Letting Go of the Past: Forgiveness

Last week, I finished listening to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It had been on my “to-read” list for years, when by a stroke of fate a dear friend offered to lend me her audio copy. I plan to do a full review of the book in the coming weeks but for now I want to focus on one important element—forgiveness of the past.

Recently I started thinking about the first twenty-five years of my life. In The Power of Now, we learn that to live in the future or the past is to suffer. The only way to exist in true harmony is to live in the now. After all, the past is not real, the future is not real. The past and the future only exist in our minds. The only thing that is truly and completely real, is the now.

The challenge with this, however, is that until we can accept, understand, and move on from the conditioning of the past, we can not experience true freedom. And in order to truly accomplish this, we must experience true forgiveness of the past—forgiving others & ourselves completely.

As I reflected upon these truths, I realized that I have been holding on to a tremendous amount of pain from my own personal history. There is so much past that continues to haunt me and impact me in the now. One of the greatest sources of pain revolves around my former lifestyle.

I spent so much of my life caught up in a false sense of self. I spent incredible amounts of money on material possessions that I now perceive as worthless (clothes, jewelry, useless electronics, etc.) For some reason, I fell into the marketing. I bought it—all of it. (You can read more about my journey into financial prison and my subsequent journey out in previous posts.)

But that’s not really the point, the point is that I ended up here. I can sit around and feel sorry for myself, angry that so much of my life was wasted, frustrated that I’ve only paid off a fraction (albeit a substantial fraction) of my debts so far; but if I did all of that where would it get me? It wouldn’t get me anywhere except maybe on a private jet to my own personal pity party. No thank you.

Instead of wallowing, I am grateful. Grateful that I have come this far. Grateful that I’ have learned these lessons and changed the direction of my life by the age of 25 (soon-to-be 26). Grateful to be surrounded by a community of people that support me and believe in me. Grateful to have discovered my life’s true purpose and passion. Grateful to be doing what I love (even if only part of the time). Grateful to be safe, secure, healthy, strong, and beautiful.

As I move through these emotions of gratitude for what I have now and what I am now, I find that the pain of my history slips away. I believe that I am finally on a path toward true forgiveness of the past. The reality is that it happened. I made mistakes, like all fallible human beings do. However, without making those mistakes, I may never have come to this place, to this now.

The past grants us wisdom & grace. The memories that haunt us the most, are usually the memories that taught us the greatest lessons. Forgiveness will come from acceptance. So, the trick to true forgiveness is true acceptance. Once we can accept our past unconditionally, we can live fully in the now.

I am making my way on this journey slowly. For most of my life, I focused almost entirely on the past—heart breaks, mistakes, errors in judgment, loss, failures, and so on—but that was a tragic mistake. What I now know is that the past is gone, the only thing that matters is now. And likewise, the future is a distant place that exists only in my mind. The only thing that matters is right now.

Transforming the way that I think has been a challenging process, but I have come a tremendous distance already and I will keep on pushing forward, always.

Now I ask you, reader, what pieces of your past are you holding on to? Are you willing to accept those pieces unconditionally so that you may truly forgive and live in harmony & light? Will you join me on this journey?

My Journey to Financial Freedom | Part 2: The Climb

Emergency Fund

Three years ago, I was nearly $60,000 in debt. I had a Bachelor’s degree that didn’t appear to be worth its weight in salt and a job that couldn’t cover a fraction of my monthly bills. I was terrified.

Today, I am closer to complete financial freedom than I ever dreamed possible. Last week, I paid off my last remaining credit card balance. This two-part post is a celebration of this incredible milestone in my journey.

In part one, I explained how I got to that terrible place. In part two, I will explain how I’m getting out of it (and how you can do it, too).

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1. Change the way you think about spending money. For most of my life, I believed that money was made to be spent. I believed that I *deserved* to spend every dollar that I earned on some material thing that would “make me happy.” I coveted material possessions—clothes, jewelry, electronics, cars. What I realize now is that money is not meant to be spent. You only need to earn enough money to survive. You should have enough money to buy only what you need. There is no need for excess.

