Thoughts + A Debt-Free Life aka Kicking the “Should”s


I have been feeling a little deflated about blogging lately. I’ve talked about this before, I know, and I’ve pondered whether I’ve become too predictable because I’m such a routine-lover. I can confidently say that I’m not dialing it in by any stretch and I still love sharing my creations and each comment still makes me feel giddy. But I’ve also been conflicted about what I’m doing (at what point is too many dresses for one child? Probably about 100 dresses ago) and haven’t been pouring myself into my posts as I did in the early days, when I was scared to hit the “publish” button each and every time. Scary can be a good sign.

Not that I think this should be a vehicle for bare-all confessions or be an extreme sport version of sewing blogging, but my approach seems to have gone from comfortably intimate coffee date to community center craft fair — you know, instead of that cozy feeling of sharing recent updates with a good friend over a hot beverage, I’ve been getting the sense that I’m manning an irrelevant booth where folks meander from a safe distance, vaguely noting my amateur paintings and handicrafts, scanning the room for something better elsewhere. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I don’t know. I know it’s a useless way to think, and I guess it’s the old insecurity monster rearing its head…I’m not looking for assurances but am trying to identify this current state I’m experiencing.

So to shake myself out of this slumpy mood and externally-focused mentality, I am going to talk about a taboo topic today: money. It’s something that makes me cringe all over, and it always helps me focus when I write outside of my comfort zone. If you haven’t gathered by now, I am not a naturally frugal person — I never have been and probably never will be (reading this, my husband is clutching at his heart and gnawing at his already bitten-down-to-the-nubs nails). I’m obsessed with pretty, delightful objects. Clothes and shoes. Stationery. Art supplies. Fabric. Books. Organic, hand-plucked, truffle-infused, wildly expensive edible things. I love love love giving decadent gifts. M jokes that if he wants to know where I am at any given point in the day, he just needs to find the nearest overpriced, beautifully decorated coffee shop.

Despite this Achilles heel of spendthrift tendencies on my part, we live a debt-free life. Yes, zero debt. No mortgage, no car payments, no credit card balance, no school loans, nada. It was incredibly hard for me to get here and it most certainly wasn’t always this way.

I’ve been going down memory lane these past few days as I am wont to do at the end of the year, unearthing dozens and dozens of my old journals. I came across a ratty old notebook with “2003 + 2004 + 2005 budget” scrawled on the cover. In it, I had meticulously recorded every expense: utilities, student loans, credit card bills. So many credit card bills…


My parents never talked about money when I was growing up, but I knew that we didn’t have much for most of my childhood. When I was a kid, my dad ran a liquor store in downtown L.A. and business quickly boomed. We moved into a spacious white house in a tony part of town and I switched from an all-black school to one filled with blonde, blue-eyed children. But then, inexplicably and suddenly, everything went belly up. We lost the store, the house, the car, the apartment building my parents had invested in. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out about all of this — at the time I was in the second grade and just couldn’t understand why we had to skidaddle to Japan in the middle of the school year. I completed my second grade in Japan and stayed at my Grandma’s house in Tokyo, where a metal tub sat on the ground in a structure that was similar to an outhouse. It was dark and terrifying in there. Hot water had to be manually poured into the tub if we wanted to take a bath, and most days we went to the public bath house. I can still recall the bustle of naked women and girls surrounding me, how I averted my eyes and felt out of place even though I looked like them. I missed America.

Eventually, my parents cobbled together some funds and we returned to the US, briefly settling into a tiny house in an area called Hawaiian Gardens, the smallest city in Los Angeles county, and then we moved again. And again. Because my family uprooted so frequently, I grew up observing the whole socioeconomic spectrum from scrappy, welfare families to multi-jillionaire Hollywood aristocracies. I could go on forever detailing the surreal worlds I saw, but what’s important is this: I learned that money was something no one talked about.

