The Price of Convenience

I’m alarmed by a trend in the use (abuse) of debt I’ve seen over the years, and I believe it’s only going to get worse. Vendors are making it easier and easier to pay electronically – now you just have to swipe your phone. The accounts are typically linked to a credit card, allowing consumers to get instant gratification and delay facing the full cost “indefinitely” (assuming they only make minimum payments). I have a few issues with this.

First – the impact it is having on families’ financial health. The majority of households I come across are leveraged to some degree – car loans, mortgages, credit card debt, etc. And while I will be the first to admit the benefits to borrowing, it should not be forgotten you are using someone else’s money and ultimately they have control. Families are paying more in interest and service fees than they are saving for goals, like retirement, leaving nothing to show for the money spent.

Second – what is the next generation learning? Balancing a checkbook is becoming a lost art, as less and less people use checks. Instead, consumers are encouraged to automate their payments – so they don’t have to pay any attention, ever. Add to this the simplicity of subscription services and “free trials”; and before you know it you’re living paycheck to paycheck but don’t know where your money is going.

I’m not sure what schools are teaching children in traditional classes, but my son was taught how to count dollars and coins in his learning for independence classes. I will admit this could be important and help him get a job; however I think it’s equally important to teach about responsible use of credit, and the impact it has on your life.

It’s “painless”, people no longer have to ask themselves “can I afford this”? Instead, it seems to be “which card should I use, to get the best rewards”? Unless you’re paying the balance EVERY month, the only people being rewarded are the credit card companies. Credit scores are being considered in more facets of life, including in some cases auto insurance and utility bills – yet how many of us not only know our score, but understand how it’s calculated?

I worry for my son, because credit is so abstract. To help him be successful, I’ve resorted to purchasing gift cards, and tracking the spending using Google Sheets. It’s not perfect, and I think he’s a long way from mastering it – but it’s a start. Obviously this isn’t the solution for everyone, but I would encourage people NOT to automate their bills – because it doesn’t take that long to pay them; and, in my opinion, it’s worth the time spent to understand where your money is going.

If you’re not paying your credit card balance in full each month, ask yourself what you’re spending on. You’re living outside your means (or you did at one time). Focus on getting your spending below 90% what you bring home each month – start building yourself a buffer. Go through your statements, what recurring charges surprise you? Finally, look at what your credit cards are charging each month as interest – this is money you owe them and you will have NOTHING to show for it. Imagine if you’d put this money into an account for you?!

 

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Child Turning 18, Don’t Forget These:

This will be a quicky, for all of us who have a child turning 18 – whether they are in school til age 21 or not.

Men – register for the Selective Service. Having a disability, regardless of how significant, does NOT waive this requirement. The website lists (5) reasons to register, most importantly (IMHO) is retaining eligibility for Federal & State services – college loans, job training, etc. Register here – https://www.sss.gov/.

Everyone – register to vote. Having a disability does NOT mean you cannot make a decision, nor does it mean you shouldn’t have a say. Admittedly, some individuals may have cognitive challenges and this may not apply to them. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience parents do not help their child(ren) register or encourage them to exercise their right. And this is not just limited to families with disabilities. Here is a good starting point – https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote.

Determine level of impact the disability has. For I/DD, there is a gap in service between the ages of 18 and 21, unless the individual remains in school. I was hell-bent on having my son graduate, but thankfully his teachers and an advocate I hired all told me I was wrong – it would be in HIS best interest to remain in school until 21 b/c of his academic skills. This isn’t for everyone, so do your best to maintain an open mind (or get an impartial opinion).

File for SSI. Again, not a blanket statement because not everyone will qualify. However, if there is any chance your son/daughter’s disability will limit their capability to find gainful employment consider applying. When in doubt seek out a Disability attorney, the ones I’ve met have been very willing to provide straight-forward advice about whether there was a good case to receive SSI or not. Your child does NOT need to be out of school.

