Reader Case Study: Debtors Anonymous Helped This Wildlife Biologist Recover From Compulsive Spending

Veronica is a wildlife biologist for the state of North Carolina, where she lives on a farm with her two dogs, Porter and Stout. Veronica’s mother recently passed away and she is set to receive an inheritance from her mother’s estate. Veronica would like our help discerning how she should manage this inheritance, particularly in light of the fact that she’s participating in the twelve-step Debtors Anonymous program as well as receiving treatment for PTSD.

What’s a Reader Case Study?

Case Studies address financial and life dilemmas that readers of Frugalwoods send to me requesting advice. Then, we (that’d be me and YOU, dear reader) read through their situation and provide advice, encouragement, insight, and feedback in the comments section. For an example, check out last month’s case study. Case Studies are updated by participants (at the end of the post) several months after the Case is featured. Visit this page for links to all updated Case Studies.

I probably don’t need to say the following because you folks are the kindest, most polite commenters on the internet, but, please note that Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone where we endeavor to help one another, not to condemn.

And a disclaimer that I am not a trained financial professional and I encourage people not to make serious financial decisions based solely on what one person on the internet advises. I encourage everyone to do their own research to determine the best course of action for their finances. I am not a financial advisor and I am not your financial advisor.

With that I’ll let Veronica, this month’s Case Study subject, take it from here!

Veronica’s Story

Veronica and her pups at Pilot Mountain State Park

Hi, Frugalwoods! I’m Veronica, I’ll be 40 in April, and I live with my two awesome mountain cur dogs, Porter and Stout, in a rural part of central North Carolina. I moved to this region from an even more remote area of the state for a job promotion during the second half of 2018.

I work for the state wildlife agency in my “dream job” as a wildlife biologist. It’s deeply purposeful work and I’m grateful to be able to provide service in this way, even if the dream ended up not aligning with the reality of the job–I’m completely okay with that!

I’m an explorer at heart and I’ve been very fortunate to live a fairly non-traditional life. As a result, I’ve experienced many incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. However, the downside is that I’ve had to relocate frequently and haven’t made much money over the years. This is a VERY common experience in my field, which is highly competitive. I am happy to report that with my current position, I finally have a stable salary with benefits!

Veronica’s Hobbies and Volunteer Work

Outside of work, I enjoy travel and I hope to start taking one international trip annually in addition to the smaller domestic trips I currently make. I also deeply enjoy practicing photography, making jewelry, and doing whatever sort of art or craft that strikes my fancy. I love hiking, especially climbing mountains, and dearly hope to move to the mountain region of this state in the next few years, so that I can go hiking on a daily basis.

I LOVE to learn and take classes when I can. I also enjoy teaching and I hope I can teach some art classes and workshops in the future. A fun thing I get to do with my job is partner with our state natural sciences museum to co-lead wildlife education tours – it’s so much fun and I get to do some non-traditional education and outreach as well as enjoy photography.

I’m fairly introverted, but I try to meet up with friends once in a while, though not as often as I’d like. With all the moving around over the past dozen years (over a dozen moves!), I’ve gotten used to doing everything solo or with my dogs in tow. This is a new stage in my life where I’m not moving so much, and it’s been really wonderful to think about settling down and creating longer-term plans. I recently completed an End of Life Doula training and I hope to do volunteer work in the next couple of years in that capacity. My awareness is that the purpose for my life is to bring healing to this world. I plan to write a memoir and am working on a large legacy art project about my mom and our Alzheimer’s journey. I am currently volunteering as an Alzheimer’s advocate for our state’s legislative representatives.

Veronica’s Mother

Veronica and her mother

I’m also at a cross-roads of sorts right now. I recently lost my dear mama after a nine-year journey through early-onset Alzheimer’s. It was a profound journey to go on with her, as her legal guardian and daughter, and I shared caretaking duties with my sister.

It brought the three of us much closer as a little family and I will forever be grateful for that. It was an honor to devote the majority of my 30’s to my mom and her wellbeing and the experience was worth all the sacrifices that came with it.

The story doesn’t end there, however, as I am now administering her estate with my sister. My mom was the essence of living frugally for your values (she would have really enjoyed this blog) and as a result, despite the astronomically high costs of caretaking services, I will inherit a fairly substantial portfolio of funds (more on that below).

I am extremely nervous about what to do with this inheritance. Since I have A LOT of catching up to do in terms of emergency and retirement savings, I want to utilize these funds wisely and to my long-term advantage. But, I would also like to use some to increase my quality of life in the here and now (more on that in a moment).

Veronica’s PTSD and Treatment

A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

I also need to provide some background on myself that’s probably not the usual Reader Case Study information, but that’s entirely pertinent to my case. I was recently diagnosed with complex PTSD and am receiving treatment. Over the last several decades, my PTSD symptoms included addictive and compulsive behavior (a new awareness for me), which manifested as compulsive spending. I went through a series of debt and deprivation cycles until it became so unmanageable that I had to reach out for help. Three years ago, I started a 12-step program called Debtors Anonymous and it has literally saved my life.

Debtors Anonymous helped me turn my life around and enabled me to develop trust, faith, and a willingness to face my problems and take supported actions to solve them. I am eternally grateful to this program for helping me get to where I am today. I plan to continue in Debtors Anonymous during my PTSD treatment since it helped me develop a solid foundation of self-care coping mechanisms. Given this background, you can see why I’m nervous about receiving an inheritance, even though I’m in a good place with my recovery.

One element of participating in Debtors Anonymous is that I cannot have, or utilize, credit cards. I know from my own experience that I cannot handle credit cards responsibly. I have one credit card account open with a zero balance in order to keep my credit score in the good range (it’s currently over 700) but it has no card associated with it and I will never use the account. A great aspect of the program is that I keep very detailed financial records of all my income, debts, savings, and spending. I currently have 2.5 years of data on my financial life!

Veronica’s Income

Another challenge I’m experiencing relates to my salary. Since I work for the state government, there is no mechanism in place for my agency to adjust salaries as needed without going to the state legislature. This has resulted in salaries lagging way behind other states in our region despite being one of the fastest growing states with an even faster growing cost of living. This is an issue my agency has been working on for a few years and it’s unlikely to resolve anytime soon. In the meantime, my salary only enables me to live paycheck to paycheck with very little ability to save.

Veronica at work: collaring a red wolf

While I was my mom’s guardian, I received a small commission that helped me greatly as I couldn’t get a second, part-time job (as being a guardian is like having a second full-time job). Now that my mom has passed on, I am no longer receiving that commission and I am unsure about how to increase my income. I’ve worked long and hard and made many sacrifices to get to where I am in my career and I don’t want to give it up, but I need to earn more. I’m not entirely certain how that’s going to be resolved, but two possibilities are to go federal or into the private sector (e.g. with an energy company).

I need to put in a few more years in my current position before I can make a move and my hope is to coordinate that with a move to the mountains and the purchase of my first home and land. That plan still leaves me wondering what to do in the short term to cover my monthly expenses.

Since I live in a rural area, there aren’t many options for part time work. It isn’t worth driving an hour+ to the nearest city for a low-paying part time job (in terms of time or gas), so I’m not sure what other options are available. Committing to PTSD treatment will be a time commitment as well since there are no practitioners within an hour of where I live. Ideally, I’d be able to find some sort of remote, work from home, part time gig and I’m really open to hearing suggestions on this!

I’m also interested in developing a side business to sell my art, but I view that as a longer-term strategy/plan since I know it takes a lot of work and time to build up a viable business. I would love to exhibit my photography and sell my jewelry on consignment at a gallery somewhere (no idea how to do any of that). I would also love to do public speaking about my art and life… again, that seems like a longer-term plan.

Veronica’s Goal: Moving To The Mountains and Buying a Farm

One of the last pieces of advice my mom gave me before passing was to “follow my bliss, to live in what brings me joy.” It has been a long held dream of mine to own land in the mountains with a large farmhouse that I can lovingly restore (though it would need to be in good enough condition to live in!). Along with learning, living close to nature is a priority . I currently rent an old farmhouse on a farm and I absolutely love it. I would love to own my own land and steward the land for the time that I’m there.

The farmhouse Veronica currently rents

I’m definitely going to stay in North Carolina, and am targeting the mountain region specifically. The only other area I would consider moving to is the mountain region of Virginia, should an appropriate job open up there. There are real limitations to the wildlife profession, job-location-wise, and I have lived in enough regions throughout the country to understand where fits me best.

Federal jobs at my level (GS-11/12) are very limited at present, due to a position back filling moratorium (thanks to the current presidential administration), but that may change with time. I am building a strong network of federal connections across the state, which may prove helpful. Private sector jobs may be more available in the nearer term, but I haven’t dug deeply enough into the market quite yet, though I have a few connections with biologists who work for large energy companies so there’s opportunity to inquire.

Earrings made by Veronica

Once I purchase land, I might lease fields for organic agriculture and woodlots for agroforestry. Not only would those practices meet my land stewardship values, they would also bring in some income. I’m not sure how much potential income agricultural land leases could bring in and I plan to research that extensively this year. Checking out the USDA loan program website recently, my income level would be eligible for a USDA loan.

While I would love to be able to pay a traditional down payment on a land and home, I don’t know how feasible that is considering how much retirement savings I have to catch up on. And there’s the fact that I have approximately $53k in student loans looming over my head. I am currently in the Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), but the history of that program doesn’t lend itself to trustworthiness for the level of risk involved. Since I’m in that program, I’m on an income driven repayment program where the monthly payments don’t even pay off the annual interest, which is then added to the principle at the end of the year.

Essentially, each year that I’m in the Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness Program, my principle will continue to grow. My income level doesn’t allow me to make any additional payments on this loan monthly and I have seven more years in the program before my loans could be forgiven (assuming the program is still around). This seems like a huge risk and one that I’m not sure I want to continue taking. I also have a car loan (on a car I purchased used for a great price but went upside down on a previous vehicle loan for a nightmare truck situation to the tune of $5k – long story I’d rather forget).

The Best Part Of Veronica’s Life

No rat race! Since I’m considered field staff, I have a home office and am able to work remotely from almost anywhere in the state. I have near complete autonomy to structure my daily schedule. This flexibility has been a huge value-add to my work life. I get to travel to some really beautiful places for work, I love living on a farm, and I love living in an old farmhouse. My dogs and I enjoy the nature that surrounds us every single day. Plus, I have space for an art studio (slash guest bedroom) since I live alone.

The Worst Part Of Veronica’s Life

A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

Isolation, hands down. Where I live is pretty different culturally from my personal values, so while I’m friendly with everyone, I don’t have a sense of community or of having any of “my people” in close proximity. The nearest “big” city is over an hour away, which means a lot of driving if I want to take classes or attend social get-togethers. Since I’ve moved so often over the last decade, my friends are scattered across the country.

It’s been an okay tradeoff thus far, especially when I was caring for my mother because I didn’t have any spare time. However, I know that in the future I’ll want to be in a local community that’s more culturally aligned with my values. I’ve found a few potential regions in the mountains of North Carolina, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to make the move in the next five years (if not sooner).

The other downside is my low income – for me this plays into a sense of lack of quality of life at times. I really enjoy and value experiences in life, but oftentimes there comes a financial cost to participate (e.g. gas to drive to the city to take a class, funds to pay for the class) and it’s always a struggle to prioritize what to participate in with my financial limitations. After a decade devoted to abundant work, I would really love to expand on a diversity of fun experiences on a regular basis.

Where Veronica Wants To Be in 10 Years:

  1. Finances:
    • I’d like to be making more than double my current income. I could accomplish this with a move to either a federal position or the private sector.
    • I’d like to have 20% equity (at least) in my future home and land and have additional streams of revenue coming in from investments, an art business, teaching, leasing fields, etc.
  2. Lifestyle:
    • I’d like to be settled into my own farmhouse that I am lovingly restoring and enjoying, stewarding the land I’ve set roots in, gardening, traveling for pleasure, teaching and exhibiting my work, and continuing to work in wildlife conservation.
    • Hopefully I’ll have a partner and maybe a child (although I’m not really planning on it), definitely more dogs, lots of hiking, a deep sense of community, practicing spirituality in everything I do, service work/volunteering, and following what brings me joy on a daily basis.
  3. Career:
    • I want to continue to work with wildlife, but maybe in a different capacity. Perhaps I begin to think about dropping down to part time and increasing my art work?
    • I’m unsure about that last point but I do know that I will want to have switched employers and dramatically increased my income. I am currently building my professional network here in North Carolina to increase the chances of this outcome.

Veronica’s Finances

Income

Item Amount Notes
Veronica’s net monthly income $2,576 Net salary, minus the following deductions: health, disability, life, death and dismemberment, dental, vision, and other insurances, 457b contribution, 6% gross salary pension deduction, FSA contribution, and taxes
Estimated Monthly Annuity Payment (has not started yet) $215 (estimate; not currently receiving) After state and federal tax deductions
Monthly subtotal: $2,791 With estimated annuity payment
Annual total: $33,492 With estimated annuity payment

Expenses

Item Amount Notes
Rent $750
Art Classes, Equipment, and Supplies Fund $362 This line item increases my quality of life and shouldn’t be entirely eliminated, though I realize I need to reign it in a bit
Auto Loan $285 Through SECU; this is the minimum monthly payment
Groceries and going out to eat $225 Monthly average; I very rarely go out to eat for fun, maybe a few times each year, though I’d like to increase that to at least once a month
Student Loan Payment $205 FedLoan
Vitamins and Supplements $190 Includes a very expensive non-traditional supplement that is non-negotiable for me
Pupper care costs $151 Fun things like heartworm meds, tick and flea treatment, annual vet visit, annual teeth cleaning, food and treats
Clothing $148 This was high this year due to needing to purchase several pieces of speciality field clothing and shoes (we are not employer reimbursed, but I try to sign up for pro deals with companies) and needing funeral clothing, including a coat (some of which I purchased used)
Electricity $113 Monthly average
Propane tank $100 Monthly average
Vehicle Fuel $100 Monthly average
Cell Phone $80 Through Verizon (I receive a discount through my employer)
Car insurance $77 Through Progressive
Outstanding debt to self (owe $285 to self, this accounting is mainly for my 12-step program) $55
Toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, etc) $45 Monthly average
Miscellaneous items $38 Things such as new flatware, etc. that don’t lump nicely into other categories
iFit subscription $36 Non-negotiable expense
Travel for pleasure $29 Monthly average for the past year; I would love to increase this amount – I was able to go on one extremely frugal vacation this year
Work Food (eating out while traveling for work) $25 Monthly average
Gardening Supplies $25 Monthly average
Home Goods $25 Monthly average
New cell phone $25 I save this much every month towards a new cell phone
Emergency Pup Care Fund $25 I save this much every month towards an emergency fund for my dogs
Stout Hip Treatment Fund $25 I save this much every month towards a hip treatment my dog Stout will need
Vehicle Maintenance $25 Monthly average
Coffee $20 Monthly average
Haircuts $20 Monthly average
Charitable Donations $19 I hope to increase this someday
Pupper Care Service $17 When I travel for work or pleasure and can’t take the dogs with me, I pay a kid down the road $10 per day to come and take care of my fur babies; average monthly cost for the past year (this reflects that I did not do much work travel this year)
Professional Society Membership Dues $17
Auto Loan Reserve $15 I throw in an additional $15 on my payment every month
Auto Registration Fee $14
Renters Insurance $11 Through Progressive
Gift Fund: Birthdays $10 Monthly average. I would love to increase this someday, but thankfully my family and friends aren’t big on gift giving.
Gift Fund: Christmas $10 Monthly average. I would love to increase this someday, but thankfully my family and friends aren’t big on gift giving.
Amends Fund (for Debtors Anonymous) $8 Making financial amends as necessary for my 12-step program; average monthly amount I save – would like to increase this amount sometime in the future
Bank Fees $6 TD Bank Checking
Dental Supplies $5 Monthly average
Auto Inspection Fee $2
Bank Fees $1 SECU Foundation
Bank Fees $1 SECU Foundation
Monthly subtotal: $3,339
Annual total: $40,068

Debts

Debt Outstanding Balance Interest Rate Notes
Federal Student Loans (I’m in the PSLF program) $52,205 6.88% I’m on an income driven repayment plan. I’m not able to cover all of the annual interest, so I pay the minimum monthly payment. If PSLF pans out, my loan will be forgiven in 7 years (2027).
2011 Toyota Rav4 $8,266 4.75% I pay the minimum $285 per month; 5-year loan with 3 more years on the loan
Debt to self $285 0% I borrowed funds from my savings to pay off a debt and I am paying myself back.
Total: $60,756

Assets

Item Amount Notes Interest/type of securities held Name of bank/brokerage
IRA $8,255 Traditional IRA year to date interest return is 12.93%, 3 years annualized is 6.14% Edward Jones
Savings Account 1 $7,707 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.05% interest TD Bank
Savings Account 4 $7,527 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.75% interest SECU; I don’t use these accounts for regular checking and savings because they don’t have a mechanism set up to transfer between banks, which will be important until I complete administering mom’s estate
Pension $4,504 6% state required pension deduction Holding account until vestment in 2023 whatever the state pension system uses
Savings Account 2 $3,143 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.05% interest TD Bank
Savings Account 3 $1,830 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.05% interest TD Bank
457b Account $1,709 Retirement account, offered by my employer Pre-tax deduction, year to date interest return is 19.31% (I contribute $125 per month, employer does not offer matching) Prudential
Checking Account 2 $1,298 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here plus a small reserve for eventual use in paying off my vehicle loan 0.25% interest SECU; I don’t use these accounts for regular checking and savings because they don’t have a mechanism set up to transfer between banks, which will be important until I complete administering mom’s estate
Checking Account 1 $107 I do not keep excess funds in this account and all funds in this account are spent in full each pay cycle 0% interest TD Bank
Total: $36,080

Future Inheritance (from Veronica’s mother)

Note: all of these totals are estimates as the estate is still being disbursed

Item Amount Notes More notes
House Sale Proceeds $179,880.87 The house is sold and this amount is locked in a trust account until probate clears it. A portion of this will be paid by the trust (along with portions of the other beneficiaries sums) for capital gains taxes. I have an accountant working on what the basis of capital gains will be. Not sure how to invest these funds once they come my way.
Beneficiary IRA Account $77,000 Estimated total amount; I will have to take a required annual disbursement, but I don’t yet know the amount This is with Pershing, but I will likely transfer it to Edward Jones
J&J Stock Shares $15,000 This is an estimated amount. We are going through a share recovery process currently and this will likely take the longest to resolve for the estate With Computershare. Not sure if I have the option to keep my half as shares or if the estate has to divest. If it’s an option to keep shares, I may want to do that given that J&J stock prices have not dropped much with all the legal settlements
Leftover financial holdings $12,500 This amount is TBD and could range from $0 to $25k, so I split the difference for this exercise
Estimated Total: $284,380.87 This is an estimated amount and I will not receive all of it at once. Some will be paid out over a number of years.

