Back to the Future: 2010 End of Year Reflections

We were so glad to see the year 2010 come to an end – it still holds the record for the worst year we’ve ever endured financially. Everything seemed to go wrong that year, and it ended in the worst possible way – our beloved dog died. In spite of that, we managed to pay off nearly 40% of our debt, an amount that stuns me now. I’m still not sure how we accomplished that.

We kept going. Emergencies and other problems still reared their ugly heads in 2011, but nothing at the pace we endured in 2010.

2010 End of Year Reflections

Can I say again I will be so glad to see the last of 2010? I had hoped to be back online a couple of days ago, but our little guy, Tag, became sick again last Thursday evening and died this past Monday (the day after Christmas), and we have been grieving mightily around here. Tag was a dog happy to be where ever he was. Every person and every dog he met was a friend. To say we miss him doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of the sorrow around our home right now.

2010 will be remembered as the year of the emergency expense. Looking back, I just cannot believe everything that went wrong or needed to be fixed during the past year. We had to replace our washing machine and had both our oven and dishwasher repaired ($$$). Brett had three expensive dental emergencies, although the last one, with our new dentist, cost considerably less than we expected, and has us thinking we were perhaps being way over-charged by our previous dentist (actually, we did catch them padding the bill once . . . hmmm.). We sold one of our cars, but necessary repairs on the other turned out to cost double what we had budgeted along with some other unexpected maintenance. On top of everything else, there were all the trips to the vet and their accompanying costs. And, Mr. Losing It’s laptop gave up the ghost in November; we have yet to deal with that expense. We added up all that we spent on these emergencies this year and figured out that we could have had paid off two more accounts if not for having to cover all this other stuff.

There were positives this year as well. Brett got quite a large pay raise at the end of the year and received a nice end-of-the-year bonus from his company as well. We’ve paid off an incredible $26,317.75 of our debt, just a little over 40% of what we started with last year. We still have a long way to go, but three accounts were paid in full last year and closed and we are close to done with two more. Best of all is that we did not add any debt in 2010, and that makes me feel better than anything. I am so proud of the whole family because in spite of everything no one has complained, or whined, or did anything but contribute to our effort to get rid of debt.

Here’s what we accomplished in the last quarter of 2010:

  • Debt Paid: Total debt paid during the last three months of 2010 was $4031.71. One overdraft account was finally paid off, and we are now zeroed in on the other. As an added incentive to not use the overdraft account, our credit union now charges a fee if you have to use it (they want us to close it and switch to a credit card account – NO WAY).
  • Emergency Fund: What fund? Brett asked the other day, “What’s the point?” because it appears that as soon as we get something into it, something else happens to drain the account. Still, replenishing and building this account is a priority.
  • Meet the Grandson Fund: It’s a boy! We currently have $1,334. 50 saved for our trip to Japan next May. That will cover at least one plane ticket. Actually, fares are starting to drop now, and we should have enough for both tickets by the first of February. Both Brett and I need to get our passports renewed, but that expense has been budgeted in for January. Lodging and food while we’re in Tokyo are taken care of, but we plan to save an additional $1000 for other expenses (although this will not be a sightseeing/shopping type vacation).
  • Purchases: Other than Christmas presents, we bought nothing else this last quarter. I spent over an hour in Goodwill one morning and saw several things that were a good deal and would have been nice to buy, but we didn’t need them so I left empty-handed. What a change from the beginning of the year – I would have rationalized reasons to purchase everything. We spent just $600 this past Christmas and stayed within our budget. We still have to get Brett a new laptop but decided to wait until we get our tax refund for that as it will give him lots of time to shop around for the best price. The good deal from his company for buying one apparently ended earlier this year, but just as a fun point of reference, his old laptop, purchased a little over seven years ago, cost nearly $3000. These days he can get one with more features and more memory for around $800. Technology is the only thing that gets less expensive over time these days!
  • Groceries: I have been easily able to stay within our weekly budget of $140 this past quarter. I’ve pretty much gone back to bi-weekly shopping trips though, leaving some cash set aside for milk and produce shopping.
  • Meals Out: We had only one meal “out” this past quarter, and only because I felt so miserable one evening I couldn’t get up to cook and asked Brett to order some pizza. I have gone out for coffee a couple of times, but those were “business meetings” (school auction planning), and were paid for out of extra from the grocery fund. I received a Chinook Book for Christmas, and there are lots of great coupons for dining out, so I am hoping to get out a little more next year. Brett and I will be having breakfast at Bob’s Red Mill on Friday, for example – two breakfasts for the price of one!
  • Savings: Our annual summer camping trip is now fully funded! Beginning in January, the amount allotted for that fund will start going into an account for WenYu’s school trip to China in 2012. After our trip to Japan, funds that currently go into the Meet the Grandson Fund will go into building up the emergency fund.
  • Swagbucks: I used almost all of the ones I earned this past year for Christmas presents, but I’m saving again for some more Pyrex storage pieces. All of my referrals have maxed out, so earning Swagbucks will go more slowly this year.
  • Miscellaneous: Braces in 2011 for WenYu will be an added expense. I had originally wanted to pay for them with our tax refund, but since the payment plan offered by the orthodontist is interest-free, we’ve decided to stick with the monthly payment for the time being and use our 2010 tax refund to pay off an account that does charge interest!

