Walking Towards FIRE: Selling Our First Home

Today’s entry is another discussion on my walk towards FIRE. While the term is usually reserved for “Financial Independence, Retire Early” my journey will be “Retire Eventually” like others who aren’t as keen on retiring early. Given that I’ll only be 36 in March, it’s hard to imagine spending my days either not working and focusing solely on leisure activities or working hard as an entrepreneur. The latter doesn’t strike my fancy and given the stability my family has here in the Phoenix valley, I can’t go trot the globe on my own. That would be too awkward.

My family’s next adventure is a pretty great one, although it is locally focused. With just a little over three and a half years under us, we sold our first home. This is the next step for us in walking towards FIRE. Some might find it amusing, but when we purchased the home, it was bought solely in my name. We didn’t think it was much of a big deal but in the state of Arizona if you try to purchase a home without your spouse, the spouse has to sign documentation agreeing to this decision. For us this route was necessary in order to qualify for the home. My husband’s mounting student loan debt would have count against us and this avenue helped us reduce our overall monthly expenses. By moving from renting to holding a mortgage, we easily saved $300 a month on home expenses.

I must take a moment though to mention our choice to use a VA home loan is something that Dave Ramsey (the creator of Financial Peace University) is opposed to and while I can understand his viewpoint, the volatility of housing markets also provides a solid reason for us to use a VA home loan. This option allowed us to purchase a home without a downpayment, allowing us to move sooner on a home purchase in an area that is still plagued by rising rent costs.

That is not to say there wasn’t any money we had to bring to the table to close. It was just over $3,000 of closing costs for us in 2016 and we were able to build up that portion of funds based on our combined use of VA education benefits, which shows yet again how much our decision to serve has had some positive snowball effects we weren’t expecting to see when we both separated.

I am not a financial advisor so I am not providing any advice on how one should enter the housing market for home ownership or investment purposes, but it was a calculated risk we took. If the housing market had taken another dip like it did between 2008 to 2011, we were comfortable staying in this location based on other community attributes. 

We downsized from a rental that was approximately 1,500 square feet with a good size yard to the home shown below that comes in under 1,300 square feet with a patio approximately 11′ by 17′. It was a no frills property; the prior owner did not do anything to change up the builder grade finishes. While I would have liked to undo more of the vanilla qualities of the home, I am happy with the things we accomplished (other than my poor quality interior paint job). I am most happy that I advocated for two things for this property, the removal of a heinously oversized tree and painting the home in a dramatic color scheme, specifically fighting the HOA on my choice to paint the brick.

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MLS Photo from 2011 although we purchased this home in 2016. By then, the tree on the left had grown quite a bit.
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Since the tree was planted in the front yard, it was the responsibility of the HOA to maintain. The tree eventually posed a risk to our property and the neighbors’ home, so I requested the HOA pay for its removal and eventually the HOA tended to the matter.

For people who don’t live in HOA neighborhoods, a homeowners association acts like a quasi-government. Since we paid $80 a month for community maintenance, I am not sorry the HOA was on the hook to remove the tree. We were not the only home and people impacted by the unsightly tree. It became the roost for the bulk of the pigeons living in the neighborhood and the sidewalk was constantly littered with bird poop and tree debris.

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The landscaping crew hired by the HOA did not clean the sidewalk each week to deal with the pigeon waste, so on some occasions we were dealing with it directly and the water cost was ridiculous.
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Post-tree removal 2019

I won’t say we were excited about the HOA’s demand letter to paint our home last year, but I was excited we didn’t have another neighbor with the same adventurous spirit we do when it comes to paint colors. We eyeballed these colors awhile ago and kept hoping no one would beat us to the combination. The job costs us $2,000 but it was money well spent, and I only wish we had time to get my poorly done interior paint job/the poor paint job by the builder tended to before the home went on the market last year. The interior problems did not dissuade the next home owner, but I wish it was something we could have done for the next family.

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I am happy to share this journey with you all because I recognize owning a home is still, for many, part of the American dream and when it comes to financial success, one opportunity for financial diversification. On a personal level, it is quite meaningful for me. After being unemployed in 2012 and again in 2013 I started to feel like home ownership would take an extremely long time to accomplish. In spite of our setbacks, our first dabble into real estate went well.

I couldn’t do a perfect “before” and “after” as I didn’t properly photograph all spaces before/shortly after moving into this place and making our mark on it, but here are some transformations.

I believe we paid approximately $400-$500 for the island. We had a coupon for American Furniture Warehouse, but current retail shows it selling for $688. The island was sold with the property along with the Samsung fridge we brought with us to the property.

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In 2017, the yard underwent a little makeover with wood panels from IKEA and the addition of artificial turf to replace some of the gravel. In 2019, the space was further enhanced with a fresh coat of paint.

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We went with components from IKEA’s ALGOT storage to make the laundry space more functional. This storage system was also added to our hallway closet and the master bedroom closet.

The master bedroom has not seen much a transformation other than the improvement to the closet. We learned this year, after getting the home ready to show, the space looked better with the curtains taken down. We originally added blackout curtains to improve our sleep as the master is an east facing room, but the home doesn’t have a lot of square footage and an easy way to improve its feel was to remove items on the walls.

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And just some fun things I’ve learned about myself along the way…

I suck at painting. I love the deep color, but I struggled with different types of painters tape trying to get it to adhere to the textured walls and baseboards. Another mistake I learned along the way is to buy all the paint you need together. I forgot the type of sheen I needed and so our office has two different sheens. This past year, I also learned the original sheen was no longer available for the paint. Thankfully, we still had a small sample of it and used it to clean up the areas where Gregor dented some of the walls, both from his body and from running into the gate that subsequently scrapped a significant portion of lower wall facing the bottom of the staircase. Pet parenthood is a fun experience….sometimes.

