August 14, 2018

PTSD: What It's Like to Live With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (a guest post)

PTSD word cloud with runner

I write about mental health/illness pretty frequently, because it's been so prominent in my life. However, the only issues I deal with firsthand are bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and binge eating disorder. There are lots of other disorders out there, and so many people are dealing with them every day. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is one of them. It is usually attributed to war veterans (for a very valid reason), but PTSD can affect a wide diversity of people.

This guest post is by Kerry, who shares her story regarding PTSD. I was grateful to read it, because it's not something that is easy to ask questions about. I fear that asking questions could be triggering, so I honestly don't know much about PTSD. This post was very eye-opening for me, and hopefully it will be for others, too!



The only thing I remember from the first time I had a panic attack was the knowledge that at some point in the future I was going to die. My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) was going to die. My parents, my brother, my friends, my dogs, my horse. All of them were going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it. Even worse, there was nothing I could do to make myself stop thinking about it.

Is it rational to be afraid of dying? Of course it is. Were those thoughts rational? Definitely not. And they were not stopping.

The panic attacks kept coming, usually at least once a day but sometimes more than that. I remember sobbing uncontrollably and trying to explain to my boyfriend why I was crying, and all he could do was hold me and let me cry. I broke down one night in the car on my way to the barn thinking about how my horse was doing to die. Nothing I did was making the thoughts stop.

After a few months my mom suggested that I go talk to our family doctor about the panic attacks. She asked me a bunch of questions about what was happening in my life, including what I was doing for work and how things were going in my family. Nothing immediately stuck out until she asked me whether anything unusual had been happening earlier in the year, and then it hit me:

The Robert Pickton serial murder trial.

I have always loved true crime and been fascinated by serial killers. One of my Grade 12 courses was History, and at the beginning of every class we talked about current events; some of my contributions included stories about the Green River Killer and the Beltway Sniper. I also wanted to be a newspaper reporter from about the age of nine. I enjoyed shows such as CSI and recreations of the crimes of Ted Bundy and other serial murderers.

It will come as no surprise that I ended up in journalism school with a minor in criminology. I even met my husband in a criminology class. At the end of my third year in journalism school, I decided to take advantage of the Honours program at my university, which entailed a research project and final thesis. I decided to write my thesis on how the media portrays serial killers. And that’s when Mr. Pickton entered my world.

Robert Pickton was charged with murdering 26 women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and suspected of killing many more. His victims were drug-addicted and mostly supported themselves through sex work. His first trial, for the murders of six women, started in January 2007. When my friend, who was covering the trial for a local newspaper, suggested I come with him on the first week, I jumped at the chance.

From that day on, I attended the trial on a near-daily basis, missing days only when I was sick or had other commitments. I changed the topic of my thesis to focus solely on how the media portrayed Pickton, from the time he was arrested in 2002 until May 2007 when I had to submit my thesis. My parents banned me from talking about murder at the dinner table, and I spent hundreds of hours staring at the back of Pickton’s head while lawyers talked about the details of the murders and witnesses talked about their interactions with Pickton or his victims.

By midway through the trial I could identify what day of the week the court drawings were from by the shirt that Pickton was wearing. I still remember which shirt was Monday’s shirt, which shirt was Tuesday’s shirt, etc.

I felt very little at the time except for during one important moment. About a month into the trial, a police officer took the stand to testify about the human remains found on Pickton’s property. I’ll spare the details for the squeamish, but they were quite horrifying. Other news media had reported the night before who was expected to take the stand that day and thus the visitor’s gallery was full with people wanting to hear the gory details. The “spectators” sat in rapt silence as the police officer testified about what he found, and chatted in the lounge area during the breaks about what they had heard.

I went home on the bus that night and I remember feeling tears drip down my face, completely out of my own control. These women were real people with real friends and real family. They weren’t actors who washed off the blood and went home at the end of the day. And yet, more than a dozen people showed up at the courthouse to hear the details of their deaths. I felt empty and wrecked; to some of those people death was entertainment.

Pickton was found guilty on December 9, 2007. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years, the maximum sentence he could have received.

26 victims of convicted killer Robert Pickton

I moved on with my life, dating my now-husband and working as a community newspaper reporter. Everything seemed normal until September 2008 when the first panic attack hit.

That conversation with my doctor finally clued me in to what was happening: I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it was manifesting itself in the unrelenting thoughts about my own death and that of those I care about. Over the next few months I learned coping strategies to work through the panic and anxiety, and lessen the duration of the thoughts. Keeping busy with work and my personal life helped; I got engaged, bought our first apartment, and continued working as a reporter.

I quickly learned that I could never watch anything bloody or violent if it was fictional. I have never watched extremely violent shows or movies such as Game of Thrones, Logan or Deadpool; my TV and movie-watching habits now revolve around reality TV such as The Amazing Race, Top Chef and Rupaul’s Drag Race, or sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family. I watched The Assassination of Gianni Versace but skipped the two episodes dealing with the murders of Jeff Trail, David Madsen and Lee Miglin.

I can and do watch true crime documentaries such as The Staircase and Making A Murderer. I still read true crime books and newspaper articles; my husband laughs at me because my bookcases are literally Chick Lit Chick Lit Horrible Murder Chick Lit Horrible Murder Chick Lit Chick Lit Horrible Murder Chick Lit. Fictional depictions of death are the problem; real life is not.

I do not like guns. I am terrified beyond measure by guns, in any context. Happily I live in Canada where gun culture is not as prevalent (I mean no offense to American readers so I hope none is taken). My hands start shaking at the thought; when my husband’s cousin started dating a guy who hunts I couldn’t enter the room where his guns were kept. I. Don’t. Do. Guns. Ever.

For years the PTSD was kept at bay, though occasionally my thoughts would do a quick circle through death and then I would fight it and forcefully turn my thoughts to something else.

