Walk Before You Run

The end of the year is just around the corner, and many of us fall into the trap of looking back and thinking about all the things we were going to do; but for one reason or another never got around to. This isn’t constructive, if you didn’t accomplish what you desired then instead of self-flagellation, instead focus on what you can do different. Below are a few ideas, from one parent to another.

Don’t try to do too much. It sounds great when you’re telling everyone how much you’re going to get done this year, and how it’s going to be SO different from last year. It may also give you a sense of accomplishment and hope, setting high expectations. Although this isn’t unheard of, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

It may have been a long time since you’ve actively sought to develop new habits; so focusing on one thing to improve is a great way to start. Determine what you really want to accomplish, more than anything else – and it will help if that one thing addresses a couple challenges in your life. For example, this year (2017) my focus was on improving how I communicate – because I saw challenges in both my personal & professional life.

Take the next couple weeks to draft what you’re going to work on, and I recommend breaking it down into quarters. Identify the big item, and then break it down into smaller chunks. It takes time to build a habit, it’s not something we can create overnight. Give yourself 6 – 8 weeks, at a minimum.

I like stretching it through the quarter, because by the end of it you’re not even thinking about it. Then it’s easy to build upon it, allowing you to focus your energy on developing the subsequent tools to accomplish your commitment. Don’t make it about pass/fail; understand these types of things take time and there may (almost certainly will) be hiccups along the road.

Next year can, and should be, your year – but it doesn’t have to stop there. Once you’ve got the formula down, use it to improve anything else you’d like to work on – be it personal, professional or financial. You’ve got this; here’s to 2018 and beyond!

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Holiday$$

Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself when I get on my soapbox about saving (period, not just for retirement); especially when holidays are approaching. I think it’s fantastic people are seemingly so generous; but because I’m jaded I ask myself if people are feeling this generosity out of a sense of responsibility, or because they really want to give. The core of this cynicism – why wait until an arbitrary date on a calendar? Why not give when the mood strikes you? Could it be the mood only strikes you when the calendar (and mass marketing) says it’s important?

For those who the holidays have more significance, what if you were to buy gifts right after major holidays when stores are trying to clear their shelves; or at least spread the spending throughout the year avoiding the holiday hangover come January? I think we’ve been conditioned to look forward to Black Friday and Cyber Monday; but I would argue deals could be found all year round – especially for items not in season, or going out of season.

Is it a sense of competition driving us to spend so much money? Perhaps we’re worried about what other people will think if they give us something of more value? I can almost hear the rebuttals (having had them in person on more occasions than I can count); about how it’s a season for giving, and people are doing it because it makes them feel good. Perhaps – I won’t pretend to know how others feel. But how would you friends and loved ones feel if instead of buying more “stuff”; you made a contribution in their name to a non-profit they support?

Or better yet, took steps to secure your own financial future by increasing contributions to your retirement account by 2%? I’ve also had it drilled into me this season isn’t about the money; but toys are temporary and most of us are going to get to a point where we are either unwilling, or unable, to work any longer. And when we get there who is going to remember who bought the biggest gift 20 years ago? Especially if those family members are now foregoing their own financial welfare to support you?

Perhaps you think I’m painting too dire of a picture? According to an Economic Policy Institute 2016 report, nearly HALF of American families have NO retirement savings at all! Conversely, an American Research Group 2017 study says the average American family will spend approximately $1,000 this year.

Let’s put this in perspective. The average US median income, according to a 2016 US Census Bureau American Community Survey; is $57,617. It may be higher or lower where you live, but this is the country’s median (average taking into account high and low outliers). Families are spending almost 2% of their income for (1) day; yet cannot save at least as much for the 20 – 30 years when they will not be working.

This doesn’t make any sense to me, especially given how many are probably putting some or all of their purchases on a credit card – contributing to an existing balance they are making payments towards.