And in case you didn’t notice it, the home originally did not have a peep hole. We had a good laugh at ourselves for not noticing it when we originally purchased the home.

Upstairs Hall 2016

So, here’s to saying goodbye to our first big project and one of our biggest financial risks that paid off.

We are truly blessed and I’m excited for what the next chapter holds.

The End of a Decade

Tonight is both one of my favorite and least favorite nights of the year. For years, I loved what New Year’s Eve represented. I loved ending a year, reflecting on everything that transpired while also brainstorming resolutions to make the next year even better. For the longest time, I also loved the fireworks. It was fun seeing large scale fireworks displays on television and the ball drop in Times Square. I still loved the idea of fireworks after Iraq, but after dealing with mortar attacks, the displays are enjoyable now from a distance.

The past few days we’ve started to have a trickle of fireworks in our surrounding area again and I’m trying to keep my anxiety under control with these unexpected bursts of energy and sound. Rather than fret excessively about it, I am trying to remember in a few days the chaos of holiday festivities will abate as people start to focus on their resolutions to lose weight, eat better, and so forth as they remind themselves they have 365 days to be better versions of the persons they are today. I will not set resolutions for the year ahead because I know it’s more important for me to focus in the present and I just don’t do that when I start hoarding goals and get frustrated when they take longer to accomplish than expected. (I guess that objective is sort of a resolution in a way, isn’t it? )

I am fortunate to have an unexpected day off from work today, so I do want to thank you for taking the time to drop in today as we close out the year.

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2019 has been a brutal year for our nation based on the significant amount of violence we’ve encountered that have taken our students in their education settings and community members as they shop, celebrate their faith, and go about doing mundane tasks and leisure activities like shopping and social activities. The high volume of violence impacted my year as it did many others. I was disgusted by the assailants who have not taken other courses of actions to rectify the issues in their lives and instead used their frustration, anger, or resentment to cut short the lives of innocent bystanders and leave others with wounds they will carry for the rest of their lives. I never expected violence to be such an “everyday” sort of experience after leaving Iraq the first time back in 2005.

It is for this reason, I wanted to write as a means of gratitude. I often forget to show appreciation for the days I’ve been given. I know better than most the value of my days, but I get caught up in seeing the wealth of opportunities around me and wonder why certain experiences are out of my reach and/or taken me longer than my counterparts. Too often I expect life to be like an algebraic equation where one side of the equation matches the other in the fact  x amount of effort=equal amount of reward. It’s just not true and I must make a reminder to not be critical of my capabilities for what does not transpire.

For those that have stuck around a bit, you know 2019 was chock full of some monumental achievements like completing my second graduate program of study, but I wanted to trace back the decade to show how far I’ve truly come and hopefully inspire others (and me!) to enjoy the beauty of the next ten years that lay before us.

2009: Adopting a New Name, Mom

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2010: Learning to Love a Brand New Person

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2011: Taking a Risk

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2012: Starting Over Somewhere New (Arizona)

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2013: Experiencing a Stay Cation for the First Time

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2014: Stepping Up and Out of My Comfort Zone

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2015: Stepping Back into History

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2016: The Year We All Graduated School Together and Found Our First Home

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2017: The Year My Parents Paid Us a Surprise Visit at Disneyland

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2018: Finding My Tribe

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2019: The Year of Reconnecting and Celebrating All of Life’s Moments

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Sometimes it is too easy to see the ways each year has brought some sort of trauma into my life, but as I look back over these photos, I can see how much hope and support I’ve also had along the way.

I don’t know where the trajectory of this blog will go as we enter the next decade, but I want to thank not only those who have been with me since the start, but everyone who has taken the time to follow my journey. When I started sharing my thoughts back in 2014, I know I was quite dismayed about the portrayal of female veterans and the attention we receive (and don’t) for our military service. My thoughts were often shared without much curating, and even now, on a busy day, I write with abandon, which I understand results in some grammatical and typographical errors. On the days I’ve written from a negative perspective, I hope others see my vulnerability and desire to figure out life. On the days I’ve written from a positive perspective, I hope others see inspiration comes from many different facets of life, but that my joy is not ever meant to make another feel bad for missing out on certain milestones or taking longer to accomplish certain objectives.

Turning 35 this year and ending the decade on a high note by completing my graduate studies; seeing both my husband’s family and my own plus dear friends of ours; and being in the process of selling our first home remind me that living is a slow journey. We are forever transforming and while it does not appear as such on a daily basis, a quick glance at the physical evidence demonstrated in our photographs and memories serves proof of our evolution.

As we end 2019, I wish you all the best tonight and for the 365 ahead. Feel free to set or not set resolutions. Remember to grant yourself grace when you make mistakes. Don’t sell yourself short when you encounter obstacles in your path. And most of all, have fun.

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And if you want to talk about New Year’s Eve plans, feel free to tell you what you’re up to today on Instagram. I’m enjoying the evening in the comfort of our home with lots of goodies from Trader Joe’s and some bourbon mixed with sparkling blush cider and maybe a glass of Pacific Coast Pink to toast to the end of 2019.

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In case you were wondering about the cider and bourbon, I found a drink online for a cider sour, but opted to simplify drinks for tonight.
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I enjoyed last year’s appetizer New Year’s choices, so it seemed logical to repeat again.

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See you all again in 2020.

~Cheryl

 

Making Money Moves Less Scary

Becoming Financially Independent

Trick or treat, everyone!!!

I’m super excited to drop in today. October is my favorite month of the year and who doesn’t love Halloween?! My treat today was 2 hours off from work, so I’m spending it here catching up. Trust me, writing (for fun) is a treat for me, so I’m happy to be here sharing my thoughts.