But it came back in December 2017. I experienced some significant stress at work (good stress, but stress) and in my extended family life (not good stress). And on December 23 as I got ready for bed, my brain flipped, my body got warm and my hands started to shake. It was back.

Over the next few weeks it would happen several times a day, mostly at night. I was angry, and I did the only thing I knew how to do to make it stop: I ran. I have been running since 2012, and it never fails to calm my mind and let me work through things. It can be frustrating and painful, but it always helps.

So I ran. I ran around the neighbourhood, I ran races, I ran to the end of the block. I just ran. And it helped. My mind settles down while on the run; I can relax and listen to podcasts and music instead of worrying and wondering when the next panic attack will come.

This time the symptoms of PTSD are slightly different; I used to cry uncontrollably but that doesn’t happen now. My body just gets warm and my hands shake (along with the constant cycle of thinking about death). I feel negative emotions very, very strongly. When I’m angry I am very, very angry, and if others are crying, I cry too. I have always cried easily (except apparently when the panic is actually happening) but it’s even more evident now.

It’s still triggered by violence and most especially by depictions of serial killers. I love the show Lucifer but haven’t watched it in months because the last time I watched it they were dealing with a serial killer case. I will watch it again because I love the show, but not right now. It’s usually not a hugely violent show and I know that once that serial killer storyline plays out, I will be fine for the rest of the series. I triggered my way through the storyline on Castle about the 3XK killer; I was relieved when that series of episodes ended. I don’t think I’ll ever be okay with depictions of serial killers in entertainment. Death isn’t entertaining.

But it’s okay. I have accepted that I will likely struggle with this for a very long time, if not forever. It doesn’t affect me on a daily basis anymore. I’ve learned how to breathe and how to re-focus my mind on something else, even if that something is my grocery list or an upcoming event at work (I’m not a reporter anymore; the print media business has gone downhill over the past few years).

My husband often pre-screens TV shows or movies for me and warns me if something is coming that I can’t watch; I’ll either go into the other room for a minute or cover my eyes until he says it’s fine. I feel like a toddler sometimes but it’s not worth what will probably come later.

I live with it because I have to. I’m not ashamed of it; it’s not my fault. I still talk about murder at the dinner table because my husband enjoys that stuff too. He’s probably the only person who doesn’t look at me like I’m insane when I’m talking about Charles Manson or Andrew Cunanan. I still talk about Pickton and the trial; it was a huge part of my life and affected me deeply in ways beyond the PTSD.

People talk about PTSD in war veterans; they deserve to be honoured for what they went through. But PTSD in journalists and “regular people” happens too. It doesn’t always manifest itself immediately, or in incredible violence. It can be quiet and cold, and that needs to be acknowledged too.



Since leaving journalism, Kerry is now a project coordinator for a construction association in British Columbia, where she lives with her husband and dogs. Other than running and reading, she loves wine, tea, trying new restaurants, and traveling.



August 14, 2018

The Simple Mind Trick That Helped Me Lose Weight for 52 Weeks in a Row

Jerry and I had an interesting conversation today, and I thought it might be fun to write about on the blog.

My weight loss is old news. Very, very old news that I'm sure nobody wants to hear about anymore. So much has changed since I first hit the scale and saw that I'd lost 125 pounds!

Katie's 125 pounds down weight loss comparison
A comparison when I reached the 125-pounds down mark. The was shortly after breaking
my jaw, which is why you can see my scar and maybe even the wires on my teeth.

However, in thinking about this recent weight gain, Jerry asked me some questions about when I lost the weight in the first place, and there are a couple of details that I never really went in-depth about. They were crucial to my weight loss, though, so I really ought to write more about them.

Anyway. To quickly recap, in a nutshell, how I lost the weight in 2009-2010:

I reduced the amount of food I was eating (counting calories/points).
I ate whatever I wanted to eat, just in smaller portions.
I started exercising after I'd lost 60 pounds--walking first, then running.
I ate some sort of treat every day--usually dessert.
I didn't give up any foods or food groups; nor did I count macros.

Everything I've ever written about my weight loss could probably be summed up in those five sentences.

There was another piece of the puzzle that was a big factor, and I don't know that I've ever really written about it. It's nothing ground-breaking; just something that kept me going when I really wanted to quit.

I decided that I didn't want to play the "what if" game anymore.

For years and years, I was always saying to myself, "What if I'd just done it the right way a couple of years ago? I'd have been at my goal weight already." "What if I never started binge eating?" "What if I had quit buying and eating pints of ice cream the first time I decided I shouldn't?" "What if I had learned, as a child, how to eat intuitively?" "What if I didn't use food to curb my anxiety?"

(Bear with me, this will make sense in a minute. I hope.)

For 52 weeks straight, I lost weight. I didn't gain weight and I didn't maintain my weight. I lost it! For an entire year! That's pretty impressive. And I can tell you exactly why it happened...

No matter what the scale read each week, I wanted to be able to know that I did everything in my power to make the right choices and follow my plan--I didn't go over my calories/points at ALL. Because, if I had, I would have gotten on the scale and thought, "What if I didn't eat that extra bowl of ice cream this week?" or "What if I actually measured out my portions more accurately?" etc.

I wanted to be able to KNOW that I did EVERYTHING that I had control of--that there was nothing I could have done differently.

I fully trusted my plan (counting calories/points) and I knew that eventually, it would get me to my goal weight if I just followed it long enough. (I didn't expect that I would lose weight every week--that was just a cool bonus.)

By putting complete trust in the process (lower calorie intake), I was 100% confident that I would lose the weight. I knew that if I started overeating or binge eating, I would get on the scale and think, "What if I hadn't binged?"

