It Takes a TEAM

I started with a new company a few months ago, and realized immediately I was not going to be successful on my own – to make the most of my skill sets I was going to have to rely on everyone else. Now for some of you reading this it may seem like common sense, but for the last year or so I had pretty much been left to my own devices – if I needed help I could ask, but it was easy for me to believe I was a one-man show. 

I think the same can be said as parents of children with disabilities (I’ve never been a parent of a child without, so I can’t say). We get really used to just putting our heads down and slogging forward, figuring stuff out as necessary; and often, like my wife and I did, splitting the responsibilities. This got us by, I don’t feel like my son suffered or wanted for anything; but in hindsight we certainly could’ve done more (isn’t that always the case?).

What I’ve learned over the last (5) years is this – yes, I can find a way to do just about anything on my own; but why should I?! Instead I look for an expert in whatever it is I need to do. For example, I had a friend help me teach him to cook and he’s now making himself dinner every night.

I also hired an advocate when he was transitioning from middle to High School. Not because I felt the school was trying to screw me over, quite the opposite – I’m a very passionate guy and I didn’t want to send the wrong message to the other members of the IEP meetings. I also had a hard time coming to terms with their recommendation that he should be in the certificate program (in school until 21) rather than earn a diploma. The advocate helped me work through this (although if I’m completely transparent I’m still finding it hard to swallow – although I believe it is the right thing to do).

These are just a few examples, and you don’t necessarily have to pay a professional. After all, there are a lot of people in this world and it’s likely someone else has lived through something that can be correlated to challenges you’re facing now. I’m not suggesting you put your business out there; but I do believe you should build yourself a core network of individuals whom you can trust, who can understand where you are and where you want to be. And be okay with this group changing over time, I think life has stages and we each pass through them at our own time and pace.

I learned this when I was stationed on my first boat (submarine, hence the pic); but somehow over the years I had forgotten. I’m betting many of you may be saying something similar – maybe from your time playing sports in school, or as a Boy/Girl Scout. It often seems easier to do it ourselves rather than asking for help; but the risk we run in doing so is not knowing what we could be missing. So next time you come across something that’s not in your “lane” take a moment and ask yourself – who do I know that I can reach out to. If no-one readily comes to mind, ask yourself, who do I know who seems to know “everyone”. I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t know at least one person like this, so I’m betting you do. If not, reach out to me – I’ll be happy to help you connect with the right resource.

You’re NOT alone!

Because They Can’t! Wait, Can They?

As my son’s 18th birthday approaches I find myself reflecting on the significant independence he’s gained over the last (5) years. I remember when we were first told he had Autism, the doctors and teachers made it a point to ensure we understood he would likely plateau – and not to get too upset. Full disclosure – this happened over 12 years ago and I’m coloring what was said with what I heard/remember, so I own the fact this may not have been what they were trying to convey. But it’s what my wife and I took away, and it set a tone.

In the following years my wife and I allowed this to color our perception and interactions with our son – at first by doing things for him at the first sign of trouble, and eventually just outright doing it for him – not even letting him try. When my wife died my son was 12, and he literally did next to nothing for himself – to include toileting and bathing. This year he’ll turn 18, and he’s quite the independent young man. He makes his own dinner every night, puts laundry away, cleans up after himself and gives me a grocery list weekly – in addition to toileting and bathing himself.

I allowed a similar influence to shade my perceptions when I was in the Navy. I had been assigned to manage a shop of around twenty people in Air Department, and I was told nothing but negative things about them. Rather than ignoring these opinions, or at least taking them with a grain of salt; I went in fully convinced I’d been given the worst bunch of people in the Navy. Needless to say I turned into the worst boss I could imagine, I don’t think tyrant is too strong a word. To make it worse, I didn’t learn until it was too late – after I had transferred to another duty station.

My point in these trips down memory lane is this. I think we’re all guilty of acting on incorrect assumptions based on information provided. As a parent of a child with disabilities I struggle constantly to remind myself the diagnosis isn’t a rule book – it’s an identification for why he may have certain behaviors and challenges. It doesn’t mean every possible manifestation will apply, and even those occurring are definitively not able to be worked around.

Technology and medicine are advancing at an incredible rate. People who may have once been trapped inside their bodies are finding new ways to communicate – through organizations like VocaliD and devices like the Surface and iPad. They have wheelchairs allowing people to stand upright; and are developing exoskeletons to provide even more mobility.

Yet some of us still latch on to the worst possible scenario, telling ourselves nothing will help our child – they’re different. I challenge you to change this narrative, instead of focusing on what your child can’t do – celebrate what they can. And never stop trying, even if they’ve failed in the past. If you had a child without a disability I don’t think you’d give up, I think most of us would continue looking for tools to help them be successful. So why have a double standard?