Reading this post, one thing comes especially to mind: I recall how we lived in fear back then that Brett would be laid off (he worked in aerospace and layoffs happened more frequently than you might imagine). We were very lucky, and his job provided good benefits as well. What’s going on now because of the COVID-19 pandemic makes our predicaments look like child’s play, and my heart goes out to those who will struggle to cover daily expenses for themselves and their families and those having to postpone savings, retirement, and dreams of the future, let alone live with the fear of catching the virus.

Back to the Future: If You Cut Us, Do We Not Bleed?

The hits continued as we slogged through 2010. And by hits, I mean emergencies. Big emergencies. Looking back, I cannot remember a year when we had so many unexpected expenses, one after another, without stopping. Rereading these posts I cannot believe at times that we just didn’t give up, but we knew we had to succeed. At this point (November) in our journey, the goal was strictly to get ourselves out of debt; other bigger motivational goals had yet to emerge.

One of the big lessons we took from all of this was that there is no one way to walk this path. One family might experience one or two small emergencies, while another might have things going wrong for them all the time. I remember reading Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover, and watching a couple of his videos at the beginning of our journey, and he made it all sound so easy. Beans and rice. Drive a beater. Gazelle intensity. Put $1000 away for possible emergencies. Well, $1000 can go pretty quickly when you have four major emergencies in a month. And it can be nearly impossible to restock that fund or pay down your debt when bad things continue to happen. Gazelles do eventually get tired. Based on the scenarios in Dave’s book, we should have been approaching the finish line at this point in 2010, but instead, it took us over two more years to finally get rid of all our debt.

Life happens. An unexpected turn helped get us into debt, and the road out was filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and plenty of roadblocks along the way. That’s the story these books don’t tell you. As we discovered, there’s no easy or quick way to prepare for all the pitfalls either – you just meet them head-on, do or build what it takes to go on, and keep going. 

If You Cut Us, Do We Not Bleed?

This whole thing with emergency expenses this year just has to be some kind of giant cosmic joke. I mean all I asked a few days ago is that we be allowed some time off to just catch our breath, and hopefully restock our emergency fund. I did not say, “Bring it on!”

However, this was apparently asking for too much because on Monday morning we woke up to another very sick dog (with a totally different illness). That trip to the vet and the medication cost us nearly $200, and she has to go back the day after Thanksgiving to make sure she will not be blind for life. It turns out she is no longer producing tears, so her eyes got irritated and became infected, poor thing. She will probably need to take medication for the rest of her life so she can make tears. Can you say $$$?

And then on Tuesday evening, just to make sure we were still paying attention, Brett’s laptop died. He went to turn it on, got a blue screen for a moment, heard a sizzle and a pop, then got a black screen and nothing. Thankfully everything is backed up, but this is something that has to be replaced and soon because he uses his laptop for work.

We, of course, have no emergency funds because the expenses just keep coming and we keep paying for them and can’t get anything back into the fund! And now, unless we break out the credit card, there goes our Christmas fund, our meet-the grandchild fund, and our daughter’s school trip fund to cover this latest round of emergency madness. Accelerated debt reduction? Not so much these days.

I cannot wait for this year to be over!

