Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Traveling Contradiction

I consider myself a fairly green person. I use cloth napkins, I recycle, and as lazy as I can be at times, I still haven't been able to bring myself to get a one-cup brew system for my morning coffee.

Truth be told, my thoughtless spending creates lots of waste. The tank top and underwear I'm wearing were most likely made in sweatshops and will begin to fall apart in a few months, I often have to trash organic food I don't use in time, and whenever I travel (and especially when I fly) I pick up new travel-size toiletries for my trip. Because I rarely check a bag, some of these items — like toothpaste — make sense. But it wouldn't be hard for me to refill my Dr. Bronner's soap or other lotions.

This week, I've been traveling for work and made not one, but two, stops at drugstores for tiny toiletries. And because I didn't think ahead when packing, I had to buy a small bottle of ibuprofen when I got a little crampy (I later found some in my purse).

Though my frugality project hasn't officially begun, I'm already thinking a lot about where my money goes. This week, $20 or more of it has gone to little plastic containers full of chemicals. 

Am I about to turn into that weird lady who travels with a few squirts of toothpaste in a Ziploc bag? (Is it weird that I kind of hope so?)

My First Post, My Last Indulgence

I have a shopping problem, a spending issue, money trouble. Whatever you want to call it, it's not good. For most of my adult life, it's been something I could chalk up to being in my 20s, single and fabulous, or so I liked to tell myself. But now I'm 30 (very nearly 31), married, and while I still like to think of myself as fabulous on occasion, I can't get a credit card with a limit of more than $500 and I just financed a car with an 11.5% interest rate. Honestly, I was so grateful someone was willing to sell me a car without a co-signer, I probably would have agreed to 20% interest. Because that's what I do. I spend money without considering the consequences.

The thing is, I make plenty of money. Not a lot, but enough. I have a wonderful husband who is also employed. Sure, he's a teacher, and most teachers are woefully underpaid, but he gets two regular checks a month for doing what he loves. We don't have kids (yet), and though I have debt from shopping and college and taxes I didn't pay when I was supposed to, we make enough money to pay our bills, have a fun fund, and put some away for a rainy day. Instead, he just sent me a text to let me know that our water, gas and electric will get shut off if we don't pay our bills by the end of this week.

"I get paid this Friday," I wrote back.

You might think that as someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, with seriously overdue utility bills looming, I would have put back the $150 blue leather tote bag I recently found at TJ Maxx. I say "found," because I'd been picturing this exact soft, solid blue tote in my head for two years, and this was the first time I'd come across it in the real world. Still, given the fact that I had just gotten paid and only had about $100 left until my next payday, I should have put it back on the rack. And I did. For a second. Then I heard a woman near me mention to her friend that she was putting all of her stuff in layaway.

I was like my dog when he hears a tennis ball hit the ground. My head turned, my ears perked up. Layaway? I hadn't used a layaway since I was kid and we were on food stamps. I shop at that store nearly every week, and didn't even know layaway existed there.

And that is exactly how I convinced myself that the beautiful blue leather tote was meant to be — even though I didn't have the cash or the credit pay for it, and I have 20 other purses that were also meant to be. For extra validation, I sent a text to my little sister, Jo, who has the same terrible spending habits I do, knowing she would talk me into it. Of course, she did.

A few minutes later, my blue bag and I were in line behind a slew of people who'd loaded up their carts with throw-away clothes and tacky shoes. For a minute, I believed that I was not as bad as they were because I was only putting one really nice thing on layaway, instead of a bunch of cheap crap. The truth is, I am in no better shape financially than they are, and perhaps they're much better off. But I put down my $50 and left feeling a little guilty, but ultimately glad I'd secured such a great accessory.

The next day, on the way to work, purse (a different one that was also purchased on impulse) full of 1099s that are sure to increase the amount I owe the IRS, I was consumed by the thought of my crippling debt. Thinking: How I can I ever really work for myself? I'll save ten thousand dollars! Wait, that should go toward my student loans since I'll be paying about 300% in interest by the time it's all said and done. How are we going to buy a house? I should put that money toward my student loans instead, anyway. But then we're throwing away money on rent. Why did I commit to a car payment? Will my own bank even refinance me? Oh, shit. Are we going to be able to support our children? How will they go to college when I will be paying for my college forever?

I then did a little remedial math (the only kind I'm capable of these days) and realized that my net worth is close to negative $200,00 (when you count the interest I will pay on my student loans). 

And I was planning to get knocked up this fall?!?

Instead of getting sad, and shopping to make myself feel better, I realized that I'm a decent writer, operating at about 60% of my professional potential most of the time. And so many other people are in my boat. And I have a birthday coming up. So, what if I commit to a year of saving and paying off debt, and blog about it while I get my shit together?

When I shared my plans with Kyle, my husband, he told me he had actually been considering changing careers because of the way I spend. That broke my heart and sealed the deal.

So, beginning May 9, I will commit myself to a year of extreme frugality.

It doesn't mean I won't ever eat out (especially because part of my job involves eating out and talking about it — seriously!) and it doesn't mean I'm going to sell my car (at least that's not part of the plan at this point), or stop picking up vintage Pyrex when I find a really, really great deal at a garage sale or thrift store. It does mean I'm going to start considering every cent I spend and redirect my money to savings and my debt. Who knows? We still might buy a house this year, if we can save enough money for a down payment. Maybe we'll even make a baby.

Whatever happens, my hope is that by my 32nd birthday, I'll be in a much better place financially — and perhaps even physically, emotionally and professionally.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure. May you be inspired, or at least marginally entertained.

— Emily

P.S. I promise all of my posts won't be this long.