Though dollars and cents were never explicitly discussed, I knew that spending more than you earned was not an option in our household. That was antithetical to our industrious, Japanese work ethic. As soon as I turned 15, I immediately applied for a worker’s permit and looked for an after school job in earnest so I could finally buy all the on-trend clothes that I’d coveted for years. I blew through my meager paychecks with one shopping spree after another, and my mom looked on worriedly, meekly suggesting that I might want to try to save some of my earnings. Save? What for? I was a teenager! I was certain I’d be earning gobs of money when I was older.


In college, I knew a girl who amassed an astronomical amount of credit card debt as well as parking ticket fees. I recognized in her the same carpe diem attitude I had in spending my paychecks, except she was using borrowed money and this unsettled me. In my naivete, I couldn’t figure out how she was paying off her credit card bills at first. When I finally sussed out that she wasn’t even meeting the minimum payments, I was astounded. Why wasn’t she worried? She seemed so confident and together and appeared secure in the knowledge that everything would take care of itself; her closets overflowed with clothes and she proudly kitted her dorm room with a state-of-the-art microwave and mini-refrigerator.


“I’m going to own a Lexus before I’m 30,” I was horrified with myself as I mentally saw the words come out of my mouth like a cartoon bubble while I chatted with a co-worker. I was 22-years-old and was earning $24,000 a year at a marketing firm in Santa Monica, and I was trying desperately to impress the much older and much more sophisticated woman who was training me. I remember how she tucked her glossy highlighted hair behind one ear and looked at me askance without a word. My face burned. We were heading to an L.A. hotspot for a company lunch — the type of place frequented by A-list celebrities — and I was feeling inadequate surrounded by all the glitz and glamour. It seemed like the sort of thing I should say, but it sounded all wrong when actually verbalized.

It was around this time that I got my first credit card. And I started to worship the altar of “should”s. Oh, I should get a sleek haircut so I don’t look like I’m fourteen (I looked ridiculously young with my long hair, but after my haircut I discovered that I still looked ridiculously young, only my head resembled a mushroom). I should really buy a suit so my boss will take me seriously (I bought a red polyester pantsuit that made me appear like I’d raided Elvis Presley’s closet to play dress-up – not my best look. I returned it the next day when I saw my boss’s suppressed smirk). I didn’t, thankfully, buy a Lexus on credit, and at first, I was very cautious with my newly acquired purchasing power. I kept in mind the debt-ridden girl from college and smugly knew that I wouldn’t ever allow myself to go down that route. I paid off my balance each month and soon, hooked by the ease, I was using my credit card for everything and not just for special purchases as I had done in the beginning.

And then I utterly lost control.


To be continued….*


*That’s a good cliff-hanger, right? Look at me, trying something new! Stay tuned to find out how I got out of debt — not an easy task…


49 thoughts on “Thoughts + A Debt-Free Life aka Kicking the “Should”s

  1. ooo! love the suspense.
    I don’t like how money is taboo to talk about and I love hearing your story. A pet peeve of mine is when people who have money are always saying they don’t..and people who don’t are acting like they do.
    Right now I am sipping my hot tea and reading your blog…I appreciate all your posts! I love your paintings. I think the season in general can make one feel…introspective and off. At least for me.

    1. Thanks, Anna! This time of year does make me take stock of everything and reflect on what’s working and what’s not…I love that you were sipping tea while reading the post!

  2. oooo…. I can’t wait to hear the rest!!! I really hate money for the most part, and I’m pretty frugal (like my dad), but I married a guy who has expensive taste in shoes, restaurants, and cheese. Oh, the cheese! It’s like we’ve fallen into our money roles as a married couple. Every time he buys something, I basically chose not to buy something that I’ve been eyeing. I try to keep it balanced, but god dammit, I’d like a nice pair of my own shoes for once!!!! I look forward to tuning in to chapter 2, Sanae!!

    1. Ah…the eternal challenge of different money management styles. I know that M lives in constant fear of my love of frivolous things even though I’ve reformed greatly. And you probably shouldn’t listen to me, but you deserve some nice shoes for yourself, girl!

  3. If you’re anything like me, that cliffhanger ends with “And then I wracked up 25 grand in credit card debt”. Am I right?! Am I right!? Thanks for sharing – I love talking about money,maybe because nobody likes talking about it, when its’ kind of extremely important.

