying to kill me, I became less and less energetic).
My first goal, however, is to get my living space in order. While my housekeeping was never “eat off the floor” clean, it was generally neat enough that things could be found. When I went into the hospital, my kid sister took it upon herself to try to organize half my room, so that she could take care of some things. Of course, since her priorities are very different from mine this has led to some chaos in terms of finding things. However, I have managed to not let that side of the room become overgrown, and I’ve decided I like it that way. I’ve also managed to keep the bed clear of everything but the tv remote, my second pair of glasses, and a couple of books (I often am partway through several different books, since reading is one of my major pleasures. To that end, I am going to spend much of the next month (when not writing or knitting) clearing out all the detritus of things — that is, all the stuff I am no longer using. I want to be able to have friends over of an afternoon, or hold a housefilk in my living room, and have room for people and guitars. I miss being able to invite people over for dinner.
Back when I was still working, I had acquired a book called <i>Throw Out Fifty Things</i>, by Gail Blanke. I think it’s time to read it and see if I can get the junk in my life tossed out, so I have room for an improved life.
I have also decided to pick up this blog on a regular basis again.
At any rate, this is not going to be a very long post, just a harbinger of things to come. I will be writing about uncluttering my life, financial recovery, writing, and whatever else I have something to say about, just as before, and I hope you all are interested in coming along for the ride. I expect it will not be an easy one — I will be dealing as honestly as I can with the stuff that comes up — but I do expect it will be a rewarding journey.
July 8, 2008
I was answering a comment from fivecentnickel here, and it got me thinking. I noted that until I saw what needed to be done in terms of making better choices, rather than making sacrifices, I was overwhelmed and paralyzed.
Thing is, I had climbed out of debt twice before, when I was coming from what I call punishment thinking. By that, I mean that the steps out of debt were my punishment for being stupid enough to have gotten in there in the first place. So instead of the changes becoming permanent, sooner or later I felt my punishment was over and reverted to my old ways, only i managed to dig a slightly deeper hole each time around.
This time, when I got the wakeup call two years ago, I figured it was my last opportunity, and I was gonna do it right this time. So I did something different. While I was dealing with the collection agencies, I started reading (what the heck – I had no money to go out with…). I read books and blogs on getting out of debt. I read books and blogs on personal development. I started putting together an idea of how to reframe things to the positive. My dear fiance, Dee and I had long discussions about the financial decisions we had made (both jointly and separately), and about where we wanted to go (again both as a couple and separately).
Somewhere along the way, I ran into the one piece of advice that had kind of stuck with me from when i did est back in the day. One of Werner Erhard used to say was, “It lives in your language.” Both as a word lover and as someone familiar with the concepts of Rational-Emotive Therapy, this was a concept that rang true for me. It put the control and power over my life squarely into my own little hands.
Dee and I made conscious attempts to reframe our thinking (an ongoing process, which we are still very much in the middle of), and found that it made a big difference. We stopped blaming ourselves for the mess we were in. This gave us time and space to look at where we wanted to go, and how we could get there. We made lists of our goals and values (again, both jointly and separately). We made lists of what we blamed ourselves and each other for. Then we had one huge blow-out discussion about the past, after which we have done our best to let it go. We made a conscious decision that the past was just that, and that holding on to it would just keep us mired in it.
We are not perfect, by any means. Each of us has a complicated life (and I bet you do, too), with our own baggage. However, we are facing forward finally, and it’s all good, even the rough patches.
You hear all over that those who don’t learn from their mistakes repeat them. This is true as far as it goes. What is less known is that, having learned from them, you must let them go, instead of clinging to them like Linus van Pelt to his blankie.
June 16, 2008
Several of my friends are going through major life changes. This post is largely inspired by them, and dedicated to them. It’s also dedicated to the kids at the high school I work at: May all your bright dreams come true, and may you leave school with the preparation to follow them!
In America (I can’t speak for anywhere else), kids are often told that with hard work, they can be anything they dream of being. Then as they grow older, those dreams get stripped away by the limitations of their abilities and circumstances. If they are lucky, and very stubborn, they can continue to follow those dreams, but at a price: setting themselves apart from those who could be their biggest support systems — their families.
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. Not just any writer, but a successful one. Thanks to my Mom, I fell in love with words early. She believed in phonetics, so I learned to read well before I went to school. Writing took a bit longer, but I’m told that as soon as I could string words into sentences I tried to tell stories.
