Saturday, February 27, 2016

New Decade, Fresh Slate

When I was in my twenties, I had a very important list of all the things I wanted to have in place by the time I was 30:

have a solid career
get married
buy a house
have two babies

I focused so much on those arbitrary timeline milestones that I didn't pay so much attention to who I was planning to do all those things with. I thought I was notching off all my To-Dos, but I forgot the most important thing was to share my life with someone who respected me, supported me, and truly loved and cherished me above all others. I got married, but when people cry when you tell them you're engaged, and when you move ahead of time to Western NY and your neighbor downstate thinks you left-left, I'm not sure what a great accomplishment that is. We bought a house, but it never really felt like home...probably in large part because of who I shared it with. I struggled with career--I loved working at a certain big red dog publishing company, but moved to Western NY and had to cobble together something other than children's publishing, which resulted in an interesting string of jobs (curriculum coordinator, laid off! freelance writer, not enough dough and no benefits! yellow pages advertising cog!), but hadn't yet found My Thing. Until I decided while deadening my brain at the yellow pages that I was going to get my Master's in Education, got fired right before I started (a blessing, truly) and then worked as a human resources specialist at an HR services powerhouse while I accomplished that. Incidentally, I had NO support for that from the one who was supposed to be my beloved...he left the already-played message on the answering machine that I'd been accepted for two days without telling me, and informed me that he wasn't sure if we could afford which I replied that thanks to my saving of all my freelance money I had enough for my first year IN CASH. Ha HA. (Yet another thing to remind me that I'd chosen poorly in the marriage area.) And the babies? No babies. I chose to go back to school because my husband at the time told me he wasn't quite sure he actually did want to have babies, and he "wasn't ready." (Probably because of all the cheating, that takes up a lot of time.) And so with no plans to try for a baby in the works, a significant setback to my plan since I was 28 at the time, I decided to go back to school, to choose just one thing to push to the future. Given everything that came to pass, I am so glad I left that marriage with a Master's degree and not a baby. 

I found myself turning thirty with everything on my list gone to shit: 

Solid Career:  I was student teaching, so on my way to a career but paying to work full-time-plus, but with no guarantee that I'd land a coveted teaching job.
Marriage: I was getting divorced (a good thing in SO many ways, but to get divorced and turn thirty at the same time is cruel timing for sure).
House: No house anymore, I was living in an apartment above my parents' garage (in a house that they had just bought to retire to in a year and use as a summer house in the meantime, which was some damn lucky timing for me, since otherwise I have no idea what I would have done.)
Two Babies: No babies. And no boyfriend or career or house or prospect for having babies anytime soon. 


To make matters worse, I was in a financial hole. Throughout my twenties, I had never carried a balance on my credit cards. Now, all of my personal savings had gone into tuition for the first year of my Master's degree, and all joint savings was in my soon-to-be ex-husband's accounts to which I had no access. I still had to pay for my second year of Master's, and because my divorce wasn't final they still considered his income in the mix for loans, and so it was paltry... So I took some loan and paid for the rest (which was a lot) on my credit card. I figured it was a temporary issue and an investment in my future, and I could pay it off when I got a teaching job. 

And then I made all my money through waitressing on weekends at a catering house and subbing...which put me at poverty level until I got my first salaried job. 

I did receive a settlement for my divorce, and that helped, but the first check was entirely absorbed by paying my legal fees. I had THE WORST attorney who charged me 15 minutes of his hourly fee for every voicemail, and never called me back so I had to keep calling, and then he was so incompetent with filing that I GOT SERVED WITH DIVORCE PAPERS and so am the defendant in that whole mess. ME, the one who was cheated on for 3.5 years out of 5 and treated like dirt. It doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but it still makes me mad. The rest of the settlement went towards paying off my car (I was the primary driver but it wasn't in my name, so to keep it I had to pay it off), paying for living expenses while making very little money subbing and paying COBRA to keep my health insurance current... a snafu where I thought I had dental insurance for a long-term sub position but I didn't, and so a wisdom tooth extraction with anesthesia ended up being $1000 out of pocket...not realizing that the same long-term position provided health insurance until June, but then I wasn't covered July and August, and so had to pay two months of COBRA at once in August (another $1600). It didn't get very far. 

And all of a sudden I found myself in a debt pit. I couldn't make enough money to keep up with even my minimal expenses, and that credit card debt just crept up and up and up even though I made payments each month. Stupid interest. 

In hardly any time at all I owed more than $20,000. Which is a disgusting number, but the vast majority of it was my tuition expenses...which in the end didn't matter because $20,000 is $20,000 is $20,000. 

It is amazingly difficult to pay down credit card debt when it reaches that level. You can make a large payment but it will cover largely interest, and so your balance creeps down as slowly as the speed with which it shot up. It was beyond frustrating. 

I spent my thirties paying that down. I made larger payments when I could, I did balance transfers to 0% cards in amounts that I could pay off within the term and then closed the new account. Somehow I managed to maintain excellent credit in the midst of all this (probably because I was consistently paying each month and my balance amount WAS shrinking, so more of my available credit line was freed up). I negotiated the lowest interest rate they could give me (which at the time was 10%). And I just kept chip-chip-chipping away at it. 

