Almost Debt Free: Too Much Sacrifice?
“Perhaps all pleasure is only relief.”- William S. Burroughs
In this series about preparing for life after debt and how to get there, I’ve covered how to identify bad debt; ways of organizing your finances to reduce bad debt; ideas for implementing a functional budget; and I released the Queercents Expense Tracker to make developing or staying within a budget easier. (Side note: It turns out the Queercents Expense Tracker is functional on both MS Excel and Open Office.)
Now it’s time to start thinking about what to do after the debt is gone. Certainly, the range of topics to consider will involve saving, wealth-building and estate planning, which I’ll cover later in this series. But on my debt reduction path, I’ve come across a greater lesson that often gets overlooked in personal finance topics: quality of life in the present.
Over the last year or so I became pretty obsessed with making more money. I allowed work to cut down my personal time significantly, and I made sacrifices in a number of spending categories that impacted my day-to-day enjoyment of life. Recently I took pause and looked at the fraction of my week consumed by my billable hours; my inbox stacked with emails from friends I have yet to respond to; and my aging wardrobe and tired music collection. I couldn’t help but wonder: Did I sacrifice too much in becoming debt free? Yes and No.
To give myself renewed incentive to rid myself of the last $3,300 of credit card debt (much like losing the last ten pounds), I made a list of things I would have done differently if I had the chance to do my debt reduction strategy all over again. By putting a spotlight on where I felt I sacrificed too much, my hope is to offer a solution to counter the personal costs incurred while working on financial goals, and make day-to-day living on a budget more enjoyable.
Don’t Sacrifice Talents: Find Satisfying Work to Pay the Bills
One thing that upsets me about paying down credit card debt is the dreariness in the accomplishment. To me, it’s like paying back money I should have never borrowed in the first place. It doesn’t help matters that I’m using money earned from working long, stressful hours at a job I don’t even like and which greatly interferes with the personal life I would like to live.
At times I have felt so unhappy at work, every minute is like a sacrifice and a waste. So I have finally hatched a plan to find a new job outside of the legal field and work in an environment more suited to my temperament and interests. I want my hard work to do something more than just get me to a zero balance on my credit cards. It would be nice to come home and feel like I made the world a slightly better place, or at least one more bearable while advancing my career goals.
In this time of relative uncertainty I’m sometimes not sure what to do next, but I plan to follow the great career tips on Queercents that suggest that I follow my passion. I have been kept in a holding pattern by my fear that it may sound like too much of a dream to raise startup capital for my coffee shop through my writing, but I’ve come to realize two things: first, it’s not impossible, and second, it doesn’t have to happen right away.
I’m actually excited about the challenges that come with making a career change. Making the decision to move on from my relatively well paying job was difficult, but it’s time to take my reward for all of the hard work I did in reducing my debts: I am going to pursue the life I have always wanted.
Don’t Sacrifice Peace of Mind: Allow a Goal to be Modified
Recently I had been trying hard to pay off the last bit of my debt by September 2007, but I see I’m putting myself under a great deal of pressure by way of tighter budget constraints to make this happen. I had gotten to the point where I was becoming too anxious about spending money, even on necessities like groceries. It’s good to be cautious about spending, but not to the point where one feels daily tension about reaching a goal deadline that’s several months away.
To give myself peace of mind, I’ve extended my goal to December, and I feel much better. I believe I set too strict a goal for myself by trying to make September my last credit card payment, even though I have zero percent interest on my credit card until December.
I’ve learned that modifying a goal is not the same as abandoning a goal, and this is an important lesson to apply when one starts start saving money for a house, or when I open up my coffee shop. I don’t want to make future goals so big that I’ll feel discouraged or too exhausted to accomplish them. Moreover, it’s easy for me to get so tunnel-focused about accomplishing a goal that I forget that I may be wreaking havoc in other parts of life along the way. There’s no point in reaching a goal just to find out I have a huge mess to clean up elsewhere. Slow and steady might not be an exciting way to get things done, but my experience is proving that perhaps it’s the most reliable method.
Don’t Sacrifice Simple Pleasures: Insist on Them
Recently my partner Zac has expressed concern that I’ve become increasingly anxious about money. As a way to take our minds off money, he suggested we go for a long bike ride across the city to the beach. We locked up our bikes and went for a walk along the shore and spent roughly an hour making a sandcastle that could withstand the rising tide. I didn’t have a single thought about work or money the entire time. I laughed; I smiled; I felt more alive on that afternoon than I have been feeling lately. And we didn’t spend a penny.
I got so caught up in the monetary value of all things great and small that I forgot about all of the other things that don’t cost anything at all. One of the reasons I got into financial trouble was that I failed to substitute the simple pleasures for the simply expensive pleasures when that would have been the wisest or most enjoyable thing to do.
Now that I need a break from an overly ambitious payment schedule, I am making up for lost time and lost money by reacquainting myself with activities I enjoyed before my life got so busy — things like plowing through that stack of books I’ve been meaning to read; playing with my guitar that’s collecting dust; writing short stories for my friends to enjoy. This list goes on the more I think about it.
It’s easy to overlook how much energy goes into bringing order to your finances, and it’s even easier to shortchange yourself in recognition of those efforts. In relating my desire to make life more enjoyable, I’m not suggesting that one should lower the bar for his or her efforts when attempting to reduce debt or build wealth. I’m pointing out that creating a relationship with money with wealth building in mind doesn’t have to be all about sacrifice.
There are plenty of ways to make the journey of reaching financial goals more enjoyable. Perhaps it involves adjusting the pace or changing the source of income for meeting these goals. Or perhaps instilling a greater focus on intrinsic rewards can make cultivating a new relationship with money a gentler experience. These are just few things I’m going to try as I prepare for a new debt free life.
The point is that I’m not going to wait around for life to be better after the debt is gone. I’m going to be good to myself and enjoy each day while working hard on more meaningful pursuits. Idealism aside, it isn’t just money I want to squeeze the most value from, but also time. Perhaps you have some ideas to make reaching your financial goals less of a sacrifice. I’d love to hear them.