Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My Book Review: "The Myth of Stress" by: Andrew Bernstein

This happened to be one of the most enlightening books I have ever read. I am ecstatic to be sharing Andrew Bernstein’s “The Myth of Stress” with you today. From beginning to end Bernstein did a very good job at capturing and holding my attention, while not putting me to sleep with portions that were heavy on scientific lingo.

Bernstein’s assertion is simple yet has profound impacts. In short he states that most stress in our daily lives comes from within and does not originate from external forces/entities. Our boss can scream at us, our loved ones can overburden us, but at the end of the day it is our thoughts about these types of things that are the driving force behind the daily stress in our lives.

I certainly agree with Bernstein’s assessment and the examples he walks through in the book were very well put together. Working through them myself, I actually felt like I had my therapist in front of me as I worked from exercise to exercise.

Perhaps what is even more important is that this book had a lasting impact on me. The exercises that I now run through in my mind when the internal stress bubble starts to build, actually puts me in a process to logically find empathy. It should be clear though that Bernstein, in the book, did not advocate or condone horrendous actions such as abuse, drug use or the like. But instead, especially in tough areas of my past, I found empathy and love rather than hurt and anger when working through Bernstein’s exercises.
The book deals with a lot of hard hitting topics including stressful views of life and death, weight loss and drug abuse. I found the material to be hard hitting and really enlightening to step outside of myself and see how I view, react and generally feel when immersed in negative and hard pressing situations. Trust me, I would love to work through an example here, but I think it would just spoil the fun for when you pick this book up yourself J.

“The Myth of Stress,” is an absolute must read and it comes with my highest recommendation!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Real Life Walkaway Power

I’m not one to utilize this blog space to gripe about the challenges and struggles that face the everyday adventure known as the workplace. However recent turn of events have alerted me to ongoing trends in my work environment and I have recently found it particularly fitting to take an honest look at my walkaway power in the workplace.

To summarize a previously related post on this, my wife and I are 100% completely debt free. We run a household cost of living that runs under $25,000 a year. It has been my belief that one of the reasons we worked our tails off to be in the financial position that we are in today is to get our time back and shift the perception that we are at work because we want to be there, not because we have to be. Enter my recent challenges, and I will do my best to keep it concise and not gripe.

The overall environment is similar to this baseball analogy: every time I hit a deep shot to the warning tracks, the outfield wall gets pushed back, robbing me of a home run. In the financial area that I work in, investment management, there’s a minefield of competing and conflicting deadlines, ad hoc requests that are supposed to trump everything else and an ongoing work load that in its current delegated state finds the team I am on falling behind just a little more each day.

My role and individual expectations within this environment were clearly defined earlier this year when I transitioned to my new role and I have met and exceeded these expectations, according to my management team. So what’s the problem? Most would say that our problem lies in not having enough bodies on the floor to do the work. If you ask me, I say that between our global team the daily work flows are not delegated in an efficient manner to meet team expectations. The result is that the last few holidays have not exactly been holidays and there is an increasing demand from our management team to make 50+ hour weeks the norm.

I am no slacker though. From the moment I walk through my employer’s doors at 6am I am all business and get through my day as efficiently and as effectively as possible. I work my tail off from wire to wire until I log off my PC. But losing holidays? Getting into the office early and losing morning and evening time with my wife? And consistently being asked to work beyond my fair share? In essence, at this time in my life it just doesn’t flow with me.

So when asked this past weekend to come in over the Memorial Day weekend I placed boundaries between myself and my employer, I said no. And I have to be honest; it felt really….REALLY good! The 3 day holiday was exactly what I needed. My wife and I stayed here in Chicago and caught up on some great R&R. We caught up on some much needed reading, spent just about every second together and felt like we were getting to know each other all over again.

And through it I’m calling myself on my own assertion. If my work environment is causing me stress and conflicting with time to spend with my loved ones, then I need to change my situation. Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m an advocate of hard work and gazelle intensity as much as the next Ramsey follower. If work seasonally gets busy or there’s a genuine influx of activity that is wreaking havoc on my team, then hell yes I’m going to get after it and put in the extra hours. But extra hours due to bad planning and lack of foresight in task delegation? As one of my favorite actors sang, “I can’t get behind that.”