Veronica’s Questions For You:

  1. A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

    What should I do to increase my income in the immediate future?

    • I need to increase my income by at least $763 per month in order to break even (this is without including my monthly annuity payment, which I haven’t received yet and don’t know the exact amount; the estimate is $215)
    • What are options for work-from-home part-time gigs? I feel lost on this one!
  2. What is the maximum monthly amount I should pay on my student loan to maximize the income tax benefit?
    • This assumes I would utilize a portion of my inheritance to cover these increased payments.
    • I realize that I need to consult an accountant about this and about the monthly annuity income and potential annual IRA disbursement.
  3. How should I invest the investable portion of my inheritance to generate additional funds to help make a down payment on a home and land in the next few years?
    • Ideally, this would also generate funds for home renovations/restoration. Should I bother with any down payment considering I’d qualify for a USDA loan?
    • What’s a good amount to have allocated as a fund for immediate home fixes after purchase? I estimate based on current market rates that 30 acres with a house could cost $250k-$350k in the areas I’m interested in.
    • I’m currently unpartnered, so I am operating under the assumption that I will also be unpartnered at that time and will be reliant on my income only. My current income would be insufficient to pay that level of mortgage and I would like a large lot of land.
  4. The backyard of the farmhouse Veronica rents

    What portion of my investable inheritance should I put into retirement savings?

    • My employer doesn’t offer any matching funds. Currently I contribute what I can afford each month, which is $125 to my 457b account.
  5. Should I sell my eventual J&J stock shares and reinvest those funds?
    • If so, how should I reinvest?
  6. In my current job, 6% of my gross monthly income is deducted pre-tax for eventual investment into the state pension system.
    • These funds will be vested in 2023, around the time I might be ready to make an employer switch. If I make the switch prior to being vested, I would receive those funds as a lump payment. If I do make the switch prior to being vested, how should I use that money?
  7. How should I deal with paying off my vehicle loan, which is through a credit union and has a low interest rate?
  8. Any advice on how to sell art on consignment or how to do exhibitions? Or how to get into teaching art classes and workshops?

Mrs. Frugalwoods’ Recommendations

Earrings made by Veronica

I want to thank Veronica for sharing her story with us because she touches on a number of challenging topics with honesty and insight. I’m grateful for her perspective on Debtors Anonymous and thrilled that she’s had so much success through that program. Veronica is able to move forward right now because she has acknowledged her challenges and sought help.

Without this self-reflection and willingness to heal, she wouldn’t be able to dream about a different future for herself and her dogs. If you think you might benefit from the Debtors Anonymous program, you can find more information here.

I congratulate Veronica for her strength and am thankful for her story, since I imagine it will resonate with a lot of people. I also want to express my condolences to Veronica on the death of her mother and also the long journey she went on as her mother’s caretaker. Veronica’s mom was lucky to have two devoted daughters and I’m sorry that she’s no longer with them. With that said, let’s dive into her specific questions.

Veronica’s Question #1: What should I do to increase my income?

Now that Veronica is no longer receiving a stipend for serving as her mother’s caretaker, she’s facing a $763 deficit between her income and expenses every month. We’ll tackle this shortfall from both angles, starting with her income. Veronica is spot on that she needs to find a better paying job. She’s a highly qualified specialist and she noted that she’s networking across the state in order to suss out a better job. I encourage her to accelerate her timeline on this.

Since Veronica plans to leave her current job at some point anyway, I encourage her to more aggressively investigate the two options she mentioned: a move to the private sector or the federal government. Her current position does not pay her enough to enable her dream of buying a house and land. Furthermore, I’m not seeing a side hustle that would generate enough income to adequately make up for her low salary. She’s totally right that she could start earning a bit more on the side, but it seems to me this would be missing the bigger picture of her finding a better paying job in her profession.

What about the pension plan vesting?

One of Veronica’s gorgeous photographs

Veronica’s current position has a pension that she won’t vest in until 2023; however, her employer isn’t contributing anything to this pension and Veronica noted that upon her resignation, she’ll receive all the money she’s put in as a lump sum. From that perspective–unless I’m missing something major–there’s no financial incentive or reason for Veronica to stay at this job until she’s vested.

What about the PSLF?

Since Veronica works for state government, she’s enrolled in the Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), and her loans are on track to be forgiven in seven years. If she moves to the private sector, she would no longer be eligible for the program. If she moves to the federal government, she likely would still be eligible.

However, since her current position is so low paying, I don’t see much benefit in remaining solely for the PSLF benefit, especially since her loans are not all that significant (at $52k they’re not nothing, but they’re not astronomical either) and her interest rate (6.88%) is on the higher side for student loans. I think moving to a higher-paying position would end up a net positive over the potential benefit of loan forgiveness in seven years. I say this particularly in light of the bad press PSLF is getting for not forgiving loans that should be eligible for forgiveness. I also think it might make sense for Veronica to instead wipe her loans out with some of her inheritance (more on that in a moment).

All that to say, if it were me, I wouldn’t stay in the job just for the pension vesting and potential PSLF loan forgiveness. And instead of shuffling around side hustles, I suggest Veronica focus her efforts on finding a higher-paying position in her field.

The Rest Of Veronica’s Questions: The Inheritance and Buying a Home

Let’s discuss the inheritance first. I am not a lawyer, a financial professional or an accountant, so it’s good Veronica is working with lawyers and accountants on the execution of her mother’s estate. What I can discuss are ideas of what Veronica might do with the money after it lands in her bank account.

Inherited asset #1: cash from the sale of her mother’s home.

In memory of Veronica’s mother

One note for Veronica to discuss with her accountant: upon death, the basis for capital gains taxes should be reset, which means Veronica would only owe taxes on any appreciation the house experienced between the time her mother passed and the house sold.

She shouldn’t (as far as I understand it) owe capital gains taxes on the full appreciation of the house (appreciation that occurred from the time her mother purchased it to now). This is actually a good loophole for passing assets along to heirs!

Whatever the capital gains taxes shake out to be, Veronica stands to inherit a large lump sum of cash from the sale of the house. Given Veronica’s goal-oriented nature, her treatment through Debtor’ Anonymous, and the fact that this’ll be a lot of money coming in all at once, I suggest she consider doing the following with this cash:

  1. Pay off her student loans in full. We can quibble about the mathematical efficacy of doing this versus waiting to see if PSLF comes through, or, Veronica could just get this monkey off her back. I don’t love the interest rate on her student loans and I think it might give Veronica some peace of mind to be rid of these. (inheritance of $170K – student loan balance of $52,205 = $117,795 remaining)
  2. Pay off her car loan. Just get it out of her hair and out of her life. (remaining inheritance of $117,795 – $8,266 = $109,529)
  3. Replay her debt to self. This would be the remaining inheritance of $109,529 – $285 = $109,244

While this is an estimate–since we don’t know the capital gains tax total–this scenario would most likely leave Veronica with over $100k in cash leftover. I strongly recommend she wipe out these debts and feel confident about starting her 40’s completely and totally DEBT FREE. This would frees her from the mental strife of PSLF and the frustration of carrying a car loan. This is a gift from her mother to wipe the slate clean.

Maintain A Robust Emergency Fund

A great blue heron, as captured by Veronica

After Veronica pays off all of her debt, I encourage her to maintain her robust emergency fund. Given her past proclivities for slipping into debt, her well-funded emergency fund provides her with a much-needed backstop and buffer against any future debt.

  • Veronica spends $3,339/month, which means she should target an emergency fund in the range of $10,017 (three months of spending) to $20,034 (six months worth).
  • Veronica already has $21,613 saved up, so she is golden on her emergency fund!

An emergency fund should be kept in an easily-accessible bank account, such as a high-interest checking or savings account, NOT in investments, retirement funds, or cars/houses/expensive china. An emergency fund is money you can access immediately in an emergency. The general rule of thumb is to have three to six months’ worth of expenses in your emergency fund, meaning three to six months worth of what you spend every month. This is why it’s so important to track your expenses–I use and recommend the free expense tracker from Personal Capital. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.

The Many and Sundry Cash Accounts of Veronica

Aside from her retirement savings, Veronica has a whopping six different checking and savings accounts. I wonder if Veronica might consider consolidating these six accounts into one, or perhaps two, accounts? Unless she has specific reasons to keep her money spread out across all these different accounts, I would find it more manageable to consolidate.

Additionally, I strongly encourage Veronica to move her cash into a high-interest, fee-free savings account. Veronica is unfortunately using the exact type of accounts I don’t recommend: low interest rate accounts that charge a fee. Not only is Veronica missing out on interest, she’s paying for the privilege of using these subpar accounts! Save yourself, Veronica!

If Veronica decided to move her money over to, for example, an American Express Personal Savings account that–as of this writing–earns 1.70% in interest, in one year, her $21,613 will increase to $21,980.42. That means she’d earn $367.42 in one year JUST by having her money in a high-interest account! See this post for details on which banks I recommend for high interest savings accounts.

Here’s the rundown of Veronica’s cash accounts:

Item Amount Notes Interest rate Name of bank/brokerage
Savings Account 1 $7,707 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.05% interest TD Bank
Savings Account 4 $7,527 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.75% interest SECU; I don’t use these accounts for regular checking and savings because they don’t have a mechanism set up to transfer between banks, which will be important until I complete administering mom’s estate
Savings Account 2 $3,143 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.05% interest TD Bank
Savings Account 3 $1,830 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here 0.05% interest TD Bank
Checking Account 2 $1,298 I keep funds for spending categories that I will eventually spend in here plus a small reserve for eventual use in paying off my vehicle loan 0.25% interest SECU; I don’t use these accounts for regular checking and savings because they don’t have a mechanism set up to transfer between banks, which will be important until I complete administering mom’s estate
Checking Account 1 $107 I do not keep excess funds in this account and all funds in this account are spent in full each pay cycle 0% interest TD Bank
Total in cash savings: $21,613

The Rest Of Veronica’s Inheritance

Since the estate is still being finalized, we unfortunately don’t have the final numbers on the rest of Veronica’s inheritance. But for our purposes today, that’s ok. I’m going to give Veronica the broad strokes of what might make sense to do with this money once it comes her way.

1. Buy a Home and Land

Veronica can approach this goal in a number of different ways and I want to point out that there isn’t really a right or wrong way to do this. I encourage her to consider her own spending tendencies in making this decision.

Option one: Liquidate all of her inheritance (to the extent possible) and purchase a property with cash.

A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

The upside with this option is that her monthly expenses would be low since she’d have no mortgage, she wouldn’t be tempted to spend the inheritance irresponsibly, and she’d be in her dream home and land. This approach would also allow her to continue living completely debt-free.

The downside to this approach is that she’d likely be missing out on potential gains if she instead invested this money in the market and got a fixed, low interest rate mortgage. Additionally, a house (and especially a rural home with land) is a terrifically illiquid asset: it’s very hard to turn a paid-for house into cash. This could be a challenge if Veronica gets a fixer-upper and needs a lot of cash on hand to renovate/repair. However, if she’s able to find a higher-paying job, that concern might be mitigated.

Option two: Explore a USDA loan option for a mortgage and contrast it with the option of using some of the inheritance for a downpayment.

Veronica’s doggies

The advantages and disadvantages of this option are the inverse of option number one. Veronica could (potentially) get a super low, fixed interest rate mortgage and invest the remainder of the inheritance in the stock market and realize gains (over many decades of remaining invested). However, she’d also have a monthly mortgage payment, which would increase her monthly expenses. On the other hand, since all of her money wouldn’t be tied up in her home, she’d have much more flexibility and options on how to allocate her resources.

Option three: Investigate alternative housing scenarios.

Since Veronica noted she feels isolated in her current rural location, I wonder if she’s considered exploring alternative housing options, such as cooperatives, buying a property with a friend/relative, or serving as the longterm caretaker of a historical property/rural vacation home for a family.

‘These ideas might not appeal to Veronica, or, they might be a way for her to accomplish two things at once: living on a big piece of land with lowered costs and less isolation. One thing for Veronica to keep top of mind in her search is property tax. If she buys a large parcel of land, she should look into land conversation tax breaks that might be available (we’re enrolled in such a program here in Vermont, which decreases our tax burden.

That being said, we own a lot of land so our taxes are still significant).

Option four: Continue renting.

A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

Veronica made a brief mention of her possible interest in having a partner and/or children at some point in the future. Depending upon how serious she is about this aspect of her lifestyle, she might want to wait on the purchase of a home. If a future partner lives elsewhere, Veronica’s purchased home might not suit both of their work locations, commutes, lifestyles, etc. Furthermore, if there are children in the picture, the type/size/location of the home might drastically change from what Veronica envisions now.

However, if Veronica is not interested/serious about finding a partner/having children, she can discount this option. I just wanted to mention how dramatically one’s life can change if one has kids or a partner.

Veronica’s Investing Questions

After Veronica pays off her debt and she decides how she wants to pursue purchasing a home and land, she is correct that the next step is to invest the remainder of her inheritance (as well as any other extra cash she has lying around, such as a lump sum from her current pension). She is further correct that the best way to invest will likely be a mix of traditional retirement accounts and taxable investments. I want to reiterate that I am not a financial professional and that this does not constitute formal financial advice; rather, this is my opinion.

1. Retirement Accounts

Formal retirement accounts include employer-sponsored plans such as 401ks, 403bs, and 457s. If Veronica moves to an employer offering a retirement plan with a match, that’ll be the no-brainer place for her to invest for retirement. She should contribute enough to this plan to qualify for her employer’s matching funds.

If Veronica’s employer does not offer a matching plan, she should investigate either contributing to a non-matching employer-sponsored plan (which is what she’s currently doing with her 457b) or, increasing her contributions to her IRA.

2. Taxable Investments

A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

After saving for retirement, Veronica can explore putting some of her money into taxable investments. This basically means investing her money in the stock market, but not through retirement accounts (which are also invested in the stock market).

I encourage Veronica (and anyone else interested) to read through the “Taxable Investments” section of the post, How We Manage Our Money: Behind The Scenes of The Frugalwoods Family Accounts, as it provides the most comprehensive answer to Veronica’s investing questions.

In summary, if it were me, I probably would not retain all J&J shares because that’s a very un-diversified position. If J&J’s stock plummeted (and never fully recovered), Veronica would never see that money again. Conversely, if she invested in something more diversified like a total market index fund, she’d weather downturns more easily. Investing in a single company is like putting all of your eggs in one basket: it might be totally fine or you might lose every single egg you have. In general, one of the most straightforward ways to invest is in a low-fee total market index fund.

Veronica’s Spending

The issue with Veronica’s monthly expenses is that, at present, her salary doesn’t cover them. If she continues spending at her current level ($3,339) she’ll be spending $763 more than she earns ($2,576) every month. As discussed above, I think the focus for Veronica should be finding a higher-paying job. However, until that happens, she’d be wise to reduce her expenses so that she’s at least breaking even every month and not dipping into her savings. Since her financial situation will improve once her inheritance comes through, she can consider these reductions in spending temporary and intended to keep her stable until she finds a higher-paying job and/or receives the inheritance.

A gorgeous photograph by Veronica

In every Case Study, I like to point out that what you choose to save or not save is a very personal decision. Cutting every last expense is NOT the right answer for everyone and I am NOT an advocate for making yourself miserable in the process of achieving financial stability. I am an advocate for values-based, goal-oriented spending. I think it’s important to assess whether all of your expenses bring you fulfillment and a good return on your investment.

In order to effectively review your expenses, you need to know what you’re spending. Luckily, there are free online programs designed to do this for you. I use and recommend Personal Capital, which offers free expense tracking (affiliate link). You can write your expenses down in a notebook, you can create your own spending spreadsheets, you can use an online program–whatever you do, keep track of what you spend every month. If you’d like to know more about how Personal Capital works, check out my full review.

I love that Veronica listed annual spending averages in each category. This is a phenomenal way to track expenses because it gives you the most realistic picture of what you spend each month. It’s not realistic to assume that what you spent in, say, December 2019 is what you’ll spend every single month of the year. While some expenses are fixed from month to month (such as rent/mortgage payments), most of us experience fluctuations in most other categories, such as: travel, dining out, groceries, healthcare, gifts, entertainment, pets, utilities…. you get the picture.

Here are some ideas on how Veronica might spend $763 less every month so that she can break even:

Item Current Amount Mrs. FW’s Notes Proposed New Amount Amount Saved
Rent $750 Fixed expense; no change $750 $0
Art Classes, Equipment, and Supplies Fund $362 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $362
Auto Loan $285 Fixed expense; no change, UNTIL Veronica receives the cash from the house sale and can pay this loan off in full. Once that happens, she can add other expenses back into her budget. $285 $0
Groceries and going out to eat $225 Seems quite reasonable to me. If Veronica thinks she can save more, go for it, but this seem quite low to me already. $225 $0
Student Loan Payment $205 Fixed expense; no change, UNTIL Veronica receives the cash from the house sale and can pay this loan off in full. Once that happens, she can add other expenses back into her budget. $205 $0
Vitamins and Supplements $190 Veronica said that this expense is non-negotiable, so we’ll try to find savings in other areas. $190 $0
Pupper care costs $151 I assume this is a fairly non-negotiable expense since keeping pups healthy is a priority! $151 $0
Clothing $148 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $148
Electricity $113 Fixed expense; no change $113 $0
Propane tank $100 Fixed expense; no change $100 $0
Vehicle Fuel $100 Veronica–do you receive mileage reimbursement from your employer for work trips? $100 $0
Cell Phone $80 I recommend Veronica switch to a much cheaper MVNO cell service provider ASAP. I use the MVNO Ting and pay around $15 or less per month (affiliate link).

MVNOs resell wireless service at discounted rates (but it’s the same service). MVNOs are basically the TJ Maxx of cell phone service.

If you’re not using an MVNO, check out this post to see if you can make the switch. The savings are tremendous.