(Apologies to Shakespeare, but we feel like it’s gone beyond mere pricking.)

Sadly, things did not get better after this, at least not right away. Brett did not get a new computer for a few months. Our dog did need medication for the rest of her life; we somehow fit that into the budget. And, I’m not sure how we did it, but we did not use up our special funds nor did we put any of these expenses on a credit card. I don’t remember what we did at this point. All I know now is that we kept going.

Back to the Future: One Teen’s View of Frugality

Although Brett and I weren’t sure initially how they would feel about our new, debt-reducing lifestyle, our three daughters turned out to be our biggest supporters and helpers. They got it. They looked for ways to help, to cut back, and adjusted their lives and viewpoints to our situation. For example, I enjoyed taking WenYu and YaYu along on grocery trips because when I would put something in the cart that wasn’t on the list, they would take it right back out and put it away with the words, “we don’t need that, Mom.” They kept me in line. They rarely if ever complained about our situation, although I know they were disappointed at times when we had to tell them we couldn’t afford to buy them something or didn’t have the money for them to do something with their friends. They learned to adapt though, and came up with creative ideas to make the most of what we did have or could do. For example, we often didn’t have any extra for them to take a gift to friends’ birthday parties, but they would bake and take a personal full batch of cookies for their friend to enjoy. Those cookies turned out to be a pretty popular gift! They could take $5 or $6 to the Dollar Store and come out with a very nice gift bag full of fun things, like bubble bath, candy, and so forth. All three of them became savvy shoppers and knew where to look and what to buy to get the most for their money, whether it was for back-to-school clothes or other items they wanted.

We have told them over and over that we could not have gotten out of debt, or accomplished our goals, without their support and help. We were and are so fortunate to have them on our team, both then and now.

One Teen’s View of Frugality

When Brett and I sat with our girls at the end of last year and outlined the state of our finances and what we were going to have to do to get out of debt, Meiling, our oldest daughter, rolled her eyes with impatience. She groaned and/or laughed at every suggestion from her sisters for ways we could cut back and save, at things we decided we could do without. She sighed loudly when we explained for the third or fourth time how bad things had gotten like this was so not a big deal.

But as the year has progressed, she has chipped in, gone without and learned to embrace our more frugal lifestyle. Goodwill, Plato’s Closet and other resale stores are her favorites now. Although she still loves to go to the mall, trips are infrequent these days, and she goes to the stores where she can get the most for her money versus those where she can afford one status item. Before her trip to China last spring, she made up her mind to win the $50 first prize for most fundraising volunteer hours, and put in nearly 90 hours of time, volunteering for every fundraiser held (and she did win the prize!). She has aggressively sought out childcare opportunities to earn her own money and is already saving for college.

Earlier this week, for her first high school writing assignment, she was asked to write about the most meaningful day of her life. When we asked at the dinner table what she was going to write about, I was sure she would spring for the obvious, the day she was adopted. But instead, she surprised us all and said she was going to write about the day in September 2008 when the U.S. economy nearly collapsed. She said she didn’t know it at the time, didn’t even actually register that something big had happened that day, but has since discovered that it had changed her life and viewpoint more than any other event outside of her adoption. Because of the economic downturn, her dad’s hours at work were cut and her family ended up deeper in debt. And, because of the debt, we ended up changing our whole way of looking at how we lived and how we spent our money, and that has affected her more than anything else.

On the negative side, Meiling wrote that she doesn’t like that we can’t afford to send her to summer camps anymore, or Saturday Academy, and that other than our annual camping trip we aren’t taking any more “fun” vacations (like Disney World, or weekends in Seattle). She begrudgingly admitted that she got to spend two weeks in China last spring, something the rest of the family didn’t get to do but said it still wasn’t a vacation but a school trip with work every day.

On the plus side, she wrote that she is proud of her family and the permanent, more frugal changes we have made. She likes that we are more careful with our money and that we make thoughtful decisions together about how to spend it. She enjoys earning and saving her own money and loves the “thrill of the hunt” in resale and thrift stores. She said she now knows the difference between “want” and “need.”