I’m not saying don’t give gifts; but I’m imploring everyone to help themselves first. Using the same numbers from above – 2% of the median income ($56,617) – the average household would have approximately $90 per month withheld from their check. No, this isn’t going to be enough to retire one; but it’s a start. The harsh reality is we need to do things that are not fun or sexy to be successful. Sometimes it means we have to be selfish; but it also means you’re not alone in being selfish.

Know Yourself, And Be Honest

I want to preface this by saying I continue to believe we can achieve what we put our minds to; however, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge what we have an aptitude for. I don’t believe, although I wish I could, people will get whatever they want just because they believe they should. I also don’t believe all it takes is hard work – I have first-hand experience this isn’t enough.

It’s important to know what you want, and to write your Goals down. It’s also important to map out how you will achieve those Goals; but the unfortunate truth (as I see it) is no matter how much you believe, and how hard you work towards them, you may still not achieve the Goal; especially if you’re not being honest with yourself.

When you set Goals, I think it’s important to acknowledge and understand what the associated opportunity costs are. Every decision comes with a price, an alternative you’re not electing. Some of those costs are too high, we’re not willing to pay them – and this is okay; but it means we’re setting that particular result aside.

This is where I feel we’re not being honest enough with ourselves. We blame anything and everything else – it’s too expensive, it’s too hard, etc. It’s not, we’re just not willing to pay the price of entry. Others are, and they achieve what we do not – not because they’re better than us or luckier; but because they are willing to accept the cost. Sure, some of them have more innate abilities and/or resources; but these do not decide who is successful and who is not.

Before charting a course, do the best you can to understand what’s on the path ahead. No, you’re not going to be able to identify all the obstacles and challenges; but you can take a hard look at yourself and decide how committed you are to the objective and when enough is enough. There is more to success than blindly chasing a Goal at the cost of everything else.

There has to be an understanding you may not be 100% successful – at least to me. I don’t let this hold me back. The best example I can give is my fight for my son’s independence. I’ve had “experts” tell me his whole life not to expect too much; that it’s likely he’s going to plateau at some point. I acknowledge their opinions, they have a lot more experience in this world than I do. However, I also know there are exceptions to every rule; and I am doing everything I can to help my son be an exception.

This has led to choices I’ve made taking me on a very different course I envisioned for myself when my wife was alive. It’s also led to me admitting (painfully) I need help from others because there is a lot of “simple” things I’m not good at (like teaching him to cook). We’ve reached some “dead-ends”, and right now he’s not ready to live completely independently. I’m still unwilling to say he never will, but I will admit I’m not sure when or how I will get him there.

But I own it – and I didn’t always. It’s so much easier to ignore the painful truths. Those truths don’t have to define you. What are your truths? What have you been ignoring? How can you accept these truths, without letting them hold you back?

Resource Connections, Inc

This month’s non-profit in the spotlight is an organization whose focus is helping families find resources and individuals gain independence. Resource Connections, Inc (RCI) is based in Lanham, Maryland; and currently only serves residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Who They Are 

Resource Connections Incorporated (RCI) provides coordination of community services (families like mine are probably more familiar with resource coordination, same thing). The services they provide are funded primarily by State & Federal funds; and paid by the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) – families are not expected to pay out of pocket.

The approach they take has almost become buzz-words, but having met the staff and leadership I’m comfortable asserting they truly embrace these terms and incorporate them into their daily operations. The person-centered, community-based and cost-effective approaches are highlighted when staff members focus on what those they serve need; they don’t just check the boxes – they think outside the box to find creative solutions.

What They Do 

RCI provide services, after referral from the DDA, in four areas – Eligibility Assistance, Waiting List Coordination, Resource Coordination and Waiver Enrollment. I’d also like to point out if they cannot directly help a family or individual, they will do their best to provide referrals to appropriate resources.

