Downsizing and Simplifying Your Life
I was married for almost 30 years. During that time I raised four children and ran a family paving business with my husband, as well as my own educational company and family day care. We worked and worked and strived to create a “good” life for our family and for our own retirement. I got my degree when I was 40 years old. We were a hard-working couple. I will be honest and say that even as we toiled our lives away I continued to crave the simple life we had back in the days when we couldn’t afford to buy much of anything, when we were happy to just take a walk and go out for an ice cream together. As the years passed I hated the trap we’d found ourselves in of living just to make more money, and I tirelessly strategized our finances on a mission of getting us to a point where hopefully we could retire (meaning choose to work rather than out of necessity) by our early 50’s. I saved money and as our years together turned into decades, we bought more and more rental properties, all with the intention of paying down the mortgages over time and then having the rent as income for our retirement. We also grew our small paving company, which meant constantly reinvesting into it by replacing aging equipment as well as by adding newer and bigger equipment. We rarely took vacations.
Well, the marriage ended six years ago, taking with it the hopes, dreams, goals and lifestyle I had worked 30 years to create. Then of course the economy tanked, as we all know. The divorce divided our assets. From the get-go of my divorce, I struggled to keep my properties floating. This was an impossible situation for me without the income from my ex-husband’s business. I’d also waived alimony in the divorce because I didn’t want to be deal with my ex-husband anymore; I just wanted to be free and I naively thought I could somehow juggle my finances to accommodate my new responsibilities. After the divorce I started borrowing on my credit cards to pay my bills hoping it would be a temporary fix while I desperately looked for a job. I also thought I’d be able to ride out the downturn in the economy. I was overly confident that I would find a job with income sufficient enough to support the bills I suddenly found myself responsible for. Although I was buried in debt from the minute I signed my divorce agreement, I had faith that I could turn things around for myself. I held on for two years. The economy tanked and then my youngest son died in a car accident. I did not have the strength to continue to push myself in the illusion that everything was going to be ok financially. I wanted to refinance or apply for a loan modification but I didn’t qualify for either because I was still trying to find a job.
I probably could have kept things going for another couple of years, but I knew in my heart and mind it was futile. It was inevitable that at some point I was going to have to let go. I decided that in order to survive I needed to start my life over. Don’t think for a minute that this decision didn’t crush me mentally. It took me four long years to even get to the point where I could accept “throwing in the towel” and moving on. Somewhere though in the back of my mind, I still had that nagging goal in my head, the one which I’d been working towards for 20 years. I still wanted to be free from the burden of debt by the age of 52. I decided I would stay that course and although it was painful to let go, I would still create a debt free life for myself, with or without my husband and with or without all the investments we had for retirement. Of course, the only way to do that was to cut expenses.
First however, I decided not to declare bankruptcy. I wasn’t ready. So, then I also had to accept the fact that my credit was about to go in the toilet. No way around it, I accepted it, dug in my heels and settled my credit card debt, which exceeded $85,000. They took about .15 cents on the dollar. I borrowed the money to do this off my last credit card, which I still make minimum monthly payments on. Then I canceled my life insurance policies. Then I cashed in my savings bonds. Then I cut cable. Then I canceled my land line phone. Then I reduced my cell phone service. Then I sold all my jewelry and anything else I could. Everything had sentimental value to me and I cried and cried. Then I decided to allow the banks to foreclose on my rental properties and my house on the water. I reasoned like this: the banks gave me loans and took a chance on my being able to pay back the loans. If I couldn’t, the contract stipulated that they would take my properties. The debt is secured through the property. They can have the property. They are getting my properties in exchange for me not being able to pay the loan back. As is true for property owners also, the banks have no guarantee that the properties will retain their value either, so it’s a chance for all involved. Giving the properties back to the banks was not an easy decision though and I cried and cried over these also, not only because they represented a life I’d built but also because they were supposed to be my retirement and now the future looked grim and desolate. But, it didn’t make any sense to hold on to them anymore because their market value was about half of what it was before my divorce and the mortgages were more than their market value. Yet, here I was taking care of tenants and properties by myself without any possibility of reaping an income from them for 20 years. No thank you! Due to legal terms in my divorce agreement, foreclosure was a better choice for me than short sale.
I moved into a 750 sq. ft. house I owned in a different town (huge change from the 4,000 sq. ft. house on the ocean I’d been calling home for five years). I recently also sold my car because I didn’t have the money to put a new transmission in it. I now drive a truck that belongs to my oldest son. For work, I paint and renovate houses and have some students that I tutor. I earn about $1,200 per month on a good month, often much less. It’s ironic to think that I live on $1,200 per month now when just two years ago I needed $12,000 per month to cover my bills (mostly all of it from property taxes and mortgages). I cut my expenses 90%! I still fill out applications for teaching positions but haven’t had a call back. I also worked in a department store over the Christmas holiday.
Everything that I’d worked for all my life is gone (of course I am grateful I still have a roof over my head): the rental properties and their potential income and the savings (equity) which were going to be my retirement, all the jewelry and trinkets that had any value, savings, my marriage, as well as the job I had for 25 years within our business. I never really put into social security all those years because I worked in our family business and rarely took a paycheck. Surreal to think I was a millionaire two years ago. Now I live week to week and hope for the best.
After my son died in 2008, I started writing songs. I’ve written and produced two cds over the past four years. However, finances really do dictate this creative outlet and it’s been over a year since I recorded a new song. Luckily, I’ve been able to save enough money from painting this summer to be able to record at least one new song later this month.
Although it’s been an incredibly heartbreaking journey of letting go I must say that this new life of being free from debt is the happiest I’ve ever been. My kids are also grown and off on their own and the turmoil of the divorce and of letting things go is behind me. I also do not have the financial stress anymore of making money only to have to figure out what to do with it or of having bills that I’m not quite sure of how I will pay. I buy only what I need & only if I have the money. I have my health and I sing and record new songs when I can. I’m still young enough to enjoy my life, yet wise enough to appreciate the simplicity of it. I’m fully aware that nothing is worth the stress of grinding my life away in that cycle ever again. I realize it’s just an illusion of grandeur and security, all of which can come to a screeching halt in an instant. I know it seems strange to have to work towards having a simpler life but that’s what it takes. I hope you find your peaceful place, too.
I created a new Facebook page called, BackTuBasics
It’s a forum for support and discussion about everything having to do with downsizing and simplifying, for those who have gone through it already and for those who need support or some guidance from those who have.
Sharen Wendy Robertson owns the copyright to all posts on this Blog.