** I’ve been writing, and editing, and rewriting this post for months, putting off actually hitting Publish. Why? Because it’s very personal. And definitely TMI. And has nothing to do with personal finance. And involves… girl stuff… And it probably won’t be relevant to most of the readers here. So, feel free to skip this one! You’ve been warned!

I actually left work on time that day, desperate to make it to the Vitamin Shoppe before they closed. I’d discovered the night before that I was down to my last pill. Driving 20 minutes out of my way was more than worth it. I made a bee-line through the store to the back wall, and grabbed two bottles of reishi mushroom extract. You can buy it at most health food stores, but Vitamin Shoppe is one of the few places that sell an affordable store brand; I’d likely pay anything for them, but why pay $20-50 for 60 pills (or less!) when you can get 100 for $12?

The gray-haired man behind the counter seemed very friendly. Maybe a little too friendly. I’m the type of person who prefers her purchases not be commented on. No such luck. I could feel it coming as he started chit-chatting.

Him: So what made you decide on the  reishi mushroom?

Me (feeling the redness creeping up my face): I have… uhm… an… allergy.

Him (look of confusion): Huh. Reishi mushroom is generally recommended for immune support. I myself follow a mushroom regiment. But if you’re suffering from allergies, I’d recommend: blah, blah, blah.

I stood there for a second, ready to just thank him for his advice, pay for my reishi and go. But then I reminded myself how hard it was to find a solution to my issue. And I’d promised myself that I would share that information. Maybe by sharing, I’d help someone else? After all, don’t many people turn to herbal medicines when modern science fails them?

I took a deep breath and replied: I have a sperm allergy.

Well, that’s one way to shut a middle-aged man up! Mr. Chatty just stood there, mouth open, staring at me. It was obvious I’d caught him off guard. Just when the silence started getting uncomfortable, the sales girl a few feet over, who apparently had been eavesdropping on our conversation, jumped into the conversation. She seemed genuinely interested, asking several questions. Eventually, her male counterpart was able to recover, as he looked at me in awe and whispered: I didn’t even know that was possible.

I’m not even sure if my sperm “allergy” is technically considered an allergy. No, my throat won’t swell closed if I give a blow-job (my sister was dying to ask that question!). And Benedryl provides no relief at all; Although I’m guilty upon occasion of taking a few so I could sleep despite the discomfort. It’s more that my vagina views sperm as a foreign invader that must be stopped at all cost. The immune reaction results in swelling, burning, and discomfort that can last for weeks. Weeks! This reaction creates an imbalance in my system, which often will lead to some type of infection.

I’ve spent many, many years being brushed off as just having an “overly sensitive” system. It wasn’t until Bryan and I had been dating about a year that my gynecologist brought up allergies as a possible culprit. After a battery of allergy tests, the Allergist gave his recommendation: My skin was too sensitive to draw many conclusions about food, but I definitely had a lot of reactions, so I should stay away from using anything natural on my body (or Bryan’s body). The chemical tests were better: Nothing with propylene glycol or cocamidopropyl betaine (found in most body washes, shampoos, conditioners, etc.) for me (or Bryan!). No condoms, of any kind, ever. I already assumed those were an issue from previous relationships. And a list of other recommendations that didn’t apply to my, uhm, “issue”: No cobalt. No formaldehyde. No whatever-chemical-they-use-in-hair-dye. I have a list… somewhere…

Changing both of our shower products, and steering clear of all condoms and lubricants, made things better. Much better. Instead of feeling like I had an infection all the time, I was only having issues about once a quarter. Better, but it still sucked. Especially since it took weeks to figure out; It usually just started off as irritation and inflammation, so there wasn’t much the doctor could do about it. I had to wait (usually several weeks) to figure out if it would turn into an infection, or go away on its own. Miserable!

My doctor was out of answers, so I did what most people do, and started scouring the internet. Turns out, there are thousands of women who have the same issues. Thousands of women who have been suffering for years. Women whose marriages and relationships end over something that makes them miserable, and they have no control over. Women who are trying unbelievable remedies to find some relief. I was shocked to see what some women were doing to find relief. There are just certain places a clove of garlic should never go!

I started to pay attention to when my issues would start; Honestly, it wasn’t hard to do, since the reaction is pretty much instant. It didn’t take long to figure it out: sperm. Was that even possible? The internet said it was, but just be safe, I asked my doctor. Turns out, it really is possible! Because of the type of reaction it is, there isn’t an easy way to test to be sure. I try to avoid what’s causing the reaction. It doesn’t always work out. See above comments about condoms. See any high school sex ed book for statistics on how well “pulling out” helps you avoid sperm. And to some extent, my original doctors were right: My system is so sensitive, I react to anything the least bit different. Try as we might, we couldn’t completely avoid causing a reaction.

