When the Floor Drops

This time of year (Mar – May) is rough for me, it brings back a lot of memories – most vivid perhaps the week my wife spent in the ICU until she passed, her subsequent burial over Easter weekend of 2012 and what would’ve been our wedding anniversary on May 18th. Certainly the most dramatic, but not the only time I’ve lost my equilibrium because something totally unexpected, and unwelcome, occurred. And when this happens, it’s up to us to decide how we’ll react – do we roll with the punches and come back fighting, or do we drop to the mat? Admittedly I haven’t always responded with grace under pressure – it’s taken years and multiple incidents I could’ve (and should’ve) handled better to get me to where I am; and I still consider myself a work in progress.

I’ve made it my mission to help families with disabilities and veterans (with and without disabilities) set and achieve their goals. It’s my intent to help them understand the opportunities that exist, opportunities many of us can’t begin to conceive of when we’re living in the moment (myself included). Sometimes it just takes an outside perspective to send the lifeline, provide a glimpse of what’s possible if you can just stay afloat a little longer.

Having gone through multiple meetings w/ medical professionals for diagnoses for my son, my wife, and even myself (working with the VA); and having made the transition to civilian life after over 20 years of active duty – I understand what it’s like to feel the floor drop out from under you. Watching all your plans dissolve, like a sandcastle built too close to the edge of the ocean when the tide comes in. What I’ve learned is this – no matter how dark things may seem; if you continue moving forward, not giving in to what seems so much easier, eventually you will come to the end of the tunnel. What’s waiting for you will depend on what supports you’ve sought and cultivated, and how you’ve chosen to look at things.

Personally, I choose to focus on the positives. From when my son got his first diagnosis my wife and I made it a point to celebrate the little successes, like getting him to use signs (ASL) to communicate. I believe noticing, and celebrating, our successes – no matter how seemingly inconsequential – helps us push through the negatives that are an unfortunate part of life. I wasn’t always like this, not too long ago I was perhaps one of the most negative people I’ve ever known – I wouldn’t want to associate with the past me now; and I’m thankful for those who stuck with me.

I say this to help you, the reader, understand it’s never too late to shift your perspective. If you’re weighted down because of medical, consumer or student loan debt it’s not the end of the world; there are resources for you. If you, or a loved one, has recently received news that at first cripples you into inaction; take a moment and acknowledge its impact and significance. Then ask yourself who can help you with perspective – perhaps a religious leader, a partner or a professional you respect; to name a few options. I will tell you, again from personal experience and with the utmost respect for how you’re feeling – no matter how much you may believe you are alone and there is no one who could possibly understand what you’re going through and that you’re all alone, it is my belief you are wrong.

The internet is a fantastic tool, please don’t hesitate to use it. Be careful about who you share with, there are “emotional vampires” who will, in my opinion, only make things worse – by feeding into your perceptions and beliefs, rather than helping you look for, and celebrate, your successes – no matter how small. After my wife died one of the successes I would celebrate was just getting out of bed – to me that was a win. That is what I mean by celebrating successes. Over the course of our lives we are going to have good things, and bad things, happen to us. It’s up to us to decide which we let shape us. So take the a minute, get up and look around you – I challenge you to identify at least (3) things that make your life better, and why.

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Simplify – Keep, Delete or Delegate?

How many of you have ever felt overwhelmed – like there was just not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything that needs to be done? I know I have in the past, and at times still do – usually because I put something off until the last minute and then other stuff pops up. But this is within my control, I have no one to blame but myself – and it’s not the focus of this article.

Instead, I want you to think about what you can get rid of. What eats at your time and either doesn’t add value, or even though it adds value it stresses you out. When do you feel overwhelmed – is it Sunday night because you “know” Monday is going to bring a host of new problems, or is it Friday because “there is just no way you can get everything done before the weekend”? Or is it something else entirely? Whatever it is, write it down – I’m going to share how I was able to reduce my stress/anxiety, and hopefully some of these tools will work at least equally well for you.