RCI cannot make the determination regarding service eligibility and need, this is done solely by the DDA. However, RCI can help families by processing applications to DDA – completing interviews with families and requesting copies of required documents. Once the individual/family has been placed on the waiting list – RCI provides a Waiting list coordinator to locate and connect with community resources. Again, the level of service provided is determined by the category of service need established by the DDA.

Resource Coordination comes in to play when families are receiving DDA funded services. Coordinators help them by; identifying desired outcomes, connecting them to the appropriate providers/community resources, work with the support team to develop a realistic and effective plan, monitoring the plan’s implementation and the individual’s/family’s satisfaction with the provided services. Coordinators take time to get to know the individuals/families, to ensure the plans created are meaningful and centered on their (the individuals’) goals and achievement objectives.

Medicaid Waivers are programs provided by Maryland allowing people to maximize funding for services provided in the community – including Waiver services for those deemed DD eligible and authorized for services by the DDA. It can be daunting to determine which, if any, waivers someone may be eligible for – so RCI provides Waiver Specialists to help identify and apply for benefits like Medical Assistance and Social Security.

What Else Should I Know

When a family becomes eligible it may be challenging to determine which organization to select – RCI is one of (6) provider agencies in Prince George’s County; so why should someone select RCI. What appeals to me, as a parent, is RCI’s commitment to becoming an expert in one County, and developing deep relationships with providers. This allows RCI, in my opinion, to really be clear on a provider’s philosophy and culture – which is important to me as a parent because I want to know more than what I can read on their website.

To me, the only way to really understand is taking the time to get to know the providers; time will lead to dropped guards and transparency – not that I think organizations maliciously hide things; but I do believe it’s human nature to put our best foot forward and hide the dirty laundry (which we all have, and it doesn’t make us bad). It’s important (again, this is my opinion) to understand the good, the bad and the ugly – because when someone is receiving services they won’t just be exposed to the good.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Recource Connections Incorporated (although at the time of writing I am a Board member – 11/26/17)  and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). All opinions and views are my own.

Celebrate The Wins

All too often I think we, as a population, tend to focus on what’s not working and the negatives in our lives. And who can blame us, seemingly being bombarded non-stop from news outlets, Twitter & other social media and all the other external stimuli we’re exposed to.

This can make it difficult to remember life isn’t all bad; in fact, in my opinion the good far outweighs everything else – if we just take the time to look for it. Contrary to what some may believe, positive occurrences don’t need to come in momentous packages. Children often show us this through the wonder they exhibit as they explore their world – what happens to this as we age? Where does it go?

There is no doubt life can be uncomfortable and, at times, downright miserable. But why should we allow that to become our reality? Even when things are going horribly wrong, I believe you can find something good to focus on to help start lifting you up – even if it’s only someone allowing you to pull in front of them on the freeway or having your child (or spouse) do something you ask them w/o an argument.

Focusing on these little “victories” will train your brain to look for others; shifting your focus from noticing just the bad to really understanding how much good you are exposed to on a daily basis. To me, this is doubly important as a parent of a child with Special Needs. I have found it scarily easy to lose sight of life’s simple pleasures – falling into a pit of darkness where nothing seems to go right at times.

This isn’t healthy, and it’s certainly not enjoyable. Yes, there are times when my son loses ground – times when he’s unable to utilize skills I thought he’d mastered. And yes, crap like flat tires on days when I need to be somewhere or the universe seeming to pick dump on Eric days happen to me. But dwelling on this only serves to make me feel like crap for longer, and causes me to look at everything through the wrong lens – focusing on the negatives of every situation.

I’m no Pollyanna, I understand the world is not all rainbows and unicorns. I’ve had my dreams shattered and felt like the universe laughed in my face. I’m choosing not to make this my focal point. I have found life to be much more enjoyable if/when I celebrate my successes, no matter how small they may seem.