Somewhere in the vast web, I finally found an answer: reishi mushroom extract. It’s widely known for supporting the immune system, and is commonly used by people with cancer, or who are avoiding cancer risks. I assume that’s why it works, since my sperm allergy is an immune reaction. And it seems to work for more than just sperm related issues: it’s helped in situations where someone decided to try a new body wash, and a few other mishaps we should have been more careful to avoid.

I don’t take the pills all the time; I usually just take 2 pills morning and night for several days when I need them. That being said, I’d gotten to the point of being overly confident with how well they worked, and wasn’t taking them often enough or long enough when I did need them. Lately I’ve been taking two a day, just to get my system back on track.

Which brings up another good question: Fertility. Obviously, sperm is a necessary part of creating a baby. There isn’t much (maybe any) research on the subject. Everything I’ve come across (on the internet) has basically said that, with a sperm allergy, your only hope is in-vitro. If the reishi mushroom stops the reaction, does that mean pregnancy is possible? I haven’t found anything that says one way or the other.We’re pretty well settled on the idea that we won’t be having children, so we aren’t really trying to figure that part out.

See, I warned you this post was TMI! Why am I posting about sperm allergies on a personal finance blog? Because it’s my blog, and I’ll do what I want! I kid! I’m doing this because I know how miserable it is to suffer through, without any answers. The toll it can take on relationships. The desperation to find an answer! While I don’t get a lot of traffic here, this blog is a public format, where women might be able to come across the answers they need. It may not work for everyone. But maybe I can help one other person who is suffering.

And then it would totally be worth the embarrassment of sharing my vaginal issues with the world (and the horrified sales man at Vitamin Shoppe)!

  • Cindy W.

Note: I am NOT a doctor, and this is in no way medical advice. Talk to your own doctor, and do your own research before trying any new supplement. While I haven’t noticed any side effects in the year plus that I’ve been regularly taking reishi mushroom extract, I can’t guarantee that there aren’t side effects or dangers in taking this supplement. I am in no way associated with Vitamin Shoppe, and am in no way compensated for my statements.

I was really nervous about hitting “publish” on my last post. Retirement has been at the forefront of my mind ever since Bryan and I started dating and he uttered the shocking words “I could retire next year”. I looked at my small 401(k) balance, all of our plans and dreams, and worried about the security of my future.

Surprisingly enough, no one responded with shock or disgust. No one implied that I’m selfish, or acting entitled. Over the past week (and a half), I’ve felt like this huge weight has been lifted. Maybe what I’m feeling is completely normal? A lot of couples start off on uneven ground. Maybe, despite our large age difference, this was something that many other couples could relate to?

With the worry of how I’d be perceived gone, I’ve finally been able to really think about my future, and start making a plan. I’m finally completely debt free. The last few weeks I’ve been putting money aside for a vacation ($1,000) and working to build my emergency fund back to $5,000. At $330 a week saved (at least), I expect it to take less than 10 9 more weeks to accomplish both goals.

And then? I think I’ll bump up my 401(k) contribution. Right now I’m contributing 4% per week, which equals out to a little over $39. My employer contributed an additional 6%. Bumping my contributions up from 4% to 25% will leave me putting just under $250 in every week. Depending on how taxes shake out, that should leave me with $100+ each week for… whatever. Vacations. Extra savings. A side hustle fund. Whatever!

I’ll admit, putting $1,000-ish every month away for the distant future makes me a little nervous. What about our short and medium term goals? But, I’ll still have $400-ish every month for whatever else. And, right now, we don’t really have concrete short or medium term goals. I can change my 401(k) contributions whenever I want. It isn’t like I’m stuck with that choice forever! And I seriously doubt future me will regret that decision!

I also keep reminding myself that we aren’t a one income family. Although I’m currently the more solvent partner, Bryan actually makes more money than I do. And this year should be a much better year for him, since he no longer has a house payment.

One thing that I’ve been very honest with Bryan about, if he’s considering retiring early, or becoming a snow bird, and wants to do that with me (which he does), then we have to work together to make sure both of our futures are secure. If we’re each working towards different goals, we won’t be able to share in the same things. He wants to spend the Winter months in a warmer climate. And I do too! But I can’t do that at the expense of my own retirement!

I don’t know what the future holds. But I’m finally starting to give myself permission to plan for the future. And just telling myself it’s okay is a huge sigh of relief.

  • Cindy W.

 

Now that my car loan is paid off, I’m finally starting to let go of my financial past, and look ahead towards the future. Bryan and I are beginning to discuss our plans, and how we’ll begin combining our finances. We’re talking about our hopes and dreams, both long-term and short-term: Vacations. Buying a Home. Retirement.