If filing for, or considering, SSI – make sure you get all assets out of your child’s name. This includes, but is not limited to – savings/checking accounts; savings bonds; cash value life insurance; coin (or other) collections; etc. They are allowed to own (1) car and (1) home. ABLE accounts and Special Needs Trusts are also allowed and will not impact your child’s ability to receive SSI.

This is a quick overview of things to consider, there may be additional items given your particular circumstances. It’s easy to get into “auto-pilot” when they are in school, but the game changes significantly when they age out or graduate.

A Mothers Rest (Update)

I’ve been doing my best to introduce a different non-profit each month, however A Mothers Rest has started a capital campaign to provide 24/7 respite services in Maryland through the purchase of a Bed and Breakfast, and I felt I had to help get the word out.

For those who haven’t heard of A Mothers Rest, here is a brief overview – taken from their website.

“Extra Needs” includes so much more than just physical & cognitive differences.   It’s not just Down syndrome, CP, & autism.   Families facing injury, trauma, medical crises…abuse, abandonment, neglect…children who have been adopted or been through the foster system….children who are experiencing addictions…. We also support special educators and caregivers of disabled SPOUSES, such as wounded veterans and victims of illness and injury.

To the best of my knowledge, this is one-of-a-kind. I’ve been on a retreat, admittedly I didn’t come out of my room for the first day because it felt so good to be truly “alone”; but I had a great time and alone time is what I needed.

They are looking to purchase a Bed & Breakfast in New Windsor, MD to host families from around the country. They will continue to coordinate other retreats for mom, dad’s, couples and caregivers; the Inn will serve as a “home base” and model for future growth.

I encourage anyone and everyone whose life has been impacted by an individual with different needs to check A Mothers Rest out. Take a retreat, sometimes we get so caught up in what we need to do for others we forget about ourselves.

I’m not a Board member of A Mother’s Rest, but I am a single father of a child with disabilities and I have experienced burnout first hand. I know what it’s like to get so frustrated you just want to lock yourself in an isolation chamber (or go back on deployment) to get some peace – and then feel guilty. We’re human, A Mothers Rest is doing its best to let us reset.

One Small Step

Our minds are amazing and powerful, and when applied properly can result in us accomplishing fantastic and unbelievable things. Unfortunately, almost all of us have, at times, allowed our brains to become our worst enemy. I doubt anyone does this deliberately, I think it’s hard-wired from more primitive days to keep us alive; but we should be aware and be ready to challenge it when it happens.

I have a few times that stand out VERY clearly – my son’s first diagnosis, my wife’s passing and my pending retirement. Each of these probably seems very obvious, I was facing a significant loss. But there have been less “obvious” times – halfway through a 5k, as I approach project deadlines or even when deciding if I should walk the dogs.

It starts innocently enough, the self-talk isn’t obviously negative; just an overview of other options or possibilities. For me, it didn’t take long for these thoughts to take on a life of their own – I’m creating whole dialogues and if/then end results; and suddenly I realize I’ve convinced myself the worst is going to happen and I haven’t even started down a path. When I was younger I missed opportunities because I wouldn’t give myself the chance to be successful and prove myself wrong.

It’s taken me years to accept my son has Autism, which is not (to me) the same as accepting his diagnosis. I have chosen to refuse to believe he cannot live a fulfilling, independent life. I have had to re-frame what “independent” means, because we all use supports – for some of us they are just less obvious.

Now, I take a different approach. I still evaluate the risks and weigh the pros/cons, I plan for a living so I doubt this will ever stop. But instead of allowing myself to go down the vortex of negative self-talk, I focus on the first step. After my wife died that first step was just getting out of bed, then getting into shower, etc. I literally broke every thing I did into single steps, and celebrated accomplishing them as a “win” because I needed to.

Every journey starts with a step, and no – we’re not psychic. We can’t know what’s around every corner, and sometimes life is going to hit you in the face with a cast iron skillet – and it’s going to suck, a lot. But this doesn’t have to remain your reality. What’s the next, small, step you can take to make things better?

