money

Ways I Can Save Money

There are two main ways to improve one’s financial situation: 1) spend less, and 2) earn more. Dave Ramsey recommends doing both, aggressively, until debt is paid off. I am beginning my debt payoff journey by figuring out where/how I can spend less.

Postponing large purchases
Before beginning this debt payoff effort, I had some plans that now seem pretty grand and borderline delusional. After being a broke grad student from 2014-2017, I thought once I had a full-time job again, I would be able to afford to spend more money. Now I’m realizing, nope! Not a good idea. So, I’m going to postpone the following things I’d been planning on buying, by at least a year:

  • getting braces
  • getting trigger point massage therapy monthly
  • buying a new bed frame and mattress
  • traveling to attend the AWP conference in Portland
  • buying a car
  • buying a laptop
  • starting a record collection

Deciding to postpone these things is difficult because I see value in them. Both braces and trigger point massage therapy have been recommended to me by medical professionals, and would likely help reduce my headaches, muscle tension, and pain. My bed frame is broken and the mattress is uncomfortable–replacing those would surely improve my sleep and possibly reduce pain. Attending AWP could benefit my career. Owning a car would help me feel less isolated and alone, improve my social and romantic lives, and maybe even increase my earning potential. My laptop is showing signs of being on its way out, and I’d prefer to get a new one before it completely crashes. I used to have a record collection, but at one point got rid of it because my record player broke and it was a drag moving the heavy records every year. I know I would enjoy having a record collection again, and in some weird way, I feel less “myself” not having one.

Still. All of these things are big-ticket items that would cost hundreds (or thousands) either upfront or over time. They all will still be available in one year. I’ll revisit my financial situation then, analyze these potential purchases one-by-one, and either decide to move forward, or postpone them for another year.

Cutting regular costs
At first I thought there was very little I could cut, since I’m not a compulsive spender, I don’t go out much, and I feel like I don’t usually buy frivolous things. Then, I looked over past credit and debit card statements, looked around my apartment, thought more deeply about it, and found the following areas in which I can cut costs:

  • Amazon
  • food
  • gifts
  • donations
  • magazines
  • books
  • clothes
  • makeup and personal items

Amazon
I looked through my past Amazon orders and found that in 2018, I placed 97 of them. I should say, 97 so far–I will surely place a few more in the coming weeks. Wow!

Since I stopped owning a car about a year and a half ago, I’ve come to rely on Amazon. Most of my orders were for arguably practical items–dog food, moisturizer, hemp seeds, peanut butter, toilet paper, wart remover, deodorant, books, pens, cleaning supplies, clothes hangers, paper towels. Still, I am sure I buy more of these items more often than if I were to, say, have to write them on a list and wait a few days to purchase them at a store.

I also realized I had no idea how much Amazon Prime costs, which is sad, since I pay for it yearly. It is $119/year. I went through the (very scary!) multiple screens required to tell them I want to end my membership and not be charged again. I look forward to saving the $119, plus however much else I save by not having that convenient free shipping at my fingertips.

Honestly, I’m a bit ashamed to face how much I’ve been using Amazon. I consider myself an environmentalist, yet I was having cardboard boxes sent to me unnecessarily about twice a week! Plus, I know Amazon’s labor practices are likely not in line with my values (I’ve seen the headlines and avoided clicking). So taking a year off of Amazon (or, maybe quitting it forever?) is a good choice for me for many reasons, not just financial.

Food
Oof. I cannot deny that food is likely the number one source of overspending in my life. I have mixed feelings about this, and will probably write more about it later, in a separate post. It’s a difficult category to face, because it’s a necessity. I’m also trying to be health-conscious, and sometimes that means buying more expensive food items. At times that I’ve had severe fatigue, buying fast food on lunch breaks instead of bringing a packed lunch, or ordering delivery instead of making dinner, has felt more like a necessity than a luxury, so I don’t want to shame myself or feel guilt over choices I made in the name of health and survival rather than laziness or selfishness. Still, I do not clip coupons, watch sales, seek out generic brands, or even try to pretend I have a food budget. That has to change.

Gifts
I love giving gifts! It’s so fun. I like trying to find something thoughtful that a person will be surprised by and really enjoy, rather than something generic. As I scrolled through recent Amazon purchases, I saw that at least one order each month in July, August, September, October, and November was a gift. Some months, I placed two gift orders. I didn’t scroll past July, but I wouldn’t be surprise if I’ve ordered at least one gift a month all year. These gifts are usually $20 or more.