Years ago, I promised I would finish my talk on using VA education benefits and although I dropped that ball for far too long, I am picking it up today and expanding on the topic of money talks. For some time now, I’ve listened to a number of finance podcasts. A lot of people have at some point talked about Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, but the people I am most attracted to talk about the program as a starting point with the eventual goal of financial independence.

With these ideas in mind, today’s blog most is influenced by a variety of media that are pretty accessible. Something I’ve enjoyed reading from time to time is the Money Diaries series by Refinery29. I also love listening to michelleismoneyhungry and howtomoney.

So, what does the final tally of my 48 months of VA education benefits look like?

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This funding helped me to turn around being unemployed and broke.

I graduated with two undergraduate degrees in 2012 and went through applying to 89 jobs before landing my first post-college position. Our lives in 2012 were pretty much as close to bottom as one can go. We had to move in with my in-laws and ended 2012 with $500 in the bank account. At that point, I was willing to take any job and that first post-college job sucked. My future boss in calling me in for a second “interview” told me veterans had not been successful in the position. To this day, she is still the top person who has made me feel being a veteran is a bad thing. The upside is her bad example of leadership had taught me how to crush it (again) in the workplace. I do believe there are individual veterans who set a bad example, but there are plenty of civilians in the same boat.

In speaking on those matters, it is important to discuss what I walked away from when I left the Marine Corps. It was the most serious job I’ve ever held and it has some of the biggest disparities between the best parts and worst parts of the job. As someone with only a high school education, I was doing fairly well for my income needs. The flip side was I had to deal with the aspect of losing my Marines, and later, the risk of losing my husband as he stayed in. I think when I was presented with the opportunity to stay in, my reenlistment bonus was on the low end, perhaps $5-$7 thousand and would have been taxed since I was stateside at the time. It was a good amount, but it was not enticing for the risk. I had to decide to leave behind a world where some basic needs like housing, food, medical, and dental were easier to manage and mostly or completely covered financially for the freedom associated with civilian life.

To give more transparency on this situation, I am providing details from a few of my Leave and Earning Statements from the Marine Corps and will also provide the comparison of my past employment with Arizona State University. For those that don’t understand the language, BAH is basic allowance for housing and BAS is basic allowance for subsistence (food).

In January 2004, I was still attending my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) school. I lived in the barracks room provided for me with two other women in my unit. We shared a rather simple room with a bathroom and had a common room shared with multiple other barracks rooms. I went to a chow hall (think college cafeteria for the closest comparison) for the bulk of my meals, except for the times I chose to grab food from the shoppette (We were training at an Army base.) or to go out for meals. The Marine Corps footed the bill for medical and dental bills, but at this time, I think the most I ever went to medical might have been for a cold.

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As a young person with the bulk of my living expenses covered, no family to support, and no car, my only real bills were student loans and a cell phone. (I completed a year of college at Florida Southern College before becoming a Marine.) I’m pretty certain I blew all of my discretionary money on food…By the way, the MGIB is the money I set aside to earn my Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill benefits and I was a pretty lazy young person by not contributing to Thrift Savings Plan. I’m not sure what I thought about retirement goals at the time.

As someone who has gained financially from serving overseas, let me tell you deployment life has an upside. My second deployment was monumentally safer than the first and having married prior to deploying, we also started receiving a housing allowance to support living off base. (At the time, my husband established our household with a one-bedroom apartment I wouldn’t see until I came off of deployment.) I haven’t found an LES from my first deployment, but if I find one lying around, we can do a comparison later on. At the time, my husband and I had relatively few large expenses and as dual income earners with no kids, life was pretty great.

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SGLI, for those not in the know, is Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance. If I had died on deployment or anytime during my service after the higher rate was implemented, my husband would have received $400,000 from my life insurance. By comparison, during my first deployment, coverage was $250,000 and the funds would have gone to my parents as my primary beneficiaries.

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Money is a big reason why staying in is enticing for service members. It was also a reason why my husband and I had a hard time in our conversations over whether I should reenlist or not. While I do think the military overall has become a more equal place for men and women, I didn’t feel that way when I served and I did not want to deal with the reality my husband and I might be on back-to-back deployment cycles. Towards the end of my Marine Corps career, my 7 month deployment overlapped with a yearlong deployment for him and as a result, we missed out on seeing each other for most of the first 16 months of our marriage. That experience, and a few others, provided the necessary knowledge that money isn’t anything, but it is something to be leveraged.

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It did not take long to figure out we had to fend for ourselves. When I was not kept on in my first post-undergrad position, I had to empty out the retirement contributions I made over those six months because Arizona was so far behind with respect to its unemployment office I had to wait for three months before even being considered. (Luckily for me, I was hired by Arizona State University just in time.)

My next career move was quite a humbling one financially. If I had stayed behind in public health, my yearly gross income would have been approximately $48,900. Switching to higher education meant starting at $32,500. When I left in 2017, I was making $33,924.80 or $16.31 an hour. The position has since been reclassified, resulting in more pay for my peers. At the point I decided to leave ASU, I needed to easily increase my take home pay and one of the best things immediately available to me was picking a position that did not pay into Arizona State Retirement because I was contributing 11.6% a paycheck. As beneficial as it is to contribute so much to retirement, I was the only income earner and I felt comfortable taking a temporary reduction in retirement contributions to benefit our longterm goals.

Thankfully, the power I gained through using VA education benefits provided the cushion I needed so I could move on without dipping into retirement funds two years ago. For anyone, I would recommend avoid pulling your retirement contributions if you can because you get taxed on it pretty badly and I don’t remember what penalties were in place. The biggest downside for me when I left ASU was that I lost out on the employer match for their contributions because I was not fully vested.

