How I learned to stop feeling hopeless about money

J.D.'s note: Last week's talk by Vicki Robin was hosted by the School of Financial Freedom, a Portland-based organization I'm friendly with. At that talk, I met Naomi Veak, one of the school's coaches. She and I have a lot in common (grew up poor in small towns, attended the same college, etc.). I asked if she'd share her story with Get Rich Slowly readers. She agreed.

Have you ever thought how different your life could have been if you’d taken someone’s advice? What if I told you it may not be too late?

I recently rediscovered a letter my mother wrote to me when I was 19, attending a small liberal arts college in another state.

Letter from Naomi's mother

Towards the end of the letter, she told me to save it, so I did -- even though reading it left me angry and frustrated, and not a single word sunk in. You see, she was giving me financial advice after another tear-filled plea for money.

“Don’t expect your thinking to change overnight,” she wrote. “Give yourself time to feel the inward peace of mind that will eventually come.”

This “inward peace of mind” took me 25 years to achieve! How did I finally get there? My name is Naomi Veak, and this is my story.

A Poor Girl at a Rich School

I was a poor girl at a rich kid school.

It was a school I couldn’t afford, and I was surrounded by lifestyles I was ashamed that I couldn’t pay for.

This was only the beginning of a long struggle with finances, where the same money scripts -- unconscious beliefs about money that drive our behavior -- played themselves out again and again. (For more about this idea, see J.D.'s article about how your money blueprint shapes your world.)

I wanted money. I just couldn’t hold onto it.

Naomi (on the left) in Seattle, 1994

Shortly after college, I became homeless. One friend after another was put to the test when I crashed on their couch for too long.

A year later, my boyfriend and I were living out of his truck on the cold and rainy Oregon coast. I remember sitting in the cab, crying as I counted our last handful of change. He later wrote about stealing a sandwich to split with me in a short essay he titled “Desperation and a BLT”.

Overwhelmed by credit card debt, I made an appointment at a debt settlement company to help me get things under control...only to continue charging to the same account a couple of months later.

Then my student loan debt doubled when I returned to school for another degree.

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More about...Psychology, Debt

Case study: Deep in debt but scared to take action

Last night, as I do from time to time, I met with a GRS reader. Actually, Debbie doesn't read this site but her sister does. And Debbie means to. Although I met Debbie's sister last year at a Camp FI event, I'd never met Debbie before.

"So, what's your situation?" I asked after our waiter had brought us each a glass of wine. "What do you want to know about money?"

"Everything," Debbie said, laughing. "I feel like I don't know much at all right now. I guess deep down, I know what I need to do. I just don't do it."

I nodded. "I'm like that with fitness," I said. "I know what I need to do, but I just don't do it. I know I need to exercise. I know I need to stretch. I know I need to eat better food. But for a lot of people -- people like you and me -- there's a barrier between knowledge and action. It doesn't matter if we know how to do the right thing. It's the action that matters."

"I buy books about money but I never read them," Debbie said. "I have Dave Ramsey and The Millionaire Next Door."

"Those are both good books," I said. Then, I shifted gears.

Looking for Purpose

"This might seem odd, but let's talk about your goals. What do you want out of life? What are your big plans?" Our waiter brought Debbie a bowl of mussels and me a plate of pasta.

"I want to make the world a better place," Debbie said. "I'm young. I work for a huge multi-national company. But I don't believe in the company and I don't believe in my work. I get paid $20 an hour to bring people coffee and water all day. I have a bartending gig on weekends. I want to do something that matters. Maybe improve our food system, for instance. I hate how people eat. I want more people to have better access to high-quality food."

"That sounds like a noble goal," I said. "How do you get there from where you are now?"

"I don't know," Debbie said. "It seems impossible. I have $80,000 in student loans but they're in deferral. I don't have to pay anything on them, but they still accumulate $600 in interest every month. How can I ever hope to catch up?"

"Yeah, that's rough," I said. "I used to be in a similar position. Twenty years ago, I had over $35,000 in credit card and consumer debt. That's not the same as your $80,000, but it'd probably be equivalent to about $50,000 today. I carried that debt for a long time, just treading water, never getting ahead. I felt like I'd never get it paid off."

"But you did it?"