$15 $65
Car insurance $77 Fixed expense; no change $77 $0
Outstanding debt to self (owe $285 to self, this accounting is mainly for my 12-step program) $55 Veronica–is it possible to put this on hold in order to break even every month? $0 $55
Toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, moisturizers, etc) $45 Fixed expense; no change $45 $0
Miscellaneous items $38 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $38
iFit subscription $36 Veronica said that this expense is non-negotiable, so we’ll try to find savings in other areas. $36 $0
Travel for pleasure $29 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $29
Work Food (eating out while traveling for work) $25 Veronica–is it possible to be reimbursed by your employer for this expense? $25 $0
Gardening Supplies $25 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $25
Home Goods $25 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $25
New cell phone $25 I recommend Veronica put this savings on hold for the short term. $0 $25
Emergency Pup Care Fund $25 I recommend Veronica put this savings on hold for the short term. $0 $25
Stout Hip Treatment Fund $25 I recommend Veronica put this savings on hold for the short term. $0 $25
Vehicle Maintenance $25 Fixed expense; no change $25 $0
Coffee $20 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $20
Haircuts $20 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $20
Charitable Donations $19 I recommend Veronica put this spending on hold just for the short term. $0 $19
Pupper Care Service $17 Fixed expense; no change $17 $0
Professional Society Membership Dues $17 Veronica–is it possible to be reimbursed by your employer for this expense? $17 $0
Auto Loan Reserve $15 I recommend Veronica put this savings on hold for the short term. $0 $15
Auto Registration Fee $14 Fixed expense; no change $14 $0
Renters Insurance $11 Fixed expense; no change $11 $0
Gift Fund: Birthdays $10 I recommend Veronica put this savings on hold for the short term. $0 $10
Gift Fund: Christmas $10 I recommend Veronica put this savings on hold for the short term. $0 $10
Amends Fund (for Debtors Anonymous) $8 Veronica–is it possible to put this on hold in order to break even every month? $0 $8
Bank Fees $6 I recommend Veronica switch to a bank that offers a high interest rate and that doesn’t charge a fee. See this post for details on which banks I recommend. $0 $6
Dental Supplies $5 Fixed expense; no change $5 $0
Auto Inspection Fee $2 Fixed expense; no change $2 $0
Bank Fees $1 I recommend Veronica switch to a bank that offers a high interest rate and that doesn’t charge a fee. See this post for details on which banks I recommend $0 $1
Bank Fees $1 I recommend Veronica switch to a bank that offers a high interest rate and that doesn’t charge a fee. See this post for details on which banks I recommend. $0 $1
Monthly subtotal: $3,339 Proposed new monthly subtotal: $2,408 $932
Annual total: $40,068 Proposed new annual total: $28,896 $11,184

I realize these are deep cuts to things Veronica values; however, I envision this as a short-term, stop gap plan until: 1) Veronica’s inheritance comes through; and 2) she finds a better paying job. The goal for Veronica right now, today is to ensure she stays afloat and doesn’t spend more than she makes. Plus, I overshot the break-even goal of saving $763 per month so that Veronica can adjust these amounts to better reflect her priorities and preferences.

Credit Cards

Veronica’s dogs

I think Veronica is spot on in her assessment that she shouldn’t use credit cards. Given her history of credit card debt, and her participation in Debtors Anonymous, I think she’s very wise to recognize this about herself. This is a great illustration of the fact that different financial approaches work for different people. What works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for Veronica and what works for Veronica isn’t necessarily going to work for you.

One of the most important elements of financial literacy is knowing yourself and knowing what sort of money plan you’ll be able to stick to for the long-term. If you are a person who can use credit cards responsibly, then I highly recommend them. If you’re a person who can’t? No shame, no blame, just don’t have a credit card. If you’d like to know more about how I manage my money, check out: How We Manage Our Money: Behind The Scenes of The Frugalwoods Family Accounts.

Summary:

  1. Today: reduce expenses by at least $763 per month for the short term, so that she’s not spending more than she earns every month.
  2. Once the cash from the sale of her mother’s house comes through, follow the debt pay-off strategy outlined above and research the possibility of investing in low-fee, total market index funds and increasing her retirement savings.
  3. Search for a higher-paying job.
  4. Once the rest of her inheritance is ironed out, and she’s settled on a new job and new region, do research into determining how to proceed with purchasing a home and land (buying in cash, a USDA loan, a traditional mortgage, etc.).
  5. After the above are accomplished, increase her retirement investments, either through an employer-sponsored plan or an individual plan. This will also be the time to consider increasing her taxable investments.

Ok Frugalwoods nation, what advice would you give to Veronica? She and I will both reply to comments, so please feel free to ask any clarifying questions!

Would you like your own case study to appear here on Frugalwoods? Email me (mrs@frugalwoods.com) your brief story and we’ll talk

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139 Responses

  1. caryatis says:

    Got to say, buying real estate would not be my first choice for someone with a low income and a compulsive spending habit. Do you have a plan for keeping up with the property tax, repairs, maintenance, and misc. household expenses that come with owning property? Especially rural property? Considering that you’ve moved around a lot and don’t seem to really feel a connection with the place you’re in now, continuing to rent for at least 5 years seems like the better choice. I don’t want to see you in a place where you’ve spent all your inheritance on debt repayment and real estate and are left with not enough to pay regular bills.

    I would be inclined to take most of the estate and put it in the hands of a financial advisor. Yes, they charge fees and would not be something I would recommend for most people, but when a person who is 1) not used to managing a lot of money, and 2) inclined to spend recklessly comes into a large lump sum, it tends to disappear very quickly. A financial advisor wouldn’t prevent poor spending decisions, but having one would perhaps make those bad decisions harder to make. Basically, think a little less about your “””dreams””” and more about how to get an income, both from the inheritance and work, that will ensure you can pay the bills.

    A federal job, although hard to find, might be a great option for you: it’s predictable, stable, and you could stay in PSLF.

    • Veronica says:

      Veronica here!
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback 🙂 It may not have been clear in the narrative, but my plan is to keep renting for the time being until I can source a better paying job and find an appropriate place to set down some real roots. I guess my inquiry could have been split into two major categories for better clarity: the here and now and how to deal with that, and the longer-term plans. Home buying squarely falls into longer-term plans for me. But since I will need to make decisions on what to do with the funds that will be coming to me sooner than I plan to take actions on those plans, I have to consider them now.
      I think you’re spot on with consulting a financial advisor – I just spoke with one earlier this week and will be having a follow-up session soon. It’s a huge chunk of money to manage and while I don’t trust my own decision making ability with management of this size of funds, I do feel like I have a well spring of guidance to dip into. Especially the commentariat here! I’m really grateful for all the feedback given 🙂

      • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

        I think a financial advisor could be a great asset in this situation. Just make sure you’re hiring a fee-only fiduciary. Do not work with someone who isn’t a fiduciary!

        • Paul says:

          As a psychologist who works in finance, amen to Mrs. F’s comment. Check and see if Garrett Financial Network has any representatives nearby. Barring that consider if you can get a fee only plan from someone affiliated with Charles Schwab or Vanguard. Ask if anything being recommended in any way locks up your money or has a “back end charge”. As you like taking courses, look into a quality NON SALES oriented course on personal finance you can take. The University of Georgia, Kansas State, and Texas Tech all have fine financial planning degree programs. See if there are any graduates practicing nearby who are fiduciaries. Generally, though not always, someone with a CFP, is a good bet. Don’t feel pressured to “ put that money to work” to soon. You are experiencing a ground shifting financial event. Go through it thoughtfully. Great Luck.

          • Veronica says:

            “Don’t feel pressured to “ put that money to work” to soon. You are experiencing a ground shifting financial event. Go through it thoughtfully.” I couldn’t agree more and I really appreciate the reminder here. It can be really easy to slip into panic over what to do and forget that doing nothing is also an option for a while. It’s very easy to project out into the future and ignore what’s happening in the here and now. Engaging in exercises like the Reader Case Study are really helpful for me because I can feel like I’m being proactive while simultaneously biding time until a holistic answer takes shape. I appreciate the suggestions on Garrett Financial Network and looking for recent graduates, though it makes me nervous to spend that level of funds on advice despite knowing it could be advantageous, at least right now. I will also have to work with my DA program fellows on whether or not to invest in a financial advisor and also how to deal with the large financial changes that I’m experiencing. Thank you!

          • Paul says:

            Veronica, a little follow up. I have been managing folks money for 20 years now. And I combine my psychology background with my finance and investment skill. I’m a much better psychologist than money manager. During the 20 years of overseeing folks money I have had probably a handful of clients who came into life changing windfalls. Most not all have gone through that money rather quickly. Witness a later comment by someone suggesting you “ lock up the money “ in some sort of term deposit. Mrs. F has also described high yield money market funds or bank deposits in one of her posts. Both of these ideas may be worthy options during your wise”do nothing “ option status.

            A subsequent post has cited Ameriprise where her mother has been happy for 20 years. In all likelihood that arrangement was that Mom, has an arrangement where her fee is a percentage of money under management. As she notes the most important aspect is the “fit” and communication between Mom and advisor. Great advice. You can get this type of arrangement at Scwabb and Vanguard as well with a lower fee for money under management. Given that this is all going to be new to you and your obvious awareness of your challenge seen from your attendance at DA. Again, go slow. Learn your options. Take time to think how you want to use your windfall. With good advice and planning these funds can provide a current and growing source of income to augment and support your exciting life choices.
            There is a growing field called Financial Therapy. I’m not yet sure about it. However, you might google it and see if any free on line advice is applicable. They hope to address the interface of emotions and money. Brand new field, so be careful. As an aside, I wasn’t necessarily recommending a “new” grad of those programs, just that the programs seem solid and might be a way of vetting candidates. Anyway, again. Great Luck, take your time. Use your supports. Be aware as well grief takes a long time. As so often said in previous posts, your Mom and sister were so fortunate to have you walk that difficult time with them. Take care of yourself.
            Paul

          • Carolyn says:

            With some companies like Ameriprise, the financial advisors are not paid by you, but by the company on their performance. My mom has been using the same advisor for years (going on 20) and that is how he is paid. What you have to do is ask a lot of questions and not just go with the first one because it says financial advisor by their name. It’s like a doctor/patient relationship except with money. If you don’t like what he or she says you can find another. But, you both need to have an understanding about what you want.

      • Kristine says:

        I agree, work with a financial advisor. Personally, I would pay off the car loan and student loans in full. ($200/month is $2,400 a year and $24,000 in 10 years which, if the forgiveness falls through, now you’ve paid the $24k and still owe $50k? Forget it!) The extra $500 a month will be super helpful. I agree with parking it in a high interest bank account until you have some time to evaluate what your priority goals are. You’ve gotten a lot of great advice!

  2. I’m so sorry about the passing of your mom. I watched my own mom be the main caretaker for my grandmother for over a year before she passed, and caretaking has to be one of the hardest jobs there is! I hope you’re finding peace and support as you grieve your loss.

    Since we went down to just one income a few years ago so I could stay at home with our kids, we have also known all too well the plight of having to live paycheck to paycheck—it’s only been recently, after several raises, that we’re finally able to breathe a little easier because we can start saving again. It’s exhausting to feel like you’re having to tread water all the time! I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods that a job change would be the best way to go, as well as using the inheritance to become debt-free. I feel like the only way I could rest easy at night all those years we had the littlest of margins every month was because we didn’t have debt payments (other than our house) to worry about.

    As far as side income from photography, have you looked into Smugmug? I just have their Power plan because I just do work for clients (rather than selling prints), but if you have a good-size portfolio and can build up a presence on social media or through some other means, you could look into doing their Portfolio plan, which will allow you to sell image and video downloads, as well as prints of your work. It’s $180 a year for that plan, so you would definitely have to weigh if it would be worth it to you, but it might be a possible way to bring in a side income. Also, you might consider starting to do some client work, such as taking photographs for local animal shelters, outdoor rec companies, etc. (And if you do photography of people, even easier to find clients!)

    Photography can be a tricky field to make an income in, but if the market around you isn’t too saturated with photographers, it might be easier to get your foot in.

    I wish you all the best!

    • Veronica says:

      Thank you, Torrie! The support here has been such a beautiful outpouring to receive!
      I haven’t tried SmugMug, but I’m going to look into it. And thank you for suggesting looking into doing some client work too! Do you work under contracts with clients? Are there resources I can reference when it comes to rates to charge for just starting out? I don’t really enjoy working with people unless it’s doing candid photography. I’ve done some portrait work in the past and found it… draining. Sounds like I have some research to do!

      • I’m with you—the posed session are super training, and not my favorite (though I will still take a few on, esp if I know the people). I actually specialize more in lifestyle/documentary photography myself, with an emphasis on doing birth stories and lifestyle newborn shoots. You can also look into working directly with companies though–I would think outdoor sporting goods companies or something in your case. You would probably want to draw up your own contract working with clients, though some bigger companies would probably have their own, too. The best way to research what rates you should start at is to find a local photographers’ group (I joined one on Facebook) and then look at the different members’ photography websites and go from there. Good luck!

  3. Rachelle says:

    Veronica, are you selling your earrings on Etsy? I think you should. The shell earrings are super cute!

  4. Leigh says:

    Just a quick point. Have you considered Etsy? Love the earrings, where can I buy them?

    • Veronica says:

      Thanks, Leigh! I used to sell on Etsy a long time ago, but not currently. I’m on instagram @lupino.jewelry, feel free to DM me there 🙂

  5. Sara says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m also 40 and just lost my Dad suddenly in May. Based on my experience I recommend not persuing buying anything for a while as you go through grief. When my Dad first died, I had all sorts of grand dreams of what I would do with the inheritance because I was trying to cheer myself up and live my life, but as time passes I realize I’m really sad and questioning life. I’m thinking the best use of some of my money might be therapy. I know you are a completely different person, but I just wanted to share my experience.

    • Lynn says:

      My condolences on the loss of your mother. I agree with Sarah that you should wait a bit to make decisions on how to spend the inheritance. When we inherited a good chunk of money from my father-in-law we sat on it for at least six months before finalizing decisions. Ultimately we paid off our mortgage and car loan and renovated the kitchen and invested the rest. Paying off the car loan and mortgage was an emotional decision for peace of mind. The interest rates were low much lower than yours and most people would’ve suggested investing the entire amount.

      I love my renovated kitchen but I regret that I went a bit overboard (spent 67 k) because there were a lot of funds available. Overall though we spent less than 25% of the money on the reno.

      You have a lot of dreams and creative pursuits. As you enter your 40s this can sometimes be a time of wanting to redirect your life, particularly in your career. You are going to have to narrow your focus and decide what you really want because some of these dreams are in opposition to others.

      Since this is a time of great change in your life I recommend you continue renting as well. Once you get your career decided upon you can look at buying. With $50,000 student loan’s that could be forgiven would be hard for me too Not factor that into my job decision. So I waffle on whether or not you should pay that one off with the inheritance.

      One other thing I want to say about an inheritance. We felt a great need to honour what our father would have wanted us to do with the money. That is part of the factor for paying off mortgage and debt. But try as much as you can to make a responsible choice that is also best for you.

    • KN says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss, Sara.

    • Veronica says:

      Hi Sara, I’m so sorry about the loss of your dad. It really is so hard to experience. It can be really easy to slip into fantasy! I had a lot of fantasy thoughts for a bit after mom’s passing, thankfully since I’m in DA I’m aware that’s my addition talking in my head. Grief therapy has been good for me, it’s helped me have a safe place to process. I’ve found myself questioning my life as well, going through a big loss really brings life into focus. A hospice counselor gave me great advice right after mom passed, she told me to not make any big decisions or make any big changes for a year after mom’s passing. I see this time as an information gathering period and a time to practice patience and focus on the work I need to do (therapy, dealing with current financial struggles). I don’t even need to make a decision when that year hits, but at least I’d have gotten a holistic view of my options in the meantime. I wish you a lot of peace in your grief process.

      • Anne says:

        Have you considered putting most of the money in a 1 year CD? So that then you won’t be able to touch it for awhile while you are still processing.

        • Veronica says:

          This is a great idea! I’ve been thinking about taking a portion for a home down payment, which I wouldn’t want to tie up in long term investments, but also wouldn’t want as cash in hand. I think you just gave me the solution to that quandary!

  6. Beth says:

    I know a number of wildlife biologists here in rural Pennsylvania. Until I met them, I was not aware of the many options for employment in that field. I do wonder if limiting your job search to North Carolina is wise. It would seem that anywhere in the Eastern US/Appalachia would be a possibility, as the habitats are similar. Although you may be emotionally tied to NC, is it limiting you too much?

    My wildlife biologist friends work at the Corps of Engineers, State Game Commission, and several educational/outreach organizations. Networking through wildlife conferences, speaking at same, and perhaps publishing articles either in professional journals or even in small local newsletters (e.g., Audubon Society, other special interest community organizations) might also help with your network expansion and open up new possibilities.

    As you look in the larger region, you may find opportunities closer to college towns, or smaller cities, which would also help with the sense of isolation you feel.

    Good luck with this. I applaud what you have done thus far and do hope that you can continue to make more positive changes.

    • Tara says:

      I second state jobs in PA. My FIL works for PennDot and has had COLA increases and such over time and gets decent benefits. I imagine it would be the same for park jobs here too.

    • Veronica says:

      Thanks, Beth! Yes to all of this, all solid advice that I currently partake in. NC is an amazingly biodiverse state and in researching where in the eastern US I could work, I found NC had the most employment opportunities and the most dynamic research taking place in the eastern US. That’s a huge appeal as a specialist and a researcher. Thankfully, I’m in a good position to be very choosy about my next employment situation/position and should the “perfect” job come open in another state that would be food for thought.

  7. Puck says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, Veronica. My condolences on the loss of your mother — may her memory be a blessing.

    I am strongly seconding to RUN not walk away from TD Bank. I had TD in undergrad and while the “college checking account” was all right, all their accounts for adults have excessive fees and insufficient interest.

    I’ve had good luck with Ally Bank and I also recommend looking into Excite Credit Union. Credit unions in general are wonderful because they are 100% owned by the people with money in them so they are beholden to you, not the shareholders. Both Ally Bank and Excite Credit Union are entirely online which could be helpful for someone who travels a lot and can’t be guaranteed that their particular brick-and-mortar bank or credit union will be in a particular area. It also means that they tend to have higher interest rates than brick-and-mortar banks and CUs.

