We got knocked off course

If you’re following my blog, you know that Rachel and I are working hard towards getting out of debt. As part of our adventure into Middle Age, we want to be more financially independent. For almost 5 months (!), we’ve been working our monthly goals, denying distractions, and staying focused. There have been some adventure-bumps along the way, but we’ve been rocking it. Huge chunks of money have gone towards school debt (our current focus), and one school loan should be paid off by July 1st! In the preceding months we’ve closed furniture loans, credit cards, and other smaller debts. 

I was feeling so good about how well we were doing that I allowed myself a little dreaming (and man can I dream). I spent some time researching chartered catamarans (yup). One of my dreams is to rent a chartered 40′ cat in the Bahamas for a few days; the captain and mate doing all the sailing and cooking, Rachel and I doing all the sunning and relaxing.

One of the companies I found shows the boat anchored lazily off a pristine, white-sand cay. I could practically see the captain and chef waiving Rachel and me to row back in the dingy because the fresh swordfish (caught somehow by me) and pineapple (picked somehow by me) dinner is ready. Of course, they’d hand me a fine martini (made by them) from the best Bahamian gin (if there is such a thing). The captain would be so impressed with our ability to pay for the whole trip up-front that he’d offer huge discounts for next year. After dinner, there would be an evening snorkel over the secret pirate ship that sank with all that gold (see? Can I dream or what?)  

Dreams, huh? The stuff we build our lives on.   

Like being on a sailboat at sea, the day can go from peaceful to panic with little warning if a squall comes up. When the sea state changes for the worse, everything is called in to question. Am I on the right tack? Do I have too much sheet? Are the pumps working? Is everything tied down? How bad is it going to get? Was this trip even a good idea?

For Rachel and me, April was like that – financially. Our voyage started out as peaceful and calm; we were on track, our goals were good – and then we hit the squall. We thought we were prepared and had accounted for everything, but there were things we overlooked. I wish I could write that we had planned perfectly and for every contingency, but that wouldn’t be honest, or real.

The vehicle insurance came due. The Baby House in Mesa needed sudden work to prevent more costly damage. The Big House needed spring upkeep. We received three more unexpected bills. We were three weeks into the month and trying to navigate $1,300 in extra expenses and still stay on course. 

I knew it wasn’t going to be fatal, or even close, but we were getting knocked around pretty good while trying to make the next paycheck, stay afloat, and stay on track with our goals. I thought there might be some minor damage, but so far we weren’t shooting up flares; a plus one for us. 

We easily had the funds in savings to cover the bills, but we’ve done this “thing” to ourselves: we really, really dislike taking money out of savings once it’s there. Weird, I know. Once it’s in there, it’s kind of sacred. 

But I knew we had to do something.

First, we increased our financial meetings. We brought the situation front and center and didn’t do the “It’ll all work out somehow” thing. We knew we needed to talk more and keep the response as dynamic as the events. We checked the plans every few days and adjusted course as needed.

Second, we changed some specific plans. It’s spring, and with that comes the cost of grass seed, fertilizer, bee spray (war!) , pool salt, filter sand, weed spray (also war!), flower plants, vegetable plants; you get the idea. Keeping a house beautiful can be a spendy venture and we had built that into our budget.

We staggered the process and scrutinized the materials. I bought less bee spray (but it’s still war!), held off on the pool salt (still too cold to swim), picked out the dandelions by hand (also still war!), reused last year’s filter sand, and looked into seeds instead of plants. Little deviations add up, or in this case, don’t add up.

Third, we slowed down a bit temporarily by adding two weeks to one goal. We gave ourselves the option of either pulling from savings or sliding one of April’s goals out until May 15th. We think it will be met before that, but it allowed us to not pull from savings, and, for us, we chose the lesser of evils. Adding a little extra time allowed us to smooth the ride a bit and still meet the goal.

We made a course correction. We knew we were off track but we also knew it wasn’t a lot. We created a May goal to be back on original course by the end. We’ll still get to the same place at the same time, but the May goals will account for the storm we had in April.    