So I’ve been in touch with a recruiter and have a temp agency on file and I’m keeping an eye out for new roles and adventures that will allow me the freedom, flexibility and work environment that I’m after. Talking it through with my wife, we got on the same page with our financial plan to help make it happen.

To do this we are planning to add a few more thousand dollars to the emergency fund. This is a one-two punch: (1) If the environment becomes way too toxic for me to handle I can walk out, and (2) If I transition to a lower paying job, we’ll have a beef upped emergency fund to help alleviate what could be next year’s costs of having a child. We also want to have our annual travel plans for the rest of the year covered in cash. So between travelling and beefing up our emergency fund our end date will be right around the end of August.

And it’s actually kind of funny. Once we put this plan together and I reassessed my current work situation, the built in and self-made stress seemed a lot less stressful. I feel like we have a solid plan in place, and I’m actually excited to see what kind of opportunities might await me between now and the fall.

Friday, May 24, 2013

My Mattress Hunting Expedition: The Finale

So $1,527.29 later and we have a new Queen bed and admittedly splurged a bit on a couple of new pillows. Although left to my own devices I would have probably ended up in the cheapest twin bed floor model that I could find, my wife’s desire for comfort trumped my push for frugality. All in all I am happy with the choice. My biggest concern as we price shopped and bounced between four different stores was my wife’s comfort. On our current bed there is a bit of a sinkhole that probably has kept us from getting a proper night’s sleep over the last few years. But the main driving force behind my approval to bend the budget, was thinking of my wife one day being pregnant on our bed and getting a comfortable night’s rest for 9 months. Happy wife, happy life is a mantra that I’ve been finding truer and truer as our marriage continues.

We did end up in what I consider a win-win scenario even though we ended up paying more than our previous limit. The price charged for our bed was $999 which was about $600 below market price on this bed when we did our homework online with other retailers. That $999 price also included the box spring, frame, delivery and removal of our current mattress.

What pushed us over the top were those darn pillows! When my wife rested on the bed we would end up purchasing and the sly salesman placed the “specialized” cooling pillow under her head, I knew I was done for. The odd thing was that I wasn’t die-hard resistant to the added cost. The comfort of my wife and the imagery of her getting a consistent good night’s sleep was really all the convincing I needed. But that didn’t stop her from using one of my favorite lines on me for a change.  In a gentle and genuinely loving tone she told me, “We have a net worth of over $300,000 – we can afford the mattress.”

To accommodate the extra cost that we were not planning we actually pulled the difference from our emergency fund, which is generally filled with 6 months of expenses for us. We have prioritized all of our disposable income to replace the amount take out from our emergency fund, and the emergency fund will be made whole within a few pay periods.

Although this is definitely not the way I have nor plan to make future purchases, for just this once I gave the nod of approval to my wife. I genuinely expect this method of purchase to be a one-time occurrence. But knowing that we can get a good night’s rest on a mattress just a few days earlier than expected actually trumped my anxiety from taking cash out of the emergency fund for something that was not an emergency.
In a matter of weeks the emergency fund will be refilled, and if push came to shove and a catastrophic event occurred in our lives, we have health insurance and over $100,000 in non-retirement accessible funds to draw from on top of our briefly depleted emergency fund. So in that context I felt okay drawing from the emergency fund to make the purchase a little early.

And yes paying $1,527.29 in cash felt awesome. So awesome that we were even taken aback by a question from the sales guy, which was, “are you guys in the restaurant business?” We came to find out that his family had a background history in the restaurant business, and his father was Dave Ramsey crazy before Dave was cool. The sales guy’s father never used debt and paid cash for everything. Just between you and me, on that note alone I would have paid retail for the mattress and pillows just to bump up that guy’s commission!
Aside from a few medical bills this is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest single purchase that we have made since hopping on the Dave Ramsey train. We had a plan in place, did our homework, shopped around, bought an item below market value, got a few goodies like free delivery and removal thrown in and splurged on “specialized” pillows.

