Improve Your $ Habits

I want to acknowledge James Clear, it’s his image I chose as cover art – and you can learn more about his ideas at his website https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about habits lately, as I’ve committed to improving my communication skills through the remainder of 2017. I understand this won’t happen on its own – I need to actively work on changing my behaviors while finding ways to reward myself until I don’t have to think about what I’m doing any longer.

Another impetus for this topic is client-driven, over the last several months I’ve met with clients who have poor financial habits; and from what I’ve seen this is more common than not. Individuals and families do the best they can, but often they haven’t been given the tools to develop good habits; or they’ve identified things they want to change and try to change too much – becoming overwhelmed and giving up.

In my opinion the “easiest” habit to create is one that requires little extra thought or action on your part. For saving money, I ask people to find $25 – $50/mth, and set it aside somewhere they won’t spend it – that could be in an envelope in your underwear drawer or an online bank account w/o an ATM card; it’s more important not to touch it than where you put it.

Need motivation, tie the money to something else you’re trying to do. For example, if you’re trying to lose weight pay yourself $5 or $10 every time you decline dessert. The money will reward you for following your diet, so you’ll become more likely to stick to it. And saving the money towards something you really want will reward you for your discipline. Win Win.

You can use these same tools with your children, to help them develop healthy saving habits young. I understand some may disagree with rewards, because then you may only be doing something because of what you get – and I want to acknowledge that argument. However, my belief is if I can get someone to work up to saving $400/mth, even if they are using $100 each month to reward themselves they’ve still set aside $300 more than they were before.

This is one idea, and certainly not the Holy Grail of personal finance. There are many resources available – blogs like Paula Pant’s “Afford Anything“; “Mr. Money Mustache”, and J. Money’s “Budgets are Sexy” to name just a few; and just as many or more podcasts.

The key is not trying to change everything. Start with one thing, focus on it until it becomes second nature and then move on to the next. Having an accountability partner (and I know I’ve said this before) can be a HUGE help. Celebrate your successes, and don’t beat yourself up too hard when there are bumps in the road – it happens. What I believe you will find as time goes on is you will notice the bumps less; because your success has achieved a life of its own.

 

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The Struggle is Real

Lately I’ve been on a kick to help people motivate themselves to maintain momentum, if moving forward; or overcome inertia if they’re at a crossroads; and today I want to share a few of my current challenges and strategies.

My son turned 18 recently – leading me to start the process for his SSI, updating DFAS so he maintains eligibility for my military pension and TRICARE, and updating the VA to keep my disability payments at their current level (with a dependent). Given his disabilities I’m also applying for Guardianship. As you may be able to imagine (or perhaps can relate having been through already), this in itself can feel like a full time job.

The first challenge I’ve come across is how to help my son receive his full SSI benefit and the adult disabled child benefit (survivor benefit) from my wife. If both go to traditional savings or checking accounts, the SSI will be offset by the other benefit. So my first thought was his ABLE account, because the assets are not considered when determining SSI eligibility.

Unfortunately, his ABLE account is not equipped to receive electronic deposits – so Strike 1. No problem, I need a 1st Party Special Needs Trust anyway, for the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan; I’ll just send the adult disabled benefit there. My intent was to complete ALL the estate documents at once – 1st & 3rd party SNT’s, Guardianship, DPOA, etc – and I was on a great trajectory.

Was being the operative word. I was able to get the Physician’s letter, no problem. However, I also need a Social Worker letter – and because he’s never received services (DDA “future need”) – he hasn’t worked with a Social Worker. His teacher gave me a couple options, and although neither was viable I appreciate her time and effort. So now we’re in a sort of limbo while I figure this piece out.

Rather than let the whole process stall, I’ve decided to move forward with everything else, and finish the Guardianship as I’m able. I’m also working on engaging the DDA again, since my son is an adult and they should be able to help me with the transition from High School at age 21.

The last piece on my plate (as far as I’m aware) is following up with DORS again – getting my son employment assistance. I’ve been working on this for (2)  years, since he turned 16 – it had been my hope to have him working summers; getting used to the routines necessary to be successful post-high school. That hasn’t materialized, yet, but I will redouble my efforts towards the end of this school year.

All of this is meant only to show I understand how frustrating and time consuming it can be. And I get it can be overwhelming, especially if it’s all taken into consideration at once. The best thing I think anyone can do is pick one item and work it until the next steps are out of your control; rinse and repeat. Not sure how to prioritize, ask for help. I started a company – Special Needs Navigator – just for this purpose, and it’s my belief there are other resources like this throughout the country; although it may take some work to find them.

Don’t give up, as the image I selected shows success could be the next step you take. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and take a breath. Help yourself, establish routines to give yourself a mental/emotional recharge – the pause and refresh will help you identify alternatives you may otherwise miss. Keep charging – you’ve got this!

Adversity – Furnace or Forge

Life can be difficult and is often unfair. I don’t think anyone would argue, and I’m willing to bet many of us have felt like throwing our hands in the air and saying “enough is enough – I quit”. The difference is what happens at this point – do you actually give up, consumed by the fires; or do you push through, overcoming the situation/circumstance with new tools and beliefs?

I’ve done both, it’s taken me many years to recognize there is always another side to adversity – it’s just how long it’s going to take you to get through. The more you do to help yourself when things are going well, the shorter (generally) the impact will last. The trick, in my opinion, is understanding (1) you’re not alone, and (2) you have more tools than you may be giving yourself credit for.

Develop habits when things are going well, so you don’t need to think about “how” to do something when life throws you a curve ball. Commit to sitting down with the most positive person you know at least twice a month, when you are at the bottom of a hole they can extend a rope; and if it’s a habit/routine they will know may be up if you miss one or two appointments.