This Christmas, and for all of 2019, I’ve decided I will only give gifts to my parents and my brother. That is my immediate family, and it wouldn’t feel right to not give them gifts. But as far as friends (and their children) are concerned, I’m taking at least a year off of gifts. I have a wonderfully kind and thoughtful social circle, so I’m sure they’ll understand. Plus I have a ton of cards, and I will still celebrate and show affection that way. I bet this change will save me hundreds of dollars.

Donations
Last year I donated to the ACLU, PEN America, Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, and maybe more. I honestly forget. I also donated to some GoFundMe campaigns, and other smaller funds I came across online. I care about social justice and want to contribute in any way I can. In a sense, I feel like donating is my duty. No more! I am reminding myself of the airplane oxygen mask analogy–I should help myself before I help others. I’m being charged a couple hundred a month in interest fees, likely by people who contribute to the problems I donate in hopes of alleviating. It doesn’t make sense to keep donating while I’m giving so much money to creditors. I know I will donate again some day, but for now, I will be saying no when asked or, more likely, clicking away.

Magazines
Oops. I have 6 magazine subscriptions. (For those who are curious: Yes! Magazine, The Sun, Bust, Bitch, Ms., and Oprah). I won’t be renewing any of them. I love these subscriptions, but honestly, I think 6 is too many. I feel compelled to read every magazine that comes to me (and it’s really hard for me not to read every article), so sometimes they pile up and begin to feel like work waiting for me. I think whenever I eventually begin subscribing to magazines again, I’ll limit myself to 2 or 3, so they don’t become overwhelming.

Books
Amazon makes it really easy to buy books. I counted and I have 53 unread books on my shelves. Hmm…sounds like I shouldn’t buy any books in 2019, but should instead try to read one a week of those I already own.  I love supporting authors, but I shouldn’t buy new books when it’s hurting me and keeping me in debt.

Clothes
I’ve been working on having a more intentional wardrobe (post or essay coming soon), and have a list of items I want to buy to make my wardrobe complete. I’ve been shopping with the long-term in mind, and trying to only purchase things that I expect to last me at least 5-10 years. I’ve also been trying to avoid items made in sweatshops. That means, the clothes I buy are more expensive than clothes I used to buy. Anyway, all of this is to say that it’s time for me to make due with what I have for a while, and come back to completing my wardrobe when I’m not paying so much in interest every month.

Makeup and Personal Items
Before taking this financial inventory, I had a list of makeup and toiletries I wanted to try out soon–natural foundation, natural blush, natural mascaras, natural moisturizers for sensitive skin. I looked through all of my makeup and decided that while I don’t absolutely love many of the products I have–the mascaras seem to get all over too easily, the two face products I own are one shade too light and one shade too dark for my skin, and the only blush I have is a red lip color that claims it can be used for both–they are good enough. I can make due with them for at least 6 months, if not a year. Moving forward, I’m not going to buy a makeup item of any type unless I am fully 100% out of that makeup. Time to use up the messy mascara! & I apologize in advance if I look slightly tanner or paler than I actually am.

Conclusion
I’m glad I went through this process. It’s so easy to spend without being fully aware of how much I’m spending and what I’m spending it on. I remember at one point, over ten years ago, I wrote down every single thing I bought for a year and published it on my blog. While I’m not going to go to that extreme in 2019, I do plan on giving updates on my budget, where my money goes, and how well I am able to stick to spending in the way I want to spend.

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money

My Credit Score

After posting about my debts, I looked into my FICO credit score. My Citi card account used to always display my FICO score when I signed in, but I noticed it doesn’t anymore. I contacted them, and they said it stopped because my score changed, but would begin posting again in 1-2 billing cycles. Hm.

I created a Mint account (just sharing; this post is not sponsored in any way) to begin better budgeting, and was pleased to find that they will give you your credit score for free. Mine is only 642! I felt shame as soon as I saw it. When I used to see it every month via my Citi card, it would usually fluctuate from 680 to 710.

