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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The Parents’ Place of Maryland

I’ve been researching resources since 2012, and I didn’t really know what the Parents’ Place of Maryland was until I met their new Executive Director, Rene Averitt-Sanzone, in 2017. I’d heard of them, but I didn’t think they were a resource I could use because I didn’t think they had a presence in Montgomery County (even though it has the State in its name).

Since meeting Rene I’ve taken time to research and learn more about The Parents’ Place, and I’m excited to share – I would like this to reach every family in Maryland who is looking for resources.

Who They Are 

The Parents’ Place of Maryland, like so many other organizations focused on helping those with disabilities and their families, was founded in 1990 as a grass-roots organization by families, professionals and community leaders. Their Mission (from the website) is “to empower families as advocates and partners in improving education and health outcomes for their children with disabilities and special health care needs”; and from everything I’ve seen they walk the talk.

What They Do 

The Parents’ Place of Maryland offers help in (3) distinct ways: one-on-on support, information & resources, and training programs. If you’re not sure they can help, reach out – if they aren’t the right resource, they can probably direct you to whoever is. Their information & resources page links to a library covering a host of topics, from bullying to transition (and SO much more!); a Services Directory and a Podcast offering “RealTalk for Parents”. The training programs are available to parents/families and professionals, but I wasn’t able to find a calendar highlighting what’s available so you’re best option (as far as I can tell) is to call and see what’s coming.

What Else Should I Know

Since they were founded, they have helped over 10,000 families and professionals – providing information, training and support. They’ve held over 70 workshops, and offered 10 conferences; and have sent over 300,000 informational and educational materials – with a staff of less than 15 and over half of their employees are “Parent Educators”.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of The Parents’ Place of Maryland, 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.

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.

 

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!