"I did," I said. "I did it by creating a gap between my earning and spending. Fundamentally, there are only two things you can do to improve your situation. You can make more money or you can spend less. Ideally, you'd do both. You want as wide a gap as possible between what you earn and what you spend. Right now, it sounds as if you don't have a gap. You have a deficit."

Debbie nodded. I slurped down some noodles.

Two Familiar Foes

"How much is your rent?" I asked.

She looked sheepish. "I pay $1200 for an apartment in northeast Portland," she said. She gave an address near where I lived after my divorce. "I know I should have roommates but I don't. I don't want the complications."

"And what's your take-home pay?"

"Just over $2000 per month," Debbie said.

"Yeah, your rent is pretty high," I said. "I mean, it's not high compared to other places in Portland -- it seems about average -- but it's high compared to your income. Nearly 60% of what you earn is going to housing. That's a lot! The average American spends about one-third of their take-home pay on housing. So, that's a great place to try to cut costs. Maybe not right now, but over the long term."

"I like where I live," Debbie said, prying open a mussel.

"You might want to consider roommates," I said. "Aside from your housing costs, it doesn't sound like the rest of your spending is outrageous. Honestly, if I were you, I'd try to find ways to boost your income. Especially since you hate your job."

"I know," Debbie said. "I've thought about that. I have a marketing degree that I'm not using. My current company offered to give me a raise and a promotion, but I turned it down. I would have been doing work that I hate even more. It would be difficult for me to be in a position where I had to represent a company I don't like."

"Why don't you quit?" I asked.

"I did once," she said. "But then I went back right away. I was scared to apply for new work. I don't have much self-confidence. I mean, I'm 31 and have a marketing degree, but I don't have any experience. Who would hire me?"

"I get the lack of self-confidence," I said. "I totally get it. I struggle with that every day."

"You do?" Debbie said. She seemed surprised.

"Yes," I said. "Every day. Even today, I've been dragging around with my head full of negative self-talk. But here's the thing: I've learned to just do the stuff that scares me anyhow."

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More about...Debt

Should you pay off your mortgage early?

My friend Amy recently wrote with an interesting dilemma. "Should I pay off my mortgage early?" she wonders.

Amy has a high-paying job and has managed to save enough that she could be completely debt-free if she wanted to. And she kind of wants to! But is this the best choice? She's aware that this is a nice problem to have — but it's still a bit of a muddle. She'd like some guidance.

Here's an abridged version of her email:

I'm wondering if you have any advice for me related to paying off a mortgage vs. keeping it for tax purposes.

Here’s the basic rundown: I have 22 years and $103,000 left on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 3.95%. My monthly payment is $668 per month. I will pay about $48000 in interest this year. I pay both my taxes and insurance out of pocket annually.

The past two years, I've made close to a quarter of a million dollars each year, and this year I will likely exceed that amount. This is a wonderful place to be. With no other debt, I'm contemplating whether I should completely pay off my mortgage in one swoop come November when I get my bonus.

I have advice coming from both sides. My accountant warns me against it, as I would have no other write-offs to offset my high income. However the freedom of being DEBT FREE sounds amazing, even if it comes with a high tax bill.

I would love your advice (or the advice of your readers, if this offers an opportunity to share with them).

My stock answer to this question -- which I get a lot -- has always been: This is a no-lose situation. Deciding whether you should pay off your house is a case where either option is awesome.

Mathematically (and financially), the best choice is almost always to carry the mortgage. However, many people receive a huge psychological boost from not having a mortgage. In other words, this is one of those situations where the smart financial decision and the smart psychological decision aren't necessarily the same.

Although Amy is asking specifically about the tax implications, let's start by examining the Big Picture.

Should you pay off your mortgage early?

The Pros and Cons to Paying Off Your Mortgage

Just so everyone is on the same page, here's a quick look at the pros and cons to paying off your mortgage. There are advantages and disadvantages to both choices. Are certain advantages more important than others? You make the call.

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More about...Home & Garden, Debt, Investing, Taxes

How to refinance your student loans

This is a guest post from Travis Hornsby, founder of Student Loan Planner. I met Travis last year and realized he knows a lot about something that's a blind spot for me. I asked him if he'd be willing to whip up an article for GRS readers about refinancing student loans. Here it is!

How would you like spending $4000 each year and have nothing to show for it? Sounds crazy, right? Yet that's exactly what happens when you find yourself buried in debt -- whether it's credit-card debt or student loans.