Yes, there are things my son cannot do right now – and I will concede he may never be able to. The biggest example that comes to mind is driving; but self-driving cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Will they be affordable and commonplace in his lifetime – I have no idea, but I certainly hope so. I challenge all of you to revisit everything you don’t think your child/sibling can do; and think outside the box. What can you do to get around these limitations? I bet there is at least one thing you can change! Good luck.

When Is Your “Independence Day”?

July 4th is Independence Day for those of us living in the United States, and it brings to mind thoughts of what independence means – is it the same for everyone; or, as I suspect, do each of us hold our own ideal close to our heart – perhaps never sharing?

Certainly, the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution mean a LOT to me, I’m proud of the years I served in the Navy; but I don’t consider myself truly “independent”; at least, not yet. In my mind I won’t be “independent” until I’m confident my son will be able to have a life worth living on his own – this should not be confused with “surviving”. Until this happens, he’ll be dependent upon me; which to me means I’m not “free”.

This is not a pity party or a complaint, but it is my reality – and I think for many of you reading this there is a similar reality. I think we plan our whole lives for when we don’t have to answer to anyone, when we can just do what we want when we want (well, I KNOW this was my plan). However, reality is seldom so black and white.

My “independence day” is on the horizon, and I have a strong belief I will live to see it – my son’s own independence continues to grow in leaps and bounds; and thanks to technology things we once thought would be insurmountable can either now be done, or will be achievable in my lifetime, without much more effort than it takes to open an app.

For those of you reading this – what does freedom mean to you? Are you doing everything you can to achieve it; or are you waiting for someone else to give it to you? If you’re waiting, don’t! To the best of my knowledge independence has never been achieved without a LOT of effort from those desiring it. I’m not suggesting you storm the ramparts or take up arms against the establishment; but if you don’t at least contribute the achievement of your goals will you truly value them? Heck, will you even recognize when they come true?

So set your sights on what freedom means to you, and map out a strategy to get there and get moving. If you’re fortunate enough to have achieved your freedom, extend a hand and help others – encouraging words go a LONG way, so don’t be shy or afraid to offer praise. Celebrate the little victories, and don’t let losses bog you down – learn the lessons they are meant to teach and forge ahead. Finally, remember it’s hard to know you’ve arrived at your destination if you’ve never identified where you are going.

Walk before you Run

I don’t think very many of us step foot into the gym after a prolonged absence and decide to push yourself as hard and as fast as you can – at least not more than once, especially if you’re older than 40. We know, or at least have a fair idea, if we did it would not be pleasant (to put it mildly). Yet many of us are so quick to think other aspects of our lives, specifically financial, would be any different.

I get it, I hear many of the same “experts” telling us we need to save more and spend less – and we do! But, and this is a very big but, you should not think you can suddenly do a complete shift and sustain it. You need to train yourself, just as you would if you were going to run a marathon.

Saving/spending are just as much habits as smoking or making coffee every morning (my personal vice). Yes, in a perfect world all of us would be saving at least 20% of every check towards clearly defined goals (retirement being just one of them); but this isn’t a perfect world – we all have other “stuff” going on that can distract us. So rather than try to make a drastic change, and then quit because it’s too hard, start smaller.

Although transportation and housing make up a significant portion of our spending, many of you reading this are probably not in the market at this time – so there probably isn’t much opportunity to reduce your spending here. However, if you are in the market, or if you haven’t looked into refinancing and you’re mortgage rate is over 5%; here are a few things you can do to help yourself.

Aim at keeping the house and auto payment down. If you have to finance a car for 60 or 72 months, consider a less expensive option. Cars are depreciating assets – meaning you will never get the money you put into it back. Refinancing your mortgage could free up some cash – and since you’re used to not having it go ahead and put it directly into a savings/investment account; don’t spend it.

For the rest of us, track how often you buy something every day/week. For now, don’t worry about how much you’re spending, this is to determine your purchasing habits. For everything you buy make a note of “need” or “want”. What drives your purchases? Are there certain times of the day you are buying more frequently, is it just super easy because your card info is saved on the website? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself.

From here, pick one thing to change and commit. Maybe it’s deleting your card info from Amazon Prime, or you don’t hop on the computer right after work because it leads to retail therapy. Whatever it is, just make (1) small change and stick with it for at least (3) months. Easy way to track – Federal holidays. If you start something around the 4th of July, next step is reevaluate around Labor Day or Thanksgiving. No reason to make it super complicated, the easier it is the more likely you’ll follow through.