The rolling eyes, groans, and big sighs have been replaced by an appreciation for what we have versus what we don’t. On the whole, Meiling wrote, our changes to a more frugal lifestyle have been a plus for her and have given her an appreciation for how lucky we are. She says she is no longer jealous of those who have more or appear to have more. She knows now that it could have been a whole lot worse, as it was and continues to be for so many other families.

Meiling continues to live frugally and is very careful with her money. She still enjoys hunting for bargains even though she works and receives quite a good salary these days, as well as has a boyfriend that spoils her. The other two girls continue to be serious frugalistas as well, careful with what they have and how they spend it, and we continue to be so very, very proud of them.

Back to the Future: Doubling Down on Our Debt

Looking back at posts from 2010, it seems almost a miracle that we didn’t give up that year. Almost everything that could possibly go wrong did, and we spent the whole year taking two steps forward followed by one step back. We’d fill up our emergency fund only to find it depleted the next month because of yet another emergency expense.

Still, we did not add to our credit card balances, so that was something, and we continued on with our frugal ways and somehow kept plugging along.

Doubling Down on Our Debt

Brett and I sat down this past weekend to take stock of how things are going with our debt reduction plan. The consensus: not well. We’re moving along but are nowhere near where we hoped to be by this time, and at the rate we’re going it will take us an extra year to pay off all our debt. We are living as frugally as we can, but there still never seems to be enough, so we know something has to give. Our snowball is not growing.

This last quarter has been brutal. We started out in April with one account paid in full, a nice piece of another paid down, and an emergency fund in place. We’re ending this quarter with the emergency account depleted, and balances back on both accounts (overdraft accounts, not credit cards). One emergency after another occurred: two expensive dental emergencies for Brett; additional expenses with YaYu’s two surgeries; having to purchase a “new” washing machine; expensive oven repairs; a pet emergency; etc. We tried to fit what we could into our regular budget, but many (if not most) of the expenses were large enough that we had to hit the emergency fund and when that was gone, hit the overdraft accounts for funds.

A month ago I decided I needed to be a little more proactive about producing some income, and this fall will be providing after-school care for some of our friends’ children. I think this is going to be a win-win situation for both us and our friends. We know their children and they are friendly with our girls, and I will earn several hundred dollars a month while the parents will be paying less than they did to their previous providers.

We also decided to sell one of our cars. We have two great, low-mileage cars, one of them a hybrid. However, we only drive one of them regularly; the other one pretty much sits in the garage all the time because Brett uses public transportation to get to and from his work. The hybrid has been great for around-town errands and such because of the terrific mileage; we only have to buy gas for it every 3 to 4 weeks. The only problem is that all five of us barely fit into it these days, so it’s totally impractical if we all need to go somewhere (and that does happen fairly regularly). Our other car is a mid-sized wagon that we all fit into comfortably, but the gas mileage is terrible around town so we don’t like to use it for day to day stuff. But, the wagon is a safer car and can hold a lot more stuff besides the five of us. We looked at car values online and realized that we could sell the hybrid for enough to get rid of both car payments, so it’s now for sale. We will join Zipcar after the hybrid sells for those times when we need a second car (which are rare).

We have one more plan on the back burner: sell our house. We bought this house five years ago to live closer to the girls’ elementary school, but after next year they will all be in middle and high schools that aren’t that close to where we currently live. It’s a good house and fits us, but we’ve never been all that crazy about it or the neighborhood, even though the house has appreciated in value.  It’s been our dream to own a house out at the coast when Brett retires, and we think we can not only pay off more of our debt but save more toward that dream by renting something closer to the girls’ schools for a year or so than what this house would gain in appreciation over the next couple of years. So we’ll see.

For the time being though, we need to be patient and get the car sold, keep paying on our other debts, pray for no more emergencies, and enjoy our summer vacation.

This was originally posted on June 10, 2010. We did sell our hybrid and pay off both of our cars, so that helped move us forward. We never joined Zipcar and did fine with just one car. We decided against selling our home though, and sold it a few months before we moved to Hawaii in 2014. The emergency expenses never ended though – it was a rough year.

My decision to do some after-school care for four sixth-grade girls was one of the dumbest I’ve ever made. The drama from both the girls and their parents was not worth the money I earned.