From one of my last months with ASU, here’s how things broke down:

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When I left the Marine Corps, I never imagined I would make less in 2017 than I did in 2007. This is why I want to show how beneficial VA education benefits are to making a successful transition and I want to encourage those who have benefits to use them wisely. When the money is used up, it’s used up. You’ll end up with a completed goal or wish you had. The only caveat I make with the rudimentary list I created below (Sorry, my Excel skills leave something to be desired.) is that I did not work a full year with ASU in 2017. Instead, I wanted to show what my year would have looked like had I stayed. As a reminder, I am showing the total income not the take home income for the year.

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I have made substantial progress from having almost nothing in 2012 to where I am today. My Chapter 33 benefits paid for $17,874.50 of my MA in Social and Cultural Pedagogy program with ASU’s employee benefit covering $4,548. My portion (the fees for the Fall 2015 term when I used the employee benefit) were $236. To pay only $236 directly for a $22,658.50 graduate program is pretty amazing.

To also move on to a second graduate program which costs $20,964.49 and to “hack” it the same way allowed me to accomplish something I never thought possible. The VA paid $1,418.34 towards my MPA program, my employee tuition benefit covers $18,540, and I am paying the remaining $1,006.15.

Lastly, my benefits greatly reduced my need for student loans, but I do have some to tackle after my program ends in November. We’ll talk about those a bit later down the road.

See you all next month.

~Cheryl

P.S. If there are any math errors (or glaringly obvious typos), please be kind in pointing those out. I stayed up late yesterday to complete a paper. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navigating the Notice of Disagreement Process with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs

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It’s time to check in again.

This purpose of today’s blog entry is to help others considering the Notice of Disagreement (NOD) process with the Department of Veterans Affairs. I understand I am not formally employed to help others with this process, so there are some caveats to my guidance. Please keep this information in mind as you consider your options on how to proceed with this process.

Like other veterans, my disability claims process with the VA has not been an easy.

Also like other veterans, I’ve tried using the assistance from DAV (Disabled American Veterans) to build my case, and found–in both instances I’ve worked with DAV–their coordination did not offer any anything I could not do through my own efforts. This latter reality is why in submitting my NOD, I did not reach back to DAV to help me assemble the personal narrative I provided to have the VA.

The best thing to help me navigate this process with the VA was using the research skills I developed during my first graduate program. I went back to the VA’s own publications to see how staff members are informed about their jobs so I could understand how to make my case that the issues I’ve dealt with stem from the circumstances of my first tour in Iraq. Different types of publications are available at va.gov. Since my concern is about an entitlement to pay for my medical care routine I looked at Compensation & Pension Materials.

It is important to recognize when using a website as a tool, there are always moving parts so anything I share might not be the correct hyperlink moving forward. Instead, searching by general terms is likely to be useful to get the most direct route to the information you seek. 

I submitted my Notice of Disagreement back in November 2017, and the website now seems to package information differently from what I could recall from memory. What’s pretty great about what I found now is a section specific to the Adjudication Procedures manual available for review by year at VA Changes By Date. I think this data is important for anyone to peruse because it can be a substantial wait between when a claim is submitted and when the claims examinations occur.

In my case, particularly, the Notice of Disagreement was received by the VA on Nov. 15, 2017 and I received a letter dated August 1, 2018 informing me about the VA’s modernization efforts. The VA rolled out the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP) and the letter was an invitation to voluntarily opt-in.

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Retrieved from va.gov

 

In theory, it sounded good but tidbits from the letter made me hesitant to pull my NOD from the queue it was in to the new one for RAMP such as the following information, verbatim from the letter:

“The new law does not take effect until February 2019 at the earliest.” 

And from the Fact Sheet provided with the letter was this not so little detail on “What It Means to Opt-In”:

“[Y]ou will have the ability to appeal to the Board if you determine that further review of VA’s decision is necessary. However, the Board will not process your appeal under the new streamlined process until no earlier than October 2018.”

Since it sounded like I could end up with a longer wait time by opting in to RAMP, I waited out the queue I started with, much like one might decide to stay in the checkout line one started with at the grocery store. It is what it is, and since there is no VA equivalent to the Domino’s Pizza Tracker (shown below for those who have never ordered Domino’s Pizza in the last few years or live in nations without Domino’s) I was largely in the dark about how things progressed.

It is important to note with a vets.gov account, you can “track” your claim but it is not robust in the fact you can see when your “order” was made and who made your “order” and things of that nature like you would with the Domino’s Pizza tracker.

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Here’s what my account showed recently:

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I am sharing this image to show the VA is taking steps to improve the process for veterans. This reality is good for all stakeholders involved, but it was truly a long wait.

  • NOD was received by the VA on November 15, 2017
  • Two claims examinations were set up June 13, 2019
    • Here’s a really important step. I was not stuck with a new claims examination appointment with the VA. I was contacted by a company called QTC Medical Services, Inc.
      • The goal was originally to set up my two claims appointments for the same day, which I could not manage with my work schedule.
  • First claims appointment: June 21, 2019
  • Second claims appointment: June 25, 2019
    • Here’s another important change to the process. I was reimbursed travel expenses and this was made evident to me prior to my appointments.
    • The rate of reimbursement  was 41.5 per mile.
      • My first appointment was only 9 miles from my home, but my second was 40 miles away.
    • I was given a questionnaire specific to each claims examination to complete beforehand and brought that documentation with me to my appointment, plus a copy of medical records that only became available to me after I mailed in my Notice of Disagreement.
  • After my appointments, I waited.

The tracker I reviewed for my appeal did not provide any updates regarding when the claims examiners submitted their feedback for the decision review officer. Some days I would log into the website to see if anything changed, but each day it didn’t I grew more nervous this wait would feel like forever. The little bit of hope that this step in the process would be different came from the little “disclaimer” of sorts listed in the image at the top of this post and shared again for greater emphasis:

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Not going to lie, I marked my calendar. I waited out July and I waited out August. I took the VA at face value. Considering that my documentation sat around from November 15,2017 to June 13th, 2019 and during that time I dreaded the VA lost my paperwork, I didn’t know to believe what was posted on the website.