Make a list of what you, and only you can do – this is going to be the baseline of what you keep. Some examples are paying the bills, projects at work, taking care of the kids, etc; but be realistic – this should not mean only you can do it because no one else will do it the way you like. If the only reason you’re not delegating is because it’s not getting done the way you like, ask yourself is it really that important to have things done your way, or is it something you can let go and accept it may not be “perfect”, but it’ll work. Often I’ve found we get in our own way by telling ourselves things “must” be done a certain way; when the reality is there are other options if we keep an open mind.

Next, make a list of what you absolutely hate doing – and be honest. Looking at this list what can you get rid of? If you have children, is there anything you can assign to them as chores; or perhaps hire help. If you can’t get rid of it, can you set aside specific times to get it done, and be done with it? For example I hate maintaining my yard, cooking, and reading e-mails. So I have a “yard guy”; I cook on Sunday, making a week’s worth of meals (usually in the crockpot, eating the same thing every night for dinner); and I’ve built reading e-mails into my work calendar (I check it 3x’s/day, that’s it).

I use work lists, it helps me organize my thoughts around what needs to be done; but I don’t expect to accomplish everything in one day. I note which 3 or 4 things are the most crucial to accomplish, and the rest is there for when there are lulls – appointments cancel, dead time waiting for a meeting to start, etc. I also like to combine tasks – for example walking the dogs while waiting for laundry.

We all have time-wasters, those things we know don’t add any value yet can’t seem to get enough of. Facebook, games on the phone, etc are just a few examples; and they can eat up a lot of time if you let them. Rather than try to eliminate them completely, set a timer – allow yourself 5 – 10 minutes of mindless activity to reset, and stick to it. I got rid of cable because I used to love reading, yet I would feel obligated to catch up on shows because I wanted to get something for all the money I was paying – leaving me little time for what had once been a passion. It’s been over a year since shifting to Netflix (significantly cheaper) and I’ve found myself back in the groove reading, while still enjoying the occasional, guilt-free, show.

At the end of the day the only one who knows what you absolutely have to do is you. It’s up to you to decide how you want to spend your time; and if you decide to delegate or sub-contract (hire a housekeeper, landscaper, etc) take the time to understand how it will affect your budget. You may have to give something else up, so only do so if getting your time back is truly worth it. I reduced my phone’s data plan to free up cash flow, and to prevent myself from getting on the internet every time I had a free second. What can you do to regain an hour a day?

 

Pathfinders for Autism

Pathfinders for Autism was founded in February 2000 by parents of children with Autism, creating a Resource Center shortly after. In the years since Pathfinders was founded it has grown to be Maryland’s largest Autism organization (to the best of my knowledge). Their most recent effort towards raising awareness has been with the staffo of emergency rooms throughout the state, helping nurses and doctors understand the additional complications which may be present when an individual with Autism arrives – for example non-verbal or seeming lack of comprehension to questions asked.

Who They Are 

Pathfinders’ Mission statement is short and to the point (from their website) – “to improve the lives of individuals with autism and the people who care for them. We accomplish this through a variety of programs and services, all of which are offered free of charge.” Personally, I continue to refer clients and other professionals to their website because of the immense amount of information to be found there. I’ve also been fortunate enough to participate in a few of their programs, and I was blown away by how well they were run.

What They Do 

Pathfinders does so much, it’s difficult to capture it in a format like this – so I am going to highlight a few of the things which impress me the most and encourage you to check out their website. I want to stress – many of the resources and information provided isn’t just for Autism, it can be applied equally well to just about any disability.

The Pathfinders for Autism Resource Center is how they originally started, and remains a significant part of their daily activities. Pathfinders’ staff will respond personally to all inquiries made – whether through Facebook, e-mail or phone; and they distribute monthly “Parent Tips” covering a wide variety of topics.

