Money Mismanagement Confessional: The Full Story of Our Debt

The purpose of this blog is to bring some accountability to our finances, but perhaps this blog can actually help someone else avoid the mistakes we’ve made. That can only happen if I lay them out there for everyone to see. So excuse this really long post – I just want to put this out there and then move on, not make some series of posts about our mistakes. Mistakes. Plural. Yes, it’s our student loan debt that keeps me from being a stay at home mom, but that’s actually only half the story. Long ago, God provided a way out of that. But I didn’t know I even wanted it…

Growing up, we were not poor, but we were not well-off people. We never took vacations. My clothes were, at best, from Wal-Mart, and at worst, ill-fitting hand-me-downs from my larger-sized sister. We rarely spent money on having fun. When I was in high school, my dad died. My high school educated mom took on a second job to make ends meet, working all day at her full-time job and being on-call for a second job at night. Mom died when I was in college. Perhaps fearing for the provision of her children after enduring the financial hardship that came with my father’s death, she had left us her 401(k) and a few life insurance policies. The sum total would not make us rich, but for a kid in college, it was a huge windfall.

This windfall would have paid off my student loans and those of my future husband. But I had allowed myself to get into a few thousand dollars of credit card debt and my car had ceased to run properly. It would cost a lot to fix it, but it was still fixable. Those were short term needs. Once I graduated and got a job, paying of my student loans seemed like it would be easy. So in all my wisdom, I paid off the credit card debt, bought a brand new SUV, and sat on the rest of the money for awhile.

We threw ourselves a cheap wedding just over a year after my mom passed. Seriously, we did good. The only thing that could have been cheaper would have been a courthouse ceremony. We were gifted most of the expenses for our short honeymoon, so we even rocked that.

cheap wedding

But I didn’t want to start our life together without a dresser. Seriously, who doesn’t have a dresser? And his vinyl futon had.to.go. And the entertainment center he’d fashioned himself was not working for me. So we bought a dining room table, leather couch (pre-vegan days), mahogany entertainment center and coffee table, and queen bedroom set (with a pricey Temperpedic mattress). All new.

Within four months, I got a job that moved us from Florida to Tennessee. I failed to negotiate for relocation expenses, believing they would have offered if that was an available benefit. So we paid out of pocket for professional movers to move all our nice, new, heavy furniture.

Once in Tennessee, we still had around half our windfall. We used almost all of that as a large downpayment on a house (that was probably too expensive for us). It was a huge house, so of course we needed more furniture. And the large yard required brand new lawn equipment. Whatever we held out from the downpayment got sucked into more stuff for our house.

large house

We sold the house in 18 months in order for me to take a dream job at NASA in Houston, TX. Of course, we didn’t make any money in the sell because we hadn’t paid much principle, given the timeframe and the fact that we had an ill-advised balloon mortgage. In Houston, we rented for awhile and eventually bought a smaller, less expensive home with only a 20% downpayment. We used most of our leftover money to purchase a slightly used vehicle to replace hubby’s aging bachelor sports car. At least we wouldn’t have a car payment, but we didn’t take action to start saving for our next vehicle.

medium home

After a little over four years in our home, we were preparing to move for my husband’s career and recognized the house might not sell as quickly given the state of our floors. So we used any money we had left (and borrowed quite a bit) to redo the flooring, which was a strategic move just to sell the house quickly – not to make money – because until the house sold, we’d have two housing payments. The two housing payments would kill us.

tile and fireplace redo

While hubby was in the north at his new job, I ran to the grocery store to buy my daughter’s speciality milk. My debit card was declined. I sobbed. My hubby arranged to wire me some money the next day. We weren’t even tracking our balances, even though we knew these two living expenses would get us!!! We made it, but it was a stressful, nerve-wracking, depressing time. The house sold, but we didn’t make money if you included the flooring upgrades, although we accepted an offer within three weeks. Maybe the new floors were worth it.

In our new location, no one rents houses to dog owners. And few rent apartments to dog owners. So rather than looking for the cheapest place, we looked for any place that would let us keep our aging pets. We felt as if they were too old to rehome compassionately.