Finally, we congratulated ourselves. By being stubborn, smart, strict, and creative, we absorbed $1,300 of extra bills, took no funds from savings, met April’s goals (except the one that we slid out for two weeks), and already have a plan to end May back on the original track (and when I get my full load of bee spray: Flight of the Valkyrie on level 10. Uh huh, smells like….you know…). It’s good to celebrate the little wins.  

It hasn’t been easy or fun this month, but setbacks and storms are going to happen. It feels good to know we can weather a storm and regain true course. We might have been a bit too aggressive in our plans, and we’re talking about that. We had to remember that we created our goals, we charted our course, we want to be different, and we chose to journey out. We’re doing this for us.

We had to remind ourselves that despite the financial pummeling, we are doing it. Everybody has bumpy financial months, but at least ours are in relation to meeting some pretty cool goals. We are making progress, even if we got a little beat up this month. Getting most of the way there is better than getting none of the way there. 

So we’re choosing to look forward and focus on the good. Look how far we’ve come in just (almost) 5 months! We’ve learned so much already. Here’s another plus one for us: our debt free date of September 30th, 2020 still holds.

April was a bumpy ride, but I’m still plotting a course towards a chartered catamaran and fresh swordfish.  

What’s our Debt-Free Why?

“Knowing your why” is all the rage. It’s become a common theme in the corporate world. The idea is that, sooner or later, doing something just because you have to do it gets really old. If there is a “why” behind what you do, it’s easier to maintain motivation and energy because you see beyond the task; you know the real reason you do what you do. The work becomes personal and means something to you

Rachel and I have a “Why” for becoming debt free. Sure, it will be amazingly cool not having debt, but in order for us to navigate the challenges and stay on course, we needed to know our why. It wasn’t something we just decided to do. We talked alot. We weren’t sure at first that we wanted to do it. We both had different ideas of what the process might look like.

I think most people would agree that debt starts easily and naturally. Modern life and debt are joined at the hip. We’re encouraged to take on debt in our early 20’s so that we can “earn” a good credit rating. College, cars, wedding, kids, and a mortgage really pile it on. We find ourselves in a sea of monthly minimums. Payments become innocuous and just part of “adulting,” like Mondays and traffic. 

Rachel and I were no different. We had college debt, card debt, car debt, furniture debt; the usual successful checklist of American life, and with it, the debt. As we started reading more blogs, listening to more podcasts, and assessing our own life, we started talking more and more about the idea of getting out of debt. I guess there might be some truth to the axiom: you become what you take in. 

A short time ago we had the chance to purchase a small “snow-bird” vacation home (aka: The Baby House) in an over-55 resort in Mesa, Arizona. Most of the people there don’t work; and if they do, it’s because they truly enjoy it. They come from all over the northern U.S. and Canada to Mesa to escape the winter. Although we were new there and younger than most, we soaked it in and listened, learned, and watched. These were some happy, dancing, energetic, fun-loving people. They were smart with their lives, with their choices, and with their finances, and had earned the right to be dancing in the sun while most of the nation froze.

The place made an impact on us. A big impact. It’s still making an impact. We can’t stop talking and thinking about it. Couples there have done something right, together. As we watched, talked, and listened, Rachel and I started to imagine where we could be, what we could do, if we had no debt. 

Then something happened that’s hard to explain. It just sort of clicked. We became hungry to be clear from the life-drag of debt. Life was great, but we were not getting where we wanted to be. 

It was January of 2019, and we had our Why.

Being debt free can be defined in many ways. It’s not about being retired, or not working, or doing nothing all day, at least not for us. That’s just not who we are. For us it means having no debt except our home mortgage (still an investment that should appreciate). It means being smart about what we really want, and then living purposefully to reduce debt every month. It means setting a goal date (Sept. 2020) and creating a plan to pay off all debt by then.

We are making ourselves students. It’s proving to be quite the challenge. There’s lots we still don’t know, but we’re learning every day. Rachel listens to financial podcasts during her commutes. I read several blogs that are focused on the idea of being money smart and becoming debt free. We know the goal is there, the dream is there, the reward is there, but it’s going to take hard work to dig it out an bring it to light.  