They sponsor workshops around the state – bringing in experts on topics like vocational rehab, financial planning and dietary interventions, to name a few. Annually they are a sponsor of Honestly Autism Day, combining a resource fair with well-known Key Note speakers and break-out sessions.

As mentioned above, they train First Responders – this includes Law Enforcement, Fire Fighters, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and, most recently, Emergency Rooms. These trainings are more than powerpoint presentations, Pathfinders will bring self-advocate volunteers and provide scenario-based instruction – which in my opinion is really the only way to help people truly understand what they could be faced with.

What Else Should I Know

As I stated, Pathfinders for Autism does so much more than I can fit into this medium. Personally I’ve used their “Autism by Age” tab on their website to help me figure out what to do after my wife passed away, and I continue to refer to it even today. Their Resources and Help tab offers information for residents and non-residents alike, as well as a search tool for providers and services (and much, much more).

Pathfinders for Autism is an authorized 501(c)3, you can find their 990 and other financial information on their website. They sponsor a Run Wild for Autism 5k Race and 1 Mile Fun Run & Walk at the Baltimore Zoo, or you can donate online. In my opinion, they have proven themselves to be extremely good stewards of the funds received, and are a most deserving organization.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Pathfinders for Autism 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.

Check Yourself!

This year my son turns 18, which by any measure is a major milestone; but I’m finding it especially noteworthy as I consider what it means with regards to my estate planning and his disability. When he was younger I was able to delude myself into thinking there may be a miracle cure, he’d suddenly wake up one day and no longer have the cognitive delays he’s had since birth. Some of this is hyperbole, I’m certainly being melodramatic – but it has been weighing on my mind.

Specifically what will happen when I’m gone. Having lost my spouse to a sudden illness, making the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make taking her off life support; I understand nothing is promised. I have an estate plan, I completed it the year after my wife died; but so much has changed in the intervening years – now it’s time to revisit the plan and make the appropriate changes.

Many of my readers will experience similar thoughts and feelings, if you haven’t already; the question is what are you doing about it? It’s much easier to turn a blind eye and say “I’ll get to it”; but let’s be honest – for a myriad of reasons we never do. Me, I’m waiting until after my son’s birthday; for a couple reasons. First, I’ll be applying to the VA for his “helpless child” status; an unfortunate moniker which nonetheless will enable him to receive my Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) when I’m gone. For those of you who are not familiar with SBP, it provides a spouse and/or child(ren) with up to 55% of the veteran’s pension.

The other reason I’m waiting is because I need to make the decision about becoming his Guardian. As a minor this is automatic, but after he becomes 18, should I choose to pursue this option, I will need to prove to a judge he is incapable of taking care of himself. In my son’s case this isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no”. I’ve always, and regardless of if my decision is for guardianship, will continue to be, a proponent of alternatives to guardianship. That’s a topic for its own blog, but needless to say I have some major decisions to make in the next few months.

Why am I writing all this? To show you I “get it”. I understand how difficult it can be to verify asset titling and beneficiary designations, and why you may not want to make that call to the estate planning attorney to get your documents in order. But believe it or not, doing so WILL help. In some ways I can’t wait to get mine done, ensuring my son’s first and third party trusts are established so he has one less thing to worry about when I’m gone.

Losing someone is difficult, there is so much to be done it’s often hard to conceive how you’re going to accomplish it all. Why add to this by making your family and loved ones try to figure out what you would’ve wanted? Have the tough conversation, and get your final wishes in writing – it’s a whole lot less unpleasant than not having anything when the unforeseen happens. My wife and discussed extreme measures, and although it didn’t make the decision easier when I had to make it; I’m glad I knew what she wanted – because I knew ultimately I was honoring her. So take a look at your documents, if it’s been more than 4 years since you had your estate plan done (or you haven’t gotten around to it yet) reach out to an attorney. I’m here for my clients should they need the moral support, and I’m sure many of you can rely on your Advisors as well.