It’s hard to deny that we’re starting out on uneven ground. Bryan sees himself as being painfully behind. He has a smattering of credit card debt, and a car loan. At the end of the Summer, he’ll likely be trading one car loan for another. He has no savings to speak of. He doesn’t own any assets. Losing his job several years ago took a major chunk out of his annual salary, and left him back in a seasonal career that is extremely weather dependent. He’s never learned how to tell himself no, and struggles to control his spending. And, like so many people, he fears money: A lifetime of financial failures have left him feeling as though he isn’t “smart enough” to gain control of his financial future. Only the smart and rich get ahead. The rest just keep their heads down and try to survive.

Bryan looks at the progress I’ve made over the last few years, and views me as some sort of financial genius. I try not to trivialize his fears, while convincing him of the great things we can accomplish together. Over the past couple of years, we’ve slashed both of our living expenses dramatically, while still living a life we both enjoy. We eat at restaurants. Have drinks with friends. Take vacations. And yet we never have to worry about being able to afford our cost of living. When he isn’t working, I can easily pickup the extra expenses. We talk about everything, and he sees how I’ve been able to pay off a large amount of debt, and even set some money aside, despite the fact that I make $10,000-20,000 less per year than he does (even with all of his layoffs).

Bryan feels as though he is starting again with nothing. But the reality is, there’s something he has that is worth a tremendous amount: A fully funded pension, which he can claim at any time.

After 30 years in a union, Bryan has reached the age where he can begin considering retirement. But, like many pensions, the information that is readily available is intentionally vague. I often feel like they give minimal information so that people won’t be able to maximize their benefits.

If Bryan were to stop working now, but wait to claim his pension until age 62, his benefit would be $5,000 per month. That isn’t hugely different from what he’s making now. Plus, he’s at an age where he can assume he’ll be able to get something from Social Security. Unlike some other union pension plans that have been in the news recently, his pension is solidly “in the green”, meaning the total value of the pension is capable of covering future distributions. I still don’t love having all of his “eggs in one basket”, so it’s something we’re keeping in mind for the future.

Bryan became eligible to take an early retirement a couple of years ago. If he decided to retire before age 62 (full retirement age), he’d lose 3% for every year until his 62 birthday. So, if he retired this coming January, when he turned 58, he’d lose 12% of the $5,000. Of course, every hour that he works between now and then adds to his pension, so the total amount before the discount would be more than $5,000 by then. Even with the discount, it’s still a livable amount.

Oddly enough, I feel the weight of that pension constantly. It’s like a dark cloud hanging over me. Bryan feels insecure about his current financial position. I feel insecure about my future. I see Bryan’s debt as a temporary issue: After all, I paid off $17,400 on my car loan over one year on my own. If we join forces, we could easily knock out all of his debts in a very short period of time. Covering layoffs? No big deal! Buying a house? Pffffth! Our combined income is more than enough to wipe out his debts, cover our needs, and most of our wants.

In a year or two, Bryan could be in a great position to retire: No consumer debt. Large pension. Small living expenses. He talks about becoming a snow bird, even before he retires. After all, his layoffs would allow for it. We’ll travel to Florida every year. Or Arizona. Or maybe even South Carolina. And it will be great!

And that’s when I feel the weight of our age difference, and all the financial decisions I’ve made up to this point. We could easily live on his pension alone. But then what? I’m 20 years younger, which means I’ll likely have 20 years of life after he’s gone. I look at my $21,000 401(k), and feel woefully unprepared. Even if allowed to grow for the next 20-30 years, it won’t be enough to support me in the future. Accounting isn’t exactly a “snowbird” friendly career. What if his health fails, and I need to take time off in the future to care for him? Rejoining the workforce in my 60’s or 70’s doesn’t exactly sound promising.

Of course, his pension statements remind us that he can leave his benefits to a spouse, or qualifying dependent. But it would discount the monthly benefit amount. By how much? It doesn’t say. It also vaguely references additional penalties for age differences. Our twenty year age gap could come at a huge cost.

We don’t know what those costs are. Bryan is ever the optimist, convinced that it won’t be so dramatic. I’m ever the pessimist, planning for the worst. My fears were bolstered when I recently helped my mom with her pension forms. Granted, it’s a completely different industry, and her pension is much smaller. Her options were to claim her entire monthly benefit, and leave my dad nothing, or leave my dad 50% of her monthly benefit if she were to die first, and lose 1/3 of her benefit. In Bryan’s case, that would lower his benefit to around $3,300 per monthly, and leave me with $1,650 if he were to die first. Ouch! In addition, her pension stated there would be a 40% penalty for an age gap of twenty years. That would lower those amounts to $1,980 and $990.