I checked my vets.gov account probably every other day looking for follow up. I started to worry the 10-26 months listed as the average processing time posted to my vets.gov account meant it took the decision review officer 10-26 months to make his or her decision on top of the time the paperwork had already been sitting in a national queue. And then one day, it happened. I opened my account during a quick break and found this little–although not helpful–blurb.

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I was then stuck waiting on snail mail.

Why the VA doesn’t also include a copy of the letter to the vets.gov account is beyond me, but at least now I had something to go on. I wasn’t going to spend almost two years waiting for more feedback. It was either September 19th or 20th I believe when the letter finally arrived.

The Statement of Case was 21 pages, the bulk of it being the laws, regulations, and rating schedule provisions. To avoid clogging up this blog entry, you can go to Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Pensions, Bonuses and Veterans’ Relief.  

Finally on page 19 of this packet was some information on what the VA found to be service connected and what was still denied followed by the VA’s reasons and bases for those decisions. The particulars of their decision are not as relevant as what I am about to say.

The decision I made to stopped seeking medical care while I was in the Marine Corps because it continued to be substandard in diagnosing my chest pains and the fact the first civilian doctor I saw in 2007 only put in notes about my visits without diagnosing their origin play a role in the VA not backdating my claim back to 2007 when I originally informed them of the problem. 

I am fortunate, though, unlike many people that I found a medical provider who built up my trust again in the medical community. I met her in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2015 when we started going over my chest pains and over time, she learned more of my background and presented options to me to manage the reality of my situation.

From what I’ve learned both in dealing with the VA and understanding now how much easier things are when you have transparency and the ear of a helpful nurse practitioner is you are important. There is nothing more important than attending to your health. Your job doesn’t matter and your other responsibilities don’t matter if your health is not attended to and you ignore the signs and symptoms that something is wrong.

I know I should have complained more when I was at BAS (battalion aid station) and asked for a second opinion. Or I could have received other opinions after my EKG’s and chest x-rays demonstrated it was not my heart or lungs. We could have continued exploring for the cause and found a solution years earlier than we did.

The other feedback I have for anyone exploring the Notice of Disagreement process with the VA is to not expect the final result to be the solution to your problem(s). 

The below listed compensation tables, copied directly from the VA’s website, show the significant variance in what the VA can pay for disability benefits for those found to have  a service-connected issue.

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Individuals can have conditions that get worse or improve over time, so it should not come as a shock the VA can reevaluate someone’s disability rating.

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I know this entry is a bit longer than most, but I think transparency is key. The process for the Notice of Disagreement must serve veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs tasked with administrating the program, and the taxpayers that share in the burden. There is a significant amount of accountability needed with these benefits, just as any other program administration so I found it useful to scour the VA’s website for some data to show the scope of disability ratings, how they’ve changed over a few years, and what sort of breakdown there is by body system.

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Just bear in mind as these numbers could give a false sense that an excessive number of people are leaving the military ‘broken’, the Department of Defense is the single largest employer in the United States and according to what I found at Governing in 2017 that meant 1.3 million active duty personnel and 800,000 from our reserve components. The numbers reflected here, instead, represent multiple eras of military service which should not be forgotten.

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Get Out of (School) Debt Free Card: The Downside to “Taking Care of our ‘Disabled’ Veterans”

I am taking an unpopular stance on the recent memorandum regarding discharging federal student debt for permanently and totally disabled veterans, but hear me out. Like a number of other socially and politically motivated moves, there is in this case a lot of talk on the surface that does not get to the nuances of the situation. My view is informed partially by my work in higher education and my experience as a student who has used the Post-9/11 GI Bill at the 100% level and still made the decision at times to take out student loans without choosing to take on the maximum debt available to me.

To start with, there is no such thing as a perfect policy. It does not matter if we have a Republican president or a Democratic president. It does not matter the distribution of party influence throughout the different levels of our government. There is no policy that can serve the needs of people perfectly because there are rules in place to ensure a standard process for efficiency and ideally, to prevent abuse.  Additionally, some people will be served at the expense of others who are excluded from the benefit. That’s just how it goes.

Before I proceed further, you can read the memorandum here.

I want to be transparent our society has not always given great deference to our nation’s veterans. Vietnam veterans know this all too well. There will be some merit to updating the student loan forgiveness policy currently in place, but I do not buy into this effort as something to honor our veterans.

Our society often offers incentives to veterans as a means to cure its own problems. 

The incentives are then wrapped in language to appear that veterans are the primary recipients but there are a diverse amount of groups that are also served when veterans (and/or their families) receive benefits. The people who support such measures can help encourage their likelihood of being re-elected. Organizations can use forms of collaboration to cut costs. Different groups can use such measures to be viewed as more “veteran friendly” in comparison to similar public or private competitors. Even the history of VA education benefits started with a mission to help address the reality of unemployed veterans. Since our society has always had something to gain from the “feel good” nature of veteran programs and services, namely the economic output of veterans like other consumers, we should look critically at what is accomplished and also what we don’t intend to happen, but could happen with policy implementation.

Again, I want to reiterate there will be those in need who are properly served by updates to the Total and Permanent Disability Discharge, but the situation is ripe for possible abuse and must also be viewed in light of VA benefits to defray the cost of education.

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This information from the Federal Student Aid’s website indicates eligible veterans have disabilities that are “100% disabling or that [veterans] are totally disabled based on an individual unemployability rating, that includes the effective date of the VA’s determination.”

A veteran can be 100% disabled for VA purposes but that does not mean he or she is unemployable, which is a significant quality I think this memorandum misses entirely.

