Holiday$$

Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself when I get on my soapbox about saving (period, not just for retirement); especially when holidays are approaching. I think it’s fantastic people are seemingly so generous; but because I’m jaded I ask myself if people are feeling this generosity out of a sense of responsibility, or because they really want to give. The core of this cynicism – why wait until an arbitrary date on a calendar? Why not give when the mood strikes you? Could it be the mood only strikes you when the calendar (and mass marketing) says it’s important?

For those who the holidays have more significance, what if you were to buy gifts right after major holidays when stores are trying to clear their shelves; or at least spread the spending throughout the year avoiding the holiday hangover come January? I think we’ve been conditioned to look forward to Black Friday and Cyber Monday; but I would argue deals could be found all year round – especially for items not in season, or going out of season.

Is it a sense of competition driving us to spend so much money? Perhaps we’re worried about what other people will think if they give us something of more value? I can almost hear the rebuttals (having had them in person on more occasions than I can count); about how it’s a season for giving, and people are doing it because it makes them feel good. Perhaps – I won’t pretend to know how others feel. But how would you friends and loved ones feel if instead of buying more “stuff”; you made a contribution in their name to a non-profit they support?

Or better yet, took steps to secure your own financial future by increasing contributions to your retirement account by 2%? I’ve also had it drilled into me this season isn’t about the money; but toys are temporary and most of us are going to get to a point where we are either unwilling, or unable, to work any longer. And when we get there who is going to remember who bought the biggest gift 20 years ago? Especially if those family members are now foregoing their own financial welfare to support you?

Perhaps you think I’m painting too dire of a picture? According to an Economic Policy Institute 2016 report, nearly HALF of American families have NO retirement savings at all! Conversely, an American Research Group 2017 study says the average American family will spend approximately $1,000 this year.

Let’s put this in perspective. The average US median income, according to a 2016 US Census Bureau American Community Survey; is $57,617. It may be higher or lower where you live, but this is the country’s median (average taking into account high and low outliers). Families are spending almost 2% of their income for (1) day; yet cannot save at least as much for the 20 – 30 years when they will not be working.

This doesn’t make any sense to me, especially given how many are probably putting some or all of their purchases on a credit card – contributing to an existing balance they are making payments towards.

I’m not saying don’t give gifts; but I’m imploring everyone to help themselves first. Using the same numbers from above – 2% of the median income ($56,617) – the average household would have approximately $90 per month withheld from their check. No, this isn’t going to be enough to retire one; but it’s a start. The harsh reality is we need to do things that are not fun or sexy to be successful. Sometimes it means we have to be selfish; but it also means you’re not alone in being selfish.

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Know Yourself, And Be Honest

I want to preface this by saying I continue to believe we can achieve what we put our minds to; however, I think it’s important for us to acknowledge what we have an aptitude for. I don’t believe, although I wish I could, people will get whatever they want just because they believe they should. I also don’t believe all it takes is hard work – I have first-hand experience this isn’t enough.

It’s important to know what you want, and to write your Goals down. It’s also important to map out how you will achieve those Goals; but the unfortunate truth (as I see it) is no matter how much you believe, and how hard you work towards them, you may still not achieve the Goal; especially if you’re not being honest with yourself.

When you set Goals, I think it’s important to acknowledge and understand what the associated opportunity costs are. Every decision comes with a price, an alternative you’re not electing. Some of those costs are too high, we’re not willing to pay them – and this is okay; but it means we’re setting that particular result aside.

This is where I feel we’re not being honest enough with ourselves. We blame anything and everything else – it’s too expensive, it’s too hard, etc. It’s not, we’re just not willing to pay the price of entry. Others are, and they achieve what we do not – not because they’re better than us or luckier; but because they are willing to accept the cost. Sure, some of them have more innate abilities and/or resources; but these do not decide who is successful and who is not.

Before charting a course, do the best you can to understand what’s on the path ahead. No, you’re not going to be able to identify all the obstacles and challenges; but you can take a hard look at yourself and decide how committed you are to the objective and when enough is enough. There is more to success than blindly chasing a Goal at the cost of everything else.

There has to be an understanding you may not be 100% successful – at least to me. I don’t let this hold me back. The best example I can give is my fight for my son’s independence. I’ve had “experts” tell me his whole life not to expect too much; that it’s likely he’s going to plateau at some point. I acknowledge their opinions, they have a lot more experience in this world than I do. However, I also know there are exceptions to every rule; and I am doing everything I can to help my son be an exception.

