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.

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.

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?

 

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.

Disclaimer

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.