    • Stephanie says:

      I love Ally bank and have been using them for a number of years. My checking is currently earning .1% interest and my savings accounts are 1.6%. It’s easy to open multiple accounts if you like to separate out your savings (I have ones for taxes & insurance, my emergency fund, etc.) They also reimburse you automatically for ATM fees, up to $9/month; you can deposit checks through their app; it’s easy to switch your money over to money market accounts if those start earning more interest than a savings account in the future; free online bill pay to the extent where some of my bills (gas & electric) are so automatic that Ally gets the info for me and just sends me an email saying when and how much they’re going to pay. I don’t have to tell them every month 🙂

      • Jen says:

        I was going to recommend Ally as well. Note that they just started offering buckets so you can assign your money within one account to multiple categories. I understand this can be really helpful with budgeting (dog savings versus emergency savings, etc.) so if that’s the main motivation for having multiple accounts, consider switching to one high interest savings account with Ally and use the bucket feature. I also love Goodbudget (both app and website) for envelope budgeting. Sounds like you likely already have a good system established through your DA program, but it’s another option for seeing your money virtually in different places while maintaining one account. FYI, I do also have a normal checking and savings account and it’s very easy to transfer money back and forth from Ally.

        • Veronica says:

          Thanks Stephanie and Jen for this additional information about Ally bank, sounds like I need to take a look at them as a banking option!

    • Veronica says:

      Thank you – I cannot wait to get away from TD… When I set up my accounts there, I was living in a state with branches (which was necessary for guardianship account management), then I moved to a state without branches. I’ve stayed simply because I had the guardianship accounts set up there as well and now the trust account and soon the estate account. Once probate clears everything I am going to be switching banks for all my accounts. Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll be doing some research into better banking options!

  8. Karen says:

    Super inspiring case study! I love your jewelry Veronica so pretty! Would definitely buy them if for sale. Thanks for sharing your beautiful and touching story.

  9. Sophie says:

    One of the things I took away from your case study is that you have a lot of goals and (at least right now) not the money to support them all. I think both you and Mrs. Frugalwoods described some good options and paths to get there, but I also wonder if you might consider reflection and prioritization of your goals? For example, you want to have more dogs, but if you had to choose between more dogs and say, the ability to afford your jewelry making supplies, which would you rather have in your life? If you find a farmhouse to restore that you love that you can’t afford while also affording your other hobbies, but you could if you gave them up, would this be worth it? It sounds like you love your job and I am envious of that, so while I agree in the need to increase your income, I don’t know… from what you wrote I don’t see you being happy working for an energy company from the glimpse that I got here. I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods about using the inheritance to wipe out your loans – it will save you money in the long term and be a huge load off mentally and monthly!

    No real suggestions about online side-hustles – I’ll be following along as well for that!

  10. SCG says:

    This case study speaks to me, as both my husband and I have moved around extensively for low paying, wildlife related jobs and used to live in rural central NC (ahhh, the cheap rent!!) with a long term dream to buy land and move to the mountains. The field is hard and highly competitive, but one of the huge benefits is truly loving the work you get to do. So many folks cannot believe that we could get paid to do what we love (hike, wildlife “watching”, paddle, etc). Rather than be so quick to change employers, I’d suggest the reader explore what their long term goals for their career are. We decided that since we love the work we get to do, we’d rather continue working longer with lower paying jobs working for organizations that we value contributing to, than go an alternative route to higher pay (such as an energy company, consulting firm, etc). But that is up to everyone to decide on their own and there are some great consulting firms out there! Additionally, the reader seems interested in having time for alternative activities, and has such a flexible arrangement with work that a job change to a more high demanding organization that focuses on billable hours vs. flexible government workload might be a huge negative for the readers life. If I were in the shoes of the reader, I’d use the inheritance as you outlined to pay off all debts ASAP. Then, I’d park that remaining $100k into a high interest savings account that is not linked to your regular checking account while you explore your long term dreams for a few years. With those loans gone and such a low cost of housing, I’d focus on decreasing monthly spending where you can to thrive on your lower income, flexible job that you love, while continuing to job hunt in mountainous areas (Texas A&M job board is great!). Then, when the time strikes with the perfect federal or state position (non-profits like TNC, The Wilderness Society, etc are also excellent – they pay competitively, have flexible schedules and often have better leave and retirement benefits that state/federal agencies) in the mountains, explore housing options. Perhaps at that time with no debts and a higher permanent income it will make sense to take advantage of a mortgage to buy the property you love and at that point you could invest the rest of your inheritance money (that has been making safe interest over the years) to catch up for the years that you’ve missed saving for retirement. Or maybe, the area you move will have such low costs of rent that it makes sense to rent a small place long term close to your new office while using some of your inheritance to buy land in cash nearby in the mountains for timber, farming, small cabin, etc (a personal scenario we always dreamed of). Or maybe you’ve met a partner and that has changed the location you want to settle down in. Good luck in whatever you end up deciding and thanks for working to protect and conserve wildlife! 🙂

    • Kate says:

      That was my thought too. If you use the inheritance to pay off car and student loans, you are suddenly much closer to meeting all monthly costs with your current salary. Then save or invest the rest but don’t touch it!

      I also thought I wouldn’t skip or hold off on any of the debtors anonymous steps in case that jeopardizes your recovery, but you know best on that

      • Amanda says:

        My thoughts are exactly like Kate’s and I wouldn’t touch the debtors anonymous costs since those are part of recovery. At the very least, speak to a sponsor or someone else in the program before you make big changes.
        Remember you’ve got time to make big choices, but cutting expenses so they match your income allows you to be more choosy in what you do next, and you seem like someone who would value that.
        Wishing you all the best.

        • Rodney says:

          Yes to all this! Seems like people wait a long time for a job they love, especially a flexible one. I wouldn’t give this up too quick for more pay and stress either. I agree if you pay off the debts and stay frugal you could maybe keep the job if you enjoy it?? Agree about the debtors anonymous process too. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

          • Dave says:

            Interesting to see so many other biologists here! As a fed I feel for those that found their forever home but not their forever job/pay. It can literally be waiting for one of 5 people to either Retire, die, or move somewhere else, most likely the former in a desirable area. That can be an entire career’s worth of waiting. The only thing I can add is to apply for everything, you don’t want to miss out by hoping to get a particular one and not applying to the others in your area. If all else fails, my forest is hiring a 9/11 and desperately needs fresh blood here in middle of nowhere CO!

  11. Amy says:

    So many things resonated with me about this case study! I also live in NC (on the coast), have a husband who is a state employee and a father who had vascular dementia and has since passed away leaving me an inheritance. Watching a parent decline cognitively is unbelievably hard. My first advice is to take your time deciding what to do with the inheritance. Very little needs to be decided quickly. My father was very frugal, saved his whole life and I am still so sad he wasn’t able to enjoy more of his “bucket list” before he got sick. It has made me so cautious and aware of how I spend (or don’t spend) my inheritance. I always ask myself if this would make my dad happy to see how I chose to spend his money. So in that vein, I have chosen to save a whole lot more for retirement, save more for my kids college, pay down on the mortgage, and make vacations with family more of a priority. In your case, it seems like an easy decision to immediately pay off your car and your student loans as you start to get some of the inheritance. Then beef up retirement and start thinking about a home purchase. Be cautious about allowing financial people access to this money without you understanding exactly what the fees are and what you are investing in. Simple is better. As my father always told me “Nobody cares more about your money than you.”
    Just in case you didn’t know, as a NC state employee you can save the max in a 401k AND the max in the 457 for a total of $19,500 + $19,500= $39,000/year. I realize that is more than you make but increasing your contribution could be a way to “hide” some of the inheritance so it does not become part of your taxable income. Then live on the inheritance money your receive.
    Be gentle with yourself and take enormousness pride in the care-giving you and your sister gave your mom. I love that you are a Alzheimer advocate and end of life Doula. All the best!

  12. Marilyn Delson says:

    Hello, Veronica. Love your nature photos; you are very talented. Getting down to basics: If I were you, I would buy a two- or three-family house in good condition as soon as you get your inheritance. Allocate 30% towards the down payment in a city/college town in your region. This move would immediately give you extra income to supplement your salary, pay off your debts, build up equity, while having tenants pay down your mortgage. Later on, when you’ve increased your salary and figure out whether you want to live in the income property or sell it and purchase your dream house, you will be in a better position to follow your dreams.

    • Chelsea says:

      Veronica, just a couple of thoughts on the subject of owning a rental house. I have owned rental houses for over a decade, and I know many people who do it as well, or who tried it and had bad experiences that turned them off for life. It is definitely something that you want to research and prepare yourself for before stepping in. I had a lot of resources when I got started (my mom and aunt have owned rental real estate for many years, which is why I got started myself). My family had a standard lease crafted over many years of experience that I was able to use, and we continue to add something new to it every year. Even then, tenants will do things that surprise us (From shoving corn husks down the kitchen disposal that get stuck six feet into the drain line, to turning off the heat in the middle of winter when they go out of town. Spoiler alert – if water pipes get cold enough, they can freeze and burst and cause major damage.)
      As a landlady, you will often be helping people learn how to be homeowners. (Yes, you need to change out the furnace filter regularly. Here’s what a furnace filter is. Here’s where it goes. If you don’t change it out and it gets full of dust and pet hair, the furnace will have to work harder, which not only leads to you paying more for your heat, but puts additional strain on the blower motor and could lead to it going out. Right in the middle of a cold spell. When furnace servicers are especially busy and harder to schedule.)
      Speaking of furnaces going out, with your particular job right now, I’m not sure that owning a rental property would be the best idea. Rental emergencies are very rare, but if one happens, you do want your tenant to be able to get ahold of someone right away. If the heat is out, you don’t want them to be unable to reach you, so they go stay with a friend and leave your house to get colder and colder – potentially leading to freezing pipes. Similarly, if water is coming out of somewhere it shouldn’t, you want to get eyes on that as soon as possible – and maybe shut off the water supply line until you figure out how to stop the problem, depending on whether the problem is in a pipe taking water away from or bringing water into the house. (In my own personal home, I recently had a supply line to the hot water heater spring a leak and had water spraying on me until I could get the very hard-to-turn shut-off valve to finally turn.) With your job, you are often in very remote areas, and (I’m assuming) sometimes outside of cell service, leaving people unable to reach you.
      I personally think owning rental real estate can be a great investment, but there are a lot of factors to consider, not the least of which are which areas you’re thinking of buying in (What are the local regulations regarding housing and renting? Does the city have or is it considering rent control? Would it apply to you as a small real estate investor?) to which house to buy (Is the house in an area where you can rent easily? How old is it? How old are the furnace/hot water heater/roof/appliances? Was it built before 1978 – in which case there could be lead in paint/pipes, which is not a deal breaker, but something you will have to address, even if just by warning tenants about the home’s age and the potential for lead, even if you haven’t found any https://www.epa.gov/lead/real-estate-disclosures-about-potential-lead-hazards ? Are you going to be able to get cash flow off of the property, or are you focused on appreciation? [Spoiler – depending on the market, cash flow can actually be hard to achieve, but a house can appreciate tens of thousands of dollars if you’re willing to hold on to it for the long haul and through good and bad times in the market.]) Also, do you have the temperament to be a landlady (If you get a phone call late at night about the heat going out or the water backing up in the house, are you going to be able to handle it with calm and offer potential solutions, or are you going to freak out? Will you be able to reject applicants who don’t meet your criteria [maybe they have a bad credit history] but have a story that makes you feel sorry for them – and will you be able to evict a tenant who isn’t paying the rent if it gets to that point? [As a small real estate investor, especially if you only own one or a few houses, these questions are really important. You need your tenant to pay the rent or you can’t pay the mortgage. As a side note, I’ve never had to evict a tenant, but I use a fairly high credit score as one of my main criteria for accepting an applicant. Make sure you follow all local and federal fair housing laws, too, not just in relation to the application process but to other things like rent increase notices and eviction notices.])
      All of this is to say that, like with anything, there are a lot of factors to consider, and if you decide to go this route, you want to do it with as much information as possible. I highly recommend doing some reading on real estate investing first. Also, go out and look at houses – not just online, but with an agent. Nothing beats seeing a house in person, and a good agent might point out things that you hadn’t considered as purchasing factors.
      Best of luck to you, Veronica! As many people have mentioned, and as you seem prepared to do, take it slow this year. Use this time to gather information and learn more about your options.

  13. Barbara says:

    Enormous congratulations on changing your life in regards to debt,what a wonderful effort.I tend to agree with Mrs Frugalwoods recommendations for reducing monthly payments but I wonder if you could invest your inheritance of around $284000 in low cost index funds which at around 8% pa should pay off all your debt in 3 years.I know this has many assumptions built in eg you won’tget all the money at once,the Stockmarket may not pay 8% ,you need to be very confident that the spending problem is under control.However,it does give you a fighting chance to get rid of debt and it doesn’t impact any of the other possibilities eg changing jobs,partnering,re-locating etc You would need to go through this with a fine tooth comb to see if it is doable.Good luck,you have made some impressive decisions.

  14. Lynda says:

    My brother is a retired forester and does a lot of consulting. I think that might be a good side job to explore. Purchasing a farm tight now doesn’t sound feasible as you mention changing jobs and locations again…

  15. annie says:

    I think Veronica should actually stop contributing to the 457b (at least temporarily at this point in her life while her salary is low). That would give her approximately $100 more per month in take home pay and help her get closer to covering her monthly costs. She’s in a unique position of having a sizable inheritance on the near horizon, so her retirement will still be perfectly on track without those monthly contributions. Best of luck!

  16. Megan says:

    Veronica, I’m so sorry to hear about the passing of your mom. I’m sure she was grateful to have you so present in her life for the past 9 years.

    I also work in a job that’s eligible for PSLF (children’s librarian), but have decided not to go that route as I don’t like the idea of not even paying enough to cover my interest each month. Instead my husband and I are working to pay it off as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality of life too much. I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods that you should take the money from the inheritance and pay off all of your debt.

    Also, you mentioned potentially leasing the land from the farmhouse you hope to own. My husband’s grandfather had a 180 acre dairy farm and since his grandfather passed, his mom, aunts and uncles lease the land to a farmer who farms it. This may not be typical, but the money from the lease is just enough to cover the property taxes each year. You may be able to charge more, but in general farming is not much of a money maker from what I understand and I wouldn’t count on earning extra income from leasing out farmland.

  17. I’m sorry for your loss Veronica. I wish you luck. I think I agree with the first commenter about not buying property right away.
    In fact, I don’t think I would do anything with your inheritance for at least a year unless you have begin taking some of the $77,000. Let the grief begin to fade a bit first so when you’re thinking clearly, you can make the right choices.
    If do you seek out a financial advisor, make sure you’re hiring a fee-only certified financial advisor.
    Love your earrings! Start an Etsy shop 🙂

  18. Allie says:

    I typically agree with Mrs. FW, but have a strong opinion about the advice to abandon PSLF. While the impulse to be debt-free is a good, I think that a bit more math should be considered, especially since she isn’t sure about her future career path. Should she stay in the public sector she could be giving up tens of thousands of dollars in the short term. And much more if you calculate the potential for that money to grow in investments in the long term.

    I urge Veronica to do some due diligence with her loans and PSLF. Has she been submitting certification forms to FedLoan? Have they been accepted and does she have a qualifying payment count that reflects her 3 years? This would indicate that she has the right types of loans and was making the right kind of repayments that qualify her for the program. If yes, I would hold off on abandoning this path until she is more sure about her career path. If she takes a private sector job and loves it, then sure leave the program. But why spend such a big part of the inheritance if she is promised forgiveness by law? The headlines are really scary, but there is good reason to believe that the acceptance rate for the program will only increase over time. As with many federal programs, there were lots of logistical errors with the roll out. There are resources to make sure that you are on track and will receive the forgiveness you are entitled to that was written into your loan promissory notes.

    With the inheritance, she could supplement her income so that she could max out her 457 (a great account for early retirement since it doesn’t have the early withdrawal penalty for those younger than 59.5) and reduce her adjusted gross income (AGI) making her income driven payments MUCH lower or even zero, thus increasing the benefit of the program. The difference in net worth for her could be quite significant since there is opportunity cost for using those funds to pay off the loans instead of investing them in a retirement account that will grow for the long haul. I’d be much happier to see those funds go towards her 457 than to pay off a loan that would have been forgiven if Veronica’s path keeps her in the public sector.

    In the end, it may be that PSLF isn’t right for Veronica. However, I would not make the decision to abandon the program based on fear, misinformation, and salacious headlines about the program. I totally get the fear, but we use logic for so many other debt decisions such as not paying off a mortgage, but don’t apply the same reason to federal student loans eligible for forgiveness. I’m really not sure why this is, other than a lot of the people have not experienced these programs firsthand.

    I am sorry for Veronica’s loss of her mother and impressed by her honesty and willingness. Wishing her all the best. <3

    • Rachel s says:

      But is it misinformation? Are you seeing information somewhere that the public isn’t privy to? Everyone I see, the PSLF is a joke. Like single-digit percentages are actually getting it approved. I work in higher ed in Family and Consumer Sciences and we discuss the student loan debacle constantly in our Personal and Family Finance course and I’m not seeing anything that suggests it is working for the very vast majority of folks. If you know of different sources saying otherwise I would be interested to see them.

      • Allie says:

        Hi Rachel, I totally understand your skepticism, but encourage you do some more research. The course sounds awesome and like a great resource for students.

        My spouse is part of the PSLF program so we have worked through the process with FedLoan directly. I don’t have any “insider” knowledge, but find the Student Loan Planner website and podcast to be extremely informative! They have TONS of content about PSLF and the other 20-25 year forgiveness programs that all all federal borrower can access. I cannot recommend them enough. They have lots of content about the following that is probably much more eloquent than me, but I’ll give it a go….

        The single-digit approvals for PSLF are actually not surprising when you look at the roll out of the program. When it started in 2007, many federal loans were not backed by the government, but by banks. These FFEL loans were never eligible for forgiveness. They didn’t get the payments plans rolled out effectively and someone would have needed to be extremely proactive and go to their servicer to change their repayment plan to one of the new IDR plans to make eligible payments. Remember, there were no resources readily available to borrowers outside the laws in the early days, so the likelihood that someone could tick all the boxes was pretty slim. People also might have consolidated at some point which restarts the clock for the repayment count. This actually happened to my spouse before we met and thus lost 2 years of payments that could have counted. At the outset, there was no employment certification forms so people were told to wait until 10 years and apply then. This led to a whole host of issues, many of which were just clerical form errors in the recent applications. Imagine tracking down HR records from 8 or 9 years ago!