This has led to choices I’ve made taking me on a very different course I envisioned for myself when my wife was alive. It’s also led to me admitting (painfully) I need help from others because there is a lot of “simple” things I’m not good at (like teaching him to cook). We’ve reached some “dead-ends”, and right now he’s not ready to live completely independently. I’m still unwilling to say he never will, but I will admit I’m not sure when or how I will get him there.

But I own it – and I didn’t always. It’s so much easier to ignore the painful truths. Those truths don’t have to define you. What are your truths? What have you been ignoring? How can you accept these truths, without letting them hold you back?

Get Unplugged

This weekend I attended my first retreat, hosted by A Mother’s Rest, in Afton, Virginia – at the Rockfish Valley Inn. Having never attended one, I was more than a little nervous about what to expect; and what, if anything, would be expected of me. I had been told not to worry, I could just chill in my room all weekend if I wanted – but I still had my doubts. Nonetheless I packed my bags, including books to read – my preference when afforded the uninterrupted time.

My first impression when I arrived was “wow, am I in the right place?!” The Inn is not far from the Blue Ridge Highway and Skyline Drive, as well as the Appalachian Trail and many more hiking areas – the scenery was breathtaking. I spent Friday night and most of Saturday by myself – seclusion helps me decompress.

Some of the other dads chose to go to Monticello and explore the surrounding areas – there was truly no agenda other than relax and recharge. It was, in a word, FANTASTIC! Eventually I emerged and met the other dads, and was reminded how nice it is to talk with people who “get it”; much is left unsaid because they’re living it too. We played cards and enjoyed a leisurely dinner on Saturday & Sunday night.

Breakfast items were provided, and there was no set time when everyone was expected to come eat. You could pop in and make yourself whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted. Dreamers Merchant Coffee Company donated several packages – and if you’ve never had their coffee you’re missing out! I’m usually a whatever is cheaper in the store kind of guy; but now I’m a changed man. Cherry on top – Dreamers’ has an incredible mission; having been founded in the hopes of creating a job for the founder’s daughter with disabilities.

I cannot say enough about A Mother’s Rest, and the tireless work of Andrea Faris Roberts. I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt as relaxed as I do writing this, and I encourage anyone reading this to check out A Mother’s Rest’s home page. If you don’t have a family member with a disability, I’ll put even money on you knowing someone who does. From this dad’s perspective, I’m glad Andrea took up this challenge; and I will do whatever I can to help her get the word out.

 

Manna Food Center

Manna Food Center is a food bank headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland focused on eliminating hunger in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s a little more localized than the non-profits I usually spotlight; but with something like eliminating hunger I believe it’s more effective to focus locally and spread.

Who They Are 

Manna Food Center is a food bank – they provide food to approximately 40k people each year; in addition to supplying soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters throughout the County. As a food pantry they’ve established distribution sites to enable those who need the help to readily access it. Before meeting with them I had no idea what the difference was between a food bank and food pantry – a food bank stores the food and products; the pantry is what actually distributes the food. A food bank could (and Manna does) supply multiple food pantries.

I was shocked to learn 1/3 of students attending public schools receive free or discounted lunches – because of how wealthy I’ve perceived Montgomery County to be. To be clear – Montgomery County is wealthy, but they also have a large population of seniors and those with disabilities who may struggle given the high cost of living and additional healthcare expenses.

What They Do 

Manna Food Center serves over 3,700 families each month! Rather than list out their strategic plan in detail, I invite (and encourage) you to read about it here. In brief, they have (3) priorities (from their website):

(1) Participant-centered & data driven program delivery

(2) Community Leadership & Advocacy

(3) A values-based business model that supports the people who make our work possible.

What Else Should I Know

They’ve repurposed an old school bus into a mobile kitchen and pop-up pantry; bringing nutritious foods AND providing the opportunity for those living in the communities reached to learn how to prepare them.

Manna doesn’t just provide a handout. They do their best to help those they serve understand the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices, provide them with the opportunity to do so and in many cases bridge the gap when families hit a rough spot; something I think all of us can relate to – even though maybe not to the extent we didn’t know where our next meal(s) were coming from.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Manna Food Center 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.

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.

Side Hustle, What?!

When I was younger if you had a second job, it was just that – a job. It wasn’t anything to celebrate, because often you were working to help pay your bills. I’m not sure what’s changed, and I fully admit I’m not 100% in touch with current lingo – but as I understand what I’ve been hearing, a “side hustle” is something people SHOULD have.

