When things turn around – for the better

I recently realized I needed to change my tax withholding information for work. I wasn’t taking enough deductibles each year (as evidenced by the refunds I’ve been getting for years), so I submitted a new W4 form a few weeks back. The results are in, and it’s pretty amazing – I actually got a 10% “raise” in the process.

If I were my mother, I’d be shouting “Praise God!” to the heavens, Praising His Name to everyone within earshot. And I’m almost there, myself.

It’s just now sinking in. The more I think about it, the bigger news this is for me. This changes everything. It’s pulling me back from the brink in so many ways. Even just that little boost is making the difference between a barely-scraping-by subsistence frame of mind, and actually feeling like I can plan my life.

It’s pretty phenomenal. I have now gone from being strictly hand-to-mouth… pinching pennies each week, sweating it out about how much I run the heat and electricity, driving on fumes till I’m almost out of gas by the side of the road, postponing necessary car repairs that will prevent larger problems later, and buying those $2.94 lunches at work each day.

For the record, it’s actually pretty filling, considering how cheap it is, and I can buy at the cafeteria cheaper than I can make it myself, but now the thought that I actually have a choice, is just phenomenal.

Holy crap. And all of a sudden, the world looks that much more friendly. I have been seriously stressed about money for years, now, and after realizing my mistake, I did something about it. This is all coming from my troubles after my TBI in 2004, when my brain stopped working the way it was supposed to… and it’s coming at a time when my spouse and I have been pushed to the absolute limit of our endurance. The money situation has been literally tearing us apart, and this break comes at a critical juncture, when we are going into a winter season that promises to be cold, with neither of us able to afford getting sick from not having enough heat.

Now, with just this little boost, I can quit hovering over every cent they spend, harassing them over every cup of coffee they buy on the road, instead of making it at home, fussing over ordering a large size versus a medium or small size, and worried over which utility is going to threaten us this month with shutoff.

Just a little bit can make a huge difference. And looking back at my tax forms, I realize that I didn’t do the math correctly there, either, and I did not get the full refunds I was entitled to. So, I’m going to be refiling my taxes from the past three years in the coming weeks, and it looks like I’ll get something from that as well.

Which means I can pay off some debts that are sucking us dry each month, a little bit at a time. I just might be able to fix my 15-year-old car with the radiator problems, iffy starter, and bad struts. I might just be able to have an electrician come in and fix the wiring in the dining room that’s been out for the past several years, because we didn’t have the money to get it fixed. And I just might be able to buy some new pajama bottoms — the ones I wear are about 10 years old, and they’re getting threadbare. When I look around the house at everything we have here, most of it has been given to us, and the rest has been cobbled together, piece by piece. We have very few truly nice things. We don’t live like paupers, and we have almost everything we need to live like normal human beings, but it’s a humble existence, truly.

I’m not complaining. I’m just noticing.

And the thought of things turning around… well, that’s just phenomenal. Indeed, coming out of the past three years of severe lack and limitation — every “extra” dime we’ve had has gone into paying off the mountain of debt we acquired over the years (especially since my TBI in 2004), and it has been hard. We have done without so very much. So very, very much. Basic medical care. Basic necessities. And the opportunities to see family, who are all several states away. I’ve had to pass up job opportunities, too, because I did not have the extra money to front the airfare to go to the home office and get “face time” with the higher-ups. It’s been hard. Really, really hard.

But this is changing. Which means I need to shift my perspective away from just survival, to how to manage this new “windfall”. 10% more money in the bank might not seem like a lot, but it’s actually even more than that, relatively speaking. See, a good 2/3 of my paycheck goes to paying off the mortgage as well as old debts, each month. So, that leaves 1/3 of my paycheck for us to live on each month. (Nothing like trying to buy groceries, the night before payday and having the cashier tell you your debit card was declined. Horrible.)

But now with this “raise”, taking the amounts set aside for mortgage and debt payments out of the picture, I am actually seeing over 40% more takehome pay, each paycheck. That puts it in a better perspective. Relatively speaking, after the money is allocated to the house and those creditors, I am seeing almost 1-1/2 times as much pay, as I was seeing before.

