Why an Emergency Fund should be your first financial priority

In the personal finance community there is a lot of debate about emergency funds vs. debt repayment and which you should focus on first if you’re trying to fix your finances.  Some experts say that, if you have debt, then debt repayment should always be your first priority.  For example, in his Baby Steps program, Dave Ramsey has advocated starting with a $1000 emergency fund and then moving on to pay off all of your debt (save for your mortgage) before saving a more substantial emergency fund of 6-9 months of living expenses.  On the other hand, I’ve seen many other sources, such as The Financial Diet, arguing that saving a substantial emergency fund comprised of about 3-6 months of living expenses should come before focusing entirely on debt repayment.

The argument for prioritizing debt repayment is pretty simple: debt is a huge barrier to financial freedom and you should get rid of it as quickly as possible.  This is especially true if a lot of your debt is high interest consumer credit card debt.  I agreed with this philosophy when I first got interested in sorting out my finances because the debt that I had was feeling like a heavy burden: I wanted it off my shoulders immediately.  While paying off my credit card debt I had been saving a small emergency fund and had about $3000 put away.  In a particularly antsy moment, I withdrew $2500 to finish paying off my credit card.  Unfortunately, almost immediately after I did this, I was diagnosed with cancer and needed to take time off work.

This situation left me with no credit card debt, but also with nothing set aside to tide me over while I was off work.  I had some understanding of this risk when I was making the decision, but at the time I thought the risk was minimal at worst.  I was living at home, where most of my major expenses were covered, and I had a stable job that was paying me a decent wage where, if I was careful, I would be able to save up a nice chunk of money quite quickly.

But then, as I mentioned above, I got sick, was hospitalized, and then I was diagnosed with cancer.  If I had been careful, the $3000 that I had saved could have lasted me 6 months or more, since my expenses are now so low.  Due to my emotional spending at the holidays and some unexpected medical expenses, I now have that amount sitting on my credit card and only a little money in the bank.  My government Employment Insurance sickness benefits ran out in early February, so I don’t have any income to fund my current expenses or begin paying off the debts that I have incurred since being diagnosed.

Obviously this is not an ideal situation.  If my long term disability claim is denied, this will turn into a very bad situation and, as such, I have completely reversed my opinion on emergency funds vs. debt repayment: saving an emergency fund should always be your first priority.  Debilitating illnesses or accidents can happen at any time to anyone.  It doesn’t matter if you work out and eat blueberries and kale and meditate every day, they can still happen to you.

I know that saving 3-6 months of living expenses probably seems like a lot of money, especially if you have debt.  It is a lot of money, but it’s good to keep in mind that your day-to-day expenses should be reduced in emergencies.  You’re not looking for 3-6 months of net pay, but 3-6 months of keeping a roof over your head, keeping the lights on and paying your most basic bills.  It’s also important to remember that if you don’t have money set aside for an emergency and you wind up in a situation similar to mine, you’ll likely wind up incurring further debt and risk putting yourself in serious financial jeopardy.  If you don’t have savings and you don’t have a steady paycheque, credit cards might be your only option.

Regardless of what happens with my disability application, my plan for the future is to never wind up in a situation like this again.  Lesson learned.  I can’t wait to get better and get back to work so I can start executing my financial plans and saving the substantial emergency fund that I have envisioned for myself.  In the meantime, I’ll just have to take it all one day at a time and see what happens.


Media Round-up for 08/04/2018

In the Dark

in the darkIn the Dark is a podcast that examines the 1989 abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling from a small town in Minnesota with a keen focus on mistakes made by local police and an excellent discussion about how the case impacted law enforcement and policing in the United States.  I absolutely loved it and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys true crime podcasts — particularly miniseries that do an in-depth analysis of one case.

Jacob Wetterling’s abduction is a famous case that has had a significant impact on law enforcement in the U.S.  The first U.S. law to institute state sex-offender registries, enacted in 1994, was the Jacob Wetterling Act.  The effects of the Jacob Wetterling Act and its significant updates and amendments are covered in detail in In the Dark.  This was a highlight for me, as I’ve been interested in U.S. sex-offender registries since reading a phenomenal article in the New Yorker about sex crimes committed by minors.  With just my basic knowledge, I believe that these laws have been used by politicians as an easy way to appear tough on crime without considering the consequences for many subsets of offenders whose crimes don’t really match up with the punishments.