As I grew up, however, I learned that lower-middle-class girls from Queens, New York didn’t become writers. They became teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, but that was about the extent of the options open to them (this was the mid-1950s), If we could have afforded college, or if my grades had been good enough to get a grant or scholarship, it might have been different, but not very likely. To add to the issues, I was an oddity in another way: a Jewish battered kid. Not only was I physically battered, but my dad spent a great deal of time trying to convince me that I was substandard intellectually.
So, damned by gender and what I was taught, I dutifully shelved those dreams, and became a secretary. From 1975 until the beginning of 2003 I worked for a variety of companies, in a variety of industries, and was considered a very good secretary. I liked the work, but in most of the jobs it wasn’t particularly challenging, and it never “filled” me.
In 1987, however, that began to change a bit. A friend paid for me to take an IQ test, and I showed up high enough to qualify for both Mensa and Intertel. I joined them both briefly, but they were not my cup of chai. The best thing that came out of that was that in 1988 I had a letter published in The Mensa Bulletin, commenting on an article about language and mindset. I received a lovely postcard from the article’s author, and my appetite for writing was whetted.
I began writing again — vignettes, short stories, poetry — but I kept it to myself. After all, given the things I had learned along the way, I couldn’t possibly be any good, could I?
Flash forward a bit to 1992: I was online, and a part of a science fiction chat, the SFRT (Science Fiction Round Table), which was then hosted on GEnie. There I met Mike Resnick, Jim MacDonald (aka Yog Sysop), Esther Friesner, and a host of other wonderful SF/Fantasy writers. After one very surreal conversation about writing, Mike invited me to contribute a short story to an anthology he was editing with Martin H. Greenberg. This ended up with me selling five short stories in the sf/fantasy field. Okay, I could write, but this was not where my heart was. I even tried turning one of the stories into a novel, but wrote myself into a corner I still haven’t figured a way out of. So, again, I put the writing aside, and concentrated on being a secretary. (I also explored some of my other dream, jewellery making, but that’s another story and another column). I also ran some writing and journal-keeping workshops on the World Wide Web, but had no idea how to take them to the next level, even though they were well-received.
In 2003, my world collapsed. I lost my corporate job, which was where most of my identity and pride was tied up. I spent a year on unemployment, then became a school aide. Meanwhile, I read various online journals and blogs, thought “I could do that,” but I never did. I knew I could write — Hell, I’d been writing all my life. I had no idea if I had something to say that anyone would want to hear, though, so I just kept reading.
As I did so, my dream refined itself. I knew that I was never gonna write the Great American Novel; wasn’t even interested in doing so. I discovered a love for essayists. My offline reading expanded to include reading columnists for various newspapers. I asked my friends for books from essayists such as H.L. Mencken, Cecil Adams, Dave Barry, and Molly Ivins.
Becoming an essayist has meant learning how to write differently. In a novel you have space to expand things. In essays, poetry, or short stories you need to make every word count because your space is severely constricted. It has also meant keeping abreast of what is going on in the corner of the world I was interested in writing about.
So, I kept reading. It kept me going, even while my world and finances were collapsing. Then an online acquaintance, Annie Walker, started a blog, The In-Debt Net, about her recovery from financial issues and her efforts to switch to a more frugal and sustainable life. Reading Annie’s work was not only inspiring, but her articles were, in some cases, highly relevant to where I was in my life.
Never one to resist synergy for long, I finally took the hint and started this blog. And it not only feels right but, because it *is* right, I have been able to figure out the next steps. Yeah, there is work involved — anything worth having is worth putting in some effort to achieve — but the prize is sweet: the clarification and achievement of a dream I have had since I was maybe five years old.
What dreams did you have as a kid that you never thought you’d be able to accomplish? Do any of them still resonate for you? Are you willing to put in some effort (and possibly fall flat on your face a few times along the way)? Are you willing to have the dream show up in a different way than you originally thought it would? Then go for it!
June 3, 2008
Today, Free from Broke, did an excellent article re personal financial tipping points.
As I’ve noted earlier, mine came when I found out that my roommate had not been paying her mother (who writes our rent checks because the Landlord will not accept checks from my roommate because of the “high latex content”) her share of the rent for over four months.