        SO many of these issues have been mitigated.
        – Post 2010 all federal loans were direct (eligible for forgiveness).
        – It is much easier to get on the right income-driven repayment plans and there is a lot more public knowledge about these programs.
        – People are encouraged to apply annually with an employment form, which makes it much easier for borrowers and for employers. Once someone submits this form to their loan servicer, the loans automatically get sent to FedLoan. This means that one servicer is handling all PSLF cases. A lot of the issues came from lack of clear instruction from DOE that were then filtered through all the loan servicers who then had front line customer service reps disseminating the information to borrowers. This was obviously not a recipe for success!

        We are just now 3 years into the period for applications since the program requires 10 years of service/payments. These folks had the most stacked against them. As the clock moves forward and we get to 2023 and on, we should expect MUCH larger numbers of forgiven borrowers. I have heard that the forgiven balances for these years will exceed NASA’s budget annually. I know it feels hard to support a program that hasn’t had these successes yet, but there is every reason to believe that we will see them very soon.

        Things can still go wrong, but the there is definitely hope! I am part of a PSLF group on Facebook where people are getting forgiveness every month. You may be wondering why you aren’t hearing from these people? Well, the internet doesn’t exactly reward people for getting loans forgiven. I’m not even sure people would share it in their private social media with family and friends. I think there is still a lot of stigma.

        The headlines that you have read about the program are factually true. However, the complexity that led to those rejection rates rarely makes it into a news article meant for the masses. So many financial advisers are also not educated about federal loans. In my experience, most borrowers working in the public sector do not understand the program. I am passionate about this program and want people to make informed decisions!

        One other note…there is still a lot of confusion about “consolidation” and “refinancing.” This is one of the reasons I am so upset when people give blanket student loan advice because these decisions can have BIG consequences if forgiveness was mathematically the best course. Consolidation can be helpful as it makes your payments easier to understand, but it also resets the clock for forgiveness. People should NOT consolidate if they are several years into employment in a public job. Further, refinancing takes them out of federal loans entirely. They will never have the flexibility of IDR repayments or forbearance again. If I was teaching a course, I would hit this home again and again. So many well-intentioned people see 6+% interest rates on federal loans and assume the very best option is to refinance. If you are going to aggressively pay them off, this can be a good move, but it can also have some very serious consequences. Flexibility and the possibility for forgiveness are invaluable to those with high balances and/or those with low income.

        Let me know if any of this was unclear. I’m not trying to be combative, just a voice for the value of research and due diligence!

        • Rachel s says:

          Not combative at all- and all very informative. It’s just hard to encourage people to hang around with so much debt that is getting larger each day when there isn’t a clear answer to if they will get forgiven. I hope you are right- but as of now I’m not seeing it. There is a great podcast – borrowed future- that is eye open wing as well regarding the student loan debt crisis.

        • Michele says:

          It sounds very complicated.

      • Sarah says:

        I am super super skeptical about this program as less than 1% of applicants have had success getting repayment, and there are multiple lawsuits against the government about this program. It’s also possible that Congress cuts it entirely. It sounds like the loan balance for Victoria is actually going up…Personally I’d cut my losses and pay this off. There’s too much risk in staying in this program, IMO.

        • Allie says:

          Sarah, your comment epitomizes the chorus of people naysaying PSLF and I want to address each of your points. As a family pursuing PSLF, I have heard all of these so many times. It can be hard to hear this again and again and not get afraid. This is why I feel the need to be overly thorough in my response and make sure that Veronica hears an alternative view.

          The 1% statistic:
          It is important to understand what this statistic represents. I think I have fully explained in my prior comments why this statistic is more a factor of the failures of the program roll out and the cards being stacked against borrowers before 2010. It is a statistic that is only representative for those borrowers who are older and took out loans before 2010. It is NOT the probability of all borrowers who can be forgiven by this program and certainly not the probability for more recent borrowers. 2020 is the first year post-2010 borrowers can apply. If Veronica took her loans out after 2010 and has been working with FedLoan to certify her payments, her odds are very different. Essentially, she is part of a different population of borrowers. These headlines scare borrowers and make eligible people abandon the program. My whole point is that more information is needed to make an informed decision.

          There are lawsuits against the government:
          People believe (rightly) that they are entitled to this program and are pursuing litigation when they believe they have been wronged. The people who had loans before 2010 were wronged. The government did a terrible job of educating borrowers about this program. Litigation will follow. This will only clarify the program and cause the government to demand more of the loan servicers. A lot of these lawsuits are due to early ambiguity and a mismatch between loan administration and the law. As previously stated, these issues have largely been mitigated.

          Congress could cut the program:
          The only changes to the program have made it more favorable. TEPSLF (temporary expansion of PSLF) has folded in MORE repayment plans to forgive MORE borrowers. There is zero precedence for Congress changing the student loan program without grandfathering in old laws. This is why there are so many repayment plans. Each of the repayment options comes from a different law from Congress. All proposed laws that have been floated have been forward looking and would grandfather in current borrowers.

          The loan balance is going up:
          If you are pursuing a forgiveness strategy, it is the goal to pay as little as possible. Thus, it is very likely that you are just paying interest and the balance forgiven will be higher than the amount you borrowed. This runs counter to all other debt advice and this strategy isn’t for everyone. There is some risk involved. This is why I believe it is important to educate yourself about the rules of the program and do due diligence.

          There is just too much risk:
          You mention there is just too much risk. I think this can be quantified…

          I just put Veronica’s figures into a PSLF calculator on a reputable site. I believe she is likely on the IBR repayment plan which is actually not the most advantageous for PSLF. She could get a lower monthly payment with REPAYE. With REPAYE she stands to pay less than $20k in payments over the next 7 years and have the entire balance forgiven tax-free. Yes, her loan balance is going to grow, but it will only grow to around $60k in those 7 years. The upside is that she stands to save around $32K and can preserve more of her inheritance by investing it for the future. There are some that don’t think this upside is worth it. That is a totally fine thing to decide. Especially if that person feels hedged in by public service. If Veronica leaves the public sector, she should definitely just pay off the loans. However, I propose that she not make the decision to pay her loans off and leave the PSLF program until she makes a move to the private sector since the upside looks pretty good. If she stays in the public sector and has a big salary increase, there are lots of ways to keep payments low by contributing to retirement and other tax-deferred accounts.

          Let’s say all the naysayers are right (hypothetically) and she stays in the program a full 7 years and it doesn’t work out. If she wants to be extremely conservative and preserve the funds to pay off the balance, she could put the amount she would have used to pay off the loans today into a HYS account earning 1.7%. In 7 years she would have a balance of nearly $59,000. Now the cost to her for her loans is the amount she would have spent to pay off her loans right away plus the accumulated HYS interest, the additional $1k ($60k-$59k), and those $20k in payments over the past 7 years. I want to be clear that I believe there is strong reason to believe that this scenario will not happen for Veronica. However, this worst-case scenario has Veronica down about $21k over just paying them off today. While this sucks, I don’t think it is the doomsday scenario many caution against. Plus, I think if all goes to hell with the PSLF program, Veronica would hear about it well before 7 years. 2022 and 2023 will be critical years to see if the number of borrowers forgiven jumps significantly. Further, if she submits a certification form every year and her qualifying payment count goes up, all signs point to PSLF working. This will show Veronica if she is on track for forgiveness.

          My comments here are not to emphatically say that Veronica must do PSLF. My comments are to show that this is a math problem and a question of risk preference. I have done lots of research and math for our family and we are pursuing PSLF eyes wide open. For us, the upside far outweighs the downside. Of course, our numbers and scenario are different, but I am passionate that PSLF not be dismissed without research and thoughtful consideration.

          • Lonelle says:

            Hello, can you tell me which FB group you are on? I am in my 3rd year of the PSLF program and like everyone above, I am only hearing negative things about it. I work for a state college and I am not seeing any of my coworkers actually get it when their 10 years is up.

            Thanks!

          • Laura says:

            I also work for a huge state university and have heard from the folks in HR that we already have employees getting their PSLF forgiveness on our campus. Our HR department helps us file our annual re-certification process with FedLoan each year, to help us make sure we’re on track for forgiveness. (I have four years to go.)

          • Sarah says:

            There is an excellent sub-Reddit for PSLF! https://www.reddit.com/r/PSLF/ It is a gold mine of information. +1 to everything Allie said, and in such an articulate fashion.

  19. ColoradoFIRE says:

    Veronica, what comes through in your story is that you’re strong and resilient, smart (including being smart enough to ask for help when you need it!) and creative. Of all the “assets” a person could have, these qualities are ones you should be very proud of.

    A few thoughts:
    I agree that a financial planner would be really helpful to you. You mentioned Edward Jones. I too lost my mother recently to Alzheimer’s and am wrapping up her estate. Mom was with Edward Jones and I was shocked at their fees. I feel sure that you can get advice of similar quality at a lower-cost company, perhaps Vanguard. Or, if you’re looking for face to face meetings, Schwab.

    I also agree that you should be wary of putting all of your inheritance into property. I would not buy until you’ve changed jobs and are sure you want to stay in that position and area. Then, consider using inherited money only for a down payment. As the commenter above noted. There are some steep costs to owning a house, including repairs, taxes and insurance, and you need to get a handle on those with some savings behind you.

    I think you’ll feel much better with the student loan paid off, and that interest rate is high. Go for it!

    Take an attitude of curiosity as you try to not spend on some items in the next few months. Play with it, instead of “clamping down.” Your thoughts make a huge difference in whether something feels like personal growth or deprivation! I too do art and crafts, and that spending can really add up. I have made two changes lately- a vow to buy no more art books or supplies, but instead use what I have, which has actually really fired my creativity, and also to unravel any knitting project I don’t absolutely love, which has allowed me to spend winter evenings knitting and not deplete my yarn supply – I discovered that I like the process more than I care about most results! I also invited a few people from my painting class to paint together, which is free and has led to some nice friendships. All of these things sound minor but together they represent a few thousand dollars a year saved and have been painless.

    Best of luck to you!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Thank you for mentioning Edward Jones’ high fees. Veronica–please check into the fees they’re charging you as a suspect you could save ton by switching to a lower-fee brokerage (Vanguard, Fidelity, and Schwab all come to mind).

    • Nancy C says:

      Just a quick add on about creative supplies. Recently, I consolidated all my supplies into one space and took an inventory. No need to ever buy another piece of fabric or Paint it really does challenge you. I also joined a small group of women that to craft and we swap what is needed. Finally, I joined the But Nothing, Sell Nothing movement in my area and we swap goods and recently services. It is great to see items finding new homes.

  20. Kim says:

    Veronica, I’m so sorry for your loss. I was the caregiver for my husband before he passed and it is not an easy job. I made a lot of financial blunders (buying crap I didn’t need to buffer my grieving) after he died so I would recommend not rushing into buying anything for at least 6 months. I am a NC native and have lived all over the state. I’m also a long-time member of SECU. When I joined, the interest rate on checking accounts was the best in the nation at 2%, but that’s down now to .75%. The SECU money market accounts are currently 1.2% interest. I like all of Mrs. FW’s recommendations listed above. I paid off my house with life insurance proceeds after my husband died and it gave me so much peace; I couldn’t make the mortgage payment without his salary. Then I invested the rest with Vanguard, VTSAX in particular. NC is notorious for not giving state workers an annual (or any) raise. My sister is getting ready to retire after 20 yrs working for NC. I highly suggest you not count on anything from the state and find another job ASAP that pays you well. I wish you much success in life as you move forward!

  21. Laura says:

    Veronica – thanks for sharing your story here. I’m very sorry for the loss of your mother. She sounds like a lovely person and was lucky to have her daughters care for her. I wish you all the best and good for you for getting treatment for complex PTSD. My brother in law has been going through a similar struggle and it is getting better for him…slowly, but surely.

    I live in Canada, so don’t have any financial/investing advice… I was wondering though, for a part-time job, what about a vet clinic? There should be a few around the country side – lots of people with horses/cows etc. in the country. As an animal lover and biologist, maybe you would be a good fit for that type of work? Maybe they would give you a discount on some treatments for your puppers? 😉

    • Dawn says:

      Piggy-backing on the vet clinic suggestion. What about working for a wildlife rehabilitation center? I have no idea what the general pay is but it would seem to be a field related to your background and certainly a valuable contribution to the world. My family and I live in WNC and volunteer with the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. Best of luck to you!

      • Caro says:

        Hi, I’m a Wildlife Biologist and wildlife rehab works tends to be on a volunteer basis, although there are some rare paying positions, so you never know. The vet clinic suggestion is good though, depending on what she does.

  22. Hi Veronica, first of all, I am so sorry for your loss. I lost both of my parents within a year of each other, also while in my late 30’s, and it has been extremely difficult. It is good that you are seeking out therapy as this is a very difficult and tumultuous time and I know I personally dealt with a lot of guilt surrounding being a caretaker for my mother.

    I don’t know when your mom died, but if it was in 2019, then you are eligible for what’s called a stretch IRA. The SECURE act signed into law at the end of 2019 made it so that all inherited IRAs in 2020 and beyond, inherited by a non-spouse that is more than 10 years in age difference, those IRAs have to be drawn down within 10 years. However, if your mom died in 2019, then you are eligible to take age-based required minimum distributions based on your life expectancy. This means the IRA can continue to grow for 30-40 years while you draw it down slowly over the rest of your life. After my mom died, we had the original (expensive) brokerage split it in half for me and my sibling. We then transferred her IRA from the expensive brokerage to Vanguard. Once it was in Vanguard, we sold all of the high-fee funds, and reinvested it in low-fee index funds. There is no capital gains to pay on this since they are all tucked away in a tax-sheltered account. Vanguard has a mechanism to set up automatic RMDs (it is an annual lump sum for us). Anyways, please ping me on Twitter if you want to know more about how we dealt with all of this, since we are currently still dealing with our parent’s estate. Take care, it is so much to think about!!!

  23. Carrie says:

    I’m very sorry for the loss of your mom — it sounds like she was very lucky to have you as a daughter. It’s also really impressive to see someone who has overcome obstacles to succeed in a difficult field. I agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods that the top two priorities are decreasing spending and getting a higher paying job. The two suggestions I might disagree with with are to stop hair and clothing spending now. If you are looking for another job, it may be important to make a few carefully considered high quality but low cost purchases of interview clothes, as well as regular haircuts. For wildlife work this may be different, but for interviewing with energy companies specifically I imagine they might expect you to interview in clothes different from those you wear for daily work. Just a thought. Best of luck to you!!

  24. Ginger Merrill says:

    Hi Veronica! Thank you for sharing your story! I will share with you how I saved significantly on my pet care annual spending. I was spending almost 600 a year on my pup’s vaccinations, heart worm and flea & tick supplies. I now am spending $125!
    We live in rural New Hampshire & yearly I drive 1.5 hours to a big box pet store and have my pup’s shots & buy my heartworm and flea and tick meds from the visiting vet! It’s a huge savings! Check it out! Typically vets visit and set up clinics one weekend a month. Hope this is a helpful hint for you.

    I also travel in my car a lot! Rather than stop for coffee I carry a huge thermos if coffee and have avoided spending $250+ a year in coffee.

    Good luck to you as you achieve your dreams!

  25. Katie says:

    Hi Veronica!

    I am so sorry about the loss of your mom and kudos for doing such a great job taking care of her! When I looked at your goals – it looks like you really want to make more money and own a property. If I were you, I would pay off all your debts with the inheritance (I think the student loan program is holding you back from better employment and I don’t believe its worth it!), Seek out the employment and pay increase you are looking for and then once you are settled in the career dept, buy a property with the remainder of your inheritance. I think you need to play to your weaknesses, and I think tying up the money in a place that you value will bring you piece of mind and won’t allow you to mess up with it. I would then focus on retirement with whatever tax vehicle makes the most sense in your new career. In the meantime – perhaps a side hustle with your jewelry or a second job to assist in the income gap for the time being.

    Best of luck!

    Katie

  26. Janet says:

    Hi Veronica, You’re getting lots of great advice so I thought I’d focus my comments on an area where I have some expertise: photography and the potential (or not) to make money from it.

    Outside my day job, I spend most of my spare time focusing on photography (especially portraiture of rescued animals). I do it mainly on a non-profit basis to support rescue groups, but I’ve also had experience exhibiting my work and selling prints, books and cards. Bottom line – it’s not very remunerative and it’s very competitive. I recommend that you keep exploring your options because it seems like something you love to do, but I think it would be hard to make money at it without investing $ for certain kinds of materials etc to make it work.

    On the other hand, I think you could use your skills as a photographer and wildlife biologist in a somewhat different way to bring in money, although it likely won’t result in immediate loads of cash. Why don’t you look into teaching photography (focusing on wildlife photography) online, and combine it with content that relates to your knowledge as a wildlife biologist? You could do one-on-one sessions (almost like a critique of others’ work) or develop a course that you run through a private FB group (or something similar and free). Start with your own friends / family / social network and build from there.

    You could also look into offering wildlife walks/photo tours for small groups (I know Air BnB has an experience section and this might be a platform to try). For security reasons, you might want to partner with someone.

    If you’d like to chat more about ideas, you can connect with me through my website at janetholmesphoto.com

    • Bonnie says:

      Janet…WOW on your photos. Just…wow. I keep adding to my note and deleting what I’ve written. I think I’ll leave it there. Wonderful. Empathetic. Insightful. Persuasive. Thank you for sharing your website.

  27. Sarah says:

    Hi Veronica, sounds like you had a tough 2019 but you came a long way and are on a good track. My condolences on the passing of your lovely mother! I have to agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods, get those debt monkeys off your back first. It will make a big difference. I net $2083.00 a month (in the Pittsburgh PA area) and was able to pay off all my debts last April, and now I feel very comfortable in my earnings and am able to save quite a bit. One thing that helps me and could be a viable option for you depending on the size of your house is get a roommate. It would reduce your rent and utilities. My roommate and I pay $850.00 plus electric for our apartment. So my half is roughly $475 give or take depending on the electric bill. We also split household goods like toilet paper, paper towels, trashbags, etc. That frees up a lot of money! Plus, if they are an animal lover, but don’t have any pets themselves, they could potentially care for your dogs when you are away and you wouldn’t have to pay the neighbor down the street. Which is a big blessing for me, because Maryellen is willing to take care of my cat when I go away. Blessings to you. Keep up the good work!

