How to Get Out and Stay Out of Debt
Part 1–Accepting That You Need to Go on a Diet

When I happen to tell people that three years ago, I managed in two years to clear $28K of debt and found a way of saving for my retirement while still enjoying life, they all ask me, “How the hell did you manage that?!” Well, I’ll tell you how in this series of postings that I’ll be writing over the coming weeks. My system took a lot of work on spreadsheets to help me map out what I kept visualizing mentally, but I’m sure it could be adapted for someone else in a lot less time now that I’ve ironed it all out.

Cat about to pukeWhen people get the advice that they should prepare a budget, they either roll their eyes or even feel a little nauseous. We tend to think of it as having to go on a diet, and the mere mention of the word “diet” can make anyone feel a little queazy. Trust me, I know: I’m having a dickens of a time trying to find the motivation to start a traditional one — of the food variety.

The analogy doesn’t end there, though. With a diet, if you stop following it or go back to your old eating habits once you reach your goal, you’ll gain weight again. (Trust me on that one, too.) Similarly, if you stop following your financial diet once you reach your goal of getting out of debt, you’re likely to eventually go back into debt.

Pushing the analogy further: a particular diet might work wonderfully for some people, moderately for others, and not at all for others still. Everyone’s metabolism is different, not to mention their appetite (pardon the pun) for physical activity. Well, similarly, everyone has different financial circumstances to deal with, and not everyone has the same appetite for belt tightening and deferring, nor the same definitions for needs and wants. Plus if your needs exceed your income, which is a situation I’ve known at one time of my life, getting out of debt is an outright impossibility. However, even there, by keeping wants to a minimum if not completely cutting them out when you don’t have enough to cover needs, you can limit the damage — that is, the debt.

The tips I’m about to share with you in this series of postings work best if:

  1. your income is enough to cover your needs and (preferably) then some;
  2. you receive a steady income at a steady interval;
  3. you don’t turn all “damsel in distress” on me when I tell you that you have to get used to using and moving around an electronic workbook with many worksheets;
  4. you’re willing to “balance your cheque book” almost every day and move funds frequently from one account to another, and
  5. you’re willing and able to accept what the numbers tell you and move on if they tell you that certain wants will remain wants foreover.

For instance, I need housing like everybody else but I would have wanted to own mine. However, I also needed a plan for my retirement and, after many hours of research and number crunching, I had to come to terms with the glaring reality that, given my age and where I live (and, yes, want to live), I couldn’t have both. Housing prices in Montréal have more than doubled in the last 15 years but salaries certainly haven’t, so my timing to enter the housing market was horrible to say the least. Therefore, I had to take a step back, put a cross on my want to own my home, and move on.

But coming back to the diet: Have you ever gone on one — of the food variety, that is — and had some success on it for a while? It might have only worked for a few weeks or a few months… maybe longer if you were lucky as I was when I managed to sustain it for more than five years. If so, do you remember how proud if not downright euphoric you felt?

Well, I’m anticipating the nay-sayers who say that diets never work by asserting that a financial diet can be just as uplifting, and if you sustain it after you climb out of that hell hole that is debt, you’ll be encouraged to sustain it so that you can see for yourself the array of choices that’ll open up before you. Think also of diets or restrictions some people have to impose on themselves due to food intolerances or allergies. If they start again to eat certain foods, they will become ill or, in extreme cases, might even die. Similarly, debt is an illness that robs you of long-term choices and, if you manage to finally climb out of it, you’re not likely to want to go back to feeling financially rotten.

In terms of needs, you’ll be able with my method to think about and plan for those that are years in front of you. As for the wants, you’ll find that you can allow more than you might imagine right now and, because you’ll have given them a lot of thought, you’ll apppreciate them much more than if you’d succumbed to them on a whim and quickly (and perhaps mindlessly) moved on to the next one to get that next hit of excitement.

So what kind of choices am I talking about? Some are small but some are huge.