We ended up in an expensive but rundown townhome, so when we bought a home, even with our meager 15% downpayment, the mortgage+taxes+insurance was less than our townhome rent.

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Looking back, the smartest thing to do would have been to pay off debt. Live like other newlyweds do – with mismatched furniture in a small house with vehicles that barely run. Because, had we done that, I’d be staying home now with my children.

Instead, my furniture is scratched up, coming apart, and in some cases, doesn’t even fit in my house anymore. That SUV I bought in Florida was rear wheel drive. When we bought our house here (in the very, very north), it couldn’t drive anywhere due to the icy hills. We couldn’t manage to get it parked in our driveway and got a ticket for parking on the road. We had to sell it and buy a vehicle with a payment. Our houses have gotten smaller and smaller and smaller.

Seven things I'd wish I'd known about money

We live a happy life. We are mostly healthy. We have two beautiful girls. We are incredibly blessed to have this life. I don’t want to live in the past. But here are takeaways from my story:

  1. Don’t use student loans. You may think you will make some huge salary, but even if you do, when it all goes to student loans, what does that matter? With your great salary, if you can’t take a vacation or afford a house, will you still think those loans were worth it? If you graduate and decide you hate your chosen career (I hear this too often), you might end up in a low-paying job you love, but doesn’t pay enough to cover those loans. Or perhaps worse yet, you are stuck in a job that you detest, just to make ends meet.
  2. Live on a budget that reflects your current salary but has room to save. You should be forecasting needs for the next 5+ years and making sure your budget supports that. Are you saving for a new vehicle if yours is older? Think your couch will give out or you’ll need a new roof on the house? Plan to have kids? You cannot plan for everything, but try to hit the high notes.
  3. Don’t buy a house until you know you want to stay in the area for a while. We knew this and every. single. time we go ahead and buy a house and lose money in the process. Three times now. Shame on us.
  4. If you are moving for a job, negotiate the best relocation package you can. Consider the cost of movers, closing on your home, house hunting trips, and all the set up costs you will have in your new area. Moving without a relocation package is probably a bad call, but I’m sure exceptions exist. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you are one of them – seek wise counsel before taking the leap.
  5. Don’t buy new just to have it new. Other than a home, just about anything you buy new will decrease in value quickly, so if you try to sell it, you won’t make back what you paid in. A slightly used vehicle will have a substantial reduction in cost. One that is a few years old is an even better deal. Electronics, appliances, clothes all fall into this category, but especially furniture. Do not buy new furniture if you plan to move soon (every move will damage it a little and your furniture may not even fit in your new place). If you plan on having kids, know your kids will rip, tear, scratch, stain, vomit on, and pee and poop on your furniture. Might as well buy something that might be a little beat up already that doesn’t come with a hefty price tag.
  6. Do not spend any windfalls until you have a very clear plan for what to do. I recommend reading up on Dave Ramsey’s 7 baby steps to financial freedom or Steve Diggs’ 10 stones.  Had we followed either set of steps, we would have had our loans paid off years ago, with a small emergency fund on the side. It would have taken us no time to save a nice downpayment for a home without student loan payments.
  7. Understand that careers are not everything. You have to know that I was raised with the expectation to go to college and have a career. My mother worked (because she had to) and I had no understanding of the career woman vs. the stay-at-home mom. I assumed all women worked and had no counseling that I might want to prepare for a different life, so I never did. It wasn’t until I was about six months pregnant with our first child that it even occurred to me that I’d like to stay home – far too late for such a serious course correction. Teach your daughters to be independent and able to take care of themselves in case they have to (see the point about my high school educated mom working two jobs after her husband passed). But make sure they know there’s a very important career that they’d be wise to prepare for whether they have a “side” career or not. Tell them being a mom could possibly be the best thing the could ever aspire to be. But this isn’t just for mothers of girls. Oh no. My husband’s mother had to stay home for a time and was miserable. I think that’s why no thought was given to “what if Brian marries one day and his wife wants to stay home?” Nope, he was sent off to school and told to borrow everything he needed – to the tune of 100k for a career that starts of paying less than 20k a year. Mothers of boys: teach your sons to prepare for a wife who might want to stay home (even if she initially scoffs at the idea).