  28. Jill says:

    Hi Veronica, I don’t have any advice but just wanted to say a few things – I’m so sorry for your loss. You and your sister are in my thoughts. Second, thank you for sharing your PTSD diagnosis in this case study. It takes courage to talk about these things, but it’s important and also helps normalize mental health issues. Finally, I really appreciate you stating your non-negotiables up front during this exercise. We all have to have non-negotiables in this life, especially if they help keep us healthy and happy! I struggle doing this in my own life, so it means a lot to see you firmly say ‘nope, this is important and I’m keeping it.’

  29. Michele says:

    Veronica, I was so impressed by the sense of gratitude, responsibility, and clear values that came through in your story. You are clearly and extraordinary human.

    One thing you might do for short-term income is test for user testing.com. We use the site at work. I’m not sure what the wages look like, but a few hours in the evening once or twice a week could give you short term breathing room.

    • KN says:

      Thank you for the usertesting.com idea. My husband is a stay at home dad now and we’re looking for ways for him to get a little extra cash on the side. I sent this to him!

    • Dawn Harris says:

      Thank you for the suggestion of usertesting. I home educate my children and have been considering ways to contribute financially to our family within the parameters of my 24 hour a day job. I will look into this further. Thanks again!

  30. Melodie Gage says:

    What a difficult loss to go through, Veronica. I’m so sorry. As I read your review, I am in awe at the ways you have already followed your bliss, and admire how you have faced your addiction and challenges. One thing that comes to mind that hasn’t been mentioned: As you are still in a fragile success with your spending/debt addiction (less than 3 years), you may benefit from an added layer of “security” until you are more stable in your recovery. One way you could accomplish this is to establish a trust to manage your inheritance and savings, appointing a trusted, level-headed yet compassionate trustee to work with you to manage it. It would be important that there is clear, written understanding of priorities, needs and goals and how/when the trust would end. A trust could pay you a monthly allowance until you move into a higher-paying job, could pay off your debt in a viable way, and could set aside money and distribute it for your future goals. A trustee would be the gate keeper to provide checks and balances so if you do head into a season of stress or relapse you would not go into a tailspin of spending and lose your inheritance funds. Though your situation is somewhat different, the similarities with “special-needs trusts” might make that a good area to research. If, for whatever reason, you don’t choose to go the route of establishing a trust, I hope you put into place some accountability measures similar to what a trust can do. All the best to you!

    • Amanda says:

      This is great advice to consider, especially given that grief and loneliness from the loss of someone close to you can trigger the return of addictive behaviors.

  31. Susan Myers says:

    I am always fascinated by other people’s financial situations. Reading them helps evaluate my own. Other people have given great advice, but I also want to note that while saving is a good thing, saving at a low rate while paying interest on debt at a much higher rate is not a good thing. After saving a minimum of $2000 for any emergencies, take the rest of your savings and pay off the car, the student loans, whatever debt you may have. Financially it is vital, but the mental health of being debt-free far surpasses the economic advantages. One more thing–you really don’t need to pay for life insurance, since you have no dependents. Put the money toward paying off debt, and after that, toward making the richer life you desire. Good luck!

    • Mrs. Frugalwoods says:

      Thank you so much for mentioning the life insurance, Susan! I meant to include that in my recommendations and it slipped my mind. Veronica–since you do not have dependents, you do not need life insurance.

      • Jen says:

        I’m in a similar situation to Veronica in terms of being single and in my early 40’s and there are still reasons that life insurance can be worthwhile when you’re single. For instance, I want to have money to give to the people who will take over caring for my dogs if I die. I also don’t want my mom to have the burden of my funeral costs if I die before her. Since my life insurance is less than $3 pre-tax per month through my employer I’ve kept it for these reasons. The big difference between myself and Veronica is that I do have a mortgage that my retirement savings currently won’t cover. But until Veronica receives at least some of her inheritance, if her debt plus anything she would leave money for is greater than her current worth, it may be worth keeping it with the major caveat of depending on the cost (I get that she needs to take care of herself before she takes care of others, but if hers is anything like mine it’s practically negligible).. Just a thought.

      • Tracy says:

        I understand this thought process but if Veronica is interested in having dependents in the future (and I know that right now she is not sure) it might be better to keep the insurance. I believed I didn’t need it until I had kids and by the time I had my child it was more than twice as much as it would have been to get it in my 20s and keep it than it was to get a 20 year policy (to cover until the kid grew up and left home) at 40. And I’m in fairly decent health with no history of issues in my family. I’m not saying everyone should have life insurance, but I would say to think before dropping existing coverage if you do want to have kids someday…

  32. Tash says:

    A quick note on the alternative housing situation: provided that you have community/friends living relatively close by (I know this is not the case at the moment, but maybe it will be in the future), it might be worth researching eco-building, that is, building your own place from sustainable materials taken from your own environment — such as earthbag buildings (superadoble), cob, strawbale, earth bricks/blocks/rammed earth. The pros of this kind of construction are that
    1. It’s several orders of magnitude cheaper than buying a conventional home
    2. It requires relatively little specialized skill acquisition before you can start building (you’ll need a professional to install plumbing/electro).
    3 It strongly relies on community/family/friends to build (a lot of “unskilled” labor).
    4. It’s environmentally friendly as it takes the resources already available on your land/nearby, that if not free, are at least very very cheap.
    5. Require very little machinery to construct (except for the rammed earth method)
    6. Allows you to channel your learning impulses and creativity into something with very tangible results (your own house no less!)
    7. are usually very energy efficient (thick and well insulated walls — smaller bills)

    Obviously this is not for everybody. it requires some specific physical fitness levels; takes quite a bit of a time and a sizable group of friends to lend a hand; then, not everyone is up to build their own house, or is interested in the particular skills that might come with it; not everyone would be up for whatever living arrangements would have to be put in place while the house is being built, and not all land is equal in terms of resources. But hey, I’m just putting it out there. It might be an option worth looking into.

  33. Soggy suzzi. says:

    Veronica, I so feel for your pain with the loss of your mother and the years of difficulty that entailed. I went through a similar situation with a relative (there wasn’t anyone else to help) so I understand the years of “no life” and constant caregiving while holding down a full time job at the same time. What a caring person you are

    A couple of suggestions:

    1) When you do change jobs, I recommend you initially rent and not be in a hurry to buy. Make sure “this is the place” before you purchase a house. Don’t worry about not knowing how to fix things, just hit the internet – there are free directions to do everything there. I did it without the internet, so you will have an advantage using the internet.

    2) Visit Guildbrook Farm on U Tube. Jaime and her husband both worked in internet management positions at the same company and the company was sold and the new owners canned the entire internet staff and hired contractors from another country working here on visas. Lower cost, no benefits, etc They decided to homestead, and that journey is fascinating as they wanted to have total control over their income and future Interesting journey! They are neighbors or you in North Carolina.

    Jaime has a post called “Draw, Paint, Sketch – How We Learn New Skills” By taking advantage of the two month free useage, she not only increased her interest in drawing and painting, she now has a thriving business selling her work on either Instagram or Face Book, I forget which. The post is called Guildbrook Art She specializes in pet pictures (customers send her photos of their doggies, etc.) and wild animal pictures. While she undoubtedly has customers from their almost 200,000 subscribers, the fact that she could sell to anyone over the internet is a blessing. Anyway you might want to check it out as a possibility. Lots of part time possibilities on the internet.

  34. Debra says:

    So sorry about the loss of your mom! It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work to put your life in order and you’re making progress. Good for you!

    Have you ever considered getting a roommate? This would serve a couple of purposes. It could slash your rent in half and help mitigate feelings of isolation. The right roommate could also potentially take care of the dogs when you go away, cutting out costs for their care when you’re away. It looks like the farmhouse you’re currently renting is pretty big, with enough room that when you want your privacy you could have it, even with another person in the house.

    Best of luck!

  35. Veronica says:

    Hi, Veronica here!
    I wanted to pop in and express my gratitude for all of the comments. I started reading them, but quickly became overwhelmed, so I am going to try to come in over the next few days to read comments and respond for shorter bursts of time.
    I cannot send my thanks enough to Liz for generously working with me on this and for everyone who has or will comment with their amazing and astute advice – it means so much to receive this support!

  36. kristi O'Donnell says:

    Great job Veronica and well done getting to DA. I am very sorry for your loss.
    I’ve got a few suggestions to make extra money in the short-term until you find a better paying job.
    1. Put your stuff on Etsy to sell.
    2. Get a website/blog up and running if you don’t already to start selling your stuff. Free market on Instagram and Facebook and even Twitter.
    3. Since you travel around a lot in the state, start leaving your cards/flyers to check out your Etsy site/website for selling your items.
    4. See if you can go to some art markets to sell your items
    5. You can do data collection/med data write ups online at home for some extra cash. It’s usually part-time and easy to do albeit mindnumbing work.
    6. See if there are museum/park jobs you can do on the side to teach kids about wildlife, which is within your career and can only you make you more marketable.
    7. See if you can sell guided hikes (focusing on wildlife) in your area, which is within your career and can only you make you more marketable.
    8. Dog sit since you have big open land or even dog walk.
    9. Maybe you can do some caregiving on the side as part-time. I’m sure nursing homes could use it. I know you are probably burnt out, but it would be a good way to make easy money in the short-term.

    Also, will you have to split any of the inheritance with your sister? I wasn’t clear about that at all. Does that change the overall total.

    I hope this helps! Good luck to you.

  37. Susan says:

    Hi Saw you were thinking of moving to mountains of NC or VA. You might want to consider TN for tax purposes. We retired to the mountains of TN after researching all the areas you mentioned wanting to live. Just a thought. Good luck.

  38. Krista says:

    Your side hussle could be your end of life doula training! I work in healthcare and this is such a need in the US. You could charge for end of life training, offer workshops for families, offer respite services for families, be a evening-weekend caregiver. Really the options are limitless. Such a huge need in the area.

  39. Katie Camel says:

    Veronica, I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother. What a gift to you both though for having been her caretaker! I’m amazed and thrilled for you that you chose this path. It takes a strong person to have served in this way. My sympathies and prayers to you during this difficult time.

    The first things that jumped out at me were your love of teaching and how isolated you are. Also, your beautiful farmhouse is enormous for one person and two dogs. So my suggestions for immediate sources of income would be to 1) consider teaching English online, though this will be challenging at first. VIPKid is a great option to start exploring. I know several people who’ve done well with this venture. And, 2, why not rent or Airbnb one of your rooms? For safety reasons, you may want to only rent to women.

    I also suggest learning to cut your hair yourself to save that expense and to switch to an MVNO. I’ve done both and the cost savings are huge! By making these small changes and possibly renting part of your home, you could help bridge that monthly deficit. I also recommend cutting all discretionary spending right now to make ends meet.

    Next, I would move from Edward Jones to Vanguard for lower fees. I’ve not been impressed with Edward Jones’s fees. I would probably also think long and hard about how best to use the inheritance. Will paying off the debt with your inheritance trigger thoughts that you can go on a spending spree and disrupt the discipline you’re cultivating? If so, I’d probably invest a portion of that inheritance in an IRA to keep you from spending it while simultaneously building your retirement funds.

    Does all of that debt encourage you to continue working hard and focusing on paying it off? If you pay it off, will you be as determined to save for a home or contribute to retirement? If so, then pay it off. If not, then invest it instead. Or, do both! But I would look for a higher paying job regardless.

    Good luck to you!

    • Beth says:

      I was going to suggest VIPKid as well. As long as she has good wireless connection and being as she loves to teach, it is a great option that could help her make up her deficit.

  40. Kay says:

    I suggest you try the dollar store when you are in the “city”. By using their products my average monthly toiletry cost is $2.50. (some products last more than a month) I also get a haircut twice a year (beauty school) and apply colour at home. (Sally’s beauty supply). I buy enough food at good prices so I don’t get tempted to buy near house where prices are higher. I like lettuce so I made a hydroponic, indoor lettuce growing center. Was easy (youtube) and now I have it cheaply all the time. I save a lot as used to buy 4 heads lettuce weekly. At home, I quit using paper towels, paper napkins, and toilet paper (quick shower spray instead). This saves me $170 a year. My cell phone is Ting. My friends and family know they must use Skype, Zoom, or Viber to talk to me. In an emergency they call via Ting. I pay for that minute and we switch to free ways. This I can do through my home internet plan or when I am in the city via free wifi. I have told my family and friends I can’t afford gifts. I only send free ecards. Many were relieved to get out of the gift exchange rat race. When we gather as a big group at Christmas we do a white elephant gift exchange game with each bring a wrapped used item. It is fun! For a part time gig I suggest you sign up to do online tutoring via computer in biology or anything you are strong in. Many people could benefit from your expertise! It is hard to cut expenses but I had no choice. Figure out what you can cut to the bone and what you must keep to enjoy little treats. Another thing that helps me is considering costs of habits over my lifetime. For example toiletries. I was spending $80 a month. For 70 years = $67,200. Crazy! Now I get same result for $2,100. HUGE difference. Paper products for 70 years=$11,900, now $1050 (I keep toilet paper for guests and buy cloth napkins. I use recycled tshirts for nose blowing as they can be cut and don’t fray). I do realize prices will go up but you can see what I mean. By thinking in terms of lifetime costs, I don’t feel deprived when I think of having that cash instead. Good luck! With your positive attitude and accomplishments, I believe you can be successful at anything you decide to do! Best wishes.

  41. Dorothy says:

    Veronica, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’d like to point out something about buying a house that wasn’t covered: Are you ready to settle down? I would suggest that until you find another job or decide to stay in a specific place, you don’t buy — even with all cash. Your current place looks wonderful, and $750/month for a house is a fantastic rent! (I live in an area rated one of the cheapest in the country — Oklahoma — and I couldn’t find much to match that house at that price!) I suggest you want to maintain more flexibility in your choice of residences for awhile. I did buy my house with all cash, thinking I was in a place where I want to retire, and, um, well, nope! So just consider all the angles involved with buying. Good luck!

  42. Elise says:

    My condolences with your loss. I lost my dad a little over a year ago, and it has been one of the most challenging years of my life, and at the same time a year of tremendous personal growth. Us kids helped my mom, who had never managed finances, with figuring out her income from my dad’s pension, her expenses, and what to do with the lump sum of cash that became available. A piece of advice we got, which I am forever grateful for, is not to make any big changes in the first year. My mom was initially talking about moving, and I myself suddenly felt an urgent need to get married to my partner asap. Instead, we took things slow. My mom is happy to still live in her neighborhood where she has a vast social network. Instead of moving, she frugally redid the bedroom, renewing it, painting it, buying a new-to-her second hand bed that was not quite so big as the old one. A year after my dad’s death, she started looking at rescues and she just adopted her dog two months ago – and again, with how overwhelming she finds the change to her life of getting a dog, she is happy to have waited a year. I and my partner have just started planning our wedding, and again, I am happy we did not rush the decision. It is amazing how much difference a year can make – a year ago I was very much grieving, my emotions all over the place. Now I feel much more stable. I think that’s where the advice to wait a year before making radical changes comes from – those are better made in a stable emotional state.

    Thinking about your finances, I do agree with Mrs. Frugalwoods about using part of the cash inheritance to pay off all of your current debts, for peace of mind and reduced monthly expenses. However, I would be careful about radical changes like moving or changing to the private sector. A job change (at least to me), seems pretty challenging on top of grief & PTSD therapy, and it sounds like a lot of your happiness stems from the amazing work you do.

    Also, please make an etsy shop and post a link with the update to your case study, i would love to buy a print of one of your photos.

    Finally, cudos to you! It is incredibly powerful to me that you share a story with so much honesty, vulnerability and frankness. Way to go for getting therapy, for joining and sticking with debtors anonymous and for choosing a job that makes you happy and that helps us preserve this beautiful earth. Your story is truly inspirational, and I don’t doubt that you will make wise decisions and continue to live in accordance with the values that bring you joy!

  43. Nancy C says:

    Hi Veronica,

    Just a quick note to say how sorry I am to hear about your mother’s death . The years of caregiving were, no doubt, hard but the love you both shared shines through. My 24 year old daughter and I are caring for my husband (and her dad) on this same hard journey with early onset Alzheimer ‘s.

    Your caring, creativity and thinking about short and long term living is inspirational. I plan on sharing your journey with my daughter as I think she will find it reassuring to know there is a lot of living ahead. Sending you warm thoughts.

  44. Lucy says:

    Veronica, you are an amazing, selfless person!

    The one thing I had a strong reaction to was investing with Edward Jones. I used them briefly when I first opened my IRA in 2011 and found that I could only invest by placing a phone call with an advisor who was not a fiduciary and earned commissions for the stocks he recommended to me. Also their expense ratios are insanely high, and I was paying fees just to have an account open with them.

    I didn’t know to look out for any of this at the time, and I’ve since transferred all of my retirement investments (including 401k rollovers) to Vanguard. I’ve helped a friend move her money over to vanguard as well and just this year her rate of return in their 500 Index fund and a bond fund combined to be over 20%. So it sounds like in addition to the fees you’re likely paying, you’re not making as much money as you could be with their funds.

  45. Rob says:

    Invest all inherited funds ASAP, fixed term deposit where it cannot be accessed ahead of time, have interest compounded : watch it grow! i.e. remove temptation – inheritances are not to be frittered, the money has often been accumulated through self-discipline, & we have a responsibility to the donor to use it wisely. Put it out of reach while you take the time to think your options through. It will be reassuring to know you have a backstop in case of unexpected disaster (ask me how I know…)

  46. Wendy says:

    First I have to say, Veronica, I love your heart. I am so sorry for the loss of your dear mom, and I pray that you will find peace in reflecting on the time you had with her and the bond you have with your sister because of this. You are a super strong person, admitting your weaknesses and working to improve outcomes in your life. We are all broken, making the adjustments and doing the work is admirable.

    I agree totally with Mrs. F. Because you have made such incredible strides in improving spending habits, I think your first step should be to cut back and get within the income you have, tighten things up a bit. Most importantly look for a job that will pay you a living salary that is in line with your specialty. Get the word out to all our contacts and make the hunt the real deal. Knowing someone is truly powerful when looking for work.

    As for the loans and car, pay it all off, your mom would want you to start fresh. (I know that is what I would want if you were my kid.)