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fuc*ing khakis.” (Fight Club)

This shift in mindset is hard to adjust to at first. You may not like the reactions that you receive from people. Believe me, I’ve been called cheap a few times, but I pay no mind to it. I would choose cheap over poor any day.

2. Keep a budget. I highly recommend using Mint.com. I started using it in September and it has been one of the most transformational and useful tools throughout my journey to financial freedom. It allows you to sync up all of your accounts (loans, checking, savings, etc.) in one place. Then it keeps track of every transaction that you make and sorts/organizes all of the data for you. It allows you to track your spending over time and by category. It gives you incredible perspective and insight about where your money goes each month/year. It has been a truly eye-opening experience for me.

If you’re unwilling to try Mint, you can keep a budget on a spread sheet or even by hand. However, the important thing is to be completely conscious about where every dollar you spend is going.

3. Use a debit card. To reap the full Mint.com experience you should use a debit card for every purchase you make. Using the debit card will automatically flag each transaction you make into the appropriate category. So if you go to Shoprite, it will get marked as groceries. If you go to Home Depot it will get marked as home. If you stop at the gas station it will get marked as automobile, and so on.

I use my debit card (linked to my checking account) for almost every single transaction that I make. I also have all of my monthly bills (like my auto insurance, utilities, and gym membership) automatically debited from the same checking account each month. It makes keeping track of my spending that much easier. Plus, I do not like dealing with cash. The debit card is quick, easy, and is accepted almost everywhere now.

Whether or not you use Mint.com it is a good idea to use a debit card simply because you can review all of your purchases and purchase amounts on your monthly statement. Trying to keep track of receipts is a hassle that I don’t have time for.

4. Pay off credit cards and cut them up. Paying off my credit cards was my first priority. For awhile I tried “credit card surfing.” Let me just tell you from experience, it’s overrated and it really doesn’t work. The idea is that you surf from credit card to credit card by transferring balances. A lot of companies will give you 0% APR for 6 months if you transfer your balances over to them. After the 6 months, you “surf” to a new card with another promotional rate.

The problem with this tactic is that it gets messy quickly, it becomes difficult to keep up with, and if you lose track you will end up getting burned by high APRs, finance fees, cancellation fees, etc. Also, it probably doesn’t look great on your credit report if you’re opening up a new card every 6 months or so.

It is much safer and wiser to just stop using credit cards! My theory is simple and has taken me very far: If you can not afford to buy it, then you can not afford it. Period. It is simple logic.

5. Eat in. This is one of the easiest changes to make, but it also comes with an enormous, positive impact. When I started closely tracking my spending habits, I was shocked to see how much I was spending on eating out. A meal at a decent restaurant goes for about $25 per person. If you eat out twice a week, that is $3,120 a year. If you grab lunch out during the work week, it’s about $8 a day. That’s $2,080 a year. Put those together and you could be spending $5,200 a year or more on dining out! That is outrageous and completely unnecessary.

Since I started eating in and packing lunches, I’ve taken my monthly food spending from $500 down to $200 or less! Over time, that means enormous savings. Check out 5dollardinners.com for some awesome, inexpensive recipes. I love it! Also, investing in a crock pot was one of the wisest decisions I ever made—chili, sausage & peppers, and goulash will be your new (delicious, cheap) best friends. (Here are some more tips for eating healthy & mindfully.)

6. Direct deposit money into savings every month. This is my final—and perhaps most important—tip. When I began my journey to financial freedom, I opened a savings account with ING Direct. It is an easy-to-use online savings account and it gives you interest on the money that you save. It also allows you to set up easy direct deposits.

I started out small, depositing $50 a month into my savings. As I learned to keep my budget tighter and tighter, I increased the amount that I put into my savings each month. Currently, I am putting away $500+ per month and hope to get closer to $1,000 per month in the very near future.

When you direct deposit the funds, it comes out automatically. It is painless because you don’t have to do a thing. Because it’s automatic, after awhile you don’t even notice that it’s missing. (I remember reading that on another blog several months ago and thinking, “Are you out of your mind?! I’m not going to miss it? Yea right!”) But I can honestly say that after a few months, you adjust to the missing money. You truly do not miss it once it becomes normal for that amount to be deposited into savings automatically each month.