Overall, I’d say it was a win-win for us as well as the retailer. We got a great bed at an excellent price, some pillows that helped cushion the margin for the retail establishment and we genuinely enjoyed the buying experience.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Take On: Rising Student Debt Levels

Perhaps with graduation season upon us it’s fitting that this bit of disheartening news was brought to my attention this past week. According to a survey done by Fidelity of 750 college graduates from the class of 2013, students on average are facing a post graduate debt level of $35,200. Granted this survey was a small sampling, the average debt load still struck me as astounding.
At the risk of sounding like an old man I’ll say that according to this study on student loan debt, around the time I graduated from college, a sampling size of my classmates were graduating with an average debt load of around $20,000. I myself graduated from college with a self-made debt hole of about $24,000. I anticipated that in between then and now in the face of our country’s recession that the average student’s debt load would have gone down during the last half decade. But alas it continues to grow with each graduating class.
I’ve covered this topic before in detail in previous posts but I’ll recap here in the face of Fidelity’s survey results. If I were graduating from high school this year and had nothing saved for college, I would enter the labor force and work my tail off to put myself through school without debt. Whether that would mean taking a minimum wage job, taking an entry level position through a staffing agency working simple tasks such as data entry, or working in a high turnover environment such as in an entry level sales role, I would put together a plan to cash flow my education. I would plan to earn as many credits as I could at a local community college and transfer everything I can up to the limit to an in-state low cost public college. It may take me 6-8 years to cash flow everything and finish the bachelor’s degree program, but I would come out with a degree, years of experience and no debt.
In the case of my future kids, my wife and I plan to max out annual contributions to an Educational Savings Account for each of our kids as they age from 0 to 18, investing in our diversified assortment of mutual funds along the way. At 18 we would encourage our high school graduate to work while they are in college, attend a local community college and apply to transfer to a less expensive in-state public university.
Debt is not an option when it comes to our family. And it breaks my heart to see surveys like this, and notice that as each year passes more and more of our students are making the choice to sign up for what statistically and through the power of compound interest, turns into a lifetime of debt.
Although the student loan debt monster can be slayed, why engage in the battle when you don’t have to? I can only imagine at how much further north my overall net worth numbers would be right now if I had come out of college debt free. It is possible to attend and graduate from college without debt. It takes a ton of work, planning and perseverance, but I firmly believe that it can be done whether you plan for your children when they are born or if you are just graduating from high school with nothing saved. It can be done.
And if you are staring down the barrel of student loan debt, please know that I believe in you and that payoff can be done. For me it took gazelle intensity and cutting my expenses down to the bare minimums. But I became debt free and paid off my $24,000 student loan and I know that you can do the same. I’m really nothing special. I’ve been right in the middle income bracket for most of my working career now. I just rolled up my sleeves, worked crazy overtime and wanted to be debt free more than impressing other people with material possessions and social outings. The payoff has been worth it and I sincerely hope blogs like this one encourage you to follow the same path up and over “Debt Mountain.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

My Book Review: "Start" by Jon Acuff

My perspective and emotions kind of ran the whole spectrum when I read Jon Acuff’s latest offering, “Start.” Admittedly the first two thirds of the book had me intrigued and hooked. Consequently it also caused me to reflect a great deal on how I got to where I am today in my career and evaluate where I want it to go, and probably more importantly, not go.

My wife gave an incredible piece of insight that eased the pressure I began to put on myself as I read the book. She shared that Acuff’s insights and attitudes towards work can be interpreted to breed a  workaholic. I thought about that for a minute.

What if I were to create and walk into my dream job? What if today the bridge between my day job and my dream job were merged and I began working in my passion. Say today I started work providing financial advising to middle income households? Then I state that I would be thrilled and passionate to wake up every day and get into work as early as I could to start changing as many financial lives as I could. I can see myself putting in long hours, early in, last one out, doing everything I could to analyze, dissect and nurture my clients. I would also be hustling on nights and weekends doing everything I could to network, because in that scenario I would be trying to reach as many people as I could, in hopes of helping them become weird just like me and do things like shun credit, use debt snowballs and get gazelle intense.

And when I pulled back from this view I analyzed where my time was being spent in the dream job scenario versus reality. In dream job scenario I live, breathe and dream providing financial advice to families, and in doing so I would neglect my own. In reality I am in like with a job that I don’t love. With 12+ work hour days occurring only a few times a year and weekends not the norm to come into the office, in this reality I have that much more time to live, breathe and dream about my family. Time to nurture my relationship with my wife, with myself in therapy and time to be an active participant in my faith community.

 It’s actually quite the trade-off. And if my dream job popped in front of me tomorrow with enticing bait, it wouldn’t exactly be a slam dunk for me to abandon my current post. I enjoy having time available to seek and find fulfillment in my life. Do I wish I were in my dream job? Of course I do. But the trade-off of time certainly makes me think twice about turning the career dream into reality.