Mint tells you why you have the credit score that you do, which I think is really awesome. Citi didn’t break it down into the same level of detail. Here are the 6 factors affecting credit scores, and where I stand on each:

  1. On-time payments: EXCELLENT, 100%. I might be deeply in debt, but I always make at least the minimum payments on time. I guess that’s one thing I have going for me.
  2. Credit usage: POOR, 99%. Both of my credit cards are near their limit. Thankfully, this situation will change soon. I’m curious to see how it affects my credit score in the coming months.
  3. Average age of credit: POOR, 1.9 years. I took out a loan a few months ago, which really threw off the average on this. Also, I was forced to re-consolidate my student loans a little over a year ago because one company bought another. That threw off my average age of credit too, which feels unfair, but oh well. It’s comforting to know that this factor will only improve over time, and I don’t even have to do anything except not take out new lines of credit.
  4. Total accounts: POOR, 4. Hmm…I didn’t know total accounts factored into your credit score, and I really didn’t know that 4 accounts was considered “poor” because it’s not enough. I hope not to take out any more lines of credit in the next 2-3 years, so my credit score will have to improve because of the other factors, not this one.
  5. Credit inquiries: EXCELLENT, 0. This makes sense because I haven’t been trying to take out any more lines of credit. I don’t plan to in the near future either, so this one should remain the same.
  6. Derogatory marks: EXCELLENT, 0. My bills don’t go to collections because I pay them.

It’s pretty cool that Mint offers credit scores for free. I will be checking mine every three months. Of course, my purpose in lowering my debt is just to lower my debt, but an improved credit score will be a nice side effect.

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money, personal growth

Radical Financial Transparency

Confession: I’ve been in debt nearly 20 years. I went into debt the week of my 18th birthday, and next year I turn 38.

I have spent more of my life in debt than not in debt.

My net worth has never been positive.

Yikes. I’m not going to get into why or how this happened now (essay coming soon, I hope). Instead, I want to focus on how I’m going to deal with it. I’m motivated to pay it off quickly. But first, why am I posting about this, making personal information that I feel ashamed of public?

  1. To get rid of shame and change our culture of silence around money. For years, I’ve used credit instead of saying, “I can’t afford to go out to eat with you this month,” “I can’t afford to exchange Christmas gifts this year,” “I can’t afford to make a donation,” etc. because I didn’t want to feel the shame that would’ve come with saying those things. Also, looking back over my career, I can clearly see specific instances in which I was underpaid. If I and others had talked openly about salary, I would’ve recognized a need to negotiate a higher salary or move to a job that paid better. Moving forward, I want to be as open about money as possible, for the benefit of me and the people around me.
  2. To hold myself accountable. I plan on posting a “debt update” every three months, on January 1st, April 1st, July 1st, and October 1st. I am extremely internally motivated to pay down my debt, but I’ve also been motivated in the past, and failed. My hope is that regularly posting about my debt will add another layer of motivation. I will likely also post about various financial and savings strategies I come across and try out. Please feel welcome to comment about your own experiences.

Okay, so, what am I going to do about this debt? Essentially, follow the Dave Ramsey snowball technique. I made the above table with his debt payoff method in mind, which is why my debts are listed from smallest to largest. Basically, the technique is to pay the minimum payment on all debts except for the smallest debt, then pay as much as possible each month toward that debt until it’s gone. Once it’s gone, you then add the amount you were paying that creditor toward the new smallest debt, and the snowball of debt payoff grows.

The Ramsey technique is simple and straight-forward. I heard of it at least ten years ago, and used it for a short while in my 20s. I remember it being helpful, and I don’t know why I stopped using it. This time, I’m going to stick with it. I’ve already started–the debt to my parents used to be $1,800.

I will make one modification, however–I won’t pay in the exact order of smallest to largest debt amounts. Once I pay off my Spirit credit card, I will jump to my Citi credit card. The interest is so high, and the shame I feel over credit debt is so high that it’s worth it for me to pay off my credit cards before moving on to loans or the IRS. Plus, the IRS figure will jump down each year when my tax refund is applied, so I don’t feel concerned about being trapped with that debt in perpetuity. The Citi loan will be paid off mid-2020 if I pay the minimum payment only, so I don’t feel too concerned about that one, either. It’s the credit debt that doesn’t have accountability and a payoff system built in.

In the meantime, I plan on calling my credit cards and trying to negotiate lower interest rates. Creating this table was an eye-opening exercise! Those credit cards must’ve had promotional interest rates when I opened them because these interest rate numbers were a shock. I might not be a money whiz, but I know not to open a card with 24.99% interest.

Dave Ramsey strongly recommends bringing in extra income during this process and taking drastic measures to cut costs. Much of my money has gone to medical bills, and there are more medical tests awaiting me. I know that is one area where I could easily cut costs. I feel like the results of these upcoming tests will likely be negative, but I don’t know that I should skip the tests to save money, just in case they do find something.

