Taking a Free Day

"I want ... to sleep." That was the thought that rolled through my mind when my alarm went off at 7:30 on Sunday morning. I hit the stop button and pulled the covers back over my head.

My calendar for the last couple of months has been packed straight through from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day, including weekends. On the days when it had any gaps, one or two of my projects in progress overflowed their allotted slots and I shuffled anything shuffle-able off to another day or night. The only exceptions have been the couple of weekends I ran away to my folks' place and the one afternoon that I set aside for a long-overdue visit with a friend over iced tea.

Sunday, I'd intended to get up, drive to the Battlefield, go for a hike, come back, and continue with the ongoing home inventory and photograph-and-document archiving that I'd hoped to finish months ago, and then spend a couple hours transcribing interviews for my book, and sort through and categorize research materials so that I can get back to writing when I can wedge that time into my schedule somewhere. At 7:30 that morning, I tossed that plan out the window. One more "have to" and I was going to lose my ever-loving mind.

Instead, I caught another 45 minutes of sleep. I read the news. I broke down the small cardboard boxes that had collected in an armchair during the last few weeks, sorted through untold days' worth of junk mail,  and took the overflowing recycling tub to the container outside. I put away the clothes, sheets, and towels that have been washed over the last fortnight, but only made it from the dryer to the chair next to the dryer. I washed, dried, and put away the load of laundry waiting in the hamper. I jammed the long-waiting "plant nanny" watering stakes into my neglected lemon tree and mini rose bush and tipped the long-necked, cobalt blue glass Saratoga bottles (bought just for this purpose), filled with tap water, into place in the hopes of keeping both small bits of flora alive by providing support for my lackadaisical houseplant tending. I put away a week-old stack of clean dishes, ran a full load of plates and bowls and silverware through the washer, and scrubbed down the neglected stove top, counter, and sink. I registered for my doctor's new patient portal, wrote out the payment to my eye doctor for my most recent visit, and finally let my computer run the update that's been popping up reminders for days.

After that, I sat down on the couch and went through the copy of Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover that I purchased last month. I took four pages of notes, then downloaded the worksheets provided on the accompanying website.

Unlike many of the people who share their stories in Ramsey's book, my interest in his method isn't driven by wild overspending and crushing levels of credit card, car, and mortgage debt. I did the bad choices thing during my 20s. In 2006, I got serious about my finances and, through a combination of low-fee balance transfers to consolidate debts, a reasonable amount of frugality, long-overdue career (and salary) advancement, and a desire to be free of the weight of monthly payments, I managed to work myself completely out of debt by about May 2015. I celebrated by using cash to buy a long-desired kayak and car rack.

I spent about three months debt-free, and then took out the first of two fixed-rate graduate loans to fund my MFA, while I started my self-employment. Now, three years on, I've realized a few things.

First, my gross income last year (and on track this year) is about equal to my gross income my final year as a full-time employee. Of course, I pay a greater percent in taxes and have to fund my own healthcare, retirement, etc., so ideally, I'll work my way up to about 130 percent of that number on a sustainable basis as time goes on. But at least the model is sustainable.

Second, self-employment makes lenders run the opposite direction. I could make peanuts and have a seriously damaged credit score, but as long as my income came from someone else's payroll, I could get approved for a loan at a quasi-reasonable rate. However, I don't make peanuts and long ago fixed my credit, but because I work for myself, no one wants my business ... or they want to charge me an atrocious interest rate. This is a problem for consolidating and refinancing my grad loans, for replacing my eight-year-old car, or if I ever want to buy a house (and, by extension, when I want to rent a new place to live). So, I've already determined that my best path forward is to reach the point where I just pay cash for everything, including large purchases.

Third, I don't mind a certain amount of risk in investing, but in all other financial situations, I don't want to owe anybody anything. That is, in part, because I'm a woman. It's in part because I think our entire economic system is eventually going to tank, and cash will be the way to go. It's in part because I had to fight for months or years for every raise (except one) I ever got in a traditional workplace, so I don't see "more money" as a given, ever. It's in part because I've already gotten out of debt once. It's in part because I can live on a very conservative day-to-day budget that relieves the pressure to maintain a stratospheric and ever-growing income. And it's in part because, while I live comfortably now, I don't have the type of retirement reserve that will allow me to live freely in the future.

All of those considerations are catalysts for my refocus on financial freedom. So is one more. It's one that Ramsey never addresses in his book. He talks a lot about married couples and about the need to agree. But he doesn't address the unique challenge of being a person who is on their own and looking ahead  to a time when they will likely be bereft of any immediate family. Looking at my bank accounts now, that's terrifying, even without the sorts of debt that instill panic in Ramsey's case study subjects.

As my last few months have been marked by an increasing sense of a lack of control over everyday life, they've been marked by an equal awareness of the need to establish a more stable financial footing.

I like the idea that pretty much everything I've earned or will earn is on me. At the same time, as I went through the book, I was reminded of a former coworker who successfully completed Ramsey's program. When I met him, he had finished a military hitch and a bachelor's degree and, at two years older than I, was starting his first civilian, degree-required job. When we started the hiring process, the salary being considered for his position (the least-experienced on the team) was the same as it had been for six or eight years. It struck me as low for where we were and when, so I conducted a salary and cost-of-living study, looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics ranges for similar positions in our market, checking census records for local rental costs, and cross-referencing economists' recommendations for the percent of salary that is responsible to spend on housing. I made the argument that we should raise the starting salary by about $7,000 to $8,000 to ensure the candidate could responsibly support himself near the office. The company leadership agreed and made the change. Over the next several years, through a life-threatening illness, marriage, the welcoming of a child, a house purchase, and a couple of job changes, that coworker made his way totally out of debt by following Ramsey's method.

What's interesting is that, when the company hired that coworker, I was making the very salary he was granted, despite having been onboard three years longer and having a total of eight years more experience. I give all credit to the company leaders, who adjusted my salary immediately and commensurately when they realized the implications of raising the bottom rung. Still, I sometimes wonder whether I might have walked a different financial path over the last 20 years if someone had proactively looked out for my well-being in one of the two jobs held before that one. I'll never know, of course, but it's an interesting thing to consider. (And, for the record, all of my bosses in my first two jobs were female, so please don't make an assumption about why someone didn't proactively speak up on my behalf.) 

In any case, the same company that heeded my advice about the salary issue was also the most fiscally responsible I've ever known. The finance team reimbursed staff out-of-pocket costs within three days and paid vendor invoices within seven. Profit sharing was egalitarian and transparent. Peer-nominated and tenure-based awards were generous. Charitable giving was a huge part of the ethos and a matter of great pride. Most importantly, though, the company didn't use credit to make acquisitions. It used a combination of cash and private arrangements with the sellers. I admired the financial wherewithal. I also never questioned whether my paycheck would bounce.

So, for me, the appeal of Ramsey's methodology lies in the logic. The idea of moving to a full cash lifestyle calls to my sense of self-determination and stability. I've seen what that can look like and, with my long-range fortunes dependent entirely on myself, I think I have better odds of a future life of comfort if I start making the shift now. Perhaps the first few months will be slow or even backwards, but then I'll be pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. 

Figuring out that vision seemed like an awfully good way to spend a free day.