What you shouldn’t do: don’t suddenly increase your 401(k) from 2% to 15%; that’s too much of a shock to your system. Don’t tell yourself “I’m just not going to shop anymore”. That’s a punishment, not a constructive realignment of your attitude and behaviors (fancy talk for making yourself miserable). If you’re in a committed relationship with joint finances – don’t make any changes on your own. Have an open dialogue, and if necessary, use an impartial 3rd party to help steer it. Pick a pace that leaves you a little uncomfortable and get started. There’s no better time than now.

 

Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog

I enjoy coaching business owners, helping them determine where they can increase efficiency and dial in their focus running the business – as opposed to the business running them. Over the years I’ve found some very common themes – “not enough time” and “too much to do”; both of which can be addressed by stepping outside the business and looking at it as a perspective buyer, rather than the owner. Buyers look for opportunities and weaknesses (so they can bid the price down), they’re not emotionally invested in the company and won’t make excuses about why something is happening.

Unfortunately, many of us get so wrapped up in the day-to-day operations we lose sight of the bigger picture – where we want our company to be in 5, 10 or 20 years; and what is the core service or product our business provides. If you don’t have a vision for your company, or if you can’t put your finger on the core service/product, then ask yourself why you’re a business owner. Sure, there’s a lot of hype right now encouraging people to be entrepreneurs and chase their passion; but that passion may be met through hobbies or volunteering at much less cost than starting a business.

Same goes for “side hustles”. Unless you’re working part-time for someone else, you should be treating your hustle like a business. If you’re an Uber or Lyft driver, or you rent room(s) on Airbnb, then understand what your expenses are – please don’t delude yourself into thinking what you earn is “all profit”. I would also like to encourage those of you with side hustles to ask yourself “why”. Why do you have the hustle, what is the money going to help you do? Take this answer and make sure you’re taking the steps necessary to follow through.

Perhaps you’re saying “sure, this all sounds like a great idea; but you just don’t understand how busy I am”. Again, I challenge you to think as a buyer. Do you care how busy someone is, do you let them off the hook for a poorly delivered service or product? No, of course you don’t – so why are you treating yourself any different?

Make the time. Set at least one day each month aside for your business. Instead of arguing how much business  you’re going to lose (cost); think of it as an investment which will increase your profits by improving efficiency and honing your focus. Create an agenda for your day, and follow it. It’s going to feel weird at first, and maybe you’re not super productive right away – it’s a new skill and it’s going to take time to get good at it. Don’t give up, push through. If you’re not sure how to start find a mentor or hire a coach.

I need to stay busy, but I don’t like to waste my time. Think back to why you started your business or side-hustle; I’m willing to bet it wasn’t so you filled your every waking moment with work. Be honest with yourself, do you really want to run a business? Be okay with the answer, whatever it is, and take the necessary steps to be successful. Just do something.

Vets – save that pension

This post is for my fellow veterans – those who have already retired, or are considering a military retirement; and are interested in living a life of financial independence as quickly as possible. We’re in a unique position, we’ll have a steady stream of income starting at a relatively early age (some of us are under 40). Depending on where you choose to hang your hat, maybe this will be all you’ll need – but more than likely you’ll want to keep working, if for no other reason than to keep from being bored.

So let’s say you decide you want a second job/career. First, let’s talk about how to determine your income need. Many of those I’ve spoken to were satisfied to have their employer pay them the difference between what they were making on active duty and their pension; without consideration for skills and/or education. Please be real about what your worth is.

When you enter the workforce, I think it’s best to pretend you do not have any other income; but rather take stock of what skills/talents you have and what those are going for in the “real world”. Glassdoor and Salary.com are two resources I’ve found useful over the years to establish a baseline income level for jobs I was interested in. The only exception I would generally make is if you’re starting a business from scratch – because then using your pension (and VA disability if you qualify) can help significantly.

Once you’ve done your homework and established what the job should pay given your skills and experience, that becomes the minimum base salary I recommend you accept. So what if it’s more than you need because you’re getting a pension – does this mean you can buy a bigger house or a more expensive car?! No – not if you’re goal is what I stated in the beginning; financial independence as early as possible. Instead, I’m proposing you save the entire amount, and not all of it in retirement accounts.