To be honest, though, it’s a bit of a misnomer. You don’t just become debt free. It’s proving to be hard work. We’re planning, and talking. We’re downsizing financially and making sure our fiances are behaving. And it’s important that we’re honest enough to say that we don’t always agree on a specific path, but we do talk it through until a solution is reached. 

It takes (big one here, read requires), both people to be on the same page financially. One saver and one spender is going to get someone pushed down the stairs. It’s important that both people create the goal, create the monthly plans, and then help each other stay on track. Honesty is crucial, and so is consistent and open communication.

We make lists, have weekly meetings, set our monthly goals, revisit our debt-free date, and we added a debt-free countdown app to our phones. We talk about every purchase before we make it. It’s not easy to always remember that (crap! Did I not tell you?). Did I say it’s not always easy? I’m from Maine; it’s wicked not easy and wicked not fun, but it is going to be worth it.

It took us a bit to get it all going in the right direction, and for us that was the hardest part. Momentum is a formidable enemy but a powerful friend. At first, there were things that we forgot. We figured out our income (We’re rich!) and our debt (We’re poor!). We forgot a furniture bill until it came in (seriously?), and had to regroup and start again. But we kept going. Little by little, like a learning to water ski, we’re getting up on a plane. Once we can stop face-planting, we think it’s going to open a whole new world.  

We use Google Keep for our goals. We create and check them off each month. It’s important for me to keep monthly goals so I can celebrate (martini!) when we check one off. and then celebrate (two martinis!) when we complete a successful month. Celebrations and little victory parties along the way are important. Like trophies on the shelf, they show progress and the success of hard work. They remind us of our Why. 

We had to learn that Hard and Right can be friends. We sold the camper. We sold the boat. They went to nice families but those were quiet nights. We canceled the car wash and Dish and created weekly meal plans to reduce groceries. Rachel sold some jewelry. We put all the money towards debt. 

The 12 year old push lawn mower vibrates like a gym butt exerciser, but it still cuts the grass. I changed to a barber (no girl washing my hair. Talk about sacrifice). Rachel is looking at coloring her hair at home. I hid the good gin (kidding. Kind of). Nothing goes on the card. Monthly bills for essentials (food, utilities, clothing, entertainment) are all debit transactions. All future purchases are saved for and paid for with cash, which means a healthy savings program. There are no loans and nothing to be “paid off.” 

We also learned that there were some things we were not going to cancel, because of the value to us. We kept our Friday night We-Didn’t-Kill-Anyone-This-Week celebration dates. We try to split a meal and go to less expensive places, but we’re still out. Adjustments like appetizers, happy hour, and learning (me) not to gag over well drinks is helping. We are still planning some shorter summer trips, all paid in cash beforehand.  

We know that some would disagree with spending any amount of discretionary cash along the way, but this is how we’ve chosen to reach our goals and keep our relationship healthy. It’s amazing how much more we appreciate the little things now, like one of Rachel’s lemon-jalapeno gin martinis or fresh grapefruit from our tree. They’re an extravagance.

It really is an adventure for us and we talk often about our challenges and progress. Much more awaits. We really want to be out of debt. Looking forward, we want to invest. We want to give more.

It’s amazing how this is keeping us future-focused and optimistic about where we’re going. Instead of being down and feeling deprived, there’s an energy and excitement in the air. We’re using the power of now to create a future we can hardly wait for.

September 30th, 2020 will be here before we know it. We’re keeping focused on our Why. We’re so excited!


So What’s with the Blog?

A friend recently asked me why I started a blog. It made me stop and think about it. I’ve been writing and blogging for years, just never quite so publicly. 

There’s lots of speculation today about why people do things, especially in social media, and rightly so. Sometimes the reader is expecting the other shoe to drop (or maybe that’s just me). I don’t blame them. Much of what takes place on social media is disguised sales; the bait and switch.