    1. Haha! You’ll have to wait for the next segment…;-) I so admire that you can talk easily about money. It’s something I’m really trying to change about myself. Thanks, Heather Lou!

  4. Oh! What now? So much suspense!

    So what’s up with the blog? If you want my input, I think things changed whenyou went from every day to MWF. But you did not change your old structure of New Outfit Monday and Random Friday. While it gives you more work time, I also think it might be too prescribed to be totally satisfying when you do blog. I know you are into routines, and I love reading your stuff, AND I really like knowing when you will be posting, but maybe you want to think of shaking things up a bit? I didn’t know you were into spending money on luxury things! You don’t come across as the “Go ahead indulge yourself!” type. Maybe you have changed.

    I. am getting pretty random here myself, hee hee! But I didn’t preorder your book yet. I was wondering If you will be having any autographed books for sale options on your website? Or you can think of it closer to the date it is rreleased.

    1. “Too prescribed” – you might have hit it on the nail, Max! I’m all for structure and routine, but I have a very insistent need to try new things and chafe at feeling like I’m repeating myself over and over. And yes, I’ve changed a lot!

      I like the idea of offering up books for sale here! I’ll have to figure out how to do that…not sure if there are certain protocols I’m supposed to follow per the publisher, but will keep you posted!

  5. I’m enjoying the story so far! My family also never talked about money when I was growing up, so even though I knew we struggled, I assumed that my parents had everything under control. When they encouraged me to apply to any school I wanted regardless of cost, I did, and when they encouraged me to go to my first-choice school, a private college that was still expensive after a 50% grant, I went without much thought.

    Years later, my youngest brother is a freshman in college, and my parents’ attitude has changed completely. After I went off to college, they became more open about their financial situation, so my brothers came of age knowing that they didn’t exactly have “everything under control.” One brother proudly paid his way through community college and state school, and the youngest—even though our parents are paying his way—chose his current school almost entirely based on cost. I wish I’d been exposed to more of my family’s reality when I was choosing a college as well. I loved my college education, but I feel so guilty now.

    Long story short, we should all be a little more open about money so we can make educated decision! And as far as your blog conundrum goes, I really love reading everything you post. As a fellow Japanese American who has spent time living in Japan, I love hearing about your experiences and I can really relate to your aesthetic. Whatever form it takes, keep blogging! 🙂

      1. Hello Mia! I love your comment, thank you! It’s funny — my parents have also shifted gears and now they talk about money all the time. Perhaps it was because my freewheeling $$ style freaked them out!! 🙂 My two cents: a 50% scholarship sounds incredibly impressive and if you loved your college experience, I say that it was well worth it and I bet your parents were so very proud of you.

  6. Ooh, the suspense – it’s like Serial! I’ve been talking more about money to friends recently. I’m determined my craft business will actually make a profit next year! I do get some startled looks, so it’s great to read your thoughts. I love your blog, and sorry I don’t comment more.

    1. Wow, I don’t feel worthy to be compared to Serial, but thanks Denise!! I love your attitude and determination about your business – you can do it!! And don’t apologize for not commenting – I am a rambler, and I write these things to sort out my knotted up thoughts.

  7. i. love. this. post!!! it really speaks to me because i’m working on getting out of debt right now and its really hard when i want so much stuff, like fabric, patterns (the ones you make for yourself because they look so amazing), and beautiful things for my family. can’t wait for part 2.

  8. Love story time. To be honest, I’m so hooked into your blog that even if you had to say “sorry readers I dont have anything to say today”‘ I might still find it fascinating to read.

    I think it’s a cultural thing. The East is more into saving while the West prefers living in debt. I’m married to a man who refuses to clear the credit card debt even when we have a positive balance, let alone the interest we gift the bank every month on mortgage. Years later, I’m still trying to figure out a logical reason.

    Looking forward to the next chapter with eagerness. By the way, I haven’t forgot about that elope piece scheduled for next June or July? Hee hee

    1. Oh Jing — thank you! I agree that the concept of saving seems much more embedded in Eastern cultures having lived in Japan and having a rather large group of Asian friends. I do think it’s becoming a global issue though.