Back to the Future: The Older I Get, the Less I Want

These days it takes very little to make Brett and I happy. Experiences, not things, are what bring us joy. We’ve learned over the past 16 or so months as we’ve traveled that we can live very nicely with very little. Our favorite Airbnb is still the small (less than 300 square feet) studio apartment we stayed at when in Strasbourg, where we learned we could live in a very small space as long as we had a comfortable bed and a comfortable sofa (in that apartment they were the same thing!). We’ve found the two of us don’t even need a dining table anymore. We just don’t need much of anything these days.

It wasn’t always that way though. I used to want all the stuff. I wanted to have everything. When Brett retired from the navy in 1992 and we moved back to the U.S. from Japan, our household goods shipment weighed 12,500 pounds! That’s a LOT of stuff, especially for just three people. When we got it all unpacked and put away, our home looked and felt like an overstuffed museum of Japanese antiques and other goods.

Thankfully things changed. When we moved to Hawaii in 2014, we shipped only 4,500 pounds for our then family of five, and the whole time we lived on Kaua’i Brett and I questioned whether we still owned too much stuff. When we left the island four years later we shipped just 1,000 pounds back for storage on the mainland, and this December we expect to get rid of a third to half of that. We now have less than 10 of the items we initially brought back from Japan.

Back in 2010, when we were struggling and loaded with debt, it was helpful for me to remember how I felt back when we almost lost our stuff, that it was all just stuff and I didn’t need to accumulate more to live a happy life. I’m much happier these days with less and knowing that others are taking joy from and using the many things we were willing to let go.

The Older I Get, The Less I Want

When Brett retired from the navy, it was at the end of a three and a half year tour in Japan. He spent most of that tour deployed on an aircraft carrier while I spent most of those years shopping and accumulating stuff. Up until then we had always lived fairly simply and had not acquired much because of the small weight allowance for moving our household goods, but right at the beginning of our Japan tour our household goods allowance was upped by several thousand pounds. In the second year of the tour, Brett received a promotion, and along with a nice pay raise he also received another increase in our household goods allowance.

I, to put it mildly, went nuts. Shopping became my primary form of recreation, a way to keep busy while Brett was gone and our son was busy with school and friends. I was teaching English at the time, making good money, and all I did was buy, buy, buy, especially antiques. We came home with 15 (yes, 15!) antique tansu (Japanese chests) of all types and sizes, loads of antique porcelain and lots of other items I had convinced myself we had to have and couldn’t leave Japan without owning. I told myself all these things were an investment. Looking back, I don’t think there was a day that I wasn’t shopping somewhere for something. It was almost obscene how much I shopped. The only good thing, if I can claim it, was that I paid cash for everything; we had no debt and actually had a decent savings account as well. And, the shopping stopped as soon as we arrived home in the U.S.

Our household goods were scheduled to arrive back in the States about 4-5 weeks after we did. Four weeks arrived though and there was no shipment or any word about it. At five weeks we called to check on things and were informed our shipment could not be located, that it had been lost and they were trying to find it. Initially, all I felt was panic, deep, deep panic that almost everything we owned was gone forever. However, in the next couple of days, something began to change. As I thought about having to start over, I also began to feel liberated, like an incredibly heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders. As I moved through the near-empty rooms of the apartment we had just rented, I began to question why I had ever wanted all those things we had accumulated. While I felt deep, searing pain when I thought of the photo albums, the few of our son’s things I had kept from when he was a baby, and a few truly irreplaceable items that might be gone forever, for everything else I felt no attachment whatsoever. I wanted our simple life back again.

Our household goods were eventually found, delivered, and were squeezed into our small house, but they never held the same appeal for me they did when I bought them or when we lived in Japan. We’ve spent the years since Brett’s retirement slowly divesting ourselves of much of our Japan stuff. Brett was unemployed for almost three years following his retirement, and the sale of several of those items we had brought back saw us through some hard times, so maybe they were an investment after all. The sale of other items helped us fund our adoptions. But I haven’t missed one of them, and have never regretted that we sold them.

We now have less than half the weight of what we shipped back from Japan, even with the addition of three more children and a bigger house, and I would very much like to get rid of a lot more. I know now I can live, we all could, with much less than we have now and manage quite nicely. I just don’t want things anymore, not unless they’re functional and serve an important purpose in our lives. Shopping holds no thrill for me these days. The girls, of course, love having stuff, but for now, they want more for us to be out of debt than for them to own more. Brett, the King of the Pack Rats, still clings to his stuff, but even he has made immense strides in reducing his hoard. We’re getting there.