In the Dark is also critical of the Jacob Wetterling investigation itself, positing that local and federal law enforcement officers missed a lot basic, local information due to their widening the search parameters for Jacob so quickly.  American Public Media has done a fantastic job of showing that many typical investigation techniques weren’t followed in the Wetterling case, such as interviewing all of the victim’s neighbors and the individuals that resided on the road where Jacob was abducted.  This is used to frame a wider discussion about the varying quality of law enforcement in the United States, which is far more decentralized than I had previously understood.

I didn’t have a great understanding of the structure of law enforcement in the U.S. prior to listening to In the Dark and I feel like I was able to learn a great deal that will be useful to me in the future when checking out other true crime media.  Highly recommended.

Civilization VI

civilization viI like to play Civilization VI on a regular basis and, unfortunately, it drives my boyfriend a little crazy.  Being a huge fan of deep and complex strategy games, he finds the Civilization series (colloquially called Civ) to be a little unsatisfying and often poorly designed, especially when it comes to the combat.  Given my current physical limitations, however, games with simple control schemes that are slow and can be accessed mainly via mousing through menus are the perfect thing for me to play right now.

Civ VI is a weird game.  In some ways it’s a significant improvement from its predecessor, Civilization V, and then it’s also a huge step backward.  The way that builder units work in Civ VI, for example, is amazing and provides players with a lot more options to customize the way their cities and civilizations run.  The civilizations themselves, however, are all a little dull.  In Civ V, there were a lot of civilizations that had interesting quirks, such as the Venetian Empire, where you could establish only one city or China, which was always great for achieving the science win state.  The civilizations available in the base version of Civ VI feel like they don’t really have any specialties.  They might have a few minor bonuses here and there, but mostly they’re a little generic.  I can see why Firaxis made these changes — the civilizations are much better balanced in VI, but removing some of those interesting quirks just makes the game a bit less interesting for me.

The most disappointing aspect of VI, however is what hasn’t changed since V: the payoff for winning a game is still terrible.  When someone achieves a condition for victory, the game suddenly stops, a short cutscene plays and the game abruptly comes to an end.  It feels a bit ridiculous and unsatisfying after you’ve spent upwards of 12 hours building your civilization and battling against your friends or the AI civilizations for everything to just end without any real ceremony.

My boyfriend and I play VI instead of V mainly due to the changes in how units can move around the board and the builder unit changes — it can be difficult to go back to V if you like those upgrades.  I would not, however, recommend that anyone purchase Civilization VI as it is right now.  Civ V is a great value.  If you can catch it on a Steam sale, you can often buy it for less than $20 and it comes with all of the content added to the game after its release.  VI right now is pricey and new civilizations have to be purchased in DLC packs that, in my opinion, aren’t worth their significant cost.

Cancer/Life Update: Neuropathy and disability application woes

It’s been an interesting few weeks and I’m totally behind on writing because I’ve been sick, so I figured I’d scrawl out a quick and dirty update about how I’m doing.  I also just wanted to quickly note that, due to illness and my boyfriend’s visit, I won’t be doing a goal review post for March.  Everything’s been a bit on hold recently and I think there will be more value in evaluating my progress in April.

Chemotherapy fucking sucks.  There really isn’t any nice way of saying it.  Whenever people ask me how I’m doing, I cock my head to one side and say “eeeeeh.”  I’m surviving and I’m putting one foot in front of the other but, to be honest, chemo just gets worse the further into it you get and that’s hard to explain to folks who don’t have first hand experience.  You feel hopeful, because the number of treatments you have left keeps getting smaller, but you also know that you feel a helluva lot worse than you did when you first started and that you’ll feel even more shitty by the time you’re finished.

I’ve had 8 chemotherapy treatments so far.  If all goes well, I have 4 remaining.  I hope that I won’t need any further treatment after those 4 infusions are completed, but even if I finish there, recovery is not going to be quick or easy.  I’ve been thinking more and more about recovery and survivorship recently and I’m more than a little scared.  When I first started chemo, I knew nothing about long term side effects and I thought that, if all went according to plan, I would be back at work soon after finishing treatment.  The neuropathy in my hands and feet says otherwise.