Of course, all of that is just assumptions. His pension could handle things completely different. Or, by the time he decides to retire, we could be looking at drastically different numbers. But, even still, I feel the weight of those numbers. It makes me feel selfish for even making my needs a consideration in his pension plans. I think of all the stereotypes of women my age dating men his age. Gold diggers. Not that there’s any gold here to dig. But then, I worry about his health failing. He’s very active now, but he isn’t always careful. He smokes, drinks too much, and pretty much refuses to go to the doctor, or get any type of preventative testing done. It isn’t that I can’t take care of myself financially now. But I worry about having to step away from my career to care for him, and then struggling to make ends meet as I age, or trying to reenter the workforce as a senior. And, being childless, there’s no one I can fall back on (Not that I agree with depending on your children for your care anyways). Or him not being able to live out the retirement he wants, because I’m unable to step away from work.

The more I think about it, the more overwhelmed I start to feel. And selfish. It would be irresponsible of me NOT to plan for my own financial future. I can’t just throw caution to the wind and assume everything will work out. But the reality is, despite his current financial situation, Bryan is in a MUCH better overall position than I am. One way or another, being with me hurts his retirement plans. And I feel the weight of that. If he leaves his benefits to me, I feel selfish for drastically cutting into his monthly income. If I start throwing everything I have into my own retirement, I feel selfish for prioritizing that over all of our other goals.

All of this would be much easier if we were closer to the same age. But we’re not, and age isn’t something we can change. The best we can do is be open and honest with each other, about our fears, our dreams, and what we’re willing to compromise on. I think that we both agree that our relationship benefits each of us in ways that are more than financial. And in the end, it’s worth whatever sacrifices we’ll need to make.

  • Cindy W.

April was another interesting month as far as spending went:

Where the money went: April 2016

Where the money went: April 2016

All told, I spent $4,538 while earning $2,624. Of course, I pulled nearly $3,000 out of my emergency fund to pay off the remainder of the car loan, so that number isn’t nearly as bad as it seems. Being debt free means my spending updates should look very different from here on out: I’ll no longer have the vast majority of my money going to “Car Payment” and “Extra Car Payment”, and I’m not likely to have months where I spend more than I earn.

How big of a difference will it make? Well, without those two categories in April, I would have only spent $1,076. That’s less than half my earnings! Spending for the remainder of 2016 should be drastically different than what I’ve become used to.

Gas was surprisingly high this month. Then again, I had $0 in gas spending in March. The way it fell, I fueled up the last day of February, didn’t drive for 9 days in March, and then fueled up the first day of April. So, in a sense, March’s gas costs leaked over into other months.

I was shocked by how low our grocery spending was this month. Since I’ve been tracking, we typically come in between $350 and $450. Spending only $234 seems ridiculously low. But, we are getting better about what we buy. And the $62 in “Personal Care” somewhat offsets that amount. I don’t break out our grocery expenses. If it’s bought at the grocery store, it goes into “Groceries / Household”. If it’s bought at the drug store, or I remember only buying personal care items (like trips to Target), it goes under “Personal Care”. I’m really a convenience shopper, and try to make as few trips as possible. So, if I need something, and can get it at the grocery store, I do that. But, the drug store is closer, so if I have to make a special trip, I’ll usually swing by there on my way home.

Things admittedly got out of hand this month with restaurant spending. It started off innocently enough: I paid off my car loan, and got Starbucks to celebrate. Have I mentioned how much I love Starbucks? A gesture of celebration quickly turned into a coping mechanism: I hate my job, I’m feeling lost about where I focus now that my loans are gone, so I’ll deal by treating myself to Starbucks. EVERY.SINGLE.AFTERNOON. Bad from a financial perspective. And bad for my waistline (although I did count the drinks as “lunch”, avoiding a few extra calories). Bryan of course doesn’t understand my Starbucks inclination, so I only did this during the week.

I’m hoping to get that under control this month. I’m just struggling with fighting my entitled attitude. And honestly, my day goes better, and I go home in a much better mood, when I have Starbucks in the afternoon. I know that getting a Frappuccino every day is a bad thing. I just need to figure out if there’s a healthier (and cheaper!) way to replicate the effects.

I also finally decided to renew my Passport. It definitely cost more than $21, but the $140 check I wrote hasn’t cleared yet. I used my debit card to pay for the photo and postage fees, so those cleared in April. The rest will be a May expense.

Overall, I’m happy with my spending during April. There are places where I could have done better, but all in all, I don’t feel like anything was completely out of line. And I’m really excited to see what May looks like, now that two of my biggest categories are gone!

  • Cindy

* Lottery savings is the $16 that I put away each week, in cash, for NOT playing the lottery. This is equal to the amount Bryan spends each week playing the lottery. If he wins, the money is “ours”. My “spending” the same amount every week makes things seem more fair. At the end of the year, we’ll probably use that money to take a vacation. It’s like a guaranteed win!