Also, I’d love to bring in extra income, but I wouldn’t want to take on a “regular” part-time job because of the fluctuations in my current workload (grading changes from week to week) and fluctuations in my health and energy levels. Also, I’m trying to build a career and don’t want to sacrifice my writing and submitting time in pursuit of money. I will have to think creatively about how to cut costs and bring in additional income without sacrificing my health or career.

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education, learning, mfa, money, teaching, writing

MFA Halfway Update

I am officially halfway done with my MFA creative writing program. It’s been a wild ride! I’m giving an update because I’ve blogged about MFA programs so much before (whether or not to get an MFA, how much it cost to apply, what’s up with MFA creative writing rankings, where to apply, update after first semester). I’m not sure where to start, however. Most people who want to read about MFAs are those considering pursuing one, and I have no clue whether or not pursuing an MFA is a good thing for any specific person. It’s such an individualized decision, I can’t say “do it” or “don’t do it.” I can, however, ruminate on the positives and negatives of my experience.

Positives

I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and I’ll be credentialed to teach college when I graduate. This is the biggest difference between doing what I’m doing within an MFA program and doing something similar with writing on my own. I am teaching and I love it. Before coming to USF, I didn’t really know if I had an interest in pursuing an academic career. I am still not 100% set on it, but I’m open to it and think it’d be fun, challenging, and a good fit for me.

I’ve found an amazing community. This will probably be the biggest benefit of the MFA program. Before coming here, I was attending a weekly workshop and I had friends and family who would read and critique my writing so I wasn’t community-less, but my network was nothing like what I have now. I’m surrounded by people who are as motivated by and interested in writing as I am. My hope is that we stay in touch and act as readers for each other for years after graduation.

Just being in this environment is enriching and encouraging–the people I’m surrounded by regularly introduce me to new things and challenge me as a writer. My professors have given me lit mag and author recommendations based on my writing style and I finally feel like I’m finding my niche in the writing world, largely because of their help. Also, there’s no way I would’ve started weirderary and First Draft if I hadn’t met TJ and Colleen.

I’ve learned a lot. I had almost no formal creative writing instruction prior to this aside from an entry-level undergrad class I took over a decade ago so I wasn’t sure what to expect from an MFA program. I’ve learned so much about writing craft and technique, and about pedagogy and teaching practice. I’ve also learned very practical things, such as how to create a good CV and what to put in a teaching philosophy statement.

I got to move to Florida. I grew up in Illinois and adore it (particularly Chicagoland), but for most of my adult life I secretly felt shitty about myself because I knew that I’d wanted to move away and had never done it. Finally, at age thirty-two, I followed my desire/faced my fears and moved to Denver. I think that played a big role in me gaining the confidence to apply to MFA programs all over the country. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Florida forever, but I like it a lot and regularly feel grateful to be here.

I trust that I am “all in” as a writer. I know getting an MFA is not necessary and I admire workaday writers who are able to view writing as their true love and passion even though it is not related to their day job. For me, however, having an unrelated (or, I guess, only somewhat related) day job led to me feeling all sorts of insecurities about myself as a writer. I worried that even if I wrote on a daily basis, writing would remain nothing more than a hobby in my life if I didn’t pursue it as my primary career. Quitting my job, moving across the country, and focusing on an MFA program full-time proved to me that I am “all in,” and it gave me confidence in myself as a writer. I no longer question my commitment to writing or worry that it’ll get sidelined in my life or become something I never pursued as fully as I wanted to.

Negatives

My writing practice has suffered. My novel progress has stalled. I had a completed draft (actually a third or fourth draft) of a novel manuscript before coming here. The single most difficult part of being in an MFA program is knowing that I probably would’ve had that manuscript all polished up and sent to agents by now if I hadn’t come here. At times, I’ve resented class assignments, knowing my time spent doing homework could’ve been spent revising my novel. I’ve had to remind myself that I am becoming a better writer during my time here and, although my novel is taking longer to complete, it should be of a higher quality when I’m actually finished with it.

I realize that this difficulty is partially due to how I work–it’s not that I never have a spare minute to write; it’s that I prefer longer blocks of time. When I worked 9-5, I could work on my novel for 3-4 hours on weeknights, and upwards of 10 hours on weekend days if I wanted.  Now, if I have only one hour free, I tend to use it on other things because it doesn’t feel like a long enough stretch of time to be able to dig into my novel and do substantial revising. I’m trying to work on this, though, and get used to revising in 30- and 60-minute bursts.