Considering my weight loss is old news, and I've gotten older and (I like to think) wiser, I don't feel quite so rigid (and maybe that's why my weight is up right now). But my belief is still the same--if I just follow my plan, doing all the "right" things that I have control over, eventually I will get back to my goal weight. And I won't be able to say, "If I had just _____, I would be there already."

In other words, if I do what I am supposed to do, it's totally out of my hands. What happens on the scale doesn't matter--I would feel good knowing that I did everything "right"--so I wouldn't have anything to question. There wouldn't be anything that I "should have" or "could have" done to change the outcome.

There were some weeks that I lost 4 pounds, and other weeks were I lost just 0.5 pounds. My average weight loss was approximately 1.8 pounds per week (125 pounds lost in about 16 months). That's not a ridiculous amount in either direction.


If I had quit halfway through, months (or even weeks) later, I would have asked myself, "What if I just hadn't quit? I'd be down X amount of pounds right now." And that's an easy way to beat myself up. I was really tired of doing that, playing that "what if" game in my head. So, I stopped.

Another benefit to this way of thinking about it was that when I did finally have gains on the scale, I knew exactly why it happened. I could say, "Well, I didn't follow my calorie plan, and I ate too much. That is why the scale is up." I couldn't be upset about the gain, because I would know that I didn't follow my plan to the best of my ability.

Now, I want to make it very clear that I am not saying that everyone will lose weight every single week for a year if they adopt this mentality!

I was willing to accept ANY weight gain on the scale as long as I knew I was giving my plan my 100% best effort. I knew that eventually, the weight would come off if I followed my plan.

There are also other reasons for the scale to fluctuate each week--sodium intake, a change in exercise, menstrual cycles, etc. There are always some outside factors that affect our weight, so we basically have to look at the overall trend--if, over a long period of time, we are losing weight, then we are doing what we need to!

I never understood why women at Weight Watchers would eat very lightly the day before their weekly weigh-ins, or why they took of their shoes or jewelry, or even strip down to some very skimpy items (I've seen it all!). Those things have nothing to do with our body composition.

I could drink a gallon of water and get on the scale weighing eight pounds more than I did a moment before drinking the water... but that doesn't mean that I've gained eight pounds in my body composition. It's literally just water sitting in my stomach that I will pee out in the next few hours.

So, when I did my weekly weigh-ins, I stopped worrying about what I was eating the day before. I stopped trying to avoid sodium, I stopped eating only lightly, I stopped taking off my shoes at Weight Watchers. I knew that what I was doing was the right way (for me) to lose weight, and that I was following the program. If I was following the program, I would eventually get to my goal, shoes or no shoes.

I simply followed my plan to the best of my ability and I trusted the process. That's it!

Where does this leave me now? The reason Jerry brought this whole thing up was because lately, I've been feeling desperate to get my eating back on track. I even did something that I am super against--I started thinking of fad diets that I could hop on board for a little bit to get back to goal quickly.

But that is a cycle that I was in ever since I realized I was overweight at age nine or so until I was 27. I was always trying fad diets and then quitting. I never got anywhere!

This is what caused me to create my advice of "Don't do anything that you're not willing to do for the rest of your life." If you don't want to be on this fad diet forever, then my advice is not to do it now. If we pick plans (or create our own!) that we can stick with (and not just CAN stick with, but are WILLING TO stick with), then we can trust the process, no matter how long it takes, that we will get there.

I had a really great day with the calorie counting today, and I'm going to bed soon (I'm trying to make a bed time of 11:00 now, with school starting soon). I can wake up tomorrow knowing that I did what I could today to inch my way toward my goal. Whatever the scale says, I know that I wouldn't have done anything differently.

I am still struggling big time with getting back to my "happy place". Ideally, I would wake up early and go for a run first thing in the morning, then come home and have breakfast. I would read a chapter of the Bible as part of my 40 Goals by 40 Years Old List, and read another book for 30 minutes. I would work on my blog, do "chores" around the house, run errands, and all the other stuff that needs to get done. I would cook a good dinner for the family, and then clean up the house a bit before relaxing with a book (or a good TV show) and my dessert of some sort. Then I'd be in bed at a decent hour.

This is what I used to do! And I felt really good about myself when I felt like everything was "right". Lately, since gaining the weight, struggling with exercise, being unproductive, and just feeling like I'm falling more off track on the daily, my anxiety has gotten out of control. And the higher my anxiety gets, the further behind I feel until I get to a place that feels like I'm "too far gone".

I've certainly been feeling like I'm too far gone lately, and that is a totally hopeless feeling. So, I really need to get it together. I know I sound like a broken record, because I'm saying this constantly. I feel like I did 100 pounds ago--super overwhelmed with all of the things I want to get back on track.

I've been doing a LOT of thinking this week about the things I'd like to change and how I can (slowly) go about doing that. Instead of jumping into all of these ideas that I have, I just want to stay grounded and do what has always worked for me in the past: count calories, and trust the process. Even though it's going to suck getting back at it after so much time, I know without a doubt that I will feel a hundred times better about myself after even just a week of it.

This was after my Wednesday run--the humidity was INSANE. I felt amazing afterward!

Tomorrow, I have an appointment with my psychiatrist at 9:00 in the morning (it's a 45 minute drive), so I'll need to get up early (thankfully, I don't have a run on the schedule!). But I think getting up early will be good for me.

It's a start!

(So much for getting to bed by 11:00--it's now 12:15. Blogging takes so much longer than one would think! I'm not going to read through this for errors, so I apologize for spelling/grammar issues.)


August 09, 2018

Fun Blog Housekeeping (and a Recap of Week 2 of My 8-week Challenge)

I haven't been keeping up with posting about my 8-week challenge--the days are just flying by lately!

I've been working on a big project on my blog, and I finally finished it today (hopefully it worked... it's hard to know until I get comments or emails telling me that it's not working--hahaha! I do appreciate that, though).

