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.