What One Year of Progress Looks Like, in Reality
In all of my life-optimizing fantasies, I’m waking up early and working out, spending loads of quality time with my children and not going down any rabbit holes online reading about the latest mind-numbing development in our government. I am living on half my salary and banking the rest. I’m killing it at work, making the most of every moment I am given. My house is clean, I cook dinner, I never order and I’m generally a model of efficiency, serenity, health and good humor.
I doubt I’m the only working mother who harbors such fantastical fantasies.
The reality, of course, is that I have gained five pounds, got a pay cut at work because my company is forever struggling, and I have spent untold hours yelling at the internet. Cooking a proper dinner has become an event worthy of serious self-congratulations and my two children at this moment seem to be engaged in an activity that simultaneously includes one iPad and two Nintendo DS’s. That’s one and a half devices per kid. Not the first time I have witnessed that.
So I get a little frustrated and disappointed sometimes.
It’s a topic I was pondering recently after reading a great Centsibly Rich post about being impatient with your goals. Amanda talks about that feeling we all have sometimes, that everyone else seems to be moving along while you’re standing still. Then, just when I needed it, the universe threw me a bone: a tangible snapshot of progress made.
The fact is, progress does not look anything like my fantasy. Progress could easily go unobserved if it doesn’t change your life overnight. Which it usually doesn’t. Real progress happens one day at a time. Like your kids growing, it could elude your notice. Until you look at last year’s school picture.
The frying-pan-over-my-head came when I met with my accountant to do my taxes.
It could not have been more glaringly different from last year. Last year we owed money for the first time ever because of something extremely radical (and inadvisable) that we did: We cashed out part of our retirement savings to get rid of the last of our debt. We thought we had the proper amount of taxes taken out, but alas.
It was traumatic in every way. But it was the line in the sand. It was the kind of thing you only do once. You don’t go back into debt after taking such painful, dramatic action. And we have not. So when I sat down at the desk that I have sat at once a year for so many years with good old Rich, who scolded us profusely last year, it was as someone who was 100 percent debt free. For a whole year. For the first time ever. For that, I do not regret our decision.
Debt & Savings
We are making up for it every day. The ramifications of not having monthly credit card payments are astonishing. No, I am not banking half my salary. But I am banking a lot more than I ever have. Vacations are paid for in cash. When a $400 dentist bill arises, there’s no need for a credit card. The cycle is broken. This is a radically new way of life. It’s pretty big, if I take a moment to reflect on it. We’re up about $6000 since June (the month where I really started taking very careful note of everything), not including my IRA. And this included an all cash Christmas and a trip to Acadia. Unprecedented.
I’ve spoken about this a few times, but last year, as we began our quest to take control of our finances, I abandoned my terrible 401K. What a difference less than a year makes. After years – years! – of barely noticeable returns and profit-eating fees, my new IRA, which is mostly invested in the S&P, is up 29.75%. Since June. Nearly 30 percent. Granted, this reflects a rather overheated market and I do not expect such returns to continue without a break, but, for someone who has no great financial experience, I’m looking like Warren Buffet on a Ritalin drip.
Some other big things took place over the last year.
I started this blog! Almost exactly one year ago, in April. And it has been so much fun, truly a pleasure and a delightful outlet. I’ve discovered many bloggers who I really respect and enjoy reading. Raptitude, Mystery Money Man, Ms. Montana, Centsibly Rich, Mindfully Spent, Keep Thrifty and John & Jane Doe Guide to Money are just a few.
And while Brooklyn Bread is small and growing excruciatingly slowly, it is growing. And getting I better, I think, as I figure out what I’m doing and what I’m really passionate talking about. It has put me in the habit of turning my angst-ridden inner dialogue into something productive and helped me ask myself better questions. It feels like an accomplishment.
Happiness-inducing new hobbies.
Many frazzled working people struggle to figure out how to allocate their time to things that enrich life, instead of draining it. There are parts of our brain that are addicted to internet stimulation and laziness and they collude to steal our precious moments and bury them in a pit of pointlessness and remorse. But sometimes, we manage to summon the necessary effort to do things that feed our spirit. As I look back at this last year, there were a few legitimately life-affirming threads that I managed to find and, more importantly, to stay with.
Bird-watching was one. Taking regular walks in nature with my dog was another. That turned into hiking with my husband and hopefully soon, the kids, as well. And finally, since we got a digital piano for Christmas, I have been playing just about every day, and re-discovering a skill from my childhood.
The benefits of playing a musical instrument, especially as as we age, are well known. Using different parts of my brain, quieting my inner dialogue, cultivating a skill for pleasure, all these things have enriched my life over the last year and pulled me away, at least for a little bit, from the many self-defeating traps that are everywhere.
Lots of room for improvement.
There has been one very bad life-draining thread this year. Donald Trump has derailed me in so many ways. He has sent me into news reading binges the likes of which I have never experienced. Together with Congress, he has had me yelling at my television screen, my computer screen and and my phone screen. Far too much. He has sent me marching into the street, which is a good thing. Being civically engaged is a good thing.
Going into a stomach-churning news vortex is a bad thing. I struggle with it every single day.
To add to the offense, the current political situation has affected some of our family relationships. It is taking every ounce of wisdom and strength to figure out how to keep these relationships from degrading beyond repair. Some might say “how could you let politics affect family relationships?” But it is not politics. It is the despair and disappointment of knowing that someone you love believes something that you have a deep, fundamental lack of respect, even, in some cases, disgust, for.
The only way many people have found to deal with this new family-splitting politics phenomenon is to simply steer clear of large swaths of conversational territory. Which is fine. But the relationship is downgraded. It’s a step away from close, deep and intimate, and edging toward social, shallow and superficial. Better than nothing, I suppose. Salvaging those genuine bonds is difficult and complicated and I can’t find a manual on how to do it. But I am trying.
Finally, the typical working mother short-falls…
There has been some slippage on cooking and working out. Melanie from Mindfully Spent alleviated my guilt, somewhat, while making the case that we do have certain natural rhythms and sometimes, deep in February, all you want to do is cuddle up with a good book. I am a natural early riser once daylight returns, so, hopefully, I will find some motivation to exercise more come spring.
Cooking is just hard when you work. There is no easy trick, aside from planning. Which is the far greater challenge for me. It’s the thinking, not the cooking, that I so often just can’t do.
But if there’s any revelation from my birds-eye look on the previous year, it’s that we simply can’t focus on everything. While we’re out setting ourselves up for wins in some areas, we can’t help but let some others slide. It’s just math.
So I’m taking a break from beating myself up and savoring the fact there is always progress to be found. You just have to look for it.
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