I have been LOVING learning about html, css, and javascript lately (I started messing around with it about a year ago, and the more I learn, the more excited I get to try out little projects here and there). I'm probably going overboard, but it's fun ;)

Anyway, I did a big overhaul of my Recipes page. I used to have a list of links to each of my recipes, which worked out just fine. I thought it was boring, though, and I wanted to make it a little more fun to look at. So, now it looks like this...

Recipes page layout with thumbnails

Each photo is linked to the recipe, so you just have to click on the box to view it--and this way, there are thumbnail photos for each recipe! Also, at the top, there are buttons to filter the recipes by different categories (I'm going to work on those some more, adding more categories and putting some recipes in multiple categories). So, if you click on Ham/Bacon/Pork button, for example, these (above) are the recipes that show up.

I really hope this works, otherwise I did a whole lotta work for nothing! But I am pretty proud of myself for learning how to do things like this on my own. I recently even looked into taking a class called Markup Languages at the community college, which is basically everything I've been teaching myself.

Unfortunately, there is a pre-req class to get in, and it would get expensive to take classes that I don't have a real reason for taking! So I'll just continue to try and teach myself. One of these days, I would really like to make my blog mobile friendly--however, that is an enormous project that will have to wait until I have the patience to learn about and work on it.

I'm switching over to a different ad network in a couple of weeks, which I'm super nervous about. I've used BlogHer for such a long time, but I'll be switching to AdThrive. AdThrive has great reviews among bloggers, and I've actually been thinking about the switch for two years! I've just been too nervous to actually do it. And my blogging was very sporadic in that time (it still is, for the most part).

After an analysis of my site, AdThrive told me I could make the same or more money with fewer ads. I don't love having ads on my blog, but I prefer the ads over sponsored posts and affiliate marketing (and it would be stupid of me not to monetize my blog). Anyway, I've just been trying to do some cleaning up around the blog before the switch to AdThrive.

Well! I didn't mean to ramble on about all that. I am not nearly as organized for a challenge recap this week as I was last week. I'll just write the gist, and then hopefully next week I'll try to be more organized.

Week 2 schedule:
Day 1: Stretch & Strengthen
Day 2: 2 mile easy run
Day 3: 30 minutes cross training
Day 4: 2 mile easy run + strength training
Day 5: Rest
Day 6: 30 minutes cross training
Day 7: 2.5 mile easy run

My cross training was just walking; this week, I'd like to get in some bike riding. I have cross training scheduled tomorrow, so I think I'll ride my bike. I am supposed to take Eli to my brother's property (Brian and Becky are building a house) and it's right next to the Metropark, so I can just bring my bike with me and go for a ride.

My running has been kind of all over the place as far as pace and heart rate and all that. I would really like to see my heart rate come down--right now, though, I can't even run at my slowest pace while keeping my heart rate where it should be (under 144).

On this run below (Day 2), I tried really hard to keep my heart rate down. While it wasn't ideal, I was happy to get it under 150 bpm--and that was at a 12:13 pace.


This next one was a simple out and back, and it feels kind of awesome to just run out for one mile and turn around. I've been running for 8 years, and I never really did 2-mile runs except for when I first started running in 2010. It's nice!




My "long run" (2.5 miles!) was actually on the treadmill. It was SO HOT and humid outside on Monday that I couldn't bear the thought of running outside. Instead, I listened to a podcast and got it done on the treadmill. I set the speed at 5.0 mph, and I didn't wear the foot pod. My heart rate was only 142 bpm, so I'm guessing that I was going slower than this says I was. 



My heart rate is almost always lower on the treadmill, though, because it just feels easier to me. It helps to have the air conditioning and a fan blowing right on me ;) 

I also did my strength training, but I didn't take pics of the cards I used. I'll try to remember to do that next week (if only for my own reference!). 

My eating was not good, and I feel like it might have scared me straight, hahaha. I've been battling the same 4 pounds for two weeks--up and down, up and down. Today, I had a really great day counting calories and it motivates me to carry that over to tomorrow. 

So, while my diet isn't what I'd hoped, I am glad that I'm sticking with this exercise plan. The discipline alone has given me more confidence and I just feel better about myself in general--I've been proactive in (slowly) getting back into shape. 

Okay, well, I was hoping to go to bed at an early hour tonight, and it's already 1:20 AM... so I'm going to end this now and get to bed! Overall, I'd say it was a good week. Just need to work on my diet now. (If I had a dollar for every time I said those words... well, I probably wouldn't be on a budget, haha!)


August 05, 2018

How My Family Paid Off $14,000 of Debt in 14 Months (while on a varied income)


Settle in, Friends, because this is a very long post. I just spent the last four days working on it!

I never expected the overwhelming response I got to the news that Jerry and I paid off our debt, but we are still feeling so excited about it! Thank you :)

I've gotten a lot of questions about the things we did to pay down our debt, so I thought I'd write a catch-all post here. If you've been reading for the last year, then this will probably be redundant, so you might want to skip over this post. But I'm going to try to write everything out here in one place.

I know that people write blogs about paying down $40,000+ of debt in 6 months and other insane numbers like that; but that wasn't realistic for Jerry and me. We didn't want to give up everything we enjoyed or feel deprived while we paid our debt, and we still managed to get it done in just over a year (without paying interest!).

Before I get into the whole post, I just want to add that I'm not trying to tell anyone how they should do things--money-talk is very personal (so, naturally, I'm posting all about it on the internet! haha), and just like with my weight loss, what works for me isn't going to work for everybody. What I'm going to write about below describes how Jerry and I paid off our debt in a way that worked for us. We are happy with the way we did it, and I understand it's not for everyone.

The cost of living varies tremendously depending on where people live, too, so my costs aren't going to be the same as others'. Finally, I don't agree with judging others for how they choose to spend their money. You'll see below that Netflix is written into our budget--of course Netflix isn't a necessary expense, but we don't have cable and we enjoy Netflix, so it's worth it to us to spend $11 per month on it.