Let’s say your after-tax pension check is $2,000/mth ($24k/year), and you’re not receiving any VA disability. The first thing I would do would be max out your 401(k) contribution – which for those under the age of 50 is $18k/year. Here’s why I like this – it’s going to reduce your taxable income, and it’s not going to feel like you’re saving the full $18k because it’s pre-tax dollars. You can’t put your pension into your 401(k), instead  you’re investing the money from your paycheck and using your pension to live. Because you’ll receive your pension on the 1st, and your 401(k) contributions will come out with every paycheck, you’ll want to make sure you’ve set a system in place to pay your bills in the beginning of the month with your pension check.

The remaining $6k I would put into a taxable brokerage account, I like Vanguard and Fidelity because they have low fees, but anywhere it can grow for the next 7 – 10 years taking advantage of the stock market is fine. How and where you invest will depend on your individual risk tolerance. If possible, I recommend making this an automatic withdrawal from your paycheck just like the retirement withdrawals; it’ll help avoid temptation to spend it elsewhere.

If you’re receiving VA disability, I would explore a different option – because it’s coming to you tax-free already. This money I would want to set aside in a Roth, either IRA or 401(k). If you’re income is too high for a Roth IRA and your employer doesn’t offer the Roth option, then talk to your advisor about using a taxable IRA and Roth conversions. My goal is helping you keep this money tax free. This strategy works just as well if you’re active duty and deployed in a combat zone receiving tax free pay – move your contribution to the Roth TSP option and increase it to the highest threshold you can stomach; but nothing less than an additional 2%.

These strategies will build your account values quickly, and the lower you can keep your living expenses the sooner you’ll become financially independent. I’m not against working, quite the opposite – I think I’ll work as long as I’m able to. But I believe we should work on our terms. Speaking for myself, after 10+ deployments and 5 years as a geographical bachelor, I’m done working on any terms other than my own – so it’s critical I do what I need to, to afford myself this freedom (and the same goes for you).

 

How to Transition to a Monthly Paycheck

For most of our working years I think it’s safe to say just about all of us receive our checks weekly or every other week; and plan to pay our bills accordingly. Speaking for myself, while on Active Duty my wife and I designated the 1st’s paycheck to the mortgage and the 15th’s to our living expenses. Simple and easy to repeat; and I’d wager many others do something very similar.

I never considered what would happen if I was only paid once per month – and although I “knew” it’s what would happen when I retired from the Navy I wasn’t ready for it. It’s a different dynamic, even if you’re being paid the same or making more; because if it’s something you’re not used to it’s easy to spend like you have another check coming at the halfway point – and if you’re used to weekly paychecks it can be even worse.

To add insult to injury, it’s likely there is going to be a gap of at least (1) month between your last regular paycheck and your monthly check when transitioning to a military pension or social security. It could be even longer if you’ve filed a VA claim, I believe the current wait for fully developed claims is (6) months – a fully developed claim is one in which all supporting documentation has been provided and the VA forms have been completed correctly.

So what can you do to help yourself?

At least six months, a year would be ideal, start gradually transitioning to paying your bills within the first week of the month.

First, figure out your living expenses. Start with tracking all your spending, Mint.com is a useful tool; but many banks will include a similar tool. This will tell you how much you need to earn, and if you’re not interested in transitioning to another job/career; it will help you determine if, and where, you need to cut back. For those who are Active Duty and are being paid BAH cut your expected earnings by almost 2/3 – because you will receive ~50% of your base pay only (whatever percentage you’re entitled to, it’s calculated off your base pay). If your expenses are more than your new income you have two choices – find another income source (not credit cards or other debt instruments) or dial back your expenses.

After you’ve calculated your living expenses and your monthly income, train yourself to live off one pay period.  For most of us this is going to take some coordination, because we don’t have sufficient savings to serve as a buffer. Start small, with a bill or two that are fairly consistent – like phone and/or cable. You know how much you need to set aside, and can plan for it by dialing back accordingly.

When you’re ready to start, set aside 1.5x’s the amount of the bill(s) you’re adding to the first of the month; and I recommend putting this somewhere other than your everyday savings/checking. You’re saving more than you “need” to build the habit and get you used to having less money available from your other checks. This also gives you the extra money you’re going to need to have available on the first of the month. If you cannot afford to save the full amount, then start by setting aside at least an extra $25. The less you can afford to set aside the more time you will need to give yourself for the transition, because we want the habit firmly anchored before the transition occurs.

The goal is a complete transition to paying all your bills on the first of the month before you leave the work force. This isn’t the only way to do this, and if it doesn’t appeal to you my hope is it has at least got you thinking about when you’re only going to have a monthly check. Don’t hesitate to get help if you need it, in this particular case I would recommend a fee only (hourly) planner – Garrett Planning Network, NAPFA, and the CFP Board all have “Find an Advisor” tool; to name a few organizations.