      Ah, the quasi-elopement story. I fear that I might have built that one up, though I thought it was wildly entertaining. 😉

    1. You are too kind, Greta! I’ve been mulling over what it is that I love most about blogging, and hands down, it’s the writing aspect of it. I am so appreciative of the time you take to read and comment!

  9. I don’t think routine is a bad thing. I love knowing I’m going to get posts from you on certain days. I do understand the how many clothes is too many clothes dilemma and am struggling with it myself.

    Money! Oh money. I’m so excited to hear where this story leads! Thanks for being open and sharing!

    1. The clothes situation is becoming a major struggle, Em! On the one hand, I absolutely love making clothes specifically for K (and yes, for myself) and keep telling myself I’m practicing my sewing, but on the other hand I’m well aware of how absurd her wardrobe is becoming.

      Working on the next installment!

  10. I’ve been feeling something similar in terms of blogging. For myself, I’m wondering if it’s about about outgrowing finishing something every 1-3 weeks and posting every time I make something . And if I have a sewing blog and I’m not posting an object I’ve made, what do I post? I like your answer to that question – money! I’m hooked 🙂

    1. Oh, that’s interesting to look at it from the perspective of outgrowing the particular format/topic! I need to reflect on whether that’s true for me too. I do think I’m craving something different — maybe something more daring or surprising or…something. Looking forward to catching up in person, Morgan!

  11. The suspense! I’m excited to hear the rest! I, unfortunately, do have debt (mostly ok I guess?), and try to keep the spending down. Sigh, I always mean to set a monthly budget….

    1. I believe that people without debt are in the minority these days in the developed parts of the world, Margo — and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. As for budgets…I’ve always been pretty suspicious of them personally. There’s so much guilt that comes with it, don’t you think?

  12. I like your style of blogging and will continue to read it as long as you write something. The way you express is what drove me to your blog in the first place. I enjoy the sewing creations, learning about your background as well as the short stories. I say keep up with what you’re doing since it seems like there are quite a few people who also enjoy the blog the way it is.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I’m always pleased as punch when people mention my writing — it’s something I was so shy about and what I’ve done on the sly for so long, it feels a little unreal to be doing it publicly at times.

  13. I will anxiously await the next installment! Financial planning is something I have struggled with all of my adult life. My husband and I are both spenders and we like nice things. And with my attorney salary, we have easy access to lots of credit. Needless to say, it is a recipe for disaster — one that has hit us and that we are struggling to find our way out of. In fact, just the other day we took the first steps towards hiring a financial advisor to help us work our way out for good! In the next few years I hope to join you in a zero-debt lifestyle!

    1. How brave to take those first steps, Katie! I firmly believe it starts from taking action, any action towards your desired goal. I’m all too familiar with the lure of nice things and at various points in my career, I could rationalize that I could afford it. Part two coming soon!

  14. I’ll start by saying that I love your blog. Its a “booth” I visit regularly, not just while waiting fir the next bestest thing to come along. I hope you find your mojo back. That being said, I have found that too much of one craft gets tiring – like the expectation of producing something great is bigger than the outcome. At times like those I switch to something else – card making, sewing and button making are my high rotation faves, but I am hoping to learn knitting too.

    As for money – love of my life (aside from family and friends), bane of my existance. Its my husband’s favourite story how when we were cash strapped students, I was sent out to buy starch (anything to fill our bellies, the cheaper the better) and came back with a rubber stamp. Yeah, the stamp shop was on the way to the grocery store. We had dinner at a friend’s place that night. I’ve gotten much better at staving off the impule buy monster, but it ocassionally rears its flat plastic head!

    1. I love the rubber stamp story, Grace! Totally something I would do!!! 🙂

      Thank you for your supportive comment! I think there might be a bizarre rule-breaker in me, and I’m balking at my own rules…I like the idea of switching things up though, and knitting has been on my list of skills to learn for eons, but I just don’t seem to take to it. Sad face.