Let me give you an example.

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More about...Debt

Building a wealth snowball

To conclude "back to basics" month at Get Rich Slowly, today we're going to explore an important concept, one that's new to most people. Today, I want to talk about building a wealth snowball.

After nearly twelve years of writing about money, I've gone from not knowing anything to having some very strong opinions.

I now believe know, for instance, that the single most important thing you can do to improve your financial situation is also the most elementary: Increase the gap between your earning and spending.

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More about...Debt

How to get out of debt (without gimmicks or games)

As part of back to basics month, let's use today to explore how you can get out of debt without gimmicks or games.

How to get out of debt without gimmicks or games

After twelve years of reading and writing about money, I've come to believe that debt reduction ought to be a side effect and not a goal. Getting out of debt is a target, not a habit. And, as we've been discussing recently, good goals are built around actions instead of numbers. If you restructure your life so that you're spending less than you earn, you will get out of debt. It's a natural side effect.

Having said that, I realize that a lot of GRS readers are struggling to get to square one. Getting out of debt is their goal and primary obsession. That's okay.

Before you can begin repaying your debt, you must be earning a profit. Unless your income exceeds your expenses, your debt is actually increasing. If you’re continuing to add debt, or if you’re only able to make minimum payments, you must first find ways to spend less and earn more until you have a positive "saving rate". (Both businesses and people earn profits. But when individuals earn a personal profit, we call it "savings".)

After you're earning a personal profit, you can (and should) make debt elimination a priority.

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More about...Debt

Creative Ways To Reduce Student-Loan Debt

Each time tuition rises, students become more dependent upon loan programs to pay for school.

But the long-term consequences of those decisions means students and graduates will spend years working to get rid of the financial strain associated with student-loan debt. put it best: "This year, more than two-thirds of college graduates graduated with debt, and their average debt at graduation was about $35,000, tripling in two decades."<

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More about...Debt

21 Ways to Stretch Your Dollar While in College

Picture of college graduates

The graduation parties are over, and it's time to get down to business. Armed with a sense of maturity and independence, you are ready to conquer your coursework in order to snare your first dream job. But if you're like most college students, your pocketbook has nary a dollar to its name.

Whether you're a rising freshman, a dorm veteran or a parent of either, here are 21 commonsense money-saving strategies that can stretch your dollar and ease your financial strain while in college.

1. Drop the latte habit

This one is a no-brainer. Skip the white-chocolate-cinnamon-chai-latte* with extra pumps and learn to love ... plain old coffee. And, of course, brew it yourself in your room (single-serve coffeemakers are quick and easy) or get your coffee as part of your meal plan. Consider this: According to a report by CBS News, the average cost for a single trip to a nationally recognized coffeehouse is $3.25. Not bad for a quick pick-me-up, right? But three trips a week add up to $42.25 a month. Even cutting back on one trip a week puts $126 back into your pocket over a typical school year of nine months. Other ideas: Instead of ordering a latte, ask for an Americano and add your own half-and-half. Or ask for a medium-size specialty drink with a large-size cup full of ice for a larger iced coffee drink at a lesser price. (*real drink!)

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More about...Debt

Student loan repayment and the ethics of personal finance

[This is the third installment in a series examining repaying student loans. Part I was a best practices guide for repaying student loans. Part II discussed an alternative payment plan, Revised Pay As You Earn or REPAYE.]

In my last post on REPAYE, the new student loan repayment program, I mentioned that it might be possible to artificially lower your adjusted gross income (AGI) in order to lower your required monthly payments under REPAYE.

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More about...Debt, Taxes

Pay off student loans or invest — how to move toward funding retirement

In my recent post, "Why investing can be better than paying down debt," Dianecy's comment raised a question faced by many: What do you do about investing when you have student loans?

It is quite the dilemma, actually, because the best time to start funding your retirement is when you're still in your 20s. And as anyone who has been reading Get Rich Slowly for more than, say, 10 seconds would know, few things impede your progress toward getting rich (at any speed) like debt.

The reason is simple: A dollar can be spent only once -- either for another person's benefit or for yours. So it follows that repaying debt benefits the bank; investing those same dollars in a CD or index fund, on the other hand, benefits you and your future.

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More about...Debt, Retirement