So, if you disagree with our choices, please just do so respectfully. I'm very proud that Jerry and I were able to pay off our debt!

So, all of that said, here is how we did it...

(To skip to particular sections, you can click on these links--yes, that is how long the post is, haha!)

Eliminate Interest
Our Budget Plan
Our Personal "Bare Bones" Budget
Checking, Savings, and Credit Card Accounts
An Actual Month's Budget & Expenses
Allowances
Groceries
Other Ways We've Saved Money
Getting Started When You Have No Savings
Conclusion... finally


Eliminate Interest

After totaling our debt and seeing that it was just under $14,500, I needed to make a budget plan. We were paying on three different cards, and I wanted to try to get all of the debt onto one card (for the sake of simplicity) and reduce/eliminate interest. I found a card (Barclaycard Ring) that offered 1) a $0 balance transfer fee (so, I could transfer my other cards' balances to this one without any fees); 2) no annual account fee; and, best of all, 3) 0% interest for 18 months!

Thankfully, I have always had excellent credit, so there was no problem opening that card. I knew my credit score would take a small hit for opening a new card, but I figured it was worth it in the long run to eliminate interest. As soon as my card arrived in the mail, I cut it up and threw it away. I didn't plan to acquire new debt on it--I just used it for the balance transfers.

After the balance transfers, I had 18 months to pay off debt without having to pay interest. I wasn't sure how long it would take us to do it, but after calculating our budget plan (below), I saw that it was very possible to get the whole thing paid off in time as long as we stuck close to our budget.



Our Budget Plan

Jerry and I have a very varied income--meaning we don't earn the same amount of money every week or every month or even every year. Jerry's income varies by how much overtime he works, whether he's filling in as a supervisor, what shift he's working, etc. My blogging income depends on what time of year it is, how many page views I get, how frequently I'm writing, if I've done any sponsored posts, etc.

So, traditional budgets have never worked for us. We can't divide up cash every week and use only cash on purchases. After lots of scouring the internet, I settled on a "Zero Sum Budget".

To do the Zero Sum Budget, we start each month with the amount of money to cover all of that month's expenses: all bills, groceries, medical expenses, gas, and "extras" (things like wedding/grad/birthday gifts, necessary clothing, field trip money for school, etc.). All of these expenses are called the "Bare Bones" amount needed per month.

Because Jerry and I actually weren't in a huge hurry to pay off our debt, considering we weren't paying interest, we included Netflix and Hulu on the "bare bones" budget (even though they aren't a "necessary" expense). We also included "allowance", which isn't necessary but ended up being crucial to our staying on budget (I'll explain the allowance later).

Basically, WE chose what our bare bones budget would be. Yes, we could have eliminated those unnecessary things like Netflix and allowances, and paid off the card sooner; but we didn't want to feel deprived and then quit altogether. It's like a diet--if you are too strict and feel deprived, chances are you won't stick with it.



Our Personal "Bare Bones" Budget

(Our bills and expenses have changed slightly since the start of our budget plan last year, so these numbers may be a little different from my past posts, just FYI...)

Our July "bare bones" budget was $3500. The bare bones budget covers all of our bills, groceries, gas, medical co-pays, extras, and the MINIMUM payment on our credit card(s). Here is July's "bare bones" budget (we just guesstimate our income each month at around $4500; I will explain the color coding later):


This totals $3500. Since our income varies so much, we aren't sure how much excess money we will have at the end of the month--but whatever that number is, it ends up going toward the credit card debt.

For example: Let's say that we start July with $3500 (which is the goal of the Zero Sum Budget above--to start the month with the exact amount of the bare bones expenses). We use that money to pay for all that we need during July.

Meanwhile, our income for July is being direct deposited in a separate account to be used toward August. Let's say that we earn $4500 in July. On July 31st, I would take $3500 of our July income and that would be the "bare bones" money that we would then use for August. That would give us $1000 left over from our July income. So, we would take that $1000 and apply it to our credit card debt, making our final income/expense balance $0 (which is why it's called a "Zero Sum Budget").

Then, we do it all over again. We start the month with that $3500 earned the previous month, and in the meantime, we accumulate our income throughout the current month to be used for NEXT month.

This way, we start every month with the amount we need to pay our bills--it has been a huge relief not to have to worry about having enough money! We already have the money set aside for our bills, so there is no stress. The main goal is to not go over our budgeted $3500, because that means we would have less money to apply to our debt at the end of the month.

A question I get asked often is how you get the first month's "bare bones" amount in your account to start the budget if you have no current savings. I'll answer that at the end of this post.



Checking, Savings, and Credit Card Accounts

We have two checking accounts, two savings accounts, and several (inactive) credit card accounts with a $0 balance. We used one of the credit cards while we were paying down debt, which I will explain below.

Checking #1: This is our direct deposit account, where we accumulate our income. Jerry is paid bi-weekly (he was always paid weekly until a couple of months ago), and I am paid monthly (always at the end of the month). This account starts at $0 at the beginning of the month, and is strictly for deposits until the end of the month.

Checking #2: This is where I pay all of our bare bones expenses from. I start the month with $3500 in this account.

Savings #1: I transfer $160 per month from Checking #2 into this account for taxes. We pay summer tax and winter tax, and it totals about $1920 per year. When taxes are due, I withdraw the cash from this account to pay them.

Savings #2: A savings account for a "just in case" scenario where we need money for a big "extra" expense--maybe our car needing a new transmission or something like that. We maintain $1000 in this account at all times. If we need to use any of it for some reason, then paying it back is our top priority.

Credit Card #1: This card is used for as many monthly expenses as possible, including our bills. At the end of the month, we pay off the card in full using the budgeted money. We use the card in order to take advantage of credit card rewards (there are cards for travel rewards like SkyMiles, cash back rewards, groceries, gas, etc.).

