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.

Advertisements

What’s Holding You Back?

I’ve lost track of the resource fairs and other events I’ve attended, sponsored or both over the years; yet without fail I have witnessed the same reactions as people walk by booths manned by Financial Advisors (not just me). There is a quick look, then look away while muttering “I’m good” or “I have a plan”.

Yet studies have shown the majority of Americans are not prepared financially, with the majority unable to cover a $400 sudden bill because they don’t have an emergency fund. This bothers me, a lot; because I was in those same shoes the year my wife died. I don’t know if I would’ve reacted any differently than those I see at the Resource Fairs, because I didn’t know about them until after everything occurred and I was faced with becoming a civilian, and a single dad of a child with a disability.

There has to be something keeping people from making the connection – and I don’t know if it’s fear of being sold to; shame or fear of being shamed; belief they need money to talk to an advisor (in some cases this is true); etc. What I do know is without help it’s unreasonable to think anyone can change their current circumstances, especially if they feel like they’re swimming in oatmeal with a 50 lb weight strapped to their waist (how I felt on/off for the first year after my wife passed – and truthfully still feel at times).

Planning (financial or otherwise) is not the same for families with significant disabilities. It’s not because your situation is worse than anyone else’s; it’s because you have different challenges than most and unless someone is familiar with those challenges the advice you receive (although well-intentioned) can set you back.

Maybe that’s what’s holding people back – they’ve been burned and don’t want to get screwed over again. Unfortunately I don’t have a guaranteed solution for how to avoid this – my best advice is find people who have overcome similar challenges and ask them how they did it (understanding it may not work for you).

However I can say this with absolute assurance – if you continue on the path you are on, and you are not seeing the results you want, nothing is going to change on its own. At some point you will need to make an adjustment, and the sooner the better; because the correction is less painful the shorter in duration or scope you can get it. So I challenge all of you, rather than simply saying “I’m fine” take a deep, hard look at where you are and ask yourself if you’re comfortable because everything is as it should be; or you’re comfortable because this has been the status quo and it’s so much easier to just go along with the flow.

One Step Forward, Two Back

This week was rough – I’ve grown so used to my son preparing his own meals I seem to have forgotten he has challenges, brought on by his disabilities. What brought it home, in frightening clarity, was his failure at cooking a meal he’s been cooking for over a year – and more troubling – my reaction to it. I lost my temper, as if he was deliberately trying to screw up. I thought I had put this behind me, having been a demon I let guide me while Active Duty and only confronting after my wife’s illness and subsequent death.

I think most people can relate to this feeling, not necessarily because they have a child or family member with disabilities; but because I believe we all have things we are trying to improve or grow, and when we get angry at ourselves for “allowing” ourselves to slip. I don’t think we should just shrug and say “oh well”, but there has got to be a more constructive emotion than anger. Understand where the anger comes from, what is the root cause; and harness the energy to improve yourself.

For me, the root cause is my need for independence – not having anyone else dependent upon me, for anything. As much as I would like to believe otherwise, and will work towards; given how things are now my son will never live completely independently. I’m not willing to shift his care to an organization, although I will hire staff to assist after he leaves High School.

The difference, to me, is controlling who works with him. He’s incredibly capable, I’m both blown away and proud of how much he CAN do – and I feel like there is more just waiting to be expressed. My opinion (and it’s just that, I have no proof or facts) of organizations are they will do the best they can, but at the end of the day they are serving the masses and one individual could be lost. I don’t want that individual to be my son.

All of these thoughts and feelings create the stress that expresses itself in a loss of temper when my son seemingly loses ground. Seemingly, because I think it’s an unfair characterization. There are things I have done in the past I more than likely cannot do error-free anymore; yet I don’t want people losing their temper with me. All of us, in my opinion, have times when we lose ground. Maybe we’re trying to get healthy, out of debt or just want to be a better person; and we slip. Maybe we have a cigarette, splurge on something we don’t “need” or lose temper with our son.

The trick is not giving up. Accept we’re human, and mistakes will happen. Identify what caused the mistake – was it a decision/reaction or was it something really out of our control. In my experience there are few things truly out of our control, because we react – and we can condition ourselves and our reactions; through careful monitoring and honest self-assessment. I’m not suggesting we beat ourselves up (figuratively or literally); but I am a firm believer in truth – having made more than my share of mistakes when I was younger. It takes practice, and practice takes time. Celebrate your wins, focus on how you earned them – so when there is a slip/backslide you will know which behavior(s) can get you back on track.

