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Plan Well, Retire Well

Saving and investing your money

The Year of Suck - Didn't!

Last February, I wrote about a conversation I had with a coworker titled "The Year of Suck" where she detailed the plan she and her husband had for paying off their credit cards by adding money to their payments. However, finding that extra money meant cutting back on many little things that (in her words) would make life suck. Challenged by her declaration, a few weeks later I wrote "A Year of Fun" to help them out with ideas to continue having date nights and well deserved rewards for their efforts but doing so on the cheap. I gave her encouragement throughout the year as she relished every little victory and agonized over the setbacks. As we approached the holidays, she came to me and said that that while they did not accomplish 100% of their stated financial goals, they had made significant progress and what made her the happiest was that they were able to absorb a couple of major setbacks/expenses without having to use their credit cards for everyday expenses. Moreover, it did not suck nearly as badly as she thought. Here is her story…

"My husband and I decided we needed to get serious about paying off our debt. I called it the Year of Suck because that is what I imagined this year was going to be. We were going to get the highest interest credit card paid off this year. When T and I decided that we needed to get our rear in gear and get this ridiculous amount of debt paid off, we had a daughter who had just turned one, our son was six, and their daycare was absolutely killing us! Needless to say, money was extremely tight and I did not appreciate not being able to shop to help me de-stress! This led me to believe that the entire year would be like that which then led me to start calling this year the "Year of Suck." I thought I just had to get through this horrible year and then things would be better."

Changes started with daycare. "At the beginning of 2014, I calculated what we had paid the year before. We paid about $14,000 a year! There had been a goof with the subsidy my son gets from his dad's military job to help us pay for his care which left us with a big bill we were not prepared for. However, things started changing. First, our daughter's tuition went down when she turned 18 months! Yay, an $80/month "pay raise"! This was enough to give us a little breathing room, which helped me relax a ton. (I am counting the days until our daughter turns 2 and her tuition goes down again!). When my son went back to school in August, we cut his care to just before school at the daycare and let him ride the bus home. My husband is usually getting home at the same time as the bus, so it did not make sense to have him go back to daycare after school".

"Then, I started to challenge myself to find ways to have frugal nights in and out with our family and for date nights. My mother-in-law always saves her coupons from the paper for me. She does not use them, but I started relying on them this year. I found some good coupons to use for our monthly date night, which saved money on dinner and on our weekly lunch dates. I found a blog that created a meal plan completely with food from a national discount food store, which lowered our grocery budget even more. I know we could be stricter with our spending, but we (I) could not survive a spending fast and putting everything towards the credit card. We do not go on lavish dates, but we need that time to re-connect without the kids, so yeah, we will spend money on dinner one night a month. I have a date-night with my son once a month and I usually will spend money depending on what we want to do. If we want to go to a movie, we go to a matinee and count our concessions as our dinner for the night (I just have to have popcorn at the movies). However, many times he wants to go to the children's museum or bowling, both of which are relatively inexpensive. In addition, the bowling alley we like emails me coupons for $1.00 bowling or cheaper food items!"

Medical bills were next. "We also knew we were going to have bills coming from our daughter's weeklong stay in the hospital-even with good health insurance coverage. I am not sure how we would have managed without health coverage. We were able to pay off all of our daughters' hospital bills and another bill for having frozen embryos without having to use the credit cards!"

"My parents live in Georgia and my sister lives in Colorado, so travelling is part of our life. This year we did better saving up beforehand so we did not use the credit cards. Nevertheless, being with family and knowing my children will have a relationship with my parents and sister makes me comfortable spending the money."

"Both my husband and I were fortunate enough to get raises this fall! They came just in time for us to be blind-sided by my student loans coming due earlier than planned. I have been getting my Master's degree, so my loans have been in deferment. I planned to graduate in December (I did!), so we were thinking we had until around February before I had to start paying on them again. What I did not think of, was the fact that I only had one class scheduled for this semester, which dropped me below half time and made it necessary to start paying on my loans again. Thank goodness, we had those raises and the price of gas started falling, because we were able to absorb those costs without flinching too much

"All of these small things added up. We were able to save money all summer and buy tires this fall for my vehicle without having to resort to the credit card! We had a couple windfalls when my husband helped his parents sell their vehicles. One of them went to the credit card; the other one went to paying off one of the hospital bills and helping us travel to Georgia to see my family at Thanksgiving without having to use the credit cards."

"We didn't reach the goal we had set, we actually still have quite a way to go on paying off that credit card, but we are happy because we were able to not use the credit cards as much this year! We may not have reached our goal, but in my mind, we still won this year because we proved to ourselves that we could do this. By this time next year, that credit card will be gone and we will be tackling the next one!"

What are the important take away from this example?

  1. They did not reach their ultimate goal but feel like winners because they made a substantial dent in their debt and did not use their credit cards for everyday expenses as they were doing.
  2. They were able to absorb a new unexpected debt payment (student loans) without crumbling financially.
  3. They took a good look at all their spending and looked for different solutions to eliminate or greatly reduce the amount they were spending
  4. They honored their values in their spending plan (reconnecting through regular date nights and traveling to strengthen family relationships) and looked for ways to reduce the cost and increase saving for those planned expenses.
  5. Created income opportunities. With both already working full time jobs and having two small children, working a second job is not an option. However, they were able to create a couple of one shot income opportunities that helped pay off chunks of their debt. Creativity helps.

The moral of the story is that you can do it too. While many set a goal that seems realistic, often it is derailed by the unexpected. What is most important is that you set goals and then create changes in your financial behavior that are workable within your values and goals. Financial stability comes in the long term not the near term- like a marathon vs. a 5K race. Small changes can mean the difference between reaching the finish line and cramping up and dropping out. Celebrate the small victories and the larger ones will follow. Remember, becoming financially fit doesn't have to suck!

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