We use the credit card for every possible purchase/bill that we can, and then we pay the entire thing off every month using the budgeted money from our Checking #2 account. On the budget example above, all of the figures in red are paid with the credit card; the ones in yellow are ones that have to be paid with a checking account. (The figures in red total $2051--and that $2051 gets paid off from our Checking #2 account, as if it was any other bill, each month.)

Note: If you don't think you'll have the discipline to stick to the bare bones budget, I don't recommend using a credit card while paying off debt. It can rack up the debt quickly! We stick to our budgeted amount as closely as we can and pay it off every month out of the budgeted $3500 "bare bones" account. If we go over budget (as you'll see we did by the example below), that money has to come from the extra income that would normally go toward debt--so we tried to stick as closely to the budget as possible.



An Actual Month's Budget & Expenses

Here is July's budget and our actual expenses. It happened to be a month where we were very close to being on budget with everything.


(Side note explanation: Our gas and electric bills are on a "budget plan", meaning that we pay the same amount every month based on the previous year's usage--the amount is recalculated once a year. July was the "changeover" month, so our electric bill amount changed to $79 instead of $100. Also, I had accidentally paid the gas bill twice in June, so there was no payment due in July. I took that $41 budgeted for the gas bill and applied it as extra toward the credit card minimum payment.)

So, for July, our income was $5168.07. We spent $3574.23 (over budget by $74.23). After expenses, our excess income ($1593.84) was used to make our final credit card debt payment ($1025.46)! (We even had money left after that, so we used the extra toward replacing the kids' bikes, which they had outgrown this year.)



Allowances

This was a HUGE factor in sticking to our budget. Each month, I withdraw cash for "allowance". Jerry and I each get $100 and the kids each get $40. This money can be used however we want throughout the month. I feel like this helps us stick to our budget because we don't feel totally deprived. We can spend money on stupid things that we want, without having to explain ourselves, but we also learned to ask ourselves if those things are worth it. Since we only had a certain amount each month, we were picky about how to spend it.

A few people have asked how we handle online purchases with our allowance (because our allowance is cash). The kids are always wanting to buy things on iTunes or Xbox, and Jerry and I buy things on Amazon sometimes. To buy things online with our allowances, we just use our allowances to buy gift cards. So, the kids might buy iTunes gift cards with their allowances, and then they just apply the gift cards to their accounts and use that for their purchases. It requires some planning, but it keeps us from buying unnecessary things with the credit card and then forgetting to "pay it back".

After the first few months, we also added a "family fun" amount to the budget ($100 per month). This can be used for us to do something as a family--going out to dinner, going to the movies, etc. This way we can still do fun things together as a family, but we don't have to spend our individual allowances for it.





Groceries

I was shocked when I started looking at the numbers of how much we spent on food each month prior to our budget. Several times, we spent over $1000 on food! It was insane. This is the category where we were overspending by a LOT--which is a good thing, because it's easy to make changes!

I set a budget of $450 per month, which is very do-able if we don't go out to eat (our family money is for dining out). To reduce our grocery expenses, I started checking sales and using digital coupons. The main way to reduce grocery costs (for us) is to make meals that require as few ingredients as possible.

For example, a stir-fry (one of my family's favorite meals): instead of buying each individual vegetable for the stir-fry, I buy a bag or two of frozen stir-fry veggies (when they're on sale); a little meat goes a long way in a stir-fry, so I can buy a single chicken breast (about 1/2 pound) for the whole family--Kroger has chicken breasts for $2.99 per pound; and rice is super cheap! I also make my own stir-fry sauce (there are a thousand recipes online but we like to use the sauce from this General Tso's chicken recipe). So, we get a nice meal for less than $2 per person!


I also stopped buying things in bulk. I know that buying in bulk is cheaper in the long run, but it was costing us a lot of money each time I went shopping; and I found that most of the time, we didn't use the bulk items very quickly, so they just sat around for a long time. I decided to start buying only what we would use in a single week.

I always check the sales at Kroger and plan our menu based on what sale items I can combine with digital coupons. By combining sales and coupons, I was surprised at just how much money I could save. Spending under $120 per week in groceries was not nearly as difficult as I thought when I took the time to plan out our meals and check the sales.

I make a lot of casseroles and skillet meals, which makes a little meat go a long way. Instead of each person having a portion of meat + side dishes, I make meals where the meat is combined with the other ingredients (I also make meatless meals a couple of times a week). I especially love to use ground turkey (we prefer the flavor and texture of the turkey over beef) because it's so versatile in so many recipes!

Some of my family's favorite cheap recipes are:

Cabbage Casserole with Rice (super cheap! And one of my very favorite dinners)
Lasagna Soup (with a little garlic bread, this is so perfect for a cold day)
Cream Cheese Rigatoni (Eli's very favorite dish)
Southwest Chicken & Beans with Rice (a Crock Pot meal)
Smoked Sausage, Pepper, and Corn Hash (I make hash a dozen different ways--and it's super cheap!)
Lentil Chili (this is one of Jerry's favorite foods, even though it has no meat--it's delicious!)
Fried Rice (you can make so many different variations of fried rice--and most are very cheap!)
Split Pea Soup (my kids go nuts over this--they love it! hahaha)


I would say that MOST of the recipes on my Recipes page are on the cheap side! I also went into more detail about how I grocery shop now on my budget, which you can find on this post.



Other ways we've saved money

*We sold things that we weren't using. To earn a little extra allowance money, we pulled out some things that we weren't using (a Keurig coffee maker, for example) and we listed them on Facebook garage sale pages. We sold things really quickly and easily that way! We used a lot of this money for extra spending money on vacation.