I’ve said before that the neuropathy in my hands has been a bit better.  This is partially due to the fact that my dosage of Vinblastine (the drug that causes the neuropathy) was reduced by 20%, but it’s mostly behaviour modification.  Sometimes I wish I could show folks how my hands feel, but basically my fingers are numb and tingly, like they’re asleep all the time.  This doesn’t bother me when my hands are at rest, but when I touch something, I can feel the tingling.  My grip strength has been greatly reduced and these symptoms worsen the more I use my hands.  If I type too much or work too much doing anything with my hands, the numbness increases and I have pain in my hands, wrists and forearms.  I’ve had to stop knitting, colouring, doing any arts and crafts, and playing most video games.  I can’t really cut tougher foods like steak without help and eating with chopsticks has become difficult.  I’ve also limited myself to cooking very simple dishes, though fortunately my mum has stepped in to take over most of the major meal prep: chopping and peeling for any length of time is nigh impossible.

My feet have also been showing signs of neuropathy, but it’s mostly been showing up as stiffness, pain, and cramping. This has worsened a great deal over the past few weeks and has limited what I can do in terms of physical activity — even just walking seems to make the nerve pain flare up.  I’ve been having these issues to a much lesser degree for some time now, but I would only get random sharp pains and a bit of stiffness — these days it’s far more frequent and consistent.  The pain is difficult to treat because it isn’t consistent and doesn’t respond to basic pain killers, such as Tylenol.  Due to my behaviour modification, I’ve been able to avoid medical cannabis so far, but I think I may have to go in that direction soon.

I don’t have any moral issues with using medical cannabis, but I will have difficulties paying for it.  My short term EI illness disability ended in early February and I have been without income since then.  I do have some support from my parents, but my long term disability application is in bureaucratic limbo hell.  I had been on my company’s benefits plan for just short of 1 year prior to my hospitalization.  As such, it’s standard procedure for my benefits provider to conduct a huge investigation to determine whether my illness was a pre-existing condition.  In order to conduct the investigation, my benefits provider had to request my complete medical history from the provincial government and my family doctor.  The records recently came in from the provincial government, but my family doctor’s office has completely dropped the ball on sending my records to the insurance company and there is a ridiculous dispute going on between the two about the cost of forwarding my records.

Given that I will likely be away from the office for substantially longer than I had previously imagined, the idea that I might not have any income for the majority of that time is extraordinarily stressful.  I have bills that need to be paid, medications that need to be purchased and a life that needs to be maintained.  Waiting around for someone to investigate whether or not you’re trying to scam them by claiming you have cancer is insulting and heartbreaking and not being able to support myself financially makes me feel like I have even less control over my life right now than I actually do.

I’m hoping that all this will be resolved soon, but something tells me that the long term disability application is going to continue to be a huge thorn in my side for quite some time.  I wish I could find more information about how to approach my claims specialist, but I really have no idea whether I should be verbally stomping on her neck or if I should try to be nice so she doesn’t stall my claim even further.  I don’t really want to get a lawyer involved.  If anyone has any experience with this sort of thing, please feel free to contact me privately — I’m interested in hearing your story.

I have a PET scan scheduled for tomorrow, which I hope will give us all a better idea of how my treatment is progressing.  I should have the results by the end of next week and will update when I can.


Me and being intentionally single

I was thinking the other day about how I’ve never really talked about being single for seven years. Yes, before I met my current boyfriend, who I’ve been involved with for almost four years now, I was intentionally single for over seven years. I know that the people around me noticed that I was single for a long time, but I don’t think anyone realized that I was doing it on purpose. I’d guess that many assumed I was single due to a lack of opportunities, but that’s actually not correct. I did have a few offers for set-ups and other opportunities; however, during those years, being single was the right thing for me.