Yes, that makes all the difference in the world.

And that means I need to make some adjustments. I need get out of the hand-to-mouth way of thinking, and squirrel some of this money aside. I need to beef up the house and car repairs fund that we had (and drained) earlier this year. I need to look at the long-term plan for getting rid of the debit load and saving for the future. I know I need to get a new (to me) car, because my trusty little commuter car is having more and more problems, so I need to plan for that, as well.

Long story short, I have some thinking to do. And planning. My spouse and I need to sit down with the numbers and make a plan — that’s based on future prospects, rather than just a knee-jerk reaction designed to ease the pain of daily existence (as has been our tendency for many years, now). I’m coming out of a very dark place, and things are turning around for me, and I need to adjust accordingly.

So, it’s time to sit down and look at numbers. And get priorities together. And move ahead. Just move ahead.

The crazy thing is, I woke up early this morning – around 4:00 a.m. – feeling incredibly down. I was so depressed and felt so hemmed in, it brought me to tears. I felt like there was no way out, that I was stuck, and I was never going to get free… and that part of my brain that loves to give in to despair started thinking about how much my life insurance was worth, and how I was worth more dead than alive. That comes up, every now and then, when I am feeling stuck in a corner with no way out. It’s horrible.

Then I called my bank and checked my balance, since my paycheck went in at midnight. And everything started to look brighter. As in, blindingly.  Everything turned around, just when things were seeming their darkest. And it went from the abyss to the mountain top.

Now, granted, there are still challenges, and I still have a lot of work to do, but this is a start. It gets me out of the red and to a place where I’m doing slightly better than just breaking even. I have years’ worth of backlogged obligations to take care of, and now they don’t have to hang over my head anymore. I can take care of these things, one at a time. Systematically and regularly and with a good plan that makes sense and as my spouse’s cooperation. I don’t have to live in horror and dread because of a bad credit rating, because now I can suddenly afford to pay for things when they come up.

And life is good again.

How quickly things can turn around. How quickly they can change. I just need to keep steady and not lose my head over things… and make sure my spouse is in synch with reality. Already, they’re starting to talk about skimming a little bit off the top, here and there, so I need to nip that tendency in the bud, before it puts us back where we’ve been.

I’m tired of being here. I need to get out. I need to move on. Make the most of what I have — however much or little that may be — and get back on the good foot.

Use my head. Be smart about things. And go. Really go.

The bottom line is, I must never give up. Because things might just turn around radically without me ever expecting it. Never give up. Never, ever, ever give up.

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Basta with the credit lectures!

Here’s a somewhat rambling end-of-day post about something that’s near and dear to my heart — credit cards!

Lately, it seems like I can’t turn on my radio without hearing someone offering help for credit-strapped consumers. Let the record show that my own credit  card debt load far exceeds what the recommended amount is. And there is no way I’m going to pay it off in a year. I don’t care what kind of magical schemes they’re selling. I’m not going to come up with half my annual salary to pay off those balances.

Now (and I apologize in advance for my snarkiness), the popular response to carrying that much credit card debt is a well-conditioned horror. Everyone – from my parents (I quit telling them how much I make and how much I owe about 10 years ago), to the government, to my bank, to my peers, to strangers I stand next to at the post office – is avidly anti-credit-card-debt. Who isn’t? Paying up to 29% APR to people who are prone to cut your available credit without warning and just ’cause they can really sucks.

And our current popular culture is chock-full of gurus, financial “advisors” and online/broadcast marketers who are telling us in no uncertain terms that we need to be credit-free. For the sake of our savings. For the sake of our peace of mind. For the sake of our children (that’s always a compelling reason). For the sake of our retirement. And for three low installments of $129.95 (plus shipping and handling), they’ll tell us just how we can do that in less than a year!