But back on point to the, “Start,” review (I tend to get sidetracked). For the first two thirds of the book Acuff does a great job of rewriting the ways that we see our career tracks. The assessment of the traditional model from years 20 through 60 were profound and his suggestions are definitely reasons enough to give this book a read. Jon’s exuberance definitely leaps off the pages, even so that at a few points he reminded me of the overly caffeinated cheerleaders at the school pep-rally.

The last third of the book goes fast as Jon provides some checklists and tips for after the last page is read. Unfortunately though he doesn’t do the smoothest job of transitioning and weaving between checklists and his normal writing style, as the two get blurred by the end of the book.

But regardless, I found “Start” to be a great read and certainly thought provoking.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My Mother's Day Stepping Stone

This past Mother’s Day was somewhat of a monumental one for me. After having worked with my therapist for several months leading up to it, I decided to do a quick trip over the weekend to Los Angeles to drop in and surprise my mother. Now there are a few things that made it monumental, of which included: I ventured to visit my parents by myself for the first time in nearly 8 years and I took the opportunity to share my heart and feelings with my mother and father.

I don’t know how else to describe it other than to tell you how the event went down. As I pulled into my parents’ driveway with the rental car obtained with my DEBIT card J I noticed that my father was hanging out in the garage and that my mother’s car was missing. He promptly told me that he had done his best to try to keep my mother home for her “surprise” but was defeated in the end. She had stepped out of the house for a few hours to CO-SIGN AN AUTO LOAN for a family member. AHHHHHHHHHH!! Is what screamed in my head then and still does at this moment just thinking about that.

But nevertheless I saw this as an opportunity to talk with my dad one on one, just as I had rehearsed with my therapist. I lead off just by catching up, seeing what’s going on in each other’s lives and asking him how he was coping with his neighbors’ recent passing. From there I transitioned into conversation that had the potential to be wildly volatile. I lovingly embraced my father and looked into his eyes and told him that I loved him and that I cared about him, and that although I was not mad at him, that I needed to hear him tell me that he loved me and that I needed an apology from him.

I proceeded to tell him the toll that his excessive drinking took on my life and my perception of the world. I shared that his stifling influence to hold my mother back from expressing her love for me physically, tormented me into my adult life, causing me to never seek out meaningful relationships. I also told him that I walked away from his house at 18 with an unbelievable negative amount of self-esteem, that I felt worthless to the world and to myself, and that it nearly cost me my life and my marriage through anger, hurt and addiction.

But I also told him that I understand that he did the best he could. That it was not easy moving as a child to another country and having to learn everything from scratch, from language to daily life. And that I could not imagine what it would feel like to have attended my brothers’ funerals as he did, with the feeling that they were taken too soon.

And I also told him that I have been taking responsibility for my own life as an adult. That I have been engaged in therapy and a recovery process. And that I am the happiest I have been in my entire life, but I still wanted a relationship with him that is better than what we have now. I did not excuse the trauma or say that it was okay. I just re-emphasized that to get to a better relationship that I needed to hear him say two things: That he loved me and that he was sorry.

Then something unexpected happened. As the tears ran down my face and my side of sharing the discussion was finished, I saw tears began to well up in my father’s eyes. Without hesitation he told me that he loved me. And he also nodded and shared that there was so much he felt he could have done better as a parent, and that he was genuinely sorry for the pain in my life that it had caused.

We embraced each other through probably one of the most meaningful hugs I have ever experienced in my life and I kissed my father on the forehead.

I thought I was prepared for the entire ordeal and analyzed every which way the conversation could have turned. But alas, my therapist did not prepare me for what would happen if everything went well. I felt loved, cared for and proud to call my dad my father. It was not on my expectation list to even have my father respond. I expected him to either throw me off his property or sit back in silence and tell me I was crazy through his body language. But instead he listened to me, something that never happened from 0 to 18, and his eyes and body language showed empathy and compassion, and it was happily indescribable.

When my mother began to back into the driveway I swiftly sprinted to the inside of their house to retrieve the flowers I had purchased for her to surprise her. As she stepped into view I made myself visible and in a calm voice said, “Happy Mother’s Day,” she jumped back in disbelief and looked like she was an emotion or two away from having a heart attack! She began to cry as we hugged and told me that she was so happy to see me.