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It is not necessarily fair to provide the same benefit of student loan forgiveness to a veteran with a 100% disability rating that is employable when there are those 100% totally and permanently disabled veterans for whom work is not possible.

It is this distinction that irks me. And I’ll express my views a bit more to explain why this issue is something I think was grossly overlooked and may have been back when disabled veterans were included as an eligible group. (Perhaps, the website will be updated with more clear language but I think the 100% disabled veteran and the 100% totally and permanently disabled veteran will be treated the same moving forward as well.)

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The above charts provide evidence our 100% disabled veterans receive an ample tax-free benefit designed to help them deal with their service-connected disability. Again, a disability (and disability rating) does not necessarily preclude veterans from being employable.

If I were to look at a family like mine with three family members, a veteran with his or her spouse and child receives $3,352.41 on a monthly basis. This family receives $40,228.92 annually, tax-free, and there is the possibility the family receives other forms of support, either earned by the veteran’s service (like a VA work study position), a civilian job occupied by the veteran, or by the spouse.

Many veterans are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and if they are eligible at the 100% level, their education benefits provide a significant incentive to not accrue student loans or to practice responsible borrowing.

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Using Arizona State University as my example, having completed my Master’s there, let’s look at a few simple situations:

Spring 2019 (undergrad resident student, campus) $5,411

Fall 2019 (undergrad resident student, college fee 1–the cheapest programs) $5,669

 

The cost of this academic year is $11,080 covered completed by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  If we look at the Federal Aid max, a first year independent undergraduate can receive $9,500 in federal loans. Why take out the maximum federal loan when said student can take on work of some kind? 

When I looked at the Federal Student Aid website, between four years of an undergraduate program, a student can take on $45,000. It might be easy to say that loan amount is needed for housing and other expenses, but again, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has other payments attached to it.

The basic allowance for housing varies across the nation for resident training but the Department of Defense rate, which started for student entering programs after 1/1/2018, is $1,680 for a full month of attendance at Arizona State University. If I recall correctly, there are between 113-115 days each for the spring and fall terms. The $1,680 BAH is divided by a 30 day month for $56 a day. If the term is 113 days, the student receives $6,328 and if the other term is 115 days, the student receives $6,440.

Plus the student receives a book stipend of up to $1,000 for 24 credits in the academic year.

Here’s a nice way to look at our 100% disabled (but completely employable) veteran:

$40,228.92 disability compensation

$12,768 basic allowance for housing

$1,000 annual book stipend

Total tax-free money cleared by student: $53,996.92

The rest of the money is paid to the school, but the $11,080 tuition and fees payment demonstrates the student does not need a student loan to pay for direct educational expenses unless the cost of books and supplies exceeds the book stipend, which it could. If anything, the student could have indirect educational expenses but he or she should modestly accept student loan debt instead of using the total and permanent discharge as a “get out of school debt” card because it is simply available. Other options are part-time or full-time work to pay for expenses not covered by VA educational benefits.

The VA also has another program called Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment. One of the tracks available helps pay for higher education which is what I am familiar with in my work. Like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it pays tuition and fees to the school, the cost of books, and a subsistence allowance like the Post-9/11 BAH. Counselors sometimes pay for parking passes and consumable items, like paper and pens. It’s been a little while since I’ve dealt with this particular benefit on a daily basis, but the expectation is students must still provide valid support for incidentals.

Students can have either the traditional subsistence allowance for VocRehab which for a veteran and two dependents is $923.60 a month, falling back on my example of a family of three persons, or the alternative Post-9/11 rate for veterans who also earned the Post-9/11 GI Bill, paid at the same rate of the zip code of the school. In this situation the $1,680 monthly rate.  I am not sure what percentage of VocRehab recipients in higher education are at the 100% disability rating, but I wanted to share this information for awareness purposes that our nation is already doing a commendable job setting veterans up for success without them having to seek the maximum student loan each year to fund their education.

I know I am barely grazing the surface of the issue, but I wanted to express why the matter of student loan forgiveness is not the same for a 100% disabled veteran with employability prospects as it is for the 100% permanently and totally disabled, unemployable veteran.

The first group can easily abuse the system set up to assist the disadvantaged and take out the maximum student loan amount each year, enjoying some $45,000 of fun money (from my example) with zero consequences unless a distinction is made moving forward that it is the 100% disabled, unemployable veteran community who should benefit from this collaboration and not both groups of 100% disabled veterans.

UPDATE (August 24, 2019, 5:42 p.m.)

I meant to include this snapshot earlier when I was looking for some info on VocRehab to share. SCDs stands for service connected disabilities. The jump in disability ratings is a bit staggering for the 60-100% disability rating scale and it does shows the burden on the VA to attend to this influx in disabilities increased significantly. I pulled the information from the VA’s website. It just took a little Googling here and there to scout for VocRehab information that might be relevant for today’s conversation.

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What is ‘Home’?

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I’m on Day 2 of my Staycation so it’s exciting to drop in for today’s June entry. I know I don’t relax well; I have a difficult relationship with leisure time. As much as I crave it, I also have my heart and brain tugging at me to make great use of my time. I am one of those people who has to learn to be ok with slowing down which is not something I’ve done much of as I’ve juggled full-time work and school. Funny story, but I’ve noticed that once I became eligible to work, I juggled more than one commitment.

My pattern of activity has differed over the years. I started working part-time in high school, holding down that job for two years. I also partially committed to sports, completing two seasons of track and one season of cross county. I only made it through one semester of college before picking up a student worker position. During my Marine Corps career, I occasionally picked up college classes, paying for them with DoD tuition assistance. A return to college after separating from the Marine Corps also meant a return to part-time work. I did not find a decent paying position when we moved to Wyoming so I committed solely to my undergraduate studies until we decided to have our daughter and then I juggled parenthood and collegiate studies until my May 2012 graduation. The short “break” in excess commitments ended in 2014 when I returned to school as a graduate student while working full-time. I graduated May 2016 but I picked up another graduate program October 2017, again while working full-time.