After all the histrionics between her mother, her, her best friend, and me had died down, I did a lot of thinking. Not only did I never want to be in that situation again, but I realized that (other than my fiance) I really do not want to be sharing living space with anyone. After a long hard look at my own actions (avoiding paying creditors, spending beyond recklessly, eating out 6-7 times a week, taking cabs almost everywhere), I decided to take action. The first thing I did was to go to annualcreditreport.com, and got copies of all three credit reports, so I could see just how deep the hole I was in was. I then called my creditors and made agreements (all of which I kept). I stopped buying books — totally for a while, now only using gift certificates and buying used at that.
It’s been a long two years since then, and I have paid of all but one credit card (and that is well on its way to being paid off). I am working my way to freedom, and it will take about two years to get there.
My roommate still screws up, but I recently found out that that is because she does not want to be responsible for her finances. She says she wants someone to make it all go away and take responsibility for her, but refuses to let anyone actually do so. My ex sent me a spreadsheet so she can track her checking account, and she refuses to fill it in herself, or let me do it. She now claims that she thinks she could let my ex do it, because working with him will be less “emotionally painful,” but I bet when he shows up she will find more excuses.
Yes, I am angry about the situation — things that I could have put money toward have had to wait as, in order to keep a roof over my head, both her mother and I have had to cover for her. However, I know that this is temporary, and that once my credit reports are clear enough to not scare off Landlords, things will change drastically!
May 26, 2008
Okay, I wasn’t tagged for this one. But the “big kids” on the block seem to be reflecting on where they were ten years ago, and the idea intrigued me, so here goes, although I changed the time frame to look back fifteen years:
1993: I had just left another pointless secretarial job. I was in debt up to my kiester, and walking with crutches as a result of falling on the same ankle six times in five months. Although I had a lovely little attic apartment, I could not climb the stairs to get to it and was living on the couch of some friends. Those were the major bad points.
There were some good points. I sold my first story (“Geniecon”), and it was published in a Mike Resnick/Martin H. Greenberg anthology: Aladdin: Master of the Lamp. I then sold two more, joined SFWA, and realized that I was hardly the worst writer out there. I attended my first Worldcon, where I got to meet a lot of the writers I had been talking with online.
I was also in total financial denial. The friends I was staying with loaned me money for Worldcon when my wallet was stolen on the way to the Amtrak station. My credit cards were maxed out. My Unemployment checks were barely enough to cover my rent, even though they were the highest bracket my state granted. My checkbook was a mess. (And, yes, the series on acquiring and maintaining a checking account is based on things it took me decades to become rigorous about!) I had a depression that was at least the size of Minnesota, because all I could see was that everything was falling apart, and I had no clue where to attack the mess.
Contrast that to now: I’m thinking of leaving my current job in five years so that I can work independently. I am doing the type of writing I wanted to, even though I have not yet turned it into an income stream. Not only are my credit cards not maxed out, but only one of them has any balance left on it, and I just cut up the one that charged me the highest interest. I have a (admittedly) very tiny emergency fund, and am planning how to grow that. I am, by no means, out of the woods yet, but for the first time I can see the clearing beyond the trees.
What created the changes? The first thing is that I finally stopped deluding myself, and took a long, hard look at what I owed, and at what I was facing. I then gave some real hard thought to my life. What I found was that in any area but financial, my word was good as gold. When it came to finances, however, I would say anything or do almost anything to get what I needed. Further, I was very good at excuses and at avoiding being accountable for my actions. I was also living way beyond my means.
Sometimes, I still find myself struggling to keep my word on things financial. There were, however, several good reasons for me to do so. A lot of my growing up had to do with my roommate’s shortcomings: One of us had to start, and it was pretty clear it was not going to be her. Another motivator was meeting my fiancé: Once we decided we were serious, we also decided that neither of us wanted to foist our financial baggage on the other. The biggest motivator was, of course, that I got tired of living the way I was. I want to be truly independent, and the only way I could do that was by clearing up my act.
I won’t say it’s easy; it’s not. There are times I wish I could just buy what I want, and not think about whether or not I can afford it. But right now, this is the way it is, and – in the long run, which is what counts – it will be to my benefit.
Am I glad I’ve made the changes I have? You bet. Would I do it again? Yep. Do I wish I had not needed to? Absolutely. Still, the hardest thing to do sometimes is to let go of the past, and move forward, and I see progress along those lines. And that feels better than anything I could buy myself.