*I've always loved thrift shopping, so it's nothing new for us to buy our clothes from Salvation Army or other thrift stores. But we even saved money in this area by not buying things we didn't need Yes, I would love a reason to buy new (thrift) jeans, but I have a LOT of jeans already--I really didn't need more, even if they are only $2. So now, the only reason I go to the thrift store is if any of us truly needs something.

This picture is when I was trying on clothes at Salvation Army, and I found a dollar in the pocket of the jeans I was trying on! I didn't buy the jeans, but I kept the dollar ;)


*We take advantage of fuel rewards when buying groceries. We earn double fuel points for shopping on weekends, so I do my grocery shopping on Fridays. We are able to get up to $1 off per gallon of gas per month, so Jerry and I try to time our fill-ups so that we can go together with our cars and fill up--saving up to $1 per gallon of gas. That saves us about $20-30 per month!

*We stopped going out to eat. One meal for the four of us at a decent restaurant can cost almost as much as a week's worth of groceries! We went a few months without eating out at ALL, and then we were very selective about when/where/why we did it. Once we added in the family fun money, we are able to go out once or twice a month, or we order pizza and have a movie night at home. But other than that, we don't eat out much at all.

*I canceled our Sam's Club membership. I was able to get a $40 refund on the membership itself, but I knew that every time I went to Sam's Club, I was spending hundreds of dollars. Literally! Buying in bulk and then adding on a few impulse buys while shopping usually meant spending $200-400 each time I went. So, I canceled the membership, and I don't regret it at all. The small savings we got by buying in bulk wasn't worth spending so much at a time and it certainly didn't make up for the impulse buys.

*I no longer buy things just because they are on sale. It's really hard to resist a fantastic sale, but I've started asking myself if we are really going to eat/use/wear it, and most of the time, the answer is no. Just because something is deeply discounted doesn't mean we need to buy it.

*We utilize the library to our full advantage! Our library system is awesome--they have computers with internet, so if we needed to, we could cancel internet and just use the library's (as a blogger, though, the internet at home is pretty much a necessity). We can check out books ("real" books, audiobooks, and ebooks), DVDs (movies and TV shows), music, newspapers, magazines, and lots of other free things. There really isn't any need to pay for media with such a great library system.

*Instead of meeting friends by going out for lunch, or even for drinks or coffee, I began making plans to meet for a walk or have coffee or wine at my house. (And sorry, Friends, but if you have wine with me at my house, you'll be drinking from a $4-5 bottle and not a $20 bottle 😉)



Getting Started When You Have No Savings

A frequently asked question: How do you start the Zero Sum Budget if you don't have any money saved up to start the first month?

Jerry and I were very lucky in that when we started our budget, it happened to fall just after a month of an unusually high income for us. I had written a sponsored post, Jerry worked a lot of overtime, and there was an extra pay period (five Fridays instead of four)... the stars just aligned for us that month and we had enough to start our zero sum budget with our bare bones money in the account.

However, that is probably not the case for most people. In that situation, I would do the following to save up the amount needed for the bare bones budget (we'll call it a "bare bones savings"):

1) I would write out a bare bones budget, just like you would anyway, and stick with it as closely as possible.

2) While you are building up the bare bones savings, I would probably cut the allowance budget in half or less, and eliminate things like Netflix, Hulu, and any other unnecessary expenses for a couple of months.

3) It would also be a good time to sell some things you don't need. Take that money and put it in the bare bones savings. I spent a ton of time cleaning and organizing my house, and while I was doing that, I came across lots of things that I could sell.

4) Try to spend as little as possible on food--use up what is in the cupboards and fridge, getting creative and living minimally to add the money saved on food to the bare bones account. I would definitely stop eating out (this budget has made me SO aware of how expensive it is to eat restaurant food). I would also eliminate the food that isn't necessary--flavored or bottled water, tea/coffee, alcohol, snacks, etc. I actually did this for the first couple of months of our budget until I settled into a comfortable plan for groceries.

5) Don't go to the store unless it's absolutely necessary--it's so easy to buy things impulsively.

By doing these things, the bare bones savings should add up pretty quickly. In a nutshell, I would just spend as little as possible, saving anything extra, until you have enough to start the month with the "bare bones" amount in your account. It may take a few months, but you're still making progress. And once you have that amount, everything will feel much smoother.



Conclusion... finally

I think that about sums up our debt payment! The 14 months flew by, and our budget quickly became a lifestyle once we developed a system that worked for us. The whole family loved having an allowance, and I found that my stress level went WAY down when we started each month with the money that we would need for the whole month.

The whole family learned the value of a dollar (the kids have learned just how expensive an ice cream from the ice cream truck is now that they have to use their own money for it). I think the budget has been a good example for the kids, so they can learn not to spend money they don't have. And I loved being able to go on a fun family vacation this year without accumulating a single dollar of debt!

Our whole entire debt repayment and budget all boiled down to one thing: planning. We have plans for every cent we earn; and to buy the things we want, we have to plan how we're going to do that and where the money will come from. Now that we're credit card debt-free, we're dreaming up plans for the future (before, we always had this debt looming over our heads, and we never really imagined that we'd be free of it someday).

We are still going to continue our budget plan. I've really enjoyed the lifestyle that we've been living since we started the budget, which sounds odd, but because we worked the budget to fit our lives it was much easier for us to follow. Now, we are going to apply our extra money to our Jeep loan and get that paid off, hopefully within a year.

I can't even describe the relief we feel about not having a debt looming over our heads! I would love to read about others who have paid off debt, and what worked for YOU... so feel free to leave a comment!


August 04, 2018

RECIPE: Smoked Sausage, Pepper, & Corn Hash

Sausage, Pepper, and Corn Hash

Hash is one of my favorite meals. It's super versatile! While it's traditionally made with corned beef and potatoes, but you can use any meat you want (or even skip the meat and make it vegetarian). I almost always top mine with an egg.

