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.

Charity Connect

Charity Connect was founded by Cristin Caine to “create lifelong volunteers by personally matching clients with their right fit volunteer opportunity and by providing community service education.” They take the time to really connect with the individuals, youth and adults, who want to volunteer; taking the time to understand what their true passion is and making connections with the appropriate non-profits – setting the stage for a long and enriching relationship for all involved parties!

Who They Are 

Charity Connect currently is just serving Montgomery County, Maryland; building relationships with schools, neighborhoods and non-profits. They are an organization whose core belief is you don’t have to be wealthy to be philanthropic. Charity Connect’s premise is most people want to contribute, but they don’t know how; or they’ve tried and had negative experiences. Their focus is on ensuring everybody has the best opportunity to have a positive and memorable experience possible.

What They Do 


Charity Connect takes the time to understand what each prospective volunteer is looking for – not just the type of organization they want to volunteer with; but also what the volunteer’s strengths and passions are – because when these are tapped into it’s more likely the volunteer will enjoy his/her time with the non-profit, and the non-profit will see the best of the volunteer.

Charity Connect works with students, from preschool to college, generating excitement around volunteering and making it more than just being about ensuring you have enough student service learning (SSL) hours. However, it’s not just for youth – adults of all ages are more than welcome to connect and volunteer.

Cristin’s team works with the client (potential volunteer) to “develop and facilitate a comprehensive project including volunteer service, fundraising, and advocacy for special occasion and other in-depth service projects.” This really appeals to me, because too often I’ve seen people volunteer with a non-profit that didn’t really have a clear plan of what to do with them. This led to a less than enjoyable experience for the volunteer, and the non-profit loses a potential resource. Not only that, there’s a chance the individual shares his negative experience, because it’s an unfortunate truth people are more willing to share these than they are to share a positive experience.

What Else Should I Know

Charity Connect can be of service to anybody and everybody, in my humble opinion. If you own a company and you’re looking to build corporate goodwill, Cristin can work with you to match a non-profit with your company’s mission and corporate culture. I think I’ve already shown the benefit available to youth and adults. Non-profits struggle with finding the right types of volunteers, working with Charity Connect could provide a ready, on demand resource. Finally, I think parents and students are burned out on the same old same old when it comes to options to fulfill their SSL requirements. Cristin can offer a fresh perspective, and potentially opportunities you never would’ve considered.


I am not an employee of Charity Connect 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.

Why I’d Rather Pay

Over the years I’ve been told, by well-meaning people, to trust in my network of friends and family to provide for my son when I’m gone; rather than hiring professionals. I know they mean well, and I will admit to a degree of cynicism; but when I’m gone I have taken measures to ensure my son has enough money to work with professionals for the duration of his life. This is not meant to imply any mistrust or cast doubt upon the capabilities of anyone in my personal sphere of influence – if I count someone as a friend it’s because they have proven time and again they may be relied upon, and I trust them implicitly.

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? After all – if I trust them, and I do; why would I not rely on them to help my son out? The short answer is they don’t have a stake in the game. I have no doubt they would do what they can for my son, but if push comes to shove they need to (and should) take care of their stuff first. For example, if they have a family emergency, I would not expect them to put it on hold to address the needs of my son.

Another of my considerations is doing what’s in HIS best interest. Again, I think most people mean well; but it can be easy to project one’s desires/interests onto someone else, especially if they do not have an active voice. This wouldn’t be done maliciously, or even consciously; but in my opinion it would eventually happen in more cases than not. Sometimes doing what is in someone else’s best interests requires them being told “No”; and this can be very difficult if  you have a relationship – because you want to keep them happy.

Using a professional significantly reduces these risks. If they are being paid for a service they have incentive to provide the service, and do so at a certain level of quality or they risk losing the contract. There are no feelings to be hurt by my hiring an impartial organization to monitor the delivery of the services I’ve requested. And there are much fewer acceptable reasons to not deliver the service they are being paid for.

If my son asks for something outside of the scope of the original agreement, I can build in parameters of what is acceptable – and the agency or individual(s) I’ve hired can use those parameters to make a decision. If it’s not in my son’s best interest, or acceptable within the parameters I’ve set forth; I have complete faith they’ll say “No”.

Are there risks, absolutely. It’s incumbent upon me to leave parameters broad enough to allow them to make the best decision; and I can’t predict every eventuality. There are costs associated, these are professionals and I’m asking them to provide a service – and you get what you pay for. To me, though; the benefits outweigh the costs. Being honest with myself about what I want, I took the time to do the research and get a baseline of what I can expect to pay. From there I worked out what I resources would be available when I’m gone; and purchased enough life insurance to make up the difference.