Financially, commit to setting aside at least $25 each week in an online savings account – where you don’t have ready access. This creates the habit of spending, but it also gives you a lifeline when those “oh craps” occur. If you can afford to do more, then build up gradually to what you’re comfortable setting aside – but don’t start too big. The intent is to not notice it, so you will continue.

When bad things happen look for correlations to how you are feeling. At some point in the past you more than likely felt very similar, even if it was to a lesser degree. How did you overcome it then? Use those tools, adapting as necessary to fit your current circumstance.

Some changes cannot be undone. I will never get my wife back, nor will my son’s Autism go away. That doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, live our lives to the fullest. We’ve adapted, and so can you. Do your best to never let circumstances identify who you are. Continue to grow, seek new experiences and don’t fear failure. And as I’ve said so often before – quit trying to be a one-person show. Instead be the conductor and surround yourself with people who have achieved what you’re aiming for and have similar values and ethics.

The Right Time is NOW

It’s so easy to justify putting something off, something else always seems to come up or there’s just no time. This is BULL, and if we’re honest with ourselves we all know it. There is never going to be a better time than right now to take action. “Need” to lose weight or save more? What does waiting until tomorrow get you?

Since I left the Navy and started my journey into the disability world with my son, I’ve seen (and been guilty of) entirely too much inaction. People will come to Resource Fairs and walk away with great information, but I can only wonder how many follow-up. Talking to some of my fellow vendors the number is nowhere near as large as we’d like.

I think this is because we let life get in the way – at least it was for me. I’d come home on a Saturday, with several folders of information, put them down and forget about them. It was information I needed, and I knew I needed, but I told myself I would get to it on Monday. Unfortunately by the time Monday got here I had not only forgotten about them, I was already overwhelmed with what the week was bringing – I wouldn’t have been willing to do anything even if I had remembered.

I broke this cycle by forcing myself to take 10 – 15 minutes when I got home, reviewing the materials and sending an e-mail to those I wanted to follow up with. This got the ball rolling, and when Monday came the responses I received ensured I followed through.

Sure, I put my name on the mailing lists; but more often than not I would just ignore the e-mails – not even replying to state I wasn’t interested because I felt like it took too much bandwidth. If this sounds familiar, I can tell you it’s not going to get any better on its own – all that will happen is time will continue passing you by, until some crisis doesn’t allow you to ignore it any longer.

So if there is something you’re thinking of doing, then do it. Don’t set it aside, because life doesn’t get any less busy (at least not in my experience). Frequently letting something sit will cause it to morph into something much bigger than it needs to be; making it even more likely you won’t take action. At some point YOU need to make a change, it requires an act on your part – well, probably several, because it takes time to make this into a habit.

So take a look at your situation and take action on the first thing you think of. Don’t spend time considering which item on a laundry list you should address, this puts you at risk of being overwhelmed by choices. Just pick the first thing that comes to mind, knock it out, rinse and repeat. Find an accountability partner, someone who will help you follow through – we all need one; it’s too easy for us to accept our own excuses. I encourage everyone to check out Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule; it helped put things in perspective for me.

Peaks & Valleys

Last week I was reminded of how quickly a high may be turned into a low – having been recharged from a retreat, and yet within a few days losing my patience for something I had thought my son had mastered. It was wrong of me to lose my patience, but I (like most of us) am only human and I have my faults. One I continue to work on is understanding just because my son may have seemingly “mastered” a skill, doesn’t mean it will translate naturally into a very similar skill – as it usually would for neurotypical peers.

When things happen to upset my equilibrium, I think back on the lessons Spencer Johnson covers in his book “Peaks and Valleys”. I first read the book the year my wife passed, when I couldn’t conceive of how I could be expected to do much more than just get out of bed and put clothes on. I’m not going to outline the entire book, but the premise is there will always be highs & lows; it’s up to you to note how you achieved your high and what brought the low – empowering you to increase the highs and decrease the lows.

I think I’m still processing those lessons – I certainly haven’t mastered them yet, even after (5) years. I believe we need to be ready to understand concepts, it’s not enough to tell ourselves we’re going to change – we have to internalize the reason we are making the change. I remember thinking I wanted to be happier after my wife passed, yet part of me felt guilty when I was in a good mood – I had to put that to rest.

This is one example, particular to me; but I think any of us who have something we say we want to accomplish, but are not truly doing what we need to be doing to accomplish it, can identify a demon we haven’t put to rest yet. This is, in my totally non-professional opinion, normal; it’s our valley(s).

We will start the climb to the peak when we acknowledge we have these thoughts. The climb will be longer for some than others, as we all make peace with ourselves in our own way. Some will work with therapists and caregivers, much like climbers hire guides to show them the most accessible (yet not necessarily any less difficult) paths to the top. Others will do their best to go alone, or work with someone who has been where they are and can show them how they got out. Some of us will have storms interrupting our progress, stopping us from as high as we could climb and forcing us to start over.

It’s not enough to say “don’t quit”. Not quitting doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful – Wile E Coyote never quit, look what that got him. If you are struggling, ask for help. At a minimum, find someone to open up to about what you’re struggling with. Speaking for myself, I often find new solutions I hadn’t considered when I verbalize my challenges. I’ve also received some incredible insight (although I’m slower than I like to admit to take action on recommendations).

At the end of the day remember this – every single person has something they are struggling with. What could be a significant challenge to them may seem minor to you, and vice versa; this is the beautiful thing about perspective. Rather than belittle them for their perception, help them find solutions. Find people that will do the same for you – they’re out there. Don’t let yourself get trapped in a valley, the view is much better at a peak!

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.