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.

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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?

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.

Be Accountable

If you’re being 100% honest with yourself, when was the last time you made an excuse for not doing something? In my opinion we’re all guilty of it, although the frequency varies. It’s something I’ve personally been focusing heavily on since losing my wife – that was the wake-up call I needed. Not that I was quick to avoid ownership when I messed up, but I could certainly have done a better job acknowledging my role.

It’s tough, admitting our fallibility – and it’s very uncomfortable (to me at least). There is a flip side, there are those who seem to take a perverse pleasure taking ownership of everything – almost martyr-like. This isn’t what I’m advocating, I just want more of us to acknowledge the influence we exert (consciously and unconsciously).

It seems like “it’s not my fault” or “it wasn’t me” has become almost a reflex – something I think most of us learned as children. When called on it we may even dig our heels in, becoming more defensive – so unwilling to lose face (if we’re at fault). With this in mind, what can be done?

I think there are (2) things all of us can do. First, knowing people’s propensity to go on the defensive, approach others understanding they likely didn’t do whatever it was maliciously. Try to understand where they were or what they were thinking. This doesn’t mean letting them get away with it, they need to be held accountable; but use an approach where they are more likely to be open and receptive (not an approach I was very successful with while on Active Duty).

The other thing is we need to be receptive to feedback. We’re not perfect, we’re going to make mistakes. We may be lazy, and need a push from time to time – understand we all have flaws and things to improve upon. If you don’t feel the feedback is relevant, after considering it, then don’t act on it. This is more constructive than arguing or being defiant. Stand up for yourself, but stick to the facts. Reacting emotionally will often escalate the situation, and seldom helps your cause (speaking from personal experience).

Like anything else this takes time and self-awareness. I believe you’ll be happier for it, and can incorporate this into all aspects of your life – from spending habits to being a partner in an intimate relationship.

Take the Long View

I’ve found it can be incredibly difficult to plan for the long term, with all the noise and distractions vying for your attention in the short term. Something always seems to come up, tempting you by its immediacy. It’s because of this I think it’s critical we have a deep understanding about the what, when and why of our long term goals.

A common example I’ve been helping people with is where they want to live when their child is older. Understandably they don’t want to move while the child is in school, because of the possible disruption it could create. However, if they are considering a move to another State they could be hurting themselves by waiting; because most, if not all, States have transitioning youth funds set aside for young adults leaving High School at 21. Waiver programs are designed to give students automatic head of the line privileges; but this will not apply to someone who moves into the State after High School – they will have to wait.

The “noise” is people with good intentions encouraging the parents to stay, reinforcing the parents’ belief it’s what’s best for the child. And it very well may be, but it should be weighed against the need for continuing services after High School. There is also fear of the unknown – how will my child react, what will the school be like, etc. It’s a lot to handle, especially if you have other children and/or are a single parent – you don’t have to do it alone; there are organizations and professionals who can help.

I’m using one example, focusing on a family who has a child with Special Needs making a move; but taking the long view is just as relevant when considering whether to buy or rent (a house), when to take social security, when to retire, etc. Take some time to yourself, away from distractions, and think about what you want and where you see yourself in 20 – 30 years. Then back into it, how are you going to get there?

Write it down – it’s not meant to be set in stone, but having a written record will help you when those crises occur and you need to make an immediate decision. In the heat of the moment it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be able to think about the future; but you should absolutely be able to look at what you had written and use it to help ground you. You may not change your mind about what needs to be done, but you’re no longer operating purely on emotion. Practice with routine decisions, so you build the habit and muscle memory kicks in when the poop hits the fan. I’m here if you need/want help.

Living Independently

As I continue to work on enrolling my son in Social Security, and completing the necessary paperwork with the VA and DFAS (military pay system), I can’t help but wonder what he’s going to do when I’m gone – and will this all be enough. Obviously we can’t plan for every eventuality, so we do our best to address as much as possible.

When we’ve finished applying for his benefits, my next focus will be on where he will live. There are many organizations throughout the country offering Residential facilities, and with Group Homes no longer authorized it’s a safe bet these homes will not have more than (4) residents; but we’ve (my son and I) decided not to pursue this route – because he doesn’t want to have a roommate.