But I’ve had it with all the personal finance pomposity. I’m sick and tired of all those “money people” lecturing me about how bad credit cards are, how much they threaten my safety, how zealouslyI should avoid them. I’m sick and tired of people who supposedly know all about money (and many of them do, because they have an awful lot of it) telling me how I should handle mine. I don’t have an awful lot of it, and I sincerely doubt I ever will — being RICH is just not that big of a priority with me, and any extra money I have, I tend to give away to organizations that are defending the defenseless or spend on occasional vacations and computer stuff… and my house. I’m tired of people who operate at higher financial levels thinking that their rules apply to me, down here in the “pedestrian zone” of personal finance. I’m sick of people preaching budget-budget-budget, as though anal-retentively socking away $25 a week is going to dramatically impact my long-term prospects.

I’ve got news for those folks – in case they hadn’t realized it by now – people like me don’t live by the same rules that people like them do. If they haven’t gotten that simple fact through their thick skulls, either their math isn’t nearly as good as mine – which is frightening – or they don’t have a clue how people like me really live, or they are actively concealing the truth about money management, so they can sell little shreds of hope to those of us whom they assume know precious little… after all, if we were that knowledgeable and smart, we’d be rich like them, right?

Anyway, even if I did put away $25/week for 52 weeks a year, I would save $1,300, which is nothing to sneeze at. And if I earn 5.5% on this amount (compounded monthly) like I do on my ING Direct savings account, after a year I would have $1,336.38. Not bad – that’s the magic of compounding, where every month your total balance (including interest) gets compounded.

But let’s remember, that’s a little over $100/month I’d be putting away. And in these tight times, there are about 1,336 other places I can think to put that money. And like the trickles of water that carved out the Grand Canyon, those places and reasons have a way of seriously eroding my savings. Or it can take just one or two ill-fated twists — like car repairs after being rear-ended in holiday traffic, or veterinarian bills when one of my pets gets in a fight with a stray animal or falls ill.

Now, if I want to be a little more modest — and realistic — and calculate for $25/month, at the end of a year at 5.5% compounded monthly, I’ll have $308.74 in the bank. Great. That should just barely cover the emergency dental work I need that my insurance doesn’t cover.

Note: I used the savings calculator over at Bankrate.com for these calculations.

There are countless sudden low-scale financial crises that can crop up over the course of a year, which are unpredictable, unavoidable, and immediate. Indeed, there have been more sudden extreme needs for cold, hard cash that have cropped up in my life on a regular basis over the past 20 years. Many an event has been as extreme as it has been sudden and unexpected. Car accidents. Medical and dental emergencies. Getting laid off. Health-related relocations to cleaner and safer parts of the country. Family crises that require immediate travel. Veterinary bills. You name it, I’ve probably whipped out the plastic to pay for it.

Never were these events foreseen. Many of them might have looked predictable to the trained eye, but trust me, if I’d been able to see ahead and take steps to avoid them, I most certainly would have. Unfortunately, being human and all, and living in a country that simultaneously doesn’t favor paying a living wage and demands that we all “play our part” as active consumers, the proverbial cards are well-stacked against me and my kind. And make no mistake, the cards are stacked. Anyone who tells you otherwise is sitting across the table from you in the dealer’s seat.

I don’t want to be a whiner and blame the rest of the world for my troubles. I’m big into personal responsibility. But at some point, the gross inequity of power and influence starts to get a little ridiculous. At every turn, the American middle and working classes are constantly prodded to buy-buy-buy… and all the while, our employers keep telling us they can’t afford to raise our pay… and we’re being lectured from every corner about how we shouldn’t borrow more than we earn. It’s a recipe for disaster, mental illness, systemic infrastructure collapse, or all of the above.

The system truly is totally schizoid, at odds with its conflicted self, and seemingly incapable of any sort of sustainable, consistently coherent cultural message. Sure, we’re supposed to be Good Americans by being good consumers. But heaven forbid we be paid what we need to live on, or have access to adequate medical coverage for the procedures and the tests that we are assured are absolutely necessary for us to stay alive and healthy. And God forbid we charge it — or don’t charge it. If someone could tell me, once and for all, what exactly I’m supposed to do, to keep America strong with my wallet, I’d be deeply grateful.

