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 >

“We Don’t Have the Priests We Used To”

Père Paul BreauMy father was sitting in the rocking chair and I at the kitchen table one day when I was visiting from Halifax, when he said to me out of the blue, looking blankly in front of him, “We don’t have the priests we used to.”

I have no idea what prompted him to say that. We weren’t talking about the many sex scandals that had plagued the Catholic Church in the decade or so to that point, or at least I don’t think we were. Maybe more allegations had recently come out on the news when he made that unexpected statement to me. However, I was struck by how he, who rarely expressed his feelings, was clearly feeling not just saddened but betrayed, for he was such a devout Catholic. Every weekday evening before his walk, he would go to mass at 6:30 or 7:00, for back then there were enough priests to go around in the Diocese of Moncton to allow such a thing. His attendance was by rote, but this routine clearly gave him so much comfort.

“It was a kindness that rendered him unable to understand why there is so much evil in this world.”

I distinctly remember writing that line in my eulogy to my father in direct reference to his declaration about not having the priests we used to.

My parents being so religious, I had no choice but to attend church every weekend. And truth be told, I was such a good little boy that it took me years to rebel against and reject the Church, although I think I got away with stopping going to church a year or two of age younger than my siblings. I was even an alter boy from about Grade 4 or 5 to Grade 9.

From 1971 to 1981, Père Paul Breau (pictured above) was the vicar in the parish where I grew up. He was very popular because he had such a no nonsense way about him. He wasn’t pompous like Père Maurice Léger, the asshat drama queen who caused me such grief a few minutes before my father’s funeral. In fact, Père Breau had an amusing ritual around Labour Day, which was like the beginning of the new year coinciding with back-to-school, where his sermon was about how he wanted things to run in the parish. For example, he had the reputation of holding the fastest weekend mass in Moncton: 42 minutes if attendance was average so that communion could be distributed as quickly as usual. So one of his demands one year went along the lines of, “I conduct the quickest mass in town, so could you please be respectful enough to let me get to the back of the church at the end of mass before you start spilling out of the church?”

Going back to Père Maurice for a second: I think one of the reasons that his quasi-refusal to let me do my father’s eulogy got so deeply under my skin is because I smelt the closet pedophile off him way before that incident. I realize I’m being slanderous as I can’t prove my intuition. However, when I learned that he had died somewhere in South America in 2009 and was shipped back to Canada in a casket, my immediate thought went to reports of how some dioceses would cover up but punish their pedophile priests by sending them to some godforsaken hole in Peru or Ecuador or wherever. My gut reaction upon learning the circumstances of his demise was the same as I had had when my mother told me about how one of my cousins had “cracked” following a minor fender bender: I immediately thought that he’d cracked not because of the accident, but because he was a closet queer. A few years later, my suspicion was confirmed when I bumped into my cousin at Moncton’s “fruit stand” when instead he was supposed to be at home recovering from appendicitis.

As a teenager thinking back to all the priests I’d encountered when I was a kid, I grew suspicious of all of them except one. There’s even one in particular, a missionary priest who spent a few months in our parish, that to this day I still wonder if he did or, more likely, wanted to do something shady with me. But until yesterday, I always, always thought that Père Breau was one of the good ones.

However, yesterday, one of my childhood friends with whom I still keep in touch through Facebook sent me a link to this news story on CBC. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

The allegations place the complainant’s repeated incidents at the parish where Père Breau was posted after our parish. Strangely, some 24 hours after hearing the news, I still can’t believe it, but that’s not to say I don’t believe the complainant. I think everybody who has known Père Breau are just as shocked as I am. He was one of the few good ones. And right now I feel immense guilt for wishing that the allegations against Père Breau weren’t true. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the other accused.

Thank god my parents aren’t here to witness this news. I might be in shock, but they would be shattered. Then again, given what I just wrote above, I’m probably not just in shock; I’m feeling betrayed, exactly as my father had felt.

As much as I’m agnostic as far as an afterlife goes, I just hope there’s something like “victims’ impact statements” over there for people like my parents who have been so betrayed by these awful men.

I initally posted this entry under “Gender & Sexuality” but quickly changed it because sexual assault is about violence, not sexuality.