** Insurance covers two term life insurance policies: One insuring me, and one insuring my younger sister. I pay my car insurance every 6 months, and renters insurance once a year. Health insurance is taken out of my weekly paycheck; To make things easier to track, I only list items that come out of my net pay, or what gets deposited into my checking account. My 401(k), health insurance, Flexible Spending Account, and other expenses that are taken directly from my weekly paycheck by my employer are not included here.

Net Worth Icon

Welcome to my monthly net worth post for April, 2016. Each month, I post a complete breakdown of my net worth, along with a chart showing the progression of my net worth since the start of this blog. Posting my net worth helps keep me accountable for what I do with my money, and motivates me to make better choices and push to reach new goals. You can see previous net worth updates here

April was a huge month for me financially: It was the month that I officially became debt free! I had to pull some cash out of savings in order to make that happen, but I decided getting rid of my car loan was more important than having a larger emergency fund. Not to worry, I’ve already started building the fund back up!

April 2016 Net Worth:

Net Worth update as of April 30, 2016.

Net Worth update as of April 30, 2016.

As far as April goes, paying off the car loan was more of a “shell game”: It didn’t affect my net worth overall, it just moved the things from one row to another (less cash, less liability). From here on out thought, it should have a positive effect, as I won’t be paying anymore interest. It isn’t a huge amount, but $30-40 each month still makes a difference! And I’d rather have that money in my own pocket than in the bank’s.

I saw a net worth increase of $1,799 in April. It’s weird having so few categories that make up my net worth, now that I’m debt free. In the short-term, most of my growth should be in my “liquid assets”, as I’m growing my emergency fund back up. From there? I definitely need to concentrate more on my retirement accounts.

Net Worth Progress Chart:

Monthly Net Worth since the start of this blog (February 2013).

Monthly Net Worth since the start of this blog (February 2013).

I’m excited to see how the rest of this year plays out. Aside from a few vacations, I don’t expect any large expenses, so those monthly numbers should continue going up. Just the way I like it!

  • Cindy W.

Sometimes I feel like the biggest failure ever when it comes it saving money on purchases. I’m terrible at couponing; I never know where to look for coupons, and even when I have a coupon, I’m bad about letting them go to waste, or forgetting to bring them when I shop. I hate thrift stores. I try to comparison shop, especially for large items, but I often feel like a failure there too.

The reality is, I do the best at keeping a handle on my money when I make it as simple and foolproof as possible. I’m trying to get better at not wasting money. But I’m also trying not to fall into the trap of spending to save.

Last October, I posted about how I was saving money and preparing for the Holidays. Of course, that post was made before my nephew was stillborn and my Grandma passed away, when I had the best of intentions of doing the Holidays right. Life never seems to go the way you plan. And I’ll admit to being incredibly guilty of throwing money at life’s problems, with the hope that it will somehow lessen them. Just having a plan, and money saved in advance, helped keep the overall (financial) damage under control. But I didn’t follow through with some of my plans: I didn’t maximize my rewards at The Body Shop. And the Swagbucks surveys became an idea of the past.

Of course, I still had the Swagbucks browser loaded to my computer, and would earn points here and there from searching for random things. It wasn’t adding up to much though. That is, until I discovered that you can earn points through booking travel!

I knew that using Swagbucks for online shopping would rack up points much quicker. But, I’m not a big online shopper. Sure, I occasionally will buy something that I can’t find locally. I earned some point buying seeds from Burpee. And when I purchased the 21 Day Fix program. But it wasn’t until I went to book our getaway last November that I realized you can earn points booking through Travelocity, Expedia and Priceline. Sometimes you can even earn points booking directly with Hotels.

The points you earn vary, depending on when you make the purchase: I’ve seen anywhere from 2 points per $1 spent, to 8 points per $1. Sometimes it’s even a flat amount of points per booking. I was diligent about comparing booking prices both through Swagbucks and through a computer where the browser wasn’t loaded. I know they SAY it doesn’t change the price, but I’ve run into referral programs where places actually will raise the price to offset the added cost to them, so now I always try to check to make sure I’m not paying more.

When I booked our hotel in Biloxi for our vacation in early March, I was able to earn 8 points per $1. On top of that, I found a coupon on Swagbucks that enabled me to save another $90! So far, I’ve been able to redeem $85 in gift cards from the Swagbucks I’ve earned. I’ve used the monthly promotion of 2,200 Swagbucks for a $25 gift card three times so far, plus 1,000 Swagbucks for a $10 gift card. I’ve been leery to let the points sit in my account for too long, just in case they lose value at some point.

If you aren’t a big online shopper, it can take a while to earn points. And it’s a little annoying that all of the gift cards are e-cards (as far as I know). I’d love to be able to give out physical gift cards as presents. I’ve loaded gift cards from Target onto a mobile app on my phone, which makes them easier to use (especially given that I’m not a big online shopper). A few times I’ve considered buying plastic gift cards with the e-cards in the store, but I’m not sure that’s allowed. So instead, I’ve been using the cards to stretch my budget for items like clothing, and other wants I don’t really want to spend “my money” on.