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.

 

Living Independently

As I continue to work on enrolling my son in Social Security, and completing the necessary paperwork with the VA and DFAS (military pay system), I can’t help but wonder what he’s going to do when I’m gone – and will this all be enough. Obviously we can’t plan for every eventuality, so we do our best to address as much as possible.

When we’ve finished applying for his benefits, my next focus will be on where he will live. There are many organizations throughout the country offering Residential facilities, and with Group Homes no longer authorized it’s a safe bet these homes will not have more than (4) residents; but we’ve (my son and I) decided not to pursue this route – because he doesn’t want to have a roommate.

There are also organizations creating communities of individuals with a specific diagnosis, I believe the most common is Autism. Although I think this is an incredible opportunity for some families, for me personally it does not meet the full inclusion experience I want for my son.

So what does this leave? For us, we’re looking at purchasing a multi-family home (duplex). While I’m alive, and able, I will work with a property management company to rent out the other unit (I don’t like doing maintenance). When I’m gone, either I will have paid off the mortgage or the life insurance will settle the debt; either way ownership of the property will transfer to my son’s Special Needs Trust, and the Trustee will work with the property management company.

In my opinion, the advantage to this is the property will pay for itself after I’m gone. The Trustee will have the authority to increase rent, evict tenants, etc; and the property management company will ensure the property is well maintained. Living in the house prior to me passing will allow us to develop an understanding of what the household expenses are; which will allow me to flesh out a reasonable budget for the Trustee to follow.

If you have a child, or sibling, you’re caring for and you haven’t put any thought into where they will live after you’re gone please use this as a siren call to start planning. There is no one-size fits all solution, it really boils down to what the individual wants/is capable of and your financial situation. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will become – but it’s only too late if you pass away before you do something; because then it falls into the hands of the State. If you’re not sure what to do, reach out and ask.

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.

Make Inertia Work For You

I chose the image for this blog because I think it’s what most people think of when they hear the word “inertia”. Sadly, this is only half the story. Inertia means something is going to maintain its current state until acted upon by an outside force. So yes – if the object is at rest, it will remain at rest. BUT, and this is IMPORTANT, it also means if an object is in motion it will remain in motion.

I’m passionate about helping people become successful, and often the first step is overcoming their current state of inertia. When you’re not doing something it becomes much easier to identify ALL the reasons not to change – it’s the wrong time, it will cost too much, etc. Let’s assume all of these are valid concerns; when are they going to change? The truth is most of them will not. The universe isn’t going to line up the stars, moons & planets for your convenience; and products/services are going to continue rising in cost (or fade away).

So instead of focusing on reasons not to do something, identify WHY you want to make the change. Something had to drive you to this point, and if it’s truly important to you do take action – any action, no matter how small.

Taking action overcomes your current state of inertia – it’s the force necessary to start momentum in a different direction. The longer you’ve been in your current mode, the more effort you are going to need to exert to enact the change. Don’t give up if you don’t see results right away; things take time.

Think of any changes you’ve made recently – be it weight loss, changing jobs, or going back to school (to list a few examples). When you first started it probably sucked, it was uncomfortable and you had to get into a new routine. Eventually you stopped noticing, and it just became a habit; inertia has set in.

Understanding this is important, because you can use it to help yourself become more successful. Let’s use networking for example, because I think most (if not all) of us need to network to some degree; and many of us have an immense dislike for it. Start by introducing yourself to at least one new person everyday, and make small talk. As you become more comfortable with this expand it; get to know everyone in your company – not just those you interact with every day. Before you know it, it will have become second nature and you’re on your way to mastering a new skill which (in my opinion) will go a long way to aiding your success.

Inertia is difficult to overcome, so don’t be afraid to seek assistance. Use an accountability partner, someone who will call you on your excuses and offer encouragement. They will also help you maintain perspective, because it’s often difficult to notice change within yourself – especially when it’s occurring gradually.

So what are you waiting for? September is just around the corner, let’s end 2017 with a BANG. Pick one thing you’ve been “meaning to do”; find yourself an accountability partner (friend, trusted advisor, family, etc); and put inertia to work. Let’s get your constant velocity angled upwards – 2018 look out, because here we come!