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Whew. As an aside, work has been entirely too impactful on my Fool time lately. I'm thinking of giving it up. The work, not the Fool. Ya gotta have your priorities, right...? ;-)

Parts I – VI of the ongoing saga are here – they are also LONG.

Part I: I owe HOW much?! :
Part II: Budgeting in real life:
Part III: LBYMs as a friend:
Part IV: Getting those rates lowered:
Part V: Getting back in the kitchen again:
Part VI: Don't mourn, organize!:

This is coming up on the very end of it all, actually. This was the last distinct thing I did to wrestle our way out of debt, a very simple yet darned difficult thing. I decided to quit working at the bottom of the corporate rung, and start inching my way up into something better for me.

When we started our little voyage through Debtdom, I was making $12 an hour typing very, very fast for various companies on short-term contracts. I did transcription work, I did straight data-entry, I did some desktop publishing.

One of the questions that occurred to me early on, as it does to most people I think, was 'how can I make more money?' The usual and customary answer to this, of course, was 'get another job!'

Work two! Work three! Take four, they're small! Forty hours here, twenty hours there, and sixteen on the weekends over here! Sure, you're exhausted and have 'nothing left', but what does that matter? Keep working! Harder! Harder! Longer hours! Sleep is for pansies! Feel the burn! FEEL THE BURN!

Wait. Stop. Hold it. Overtime and extra jobs are all well and good as far as they go – but they only go so far!

Here's the thing. Most of us are caught up in the reactive phase of life. Something happens, and we respond. One crisis piles on another, until we honestly can't tell which things are actually on fire and which things are just enveloped in the general smoke.

I think one of the best things I ever did for myself was to stop everything, step back, and think. Plan. Strategize. Decide what I wanted and how I thought I could get there. Write it all down, circle around it for a while, hone it and get it just exactly right – and then go for it.

Is this something new? Shoot no. I think just about every form of self-help book, from business management to financial management to overcoming your inherent fear of dishwashing detergent will, at some point in their text, advise you to run through this exercise.

For me, it was my dad who basically grabbed hold of me as I rushed past him on some family gathering or other (Hi-bye-gotta-go-to-work-great-seeing-ya!) and said, “Slow down, kiddo, you're burning the candle at both ends! Work smarter, not harder! Decide what you want, figure out what you need to do to get it, get a plan, then go do it <grumble grumble kids grumble grumble never listen grumble grumble>”

HA! In yer face, pop, I listened! (For once.) (Limited time offer, void where prohibited, subject to tax, license and docking fees, see store for details.)

I wrote down what I wanted to do. What did I want by next year? In five years? In ten years? In the great glorious Someday of the future? (Out of debt, out of debt, out of debt, living the life of the gloriously rich on a yacht in the crystal blue waters of someplace warm and lovely.)

I wrote down what I already had in the works to get me to any of those things. (dead silence)

Hooooooookay. So, I've got some work to do. I wrote down the skills I had. Depressingly short list, actually, at the time. I could type. I could do basic bookkeeping. I could file. I knew how to do bank research, find missing deposits and so forth. I could walk a customer through a process such as balancing their checking statement over the phone without pissing them off or calling them stupid (outloud, anyway). I knew how to install a hard drive in a computer. I could hook up a printer. I could make photocopies. Hoo boy. Not exactly CEO material, huh.

I listed out things I enjoyed and/or was good at, not necessarily working traits. A lot of mixed-up things there: I was good at organizing (at work, anyway, my house was a cesspool), I had built some of the best filing systems around. I had a knack for remembering things. I liked fixing things. Knitting. Playing music. Driving. Traveling. Creating. Learning. Understanding. Knowing How Stuff Works.

Let's go back to the goals. Out of debt, out of debt, out of debt, living on a yacht in the crystal blue. How to get out of debt?

Spend less, I'm working on that, and…make more. How could I make more? I could get yet another job. But in terms of how much I was going to be making per hour, I was pretty well maxed out in my current job title of Real Fast Typist. If I wanted to make more, I was going to have to do…something else.

I went to the job board, and I plucked out the salary ranges. Data processor, $8 an hour, $10 an hour for night shift (Aside: why are the night-shift data keying gigs always in scary old warehouses in the middle of nowhere? I'm just askin'…). Word processor, $12 an hour. Desktop publisher, $15 an hour in San Francisco. Legal secretary, $18 an hour. Help desk technician, $20 an hour. Data analyst, $25 an hour. Database analyst, $35 an hour. Oracle DBA, $50 an hour. ATM (asynchronous transfer mode, it's a geek thing) developer, $65 an hour.

I circled 'DBA' and tapped my pen on it a few times. $50 an hour, a hundred grand a year. Man, if I could get $100K per year, I'd be an official Rock-uh-fella. That…well, that was about all the money there was in the entire world. And I'd been rather fascinated by the database systems as I banged the keyboard putting stuff into them; the sorting, the coding, the way they could be made to anticipate what I was going to do or need from them. Very cool stuff. I'd like to learn it.

But how to get there, from here? How does a data entry clerk worm her way out of the mail room and into the server room? Especially since nobody in their right mind will hire a kid to muck about with their precious data…

As it is with just about everything else in life, the answer is: in little tiny baby steps. For the first two years, my title contained the word “junior.” I was a junior DBA, and a junior project manager after that. And my salary, while better than even a senior word processor, was still no great shakes. We inched along on the debt reduction, with many setbacks of both the 'Life slammed us' and 'boy that was stupid' variety.