What do you see when you look back? Have the changes you have made been primarily positive? What small steps are you looking at taking to move forward in your life?
April 7, 2008
So, when I finished the last installment I had acquired the tools for starting to climb out of the mess:
A working checking account,
A working savings account,
Agreements with all but one creditor, and
A cheering section of friends (both online and in real life) and my sweetie.
I was ready to start digging. First, I called the student loan company. I had been smart enough to consolidate the loans, and had put them into forbearance for a year, and they were about to come out of forbearance. Since you can put the loans into forbearance for up to 60 months, I decided to do so for another year. Yes, the interest would be accruing, but it would be a major load off my mind since I had other creditors that needed to be paid and fairly limited funds to do so.
I then made it my business to keep my word with all the creditors I had made arrangements with. I gained a good reputation with them – so much so that, when one account got sold to another agency, and they tried to dun me for the entire amount, the first agency not only provided me with the records I needed to fight them, but also told me what steps to take to do so!
Since I had opened the accounts with the credit union during the summer, it was easy to save a bit of money. I had had some surgery at the beginning of the summer, so I was not going much of anywhere. Staying home enabled me to put a bit extra toward my bill payments, and to save up enough money so that when the fall term began I only had to borrow about half of what I normally would have (the city holds back our first paycheck of the new term).
Further, once the new term started, I was able to switch to Direct Deposit for my paychecks. This means fewer trips to the credit union, which is good since I have to go about an hour out of my way to get there.
In fact, I managed to save enough to take advantage of a wonderful offer! A friend had turned me on to Suze Orman’s book, Women and Money, and using the code in that book I opened a money market account at TD Ameritrade. The deal they were offering was that, if you commit to putting $50 a month into this account, after you make the first twelve payments TD Ameritrade will add $100 as a reward. It’s not a lot, but it is a start toward a retirement fund.
Once I paid back the money I had borrowed for the period between the beginning of the term and the receipt of my first paycheck, I also opened a CD at ING Direct, with the goal that when it matures I can use the proceeds to cover the shortfall between the first day of this year’s new term and my paycheck’s arrival.
So, here I am, with my major problems cleared up, a little credit card debt to pay off (about $600), one creditor which is waiting for me to be able to pay it (which I will), a ton of personal debts to be paid off once the credit card debt is gone, my student loans to attack after that, a future to build, and a school aide’s salary on which to accomplish all of this.
I don’t know about you but, having come this far, I am looking forward to the challenge!
April 4, 2008
So, how did Dee and I begin to clean up the mess we were in?
Well, it was hard…add to the financial issues the stresses of a long-distance relationship, and several apartments we were supposed to be getting falling through, and you have a recipe for depression and inertia.
The first thing we each did was start making payment arrangements with our various creditors. Then we set up support networks. See, one thing that inspired us was a friend who decided that he was going to clean up his finances and post about it in his blog. Although his situation was nowhere near as dire as ours, we were in his support network, and it inspired us to get more aggressive about cleaning up our stuff.
We timed it right, too. As we were making our plans, the government passed a law that allowed everyone to pull their credit reports once per year without paying for them. This gave us each a chance to see who would be hitting us for what and, also, a chance to correct information that was incorrect.
Now, paying things off was costing me money, because I was stuck using money orders. Several years prior to our efforts a so-called friend had bounced about $800 in checks on me, and could not pay me back. It took me a year to pay the bank back, and then they refused to reopen the account, although they had promised me they would. My next step, therefore, was to try to find a way to get a checking account. Since the bank had reported me to Chex Systems, I could not find a bank that would open an account for me. Fortunately for me, my ex was willing to help out by writing checks when I needed them, which cut down on the cost of money orders.
But I am nothing if not persistent. I kept looking on the Internet, and found a few places that offered lists of financial organizations that would help people who had been, as it were, branded by Chex Systems. Not only did I find a credit union whose only requirement for membership was that I either live or work in Brooklyn, but said credit union has a great bill-paying feature, where I only get charged if I don’t use it once a month! Now I could pay off bills without having to pay for the privilege!
After the collection agencies were paid off, I acquired a Visa card and a MasterCard for emergencies. I also acquired four store cards from stores I regularly shop at: Macy’s, Target, Avenue, and Sears. This was for specific purchases that would take less than a month but more than one paycheck to repay. (All four store cards currently have zero balances, by the way, and the MasterCard and Visa are being paid down as I write this.)
