Finding My Sweet Spot

Finding My Sweet Spot

Originally written for Dimespring, a now defunct personal finance website, as part of a monthly "Sweet Spot" series.

In his latest book, Start, Jon Acuff speaks against the myth that you should only share your successes. “If you share honestly about your own failures, people can often avoid having the same thing happen to them. If you stepped in a hole and it hurt, it helps if you tell other people not to step in that same hole.”

That is exactly what drove me to start writing about my debt and student loans. In 2004, I was one of 38 graduating seniors from a small, private high school near Chicago. Maybe the other 37 teenagers learned the ins and outs of student loans and personal finances from their parents, but I know for a fact that none of us learned about it at school. I set off for college with a decent understanding of spending, saving, and basic budgeting and zero knowledge about credit cards, debts, and loans.

In fact, over the next six years, I made it through three different universities without having any real understanding of how much money was being moved from one place to another on my behalf. I just knew that my tuition was covered by a faceless financial institution and that being super broke or in debt was a great topic for conversation and bonding with fellow college students.

It has only been in the past few years that I’ve started to really gain an understanding of how student loans work, how I can best pay them back, why I probably should have started building up a credit rating in high school, why every high school student deserves a course on credit cards and debt and student loans, and what a true mess I’ve made for myself financially.

Essentially, I learned the hard way and came out knowing a lot of what not to do, but that can be really valuable insight. A few weeks ago, my coworker pulled me aside at lunch and asked me, “Can I get your thoughts on something?” Her son’s girlfriend is a recent college graduate and is looking forward to a bright future and a never-ending stream of student loan payments. My coworker knew from previous conversations that I have done some research on consolidation (I opted not to consolidate my loans) and income-based deferment (which is how I cut my student loan payments in half). I laughed and said with a frown, “Oh good. I’m turning into an expert on being in debt.”

But I’m actually okay with that. I wandered rather blindly into the world of financial responsibility and wound up at the bottom of a pit of debt. If I can help someone else get a grip on budgeting and working with student loan companies before they hit rock bottom, I will feel like my journey was completely worthwhile. It would take my failure and turn it into a success, and that’s a pretty “sweet spot” moment in my book.

Lessons from a Gingerbread House

Lessons from a Gingerbread House

Originally written for Dimespring, a now defunct personal finance website, as part of a monthly "Sweet Spot" series.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of perspective and how I want to keep my focus this year on the blessings that last, the things that mean the most to me—friends, family, traditions, and spending time together. When my dad asked this past weekend if I had time to work on a gingerbread house with him and my brother, my first instinct was to tell him I was too busy. I'm trying to save money to visit my boyfriend in England, and if I let myself, I could spend all of my spare time obsessing over ways to bring in extra income. (Just stop me before I get desperate enough to respond to the Prince of Nigeria.)

But I went along with the gingerbread house thing, and even though I felt like I'd be way too old to enjoy putting the house together and decorating it, I had a blast. My dad had us in stitches with his attempts to make the structure strong enough to pass some sort of miniature home inspection. Spending time with him and my brother (with my mom nearby making homemade fudge) was absolutely the right decision.

It's still easy for me to get swept up by my everyday worries and concerns, but with practice, I'm finding it easier to relax and refocus. Some things that have helped me adjust in the past month:

Establishing a Schedule

Every Saturday, I sit down with my budgeting software and make sure all of my accounts are up-to-date. I pay bills and allocate money for purchases I know I'll need to make in the next seven days (with a quick glance to the upcoming month). After I'm done, I have a clear goal—which allows me to have a clear mind!

Talking with a Close Friend

I'm an introvert, and I enjoy spending time alone—thinking. However, without someone around to have a conversation with, I can sometimes talk myself into thinking things are worse than they are. Anxiety like that doesn't help me move forward, but talking to a close friend does. Sometimes, all I need is someone to remind me that the world isn't actually coming to an end just because I am two days late making a student loan payment. (A good friend once gave me a shirt that says, "Everything is ruined forever." The pure drama of that sentence is so hilarious to me that it never fails to snap me back to reality when I'm panicking over something silly.)

Helping Out

I can't afford to donate money to any of my favorite charities right now, but I can offer my time and talents. Even an hour spent painting letters on props for a Christmas concert can be a good reminder that the world is bigger than my current problems. Wallowing in self-pity isn't useful to anyone, but cleaning the bathrooms for my mom would make her week. Taking the effort to find someone else who needs a hand is a great way to take the focus off yourself and keep your perspective in check.

Have you had a gingerbread house moment lately? What helps you focus on your priorities when life gets crazy? I'd love suggestions!