Chosen Ignorance

If you would have told me that I’d be starting a blog* about personal finance last year, I would have probably said something really snarky and possibly mean because a year ago, I was in what most people go through, often—dissatisfaction with my career, lack of direction, and just general feeling of ‘what is this all for?’ Which brings me to the Creed quote, “If I can’t scuba, then what’s this all been about? What have I been working toward?” (all further Office quotes on this blog will not be introduced as Office quotes, because there will be many, and will be used in conversation as I have already introduced my source. Such repetition will be time-consuming). Can you tell I’m an English teacher?

Anyway, last year I don’t think I was a nice person. Maybe I was hiding the fact that I didn’t want to be nice because I was dissatisfied…but the people closest to me could tell something was up. Even my sisters sat me down and said I seemed different: lost weight, focused on stupid things, etc. The truth was, I didn’t know what I wanted in my life. I asked my principal to go part time at my school. I wanted to start an Interior Design program, because I was looking for a career change. Last year was the most rough year of teaching I think I’ve ever had—I was unmotivated, with low pay, overworked, and to top it off, a student brought a gun to school which forced a lockdown and evacuation on our campus. Then, I was re-traumatized a week later by the Parkland, Florida school massacre. I had it with being a teacher—the emotional strength that I needed to do the best parts of it: being fully present in class, and not crying in the bathroom because I was scared. The exhaustion of decision fatigue because I was always running around like a headless chicken, extinguishing little fires both at work and at home. A weekend was not enough time away; winter break was not enough time away; spring break, summer break, not enough time away to feel like a normal person.

I walked into my principal’s office and asked to go part time because she had asked if anyone was interested. I didn’t even think about it before I did it. I just did it right when I walked into school that day. To my surprise, she said yes and we worked out my schedule. I’m so grateful that she was able to tell that it wasn’t just to fill a need in our schedule, but that I was in trouble and I needed it. I realized that I decided to go part-time because I really needed a sabbatical of some sort. Some time to get it all back together. I cared zero about the money, for reasons I can explain later. I needed time. I didn’t realize this, but this was the beginning of how I’d reexamine a lot of structures in my life and our society, most revolving around time and money. But most importantly, time.

I ended up not doing the Interior Design program (mostly because I didn’t want to give up 30 Saturdays…#priorities). By the end of the summer, I had realized that I really used it to its full potential. I took a group of students to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, I went the Dominican Republic for our friends’ wedding, and I climbed for a week in Squamish, CA with my friend and coworker. I painted a lot, and played with my dogs a lot. I got a lot out of my summer, and realized that as a teacher, this is a gift! Who else gets paid to tool around for two months? I know some teachers work (and have to work) during this time, but I usually decide not to work. So, being a teacher in the summer is pretty nice, and I decided that changing a profession is not right for me because of the time I would sacrifice—again, time creeps up. My friend and coworker Matt shared a blog and podcast called Choose FI that he listened to on his commute every day. I am a fellow podcast lover, so I started listening, specifically to one related to teacher retirement accounts from Millionaire Educator.

The podcast outlined all of the options for teachers to invest for their retirement and to optimize their paychecks so they can take advantage and build wealth. Teachers, wealthy? lol. But yes, to an extent, they can have wealth!

I had been paying into a 403b since I moved to Colorado in 2014. I heard that it was good to save money outside of your pension. In general, it is. But a 403b has costs associated with it. What?? My husband asked me what my expense ratio was. I didn’t even know what that meant. I couldn’t even get into my account because I hadn’t set up an online access. For four years, I had no clue.

Let me make it clear that I’ve always been mystified about investing. As a person who hates math, I just avoid it at all costs—literally. Chosen ignorance. When I learned that index funds are pretty dang easy to invest in (I actually did sit down with my coworker who decided to open the 457, and he showed me how he did it), and that I could do it with way lower fees than my 403b, I felt so stupid. Why hadn’t I taken the time to figure this out when I started teaching back in 2012? The only answer I have to this is probably: YOLO. For the better part of my 20s, I had made sure not to have credit card debt, but to not worry about other financial things as long as they ‘seemed’ ok, and to spend money on what I wanted because you do only live once, you know. Why run the numbers when it’s good enough? And why face them when they amount to 600k in debt?

A large part of this is that my husband and I are roughly 600k in debt. My husband is a doctor, and has 250,000 dollars in debt from federal student loans. He is 31. I am 29. I have no student loan debt any more, because I paid it off about 3 years early thanks to loan forgiveness and being able to pay more when we lived in a low-cost area in Ohio. We also have  376,000 left on our mortgage; we now live in the Denver area, a relatively high-cost area. For my entire adult life, I have been in debt due to student loans. I (lovingly) took on my husband’s student loan debt when we married six years ago. Our general tune was to pay what we could, a little more than necessary from time to time, and then just kind of grin and bear it. Through med school and residency, you just have to basically survive and not get into any big trouble. Once residency is over, then forget about it and spend money extra money on other things because we deserve it, right?

I did not (still don’t) have a roadmap for how to deal with staggering student loan debt that is so, so normalized in our society. No one wants to talk about it! Our doctor friends just kind of shrug and accept it, as they have some plan to pay it off once they’re in their forties. Forties! No freaking way. I will not pay Uncle Sam and his crusty purveyors over tens of thousands of dollars in interest just because my husband didn’t have the cash to pay for med school. Neither of our parents went to college. We are in the majority here; who has 250,000 sitting around to pay for med school? We cannot be alone. More people need to talk about this; why would we sit around, knowing full well there are dollars that could be making the difference of YEARs of paying back these loans? Not to mention, YEARs of your life devoted to this payback, when your money can go to investing for the future. You can choose ignorance, or you can choose knowledge.

Being an educator, I’m a big fan of reading. I’m assuming you are, too, or else you wouldn’t be here. I had to get my hands on whatever I could to start wrapping my ignorant little head around what other people do. Books, articles, and lots of spreadsheets (who doesn’t like a good spreadsheet?) There are so many worthy things to read about personal finance journeys.  The first book I read was Work Optional by Tanja Hester. Man, if there’s anyone I can hand it to who can succinctly and passionately explain her path to financial independence, it is Tanja! Her book is about full early retirement. I read it because I heard her interview on Choose FI. She is inspirational and honest. While I got a little bit about early retirement from it (ain’t gonna be retiring soon, sooo) I did get the heart of it—what do you value, and how can you maximize your time on earth? And then, how does your money decision making help you focus on this?

Wow. Using money as a tool to maximize your time on earth? Instead of, I don’t know, a tool to exacerbate your ignorant fumbling along (that’s me)?

Tanja’s book was the tipping point for me. I have spent the last few months digging in to the world of personal finance, getting my eyes and ears on anything I can. That walk into my principal’s office has led me to the point; I needed the time to just breathe and have the energy to read something that wasn’t a student essay. So what’s next?

Here I am, fumbling along, writing on this blog to make sense of it all. To ask questions, to share resources, and to sometimes make fun of myself. And to be less ignorant, particularly in relation to my finances. More on this next time. Thank you for reading, WordPress is telling me this is a 7 minute read, which is long for a blog I think, so it’s time to end this little intro to this little corner of the Internet with a capital I.


*Go here to read a quick explanation of the blog title, Ignorant Finance.