I pulled my credit reports for the second time last September. To my great delight, there were nine or more accounts in good standing on each of them (including the student loans), and four adverse items or less on each. Several of the adverse items were duplicates, which I was able to correct by calling the report issuers. The remainder of the adverse items should be gone by September 2009. That means that by October 2009 I should be able to start apartment hunting again! Also, once I get the two credit cards paid off, I can start repaying the various friends who have helped me along the way! You cannot imagine how I am looking forward to watching those debts disappear!
(To be continued)
March 31, 2008
I didn’t just wake up one day and decide my life needed changing. My life has been changing as far back as I can remember, although it seems to have picked up steam since 2002. Since then, I ended one relationship, began another, got downsized, found a new job, got engaged, lost my apartment, lost weight, gained weight, graduated college, and managed to clear up a significant portion of my financial problems.
While it is not my intention to turn this into a blog about my personal life, knowing a bit of what went into the current spate of reformation might be useful as a background, so here goes.
When my last relationship changed from a romantic relationship back to a friendship (and it has been a very successful friendship!), I decided that some changes were in order. I realized that, over the course of the previous fourteen years, I had tried to become what I was not in order to please someone not myself. Foolish? Perhaps so, but please remember that I was born in the early 1950s and raised to believe that pretty much everyone’s needs came before my own. Shortly after that, I met my fiancé, who was recovering from a bad relationship.
We were both making pretty good money at the time, so it was easy to ignore the deepening financial problems we both had, at least until he broke three ribs and couldn’t work for almost six months. Instead of reassessing our finances, I was determined to not let him worry about anything, and kept to myself some really bad decisions I made, which eventually contributed to my being downsized. It took me over a year to find a new job (at a much lower salary, sadly), but the unemployment insurance I did qualify for was enough to let us handle the day-to-day stuff which was, at that point, pretty much all that mattered to me.
However, when Dee proposed, I did some long, hard thinking. Here I was, in my early fifties, in debt up to my eyeballs (not counting the student loans!), and thinking about joining my life to someone else’s. We did a lot of talking about that. One thing I was adamant about was that I did not want to go into a marriage with both of us owing sufficient money that, if anything happened to one partner, the other could be financially crippled for decades. We finally agreed that, while we would get engaged, any further developments would have to wait until everything but my student loans was paid off. We had great intentions, not much of a plan, and an incredibly unrealistic goal for the time frame we had in mind. Still we managed to make a little headway – at least, we did until disaster struck, in the form of our landlord selling the building we lived in to a company that wanted to turn the apartments into offices.
See, while we were managing day to day, we had no emergency funds. On top of that, our credit reports were a mess. Further, somewhere in the four years since I had gotten the apartment, it had become industry standard for landlords to pull credit reports on prospective tenants (and at the prospective tenant’s expense, no less) before renting to them. To make a long story short, we were unable to get a new apartment. Dee moved back to Florida to live with his sister who offered to put him up rent-free. I moved in with a friend I had helped through various financial problems of her own.
And, as they say, thereby hangs a tale…
(To be continued)
March 24, 2008
Several years ago, my ex said to me, “You owe the whole world money, your life is blown to Hell in a handbasket, yet you still laugh and have fun How can you do that?” My answer then, as it is now, was to ask him how being depressed and miserable would change any of it.
Now, I’m no Pollyanna; nor am I a New Age, psychobabble-spouting optimist. What I am is a fairly tough-minded woman who has made both good and bad decisions over the course of five and a half decades. In other words, I am a survivor.
You might wonder what this has to do with you and why you should add this blog to your feed (or bookmark it). Well, over the years I’ve learned a lot about keeping going, as we all have. And, what I’d really like to see happen here is the creation of a community where tips, coping mechanisms, support, and inspiration can be shared.
That said, there are one or two caveats regarding commenting:
Differences of opinion are not only welcome, they are encouraged as long as the conversation is civil.
No ad hominem attacks, please. Attacking ideas is fine; attacking people is not, and you will be disemvowelled for doing so. (Disemvowelling is a way of dealing with miscreants by removing all the vowels from his/her comment. I do not know who the originator was, but I picked up on it from Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light [
If you quote someone or reference someone’s writing, please cite your source and, if possible, provide a link. It’s a lot easier to discuss something if we can all be on the same page.
Other than that, I want to welcome you to my blog, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say as we go along.