    I would caution you on buying a homestead until you have the job, because destinations can change. I come from experience that buying a home, and having to sell to move for your job does not always work in your favor.. and losing that initial investment in a quick turn around of property does sting. However, if you are reluctant to put the entire inheritance into a property, look at keeping your payment with taxes and all costs each month at a price point that you feel good about. Use the inheritance for a downpayment that will do that, and then invest the rest choosing a diverse fund that shows a decent history. Just leave that alone and let it grow for retirement. That stock, you should look at moving to something that will be a little better protected. Just an aside: Our uncle gives us stock tips and it makes us laugh, because unless you have thousands to lose, buying a few shares of stock is always a risk unless you have money to play with.

    Your photos are amazing, and handmade jewelry is widely sought after. Have you thought about a little online boutique? With something like Etsy you can create your own boutique and share your products. There are lots of other avenues for online boutiques as well, and I don’t know all the costs, but you certainly have the talent. This side income could support your classes and other adventures once you get it up and running. And, you could find others in the community where you land that have the same interests and you could do craft workshops, jewelry making parties, or novice photography classes and that might help to get more social aspects into your life. Often community colleges are looking for people with your talents to teach adult courses with these topics in the area where I live, so you might find something like that near you.

    I wish you all the best in your plans, and will be keeping you in my thoughts as you work to align your financial and life plans!

    Best,
    Wendy

  47. Cindy in South says:

    I work for a different state. It takes ten years for us to “vest” and then once we turn 60, we can get a check monthly, if we select that option, for the rest of our life. The amount we will receive once we decide to retire depends on the number of years we have in our state system and how long we work in the system. Obviously if I work until 67, I will have far more in a monthly retirement paycheck than I would if I retired at 60. We are also a state that we pay into social security, so we can draw a social security check at age 62 or older. I bring this up because I am not real clear on the N.C. retirement based on the case study. If your system works like that, I would wait until I vested, then job hop elsewhere, hopefully to the federal system, which has an awesome retirement. If you also pay into the social security system under your state system, perhaps you would have also paid enough quarters into the system by then ( or with previous jobs) to also draw social security at 62. I would wait until I had enough quarters for social security before making the jump to the federal wildlife job. I think multiple streams of income are important during retirement. You are still young, and if you are able to have a state retirement check, a social security check based on your state job and previous jobs,, and also a federal retirement check if you get a federal job in the future, you will be doing great during your retirement years. I would also follow Ms. Frugalwoods suggestions in reducing your monthly outgo, temporarily, until you vest. so you are not in the negative every month. However, if N.C. does not have this option for a monthly pension amount, then yeah, it probably won’t make much difference when you make the jump to a federal job, like Ms. Frugalwoods said. Since you may marry, or get job transferred elsewhere, I would not buy land/house just yet, unless you really, really know where you want to retire. I have changed my mind multiple times as to where I wish to retire.

    • Cindy in South says:

      Well, apparently there are new WEP rules and perhaps you cannot collect SS (or a greatly reduced amt), even if paid into SS system if you go work in FED system. I don’t know all the rules so perhaps consult with an expert on the rules.

  48. hbr says:

    Hi Veronica — thanks for such a thoughtful case study. You have been through a lot, and I applaud you for thinking so proactively about what comes next during a challenging time. My comment is about your car insurance — it might be worth getting some quotes from other insurance companies to see if you can reduce it (for example, Geico). Also, you might be able to reduce your premium if you increase your deductible a bit. Best wishes!

  49. Caro says:

    Hi Veronica! I also am a Wildlife Biologist and it’s a great career! Before going on, my condolences for your mom. I also want to say that I admire you for overcoming your challenges with PTSD and addiction. You’re a strong and creative woman!

    I live in Canada so can’t give you much financial advice, but I do work for the Federal Government. Here in Canada a Wildlife Biologist working for the Federal Government can make in the six figure range plus defined benefit pension plan and per diem when you travel. In the past, I have collaborated with people who work for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the benefits were comparable. I don’t know about how it is now as I’ve lost touch with them, but I strongly suggest you examine that venue. And the energy companies sound lucrative and interesting as well.

    Sending lots of love.
    BTW beautiful pictures, I especially love the elephants. I’m going to Kenya to do some fieldwork (line transects using distance method to estimate their numbers).

  50. Kate says:

    I also wanted to add – I am a person who mentally does much better with different savings accounts for different things so I get the different accounts. I really, really love Smarty Pig for this (www.smartypig.com, I have no financial interest) There are no fees and the APY is around 1.75%. You can make as many “goals” as you like, so I can set up a Christmas goal, a kitchen renovation goal, a home downpayment goal, etc. but still have all the money in one place.

  51. Robert says:

    Sorry for your loss Veronica and thank you for sharing your case study. My mother-in-law has Alzheimers and she is in a facility that costs $10k per month so by caring for your Mom, you had precious time with her and $$ savings per month. I agree with Mrs. FW’s suggestions so no need to comment further there. Just a couple of questions/thoughts – 1. You have over $20k in savings so there was a time in your life when your expenses were less than your income – what changed? 2. You said the worst part of your life is isolation and commented that the nearest city is an hour away where you could go to classes and/or socialize. Are you sure you want a farmhouse with 30 acres? That sounds isolating, no?

  52. Cindy says:

    Ally recently introduced buckets to their savings accounts so we went from multiple accounts to just one and can divvy up what’s in the account. We have buckets set up for emergency, house, and car. This helped us cut back on trying to manage so many accounts! We also went from using 3 checking accounts to just two. We’d like to get down to just one at some point feel more comfortable with having a spend account and a bills account for now. That might change as time goes by. 🙂

    I agree about using the inheritance to get out of debt and then invest the rest as though you never ever saw it. I think this would help reduce the stress and free you up to continue doing the work you love without worrying about the paycheck.

  53. Carolyn says:

    Dear Veronica, I can understand your story because I help care for my Mom with my brother. I posted further up try Ameriprise. The company pays their financial advisors for their performance, not you. There was a couple of things I wanted to give you to help to drop you expenses some. 1 Do you really need a brand new phone? I got a I phone 6 last year off ebay for $100 with a couple of scratches. I love the phone and am just as happy as can be. All you have to do is wait for the new phone to become someone’s old phone with no scratches. 2 What kind of phone plane do you have? You might have to go with a plan with less data until you can do better. 3 Are you paying insurance every month? Biting the bullet and paying the 6month bill in full, you can receive a small discount. 4 When you can get near a dollar tree, goodwill, or garage sale there are lots of gardening supplies cheap.

  54. Laurie says:

    Hi Veronica. I wish you lots of peace and love in the memory of your mom. I have a few quick tips which helped us get our finances in order and feel more confident investing. I noticed you didn’t mention the expense ratios of any of your investment accounts and the fact you work with Edward Jones (I know from personal experience when I was in my 20s) tells me they are likely high. This is killing your returns! I would recommend Vanguard instead. We loved the 60 minute frontline special “the retirement gamble” in simple explaining expense ratios (essentially investment fees) and why low cost index funds are best investment in almost all circumstances. A simple path to wealth is an excellent book as well on this topic. You could save a ton on your cellphone bill by going through red pocket. They’re amazing because you can choose the network you are on. We pay $15/month for Verizon network. For high interest savings accounts we have used both discover and betterment and they both pay nearly 2%. I would highly recommend using credible to consolidated your student loans and get a lower interest rate and would also pay them down as fast as possible. Best of luck and I hope you wait awhile to do anything with the money besides paying off your debt

  55. LongTime Frugal says:

    I too questioned the capital gains on the house? Who is administering the trust – a bank? If so, sorry, UGH. I too would get rid of the student loan debt. You are spot on re: present admins hold on filling open positions. I’d not trust the current US dept of ed any farther than I could throw them. Same goes if the program is through your state.
    Not sure why you’d move from Pershing to Edward Jones. All advisors come with costs. I use Pershing and the annual fees are reasonable. My spouse uses Edward Jones (long story, male ego) and I am underwhelmed and unimpressed. Then again, I make most of the decisions re: where to invest my money. But the advise for a fiduciary is spot on. Otherwise your “advisor” will be moving your funds on a regular basis to improve his/her bottom line, not yours.
    I also question why you have death and dismemberment? You have disability. Perhaps I am not clear on the life insurance. Life insurance can be a complicated decision – you do have pets (your dependents). But not sure you need AD&D unless it is a freebee.

  56. So sorry for your loss and congratulations on being so open and honest about your debt and your struggles with it. A couple of things….not sure in your area whether you could “house sit” for 6 months to a year to save on rent if you only have your dog and not a house full of furniture. As you are in a remote area not sure of the availablity of this however some people go travelling for months and need the house and pets minded. Free rent. Your farmhouse you are living in looks great. I agree getting in a house mate to pay half the rent and expenses and also it’s good company. You will get good ones and not so good ones so interviewing them is critical to find out if they have similar values to you however this would free up money and also have a buddy to chat do, go on walks etc. I agree with FW to get rid of all the debt and also cut down the number of bank accounts. The guided walks sounded great and also opening up an Etsy shop or your own website. You could create an online workshop for kids. There are websites that are set up for you to create your online course. Check out Elise Joy she has 3 courses “Encouraging Creative Kids” , “Sewing isn’t scary” and “inbox bootcamp”. https://www.elisejoy.com/course It’s just a matter of typing your course, including photos and videos etc. The beauty of on-line is that it can be purchased over and over again without any time from you apart from setting it all up. Not sure of what the fees are however this would be worth investigating. It’s “Teachery” is the one she uses however there are a couple of platforms. You could start typing up your course on your computer before you even had to pay for it and this could be done at no cost to you only your time. You could start up a personal blog for free [I use blogspot] and post about your life, artwork and nature as it’s good therapy to be writing about your life, you’ll start to get readers and then if you have a course people might spread the word. You could certainly run introduction to nature workshops for kids like 2-3 hours of 5-8 kids on a weekend. Think activities like leaf shapes, sticks in the letter of the kids name…plus your knowledge of wildlife and nature. Kathy, Brisbane, Australia

  57. Jen says:

    I am sorry for your loss. I love the NC/VA mountain too; however, I don’t think you should limit yourself to just them. I think you should also consider GA/TN/WV; their mountains are just as beautiful and will give you many more options for moving to a low-cost area. Moving into the private sector is a good way to increase your income; I think you should look into jobs at the major utilities, city governments, and consulting firms in the region, not just NC/VA. By opening yourself to opportunities throughout the Southeast you have many more options.

  58. Paula C says:

    Veronica, since you said you could live anywhere in North Carolina, you might want to check out the Earthaven community (Asheville/Black Mountain area). They have land and places to live/garden, and you can cut your expenses very significantly. Take a look at their website.

  59. Matthew says:

    NC Works offers career counseling services. That might be a place to start.

    The position you have is “dream work” but does not seem to be a “dream job.”

  60. Veronica, thank you for sharing. A couple of tips- fair warning, I work at a college, so my they revolve around that.
    1. Our field station provides grants that are not limited to the college population. You could reach out to the ones in your area to see if that’s an option.
    2. Community colleges typically run adult learning classes which will vary in length from a single workshop, to weekly offerings. You could inquire whether they are looking for new classes/ instructors.
    3. Children’s programming in the summer can be another great place to pick up workshops.
    4. Have you considered adjunct teaching? Reach out to department chair’s in your area. In the intro email ( if it’s true) express your willingness to teach online.
    5. Do at least one art show and one craft fair this year. A small craft fair will cost around $25 to table, and community art shows will be free, and you might meet some interesting people and make new connections.
    6. Is there a grant/commission from the tourism bureau to develop a nature calendar for the area? Your photographs are lovely.
    Best of luck to you!

    • Heidi Louise says:

      I was also thinking about whether you could go into some educational work, even briefly. Check with local schools or Earth Day events who need speakers, presenters, etc.? The advantage would be to help you get in contact with people who might be interested in you and your work. And it would perhaps lessen some of the isolation you feel.
      Warm thoughts to you as you remember the best of your Mom.

  61. Celeste says:

    I am sorry about the loss of your mother. As was suggested by someone further up, your experience in caring for your mother could easily be translated into a side gig. No matter where you live, people have elderly loved ones with illness that either need providers (someone to run errands, help with minimal cleaning, etc), sitters (to be in the home as a caretaker) or a combination of both. I work in the healthcare industry and know that a lot of “sitters” have minimal training — you have more real life training than many of those people have. You might consider reaching out to a home health agency in your area to see if they have any openings or could help connect you. Also, if you wanted to make animal care a side gig, I would consider going to a local vets office — perhaps even asking your own vet about putting your name out there for animal care. As a single person, I am always looking for someone who can ran by and check on my animals when I have trips that take me away. I live in a semi rural area. The guy that does the job for me right now travels 25 minutes each direction, so I treasure him.

    • Jen says:

      I second the suggestion to look for earning opportunities related to your experience outside of your field. Elder care is a booming area. I care for my mom each weekend; the cost for aides for companionship care during the week (when I am working) is 20$ plus per hour. This is not medical care; it is help with the tasks of daily living. You may not be interested in this type of work right now, but it is worth considering. Plus, it is highly valued by the families you are helping.

  62. Tracy says:

    I live in the north GA mountains,10 mins from NC. There are many people moving to the area, and subsequently it is driving up land and housing prices. Salaries are not increasing with it. It can be isolating if you do not actively engage with local groups or churches. But, with the influx of new people, some of the social dynamics are changing, as you mentioned finding your tribe is important to you. I love it, but go in with clear expectations from the town you eventually choose.

    If I were in your position at 40, I would pay off all debts, and max my retirement funds with my house inheritance each year until it’s gone. If you were to became disabled, insurance only covers a portion of your salary. I lost 60% of my income when it happened to me. You can withdraw from retirement accounts if disabled, it is a qualifying exception to the IRS penalty.

    Additionally, you could use the IRA payments to fund a Roth every year. Taking it yearly at your income isn’t the tax hit as taking a lump sum, it allows it to grow while invested, and you can withdraw the original principal amount for the down payment on a first time home purchase without penalty if you do not have other funds at that point. The growth on a Roth is tax free at withdrawal, which stretches your retirement dollars.

    Finally, for a secondary income, there are so many caregivers of various types that need a day off and will pay for someone to sit with their loved one. You can work how ever many days you choose, and it may align with your advocacy. The loss of your mother is unimaginably painful, especially with Alzheimer’s. Take your time to grieve and make decisions.

  63. Chris G. says:

    Have to say I enjoy the mountains of NC greatly as well. Just too look at the expenses I understand lots of them have been deemed non-negotiable. Thats cool but I’d encourage you to try to shop around for items in those categories and ask is there a cheaper way to get the same product or service. This may help since getting a better job will take time while cutting a few dollars here and there can be done over a weekend.

  64. Jim Merk says:

    Veronica, if you’re looking for ideas regarding additional sources of income, I highly recommend that you listen to Chris Guillebeau’s podcast, Side Hustle School. Episodes are short, but they’re loaded with ideas and recommendations, and Chris is quite supportive. He recommends that people looking to increase their income use their existing abilities, follow their interests, and make a minimal investment. The website associated with the podcast (https://sidehustleschool.com/) has links to several years of past episodes and is easily searched. A resourceful, creative person like you will almost certainly find something helpful on the site. Good luck to you.

  65. Monica says:

    First off- congratulations on taking all the right steps to get where you are today! I am so sorry for the loss of your mother – Early-onset Alzheimer’s is quite rare (I am a research scientist and work on this disease!) and I know how hard it is to be a family member of someone with early-onset AD.
    Looks like you have been getting great advice here- I would just like to add that Verizon offers a prepaid plan that costs, I believe, only $35 for unlimited talk, text and 6GB of data (I think it is $40, but you get $5 off if you do auto pay). I have had verizon for years and need to stick with them because the really do have the best coverage for service – I switched to the prepayed plan a few years ago and it has been fine. Also, want to be sure that you know you can buy used phones for significantly less than a new one. (I have kids and have had to get a number of iPhones for them over the years.) I used to buy on Swappa, but lately have just been buying from Amazon and have been quite happy with the all of the used phones we have purchased!

  66. Margaret says:

    Hi Veronica! How are you searching for federal jobs? What agencies are you searching? I work for USDA-natural Resources Conservation Service. We have offices all over the nation and sometimes hire wildlife biologists. Do you have a profile set up in USA Jobs? They list all federal positions there and you can pre load your resume and set searches for all wildlife biology jobs. Once you get hired on in the federal system, it is much easier to move around. I am not sure what GS level you are applying for but you may have to start at GS 5 OR 7 and move up. In my agency, we can move up fairly quickly. Federal benefits for a full time permanent are excellent. We have a retirement plan, Thrift Savings Plan (basically 401k) with matching up to 5 percent, sick leave, annual leave and very affordable medical coverage. I have never worked in private sector so i am not sure how that compares. But i am very happy with my pay and benefits. It is very good pay considering for living in a rural area. Good luck on your job hunt!

  67. alys says:

    My condolences first – what a loving daughter you are. I’m sure your mom felt that throughout her life. I applaud your strength in doing a 12 step program and recognizing your trigger. I have family members who do 12 step (1 who has been sober for 40 years now!) and those who don’t. It works only if you continue, as you have recognized. I also am along-time SECU member and seeing your monthly budget made me realize what a waste decades of paying the $1 fee for checking and savings is! You have inspired me to switch myself. Years ago, they may have been useful but I have always been able to get better rates with online banks.The one thing you might want to check with SECU is looking at their housing inventory when you are ready to buy but you don’t have to be a member to make an offer. I also recommend strongly (having learned the lesson myself and have been with both Schwab and Jones) that ETFs are the way to go. Working with EJ, you will have endless balancing (e.g., selling and making commissions), which will mean someone will make money but it won’t be you. Look into Vanguard ETFs. I would use Charles Schwab to get some upfront advice, but you absolutely don’t need a financial adviser since you can research all this stuff online. Charles Schwab also has online tools you can use just for parking your $$ with them. Finally, you’ve received some good ideas re: side hustles. While you might consider going to galleries in Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh or Winston-Salem (surprisingly active arts scene) as well as smaller towns to see if any have a market for your photographs, an easier option would be to go to cool restaurants, libraries or small (with very minor entrance fee) arts fairs and work up to galleries. If you are in a more remote area, you may also find a market for taking outdoor family photos since it can be hard to find someone decent outside of larger areas and I bet you know of some great areas for pictures. Good luck to you – you have done well during a very stressful time, and I’m sure you will continue to move forward.

  68. Veronica says:

    Happy Monday!

