Four years ago, my husband and I were on an adrenaline rush.
In January of 2008, we had committed to getting out of debt.
To having an actual emergency fund (not a $10,000 credit limit on a Visa card, but actual bonafide cash in the bank). To living within our means. To saving a bit each month – so that we could finally BREATHE.
Facing the truth about our $30,000 of consumer debt was hard. Painfully hard.
Embarrasing. Shameful. And disappointing.
How could we let ourselves get like this?
Staring at that pile of bills, tallying the amount – it felt like a mountain that could never be scaled, no matter how long we trudged.
Was it even worth it to try?
We went to bed deflated, but then somehow, the next morning we woke up and faced it again. I opened an Excel document, which I later named “Debt Snowball Baby”, and started plugging in our numbers.
And in the process, we somehow went from THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE to THIS JUST MIGHT BE DOABLE to WE’RE GOING TO DO IT to OMG WE’RE DOING IT!
The adrenaline kicked in and the high from buying-junk-we-probably-didn’t-even-need (yes, there was a high) morphed into a very similar high from paying off our debt.
Each time I called the credit card company to pay off another few hundred shekel (remember, we lived in Israel at the time), I pumped my fist in the air and shouted, Woot woot! We were scaling that mountain!
Paying off debt was all gain and no pain.
Emotionally it was bliss. Financial responsibility nirvana.
But then we hit the Emergency Fund stage of our process.
We had paid off almost $30,000 of debt in just under six months, but now we had to save another $20,000 (give or take) for our emergency fund.
Here we go again.
We were back at the base of the mountain, but now we had aching muscles and blistered feet.
Seriously, we have to do this again? Can’t I just go buy some junk we probably didn’t even need?
Yet somehow we knew it wasn’t time to quit yet. So we just put our heads down (way down), and started walking, one foot in front of the other.
We did get some highs along the way.
Like saving enough to pay cash for the midwife for my daughter’s birth.
And saving enough to pay cash for a trip to Vegas – our only trip away, alone, together since our first child was born six years earlier. (By the way, we just saved for our second trip – to Cape Cod – next month. To celebrate our 10th anniversary.)
Or saving enough to pay for me and our newborn daughter to fly to Israel, sell our home in Modi’in, and even earn enough to put down a very sizeable chunk on a new home in America.
But that big ole emergency fund? It took more twice as long to save $20,000 as it did to pay off $30,000. I can analyze the math, but I’m told that this is pretty typical for most families. Adrenaline pushes you through the debt snowball. Sheer grit keeps you going during the emergency fund.
Most frustrating of all? After all that work – and it.was.hard. – we still weren’t done. Now real life was just beginning. All that stuff we’d put on hold, so we could pay off debt and build an emergency fund? Now we had to figure out how to rework those expenses into our budget.
It often felt like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.
Thank God we no longer have monthly payments. (Dayschool would be out of the question, if we did.)
Thank God we have an emergency fund. (Despite my stinginess with spending it, it’s saved our hides more than once.)
But what about living like no one so I could live like no one else? Wasn’t it my turn yet?
Turns out we had confused the process with the past. We thought finishing our emergency fund meant ease and perfection and yes, buying junk we probably didn’t even need.
It just means more of the same. Only now we don’t have the adrenaline-pumping thrill of paying off debt. Or even the pat-ourselves-on-the-back-we’re-being-so-good satisfaction of saving for an emergency fund.
Now we’re just facing the REST.OF.OUR.LIVES.
Medical bills and retirement funds. Tuition payments and Tae Kwon Do lessons. New clothing and family vacations.
Every decision has to be balanced. Every indulgence must come at the expense of something else.
I still have the urge to buy junk I don’t need. In fact, it’s the one thing I miss about being $30,000 in debt.
Back when I had the sinking feeling that we were too far gone for it to even matter… so why not buy that new pair of sandals?
Sure, there was cumulative guilt and shame and discomfort about our financial situation, but it wasn’t specifically directed. I hadn’t realized yet that each purchase made an impact. Even the sandals.
Many ask me now if I ever splurge? The answer is yes! Of course! (I’m due for a salon color a week from Tuesday.)
Do I make mistakes? Unwise choices? Buy junk we probably don’t even need? Yup. The answer is yes.
But my naivete, my self-imposed ignorance (and it was bliss) is gone. Now I know that these are luxuries, which I have to account for – and be accountable for.
So what is our truth now?
It’s hard. Every day, every purchase, every dollar sent to savings, it’s hard.
Frankly, being a grown-up sucks sometimes.
Saying yes is so much more fun than saying no. Sure, it gets easier the more you practice, and sure, there are things now that I truly believe are wasteful or superfluous that years ago I thought were just basic life staples.
But that doesn’t make doing the right thing easy. And I want you to know that. Because, sometimes between the SCREAMING HOT DEALS and the FREE AFTER ECBs, we can lose sight of why we’re doing it.
We’re not just doing it because it’s so totally fun to get stuff for free (although it is!).
We’re doing it because in order to be the best person you can be, to take care of yourself and your family now (and in your future), you’ve got to do the hard stuff.
We have to be willing to stop, right now, and re-evaluate: Is this a need? Is it a planned want? Or is this just some junk I probably don’t need and won’t even be able to account for in two months?
We have to be willing to delay gratification. And to teach our children to delay gratification. So that we can truly be gratified in the future.
We have to be willing to be totally mindful of our money. Of how we spend it. All of it.
We have to make a budget and track our spending and chart our progress and face our truths – every single month.
Because when we do this stuff, we get peace. The kind of peace that comes from knowing we’re okay. Or at least, we’re going to be okay. We are paying attention. We’re doing our best. We’re not in denial. The kind of peace that leads to all kinds of good things.
To greater generosity with our children and our friends (generosity doesn’t just come from spending money, by the way).
To greater connection in our marriages (it’s hard to be connected with our partner when we’re stressed out and fighting over money).
To improved self-worth and self-confidence (because feeling like a million bucks doesn’t mean earning a million bucks).
This is the good stuff.
The stuff that makes the hard work very very worth it.