Are you using Swagbucks? Are there tips that help you earn more points? Have you earned points on travel?

  • Cindy W.

The link to Swagbucks is a referral link. If you click on it and sign up for Swagbucks, I’ll earn points. Right now, this blog is earning $0. Since it costs me around $100 each year to run the blog, I’m hopeful that someday it might at least earn its keep!

Over the last thirteen days, I’ve found myself compulsively checking the online account for my car loan. I’m half expecting for some random amount to show up due; Maybe accrued interest, or some accounting error. But each time the balance remains at $0.

I should feel happy about that. Relieved. A sense of calming freedom. Instead, I find myself feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

My net worth update from April 2015 shows I owed $17,401 on the car loan. In a sense, that was my last remaining debt; The next month, I would sell the house and get rid of the mortgage. $17,401 is a lot of money to pay off in one year’s time. I’m proud of that. But, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small amount.

Right now, I have a few little goals I want to achieve: Get my emergency fund back up to $5,000. Save money for a vacation with my mom and sisters. Save up some seed money for a side hustle. But those are all little goals that I should be able to wipe out before the end of the Summer.

Then what?

I have bigger goals. But at this point they all seem so huge and unattainable. And I don’t know where my priorities should be. If I split my focus, it seems like I’ll never achieve any of them. But if I work on one goal to the exclusion of the others? It would take so long to reach one goal, I may never reach the others. So, which is my priority?

I obviously want to retire someday. And, at 37 years old, with only $21,000 in retirement savings, I’m woefully behind. For the first time in my life, I could actually contribute the maximum 401(k) amount of $18,000. Sure, the tax implications would be great. But it would be at the expense of all of my other goals. I’d be left with just enough money to cover my normal living expenses and spending, maybe a vacation or two each year. I would be putting everything towards the future, at the expense of everything between now and then.

I have other things I’d like to accomplish between 37 and 59 1/2 (when I could access my retirement accounts). Bryan and I would like to buy a house. Maybe not a traditional house: It’s possible we might purchase the triplex we’re currently living in. We’re trying to be strategic about the purchase, and ensure we get the best deal possible. But, it’s still going to require money upfront, along with a large cash cushion to cover ongoing repairs and maintenance.

We dream of one day becoming snowbirds, and heading South during the cold winters. That would involve either buying a place, or renting someplace for several months each year. Granted, there are ways to minimize that expense. But it isn’t going to be cheap.

Those goals in and of themselves would be enough. Compounding all this is the fact that I hate my job. Not just mildly dislike: I loathe going into work each day. And I’m at a point in my life where I’m honest enough about myself to admit that it isn’t just the company, it’s me. There’s a world of alternatives out there: Early retirement. Freelancing. Entrepreneurship. But all those things take money, and to some extent creativity and knowledge. And a whole lot of tolerance for risk. And did I mention money?

Of course, none of this is just a me issue: Bryan and I are going to need to figure out our goals, and how we plan to reach them, together. Right now is a weird time for him; We’re officially into Spring, where the weather sways from hot to cold, wet to dry. Some weeks he can work, other weeks it’s too rainy/wet/cold, and the job gets called off. It’s hard to think big picture, long-term, when you aren’t really sure if you’ll get a paycheck this week.

There’s also our age difference. Being 57, retirement is on the horizon for him. He isn’t planning for a retirement 20+ years from now, he’s planning for one in the next 5. Maybe less. And, given the type of retirement he’s planning, it pulls me into a different place than most people my age. After all, Accounting isn’t a very “snowbird friendly” career. It would be very difficult to find a traditional job that allowed for 3 months off each year.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I need to concentrate on rebuilding my emergency fund. And saving up for vacation. And trying some side hustles. The rest will come. Hopefully.

  • Cindy W.

I paid off my car loan on Monday. It was a super exciting day for me: I’ve been in debt since the age of 17, when I went off to college and signed those student loan papers. Twenty years later, I’m FINALLY debt free.

Everyone reading this blog knows what a big deal that is. Whether you’ve ever had debt or not, everyone in the personal finance blogosphere knows what a big deal those big financial milestones are. The sense of accomplishment. Freedom. Opportunity.

But in real life?

In real life, becoming debt free was kind of lonely. There wasn’t anyone to celebrate the victory with me, or to understand how I felt. In fact, there was hardly anyone I even wanted to tell!

