Black is the New Red

Black Friday. The day that those traditionally operating at financial loss, “in the red,” turn to profit. One week into my challenge to obliterate my student loan debt. Finding my way to the black.

 

A Short-lived Pre-contemplation

On the Saturday night that I first decided to take on this challenge I thought to myself, “this is perfect timing… I’ll start at the beginning of 2015.” I like clean data, and a fresh year would provide that tidy starting point. As I developed my thoughts around the issue more over the weekend, a sense of urgency began to nag at me. “Ok, perhaps I should start December 1st” – still a decently-clean point of departure at the beginning of a month. I began my week as usual, purchasing meals at lunchtime and even my first (and last) “red cup” of the season at Starbucks. With each meal, I noted the convenience of handing over payment for another’s work in preparing my food. I experienced a moment of rather serious self-doubt. “Can I really have my ish together enough to sustain myself with meals almost exclusively prepared at home?” Maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Writer’s note: puns – especially bad ones – are always intended.

“I Say, Captain, Do You Hear Something?”

Tick-tock, tick-tock. One of my favorite across-species behavior comparisons is that of humans and crocodiles. A crocodile’s life essentially revolves around regulating its temperature. It situates itself in a place with the ideal conditions of light, shade and water, making choices relative to other conditions around it – threats, prey, etc. A crocodile will not move from its resting place until it has unequivocally determined that an oncoming threat outweighs the benefit of remaining in place. Anyone who has consumed a large amount of liquid before bed on a winter night can relate to this decision-making process.

Not only do I notice this in the human world as we navigate decisions based upon risk or threat, but also that there is a significant discrepancy in perception as to the severity that said threats need to achieve before action is necessary. Essentially, everyone is responsible for determining when to slither off their warm rock and relocate to a safer place. Some of us see the hunter in the distance and decide it’s time to mobilize. Some of us wait until the spear has pierced the flesh (also affectionately known as “rock bottom”).

So, how does this apply to my current situation? Although my debt was neither larger than before nor increasing at an accelerated rate, my increased awareness had changed my perception – and the threat had become abundantly clear. By Thursday afternoon, I was all-in. On my way home from work, I strolled those Trader Joes aisles so hard and hit that frozen section for ICE (In Case of Emergency) like my life depended on it.

 

Nothing Tastes Better than Freedom

When I got home, I began preparing and planning my meals for the week. I felt like I had spent a small fortune at Trader Joes, so I developed a system to keep myself accountable to my grocery expenses. My hand-written “Freedom Food Chart” includes dates and amounts of grocery expenses, number of meals prepared from said expenses and the resulting per-meal cost. Early calculations had me cruising at $17.80 per meal. Fast forward two days, I’ve got the average down to $8.90. As I replenish my grocery supplies and prepare meals, I will continue keeping track with the goal of getting meals down to $3 each. This will involve focused waste-avoidance – i.e. I will no longer discard the yolks of my eggs – and some creative meal planning.

Something about this particular method of goal-setting is tapping into my sparkly-star-sticker-chart-loving child. And I love it.

What I haven’t loved so much is the formerly-welcomed conversations of wining, dining, travel and “the best concert ever that will be in town soon.” Normally these conversations with my friends have me energized and wanting to jump in on every proposed plan put on the table. Now that there’s an absolution of non-inclusion for myself, I have to redirect my enthusiasm exclusively to the support of their fun and enjoyment. This isn’t always easy and was mildly painful at first (and that’s probably an understatement). But I’m starting to notice that focusing outside myself has started to shift the way I experience the world around me in other ways. Even in this short amount of time, my focus on the happiness of others rather than my own immediate gratification has led to things like passing up the best parking spots at the market for someone else to enjoy and valuing kind words from a stranger more than I have in a very long time.

These past many years, I’ve asserted without hesitation that living in Los Angeles has hardened my heart. I’m starting to wonder if the city really is to blame…

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