Three years ago this coming November, just a month after I’d gotten out of debt, it became clear to everyone including myself that I was miserable in my old apartment. I found the one where I’m living now on Kijiji, but it was available the following January and, as I feared, the landlord at the old place refused to give me a break and let me out of my lease before April. On the surface, it seemed foolish to pay an extra $2,670 over three months to rent two apartments (not to mention the nearly $1,000 in moving costs on top of that). But it was a pity because I’d spent hours upon hours searching and everything I found was a compromise, a downsizing …until I found this one. It had my name all over it!

Sure, before my financial diet, I still could have chosen to rent both apartments, but with the head-in-the-sand approach I had back then, I only would have pushed my debt load well over the $30K mark with no realistic plan to lower it. However, with my diet and newly found debt-free status, on April 1 when the lease ended on the old place, I still had my first $2,000 in savings — the same amount I had when my double-renting period had started on January 1.

Choices… and a whole lot less stress. Now when life throws me a financial curveball, I may not like it — who does?! — but I can shrug it off. When a big annual bill comes due, I don’t even bat an eyelash. When dear friends come to town, I can pick up the tab and make everyone happy yet know that it’ll be paid off by the time I get home. When I decide to go away on vacation, I don’t always HAVE to stay with friends in order to afford to travel.

You get the picture.

And all it took to reach this enviable situation was to accept that I needed to go on a financial diet.

Next >

A Bit Here and There: It All Adds Up!

Money Saving ChallengeI first heard of the Money Saving Challenge last winter just as I was rebuilding my budget spreadsheets for the next 10 years to see if I could indeed afford to retire at 60.

It goes like this. On Week 1, you put $1 in the pot. On Week 2, you put in $2, giving you $3 in the pot, and so it goes for 52 weeks, each week putting $1 more than the previous week. At the end of 52 weeks, you’ll have $1,378. When I posted this trick on Facebook at the time, one of my friends said that she used it to save for Christmas gifts, except that she did it in reverse (starting at $52 on Week 1 and putting in $1 less each week).

I hardly ever have any cash on me. I find that when I break a $20 bill, the change I get back isn’t money to me anymore so I just waste the rest away. So, since money has become more of a mathematical abstraction to me, I never needed a trick like this to develop my ability to save. I’m better at going from an abstract model, as complicted as it might be, and enacting it in reality.

But what sparked my interest about this challenge is the number: $1,378. When I started my quest to rebuild my financial health in 2011, I had no idea what I averaged in gas money each year. I mean, it’s such a moving target: in the last decade, I’ve seen regular gas go for as much as $1.49/litre to as little as $0.89/litre, plus some years I travel considerably more or less than others. However, after tracking how much I spent on gas each year from 2013 to 2015, I found that I averaged about $1,500/year, which is damn close to $1,378!

So last December I decided that every late-December when I get my yearly bonus, I would leave $1,500 in my chequing account and earmark it as gas money. Initially I just paid cash as I went (with my debit card) and had a spot in my spreadsheet that showed me the balance in that “virtual account” I called Gas Money. My thought was that I could top it up if I ran out before the following late-December (which I thought unlikely even though I’m driving more these days), and if there was still some money left in it by the following late-December, I would only top it back up to $1,500. I figured I would have to try this for a few years to see if I needed to squirrel away a bit more than $1,500, but the benefit for me is that I wouldn’t be counting that amount as potential savings when I knew that I would in fact be spending it.

Then, last May, Tangerine Bank (where I maintain a savings account) offered me a MasterCard that would pay back 2% on three categories of purchases and 1% on all others, but for the first three months, the cashback on the 2% categories was 4%. You can change your three categories at any time, but knowing I would be going on vacation in those next three months, I chose “Hotels & Accommodations” as one of them, to be changed to “Gas” later, and “Restaurants” and “Groceries” as the other two.