Clutter & Chaos, or Collections & Tranquility

I’m often told “I’m overwhelmed, I don’t know where to start” by my clients; and it’s understandable – without systems in place it’s easy for anything to get out of control. I will admit to some OCD-like tendencies, perhaps because of spending so many years living on a submarine and having no room for anything. There were several years where I was hot-racking, sharing 2 racks between 3 people; out of necessity you learn how to pack and bring only what you absolutely need. Add to that my training as a Lean Six Sigma Green belt and it’s a wonder I don’t have my everything in my house labeled and it’s location identified (I don’t, I promise : p ). I am NOT a professional organizer, although I do know a few and will gladly recommend them if asked.

When my wife passed away I was overwhelmed by how much she had left behind that I didn’t see the value in – they weren’t my hobbies or passions; to me it was just “stuff”. I didn’t want to get rid of anything at first, because it reminded me of her, but it also really stressed me out. So I started by moving anything I was absolutely sure I would never use – like a sewing machine and food mixer – to a corner of the living room. These were eventually sold on Craigslist, several months after I started the process. And (5) years later I still have things of hers that I’ll never use, like clothes and knick-knacks; I’ve kept because they remind me of her; but now they have a place that makes sense to me and I don’t feel overwhelmed.

But what about everyone else, where can they start? When you get to the point where you’re feeling overwhelmed it’s really difficult to overcome inertia – and it can feel like you’re not making any progress. So let’s begin by addressing what to do before it gets to this point, and many of the same steps can be taken at any time – it’s never too late.

For me, the easiest place to begin is getting rid of loose papers. If it’s documentation I need to keep – like tax records, my son’s IEPs, etc; I scan and digitally back them up. I can always print them again if needed; then it’s off to the shredder. Paper can take a LOT of space, and it doesn’t take very many loose pages to give the perception of a mess. It’s also fragile – susceptible to water damage, tearing, fire – you get the idea. With the availability of the free cloud resources, Google Drive for example, there are plenty of places to back your records up. And documents do not take much memory. This has the added advantage of allowing you to keep things indefinitely. I know many people who don’t want to get rid of their documents, just in case.

Next thing to consider is anything you haven’t looked at in a while – to start let’s say > 1 year. This could be boxes in the attic or basement from when you moved, or even a storage facility you’re paying for but haven’t been to in a while. I think it’s safe to say most of us have something like this. This isn’t the holiday ornaments you only break out once/year; it’s the items that don’t seem to fit in your home now, or things you put into storage a while back because you didn’t know what else to do with them.

I’m a financial planner, my career and profession is centered around helping people get the most out of the money they have. In my opinion it’s easy for storage facilities to shift from a very useful tool to a money pit – if for no other reason than someone has the wrong size and could be saving themselves a little on the monthly fee. More often it’s because people have forgotten what they put in storage. If it’s family heirlooms or antiquities you’re protecting until your young children are old enough to understand the value, that’s one thing. But if it’s IKEA furniture bought when you got your first apartment and stuffed into storage after you got married let’s look at getting rid of it and invest the money spent on the storage facility towards your future.

The same goes for your house, it’s easy to accumulate stuff – especially the longer you live somewhere. So start small, especially if it feels overwhelming. Rather than tackle the entire room, pick a dresser or shelf and work on that. Let yourself see that you CAN have an impact – even if it’s just getting rid of clothes you never wear or creating a clear space on the shelf. Take small steps if this is uncomfortable. Bag clothes up and put them in the closet or somewhere out of sight, then in 2 – 3 weeks if you haven’t missed them, drop them off at a charity thrift store or call for a pick-up (tax deduction).