Like any habit, it may be difficult at first – especially if it’s not something you’ve been doing. You may need to actively look for things to celebrate, but I promise if you stick with this it becomes much easier. In a few months you won’t even have to think about it – it will have become the norm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. I had to tune out much of the external stimuli to give myself enough bandwidth to start doing this. I still tend to walk away from those who focus only on the negative, I don’t begrudge them their beliefs but I don’t want it in my life.

The year’s almost over – wouldn’t it be fantastic to live 2018 and beyond looking at the world through a lens where you can readily acknowledge and celebrate ALL your wins? Give it a try, and remember you get out what you put in – so if you are halfhearted in your attempt don’t expect amazing results.

What’s Holding You Back?

I’ve lost track of the resource fairs and other events I’ve attended, sponsored or both over the years; yet without fail I have witnessed the same reactions as people walk by booths manned by Financial Advisors (not just me). There is a quick look, then look away while muttering “I’m good” or “I have a plan”.

Yet studies have shown the majority of Americans are not prepared financially, with the majority unable to cover a $400 sudden bill because they don’t have an emergency fund. This bothers me, a lot; because I was in those same shoes the year my wife died. I don’t know if I would’ve reacted any differently than those I see at the Resource Fairs, because I didn’t know about them until after everything occurred and I was faced with becoming a civilian, and a single dad of a child with a disability.

There has to be something keeping people from making the connection – and I don’t know if it’s fear of being sold to; shame or fear of being shamed; belief they need money to talk to an advisor (in some cases this is true); etc. What I do know is without help it’s unreasonable to think anyone can change their current circumstances, especially if they feel like they’re swimming in oatmeal with a 50 lb weight strapped to their waist (how I felt on/off for the first year after my wife passed – and truthfully still feel at times).

Planning (financial or otherwise) is not the same for families with significant disabilities. It’s not because your situation is worse than anyone else’s; it’s because you have different challenges than most and unless someone is familiar with those challenges the advice you receive (although well-intentioned) can set you back.

Maybe that’s what’s holding people back – they’ve been burned and don’t want to get screwed over again. Unfortunately I don’t have a guaranteed solution for how to avoid this – my best advice is find people who have overcome similar challenges and ask them how they did it (understanding it may not work for you).

However I can say this with absolute assurance – if you continue on the path you are on, and you are not seeing the results you want, nothing is going to change on its own. At some point you will need to make an adjustment, and the sooner the better; because the correction is less painful the shorter in duration or scope you can get it. So I challenge all of you, rather than simply saying “I’m fine” take a deep, hard look at where you are and ask yourself if you’re comfortable because everything is as it should be; or you’re comfortable because this has been the status quo and it’s so much easier to just go along with the flow.

Glass Balls/Rubber Balls

Our lives can be chaotic, especially as parents of children with differing needs. As we go through our day it’s easy to become overwhelmed or feel like you’re being pulled into a million different directions. So some of us avoid doing things, not wanting to add anything else.

I’ve adopted a philosophy of glass ball & rubber balls. Glass balls are fragile, if you drop them they can break. These are items I can’t lose sight of; things like my son’s doctor appointment(s), work deadlines, etc.

Rubber balls are less critical, if I lose track of something it may not be comfortable but it’s not going to be a critical failure. If I forget something on the grocery list or I have work items with further due dates and have to make a decision about what to complete because something else comes up during the day.

What are your glass and rubber balls? Once you’ve identified them, focus on the glass ones. Make sure you do whatever needs to be done so you don’t drop them. Accept the fact you may drop something from time to time, we’re only human. Do your best to just drop the rubber balls.

Like anything else this takes time. Start with listing your glass balls, everything else will be a rubber ball by default. The first few times you perform this exercise you may find you have a LOT of glass balls; it doesn’t hurt to revisit the list – weeding out items until you have a small core list of things you absolutely cannot let drop. Not sure what should be important at work, ask your supervisor/manager. They’ll let you know what they want, although be ready because their priorities may be changed by those above them.