It has been one of the best decisions that I’ve made and because I’ve worked so hard to get to this place—I don’t touch that money! I am keeping it there for a rainy day or to pay off my student loans someday in one fell swoop.

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As I stated at the start of this post, three years ago I was almost $60,000 in debt; I was twenty-three years old; and I was scared to death. Today, I have my finances under control! I am on the road to financial freedom and you can get here, too. Truly, it is not as hard as it seems. With common sense and a bit of dedication, it will happen. Paying off my last credit card balance was like taking chains off of my wrists for the first time in seven years. The feeling was completely priceless. If I can do it, anybody can.

So, what are your financial goals? Have you ever been in financial prison? How did you free yourself? If you’re still there, what are you going to do to break free?

My Journey to Financial Freedom | Part 1: The Fall

Three years ago, I was nearly $60,000 in debt. I had a Bachelor’s degree that didn’t appear to be worth its weight in salt and a job that couldn’t cover a fraction of my monthly bills. I was terrified.

Today, I am closer to complete financial freedom than I ever dreamed possible. Last week, I paid off my last remaining credit card balance. This two-part post is a celebration of this incredible milestone in my journey.

In part one, I will explain how I got to that terrible place. In part two, I will explain how I’m getting out of it (and how you can do it, too).

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A financial prison is the worst sort of prison to be stuck in. A financial prison does not have steel bars or a prison warden. You will not get sent to financial prison for committing a crime. There is only one person that can sentence you to financial prison. That person is you.

There are two primary types of financial prisoners:

1. There are those in financial prison who got there because they truly did not know any better. This type eventually realizes the error of their ways and breaks free.

2. There are those who knowingly commit themselves to financial prison. This type is well aware of the consequences of living beyond her means; but she does it anyway.

Of course there are also those who fall somewhere in the middle, like me… (Cue dream sequence.) It all started when I was 18. The guidance counseling systems in my high school and college were either completely inadequate or I simply refused to pay attention. I can’t honestly remember which it was, though I think it was the former. Either way, I was screwed.

Before me, no one in my family had ever been to college so I didn’t receive much advice. I was thrilled to be out of high school and ready for the next step. I took my SATs one time and applied to one school. My parents, being average folks, made just enough money to prevent me from receiving financial aid; but not enough money to be able to pay my full tuition. For me, this meant loans: “lovely” student loans from “lovely” Sallie Mae.

My mother co-signed and it was a cinch from there. Each semester I filled out a relatively simple form and like magic, Sallie Mae sent me a check. In fact, Sallie Mae was so generous that they allowed me to take out as much “extra” money as I needed every semester. It was fantastic! Yes, I had money to pay for books, meals, and extra curricula. I also had money to go out and binge drink, buy clothes I didn’t need, designer purses, and more. Sallie Mae was wonderful to me. And the best part if it was that there was no need for discussion. No one guided me, no one advised me, and no one asked me any questions. I showed up at the financial aid office a couple of times each year and it was always smooth sailing.

On top of that, another great thing happened when I was 18! The credit card companies started to send me applications. And that was just as easy. I got one and then another and then another. Whatever I couldn’t cover with those pretty little checks from Sallie Mae, I could simply charge on my credit cards. College was good to me. I joined a sorority, I partied hard, I shopped until I dropped. What more could a girl ask for?

It wasn’t all fun & games though. I worked through college. I worked at a children’s camp each summer; I was a Spanish teacher for two years; and toward the end of my college career I was a bookseller at Borders bookstore. All of the money I made working was spending money for me. I had Sallie Mae and the credit cards to pay all of my “real” bills.

When I finally graduated, I was making a cool $8.25 an hour at Borders. I loved it. I was happy… until one day, out of no where, a letter came in the mail. I had a six month grace period and then I would have to start paying back those loans. My paychecks barely covered my minimum credit card payments. How was I going to make loan payments on top of that?

So I sat down and did something that I’d never done before. I wrote up a budget. It was horrifying when I realized that even if I’d had no other bills, my monthly wages from Borders wouldn’t even cover half of my monthly student loan payments. The jig was up.