Now, on the whole, I’m doing pretty well for myself. Credit card debt notwithstanding, I’m making decent pay. But countless other Americans are not, and that’s what tweaks me to no end. Because we are all — no matter how much money we are making — are under constant pressure, these days, to manage our money better. Money we only wish we had. Money we’re sure we had just a few weeks ago, which has mysteriously disappeared. It’s so maddening. I’ve got siblings whose whole families are working more than one job, each, and they’re struggling. It’s stupid, for such good, hard-working people to suffer so much, and live in constant fear of Losing Everything, while our lawmakers languish in Washington with their cushy benefits plans, pontificate about how to be Patriotic, and vote through legislation they haven’t even read.

What the hell can people at the bottom of the barrel do? On the one hand, our country pats us on the back for being responsibly contributing citizens by spending like crazy… while our political, social, and thought leaders keep lecturing us about doing more with what little we have, and not being such irresponsible, greedy gits. Their pulpits are the television, the internet, the radio, the bookshelves. And they just keep preaching away. Sinner, put down your credit cards! Repent! Come to your senses and lay your burden of debt down…

Indeed, there is a quasi-religious fervor to this anti-credit craze. People are spinning the mortgage lending crisis into a sort of anti-credit virtual run on banks, with all these hawkers standing at proverbial street corners shouting that The End is Nigh, and it’s all the fault of “easy credit”, so zero out your balances, bite the consumer bullet, and “live more simply so that others may simply live” (as though my doing without plastic is going to save Darfur or put roofs over the heads of homeless Katrina victims).

But it’s an overly emotional message they’re sending, and it’s at complete and total odds with the reality many of us live with — that we’re just getting by, no matter how much or little money we’re making, and even if we did rob Peter, it wouldn’t be enough to pay Paul. And then Peter would come looking for us and break our kneecaps with a lead pipe.

And as much as people love to tout the benefits of everyday budgeting and personal money management, for some of us, that level of attention to detail to our pitiful little pile of coins is unrealistic, if not impossible.Again, I don’t want to blame the rest of the world for my money woes, but I actually have had certain issues that prevented me from handling financial complexities in a sustained way. I do the best I can, and I’m learning how to do it better all the time, but back when I fell in 2004, I was about as far from being able to make wise money decisions, as a color blind person is from being able to dress models for New York Fashion Week. Sometimes, you just can’t make good money management decisions, no matter how hard you try. Especially when you’re dealing with a neurological condition that hides your own limitations from you.

Yes, some of us — perhaps more of us than care to admit it — are genuinely challenged, when it comes to handling money with facility and grace. And when I think back on all the screw-ups I’ve made about money, these gung-ho messages about dispensing with credit cards just irk me. They’re just so idealistic, so pie-in-the-sky, so insistent that credit cards can be just gotten rid of, like that.

Now, I don’t dispute that there may be some useful strategies for doing away with debt out there, but how many of them are for real? So much of the marketing is driven by raw emotion — fear – fear – more fear — I have to wonder if folks are able to truly use their heads when they take panic-instigated steps. And in the long run, might not some of those schemes to get rid of debt actually be more trouble than they’re worth? Some of the most beloved schemes involve additional mortgages on your house… and by now, most of us know where that can lead.

So, I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. All I know is, I’m in deep with Citibank, Chase, Discover, Sears, and Bank of America, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. I can only hope that someone somewhere on down the line I’m able to dig out from underneath these creditors of mine and keep some of my money for myself. I am very grateful that they hauled my ass out of hot water, time and time again. I’m grateful for the dental work, the prescription drugs, the veterinary services, and the emergency plane tickets they’ve all made possible. And now that they’ve managed to keep me alive and a viable member of society, I can pay my debt to them… like I pay my debts to society in general… gradually, sometimes grudgingly, but with a certain sense of duty and the hope that perhaps the resources I’m putting into them will help someone else on down the line. Someone like the customer service rep on the line who’s asking me when they can expect my next payment.