Know this: God provides. Despite all our failings with what He has blessed us, He has always seen us through. I’ve confessed my sins to Him (and you!) and I know that my loving, compassionate God has forgiven me. I kinda think that, as I learn to do better, that God will challenge me to do even better; I will grow and He will stretch me. My challenges are not over, which is probably all the more reason to continue this blog.

I say all this to say that it’s not that God hasn’t called me to be home with my children. I think He has. He has not blocked my path – I did. But can He still help me get to where I should be? Absolutely! But it may a long, winding, backroad that I have to take now. I’m not looking back.

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Success Story Saturday and Going Back To Work

Talking about being in debt and cutting back and budgeting is such a downer, I am trying to write about even a small success on each Saturday. But if you have some really great “I have overcome” financial story, I’d love to share it here.

This week I am proud to say that we did not run back to the store for anything. No, I didn’t completely stick to the meal plans, but because I had purchase back-up meals, we were able to rely on them once or twice. Hooray for not going back to the store!

As for going back to work, of course the baby and I survived (note, however, that it am eating ice cream for breakfast as I write this). I had to turn around a few times before we were actually on our way, but I’d left home plenty early, so that was even ok. I dropped the girls off and I heard the baby crying as I left the daycare. Guilt and dread filled me, and my legs felt like lead as I walked out the door. It feels so wrong to turn your back on your crying child. She was crying for me.

Since the baby hasn’t been taking a bottle well, I didn’t defrost much milk (it has to be used in 24 hrs and I’m not going to bottle feed at home). The daycare called me at 1 pm to say they only had 3 ounces left. That was probably enough, but I ran over the results from my two pumping sessions and…I saw her. The staff had her wrapped up and put her in a bouncy chair, with a teacher sitting in front of her, bouncing her to sleep. I knew they’d told me it was often too hectic to rock a newborn to sleep, but… Couldn’t she do that now? How is bouncing her to sleep any different? I felt so sorry for my little one – probably only touched when she takes a bottle or needs a diaper change. She’s not even three months old yet and she’s practically abandoned. Neglected. That is how I feel.

When I returned after work, she was crying and the teacher told me she had just finished three ounces, so she wasn’t really sure what the matter was just yet. I took her to a private corner of the room, bounced her on my knee and got two huge burps. She nursed for a few minutes after that, then unlatched, looked at me and smiled a huge smile. And then she laughed. And then she BAWLED … I’m sure she was thinking “momma, what did I do wrong? Where have you been?

She cried much of the way home (not an insignificant drive), but was happy inside the house. I rocked her to sleep and then laid in bed with her for the rest of the night, sleeping and nursing.

The actual work part was ok, too. I was missed. Two people pulled me aside for an hour each to tell me what has happened without me, and my boss has big plans for my future. Um, ok. Everyone wanted to ask about the baby. Sigh. One day I’ll want to crack out baby pictures, but not the first day. It’s too raw.

So, we made it. And I’m still praying for a way out.

Not TGIF – Maternity Leave Ends

12 weeks ago today, with little advance warning, we rushed in the middle of the night to our birthing center. I went upstairs, a bath was run, I got into the tub, and my baby slid out a few minutes later. And just as quick as she was born, our special time together is over, because it’s here. The end of maternity leave. And I do not want to budge from this house today.

Birth center sisters

Inside, waves of panic strangle me because the last thing I want to do is abandon my child to the care of strangers for over 9 hours a day. I do not want to let her out of my arms. I want to hold her forever. To nestle her next to my chest and feel her baby breath on my skin. I don’t want her to cry and be comforted by another woman. Or worse yet, ignored.