I told a co-worker, as an explanation of why I was getting Starbucks for lunch. I just said that I had paid off the car, without mentioning the bigger financial picture. The girls in the office as a group have been discussing car loans a lot lately: One co-worker is planning to purchase a new, luxury vehicle. With a big loan, of course. The co-worker I told about paying off the loan bought a new car a few months before I did. She’s already looking in to purchasing a new vehicle, but her husband has told her she has to wait until her current vehicle is paid off. She’s lamented how she’ll be waiting four more years. Despite her husband’s request, she’s already pricing the vehicle she wants, and has contacted a dealer regarding the trade in value of her current vehicle.

I mentioned it to Bryan as we were making dinner. In an ideal world, he would have known before I even made the payment. But our world isn’t ideal, and we sometimes struggle with money discussions. We’re both in very different places financially. I’ve mentioned several times in the past that I would be paying off my car loan this year. His response is to usually question why I’m in such a hurry. While he marvels at my financial situation, and how I’m able to stretch the amount I make (despite making much less than him), he doesn’t really want to talk too much about it. Part of it is an old-fashioned attitude about money: As the woman, my money is my money, and his money is “ours”. It makes him uncomfortable that he’s had to rely on me so much financially in the past year and a half. I also worried that I was “kicking him while he’s down”: He’s just getting back to work, and just starting to get things back on track financially. And here I am, going above and beyond. Becoming debt free. Having extra money to worry about.

In real life, it was just another day, save the Starbucks and the confused looks. I felt lonely, and weird, and apprehensive about telling anyone.

Thank goodness I have my online life, where everyone understands the excitement. Where I can proclaim loudly (or type in all caps):

I’M DEBT FREE!!!

  • Cindy W.

Monday morning I settled in at my desk and logged in to my Capital One 360 account to check on the status of my April payment. I expected to see the balance of my car loan sitting at $3,442; My April payment had left my bank account last week, but it seems to take forever for those payments to clear!

Instead, I  saw this:

Remaining balance on car loan as of April 4th, 2016.

My April payment had already cleared, and my balance was officially below the $3,000 mark. I took a deep breath, logged in to my bank accounts, shuffled some money around, and paid off the loan. The total payoff amount ended up being $2,962.26 (accounting for accrued interest).

And just like that, I’m officially debt free!

I expected to have a feeling of relief wash over me. Excitement. Maybe a feeling of joy and accomplishment. Instead, I found myself feeling a little bit terrified!

The decision to pay off my loan after it cleared $3,000 was something I’ve been thinking about and planning for months. Why $3,000? Because it’s an amount I could pull from my emergency fund, without it dropping below $1,000. Yep, I raided my emergency fund to pay off my car loan. And no, that isn’t the reason I feel slightly terrified.

Emergency Funds are a complicated topic, and people have various feelings on how much money you should keep in one. Some people reason that, as long as you have a large amount of credit, you don’t need any cash savings. The problem with that is credit can quickly dry up after a job loss, or if your credit score takes a hit (say, if the person you co-signed a student loan for defaults on said loan without your knowledge). Plus, I don’t have a credit card. Dave Ramsey recommends having a $1,000 emergency fund while you’re in debt, and then building it up from there. A lot of people recommend having 3-6 months worth of living expenses.

I feel most comfortable having $5,000 in the bank, strictly for emergencies. But I tend to vary that depending on what else is going on in my life. When I was socking away money to remodel/sell my house, I was comfortable with a smaller emergency fund, because I had other cash available in my accounts. In January, I dropped my emergency fund down to $4,000 so I could help Bryan with some of his bills while he was laid off, while still concentrating on paying off my car loan.

Now that I was so close to having the loan paid off, I chose to lower my cost of living over keeping a large cash reserve. But what if something happens? Aren’t I worried about not having enough money to cover an emergency?

No, not really. Sure, there are definitely “worst case scenario” or totally unforeseeable things that could happen where not having enough cash could be devastating. But, for the most part, I have most of my bases covered:

  • What if I got sick, or injured? I have really great health insurance through work, with low deductibles and coinsurance. If something really serious happened, and I didn’t have the cash on hand, I could work out a payment plan with the doctors/hospital.
  • What if something broke or was destroyed? The biggest things you have to worry about in this instance is your house and car. I no longer own a home, and I have renters insurance in case there were a fire or anything. I have car insurance if I was in an accident. If my car needed a major repair, and I couldn’t pay for it now, there are people in my life who have extra vehicles that I could borrow until I could pay for the repair. Or Bryan and I could carpool. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it also wouldn’t be the end of the world.
  • What if I lost my job? Well, I have 3 weeks vacation pay, which would now cover at least six weeks of expenses. With the lower cost of living, I could take pretty much any job, even temporarily, to cover my bills. Bryan is starting to work more regularly, so I could always lean on him to cover more of our expenses if things looked really dire.
  • What if Bryan and I broke up? This is highly unlikely: Our relationship is stronger than ever right now, and things are going really great! But, if something devastating and unexpected were to happen, I’d be okay. Two incomes are always nicer than one, but I’ve had no problem supporting us while Bryan was laid off, so I’d be perfectly capable of supporting myself, especially with one less expense. Even if I had to move.
  • What if I got really sick, lost my job, and became uninsured? Well, I would have been screwed either way! I have short-term and long-term disability insurance through work. But, those only apply if you’re still employed with the company; I’ve seen them fire people after their 12 weeks of FMLA was up, but before the 36 weeks where they were eligible for long-term disability. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen. But, if it did, at least the car is paid for, so it’s one less bill to worry about, and one less thing to worry about losing. Without a loan, I could drop to liability only insurance, and save some money. We could sell it if things got really tight. Sure, having an extra $4,000 in the bank would be nice. But, with an extra $370 bill each month, it wouldn’t go as far. Again, it’s kind of a toss-up. And a losing situation either way!