I started my single journey when I was 26. I was working on my Masters degree and I had just gotten out of an “it’s complicated” that was toxic and bad for my self esteem (which has always been remarkably low regardless). At the time, I was spending a lot of time thinking about my history with relationships. I noticed that, despite having been involed with one person or another for over 10 years with no real breaks, all of my relationships and flirtations had either ended badly or had been completely unsatisfying. I also came to understand that I was the common denominator in these shitty romantic encounters and that I was making some consistent errors, but I wasn’t able to identify exactly where I was going wrong.

Once I realized that I was making all kinds of bad relationship decisions, I decided that I needed to be alone for awhile. I had always been a hypocritical proponent of taking breaks between relationships: I thought it was a great idea, but would never actually do it myself. I had also been a hypocritical proponent of being alone in general. I am definitely a person who has always needed (and enjoyed) spending a lot of time alone day-to-day, but I had no idea to how be alone without the support and comfort of a romantic partner in the background.

My original plan at the time was to avoid any romantic entanglements until after I finished my Masters degree. I thought that this would be enough time to figure a few things out and help me keep my life drama free while I finished up at school. Once I got a job and figured out where I would be living, I would start my romantic life again. Unfortunately, after finishing graduate school, I was never quite able to make it to the place I wanted to be professionally. I was only ever able to get short term contract jobs and in between those contacts I was mostly stuck at home and volunteering a few hours a week.

Staying single had started off as a way for me to take a break and figure things out, but as my career stalled it became a necessity. In my late 20s and early 30s, I wanted to date an adult: someone with a full time job and at least a little ambition. With my career floundering, I felt like I couldn’t start dating again — how could I possibly set criteria for potential partners that I couldn’t meet myself? I knew that I couldn’t have the kind of relationship that I wanted to have if I couldn’t get some traction with my career.

It probably sounds like I was forcing myself to stay single, but in reality I was happy being on my own. I had, for many years, been certain that I didn’t want to have children, which allowed me the freedom of not worrying about finding a stable relationship by a certain age. I was also enjoying the astonishing lack of drama in my life. For a great deal of my early and mid-20s, I was bombarded with oodles of family and relationship drama. Most of my romantic relationships weren’t particularly stable and generally caused me a lot of stress; my parents’ split was difficult; my grandparents all became ill and died in the span of 8 years. During the time I was single, my life was relatively stable, apart from the difficulties in my career.

And I learned a lot about life and about myself while I was single. It was an enormous period of personal growth for me and I couldn’t have accomplished even half of it had I been in a relationship. I finished my Masters degree; I moved to Alberta on 10 days’ notice by myself and lived and worked there for a year; I learned how to play video games and all about Japanese culture and manga and anime; I read loads of books and manga; I watched loads of TV series, movies and anime; I learned how to cook, to bake, to knit; I wrote thousands of words for my blog; I participated in writing challenges; I learned about feminism and social justice; I learned how to set goals and how to work on myself.

Most importantly, by a long shot, I learned how to be emotionally independent. Before starting that journey, I couldn’t deal with any of my problems on my own. If something bad happened, I couldn’t cope and needed to tell everyone I knew about it. I couldn’t help myself — I just didn’t know how to manage my emotional pain and struggle. Being single for so long taught me how to reach inward, how to keep my own secrets, and when it’s appropriate to reach out for help.

The only thing I wasn’t able to work out was what I was doing wrong in my relationships — I didn’t learn that until awhile after I met my current boyfriend. I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to write about that any time soon, but you never know! What I do know for sure is that being single for seven years is one of the best things I have ever done for myself. No regrets whatsoever.

Tips and Techniques for Self Improvement: Getting Back on Track

Since I discussed goal setting two weeks ago, I thought it might be interesting to look at how I get back on track with my goals if I find myself not really working at them or if I’m not making as much progress as I\d like.

In my opinion, getting back on track is one of the most difficult aspects of self improvement.  Setting goals and acting on them can be quite easy at first, especially if you set goals annually: we all have lots of energy at the beginning of the year when everything seems fresh and new.  As the year wears on, however, it becomes more and more difficult to stay consistent, especially when unexpected roadblocks or personal issues arise.  Here is the step-by-step process that I use when I need to get back on track after letting one or more of my goals fall by the wayside:

1. Ask yourself: is this goal important to me?

Everyone should be changing and evolving continuously.  Sometimes the main reason why we get off track with working on something is that it just isn’t as important to us in April as it was in January.  This was a significant issue for me in 2017, when I set several goals around social and political issues that I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about several months later.  When I sat down and thought about why I wasn’t making progress on those goals, I realized that there were other ways to accomplish what I had set out to accomplish in January that were more approachable and interesting for me.