We used the time together to catch up on life, work (which my mother in her new position is thoroughly pumped up about) and just about everything in between. I genuinely wish that the time spent together was longer, but it was a great stepping stone to what I hope is the road to a stronger and healthier relationship with my parents.

My main goals were to just show them that I love them and care about them, and tell them that I wanted a more meaningful relationship, and that when they were ready I would be there with open arms. What I received felt like exact reciprocation. This was completely unexpected. And while I know things will never be perfect and individuals (especially THIS ONE) are flawed, I feel like my parents and myself are on a much stronger footing to re-engage being involved in one another’s lives again.

I don’t know what your situation is. Perhaps you have endured abuse on a lower or greater level than I did during your developmental years. But I would like to share that for a long time I felt a bleakness and overall feeling of despair when thinking about my family or origin. It drove me to a point where I came within inches of losing everything meaningful in my life because of it, through my own choices. I never even thought we would have the hope of being anything more than acquaintances and people that used to know each other. But the work that I have put into therapy and healing myself along with being vulnerable and honest with the people that I love has truly set me free from the toxic attitudes that I held toward myself for decades.

There’s still a lot of work to be done and a lot of phone calls and trips to be made. But on the flight back to Chicago, all I could think was that I am truly happy with exactly where I am in life, right at this moment. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Career Track Chronicle?

So I have been stuck in a bit of a rut lately. It is an odd rut, odd because just about every other aspect of my life, aside from a single aspect, has been firing on all cylinders lately. Following boatloads of work and intentional action my wife and I are thriving in our marriage. We are talking, sharing, relating, putting each other as a priority and are ready to take on whatever our next phase of life looks like together, as a team. Relationally I am still baby stepping my way towards healthy relationships with extended family and friends. And spiritually I feel like I have been thriving. I have been taking more intentional actions to be a part of my spiritual community, and frankly, my pastor’s sermons – for the most part this entire year – have been home runs every single Sunday.

But then there’s the career track. Perhaps it is because I just finished Jon Acuff’s new book “Start,” (review on the way soon), but I have been assessing how I got to where I am today. According to Jon, if I stay on my current track, I will rack up years of service with my current employer, moving up ranks in title and likely to change a few departments and divisions along the way. According to Acuff, that’s the average path. The awesome path is blazed with passion, mystery, intrigue and the well calculated risk.

So I’ve been asking myself how did I get to where I am, and where do I want to go. To be honest the safety of planting myself in the “safe organization” and plucking away at the next few decades, having only changed job titles and descriptions, does not really sound appealing to me. But I don’t know where I want to go either.

Branch out on my own and be a personal financial advisor to median income households? Try to monetize this blog? Become a freelance financial writer? Go back to college, earn a teaching degree and teach personal finance and coach basketball to high school students? I’ve weighed each of these paths and while I believe each are attainable and can be reached with enough effort and hustle, I still haven’t pursued them.
Why? I think the fear of change and let down are what paralyze me. Right now our household has a steady stream of income, no debt, health insurance, a savings plan to travel, buy a house and retire with dignity. Add on top of that the anxiety that if I go down the path on any one of the aforementioned ideas, that there’s a chance I could feel the same way about that career as I do today; rudderless and not doing what drives my passions.

Which makes me wonder how someone (mainly me) can be approaching 30 and not have nailed down what his passions are in life. And as I mentioned earlier in this post, I can’t get over that this one area of my life almost makes everything else that I’ve worked so hard for seem to fall by the waist hand.

But what surprises me most is that these feelings and this revelation to myself has occurred AFTER getting my financial act together. When I was in the early stages of the baby steps there were easily defined goals and dreams: Baby Emergency Fund - check, pay off debt - check, fully fund emergency fund and start saving for retirement – check, get the right insurances – check. And now that I have the lofty goal of running the marathon and saving to pay cash for a house, it is now, after 4 years of being personally debt free and almost a year of being in a debt free marriage, that I am pulling back to assess where I want to be in my career.

So where do I go from here? I plan to take a good hard look and assessment at balancing where I derive value from in the day to day. I love being a husband and am learning to be a better Christian, friend and family member to others. I want my relationship with God and with my wife to be the driving force of my day to day happiness, rather than the frustration of not knowing where I want my career to go. I feel that it’s ok to be concerned with my career track, but I don’t want it dictating my mood day in and day out.