There are also organizations creating communities of individuals with a specific diagnosis, I believe the most common is Autism. Although I think this is an incredible opportunity for some families, for me personally it does not meet the full inclusion experience I want for my son.

So what does this leave? For us, we’re looking at purchasing a multi-family home (duplex). While I’m alive, and able, I will work with a property management company to rent out the other unit (I don’t like doing maintenance). When I’m gone, either I will have paid off the mortgage or the life insurance will settle the debt; either way ownership of the property will transfer to my son’s Special Needs Trust, and the Trustee will work with the property management company.

In my opinion, the advantage to this is the property will pay for itself after I’m gone. The Trustee will have the authority to increase rent, evict tenants, etc; and the property management company will ensure the property is well maintained. Living in the house prior to me passing will allow us to develop an understanding of what the household expenses are; which will allow me to flesh out a reasonable budget for the Trustee to follow.

If you have a child, or sibling, you’re caring for and you haven’t put any thought into where they will live after you’re gone please use this as a siren call to start planning. There is no one-size fits all solution, it really boils down to what the individual wants/is capable of and your financial situation. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will become – but it’s only too late if you pass away before you do something; because then it falls into the hands of the State. If you’re not sure what to do, reach out and ask.

The Struggle is Real

Lately I’ve been on a kick to help people motivate themselves to maintain momentum, if moving forward; or overcome inertia if they’re at a crossroads; and today I want to share a few of my current challenges and strategies.

My son turned 18 recently – leading me to start the process for his SSI, updating DFAS so he maintains eligibility for my military pension and TRICARE, and updating the VA to keep my disability payments at their current level (with a dependent). Given his disabilities I’m also applying for Guardianship. As you may be able to imagine (or perhaps can relate having been through already), this in itself can feel like a full time job.

The first challenge I’ve come across is how to help my son receive his full SSI benefit and the adult disabled child benefit (survivor benefit) from my wife. If both go to traditional savings or checking accounts, the SSI will be offset by the other benefit. So my first thought was his ABLE account, because the assets are not considered when determining SSI eligibility.

Unfortunately, his ABLE account is not equipped to receive electronic deposits – so Strike 1. No problem, I need a 1st Party Special Needs Trust anyway, for the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan; I’ll just send the adult disabled benefit there. My intent was to complete ALL the estate documents at once – 1st & 3rd party SNT’s, Guardianship, DPOA, etc – and I was on a great trajectory.

Was being the operative word. I was able to get the Physician’s letter, no problem. However, I also need a Social Worker letter – and because he’s never received services (DDA “future need”) – he hasn’t worked with a Social Worker. His teacher gave me a couple options, and although neither was viable I appreciate her time and effort. So now we’re in a sort of limbo while I figure this piece out.

Rather than let the whole process stall, I’ve decided to move forward with everything else, and finish the Guardianship as I’m able. I’m also working on engaging the DDA again, since my son is an adult and they should be able to help me with the transition from High School at age 21.

The last piece on my plate (as far as I’m aware) is following up with DORS again – getting my son employment assistance. I’ve been working on this for (2) ¬†years, since he turned 16 – it had been my hope to have him working summers; getting used to the routines necessary to be successful post-high school. That hasn’t materialized, yet, but I will redouble my efforts towards the end of this school year.

All of this is meant only to show I understand how frustrating and time consuming it can be. And I get it can be overwhelming, especially if it’s all taken into consideration at once. The best thing I think anyone can do is pick one item and work it until the next steps are out of your control; rinse and repeat. Not sure how to prioritize, ask for help. I started a company – Special Needs Navigator¬†– just for this purpose, and it’s my belief there are other resources like this throughout the country; although it may take some work to find them.

Don’t give up, as the image I selected shows success could be the next step you take. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and take a breath. Help yourself, establish routines to give yourself a mental/emotional recharge – the pause and refresh will help you identify alternatives you may otherwise miss. Keep charging – you’ve got this!