I can think of many instances when this is a good idea; for example if you have a hobby  you’re trying to become better at, in the hopes you can make it into a career (i.e. wood carver). After all, assuming the following:

1) Malcolm Gladwell’s theory it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill is accurate

2) We work and sleep on average (8) hours per day

3) We can spend (4) hours of each day (Monday – Sunday) working on our skill

It would still take us almost (7) years to become a “master” (6.85 years). That’s a long time to work on something for no reward (other than the satisfaction of becoming better). So getting paid to practice could be a great way to both stay motivated to learning and put a little extra cash in your pocket.

However, I question if this is why most people have a side hustle – I think for many it’s a way to increase their income. Nothing wrong with this, if you’re honest with yourself and you know what you want the money for. If it’s being used to cover monthly expenses, then I encourage you to revisit your spending habits. On the other hand, if you’re using it to save for a specific goal; just to have some extra cash; or as I postulated above, to get better at a skill more power to you!

Here’s where I become an old fuddy duddy (as proven by using the words “fuddy duddy”). When you consider a side hustle, and are determining how much money you’re going to make – please consider the associated expenses. This means if you’re driving for one of the ride share apps consider the increased frequency of required maintenance (oil changes, detailing, brakes, etc); the same goes if you’re renting a room or your house – typically there are additional expenses, including insurance, that often go overlooked.

If you’re “earning” $500 per month, but spending an extra $300/mth doing so evaluate if it’s really worth it. Many of the side hustles I’ve seen people do have the potential to be very lucrative; but like anything if you don’t know what it’s costing you you cannot be sure you’re really making a profit.

If you’re not sure how much you’re really making, track your cash flow. This is nothing more than the money coming in vs the money going out. You can set up a tracker in basic tracker in excel or talk to a financial advisor.  I like to see my clients saving at least 20% of money coming in for goals (not just retirement, things like trips to Disney & new cars as well). If you can’t, even with the side hustle, I would encourage you to evaluate where your money is going – and not just take on something else. And remember, although I’ve only talked about money; there’s another cost to be considered – time. Use it wisely, I don’t know of anyone who died wishing they’d spent more time working.

A Mother’s Rest – Retreats for Families of Children with Extra Needs

A Mother’s Rest was founded to give families a chance to get away, by a mother who understands what families like ours experience daily. I’ve never used respite, when my wife was alive I don’t remember it even being a conversation – and it wasn’t because we didn’t want it; I don’t recall ever hearing it presented as an option. I think many families are like mine – we would love a rest/break, but don’t know where to go or feel we can trust anyone else with our children. A Mother’s Rest answers where to go, it has partnerships with B&B’s across the country; and they are actively working to form partnerships with organizations, like Jill’s House, to provide child care.

Who They Are 

“A Mother’s Rest is designed to be a quiet, peaceful sanctuary of fellowship for myself (founder) and others who really understand the fatigues that can come with special needs parenting”. (Retrieved from https://www.amothersrest.org/thefounder).

I think what appeals most, to me, is their belief “RESPITE is not only a period of time, it is a place and a feeling. It’s a reprieve, even if short-lived, from the hardships of everyday life.” When I was on Active Duty my wife was often living as a single mom, and at the time I had no idea how stressful it may have been – now as a single dad of a teen I’m learning first hand about some, but certainly not all, of the challenges she faced and how important getting a break is.

What They Do 

A Mother’s Rest offers affordable retreats across the country, by partnering with B&B’s to give moms, dads and couples an opportunity to get away, unplug, and if desired, hang out with fellow travelers on our journey. Alternatively these retreats offer opportunities to completely unplug – the only agenda I’m aware of is recharging one’s emotional and psychological batteries.

Some other opportunities A Mother’s Rest include grants of up to $2,500 for children and adults with disabilities to attend day or sleep-away summer camps. What an amazing opportunity, not only as a break for parents; but as an opportunity for those attending to learn/improve their social and independent living skills. A Mother’s Rest needs your help to make this a reality – seeking volunteers and donations (more information found here).

 

What Else Should I Know

A Mother’s Rest is the passion project of a mom who is living it, she really understands what it means to raise a child with disabilities, and how important it is to stay grounded – for you and your child. If you have children, with or without disabilities, I believe you can relate to wanting to “get away”. A Mother’s Rest helps us do so; and they are looking to do much, much more. I encourage you to check out their website to learn more.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of A Mother’s Rest 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.