Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seeing the Forest from the Trees: Financial Clarity and Reclaiming The Dream

Tree down in Park Slope 11.11.12
It's not always easy to see the forest when there are so many damn trees in the way. The first time I heard that phrase was in physics class in high school when Mike McGee said it to my best friend at the time when she couldn't understand what to him was a basic concept. In truth, I didn't understand the concept either, but I have always hid behind "being smart" or at least projected that I was smart even when I didn't always know the topic of conversation. I confess, I have pretended to know things that people were talking about in conversation, whether it be politics, celebrities, food or physics, when I hadn't the slightest clue. It was easier to stay quiet or say things like "Right, right" or "I know...It's so crazy!" than to say, "What's that?" or ask "What are you talking about?" It was probably a survival skill I picked up along the way in order to maintain a certain image that I knew a lot, that I was well-informed, that I was not stupid. The problem with that is it is also an exercise in not speaking up for yourself. It is a means to avoid asking for help, and asking for help has always been something I saw as a weakness. After all, am I not the most self-sufficient person I know?

On some occasions, I would go home and look up the obscure reference and on some occasions I would simply pass through the conversation under the radar, happy to continue living in the fog. But that is exactly what I am trying to pull myself out of right now:  fog. Financial fog, career fog, and spiritual fog.

If you read this blog, you may remember my financial rant/post last year that was picked up for syndication by BlogHerMoney: My Life With Sallie Mae: A Nightmare in the Making. My student loan debt is still enormous and my situation of being able to lower my payments still the same. I cannot consolidate my private loan and what I owe remains in the 30K+ range. But there is another component to living with debt that I am just awakening to - the psychological component.

A friend recently asked me what my monthly payments were and her reaction was, "Wow!" And I jumped on that reaction to explain how that is exactly how I feel and how I continue to feel like I can never get above water because of that debt. Her response, "Yes, but the debt isn't what keeps you from earning more prosperously." Light bulb. It certainly is not what keeps me from earning more and staying in jobs that are beneath my skill level. What started my initial "Oh my God, take any job offered you to pay off these loans!!!"  was fear and what keeps me from growing is a lack of clarity, a vagueness, a beaten down spirit and again, fear.

What underlies my unhappiness tied to money and finances is a a secret I hate to admit: somewhere, somehow, I feel like a failure. I am disappointed with myself. I tell myself that if I were so talented, "I should have made it by now." But the good news is, that idea that I'm a failure is bullshit. That is not the truth. The same way feelings can color any situation, the basic fact is that is simply not true even if I tell it to myself all day long. This same friend said to me, "The dream is not dead," to which I felt like she had reached through my dingy hoodie and old tee shirt and grabbed a hold of my beating heart to make sure it was indeed still thumping. Part of the fogginess I feel when it comes to which direction I should go or the directionless feelings that I have in general about what to do next in life ironically exist out of the deeply seated truth that I actually know exactly what I want but I'm so terrified I'm not going to get it. So I consider other alternatives. I look at other career paths, I research grad school programs with degrees that look interesting, I try to listen to other parts of my soul that feel fulfilled by various jobs, but I don't move on any of them. Why? Maybe because I'm scared of failing at those, too. Or maybe because I'm scared that pursuing those options would be a marker of the true failure possible - letting go of my dream before ever actually taking the giant risk to make it happen.

So where am I now? I am getting clear. I have opened an online money management account that lets me see all of my money (accounts), debts (student loans and credit cards) and investments (403B) in one place. It helps me set goals that are visual and not just a line on a spreadsheet. It helps me account for every penny and furthermore it gets me excited that my goal to get out of financial debt is not impossible. It also helps me plan that while I do have this enormous debt, I can still plan for a serious adventure or save for a house or one day figure out how to work part time and pursue that book that is actually totally possible to sell.

And as for the dream...it's still alive in my still beating heart. I want to write and I want my writing to be published. I want that to be my job. And the truth is, only so much is in my control. I can only do half the work - writing the words, dedicating time to editing, and more importantly finally asking for help and informing myself how the hell you actually pitch something! But without saying it aloud, without putting that goal in front of me every single morning, and without asking for help, it most certainly won't happen. It is time to admire all those trees and get walking through that damn forest.


Mike said...

I'm ready to continue walking with you thru the forest and help you anyway I can.

SteveB said...

Good luck. After grad school, I had a ton of debt (5-digit debt, like you) that I really didn't get squared away until I was in my 30s.

Stay strong and don't give into the temptation of comparing yourself to those doing better. No matter what you're doing, someone always LOOKS like they're doing better. Mind your own bottom line and make conscious choices to pay it down.