I know I’m the one who made this bed and now I have to lie in it. But it’s going to be a tear-soaked, debt-stained bed. Especially since my 12 week old refuses bottles and pacifiers and swaddling – anything the daycare could offer as a comfort, she hasn’t shown any interest in accepting. I worry for her and I worry for her caregivers and I worry for me – how will I subject her to this every day and not lose my mind?

image

So I had to put this in perspective.

God gives food to the birds of the air, and He tells me He’ll do the same for Me. I have no want for food. Even with meal planning, I have thrown away a lot of food at the end of the week. Oh yes, He has provided.

God clothes the lilies of the field and He has assured me that He’ll clothe me. And He has. So much that I have clothes in three closets and spilling out of our dresser. He’s kept that promise and then some.

God didn’t tell me that He’d give me everything I’d ever want. He said he was going to take care of me, and He has.

God calls us to trust Him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grieve the possibilities. And so I do. I grieve, but I trust.

And it’s becoming easier and easier to trust because I’m actually listening to Him. I’ve opened my heart and my eyes and I’m listening with them. At completely random moments, a sense of peace will envelope me, and I knew it is Him comforting me. With a sweet baby cradled next to me, softly suckling, I feel answers. even if I don’t understand them. I am washed with calm, as if He’s leaned in to tell me that it will be alright. I’m becoming keenly aware that his answers are everywhere. He’s telling me “you may not understand, but I do. And I have got this. I have got you. Do. Not. Worry.’

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I know that is all a post of its own, but I want to link up with Lisa Jo and her Five Minute Friday link-up. The rules are simple: she provides a writing prompt and you write for 5 minutes flat, without editing. Today’s word is nothing.

There is nothing I want more than to stay home today. Every day. Nothing is more important to me than my children. My family. Nothing will come between me and them – not even a job that I dedicate myself to because God says that, whatever I do, I am supposed to do it in the name of the Lord.

Which means that some days I come home and I feel like I have nothing left to give. And some days that means I barely try. But even on those days, I do still try.

Because there is nothing I can do to change my circumstances today. At least for now, I have to work.

There is nothing I won’t do for my girls and I mean that so earnestly, that I am ready to get rid of 100k in debt just as quickly as I can. For them. And not feel punished or upset about it.

There is nothing than my girls can’t do, but I am going to teach them that there are some things not to do. Like, if you want to be a astronaut (like I did), that’s all well and good. You can do it. But be sure to afford your dreams.

Stop.

America’s Flawed Approach to Maternity Leave

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I was fairly new to my job when I got pregnant the second time around. Two of my male coworkers were having babies while I was silently in my first trimester and I watched in horror as they took off one day to be with their wives. One day. Let that sink in. The first wife had a C-section and her husband was there for the big event, but wasn’t by her side when the baby came home. The second came in to work hours after the baby was born but said he wasn’t really there to work. Whatever.

Then when my belly started to pop, a young, single guy asked me how many days I was taking off for maternity leave. Days. Let that soak in. I told him 12 weeks and his jaw dropped. I then got to explain to him how I picked 12 weeks because it’s the maximum amount of time covered by the FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). If I want more than that, my employer could let me go… And that it’s 12 weeks unpaid, so I would be cobbling together short term disability (which covers a fraction of your check for only a portion of the 12 weeks) and vacation time in order to get paid. Because I need to get paid or I wouldn’t have the job in the first place. I told him how most daycares won’t even accept a child until 6 weeks, so many working moms have to scramble to fill the gap for at least that long. How, even at 12 weeks, I’d be coming back sleep deprived and pumping every few hours and how my child would probably get sick at daycare every few weeks, requiring me to take off at least a day. Oh but wait. I’ve used up all my leave… I think I succeeded in scaring him.

When I worked at NASA, we had close relationships with our international counterparts. That was my first exposure to the European-style paid maternity leave. I couldn’t believe that other countries offered 6 months or 1 year paid leave. At first, I thought the stories I was hearing were the exceptions; I slowly came to realize that we are the exception.

My sister recently posted this story on Facebook. Go read it, I’ll wait here.