The cashback goes directly into my savings account on the 17th of every month, and by paying absolutely everything I can with that card since the middle of May, I got $135 back as of September 17. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s free money just to use a card! Also, I wouldn’t care if the interest rate on the card were 50% (it’s actually 19.99%) because you pay no interest for the first 21 days and I pay it off at least once a week, often as soon as expenses are posted. I haven’t paid a bank any interest in the last 3 years, except for $35 in 2015 when I borrowed about $31,500 from my line of credit for 10 days in order to meet that year’s RRSP contribution deadline which was a few days before I would be receiving a huge tax refund from the Feds.

Also, twice a year for three months, Tangerine gives a considerably better interest rate on new deposits in their savings account. You have to read the fine print because sometimes the “new savings” are only up to a certain date well within the three-month period, but other times it’s for the whole three months. For July to September of this year, the rate applied for the whole three months and went from its regular paltry 0.8% to 3.25%, so I moved much of what I had in a savings account at my credit union where the rate is 1.7%.

Because Tangerine’s rates aren’t as good as my credit union’s for half the year, I used to drain that account at the end of every offer. However, as the new credit card cashback would go into that account, it dawned on me that I should simply view it as my virtual gas account and earn at least 0.8% rather than ziltch in my chequing account and, on my spreadsheet, I would separate the gas money from the funds I move in and out just to benefit from the semi-annual better-interest-rate offers. And then, in so doing, something else dawned on me.

Now, twice a year (in early-June and early-December), I move whatever interest I’ve earned at the credit union’s saving account into the Tangerine savings account and earmark it for the virtual gas account. Then, whenever I get some interest or cash back from Tangerine, I also earmark those amounts for the virtual gas account.

The point? As of right now, I spent $1,080.17 on gas in 2016. However, my gas fund isn’t down to $419.83 ($1,500 — $1080.17); it’s in fact at $819.50. In other words, with just a bit of planning and a few mouse clicks, I made a few cents shy of $400 and painlessly dumped it into my gas fund. So, come late-December, I might only need to put +/- $1,000 of my yearly bonus into my gas fund instead of the full $1,500. (Update, late-December 2016: I ended up spending $1,298.67 on gas in 2016 — I didn’t have much reason or opportunity to drive in the fall — so with the interest and paybacks earned to the end of December, I only needed $607.69 to top myself back up to $1,500. In other words, it looks like I got banks to pay about half my gas consumption this year!)

A bit here and there: it’s really does add up! I’ll take cash back over air miles anytime because I can really make it work for me. When I told one of my brothers about this little scheme, he just laughed and said, “That is SO something Mom would have done!”

His saying that made me smile. Because he’s right. I hadn’t thought of it that way until he mentioned it, but it really is something she would have thought of as well.

Misleading by Numbers

MisrepresentationHe didn’t mean it with any ill intent, but I once had a colleague who would sometimes word things in such a way that, while he wasn’t lying, he was answering the question in a way that skewed what was really happening.

Let me try to explain while remaining as unspecific as I can.

My team had a backlog of clients waiting to get an appointment with any one of four or five people. Each of us had a few available timeslots starting three workdays ahead, and then more and more timeslots the further ahead you looked. But each of us is one of two parties, the client being the other. While we might have two timeslots available three days ahead and three timeslots four days ahead, the client might not be available or ready for an appointment for any of those times. Therefore, we have to look for a mutually acceptable time further down the calendar — sometimes many days or even a few weeks ahead.

Concerned that we were having to make our clients wait an unacceptable number of days before getting an appointment with us, our supervisor asked my former colleague at one point, “How far ahead are we booking appointments right now?” In my mind, the answer should have been three days ahead, with the caveat that there aren’t many availabilities. However, my colleague, remembering that one case when he booked an appointment 15 workdays ahead, answered 15 days. While he answered our supervisor’s question literally, he seemed to be implying with his answer that there was no availability before 15 days.