  15. It still feels like chatting over coffee to me. My favourite blogs talk craft but with the lovely personal stuff thrown in. I’ve realised I start to drift away when blogs start to leave the personal out. I love your stories and all the details. The internet is full of information, but blogs like yours supply human interaction, relationships, connection. I admire what you do.
    I loved reading that you have no debt. My husband gets embarrassed when I tell people we have no debt and worries it will make others feel bad/stressed about money, but I only want to tell people so they know that it’s an option. Constantly reducing is the way we live and as a result we have an awful lot of freedom. Others have told me that freedom equals having money but I’ve found the opposite.

    1. Thank you Rebecca! And I couldn’t agree more with the freedom that comes with being debt-free. Your husband sounds so empathic! I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad or stressed by any means, but getting out of debt was something I accomplished despite myself and felt like i needed to remind myself that I CAN do things that seem impossible.

  16. ” instead of that cozy feeling of sharing recent updates with a good friend over a hot beverage, I’ve been getting the sense that I’m manning an irrelevant booth where folks meander from a safe distance, vaguely noting my amateur paintings and handicrafts” this is exactly how I feel about my own blog lately but lacked the words to articulate it! I am never scanning for a better booth when I visit here. I can’t wait for part two, I am very firmly in part one of my debt story and it totally sucks.

    1. Thank you, sweet Carla! Debt does totally suck, and I don’t claim to have any answers on making it suck less, but I hope the next part of the story will be at least entertaining.

  17. There’s a great book I read a while back called “My Misspent Youth” by Meghan Daum. It really resonated with me because I was living in NYC when I read it and could relate to much of what she was writing about.

    Money wouldn’t be taboo if we were only ever talking to people who were in the exact economic boat as ourselves. It’s when people with less or more are the audience *or* the speaker where the disconnect happens either because of guilt or cluelessness. It shouldn’t be such a minefield, but it is. Approaching it with honesty is a good step in the right direction. I’m with everyone else and am waiting with bated breath.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love your blog and recommend it all the time. I’m always dazzled by people who can actually produce things *and then* write about it. My day is spent merely thinking about doing things and never actually getting them done. But I can see how it can become something that you might not absolutely love or even need after a time. Trust me though, when I say that nobody on the outside looking in can see that. We see an amazingly polished, accomplished, and yet down to earth woman that we would gladly sit and chat with over a hot beverage and delicious nibble or two.

    1. Now I want to read “My Misspent Youth”! Humorous essays and social observations? Count me in! The title made me think of Marcel Proust — a writer I’ve been meaning to read for decades, but the sheer heft of his work makes my mind feel tired.

      Thank you so much for your continued enthusiasm for my blog, Alana – I can’t tell you how much it makes my day/week/year. I’m pretty much a professional hot beverage drinker and snack eater (really, I don’t know why I’m not paid to do these things when I do them so well) and wish I could have coffee dates with you and everyone else!

  18. So interesting to read your story. Not sure if it’s the same out of Australia but I find the children of baby boomers (such as myself, firmly gen x) really are pretty awful with money. We watched our parents scrimp and save during our childhood and think ‘I’m not going to be like that, Ill enjoy my money’ and wonder why we are still living with them when we are 26 years old….. I hate hate hate credit cards. But, like you, and Eddie from Ab Fab ‘I just want nicer things!’. I look forward to your next instalment. And one day I’ll be debt free….

    1. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t read or watch the news so I’m terribly out of touch with current events, but my husband is a current events nut and it sounds like the debt issue extends across all generations now, especially here in the States.

      Sigh. I love nice things. And it’s required some serious behavior modifications and it’s still hard for me. But I’ll tell more soon!

  19. And then . . .
    Ok, so you know I’m already hooked on your blog, but even if I wasn’t you better believe I’d be back to read the rest of your story! Love your honestly in sharing your experience with an oft-avoided topic. Coming from a frugal, Dutch immigrant background, I grew up without any extras and find the story of your college roommate fascinating. It seems so surreal to me that people live like that, but clearly a great many do as the recession of ’08 demonstrated.
    Love your blog, love your writing, love your honesty, love your creativity. The fact that you so generously share your thoughts and talents with us on a regular basis continues to feel like a gift everytime I come here. Thank you, Sanae.