I can’t really wrap my head around a movement to offer paid maternity leave. Facebook is wonderful for keeping in touch with friends and it’s also “wonderful” because they share their political views with you. My friends are apparently all anti-welfare and I can just see how paid maternity leave would be lumped into that category. They’d say “either women should stay home or they should rush themselves back to work to do their job”.

The link my sister posted goes into some economic benefits but I went off and did a little more research. Here are a few interesting points to consider:

  1. North Korea apparently offers 11 weeks of paid maternity leave. Yup.
  2. Taking additional leave is associated with improved maternal function. Mom is more energetic and less anxious. Do y’all really want to be around the sleepy, on-edge new mom that drug herself back to work just to get paid?
  3. Taking less leave is  associated with impaired motor and social development in children less than two years old.
  4. Longer maternity leaves equal higher breastfeeding rates. Breastmilk provides antibodies to help children get over illnesses more quickly. Since a parent usually has to take off work (paid) for a sick child, it seems to me that we are just robbing Peter to pay Paul.
  5. Apparently children will grow taller if mom takes off longer. This should totally be our top motivator. America could be, like, land of the giants and we’d never have to worry about losing the Olympics in basketball again.
  6. Somehow, extended maternity leaves even affect high school graduation rates.

From some of the above, I’m gathering that an increased maternity leave (which only happens when women can afford to stay home) has lifelong impacts. But let’s remember that increased leave only happens when moms can afford it.

If you are a stay-at-home mom advocate, you should still support paid maternity leave. Why? Item #3 above is probably your very reason for staying home with your children, right? To give them the best start in life. Not every woman that goes back to work wants to go back to work. I know I don’t. The mommy wars have made us believe that every woman has a choice and that the position you see her in (working mom vs. stay at home mom) is all she’s ever dreamed of. That’s not how it is at all. I’m living proof.

So I would support legislation for paid maternity leave. Absolutely. But only because I’m quite sure corporate America (save for some places like Google) are never going to make any changes that they don’t have to. After all, these corporations are the same folks who pay women less just because they are a woman. They aren’t jumping up and down to even give you 12 weeks off, but they do it because it’s the law.

Oh, America. I love you so. I love capitalism. But sometimes I don’t think you love women very much.
 

Budget ADHD

Water birth

In yesterday’s post I said I was so excited about paying off our debts that it’s keeping me up nights. It’s actually all-consuming. Here’s how my day progressed yesterday:

  1. Wake up, pat myself on back for having a budget that kinda, sorta works.
  2. Realize for the 100th time that we need to find more money somewhere, somehow for necessities like food, gas, and medical issues… Oh and to put something toward debts.
  3. Pack diaper bag to take youngest daughter for meet-and-greet session at her daycare that she will start on Friday. Thank my lucky stars that I used cloth diapers with our oldest child and that I don’t have to buy any kind of diaper this time around.
  4. Coordinate with my birth center for a shot at a “very” part time job opening. I might be able to make $50 a month to put toward debt without missing out on too much at home.
  5. Get to daycare and find out that cloth diapers have recently been banned.
  6. Choke back tears.
  7. Realize I now have to come up with $30 extra in a budget that was already short to cover disposable diapers.
  8. Hope that my full-time gig will allow me to take “very” part time job, because I’m going to have to do it to cover diapers.
  9. Have husband remind me that my full-time gig already wants me to work unpaid overtime, which I’m resisting, and is unlikely to give permission for a part-time gig unless I’m doing that overtime, too.
  10. Hate my husband for being right.
  11. Realize I could stop packing my daughter’s lunch for preschool. Yes, I’d rather her eat my vegan fare than the carnivorous fast-food crap that is served, but I could probably save $30 a week if I didn’t have principles.
  12. Darn my principles.
  13. Negotiate with myself that she’s not really vegan, anyway. She had “dead deer” and loved it “even though it’s mommy misses it and it’s so sad”.
  14. Remind myself I have principles. But darn them anyway.
  15. Realize that I have a bonus coming my way in January if I can manage to not to tick off my employer and keep my job. It will cover one of our three small loans.

And then noon rolled around…