Maybe I’m overly cynical. I dislike (strongly) being led into a sales situation unexpectedly by clever questions. It feels like answering the door to solicitors. Now that you’re reading, you should buy my… (No thanks, and now I’m done reading). Many of the blogs I read have alerts about external monetized links – both pro and con. I think that’s cool: make the intent clear right from the start. 

So I thought I’d make my intent clear, right from the start:

I enjoy writing. I can sit and blog for hours. It’s my way of being creative. Last Saturday morning I started at 7:30am and it was 11:10am before I noticed. I’m not sure how that happens. I’ve learned not to even open my blog during the workday. What I think might be a quick check turns into an hour. 

This is not an income and most likely never will be. I’ve read a few blogs where the authors claim that it makes them six figures (healthy skepticism abounds). I think there are a few that do ok and the authors make it a post-retirement side hustle, and good for them. They write well and have found a topic that readers enjoy; me included. I guess if Elon Musk offered me a bag of money because he finds my writing indispensable, I might give it some thought (I’m also reasonably confident that’s not going to happen). No other shoe is dropping here.  

Writing relaxes me. I have a small table in my home office that looks out over the front lawn, a big maple tree, and a very quiet street. Kids on bikes or skates go up and down. There are lots of birds. Writing gives me the opportunity to jot down my thoughts while staring out the window without looking like a creepy guy staring out the window. I play Max Richter music and live in my abstract world. When I’m done it feels like I’ve had a fine meal.

It feels a bit like leaving a legacy. I imagine that someday my kids might read what I write. Maybe they are now; I haven’t asked. Maybe some of my eulogy will be pulled from here; if so, you’re welcome. Blogging is a little like keeping a diary, only I get really jazzed at the thought of hundreds of people reading it. I get to open up my inside life a little bit. Like the pictures on Instagram or Facebook, blog posts remind me it’s an awesome life.

Blogging helps me assess my life. I like to reflect on who I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going, and what life will look like in 10 years; sort of being a reflective life practitioner: (So what is it you do? Me? Oh, I’m a Reflective Life Practitioner. Ohhhh…). At almost 58, I’ve entered a new phase of life (act 3 of 4?). I’ve done and thought about things in the preceding year I just never thought I’d do or think about. Life is changing significantly and I want to be ready. I want to do it right, and well, and have fun, and do good things. The process of organizing my thoughts into becoming words helps me better consider my time spent in this realm, at this age, and if I’m doing it the best way I can. If I’m not, I’d like to fix that.

It feels like a conversation. I often wonder if I’d be surprised by who reads my writing, which makes it all the more cool. If you’re reading, thank you, and feel free to comment. Different perspectives help me better understand who I am. I seek and value insight.

Something I write might help someone else. I think Rachel and I are doing some pretty cool things as we enter into a new phase of life. Call it act 3 of 4 maybe. While there may not be any belief-shattering revelations here, perhaps there might be a phrase or line that resonates with you the reader. Maybe you’ll think about some aspect of what we’re doing, and weave in to the fabric of your own life. I tend to do that with the blogs and podcasts that I take in. Usually the phrase or line is not life-changing in itself, but I use their words and ideas to extrapolate new adventures in my own life. It happens often in our life: “So I found this blog today that was pretty cool. The writer said….”

So if you’re reading (thank you) and are worried where this is going, I’ll be honest and say I have no idea. Please follow. And please be relaxed and know there won’t be a sales pitch or a “you should think / act / believe” like I do (Elon, if you’re reading, HMU).  

Welcome to Middle Age Mark

Our Journey Begins, and boy are we excited!

It’s always nice to welcome someone when you first see them, especially when they come to your place; so, Welcome! Come in! I’m glad you’re here! Kick off the shoes, set down the load, rest the dogs.


I’m Mark, and that little hot thing I’ve got my arm around is my wife Rachel. Our full time home, or “The Big House,” is in the high-desert northwest. We’re on one-heck-of-a-cool journey, and I thought I’d enjoy writing about it as we go. 

Blogging is new for me, like so many other things these days. I’m at a stage in life where documenting our adventures sounded like fun. The aforementioned adventure-journey is one of self-discovery, self-improvement, the pursuit of financial independence, and just plain figuring out who we want to be and what we want to do for the 3rd act of life.