It’s really hard to be this busy. Moving forward, my workload should be a little lighter, but the last two semesters felt overwhelming. There was never a day where I didn’t have a long to do list (and never a day where I actually completed the list). I essentially spent two semesters feeling behind, stressed, and unprepared. I consistently completed work at the last minute and almost always felt as if there was too little time. I forced myself to continue to maintain a social life and do fun things alone such as watch movies. I realize this time could’ve been spent on school and maybe that would’ve helped me be less overwhelmed, but I refuse to live a life that has absolutely no leisure time.

I’m going to write a separate blog post about health in the near future, but I deal with fibromyalgia and other chronic health issues. One of my fears was that coming to grad school would trigger an illness flare-up. It did! I spent months running ragged, feeling awful, and on the brink of burnout and health disaster, which again is unique to me and I’m sure colors my view of the “negatives” of being in an MFA program.

It’s really hard to be this poor. I was/am also barely making it financially. This is difficult when being so strapped for time. I know I can do more outside work to help my financial situation, but that takes away from my writing and school work and adds to my busy-ness and stress. It also hurts my self-esteem and has caused me to question my decision to come here a few times. Many of my friends are in the getting-married-and-having-babies stage of life. I can’t afford to buy them nice gifts and that feels awful. I missed my cousin’s wedding because I couldn’t afford the flight, and was also unable to visit a close friend who suffered an injury because I couldn’t afford the flight. I knew going into an MFA program would involve financial sacrifice, but I guess I didn’t know the feeling of sacrifice would be so pronounced. It’s been a big challenge to focus on the positives when these types of things run through my mind on a daily basis.

I should note that this is also somewhat unique to my situation. I’ve never been great at managing money, and I entered into this MFA program even though I had a fair amount of debt and no savings. Because I already have a graduate degree, I am unable to take out student loans. I am not willing to make certain sacrifices I made last time I was in grad school, such as living with multiple roommates and going without a car. If I could do it over, I would’ve prepared savings in advance and paid much more attention to the financial side of programs when selecting which schools to apply to.

Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m doing this too late in life. I’m thirty-four years old. I already had a completed novel manuscript before coming here. I have a lot of “real world” work experience. While I’m not the oldest person in my program, I am often the oldest one who hangs out socially and most of my friends here are five to ten years younger than I am. Although I don’t place a lot of importance on age, I sometimes feel a little too old to be a poor grad student. I have to actively fight off that voice in society/my head that says I should be making more money by this age and that I should be heading up my own projects, not taking classes, at this age. The experience has been humbling and forced me to check my ego and cast aside society’s conventions about what someone “should” be doing in their 30s.

I’ve really had to embrace the “better late than never” adage. Sure, I wish that when I was twenty-five years old, worried I was in the wrong grad program, researching MFA creative writing programs online, that I had had the confidence and motivation to move past idle internet searches. I wish I had reached out to people in MFA programs and learned more and made the switch then, ten years ago, when I first wanted to do it. I wish that I had left Illinois then, when I wanted to do it. But I didn’t. That’s just not how my life happened. I guess it’s taken me longer than some to find my career path, to become aware of my desires and goals, and to muster up the courage to go for it. Instead of focusing on regret over not having done this sooner, I’m learning to focus on feeling grateful that I’m doing it now.

Conclusion

My biggest takeaway from reflecting on my MFA experience is that when you’re really living and you’re pursuing the things you want to pursue, life is going to be huge and hard and amazing no matter what. I think getting an MFA is like doing any other big, major life thing. Beforehand, it sounds great and you know you want it, but once you’re there, it’s hard and takes a lot of work and isn’t always fun, just like any challenging job, or marriage or parenthood, I’m sure. Still, I’m glad I’m doing it.

My biggest goals for the second half of my MFA are to enjoy it and feel grateful for it every day. In the first half of my MFA, I allowed my stress to take over more times than I’d like to admit and I often found myself wishing for time to pass, aka for the semester to end. I don’t want to live or think that way. Time is so limited; I never want to wish for it to pass more quickly. That’s insanity. That’s avoiding the present moment and literally wishing to be closer to death. My other major goal is to finish revising my novel, to stop wishing for the expanses of time I had when I worked 9-5, and to learn to jump in and take advantage of the small pockets that pop up at different times on different days.

I know some other MFA students and some MFA hopefuls follow my blog–if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments and I will answer them.

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