Maybe what’s been going on is a function of aging or just heredity. When we were children and used to visit our grandmother, she always let me and my siblings go through her things and choose something to take home because she was “thinning things out.” She said she didn’t need so many things anymore, even though she already lived very simply. As she has aged, my mother has divested herself of most of her possessions and lives in a small, uncluttered apartment. She’d rather travel than maintain or worry about a lot of stuff. Whatever the reason, it seems the older I get, the less I want as well.

The above was originally posted on July 26, 2010. I’m happy to report that Brett has given up his title as King of the Packrats. These days he’s a true minimalist, more so than I am.

Back to the Future: Broke

Rereading this post from January 2010 was a bit of a surprise because I had forgotten that things were so bad that even a promotion and a pay raise could temporarily cause problems. I can’t even begin to imagine where we would have been back then if Brett had lost his job versus just losing a portion of his income (although a nearly 40% loss of income is a pretty strong blow).

I can see now how fortunate we were that we didn’t have to worry about losing our home. Brett’s military retirement income covered our mortgage, insurance, and taxes – all were paid by automatic deduction every month. But of course, that left everything else we had to cover: food, utilities, car payments, credit cards, the girls’ braces, and more out of our diminished income. Those were the things that were overwhelming us, even with income still coming in and an upcoming increase in Brett’s pay.

BROKE

Brett is out right now selling used books and a few DVDs we found so that we have a few dollars (hopefully) to get us through the next couple of weeks. We have two necessary doctor visits which will require co-pays, a prescription for one child that must be filled, and there will hopefully be enough left over to buy milk the week after next. Otherwise, we have no cash flow for the next two weeks, nothing in reserve, nada. We are broke and are now getting a taste of what millions of families have been going through during the recession with their jobs lost and/or their incomes reduced, or what low-income families go through all the time. As my husband and I are both employed and have good benefits, we have no excuse for our current financial state except for getting ourselves heavily into debt.

Thankfully it’s just going to be a small taste of going without income. We did get a nice surprise at the end of the year – Brett received a promotion (!) and somewhat decent pay raise (!!) week before last and is transitioning from weekly to bi-weekly pay. It will not solve our problems but it is going to make things a bit easier going forward. However, next week is the first week he skips getting paid. I only am paid once a month, on the last day of the month, and that will arrive the same day as his new pay and we will catch up then and be back on track. But even knowing this week was coming and preparing as best as we could, arriving here has been a real eye-opener and frankly, frightening. It is the first time in my life that I won’t be making (a few) payments on time. I made sure that every automatic payment in our account will be covered, but that took every dime of what we had on hand. The non-automatic payments will just have to wait until the end of the month even though their due dates start next week. I have made sure that there is enough food on hand for the next two weeks. Meals will be simple for sure, but at least we have enough food (other than milk; I don’t have room to store more than a week’s worth of milk) to get us through. The children thankfully have enough in their school lunch accounts to cover them for the next two weeks. Faced with a situation like this in the past, I would have broken out the credit cards, but not this time. They are what got us to this place, and not the way out anymore.

What weighs constantly on my mind is the question, “What if Brett had lost his job instead of receiving a promotion?” We are selling books and DVDs now; what else would we have to sell to survive? How would we feed our family? Would we eventually lose our home? Would we survive?

This is where our debt has brought us and it’s not pretty. This is definitely not how I want to spend the rest of my life, looking over my shoulder, or checking out the window to see if the wolf is still hovering at the door.

In retrospect, Brett’s “promotion” turned out to be a way for his company to get more work out of him once again to take care of the backlog of work that had piled up once the overtime was cut off. The new position was salaried versus hourly but came with the same long hours as before for the same work. The pay increase, although appreciated, ended up being nowhere near what he had been making previously so once overtime was approved again, he left the salaried position and went back to hourly pay until he retired.

Back to the Future: Ghosts of Christmas Past

I didn’t post anything on I’m Losing It Here about Christmas in 2009, and have no memories of what we did or didn’t do that year. Brett and I may not have exchanged gifts, and presents for the girls may have been less than usual but I don’t remember anything other than it was a grim time for us. We probably still put up a big tree at the beginning of the month, but anything else about how we spent Christmas that year is lost in a fog.