I met Bryce shortly after my 30th birthday, and so he has witnessed this whole effort. Even after we got married, and he could have easily paid it off for me (It took forever to get to $10,000, and then I felt like I was making traction), but I WANTED TO DO IT MYSELF. I had gotten myself into this mess, and I wanted to be the one to ultimately zero it out. Even though everything is "our" money, until this debt is gone, I saw it as an albatross I didn't want Bryce to ever have to think about. It was my heavy dead bird to bear.

And so as we kept planning for maternity leave (and planning and planning and planning without ever actually having any leave), I kept trying to get that balance down and down and down, because I didn't want Bryce ever paying on my debt. I wanted it gone. I wanted to pay him back if he ever had to take over at any given point because I hadn't gotten rid of it before we were successful. 

Part of this was because I saw it as the mistakes of my twenties haunting my thirties. I associated that debt with the mess that was my divorce, and my switch in career at the same time that proved beyond expensive, and just everything about the disaster of the decade before I met Bryce. It was the last piece of my divorce that lingered. And I wanted to be the one to snuff it out. And I wanted it gone before my next decade. I wanted to start my forties debt-free, and lighter. 

I put between $500 and $800 per month into that stupid card. My tax returns always went part into the debt and part towards my summer saving. I worked HARD to get it gone.

And now, today, IT IS PAID OFF. My balance is ZERO. 


Although I do well for myself, I don't make a ton of money as a special education teacher, and it took a significant portion of my take-home pay to do this -- it took only using my bank card unless for emergencies and making a lot of tough choices. I have so much pride that I did it myself, that while I could have been done years ago and not paid as much interest if I'd just let Bryce do it, I stubbornly did it on my own. 


Now I am going into my forties in just over two months, and I only have a tiny amount of student loan left, and that is ALL THE DEBT I HAVE (minus mortgage). Pretty darn spiffy. 

As I march towards that new decade, my list of things I wanted at thirty that were pretty much all foobar'd at that point is now: 

Solid Career: I am a tenured special education teacher in a great district, and I LOVE my job.
Marriage: I have been married to someone who truly makes my life amazing for six and a half years -- we have mutual respect, support for each other's pursuits, love, laughter, and a strength of friendship and passion that I didn't ever think I would ever deserve, much less have. 
House: We have a house that is truly a home, even if it is squeezed for space we don't actually need more space at the moment. I love coming home. I love all the work we've done to it, together. It's a happy, cozy place. 
Two Babies: Well, you can't have everything. In all likelihood we will have one amazing baby when all is said and done... and there is absolutely no guarantee that this will come to pass before I turn forty. That's a lot of pressure, anyway. I guess it's something to leave to the next decade, the one where we will be parenting and adjusting the way we've lived our life without children for so long... 

Not too shabby. I am proud of my accomplishments, I feel an amazing lightness knowing that I will go on maternity leave without leaving my debt to someone else to pay, and more than that...I JUST GAVE MYSELF QUITE A RAISE! At least until I am out on leave and then return to pay for daycare... ha ha ha. 

Sometimes life doesn't turn out the way you imagined, and sometimes those arbitrary set points can do more harm than good. I have learned to be more flexible, and I think that will come in mighty handy when I face an entirely new decade with a fresh financial slate just in time to face the challenges and joys of new parenthood. 


  1. Congratulations Jess!!! That is a remarkable achievement!! I truly admire your perseverance to pay that amount of debt off, when I know it had to just seem never ending. You have been though so much and are SO strong. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is truly an inspiration. And just another reason why Mystery Baby is going to be gaining such and amazing mommy in you.

  2. Congratulations! You are a survivor and very stubborn too! What an inspiring story of resilience. I hope you tell the story to your future child often, because honesty about money and goal-setting is one of the great gifts a parent can give a child, worth way more than material gifts.

  3. Wow! That's a HUGE accomplishment!!! Paying off debt is so hard and does require sacrifice. But you had a considerably shitty situation with the bum lawyer and shitty ex. I'm glad you're erasing the damage from all of that and feeling strong going into this next chapter. And thank you for inspiring me to keep chipping away too.

  4. Jess, I am so proud of you for working hard for so many years, for making all the sacrifices you had to make, to erase your debt and to put that final purge on that terrifically difficult part of your life. I am glad you could flush that all away with a final click of the mouse this week. The hand you were dealt that put you there was colossally unfair and you were cheated out of so many things through that process. The last 10 years we have had together have been just incredible, I could not be more fortunate. I am thrilled that we get to laugh as much as we do, that we have become the closest of friends through our time, that we have the strongest relationship that any two people could possibly have. I feel even more fortunate that we both have loving supporting families that are there will us through our journey of parenthood. Although the journey is hard, I know that we could not do it any other way…you and I. To the many years ahead, to our parenthood, and to our family! Love you Jess!!!

  5. Congratulations! Getting to zero is an amazing feeling. :) You've done well, sister!

  6. Oh our 20s when we think we know everything- including how our life will be planned out. LOL.

    Congrats on paying off your debt! That's a HUGE accomplishment (especially when put in a sh*tty situation).

  7. This is amazing! Congratulations!

  8. Congratulations on paying off the credit card debt from going back to school! Big accomplishment and glad you are enjoying the relief. Interesting post about the twists and turns in life and the goals one sets for themselves. Taking it in in decades makes sense, but I think your story shows that life is not always linear as we hope it to be. Happy that you are in a happy place in life as you get ready to welcome a new decade. May this be a bright spot in your life with lots of sunshine!