For example – you hate your job. The next step isn’t “find another job” – this is too broad and can be overwhelming. The first step could be what do you hate about this job. Do you control any of it? If you do, what is the easiest thing you can change to make things better. Maybe it’s getting up 30 mins earlier or stopping at the gym on the way home to stay out of traffic. If there is nothing you have control over, then think about the first step to getting a new job.

What do you want to do which you have the skills for? Write out your skills and talents. Write out your nonnegotiable – what are the absolutes you must have for a healthy work experience (be realistic)? Pick one search engine (I like SimplyHired) and start looking. Be aware of your self-talk, and stop yourself when/if you catch yourself saying “I’ll never find something for my skills”; “there are no jobs in my area” or anything else not supportive of the efforts you’re making. These are not helpful, you are going to find answers supporting your beliefs – this is known as Confirmation Bias (Farnham Street, May 2017).

You DO control your happiness, because you control how you perceive and react to the world around you. Take your ownership back, one small step at a time.

Ideas to Stay Afloat

Some of the hardest conversations I have with people is telling them they cannot accomplish the goals they’ve shared with me; even worse are those I have to have a conversation with about how they can reduce their living expenses – foregoing the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to. It tears at me, because I wonder if they really had no clue or have they been in denial? Either way, it’s not easy being the harsh voice of reality.

How do they get there? How does anyone? For some it could be medical expenses, or other things they had little control over. However for most I believe it’s an unwillingness to delay gratification. It’s difficult to deny yourself, especially to set money aside for something that will “probably never happen”; but these rare events occur with frequency. Cars are going to require more than routine maintenance (oil changes, brakes, etc) – own one long enough and something major will need to be replaced. Mechanical systems break down.

Same is true with anything else in your life – from owning a house, to having a child. Childcare is expensive, I think most of us understand that. But what about clothes, hobbies, food (especially for teens). We should know these things are going to come up, but so many seem surprised by how much everything costs.

So what to do? Few of us are going to win the lottery, so how can we prepare. Start small – save money into both your retirement account and a “rainy day” fund. The retirement accounts are usually the easiest to maintain, because most employers will withdraw funds before paying you – so you never “miss” it. It’s the savings you have to be intentional about that’s more difficult.

If you’re new to saving, start with 2% of your income to the retirement account. No, this isn’t going to fund your retirement, but it’s small enough most of us won’t notice it’s gone. The goal is to scale over time. Same is true with the “rainy day” fund. Open an online account and start an automatic transfer set for (5) days after each pay check (6th and 20th if you get paid on the 1st and 15th). Generally this is far enough to provide a buffer if there are holidays, or other delays to the money hitting your account.

I’m partial to Ally, because they’ve made it very simple to enroll and they’re offering a 1.6% interest rate (as of 5/13/2018). However, I encourage everyone to do their own homework – I like Bankrate’s website. Start with an amount small enough not to be missed, but large enough to be meaningful. For most, I wouldn’t save less than $25/pay period – but you will have to decide your own threshold. The more you can afford to put aside, the better prepared you will be for life’s “oh craps”.

Build your support network too. Try to surround yourself with positive people – not Pollyannas, but with people who understand life happens and it’s best met on your own terms. I prefer to be around people who have overcome adversity, although they haven’t necessarily had my experiences. We keep each other grounded – allowing a brief “pity party”, followed by a shoulder and non-judgmental ear. This network is best built before you need it, because when you’re in a dark place it seems to mostly attract “Emotional Vampires” (Orloff, J, 18 Jan 2011).

The most important take-away is this – shore yourself up, using small steps. Take some time to get to know yourself – what sets you off and what makes you feel great. Surround yourself with people who can help you feel great, not small. And invest in yourself financially by setting money aside. Little amounts first, increase by at least 25% every quarter (if it helps, go by key dates: Martin Luther King, Jr Day , Tax Day, Independence Day, Halloween).