In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with letting go of goals that you realize aren’t getting you anywhere.  Giving yourself permission to let those goals go will give you more time and energy to work on the tasks that are still important to you.

2. Ask yourself: is this goal realistic?

While it can be easy to roll your eyes at the SMART method (make goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely), it really is important to ensure that your goals are realistic.  If your goals aren’t realistic and you routinely aren’t able to accomplish them, it’s easy to get discouraged and give up on trying to make progress.  Setting realistic goals can be difficult, because it’s always easy to imagine things we might want to do without thinking about how we will actually achieve them.  It’s important to have a good understanding of your limits and then challenging them in a way where you can set yourself up for success.

I’ll use a personal example to illustrate.  One of my main goals for this year was to write as much as possible.  Of all the goals I set for 2018, this has probably been my greatest area of success.  The goal isn’t particularly specific, but I felt that the easiest way to guarantee that this goal was realistic for me was to leave it a little more open-ended.  Of course, I have a posting schedule that I’ve been able to stick with, but I also have cancer treatments to deal with, a relationship, a parent who can use a bit of help around the house and a puppy to train.  By going easy on myself and not stating my goal as “I will blog three times per week” I’ve taken a lot of the stress out of the equation and allowed myself to just write as much as I’m able.  My desire to keep writing naturally keeps me on track and I don’t have to punish myself if I’m not able to stick with my schedule.

3. Where are the barriers?

If you’ve determined that your goal is still important to you and that it is realistic, it’s time to try and find the barriers that are getting in your way.  Do you have all the materials you need to accomplish the goal?  Are you giving yourself the time you need to work on the goal?

For me, my most common barrier is time.  I can be terrible at giving myself enough time to accomplish what I want to accomplish and I’m an artist at letting it happen in a lot of different ways.  In general, I am very good at making room in my life to be consistent at one thing at a time.  Right now, it’s writing the blog, but I need to give myself time to accomplish all the other things I want to accomplish as well.

4. Brainstorm tools and strategies

Once you’ve figured out what may be impeding your progress, it’s time to brainstorm and find strategies to help you get back on track.  I usually write this down in the notebook I use to record my goals and monthly review.  Having my raw ideas written down is always helpful for me because even if I don’t use all of the ideas immediately, I will sometimes revisit them and find them useful later on.

The strategies you brainstorm can be very simple.  I generally find that it’s best make use of tools that you’re already using for other tasks.  For example, I recently started using my planner, which I bought at the beginning of the year to keep track of my writing schedule and my appointments, as a kind of project planner.  I have quite a few small business and de-cluttering projects that I am currently working on and, since my planner has a substantial set of “notes” pages at the back, I’ve been using those pages to track those projects.  It’s been a great help to write everything down in a resource that I’m already looking at and using on a regular basis.

5. Schedule time and give it to yourself

As I said above, time is usually a huge impediment to my making good progress on my goals and I think most folks are probably in the same boat.  If accomplishing a goal is really important to you, you have to give yourself permission to make time in your life for it.  I’ve found that a great way to do this is to schedule the time in advance.  It doesn’t have to be daily — you could schedule a few hours once per month or once per week.  Once you’ve chosen how much time you want to spend, write it down in your calendar (digital or physical) and set up reminders that pester you to work on it.  It actually works!

I’ve found this overall strategy to be super helpful for me over the years.  If you try it out, please let me know if it works for you!

Vacation time!

Hello!  I just wanted to write a quick post to let everyone know that I will be taking a little hiatus this week to enjoy a much-needed visit with my boyfriend.  I will be resuming my posting schedule next Tuesday (March 27, 2018).  I hope you all have a wonderful week and thank you for taking the time to read my blog when you can.  If you have a chance, please let me know what you think!  Your feedback means a lot to me!

Take care and see you next week!