Teaching an online class

A bit about me: I served 20+ years in the U.S. Coast Guard, and then had several shorter stints like hospice, insurance, and building cell towers. I now enjoy working in online public school education as a Master Teacher. After 13 years, it’s still a fascinating profession and always earns me the “…huh?” look when I tell people what I do. My “classroom” and meetings are virtual, and I get to work from home.

How cool is that? Yeah, I know. 

I divide my time when not working between maintaining The Big House, reading, mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, riding my cool vintage Shadow, staying fit, enjoying a good martini (gin of course, and yes those last two can go together), drumming, and summers in our better-homes-and-garden back yard. I have a small side project in fitness coaching, too.

Resort De Plummer. We spend much of our summers here

Rachel is in medical management / consulting and she’s really good at what she does. She’s a consistent reliable source of good ideas, wisdom, healthy cooking, and killer one-liners. She gets jazzed by numbers (?) and loves spreadsheets (??), which comes in very handy when we’re strategizing on finances. 

Rachel started a little side project a year ago, making personalized greeting cards in the renovated basement / art studio. We’re getting ready to do a few small trade shows to test the market.

Check out the creative talent!

We spend most every evening talking. Rachel gets home from her commute and I get out of the home office, we make a drink, and depending on the time of year, we either float in the pool or sit in front of the fire, talking about our day, things we read or heard, things we’re learning, hopes, dreams, plans, appointments – you get the idea. It’s our thing and my favorite part of the day (not just because of the martini, but I can’t say it’s not an aspect).

In January of 2019 we joined the ranks of the Financial Independence (FI) (FIRE) movement. That term can wear many hats depending on who you talk to, but for us it means being debt free with the exception of the mortgage and being able to leverage that freedom. Debt sucks and it’s a drag on life, literally. 

We recently purchased a small vacation home in Mesa, Arizona (read: 640 sq. foot “Baby House” with a nice porch and our very own grapefruit tree). It’s in a cool resort where the people are even more cool and there’s tons of things to do. We’re in the beginning stages of downsizing. We sold the boat, the camper, and the roll-top desk. It was all part of our move towards being debt free, which we are aggressively pursuing.

The Baby House!

Once we achieve zero debt, which is scheduled for September 30, 2020, our plan is to invest more heavily and be able to make some really cool decisions about the next phase of our adventure. (And by cool decisions, I mean a week for two on a chartered catamaran sans shoes, shirt, and worries. Or maybe a big fifth wheel, pulled by a big Ford 350 diesel, with a giant air horn, exploring the country. All prepaid in cash of course).

Retire is not a word that Rachel or I like. We both picture a crumb-filled recliner that tilts to one side and daytime TV. We like better the idea of being free to choose cool new ways to live life. We get jazzed about the thought of doing what we want to do, when and where we want to do it (like chartering a catamaran). It might even mean still working, doing something we’re passionate about. When it comes down to it, we’re happiest feeling useful and engaged.    

Aside from financial achievements and cool dreams, my perspectives on things are changing as I enter mid life. At 57, some might say old age (do we even use that term any more, or did I just illustrate my old-age?), but people are living longer and staying healthier (both of which I plan to do), so I’m choosing to view my 50’s, 60′ and 70’s as middle age. Who’s with me?! 57 is the new 33!

Age brings with it experience, and experience hopefully brings reflection and learning. Learning allows for better choices and more cool new adventures without the “oops,” or as least with fewer and less painful “oops’s.” 

Age also helps sift life down to the essential and important things, and it’s easier to focus on direction. It allows for a better sense of who I am and who I want to continue to be. 

As Rachel said recently during one of our talks, “I like who I am. It’s working pretty well for me right now. I like where it’s taking me.” I could not agree more. 

So, that’s kind of where we are and where we’re going. Thanks for reading; your time is valuable. Writing makes me happy, and maybe I can use this venue to help share some cool ideas and discoveries as we wend our way along this journey. I welcome you in. Lose the shoes. Stay as long as you’d like.