Besides, it won’t take long to build that emergency fund back up! If nothing changes, I can put $330 each week towards building it back up. By the end of April, it should already be over $2,000!

So why do I feel afraid?

Because what do I DO now that I’m debt free?

I’ve been in debt since the age of 17, when I signed my first set of student loan papers and headed off to college. The last few years, debt repayment has been my biggest priority. But now the debt is gone. Do I stay where I am now, and start socking away cash for retirement. Or for a house? Do I try to find a more fulfilling career, even if it pays less, or doesn’t have as great of benefits? Do I invest that money into myself, and escaping the 9 to 5 world? (Or 7:30 to 4:30, as it were)?

For now, I can concentrate on building back up my emergency fund to $5,000. I will probably start testing the waters on a couple of other ideas as well. Nothing needs to change overnight, just because I’m debt free. But, at some point, I need to figure out what my long-term plan is. Of course, I’m not alone in the decision: Bryan and I will decide together what works best for us.

So, I’m officially debt free. I bought myself a Starbucks for lunch to celebrate, and considered the implications. After all, debt free is a new type of freedom for me. I don’t owe anyone anything! That opens up a world of possibilities for me!

  • Cindy W.

I’ll admit, I was kind of surprised when I did my spending breakdown for March. We spent 9 days on vacation in early March, and yet, somehow, my spending wasn’t all that exciting. If anything, I spent less in some categories than I normally would have. I guess since I paid for the hotel in February, and Bryan paid for gas and food, most of my vacation spending was already done last month.

Where the money went: March 2016

Where the money went: March 2016

I was shocked when I realized I spent $0 on gas in March. Not that I spend a lot on gas each month, but I usually fuel up at least a couple of times. I must have gotten gas at the end of February. And then, I didn’t drive for 9 days. It isn’t like I drive much to begin with; I don’t work very far from home, and Bryan does most of the driving on weekends.

Most of my expenses were completely normal this month. I did spend $100 on a variety of items for vacation. And $99 on going out to eat throughout the month. I put $80 cash into savings, to match what Bryan spent on lottery tickets this month (my “lottery savings”, a guaranteed win!). The Grief Expense was for flowers; A friend’s brother passed away earlier in the month. I had spent $54 on seeds for the garden, but as it turns out, one item is on backorder, so I wasn’t charged for it.

All told, I spent $3,654 in March, while earning $3,265. Which started to concern me: It seems like most months I spend more than I earn. And yet, I always have a similar amount in the bank at the end of the month, so I’m not spending down my savings. It’s as if there’s some sort of magic going on in my bank accounts! And then I realized, a big chunk of what I spend each month is actually from previous months. I put a set amount of money ($250) into a separate account every week to cover my regular expenses: Car payment, rent, insurance, cell phone, etc. This account also acts as a “sinking fund” for my semi-annual expenses. When the month starts, I already have the money I need in the account for all of that months regular expenses. So I’m not using this month’s money for this month’s expenses, I’m using previous months’ money.

There were 4 pay periods in February, which means I put $1,000 into my expenses account. In March, I used that money for rent ($350), car payment ($340), Insurance ($35), Cell Phone ($16) and Entertainment ($9). I always round my “regular” car payment up to $500, so $160 of my extra payment comes out of my expenses account as well. That equals out to $910. The remaining $90 stays in that account to cover more expensive months, like when my semi-annual car insurance is due.

My spending money gets spent in the month that it is earned. This month, I also had an extra $680 to put towards my car loans from February, because I wanted to wait to see how vacation panned out before using that money. Using some of this month’s money, and some of last month’s money, is why my spending and earnings never seem to line up. April should be the last month where things look so confusing: If all goes well, I’ll pay my car loan off this month. I’ll use savings to do so, which will make April’s spending and earnings numbers look really bad. But, after that, I’ll be putting more money towards savings each month, and it won’t look like I’m spending more than I’m earning.

It may look messy, but things are lining up exactly how I planned.

  • Cindy W.