I decided I needed some training to get anywhere in this career journey, so I started back to school: all I wanted was to take a couple Java classes and maybe some statistics, because according to my research on the job boards they would give me a nice little bump up in income. I focused on programming, database theory and design, modeling, data analysis and data mining, anything that I thought might help me get that coveted next step up.

Whoa, they did. I went into an interview for a job I “knew” I wasn't qualified for, at a payrate that staggered me. It was a glorious $45 an hour (contract rate, no benefits, but STILL!) for this database analyst job, and I couldn't possibly be what they want. They had candidate after candidate, and I was the last of literally about twenty five people they interviewed that week. I sat in this little room with a tired, bored manager and a tired, bored SQL guru being run through a tired, boring mantra of interview questions.

“Given this set of tables, how would you get what households do not have accounts in this genre? Please explain in English and in code.” “You join THIS to THAT and THAT to THIS with a LEFT join and say you only want to see things where there THAT is blank!” “What is wrong with the design of this small database example?” “Well, you've got data redundancy up the yin-yang – you'd want to make THIS a separate table and join them in, otherwise you're in danger of having your data out of sync.” “Management doesn't want to redesign the database because of the cost – what do you say to them?” “I'd ask which is more expensive to them, redesigning the database or basing your market projections on potentially wrong, out-of-sync data? And we could just go from there.”

Mr. SQL Guru threw his head back and laughed. His eyes twinkled. He positively glowed. He nodded at the manager, gathered up his papers and said, “She's the first winner we've seen all week. Don't worry about the lack of direct experience, she's great. Knows more about it <grumble grumble grumble as he continued talking long after he'd left the room>”

My new boss shook my hand warmly and started walking me around the office. “This will be your desk, next to me. That's John and that's Kathy and this is Ilene, our AA, she'll get your access badge and your email forms…”

Two years later, I sent off the last check to First USA, went back to my desk and sat there feeling as though I had just had a whole-body novocain shot. How could it be possible? For heaven's sake, how in the world could it be possible? Initially I had thought it would take about ten years to pay off those debts – and here it was, only four years later, and we owned a house, had two children and had paid them off?

Dang. DANG!

Best of all: I was in love with my job. I was part of a team that was earning literally millions of dollars a year for Da Company. It was interesting, engaging, challenging work. I both contributed just as I was, and enjoyed the mentorship of three of the most brilliant men I've ever had the pleasure to work for – one statistician, one SQL Guru and one of the best managers I've ever, EVER had. All of them were more than willing to spend the time to teach me what they knew, to answer my incessant questions, to explain the theory behind the models we built.

And my list? My what I want to have, to do with my life? Utterly different. Utterly, utterly different. Less desperation, more inspiration. I find that the things that make my list have a certain whimsy these days. Learning to speak Welsh, for example. Further solidifying our position, getting us to a point where we can live on one income comfortably rather than with a vague sensation of suffocating. Ensuring that my kids can go to college if they've got the brains and the drive for it. Seeing just how close I can bring that retirement horizon – shoot, I paid off the debts six years before I thought I possibly could, why not shoot for dragging retirement forward by ten?

It's that time of year for me again, actually. I like to take a weekend all to myself around Halloween, before all the holiday craziness settles in and the world goes psycho. Get away from It All, step away from the noise and the bustle and the madness, review the lists and make sure I'm still going where I want to go.

I really urge you to do the same. Take the time off. Take it away. Take a minute (or better yet, a weekend) for you and for your needs. It doesn't have to be an all-expenses paid trip to Tahiti – I've had my weekend “away” by taking myself off to the beach or a park without my beloved family, coming home to crash and leaving again first thing in the morning. The idea is, get away from your usual and customary routine, break your 'reaction' cycle and try to get some 'proactive' behavior going.

Where are you? Is it precisely where you want to be? If so, congratulations. Enjoy the view out your back porch window, cherish the days and the rest of us will envy and attempt to emulate you.

If not, run through the exercise. What do you want to have in one year? Five? Ten? Twenty? Don't worry if they seem shallow or aren't quite “right.” Just get 'em down. This is a process, and nobody is going to grade it but you.

What do you want to do with yourself? Do you want the corner office? Do you want to leave corporate mayhem for a life as a carpenter? Do you want to leave the hard-knock life of a mechanic and enter the nice clean, quiet office environment? Stay at home with your kids? Be able to find a matching pair of socks once in a while? See Paris? Learn to crochet?

What do you already have in the works toward those goals? Is it working? How well? Could it be better? What do you need to do to get yourself in line with what you really want? How can you get it?

It may be a bit Pollyanna of me, but I honestly believe that if you are still breathing, it's not too late to have, do and be what you want to have, do or be. Granted, it's a bit harder for an 80 year old to take up sky diving; and if you're 50-something sitting on a curb with utterly nothing to your name, becoming a multi-gazillionaire might be a tad unrealistic. But impossible? Nah. And every step you take toward your goals will give you two things: First, it brings you a step closer, which is better than staying put far away, right? And second, it will give you self-respect. You're trying! You are doing this for you! You respect you, right? You're worth the effort, right?

There you go. This random Internet stranger believes in you, too. Go for it – you can do it.

I'm looking forward to sitting on the curb and clapping for you at your parade.

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