We’re Not Atlas

In Greek mythology, Atlas was tasked with holding up the heavens on his shoulders (Atlas, 17 Dec 2016); and as parents of children with challenges (emotional, physical, neurological, etc) I believe it’s easy to feel the same way sometimes. It can be so easy to get caught up in our own world, believing no-one else can understand or relate. And unfortunately, this may very well be true as it pertains to your current circle of friends and family.

But you’re not chained to these circumstances – no matter how overwhelming it may seem. As I’ve stated in past posts, it takes just one step forward to start overcoming inertia. Make the time to go to a resource fair, or read (listen to an audiobook); anything to get you out of your own head.

I’m biased, I don’t want to hang around with people who acknowledge how hard I have it – this isn’t helpful to me. Yes, I’m a single father of a child with a disability, and I happen to have some of my own challenges as a legacy from my time in the service (don’t we all?). But none of these define me. I have the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, and although I may get less sleep (not by choice), ultimately it’s up to me to decide how to use my time.

We’re powerful, all of us – not just those of us who have challenges or family members with different needs. Each of us has different strengths, and weaknesses, so although it may feel really great to share how “hard” things are, nothing is going to get “easier” unless/until you do something to change your circumstances. If you “can’t”, then look for someone who can. Find someone who has overcome a similar challenge – I will guarantee you they are out there; although you may not hear them shouting from the mountains.

In my experience those who get things done, just do them. They don’t spend much time bemoaning their current situation with a “woe is me” attitude. Sure, there are probably pity parties – life sucks sometimes. But you can either wallow in it, or you can get help to pull yourself out. Notice I did NOT say you can pull yourself out ALONE. If you could do this alone it would already be done.

As much as it may feel like we are alone in this world, and we’re shouldering more than our fair share of problems, understand this – there is someone, somewhere who has it much worse than you and is getting it done. I think all of us are stronger than we give ourselves credit for; but I also think we allow ourselves to believe we’re beaten or overwhelmed because it’s often the easier road.

You’re not alone. There are people out there who have overcome some incredible disadvantages and challenges – what can you learn from them? How can you ask them for a hand-up (not a hand-out)? Who do you know who has overcome their own challenges?

Better yet, who do you know who is in the midst of challenges, and you think to yourself “man, they’re lucky that’s all they’re dealing with”? Go to them, offer your help. And while you’re helping open your mind to possibilities. What can you take from this experience to help in your own situation? Is there anything they can do to lighten your load? There are a LOT of people in the world, there is absolutely NO reason you should solve problems by yourself.

Upcounty Community Resources

Upcounty Community Resources (UCR) is a small non-profit with a HUGE mission and impact. Located in upper Montgomery County, they provide weekend enrichment programs –  “guys night out”, “girls on the town” and “TGIF – Totally Great Inclusive Fun” to name just a few. The intent is to help reduce the stigma sometimes associated with having an intellectual or developmental disability, and help those with disabilities integrate seamlessly into their community.

Who They Are

UCR is a private, non-profit organization who believes we are enriched by all persons in our community. They promote the full inclusion of persons with developmental and intellectual differences into every aspect of community life.

They offer innovative programs, events, and social opportunities for adults with developmental and intellectual differences; promoting healthy lifestyles, friendships, self-awareness, and personal-development.

What They Do 

UCR offers innovative programs, events, and social opportunities for adults with developmental and intellectual differences. These opportunities promote healthy lifestyles, friendships, self-awareness, and personal-development. For a complete list of ALL the opportunities – please click on the “PROGRAMS” tab when you get to their homepage (click here).

What Else Should I Know

UCR’s program leaders are experienced professionals who work with our staff to ensure each member’s experience is a success. Some programs run as drop-in and some run for several-sessions over consecutive months. Some activities are perfect for anyone; others require a particular interest or skill.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Upcounty Community Resources 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.