    1. You’re a gem, Lucinda – thank you for the consistency, your outpouring of kindness. I feel lucky to have you as a real-life friend.

      Yes, the college friend with the crazy debt was pretty eye-opening. She was also a stellar negotiator and she actually talked herself out of all the parking ticket fees (thousands of dollars). To me, that was simply miraculous. I had no idea you could do that!

  20. I love that you are talking about this! Paying off that very last credit card bill and knowing that weight is gone forever is such an amazing feeling! Maybe it’s your “schedule” of what to blog when that’s getting you down? You’ve definitely struck a chord changing it up today! The comments say we love it!

    The “100 dresses” comment made me laugh. As much as seeing what you’ve made next is one of the best parts of my day, I’ve often wondered what your and K’s closets looked like lol! I vote you make just as many things but put some of them up for sale in an etsy shop. (This is a very selfish suggestion as it gives us the same number of pretty things to look at, plus a chance to have them ourselves.)

    1. Oh Kathryn, the state of our closets is madness. I still feel awkward about selling things I’ve sewn because I’m not sure they’re up to snuff, but I might try it as an experiment!

      And yes, I think my schedule is part of this weird sensation I haven’t been able to shake. I need all the extra time I can get for the projects I’m working on behind the scenes, but maybe it makes me feel more disconnected. Who knows? First world problems, right? But thank you for the wonderful comment!

  21. Sanae, love your blog so much! Don’t ever think anyone here is looking around for something better! I follow religiously and although I don’t comment often I often feel that we are in a mind meld.

    On to the next (uncomfortable) topic- money, I have made so many mistakes with money and at 38 I think I am just approaching a balance and an acceptance of that balance (thanks to my level-headed but indulgent husband). But then again, I have to console myself with the fact that we are getting it right while another friend buys a 5 bedroom house and a BMW. It’s not fair! How do people do it? I loooove luxurious things (people say it’s because I’m a Taurus? I don’t follow astrology much but if the shoe fits…) of good quality, great design or taste delicious, but I have to deprive myself often! How do so many bloggers have such copious amounts of Liberty fabric with no identifiable job or income?!

    Anyhow, when the green monster rears its head (just today, in fact) I have to take a deep breath and reassess. We are healthy, we have good food and a roof over our heads, okay a small roof, but a roof! I teach immigrant students at a high school and they have so little and come from awful, nightmarish places and just thinking of them puts my green monster to shame. And then I splurge on ridiculously overpriced cookies from a chic-chic Hamptons bakery, feed them to my students and my husband just smiles and shakes his head.

    Can’t wait to hear the next part! Kiss-kiss, as the ladies who lunch say around here!

    1. Hello Claudette! I am behind in responding to comments (behind on everything really — I guess that’s just the way it is with the holidays), and I so love yours! I too often wonder how others do it. We have a pretty unpredictable income schedule due to the nature of my husband’s job, but we’re not destitute and yet I often feel like we can’t afford very much. What an incredible career you have and yes, I can see how that would give you immense perspective. And I love that you share fancy cookies with your students — something I would totally do! Kiss-kiss! 🙂

  22. Hello Sanae:
    I hope you don’t stop blogging any time soon. I really love stopping by. Your money story made me think of my own family-of-origin culture around money, and that was to be very, very aware of what everyone ELSE was spending and doing with theirs. And then of course making judgements about it.
    The most important part of my money education, once I understood how to manage it, was to mind my own business. To do the best I could, and not judge myself or anyone else. Every single household I know has unique money norms and customs. I still wonder why people buy what they do, including sometimes myself, but I’m mostly successful, (whew!) at not having opinions about it. I realized we never know why people need what they need.

    1. Such an interesting and important insight, Annelieke! You’re right, there is a tendency to focus outward, isn’t there? Money is intensely personal and so tied with culture and family values and personality traits, etc. etc. etc. “We never know why people need what they need” — now there’s some wisdom. Thank you!

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