All told, I came out of college with about $45,000 in student loan debt and almost $15,000 in credit card debt. I hadn’t even lived on campus; I commuted from home; my parents paid for some of my tuition; and I only went to a mediocre school. How the hell was this possible?

All of a sudden Sallie Mae and the credit card companies didn’t seem so lovely anymore. There was one thought that kept repeating over & over in my head: Why didn’t anyone warn me? I felt cheated, betrayed, angry, afraid, and helpless. I wondered what the people in the financial aid office had been doing all that time. I wondered why my high school guidance counselor didn’t press me harder about applying for scholarships or grants. I wondered a lot of things, but mostly I wondered how the hell I was going to get out of the mess.

I started sending out resumes for jobs with starting salaries that would at least cover my monthly student loan payments. I sent out resume after resume but before long, I realized another harsh reality. That Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Creative Writing Focus wasn’t so great either. Nobody was calling me back. I couldn’t even get an interview.

The clock was ticking. I was halfway through my grace period. Then one day, one of my best friends mentioned an opening in her office. I looked over the job description and realized that it had nothing to do with what I’d gone to school for. I didn’t even know what it actually was, but the starting salary was more than what I needed. The rest was history.

I’ve been at my current company for almost three years now. And yesterday I paid off my last remaining credit card balance! Additionally over these few years, I’ve cut my student loan debt almost in half and by next Winter, I will have it down to a quarter of what I started with.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post, where I will share how I am doing it and how you can do it, too.

The Courage to Confront Your Dream

What is a personal calling? It is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream. —The Alchemist

Are You Aware of What You’re Doing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately (as if you hadn’t noticed). One of my most urgent ambitions/dreams is to live an entirely purposeful life. I see people around me everyday, sleepwalking through life, on autopilot. Alarm clock, shower, breakfast, commute, zombie work, commute, dinner, television, sleep. Repeat. Day in and day out. It breaks my heart. What hurts more are the moments (sometimes hours) when I catch myself falling into that terrible haze. Of course I snap myself out of it as soon as I realize it’s happening. The way that I snap out of it is simple enough: I ground myself. I literally take notice of my feet on the Earth, carpet, tile (wherever I am). I recognize my breathing. I acknowledge that I am a human being walking the Earth, beneath the sky, on a great big planet, floating in the Universe. It’s really important to do that, to ground yourself in reality at least once a day, probably more. If you don’t do it you will get caught up in the trivial — the fight with your spouse; the disappointment over your kid’s report card; the scratch on your new car; the ever-growing pile of papers on your desk; your unappreciative boss — you get the picture.

Proactive vs. Reactive Living

When you ground yourself, you pull yourself from the depths of the trivial, unimportant, little details that tend to take control. When you ground yourself, you become aware. The only problem with grounding yourself this way is that it is reactive rather than proactive. There is actually a much better way to avoid autopilot and that is proactivity. I am going to start talking a lot on this blog about reactive vs. proactive thoughts and actions. So let me take a moment to define what I mean by each of these terms.

Reactive—Something happens and triggers you to take action.

Example 1: You get on the scale one morning to realize that you’ve gained ten pounds. Your reaction is to begin a diet and start breaking your back in the gym until you lose the ten pounds.

Example 2: Your marriage has been falling apart for the last two years. You fight with your spouse daily or more. You are both unhappy. You put everything before each other — work, friends, hobbies, etc. The marriage is your last priority. As a last resort you decide to attend marriage counseling.

Proactive—You consciously prepare and act in ways that will produce certain desired outcomes in your life.

Example 1: You are aware that you want to be physically healthy. You continually live a lifestyle that promotes health. You always take the stairs instead of the elevator. You run a mile each morning before work. You feed your body foods that it craves & needs and avoid “junk” whenever possible.

Example 2: Your marriage is one of your top priorities. You make “alone” time and set dates with your spouse at least once a week. You plan vacations together to explore places you’ve never seen. You participate in each others favourite hobbies. You fight, as all healthy couples do, but you practice open communication and work through arguments before they become significant problems.