The reason I’m bringing up this anecdote is that I had this nagging thought after posting about my epiphany on how I would be able to afford to retire at 60, or in 9 years. Therein, I asserted that “already I’m living on 70 percent of my income,” but was I really misleading by numbers as my colleague was? Indeed, I realized that when I would add up all the incoming money in one year and substract all the outgoing expenses for the same year, there were a few thousand dollars that I couldn’t trace even if I counted as an “expense” the amount I managed to set aside in the year. The percentage of income spent and the percentage of income saved never added up to 100%, so what was wrong with my logic?

It then occurred to me that I was confusing income with cash flow. For instance, I get a $50/month non-taxable expense reimbursement for my home Internet connection since I work from home, which I just put back into my cash flow. Similarly, the interest I earn in savings accounts, which is taxable, gets circulated into my cash flow as well (specifically to suppplement my gas fund). But I don’t recirculate the interest or dividends I earn in my Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA) and my retirement fund (RRSP), which are not taxed, and every cent I get back in tax returns goes into my RRSP. While those amounts are incomes, they don’t go into my cash flow.

The minute I added up take-home pay and other revenues that I add to my cash flow (expense reimbursement, interest earned but not tax sheltered, cash payback on all spending done on one of my credit cards), I came to a totally different lower number (CF) from which I substracted all my real expenses (E), which gave me the exact amount I socked away in savings from cash flow (CFS [for cash-flow savings]) as opposed to the total amount saved (S). Then, using that different number as the denominator for percentage of expenses (E / CF) and percentage of savings from cash flow (CFS / CF), I always get 100%. (Well, except for 2015 because I bought my new car cash and used some of my savings, so I adjusted the E / CF formula so that the result cannot be higher than 100% and the formula for CFS so that it cannot be less than $0.)

So what’s my point? I don’t currently live off 70 percent of my income but 75 percent of my incoming cash flow. Or stated differently, I manage to save one quarter of my available cash flow just by planning ahead, paying as I go, and keeping my list of “wants” (versus needs) short so that when I do indulge in wants (which I do!), they’re real treats! What I haven’t wrapped my mind around yet is whether 75 percent versus 70 percent means that I will have to cut back my expenses by 5 percent upon retirement (about $1,500 a year) or if it’ll all work out in the wash. However, I think I’m further ahead in my thinking 9 years before retirement than most people are on the eve of their retirement.

Indeed, Now What Do I Do?

Now What?Haven’t we all wondered what exactly a dog expects to do if it should catch the hubcap of a moving car? Of course, the answer is that the dog doesn’t know; it just feels compelled to run after the car.

This notion came to my mind last Thursday morning — October 17th — when I reached my financial milestone of complete debt elimination, except that I’m not totally clueless as to what I’m going to do next, but more about the order of my next milestones. However, without a doubt, reaching this point has been quite a ride.

After giving much thought during my three-week sick leave from work in September 2011 to the notion of when did I last feel content and in control of my life, I got up on Saturday, October 1, 2011, one week after returning to my job, and began working on a spreadsheet. Indeed, it occurred to me during the time I was putting everything about myself into question that one of my many bad decisions in the previous years had been not to pay attention to my finances, for I was very fortunate in that there seemed to always be enough money coming in to cover all the bills and simply glide by. Of course, having the bailiff show up at my door on the morning of my very first appointment with Lucy brought home that I wasn’t really doing such a great job at gliding by.

So, that October morning, I mustered up the courage to look at my accounts online to see how bad things were. I found just over $21K of debt which I immediately consolidated onto my line of credit, and tried to think of all the unusual expenses I would have to cover in the coming months, like weekly appointments with Lucy and the divorce. But then two questions popped into my mind.

  1. From March 2006 to August 2007, somehow I had managed to clear almost that much debt. Mind you, my monthly expenses are somewhat higher in Montréal than they were in Halifax back then, but not insurmountably higher. Why can’t I do that again? Have I allowed my list of wants to grow into my income?
  2. Why is it that, when someone is paid every two weeks, there really isn’t two “extra” paycheques per year?