However, I clearly remember writing the post below a year later, in early December 2010. I had accumulated a lot of heavy baggage from my childhood about Christmas, and 2010 was the year I was finally able to let all that baggage go and truly enjoy the holiday for the first time. We continue to enjoy simple Christmases these days with gifts kept to a minimum. As our oldest daughter said earlier this year, “Mom, it’s not about the presents anymore. It’s about us being together.” So, although this post jumps a little bit ahead in our get-out-of-debt story, I think it’s worth sharing now.

(I’ve also decided to use Brett’s name instead of other references to him because they were driving me nuts and I can only imagine what it is like for readers.)

This Year’s Christmas Non-Shopping

Christmas was not a happy, festive time at our home when I was growing up, and I don’t have any warm, fuzzy memories about those times. Christmas seemed to be another financial burden as well as a nuisance to be borne by my parents. While my dad didn’t deliberately choose the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, we usually seemed to get the nearest thing to it, with our tree shedding most of its needles before it ever came through the door. Christmas lists were eagerly drawn up by my siblings and myself every year but I don’t remember ever once receiving anything I asked and hoped for. Parsimony ruled the day unless it was for hockey gear for my brothers, then no expense was spared. The worst Christmas gift I can recall receiving (and there are many to choose from) was the November and December volumes from a Time-Life series of books my parents subscribed to and that the whole family shared. My mom wrapped the two books and put them under the tree for my gift that year. I dreaded going back to school after the holidays because I didn’t want to hear about or see all the wonderful and thoughtful gifts my friends and classmates had received.

The gifts we children gave were unimaginative as well, but there wasn’t much you could buy for five other people with a dollar or two (we didn’t get an allowance, so our funds were from pennies we had saved throughout the year). My father eventually would pass out a little money to me and my siblings in early December, but before that happened I remember giving him a bar of Dial soap for several years (and him acting thrilled) or giving my mom a bottle of “Evening In Paris” perfume from the dime store one year. She was not thrilled, but then who could be?

As you can imagine, I collected a whole lot of baggage along the way about Christmas and how it should be celebrated. After Brett and I got married, I was determined that Christmas was going to be the happiest, most exciting time of the year, with a big tree, the house decorated to the nines, lots of baking and parties, and presents, presents, presents! Money was no object, not at Christmas, even if we didn’t have it, and I tried to fulfill every wish on everyone’s list as well as knock their socks off with something totally unexpected and wonderful. As you can probably imagine, we incurred debt every year at Christmas and spent the first few months of the year paying it off.

This year is the first where we’ve had a realistic budget for Christmas, one that we’re adhering to. It’s amazing how freeing it is. There’s been no agonizing over how we’re going to pay for Christmas. We’re spending less than half of what we did in the past, supplemented with Amazon credit from Swagbucks. Each of the girls will receive one “big,” special gift that Brett and I have carefully thought about and can afford, and another smaller gift from us (clothing). There’ll be a few small things in each of their stockings, but that’s all. We cut back the amount to be spent on each “Secret Santa” gift to $25 or less per person (we exchange names within the family, including our son and daughter-in-law), and the girls have had fun thinking of useful or much-desired gifts that fit within the budget.  For gifts outside of our immediate family, we are either not giving anything this year, at least not now, or giving homemade treats. We’re also keeping decorations to a minimum, with a small tree on a table this year versus our usual 7-foot noble fir.

You know what the best part is? I’m just as excited about Christmas this year as I’ve ever been. So are the girls and Brett. Being on a budget has not made us feel stifled; in fact, we’ve found we’re having a lot more fun and being more creative and thoughtful about our gift-giving in the process. Who knew?

It appears I’ve finally tossed all that old baggage out for good. Bring on the holidays!

Back to the Future: Part III: The Ugly

Several commenters on the “10 Years a Blogger” post wrote that they would be interested in reading posts from my earlier blogs. While the administrative duties of managing more than one blog are more than I want to take on, about midway through answering comments I realized I could still share selected posts from those blogs. So, I’ve decided to start by offering up one of the earliest posts I wrote from I’m Losing It Here, and if readers are interested in knowing more about how our story progressed I’ll continue to share more.

