What I will and won’t do to pay off debt

I happen to be one of those weirdos who enjoys budgeting. I like dividing up my salary into various budget lines, especially when I can put a lot into the “student loan” category. Unfortunately, it’s easy to think I’ve made progress when all I’ve really done is move numbers around on a spreadsheet. Making a budget is easy; sticking to it is difficult.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the most important thing you can do to reach your financial goals is to change your habits. In the spirit of editing my life and my budget, and determining goals that I can actually stick with, I decided to come up with a game plan of what I will and won’t do to pay off debt.

I will stop shopping for clothes (including shoes and bags), gadgets, decor, and other “stuff.” I already 0have more than enough. The only thing I should be bringing into my home is groceries and household consumables like toilet paper and toothpaste. If something falls apart and can’t be repaired, I’ll consider whether or not it really needs to be replaced. I tend to fall into this spending trap when I’m with friends, so I think suggesting an alternative if I’m invited shopping will help me stick to this goal.

I will not get manicures or other beauty treatments, aside from my semiannual haircut. These are simply not necessary, and I’d much rather spend my “fun” money on something else. I don’t wear makeup or use expensive beauty products at home, either.

I will stop eating out by myself and stop ordering food for convenience. This means no ordering Seamless because my husband and I didn’t plan ahead, or because I want a treat during the work week. This isn’t one of my “sacred cows,” so while it’s fun, I’m going to let it go. I’m pretty good at meal planning, but I think having some emergency meals on hand for when I get home late or don’t feel like cooking will help.

I will cut back on my eating out/entertainment budget, but won’t eliminate it completely. I’ve certainly made some adjustments since I was spending $600 a month eating out, but I need to cut back further. Eating out is a social activity for many of my friends, and something my foodie husband adores. But sometimes it can be just as fun to have friends over, go to a free museum, or even go for a long walk. This is going to be more difficult, but I’ve already made progress – more on this in a future post.

I will not stop buying fresh fruits and veggies, but I will avoid processed/pre-made food. This isn’t a big adjustment, but I can still up my game in this department. I’ve discovered that homemade baked goods can be made in big batches and last a long time in the freezer, saving money and discouraging me from eating an entire pan of brownies in one go. I have a huge sweet tooth, and know it’s unrealistic that I’ll stop eating sweets altogether.

I will not cancel my travel plans, but I will frugalize them, and won’t plan any more until my debt to the government is repaid. I am obsessed with travel, and have been extremely privileged to afford quite a bit of it. My husband and I have a number of trips planned, including a trip to Italy over Thanksgiving, which is often a good time to fly internationally since everyone in the US is flying domestically. But, I will try to minimize costs as much as possible—more on this in a future post!

I will put my windfalls towards debt. Overtime, extra paychecks, side hustle income, gift money—it’s all going to debt.

I will not stop contributing to retirement, but I won’t increase my contributions for now.

I will not use my emergency fund for debt, but I will stop contributing to it. I currently have something like $1850 saved in my personal emergency fund. It’s not where I’d like it to be, but given that I have a good support network, I’m going to stop contributing while I focus on my debt. Life isn’t going to stop throwing curve balls just because I’m focused on debt, so if it drops below $1500, I will prioritize building it back up again.

I already reevaluated my fixed expenses. I highly recommend doing this if you are looking to save money or pay down debt. We just moved from a studio apartment into a larger, cheaper one bedroom. How did we accomplish all this? We got out of Manhattan, and now live in Queens, one stop from Manhattan. It’s actually faster for my husband to get to work now. We also negotiated a lower rate for our internet, which is an absolute necessity since I work from home. Our other fixed expenses are a gym membership for me ($63 a month, which keeps me sane and healthy) and Amazon Prime. We don’t have phone bills or pay for cable, and plan to keep it that way.

I might get a side hustle. This is such a common piece of advice for people paying down debt that I’m certainly willing to consider it, but to be honest I don’t know where to begin. I don’t think a scheduled side hustle would work because I travel a lot for work and need to be able to work late without much notice. I’ve also received raises and promotions because I focused on my job, and don’t want to jeopardize future raises by stretching myself too thin, but I would definitely consider a writing gig on the side.

What are you doing to pay off debt? What are you not willing to give up?

A Life Well Edited

For most of my life, this is what I imagined a budget looked like: subtract my rent and other fixed expenses from my take home salary. Spend the rest. I actually felt accomplished when I divided “the rest” into categories so I knew I’d have enough for groceries and subway fare, but I was still spending almost my entire take home salary every month just because I could.

This budget formula was much worse during my grad school days, when my “take home salary” was a student loan. Whatever didn’t go to tuition, textbooks, and rent was, in my mind, fine to spend. I bought all sorts of things I didn’t need—dinners out, a ton of new clothes, weekends away. Even rent was a questionable expense, since I could have stayed with relatives rather than renting an apartment.

When the loans came due, I didn’t even know how much I’d borrowed. I paid the required minimum every month and continued to pay it little attention. I got my first real job and continued to spend everything I brought home. After all, I thought, saving was for people who made a lot more money than I did. Plus, I knew my parents would always bail me out if there was an emergency, but an unexpected hospital visit and the accompanying bill were enough to bring me to tears, even though I had insurance and the cost should have been manageable. I grew terrified of not having enough money, but I still didn’t know how to get a handle on my finances.

One day I stumbled across the blog Blond on a Budget, now caitflanders.com, and so began my dive down the rabbit hole of the personal finance world, and the beginning of my financial education. I started with the most oft-repeated advice I found: track your spending. After estimating that I spend around 200 dollars a month eating out, you can imagine my surprise when that first month I found that my spending on restaurants was 600 dollars. Confronted with the reality of my overspending, I started to make changes.

That was about two years ago. In that time, I’ve come to a realization that seems so obvious in retrospect that it’s almost embarrassing to write it down: I don’t need to spend all the money I bring home every month. I can let some of my money accumulate, and it can buy me something far more valuable than a new dress or a steak dinner. It can buy me choices. It can buy me freedom. I needed an emergency fund to deal with life’s unpleasant surprises, but I also needed money set aside so that I could say yes to unexpected opportunities.

I’m still a long way from having enough to cover a major emergency like a job loss—although my husband would help pick up the slack—but last month we I were able to move into a larger, cheaper apartment because we put down more money up front. Having to shell out that extra money up front wouldn’t have been possible a year or two ago.

By editing things I don’t care about from my budget, I can open up new possibilities, and put more money toward things I do care about. This doesn’t just apply to my budget. We all have only so much money, time, and energy. If we don’t focus on what we really care about, it’s so easy to end up spending on whatever comes our way. It’s time—long past time—to do some more editing in my life.

And I know the first thing that has to go if I’m going to be free of financial worry: my student loans. I got very lucky in this regard, as my parents have helped out quite a bit, but I’ve been out of graduate school 5 years and still owe a little over $7,000 to the government and $10,000 to my mom, which means it’s time to get to work. I’m hoping this blog will keep me accountable and, if I’m very lucky, inspire someone else to take this journey or hold the course.