Big sigh here. I am my own worst enemy about overcommitting myself to projects.

It’s a big part of why I’ve taken a break from my memoir writing and my blog writing. I’ve needed to rest to see how far I’ve come in my journey and to reflect on the right things, instead of the things that have been difficult. I want to present you all with my best self and to do so means slowing down. I have to be ok with not getting the draft of my memoir finished this year (or realizing I am still capable of getting it done once my degree program is finished). It’s not a paid project, yet, so I should not beat myself up for taking my time with what is to be my longest writing endeavor.

Getting back on track with today’s lesson, I am here to talk about developing a sense of home. I’ve been blessed to live in many different areas, some domestic and some places overseas. In each instance, I had a family arrangement composed of biological and non-biological relations which also includes friends. When I was overseas, I remained connected to my domestic group using snail mail, e-mails, and MySpace. 2007 was the last time I was overseas, but I still use technology to keep in touch with my domestic group, favoring Instagram and Facebook, and my overseas connections. (I’m pretty certain I also stopped using MySpace in late 2007 and started Facebook some time in 2008; I’m pretty late to using Instagram, only creating an account in 2016!).

With my journeys, I’ve developed an eclectic home with my husband and daughter. It is part California and Rhode Island. Ocean blues dominate in many different areas: furniture, clothing, and towels, for example. The touches are not nautical themed, but we do have some ocean artwork in our residence. My coastal life and regional upbringing are more present in my food preferences. Meals at home have included shrimp, scallops, clams and oysters, a variety of fish, langoustine, Mexican chorizo and Gaspar’s chourico.  It’s hard to think of a pasta I don’t enjoy; I can, instead, list my preferences for you. A love of travel also influences our decor, food choices, and down the road, our tile choices for our dream home. I’ve shared a few things below I’ve found through Instagram and love.

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I know this entry is quite different from many that focus on my time in the Marine Corps and my service in Iraq. Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death and I wanted to reflect on the adult I’ve become because I moved away from home, the place she grew up. Rhode Island is beautiful in many ways, but there’s always this part of me that felt it wasn’t where I was meant to stay. It is, though, a place I return to and I appreciate it greatly when I am there.

My home is different from the home she created for our family. Her home was eclectic, too, in a different way. While these family photos show our family members front and center, please also pay attention to the decor style. Each of us come into our own by our upbringing, resources, and societal influences during our life course. My mother was someone who was not only a care taker of her children, but someone with a green thumb she did not pass along. The array of indoor plants she kept is not something I’ve mastered in my own life. We can barely manage cut flowers and I’ve only recently nurtured my daughter’s $7.99 orchid from Trader Joe’s, mostly because that thing only needs 2 Tablespoons of water once a week. My mother’s home reflected a country influence with an interesting love of Chinese white and blue ceramics and black lacquer screens. She liked floral print fabric place mats and could sew curtains for our home.

When we lived in our Chula Vista, California townhome with its patio (probably the same size of slightly smaller than my current one), our home was filled with some trending home decor items of the 1980’s and 1990’s. We had woven wood bowls similar to these and oversized wooden utensils for wall decor. She had these macrame style owls on our walls and our childhood birthday parties lacked the overdone party themes present in today’s childhood parties to make them Instagram worthy. She was not a person who lived being photographed so it’s hard to find photos of her and also photos of our past homes to show off her design choices.

She was a simple woman in her preferences and style. She loved to read. Aside from V.C. Andrews novels and true crime books, she would regularly pick up gossip magazines. She dressed pretty casually for the most part but also had some dress clothes, particularly for going out with her girlfriends. I never adopted her love of going out dancing with friends, but she helped to build my love of reading. Her book collection was not off limits to us and she is also the reason I had quite a love affair for Pier 1 Imports for many years.

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Our dining room in our Chula Vista townhome.
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Our last Christmas together. My mother was dealing with Stage 4 lung cancer.
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The floral print tile in the background of these photo is one of my mom’s last design choices in our Rhode Island home.
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My late mother in our Imperial Beach, CA home (possibly 1996). 
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My sisters and I in our Imperial Beach, California rental home.

It’s fun to think of what her thoughts would be on my adult home that is so vastly different and also similar to her own and the plans for which are more global than local in inspiration. We both have been drawn to blue in our homes, with a wedge wood blue once dominating her kitchen cabinets whereas we’ve chosen Behr’s Dawn Gray (a dramatic dark blue in natural light that appears gray at other times) for different parts of our current home. Our family garage in our Imperial Beach home served as her exercise/home office and our home is littered in different areas with weight plates and other exercise equipment. I’ve replaced her Tony Robbins cassette tapes with a series of self-improvement and writing reference books. In lieu of her Asian inspired home decor and wooden wall art, my family’s first home features various wooden furniture and someday our forever home will feature geometric Middle East inspired tile. I am not as fond of floral prints and plant maintenance but I am not opposed to some cacti and succulents for greenery in our outdoor space. These low maintenance plants are well-suited to my poor nurturing skills and the needs of our local environment.

And to end on a real light note, I am not sure what my mom would think of my vegan and vegetarian food choices. As a mother of four, she had more practical choices to make with her limited food budget. I think she would have been hesitant to try things like tofu, jackfruit, almond coconut milk, and vegan cheeses. While I am not happy when we have food waste, I also recognize it’s good for my family to try new things like these items so I test out food recipes–even vegan and vegetarian options to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption in my household–more than I think I ever saw my mother do during my upbringing. (Side note: We aren’t strong fans of vegan cheese but we do like the vegan ice cream options we’ve had in the past.) I know in making these comparisons, too, there will never be a complete “apples to apples” comparison with my mother’s choices as so much as changed in society from 1984 when I was born to 2000 when she passed and where things are now in 2019. It’s still fun though to think of what these stories mean for our family. As I’ve learned, our sense of ‘home’ is uniquely created and something we continue to develop over our lifetimes which impact not only us but the people we bring into this space.