As is the case for anything else in our lives, this is a personal decision and will vary from individual to individual. In my case, I don’t want to rely on family and friends – for the reasons enumerated above; and I’m able to afford what I need to put this in action when I’m gone. Cost should never be the sole driver, but let’s be real – it will always be a consideration. For me, it means I’ve made some sacrifices over the years to afford the insurance; but in my mind it’s an investment towards my son’s future.

And this is what I think we all need to frame questions like this: Is it a cost, or an investment? If it’s a cost, then it can become very difficult to stick with the plan when you encounter challenges (and you will). But you believe, as I do, providing your child(ren) the opportunities they would be able to get for themselves if they didn’t have their disability is an investment you will let nothing get in your way.

Automate This…

I realize what I’m about to say goes against what I perceive to be “conventional wisdom”. When I was Active Duty I earned my Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and I understand, quite well I think, how to become more efficient and eliminate waste. With this in mind, I’m not a fan of having my clients set their bills up for auto-pay, for a couple reasons.

First, if you’re not monitoring it you can’t manage it. If “extra” credits are added to your bills, or if your spending increases incrementally, you may not notice right away – if at all. This problem is compounded if you’re paying your bills via credit card, because at least you’re checking account will notify you if it’s been over-drafted – assuming you live off a budget and are transferring just what you routinely spend.

I don’t buy into the argument that it’s going to save you a lot time; after all – how much time does it really take to pay your bills every month? Speaking for myself, I like to know where my money is going, and it may take me a whole hour (if I’m distracted for 45 minutes) to login to my bank, review my bills and assign the payments from my checking account.

What I’ve noticed over the years, with clients and seminar attendees across the wealth spectrum, is a rise in individuals who admit they are not sure where all their money is going . Will paying your bills solve this; no, not necessarily. But it will force you to acknowledge, if only for the moment you’re transferring the money or writing the check, how much you have spent.

So next time you hear an efficiency guru recommend automating your life, I recommend thinking twice; and being honest with what it’s really saving you. Because, in my opinion, what you’re being saved isn’t time – it’s the sometimes harsh reality you’re spending much more than you would like to admit; and not saving nearly as much as you know you should be.

So Busy, So What?!

I’ve noticed an disturbing trend lately, the number of people I know feeling they need to share how “busy” they are with me. I’m not sure what reaction they expect from me, but I’m willing to bet it’s not the one I find myself biting my tongue about. What is “busy”? If you tell someone you’re “too busy” or “so busy”, what are you really telling them?

Webster has quite a few definitions: “1. engaged in action; 2. full of activity; 3. foolishly or intrusively active; 4. full of intrusive design.” Conspicuously absent is anything describing what you’ve accomplished; which, in my opinion, is much more important. I have no interest in working unless there I accomplish something. I’ve felt like this since my time in the Navy, when we would be told we had to stay “just in case”, or were given busy work to occupy our time.

Nowadays it’s not uncommon for me to have a 4 or 6 hour work day, because if I’ve completed what I set out to accomplish for the day and I don’t have anything else pressing I’ll often just call it quits. By the same token, there will be times when I may put in 12 or 14 hours because I really want to finish what I’ve started. But at no point will I say I’m “too busy” to do something. I will either give a reason for why I will do whatever it is I’m asked to do, or I will propose a time frame I think is reasonable taking into account whatever else I need to accomplish. If it’s a high priority, then I will either move other items or put in the longer day, as required.

When someone tells me “I’m too busy”, what I hear is “I don’t know how to manage my time”. Harsh? Perhaps, but I know many successful people who enjoy a fantastic work-life balance, and do not say they were “too busy”. In my opinion, based upon my personal experience, those who accomplish a lot are the same ones who are able to find the time to take on even more.

The trick, as I see it, is to limit activities to those which add value. For example, how much time do you (the reader) spend on Facebook, checking e-mails and/or shooting the breeze? Unless these are part of your job description, they’re probably not adding value to the work you’re paid to do. Another reason people feel busy, in my experience, is multi-tasking – trying to do several things at once. I’m not saying categorically it’s impossible to be a successful multi-tasker, because I haven’t done any research to back a claim like this up. What I am saying is it’s easy to understand why you would feel like you’re busy or overwhelmed if you have multiple projects open and you’re trying to determine (1) which one to tackle first and (2) how you’re going to get everything you think you need to get done, done.

So next time you feel like telling anyone how busy you are, ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you want the other person to understand how much you’re doing? Are you trying to justify why you “can’t” do something? Take a moment to explore this internally, and weigh your options. What do you really need to get done, and what are you doing because it makes  you feel good? What must be done during the work day to accomplish the goals and tasks set for you, and what can you put off until a break or the end of the day? In my opinion, when you stop being “busy” you’ll be amazed at how productive you can be.