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.” [Read more…]