    I am very slowly working through all the beautiful, supportive comments and I am filled with tear-shedding gratitude. It truly is such a gift to receive your collective mind-share. More than I could have hoped to receive.

    Thank you, all!

  69. Jean says:

    I, too, agree with not staying with Edward Jones. We were with them for a short time for about 30 percent of our money. Fees are high and they encourage you to buy class A shares with the highest up front fees. We said no and only took class c shares. They also encourage you to get into numerous different funds so that when you decide you have better alternatives like schwab, fidelity and vanguard, it costs you plenty to cash out of each of those funds. Their way of doing business is to become very friendly. It was funny when at one point, our advisor told us he does not invest his own money with Edward Jones. Lightbulb anybody? We were soon out of there!! Good luck to you. So fortunate for you that you have an inheritance.

  70. Kathy says:

    A few points…Wait 6 months to 1 year before making any large money decisions. The SECURE Act should allow you to invest your beneficiary IRA over your lifetime! For your own retirement accounts, the RMD age is now 72. Tax-wise, You CAN deduct student loan interest, up to $2500 per year on your tax return (you don’t have to itemize to do this). Open an IRA, and you can deduct up to $6000 annually on your taxes. You can fund a 2019 IRA up until April 15, 2020 to minimize taxes on your income.

  71. Laura Lee says:

    I love that your such a proacive pet parent and make sure to have $ for expenseive. I’ve been a vet nurse for 15 years and I can’t tell you how many people have had to make a hard decision based purely on financials. One thing that I can chime in on is getting pet insurance. Depending on how old your pups are it can be very, very worth it. I just started working at a pet insurance ( so sales plug coming, don’t fret) but the amount of $ insurance re-reimburses is crazy pants. Just make sure you have an *annual* deductible or your pay thru the nose until you get the exact condition you are submitting for, until you get that deductible met. I adopted a dog in August and got her insured thru Pets Best ( not the company I work for- it was before my new job and I just went off the recommendation of a colleague) and lo and behold.. six weeks later my little dingbat ate something she shouldn’t have. 3k later I got 2400 back 🙂 Just a pro-tip since you have the pups to take care of. PS- don’t get wellness insurance. Its kinda a rip off and wellness care is never going to cost you a surprise 1000 + bills. And yes, I’ve seen and taken part of vet bills that cost *well* over 10k. And sometimes a pet doesn’t make it and you still are one the line for treatments/services done. Don’t be that guy if you don’t have too. Rant over. PPS: you have my dream job and i’m ok with being a lower earner. This is what happens when you work with animals.

  72. Hollie says:

    Is it possible to house-hack and take on a roommate for awhile? One of the stipulations would be they be a fellow animal lover who is willing to care for your dogs when you travel (perhaps for a reduced amount in that month’s rent?) so you can eliminate the need to hire a dog sitter at times?

  73. mandi says:

    Hi Veronica, thank you for sharing so much of yourself for this case study. I am so very sorry that your mom is gone. You are doing good work to take care of yourself and prepare for the future.

    There is a lot of great advice here! My thoughts are NC specific. I grew up in western NC and went to college there, and I left 10 years ago at the age of 30 as an employed, working adult (I now live in the central part of the state…probably near you! I recognized the view from Pilot Mt). As a wildlife biologist you could not ask for a more beautiful, exciting, or diverse place to work than those beautiful mountains!

    Living in western NC is EXPENSIVE. It is incredibly hard to find property to purchase at all, much less property that is remotely affordable and that you can actually use (think, 2 acres that turns out to be the steep side of a mountain and un-buildable). And not just property, but cost of utilities or groceries, and things like buying tires for your car more often because they wear out a little faster on those gorgeous mountain roads. You will pay the “tourist tax” as we call it, like most locals who live in popular vacation spots.
    Yes, there is flourishing of local agriculture in the area right now, but few of these farms last, and most do well to break even. Many are also supported by a spouse with an outside paycheck. All this flourishing is also driving up land prices further.
    I would like to suggest a plan of moving there with the intention to rent for at least a couple of years while you get your bearings and a feel for what is available and how far your income (current income, OR future income) will really stretch. Just visiting for weekends or vacations will not give you an accurate idea of what 365 permanent residence is like (or costs).

    My heart still lives in the beautiful mountains of western NC. Fortunately, so does my family, so I get to visit often! But like so many popular areas with economies based heavily in tourism and wealthy retirement homes, it’s becoming increasingly unlivable for the regular folks who need to live there too.
    It can be done! You are taking an excellent, thoughtful approach to the next phase of your life, and I think it is smart that you are seeking the advice of experts guide you toward your choices. Best of luck to you with this and all your other goals!

  74. Kerin says:

    You have some great advice here and I can only add that you should really look into your retirement plan again and make sure you are correct. I am a municipal employee with a similar program. 7% required contribution, five years vesting. It was crucial I make it to 5 years here for that vesting. I am eligible for disbursement after 20 years. This is part of our early retirement income plan. Even though there is no traditional “match” into my account, the pension benefit does assume a match from my employer at the time of retirement. In my case, 2:1. With a guaranteed 5% interest every year, even if I never make another contribution after today (6 years), I would receive almost $300k in my pension from employer funds. The information I read here https://files.nc.gov/retire/documents/files/Resources/TSERSHLT.pdf suggests your state’s system is set up very simalarly. It IS effectively a match because your benefit is larger than it would be if you were to just invest the funds yourself in a 457b. Your 457b is an amazing opportunity because it doesnt come with the withdrawal penalties that other retirement plans have. You may also look into whether your years as a state employee will count as service years at a federal job, reducing your eligibility time for retirement if you were to go the Federal route.

  75. Casey says:

    Hi Veronica,
    My condolences on the loss of your mother, and kudos for sharing your life and case study on the internet.

    I don’t have many suggestions beyond what others have said, but I notice a common theme of many people telling you to pay off debts as soon as possible, especially the car loan. I question this, actually. I don’t know what you have learned about yourself through DA or other avenues, but my husband and I recently paid off a large debt, and as soon as we did that he suggested we go into debt again for another large purchase. It was as if clearing that debt made him feel like we could use that debt repayment amount in our budget for more debt, when the original goal was just to have NO debt. I talked him out of it, but I was surprised at his psychological response to clearing that debt. I’m more inclined to agree with those chiming in to recommend not making ANY financial decisions for about a year, when your grief will be screwing with your head – and that includes paying off debts that should be relatively easy to clear with the amount of your inheritance. You seem really thoughtful about this and you have support with DA, so I’m sure you’ll make the right decision for YOU, not the obvious decision based on math, or a decision based on how OTHER people respond psychologically to paying off debt.

    Best of luck to you!

  76. Stephanie says:

    Hi Veronica –
    I’m grateful to learn from your experience. I get so much out of the reader case studies. I’m in NC and state employee through university system.

    A 12-step recovery program saved my life too. Best to you as you continue to work your program. I hope my comments can help you on your journey!

    – Letting your money work for you. I am so impressed with the 20k+ in savings. That is a ton of money to have saved, especially in perspective with your monthly take home. It sounds like this is mostly for bigger ticket items that aren’t monthly – but also some portion of it is designated untouchable/emergency fund. The highest priority easy win would be transferring the money into low risk, liquid, earning account – money market, high-interest rate checkings/savings – as mentioned by others.

    – SECU accounts. Not sure what the fees are 🙁 With the SECU accounts I have, there aren’t fees…I hope you can make a call and ask some questions! SECU has money market account that is completely liquid and interest rates are better than many of their CDs. Money Market could be a good for 1. “holding” for inheritance and 2. routine savings account. If nothing else, it could be a good baby step option before you take time to open Ally or one of the other recommended options.

    – Health insurance benefits. I don’t think I read much on your health insurance. Not sure if our options are the same (NC state employees but different systems), but I’ve learned to take my time during open enrollment to make sure I am picking options that are most cost-efficient. Talk to HR or whoever your resources are to get educated. I maximize my FSA and am on the highest coverage plan because I have ongoing mental health expenses to justify it and it also keeps my taxable income low. My FSA will reimburse mileage, which can be a helpful benefit with routine appointments and long drives.

    – In case you want to learn about growing your income through your own business, this is NC resource that I’ve just started using for free one-on-one counseling: https://www.ncsbc.net/

    – Homestead life. Having a homestead sounds like a true goal/dream of yours. And you are already living on a beautiful property. Are there things you can do now in your rental situation to live at least parts of that dream? Things you can do to feel more settled and build community, asking owner about doing some project on the property, etc.? I suggest this as an alternative to buying because of your possible life changes (ex. relocate) and drawback of typing up funds in a single, illiquid, undiversified asset (property).

    – Investing. When I started learning about investing in low-fee total market funds, I was so overwhelmed but in time, I was able to learn because I kept reading and absorbing and asking questions. I made “mistakes” but I learned to not panic and spiral. I learned to pause and get help.

    – 457b/retirement accounts – a unique retirement option. It could make sense to stay with your employer (or another govt employer that offers this benefit) for when the inheritance gets sorted – you could be looking at a huge influx – and you may want to have the option to contribute fully into both the 457b and your other retirement vehicle (401k) because they are allowed separate max of $19500 annual contribution = 39,000.

    – Tax efficiency. Sounds like tax efficiency has not been a concern given your income and focus on debt reduction, but this may be worth paying more attention to as your income increases and influx of inheritance (and stretch IRA with SECURE Act may change your situation – as raised by another reader). Right now with your income, you may qualify for Savers Income Credit if you are putting into your retirement – take advantage before your income outgrows this credit.

    – Trade-offs. From selling my house when I relocated, I paid off debt (remaining student loans and car loan- both with low interest rates) which was about 25% of profits and put rest in low-fee total market index fund(s). Part of me wishes I had put all of the profits in the market because my interest rates were very low – considerably lower than average market returns. I think this decision was for piece of mind mostly – but part of me wishes I had trusted in my ability to earn money and continue to grow my income. You sound like a highly skilled professional in a competitive market, which is my experience and scary for me.
    Just food for thought to start seeing these decisions as trade-offs. Sometimes a middle way option is helpful and sometimes just eliminating things can help simplify life.

    – Discretionary spending. Reigning in the discretionary spending and putting my money to work has been transformative for me — lower discretionary spending = more gratitude for what I already have. It sounds like you might be well stocked in clothes, arts/crafts, home goods, etc. I now look at my stocked-up hair products and realize that’s $50 that could be in my money market gaining interest – and if I don’t do that next month when I get paid, that’s $50 I can put in money market and watch it grow! At the same time with your location, some stocking up when in town for lower cost goods, as suggested by another reader, might be more cost-efficient – as long as it doesn’t lead to higher consumption.

    – Process for monitoring money during the month. I understand the level of detail and number of budget categories for tracking. But in terms of day to day life, I wonder if this is working for you for ongoing monitoring? What if you start to simplify and think about your discretionary spending as one lump amount each month? The way I’d think of it: Total available – Fixed expenses – Nonnegotiable expenses – What I need to save up to pay for a future expense (if that’s not already accounted for in fixed expense; something like a haircut where you know you need to save $20/month or a trip) = Discretionary expenses for that month. Then you can see what you are actually working with that month and think through some of the short term saving goals more realistically. Not sure if this is a solution for you, but I’d encourage you to play around and honestly monitor what works for your goals and growth.

  77. CD says:

    Hi Veronica,
    Thanks so much for sharing your story.
    I just have 2 comments – first, I agree with those who are saying not to abandon PSLF just yet. As long as you are extremely diligent in making sure that your payments are getting applied correctly and keeping good records, this could be a great windfall for you if you stay in the public or nonprofit sector. It seems like working in the government or for a nonprofit would most align with your values, so I bet there is a good chance that even if you make a job change, your new employer would still qualify (PSLF applies to both government and the nonprofit sector). Even if the law changes, you would most likely be grandfathered into PSLF. But again, you have to be meticulous with your record-keeping in case you encounter any hiccups in the process.
    Second, when it comes time to buy a home, I would really suggest getting a 15-year mortgage rather than the traditional 30-year. If you wait a couple years for the purchase, you’ll be in your 40’s. With a 30-year, that means you’d still be paying it off into your 70’s after you retire, whereas with a 15-year, you’d be done by age 60. Also, with a 15-year you’ll have huge savings in interest over the life of the loan because rates are much lower for a 15-year loan, and the payoff period is much shorter. Of course, because of the shorter payoff period, monthly mortgage payments are somewhat higher. But, they are mostly higher because a much larger portion of the payment is going to the principle of the loan, so your equity in the property is increasing very quickly. I would suggest that you use a portion of your inheritance to have a large enough down payment in order to have affordable monthly payments on a 15-year mortgage.
    Good Luck!

  78. Sarah says:

    I would advocate staying in your current role – justifications below:

    1. To echo Kerin and Stephanie above, the NC State pension is more than just the 6% you contribute. It’s a defined formula (info here: https://hr.unca.edu/tsers-faq): 1.82% * Average salary based on the 4 highest consecutive years of earnings * Your years of credited service up to 20 [minimum of 5 years]. I plugged your rough stats in (here: https://orbit.myncretirement.com/Common/PublicCreateEstimate): if you retire in 2040 after 22 years of service and a max salary of $50,000, you’d receive a monthly payment of $1,454.18. This is actually quite a valuable benefit and I encourage you to run the numbers. Crucially, it also provides access to Medicare supplement health insurance in retirement and covers the cost anywhere from 0 – 100%. Info here: https://www.myncretirement.com/non-retirees/current-employees/nearing-retirement/health-benefits

    2. PSLF is very valuable for you as well. I would advocate (a) maxing out your 457, (b) maxing out your 403b, and (c) maxing out a tIRA to reducing your AGI as much as possible and staying on an income-driven plan to pay as little as possible. For example, using your loan balance, I moved the AGI from $43,300 to $28,000, which lowers the payment from $205/month to $77/month. There are some good calculators for this: https://studentaid.gov/app/repaymentEstimator.action. I also recommend the sub-Reddit for PSLF: https://www.reddit.com/r/PSLF/. Any deficit between your expenses and your income could then be covered by your inheritance, and you would turbo-charge your own retirement savings.

    3. It sounds as though you love your job and it took you a while to find one that’s a good fit. I wouldn’t discount quality of life!

    Other recommended updates:
    *Given your current status in DA and grief counseling, I would not get roommates or purchase property at this juncture.
    *Consolidate savings accounts into 1 high-yield account for simplicity and better interest
    *Consolidate checking accounts into 1 fee-free account like Schwab for simplicity and reduced monthly cost
    *Move investments from Edward Jones to Vanguard or Fidelity for low-cost funds. If you need additional assistance, find a fee-only fiduciary financial advisor to assist you
    *Can you get a prescription for any of your Vitamins and Supplements? That way, you could contribute to your FSA and use pre-tax funds to pay for them

    Hopefully the info and calculators above will be useful to you!

  79. Antonia says:

    I just want to emphasize to Veronica that this situation is exactly the time when a financial adviser would be prudent. I know you will have to pay a fee, but you’re situation is VERY complicated: you’re getting a large windfall (which may have tax implications), you have substantial loans/debt, PSLF, a history of compulsive spending, you’re quite young, your coping with a very tough loss right now, and you’re current job while low-paying is work that you love and is helping you build toward a pension (which I wouldn’t discount–a financial adviser will be able to explain it to you and can help you crunch numbers).

    I honestly think that as sound as Mrs. Frugalwood’s advice has been, there are a lot of moving pieces here. And given that your salary is relatively low, you can’t easily recoup from financial mistakes. As such, I think it is important that you get this right, and I believe you really want to maximize your assets, which is why you reached out to Mrs. Fruglawoods to begin with 🙂 Good for you!

    Again, I would talk to a financial adviser. They get a bad rap, but a fee-only fiduciary is legally bound to do what is in your best financial interest. My husband and I were in a similar situation as you, and we hesitated to get a financial adviser because there is a lot of talk out there how the fees aren’t worth it, and how you can do it yourself, but eventually I decided to pursue it and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    A good adviser will be able to look at all the moving pieces of you financial puzzle and advise the situation objectively. They will also EDUCATE you so that you understand why certain decisions are better than others, and then you’ll feel more confident and will have both a short term and long term plan that is sound. And if situations change, the adviser will be able to help you make adjustments, so that you don’t get stuck or lost in the future.

    Good luck with everything! And I am sorry for your loss.

  80. Veronica says:

    I’ve been continuing to check in weekly and I am astounded by how much support and tremendously helpful advice there is here – thank you all! I’ve been working on an excel file to organize all of the ideas and advice so that I can review them easily. I also just finished reading the recommended book “A simple path to wealth,” thanks to all who recommended it, a fantastic education contained therein. I just had a counseling session with an accountant for advice – I was less than impressed, but it didn’t cost much so I’ll take what I can from what I received there. I do think I’ll end up consulting a financial advisor despite the nerve-wracking cost. I found someone in nearby “big city” through the Garrett website. Finally, this exercise has me really evaluating my values and how I am currently living them and it has planted the seed for desiring to be financially independent, something I would have never thought possible before. I can see a path, however currently vague, forward to more fully living my values by going through the disciplined process of working towards financial independence. As much as I’d love to own my own home and land now, I am living that dream currently in a different way and could see myself content to do so for an extended period of time. Especially if it meant being able to come to a point financially where I feel secure and no longer in fear making the large changes in my life that would bring me into alignment with what my higher power wants for me. Certainly being able to live off 4% of my investments would bring a huge measure of peace toward making those changes. I’ll be feeling all this out for a long while.

    To everyone who recommended not making any big decisions for a year: I have taken this advice to heart and I am viewing this time as preparation time. Time to learn, time to heal, time to feel this all out. I have given myself permission to take longer than a year if that’s whats needed. I deeply appreciate this advice above all.

    In my 12-step program (in all 12-step programs), we have to first admit we are powerless and that life has become unmanageable. I had heard others share in meetings about how unmanageable prosperity feels when it comes, I never thought that would apply to me. It does. It feels good to surrender this unmanageability over and to be able to receive time and space for it to become manageable, one day and one step at a time. It doesn’t feel manageable yet, but I hear my higher power speaking to me through all of you so I know there’s hope and solutions to be found. I am grateful to have had this tremendous opportunity to practice step 12 (“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to compulsive debtors, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”) and tradition 5 (“Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the debtor who still suffers.”) and to share my experience, strength, and hope with you all. My greatest hope is that this reaches one person out there who is still suffering from compulsive debting and brings them the reflection they need. Thank you!

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