What I will try is starting at the end. I plan to picture myself in my golden years, sitting on a rocker, and think about the kind of life I would want to look back on and be proud to have lived. What’s important, what’s not, and everything in between. Maybe that would be a good starting ground to gain some perspective. And I’m looking forward to sharing the results with you here. So stay tuned, I know I am! J

Monday, May 6, 2013

My Mattress Hunting Expedition

So apparently I’m in the market for a new bedroom mattress. Over the last few weeks my wife has pointed out to me that our current model is no longer up to speed. Persistent neck aches, possible pinched nerves, what feels like non-stop mattress flipping and a sinkhole located in the middle of the mattress have undoubtedly brought me to this daunting scenario.
I find the entire ordeal of mattress shopping to be tiring and cumbersome: from the initial sticker shock that I was not prepared for to shopping for something that makes me feel like an adult, I definitely have a few apprehensions just thinking about this task.
From 0 to 18 my parents furnished my bedroom as I went from crib to a kind of sort of “larger”  twin mattress. In college some apartments were furnished with a mattress and in others I learned to make a good use of sweatshirts that were not needed to be worn in a tropical climate, but made for great mattress substitutes. Thankfully after college when I lived in New York my shared apartment was furnished as well.
Which brings me to Chicago. For the last 6 years my wife and I have made due with a queen sized mattress from the teenage bedroom of her parents’ home. 6 years is probably a bit longer than a mattress should last, but given that it’s been known my wife longer than I have, I’ll admit that there more than likely may be an issue or two with the mattress’ durability at this point.
So yesterday after church we checked out one of many mattress stores in our neighborhood. My eyes went straight to price tags, and my wife’s body bounced from floor model to floor model, testing the waters of just about every mattress in the store. When she coaxed me to lay next to her and test them out as well, I quickly learned that mattresses really don’t mean anything to me.
Yes, some are soft and some are sturdy, but truth be told when I go to sleep I typically curl up into a ball, get comfortable on my pillow and really don’t give two licks about the kind of mattress I’m on when I fall asleep. Air, water, soft, a futon, it doesn’t matter to me. As long as the lights are out and I’m not freezing cold, I can fall asleep anywhere. But as Dave Ramsey points out in FPU, sometimes as a husband, even though I don’t intellectually “get “ the concept of buying a quality mattress, I just have to physically “get” the quality mattress. My wife’s comfort and peace of mind does mean the world to me, I just didn’t expect her to call me on it.
So the sticker shock definitely threw me. In the particular store we walked into most of the makes and models that my wife liked were upwards of $800 and included free delivery and removal of the current mattress. I seriously walked in expecting to spend no more than a few hundred bucks. So we did what any other good Ramsey follower would do, we went home and my wife lovingly began to price shop and get a pulse reading of what a mattress of her liking cost on average.
We came to the conclusion, for the make and quality that she prefers, that we should expect to spend no more than $600. I think when we walk into the store and flash $100 dollar bills at the sales manager that we can snag the free delivery and removal as well, but I will keep you posted on how that goes.
In the meantime we are still doing our fair share of homework to make an informed buying decision on this considerable purchase so that we do not overpay. We’ll also plan to price shop and buy locally from a vendor in our neighborhood to help lock in a free delivery.
For this month we will press pause on sending a large amount of our monthly disposable income for saving for our house and set aside in cash our mattress ceiling price. After doing our homework and knowing where our price ceiling is, we plan to walk in and make a cash offer to see what kind of deals will open up to us. On a side note, a warranty is not a benefit to me. If I need a warranty, then that means the vendor is selling me a trash product that is likely to break down. But if the item purchased truly is a lemon, I have my emergency fund to cover the cost and can self-insure, I don’t need to pay an extra fee to a vendor for the privilege.
So stay tuned to see how my mattress buying expedition turns out later this month.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

My Tough Love for my Fellow Middle Classians

Perhaps I’ve been getting my NERD on more than usual following Money Smart Week, but my attention has been turned yet again to another survey. In this one, completed by the Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, the pulse of the middle class was taken and by and large it did not paint a rosy picture. Here are a few highlights:

  • 54% defined middle class as those who could keep up with bills, not get TOO buried in debt and not lose their jobs
  • 40% said it is only realistic for the “upper class” to pay for a child’s college education, retire comfortably and survive a health care emergency
  • 64% believe Congress is making things worse for the middle class
  • 55% said major financial institutions are making things worse for the middle class

Now normally I would respond in a loving fashion with a healthy dose of optimism, and say something like, “If more people would follow Dave Ramsey’s total money makeover plan, they will find the light at the end of the tunnel.” But today I’m feeling a bit more rambunctious than usual.

