The two worst years of my financial life were 2007 to 2009. Before 2007, our income was low, but our expenses were low, too. We didn't save much, but we didn't spend more than we earned, either.
Then we saw our dream house. And we bought it while we still owned our first house. For two years, we had two mortgages. Suddenly, even though our income was slowly increasing, our expenses had skyrocketed. We cut our expenses as much as we could, but you can only cut them so much when you bought a fixer-upper with squirrel holes in the siding, leaking toilets that threatened to fall through the rotten bathroom floors, and desperately needing a new roof. (I guess we have low standards for our dream house!) As if that weren't painful enough, I was also trying to finish grad school. It was an ugly time, and I was desperate.
Along with our finances, my desperation also manifested itself physically: I gained about 25 pounds, and developed heartburn and other GI difficulties, along with some self-diagnosed depression. I was so tired all the time.
That desperation bled into other areas of my life, too. My relationships suffered. I didn't love myself, so how could I love others? And, seemingly unrelated, my house was always messy. Not really bad, but definitely substandard compared with the rest of my friends and family.
Sounds terrible, doesn't it? It was. I remember sitting at my kitchen table one night, thinking that my life was in shambles, and I wasn't sure it would ever get better.
If your life feels the same right now, I want to share four things that changed our lives — for the better.
1. I repaired my relationships. While I needed to improve my relationships with my friends and family, my marriage had been suffering the most. My husband and I were so stressed that we weren't taking time to communicate. Even though we both had the same goals, we were on parallel paths, each of us working so hard to get ahead financially. But we weren't tapping into the synergy of two people who work together.
One December night, when things blew up, we looked at each other and realized we didn't like what was happening to us. That night, we prioritized our marriage over our finances. Strangely enough, our finances improved, too.
2. I decluttered my life. I had been keeping things because “we will use them some time” and what's the problem with storing them? When we decided our life had to be as simple as possible while things were so stressful, it was time to say goodbye to the things we weren't using. Most of the items were actually given away, so while I sold some things, the biggest benefit wasn't financial…at least, not directly.
But it was more than our possessions. We also evaluated our activities (volunteer, church, community, etc.) and decided, with so much stress and so little time, we had to eliminate some.
I struggle to understand why decluttering made such a difference to us financially. But I think since I had less to clean around and more empty space, it made me less stressed, less overwhelmed, and more likely to have the energy to tackle our challenges. And having a lighter schedule allowed us more time to concentrate on our relationship and getting ourselves out of the financial hole.
It was one step that didn't cost us much, but made such a huge improvement.
3. I set up a personal escrow account. I had tried budgeting in many ways, but I just didn't stick with it. As stressed as I felt, it had to be easy. And all the methods I tried weren't easy enough.
I evaluated our bills and found that we had the most difficulty paying bills that weren't monthly, bills like our property taxes, house insurance, car insurance, and so on. For instance, our property taxes were always due in July and September, and I knew that. But whenever I got the bill, I would be surprised and wonder where we would get the money to pay for it. And life would be even more stressful while we worked overtime and cut our expenses to try to make the big tax payments.
Thing is, this happened all the time. I would be surprised by our house insurance bill one month. The next month, by our car insurance bill. I've never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but this was ridiculous. It also wasn't fun.
So finally I had an idea. I totaled up all our non-monthly bills and divided by 12. The only budgeting I was going to do was save that much per month in a targeted savings account that I will talk about in a minute. When a bill came, I would go to our “yearly expenses” savings account, transfer the money to our checking account, and pay the bill. Proactive, not reactive. It has made my life so much easier with so little effort.
4. I set up targeted savings accounts. Speaking of those targeted savings accounts, I opened up a few savings accounts in July 2009. One of them is our yearly expenses savings account. Others include two vehicle replacement savings, an emergency fund, and our charity account. I didn't think we could afford to save very much and, at the beginning, I was right. But as things began to improve, I kept bumping up our automatic savings contributions.
An advantage of saving in this way is that it's been easier to stay motivated. And you know I need help with that. When I see our “New Car Fund” savings account, saving money has a name and a purpose.
These steps had a domino effect on the rest of my life. Today, I am 25 pounds lighter and much less stressed about finances and life, in general. My relationships are healthy, and my life is not in shambles. I am a different person from the desperate gal who sat at my kitchen table a few years ago.
I can't explain why all four steps made such a difference, but they did. And of course, there were other things that had a huge impact on our improvement as well, like selling the first house, finishing grad school, getting raises, and earning side income.
But the improvement began with four small steps. And I believe these four steps can improve the financial state of anyone, despite their income level.
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).