This recipe is my favorite hash recipe--the combination of the sausage, corn, and peppers is perfect!


Click here for the printer-friendly PDF recipe


Smoked Sausage, Pepper, and Corn Hash

Ingredients:

1 Tbsp. canola oil, divided
20 oz. potatoes, peeled and diced*
14 oz. package of smoked turkey sausage, diced**
1 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 can of corn, drained
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
salt and black pepper to taste
1-2 eggs per person, to top the hash


Directions:

Heat 2 tsp of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until they are golden brown with a soft center. Set them aside in a bowl.

Add 1 tsp of oil the hot skillet, and cook the turkey sausage, peppers, and onions over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the onions are soft. Reduce heat, if needed, to avoid burning the veggies. Add corn, crushed red pepper, salt, and black pepper; stir to combine. Add the potatoes back to the skillet and reduce heat to low.

Meanwhile, in another skillet, cook 1-2 eggs, over-easy, per serving. Recipe makes approximately 4-6 servings of hash. To serve, divide the hash into bowls and top with eggs.


Notes:

*You can use whatever kind of potatoes you like (even frozen diced potatoes!), but I particularly like Yukon Gold potatoes. They hold their shape really well instead of getting mushy. When I use Yukon Gold potatoes, or any potatoes with a thin, soft skin, I don't even peel them.

**The smoked sausage can usually be found with kielbasa. I buy the Eckridge or Butterball brand, depending what's on sale. To dice it, cut it in half lengthwise, and then cut each of those in half lengthwise (you'll have four long strips). Then just cut those crosswise so that the shapes are almost little cubes.


Sausage, Pepper, and Corn Hash
I used frozen potatoes on this one--not quite as good, but great in a pinch!


August 03, 2018

Learning A New Skill (A completed goal from my 40 Goals by 40 Years Old list)

Like a I mentioned a few days ago, I checked off another goal from my 40 Goals by 40 Years Old list. The goal was pretty vague--"Learn a new skill"--so it could be pretty much anything. And I certainly didn't have to master it.

Jerry and I were going through a box of old stuff recently, and I came across some of my papers from art class in high school. The idea of drawing/sketching popped into my head as a fun skill to learn. I've always been a terrible artist, so my attempt would be interesting, if nothing else ;)

When I bought the journals for my recent 8-week challenge, I also picked up the essentials on how to draw: a sketch pad, pencils, and a "How to Draw" book. Can't get any more basic than that!


Although, I have to say, I had no idea how many different types of pencils there are. Or how expensive they can be! As a kid, whenever our teachers' list of supplies was mailed out each summer, it always included "No. 2 pencils". I always found that odd, because a pencil is a pencil, right? What other kinds were there?

Well, just from a quick glance at Hobby Lobby, I saw there are LOTS of different kinds of pencils! There was one small set for $35, and there was no way that I was willing to spend that kind of money. I ended up getting a cheaper set (I think it was $11) and I used a 40% off coupon, so it wasn't too bad.


Jerry was with me, and he used a 40% off coupon on the book, too! (Here are the Amazon links to the book and pencils I bought--but they aren't anything special! Drawing Cats & Kittens book and  Kimberly pencils.)

When I first got out the supplies to start this new hobby, I was a little overwhelmed. Looking at the steps in the book, I thought, "There is no WAY I'm going to be able to do that!" The blending and shading and making everything look so REAL was unbelievable. I just hoped that my cat drawing would pass for a cat, hahaha.

I think the hardest part about drawing this cat was trying to get the correct proportions. The books suggests using a graph or tracing paper, but I didn't have those things and I just decided to eyeball it. So I looked at the sketches in the book and tried to measure things by "Okay, the nose starts at about the same vertical line that the ear ends" and "there is about one nose length between this and that..." etc.

Needless to say, my proportions aren't perfect, but I wasn't exactly expecting perfection from this "new skill" I was trying to learn.

I also learned that I needed to get a much better eraser. I have no idea how you can get an eraser small enough to do whiskers or hair (it would literally have to be the size of a sharpened pencil tip!) so I made do with what I had: I used scissors to cut a small eraser into the finest point I could manage.

I also didn't have a blending tool, because I figured I could just use my fingers. My fingers worked really well, except for when I needed to blend small areas--then I realized why it would be helpful to have a small blending tool as well. But again, I made do.

So, here are the progress photos as I moved along...





And the finished drawing:


Notice that I chose the name "Janice" for the tag? Had to keep with the "Friends" theme! ;)

I have to admit, I'm pretty impressed with myself! I'm not an artist, and have never really even thought it a possibility, but I don't think it looks half-bad. Of course, I nit-pick the little mistakes or things I could have done better, but overall, I think it looks pretty good.

And best of all, I really enjoyed doing it! So, not only am I learning a new skill, I'm picking up a new (cheap!) hobby. One that doesn't take up much space, either. (When I was really into knitting and crocheting, I had a yarn stash that took up way too much space!)

Speaking of knitting and crocheting, two goals on my 40 Goals by 40 Years Old list are "Knit Something" and "Crochet Something". Again, very vague, but I figured it would be good to work on a project.

I actually checked off "crochet something" a few days ago. My friend Emily mentioned that she'd seen that people have made Swiffer covers that are reusable so that they don't have to buy the little sheets that you use for dusting. She thought it was a cool idea. And I thought it would be fun to make one for her.

I looked up a pattern on Ravelry, and chose this one. I used purple and teal, and the whole project was pretty fast--I finished it in a couple of hours. I tried it on my Swiffer, and thankfully, it fit perfectly!


I don't know how well it works at collecting dust, because it would be pretty gross to use it and then gift it to Emily, haha. But I think I'm going to make one for myself as well.

It's feels good to do some crafty things lately! And it definitely helps me to keep my hands away from food ;)


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