No, this isn’t going to make you rich; but that’s not the intent. It’s one less thing you need to think about, it’s going to free up some bandwidth. We all can only fit so much into our brains, and then something has to give. And it’s important to understand this isn’t an overnight solution, it’s not meant to be. For some of us it could take months or years, depending on our circumstances. And I’m not suggesting you live like a monk, if you enjoy a collection of something that is not the same thing as being overwhelmed by clutter. And there are professionals who can help – not just empty a house, but creating better habits and understanding why you feel the way you do. At the end of the day it’s a question of your comfort, no-one else.

 

Expense or Investment?

When I used to think about hiring someone my immediate thought was “how much is this going to cost”; and in this article I’m going to share why – at least for me – this was the wrong question to ask. When I was younger I was convinced I could, and should, master anything I wanted. While to some degree it’s probably accurate to say if I put enough time and energy into learning something I may be able to perform adequately, it’s not realistic – if for no other reason there is only so much time in the day. Not to mention all the things I just don’t like doing – like cleaning the house, yard work, etc.

But what alternatives do I have? It’s unlikely I’m ever going to find someone everything I dislike for me out of the kindness of their heart; and with regards to the skills I don’t have, when I need them it’s too late to try to learn them. The most recent example for me is replacing the brakes on my car. I don’t have a driveway (on street parking), I’m not a fan of working on cars, and frankly I have very little mechanical aptitude – so I’m taking the car to the shop.

Now yes, I understand how “easy” it is, and I could very likely YouTube it; but to me the time I would need to (1) watch the videos and (2) do the work takes away from things I’d rather be doing – like hiking or even Netflix. In my opinion, I work hard Monday – Friday as a Financial Planner so on evenings and weekends I am unwilling to add any additional work, especially if it’s something I’m not a fan of. Say what you will about my philosophy, but it’s mine and I own it! : )

This is where I ask myself is something an investment or an expense. To me, an investment (unrelated to the markets) is anything that brings me value when weighed against the cost in time, money or both. An expense is anything where the cost outweighs any value I receive. I value my free time very highly, so giving it up for things I don’t enjoy has an equally high cost. I provided an example of an investment to me – getting my brakes done by professionals. An example of a cost is using a grocery delivery service (at least right now); because although I do not like grocery shopping, I can usually be done with it very early (I go between 6 and 7 am). This is more valuable to me than waiting for the delivery service to show up, even factoring in the convenience of not needing to go to the store.

We all make choices like this almost everyday, admittedly I would wager many don’t think of it quite like I do – but in my opinion everyone has a system of checks and balances they use when making decisions. Unfortunately I think often we are “penny wise and pound (dollar) foolish”; making choices based purely on the dollar value assigned as something’s cost.

Insurance is the most obvious (in my opinion) market, and companies don’t help by advertising to provide the lowest possible premiums. There are other things to consider, the most important to me being will the company pay a claim with a minimum of fuss, or are they going to look for reasons not to.

Durable goods, like furniture; and services, like accounting and estate planning; are another area where I think people try to go cheap – either doing it themselves or shopping for the lowest bidder. In my experience you get what you pay for – although I’m not advocating to pay the highest price all the time; because price is not a guarantee of quality. What I am proposing is consumers take the time to determine what they want, and how important it is to them.

If something is truly important, invest more time before buying; and don’t let the price be the only factor. Weigh the other benefits – tangible and intangible. Is it going to free up your time? If the answer is yes, what is the value of your time? How long will it last? Quality craftsmanship may last generations, meaning you will only spend this money once. Finally, don’t underestimate the value of peace of mind; not having the nagging concern in the back of your mind of “did I do it right?”.

I work with my clients to understand their true expenses, so they can afford to make investments in the things they value the most. You can, and should, do the same. It may not be easy at first, because it’s almost counter to what advertisers want you doing; but once the habit has been developed I believe you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. Here’s my last example, in favor of cable TV. If you enjoy sports, it’s something you’re passionate about and rely on it to unwind; then having cable or a sports package is an investment for you. But to afford this you may need to cut back on other expenses, like buying store brand groceries or shopping for clothes at a thrift store.