That second question in particular is what brought me to think about cash flow for an entire year rather than month by month and Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s “magic jars” in which she gets people to put cash for a specific purpose (food, transportation, etc.). I combined and adapted those two notions by listing all my recurring expenses like rent, phone, insurance, steady debt repayment and so on, figuring out how much they each cost per year, and dividing each of those figures by 26 — the number of pay periods in one year. This exercise confirmed that I was very lucky to have more than enough money left over for food and vices, and with some trimming back here and there, I could put even more on debt repayment.

So, after resetting the counter at zero and figuring out my expected cash flow for the next two years, I implemented my plan starting with my paycheque of October 6, 2011. My best-case scenario, which included paying for my (failed) therapy to quit smoking and my divorce lawyer, projected total debt elimination by the beginning of 2014. “Best-case scenario” was the operative term; I hadn’t thought through vacation travel and couldn’t anticipate hefty fines, car breakdowns, or the need to buy new tires or dress clothes. However, I also assumed no salary increase, no extra pay for overtime or no better-than-expected year-end bonus, and no elimination or reduction of recurring expenses (e.g., getting rid of my land line in favour of a MagicJack, closing the account I no longer needed at my backup web host, closing dormant resold accounts with my web host that I’d simply left open for no good reason, etc.).

In the end, in precisely 743 days (or 2 years, 1 week and 5 days), I paid off just shy of $28.5K. To achieve this, though, I placed exactly one-third of all income during that time on debt reduction and I don’t recommend that anyone else do the same because, unlike myself, people have a life. I had lived below the poverty line for the 10 years prior to March 2006, which is how I got into debt in the first place, and my best gross income before that was one exceptional year in the early ’90s when I made a hair over $30K. In other words, I’m accustomed to getting only what I need and not what I want — within a few exceptions, of course, owning a car being one of them.

Now that’s not to say that I think I’m more virtuous than everyone else! I just think that most people, when they attain a level of financial security, quite naturally allow themselves to indulge more in what they want. I mean, despite appearances, I feel I’ve done quite a lot of that since 2006, at least by my standards. But just like a diet will fail if you’re depriving yourself to the point of always feeling hungry, an aggressive approach to debt elimination as the one I adopted is doomed if it makes you feel resentful for depriving yourself so much when you know there’s in fact enough income coming in that you shouldn’t be feeling deprived.

At any rate, now that my debt is finally at zero, I still have about two months left for my plan to be finalized, for now I have to refill the virtual “jars” from which I borrowed to get out of debt faster than anticipated. However, by New Year’s Day, I’ll have a few Ks of savings with which I can do whatever I want, which brings me to the dog chasing the hubcap. I know what’s first on my list: buying an extra week’s vacation for 2014, assuming my boss allows me to do so. As for the rest, well …that’s a topic for my next blog entry.

Life on Hold

I have had a series of highly geeky musings in the works for over a month now that I’ve obviously neither completed nor published yet, and I’ve had several other “bloggable” thoughts (or rants) in my mind that, for whatever reason, I never firmed up. I hope to get to those eventually, but for now I offer you this musing for the simple fact that I’ve gone far too long without posting anything at aMMusing.

On HoldI don’t like to admit it but I have to: I’ve pressed the Pause button on my life.

That statement sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Yet strangely enough, it isn’t …at least not for me. When I think to how I felt two years ago, I can assert that I’m perfectly fine. Back then, I couldn’t even stand myself; I felt like I wanted to escape by crawling out of my own skin. But three unrelated and quite trivial events that occurred in the last few days have brought the phrase “Life on Hold” to my mind as a “bloggable” topic.

First, I was sitting having a coffee in a park in the Village a few nights ago when this guy, also named Maurice and also born in ’65, sat in front of me to see if I recognized him. I did. We had — or actually, he had — struck up a conversation with me about a month ago. Some things he said back then made me not like him very much, so when that happens, I find it difficult to sustain a conversation with that person afterwards. Clearly having forgotten that he had already posed me the question, he asked me the other day if I was “with someone.” When I repeated my answer that I wasn’t, he asked me for how long I have been by myself. And that’s when it hit me like that proverbial ton of bricks: it will be four years soon! It doesn’t seem that long ago, yet the facts and the calendar can’t lie. At the same time, NowEx does seem like a distant memory but a memory nonetheless: just last night, I had another nightmare in which he featured.