If you analyze all of the actions and thoughts in your life, you will find that each one is either reactive or proactive. The goal is to make all of your thoughts and actions proactive. The problem with practicing reactive thinking or action, is that it is usually too late. And even when you do succeed, it is usually a short-lived success because reactive thoughts and actions do not treat the causes of problems; they only treat the symptoms.

Let’s take the reactive approach to the extra ten pounds for example. You notice the excess weight, you starve yourself, you go to the gym religiously — within a few months, the pounds are gone. You feel great for a little while, but soon you go back to your old habits. A few months later and the pounds are creeping back on. On the other hand, if you had made a decision to begin taking a permanent proactive approach to maintaining your health, you would have achieved long-lasting, sustainable progress and results. These same principles would apply to the example of the troubled marriage and any other example that you could think of.

Proactivity is a crucial element to a happy, fulfilling, successful life.

Follow Your Legend, Confront Your Dream

Now, I am going to tie this whole thing together and tell you how you can live a life of constant proactivity and sheer joy. Ready? Have another look at the opening lines to this post. What is a personal calling? It is God’s blessing, it is the path that God chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream. (If you are not religious, replace the word God with the word Universe. What is a personal calling? It is the Universe’s blessing, it is the path that the Universe chose for you here on Earth. Whenever we do something that fills us with enthusiasm, we are following our legend. However, we don’t all have the courage to confront our own dream. To me, the words God & Universe mean the same, beautiful, powerful thing.)

That’s it, my friends, if you want to live proactively, if you want to live the life of your dreams, all you have to do is confront your dreams and follow your legend.

Ask yourself these questions: What fills me with enthusiasm? What is the one thing that I could wake up and do happily every single day for the rest of my life without even being paid? When you have the answer, then you have your personal calling. It is the path that is meant for you. When you do this thing, you will follow your legend and you will confront your dreams.

Next month, it will be one year since I discovered my own personal calling. I will never forget the moment. It hit me like lightning — to help people by sharing my journey & the lessons I’ve learned along the way — so simple, but so amazing. That is what compelled me to start this blog eight months ago. That is what has kept me going ever since. And I know what you are thinking now: Dena, I can’t do it. You are making it sound so simple, but it’s not. I can’t afford to quit my job. I have a mortgage to pay. My mother is sick. I am not talented enough. I’m too old. It’s not practical. And the list of excuses will go on and on and on. Well, I am sorry, but none of your excuses are good enough! No matter how stuck you think you are — no matter how dire your circumstance might seem — there is a way out!

Take it from me. I was depressed and anxious for the first half of my life. I spent much of that time wanting my life to end. I was seventy pounds overweight. I was $40,000 in debt. How much further down could I have gone? I could have used a lot of excuses to keep myself in that state; but I didn’t. I made a decision to change my life. I lost seventy pounds. I overcame anxiety and depression. I’ve cut my debt in half and continue to pay it down every day! I figured out my personal calling and I am doing it. I am following my legend, confronting my dreams. I am making it happen — and you can do it, too.

Before you get started with your excuses again, I’d like you to imagine something. Imagine being born a young girl in Alabama in 1880. Imagine then growing up to understand French, German, Greek, and Latin. Imagine then going to Harvard, at a time when few women from your town did anything other than get married and raise kids. Imagine then writing a book that was translated into twenty-five languages and inspired two Oscar-winning movies. Imagine then meeting every President in your lifetime and being awarded the highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That would be some accomplishment, wouldn’t it? Now imagine doing all of that whilst being blind, deaf, and barely able to talk for your entire life.

It’s not impossible, friends. In fact, it’s very possible and there is a woman who did all of that, her name was Helen Keller. She accomplished all of those things, and more, because she believed in herself and she had a good teacher. (Taken from How to Be Rich & Happy.)

“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” —John Wayne

Every single day is a new opportunity for us to begin living the lives of our dreams. Today is called “the present” because it is a gift. Take it and do something with it!

I would love to hear your thoughts about this post. What is your personal calling? What obstacles are standing in your way? How are you going to overcome them? What can I do to help you get there? Let me know in the comments.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

sunset, flower

Dear Friends,

Tonight I simply want to remind you that every journey starts with a single step.

Love,
Dena