Finding Self-Confidence

Good morning, everyone.

April kicked me a lot so I wanted to drop in to say hello. I know I am not the only one who faces setbacks or hits a rough patch in life and as much as I share motivating things, I want to be honest I don’t have perfect days either. I’ve talked a lot less about those as my writing has progressed, but it has been a journey to be confident in the face of setbacks and disappointments.

Year after year, I’ve worked on finding self-confidence. I admired more confident peers in high school and when I went to Florida Southern College, one of my goals was, “To be more confident.” Even during my career as a Marine, I didn’t feel confident in my abilities. One of my best achievements was beating the perfect run time (as a woman) for the 3-mile run section of the physical fitness test; the perfect time was 21 minutes and I ran that test–and the only time I managed to do so–with a run time of 20 minutes and 15 seconds.  I had been a good runner in high school but never managed to be a top performer in my track event or cross country, but I wasn’t as content with my perfect Marine Corps run time for as long as I hoped I would be. Instead, I beat my self up for being a poor performer in the other Marine Corps skills areas, like the fact I was never able to improve my marksmanship skills from marksman to sharp shooter. In my current role as grad student, I get nervous each week I have a paper due because I want to do exceptionally well. I still find it hard to feel like I will succeed on that weekly assignment although I completed my first grad program with a 3.96 GPA and I have a 3.95 in my current program.

My nagging insecurity is why I reach out for self-improvement/reference materials and look for new tools to accomplish what seems insurmountable or to carve out a different routine because I know no one else can cure me of bad habits.

Oddly enough, as much as social media gets a bad wrap, I constantly find motivational sentiments on Instagram that I hoard in collections on my profile. I love knowing other souls want to spread good messages out into the world and it doesn’t matter that we may never meet. The things people choose to share reveal a lot about them, whether we are talking about filtered or unfiltered content. This reality is something that speaks me, particularly as I come to the conclusion of my current class and I’ve spent this last week sitting down with the idea that knowledge is a global public good.

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On an individual and global level, we all experience some traumatic or discomforting events in our lifetimes that alter our worldview. We might become more timid, angry, disillusioned, or ambitious as a result of these circumstances or the people that bring these events to our lives. I know, for me, one of the biggest problems has been letting go of failures and failed personal connections. I do not like when I’ve faced rejection in the workplace or people who treat me like what I ask from them is too much. I am the person who—although it’s taken me years–jumps in with both feet. I have struggled to find my voice and to use it. Now that I am more confident in my abilities, I am more open in what I share and to the audience(s) I share my thoughts.

Shedding the insecurities that harm my self-confidence has not been easy.

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It’s taken a lot to realize people who treat me poorly or who cannot compromise do not reflect my self-worth. Everyone has his or her own hangups that can hinder their ability to live an awesome life or to treat others with the utmost respect deserving of their person. My ventures into graduate school in 2014 and again in 2017 have taught me I do not want to compromise on my goals or lifestyle to make others feel more secure in who they are. I do not want their negative comments to creep into my mind and make me feel unworthy. I also do not want any rejection I’ve ever faced to keep me from self-improvement. When I lost out on job opportunity after job opportunity in 2012, I felt no one would ever hire me or if so, it would almost be a fluke. That thought process did a great disservice to my efforts to earn dual Bachelor’s degrees and to perform well on all the jobs I had done up until that point in my life. I should not be my worst critic and I say the same thing to you.

Whatever bad things you say to yourself internally or aloud are things you need to stop repeating.

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Yes, there are a lot of things outside of our control, but there are many more things we can control that we do not give ourselves credit for and which we should. Each day we wake up represents a fresh opportunity. We can get in better shape. We can attempt a new hobby. We can seek out new income earning opportunities or accrue more responsibilities within our organizations or communities because we desire for these areas to be more appealing. We can add loved ones to our families or add friends–true companions, not superficial relations–to our support network.

This blog–and the time I’ve invested in it–represents a bigger change to who I am as a person than I expected it would when I took the baby steps into writing for a public audience; it’s shown me how I’ve been developing personal confidence over nearly a five-year period. It shown me what I can accomplish by reaffirming I am worth continual investment and I should ignore anyone who naysays my personal projects. It’s shown me I can learn from tragedy and rejection. It’s shown me I am an educator although I do not wear the professional title. It’s reminded me, more importantly, I must nourish who I am before I can serve others. In this last way, I’ve also learned there are times when I must cut back on my writing commitments. I used to feel so guilty about not being a consistent blogger but I am more confident now less posts but more substantial posts speak more to who I am and what I find meaningful.

In referencing writing, I didn’t have the heart this past month to contribute significantly to my Iraq memoir. The month become a period of personal reflection and I’ve had to remind myself to be grateful for the things that did not pan out. These realities gave me life lessons of what not to accept in my life and brought other people into my life I would not have otherwise known. I’ve met so many people who accept me, quirks and I, and who respect the pace with which I tackle personal and professional goals. I have also grown in confidence because I learned I was standing in my own way. I learned, day by day, I could stop harming my own progress and this past month was a reminder I’ve gone through this process more than once. Each time I start to let doubt creep in, I can also kick it right back out the door.

April may have been a disappointment but I have many more days, months, and years ahead to shake it off. I also have the power to appreciate today for what it is and who I am in this moment.

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See you next month, and stay motivated!