The post below, published on December 31, 2009, is actually the third in an initial series I wrote in December 2009 when I started I’m Losing It Here. I called the series “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” The first two posts were about losing weight (that at least had been going somewhat well), but the main effort behind starting the blog was to document facing and getting rid of the massive amount of debt (over $65K) we had accrued. Part III: The Ugly was the beginning of that story.

BTW, Brett initially did not want me to use his name, so it won’t show up in I’m Losing It Here posts. He’s always “my husband” or “Mr. Losing It” or something along those lines.

Part III: The Ugly

If debt were categorized like weight, my husband I would be considered beyond morbidly obese.  We are drowning in deep, massive debt. While we are still able to pay all our bills on time and put food on the table, we finally had to accept at the end of this year that it had gotten out of hand, and we had to get rid of it or we would sink and drown.

Up to and during 2008, times were good.  My husband got tons of overtime so paychecks were big and fat.  I didn’t have to work, and stayed busy volunteering at my children’s’ schools, or driving them to their activities, or back and forth from school.  We put money away each month and were able to pay cash for our 8-day Disney vacation in early December 2008.  When I went to the grocery store or Costco, I filled my cart with whatever caught my eye or whatever I thought might be tasty.  While we didn’t shower the kids with anything or everything their hearts’ desired at the moment, there still was no problem getting them new clothes and shoes when they needed them, or paying for field trips or school supplies.  I bought myself and my husband new clothes now and then without worry (although I’m actually not a big shopper).  We had a new patio installed and some other landscaping done because the financing was so good and we felt we could afford the payments.  The spike in gasoline prices wasn’t an issue, mainly because one of our cars is a hybrid and also because we are just not that into driving all over the place.  There was no problem paying for the children’s music lessons, braces, etc.  We thankfully have good medical insurance and were healthy all year so we didn’t have any major expenses in that area either.  When we came home from our Disney trip, my husband had received a nice bonus from work which paid for everything for Christmas.   He also received a nice cost-of-living raise on his military retirement.

Things started to change late October 2008 when my husband’s manager announced that effective immediately, there would be no more overtime (note: The amount of work coming in for Brett did not cease nor diminish, however – it just began to back up).  We had forgotten how small his regular paycheck was, but with what we had put away we were able to continue to cover expenses. His employer also announced that there would be no pay increases for anyone in 2009, which caused us to take a small gulp. I decided I needed to find something to bring in a little money, but something that would not interfere with the children’s activities or school schedule, and in February of 2009 I started work as a kitchen assistant in a nearby elementary school. It’s a fun job, but my once-a-month paychecks did not even begin to make up the overtime pay we had lost.  We got a large tax refund in March, which I put away, but by July it was all gone, used again to cover our monthly expenses. We dipped into our overdraft accounts and ran them up to their limits, then broke out the credit cards in August. Even without shopping sprees, or fancy vacations, they were up to their (high) limits by the end of the year after covering emergency medical expenses, car repairs, and some home repairs. I personally began to be afraid that we would run out of food, and looking back I realize I spent an awful lot on food. Our pantry was always filled to overflowing as was a storage shelf out in the garage. But eventually, I had to dig into that as well as I had less and less per week to spend on groceries as we struggled to cover our mounting payments.

In early October we decided to sell one of our cars, the hybrid. It had low mileage, was in great condition and its value was way over what we owed. We had all of two serious lookers, and both of them offered far less than it was worth. We decided to keep it when we saw how much our gasoline bill spiked when we were driving our other car, a VW Passat wagon. With the hybrid, we only needed to fill the tank once a month, with the Passat it was once a week. We didn’t want to get rid of the VW though as it was the only car that could fit all of us (as well as our dogs) if we ever wanted or needed to go somewhere as a family.

In early December, we tried to refinance our house to lower our payment. No cash-out was requested, just a lower payment. After shelling out for the appraisal (based on the bank’s conditional pre-approval), running paperwork back and forth, we were denied final approval because our debt-to-income ratio was too high and because we had no cash to bring to the closing.

Thankfully I had already purchased everything for Christmas, but otherwise, by mid-December, we had hit rock-bottom. It was a come-to-Jesus time for us and our debt.