Second, last Thursday evening, I discovered that my bank unceremoniously lowered the rate on its so-called “high-interest” savings account from 1.2% to 1.1%. It’s not a really big deal, except that now I can claim that the bank gives me less than a quarter of what it takes from me in interest on my line of credit. I then figured out that, based on my projections, this tiny 0.1% decrease could represent between 50 to 60 dollars less in incoming interest by the end of 2016 (although I wouldn’t really have the balance being projected since I intend to spend some of it along the way, except it illustrates well the difference ten basis points can make on compound interest). Peanuts, really, but this calculation made me realize the futility of continuing to save as I have — at least for the next few months — while I’m still carrying some debt even if it’s now well below 5K or nearly 85% less than my total reimbursement of so-called consumer debt since Thanksgiving 2011.

Third — and certainly the most trivial — I finally got around to submitting my first reimbursement claim at work for my Internet connection, to which I’m entitled since I work exclusively from home. I’ve said it before: I’m my own worst advocate when it comes to money; I didn’t even submit a claim for my hotel room and train ticket to Toronto in 2009 even though the trip was entirely work-related. So, upon receiving my first reimbursement on the same day I got confirmation that I’m receiving less interest on my savings account, I fired up my uber-complicated but highly effective budgeting spreadsheet and spent hours rejigging it because 50 bucks a month represents more than two years’ worth of power bills …or a very decent dinner out, or a few bottles of non-plonk wine, or a tank of gas, or …well, you get the picture.

As I was doing that — slowly, methodically, yet realizing no sane person would spend as many hours as I have on this thing — I kept hearing one thought in my mind: “Life on hold, life on hold…” Ever since I reconstructed my spreadsheet in late-October and especially after my net debt finally fell to a mere four-digit figure in mid-December, I seem to have declared 2013 as my “last year of sacrifices.” A few months ago I complained that I might be pushing myself too hard on that front, but it seems that I just can’t stop myself. I don’t remember a moment in my adult life when I had no debt AND a realistic hope of staying bad-debt-free, so with that target only four-and-a-half or five months away, I’ve chosen to cut out anything that is absolutely not necessary so that, for the first time in seven years, every cent of my year-end bonus will be all mine and not going right back to the bank.

I’ve developed the discipline of putting aside at least one out of every four dollars I take home without even breaking a sweat! When I first started cleaning up my act nearly two years ago, I knew that my whole budget was a best-case scenario but I told myself that any unlucky break would merely push the target a little bit further. But the bad strokes of luck that did fall onto my path were met with some lucky strikes of almost equal magnitude, so, in my mind, with the target so close, what’s a few more months of austerity if I can gently coast to it? The fact the target is a full four to five months SOONER that my best-case scenario of October 2011 is only egging me on.

Therefore, air-conditioning for the apartment this summer? Forget it; I’ll suffer a bit for one last summer. A nice trip overseas or even to the bloody USA? No, not yet. Finally getting decent furniture? Next year, and that’ll be cash, thank you very much. If I can’t pay for it right then and there or within four to six weeks, it ain’t happening. But, starting in July, I will be using a budget line I haven’t used yet, namely having someone come in to clean my dump once every two weeks. And because I find having only three weeks’ vacation per year isn’t enough, I’ll start buying myself an extra week’s vacation starting in 2014 because I believe my sanity depends on it.

So truth be told, I met the line “life on hold” with a kind of ambivalence when it kept echoing in my mind this weekend. On the one hand, it’s rather pathetic that I should be doing so little these days and I wonder if it’s a mistake to defer living as I am right now. But, on the other hand, the prospect of living well and travelling as so many of my friends and family are able to do, all within my means, is just too damn enticing.