Particularly what irks me is that the majority of those surveyed feel that it is out of their control whether they succeed financially. More than half feel that the government and financial institutions are out to get them! In other words, as I will happily translate, those surveyed stood and declared, “The people I voted for and the debt I signed up for are keeping me from where I want to be financially.”

Bull…you know it and I know it. To me the idea that something outside of ourselves can hamstring us financially, conversely means that those same outside forces are responsible for making me thrive financially. My employer did not welcome me with a bouquet of flowers and a one million dollar a year income just because I breathed air. I provide a service for work that they need to be done and they pay me what they deem to be market value for that work being done. If I didn’t think the value was fair or that I could get paid more for the same line of work elsewhere, then I would proceed to find something elsewhere.

And as for the government wreaking havoc on the middle class and single handedly stifling our financial prosperity: it’s just not true. I’m just as big a critic of the US government as the next blogger, but short of them taxing my earned and investment income at 90%, it’s simply false to even think that they have control over any aspect of my financial prosperity.

To the middle class naysayers I’ll assert this: I’ve been living and existing in the exact same economy as you have. I worked my tail off and made sacrifices to get to where I am today. I got on a budget, lived on less than I made, stopped borrowing money and paid off all of my debt. I’ve also invested for growth in the stock market and have been receiving better than expected returns. The government, corporations and “the upper class” had absolutely nothing to do with the decisions that I made, make and will make in the future.

What I found even worse were some of the personal commentaries extracted from the study:

A graduate student shared, “The middle class has become a treading water position…Opportunities have been stifled in the past 20 or 30 years.” A suburban dad noted, “I feel sorry for my kids – they’re just getting out of college – because they have nothing to look forward to. They’re not going to have the ability in the near future to buy a home. There are thousands of people who are going to be stuck with their student loans.” The last gem was from a trucker, whom added, “Everything is going up, but wages are staying the same. By the time I retire, I hope I have Social Security, because other than that I’ve got nothing.”

Point 1 – We have to make our own opportunities. Although I do not envision myself to be a business owner, I plan, through our financial decisions to live on less than we make, never have debt and pay cash for our house, to one day work a part-time job and live primarily off investment income. This way I can spend more of my time with my family, friends and volunteering for organizations and causes that touch my heart. I have my roadmap and I’m making small intentional choices to get there.

Point 2 – Suburban dad, it was your (and your dumb kids) choice to take out loans for college. You could have had them go to a community college, transfer to an in-state 4 year university and work their way through college paying their own way. Sure, it might take 6 years to cash flow it, but your kid would come out with a degree, no debt and work experience. Sounds like a better option than student loan debt that gets carried around for decades. And unless you can put at LEAST 20% down on a home, you shouldn’t buy one.

Point 3 – Dude, if you see the oncoming train of despair coming right at you and you make 0 changes to avoid that oncoming train, then man, I think you get what you deserve. Say this trucker is 50 and started working at 20. If he had put away $100 a month during his entire working lifetime, and let’s just say he made 8% on his investments (in my opinion, a very modest goal), then this dude would have $150,000 in a retirement account. And at 59 ½ he would have over $300,000 thanks to the power of compound interest. That $300,000 self-funded retirement picture looks a lot rosier than relying on Social (In)Security to eat.

Truth be told as I come down off this soapbox, I have to admit that I do not know these people’s stories. I don’t know what their car payments, job layoffs, loan balances or their budgets look like. Do they have large income shovels or small income shovels? Statistically I can get an idea through surveys like this, but I will never know the individual, unless I know the individual. So all I know for certain is what is happening under my roof. And under our roof we have made a lot of the tough choices through the last 4 years to live on less than we make, invest wisely and put the right pieces in place to not only thrive, but withstand storms through tough economic times. Through God’s word in how to handle money we have thankfully prospered and are looking forward to living and giving in ways we used to only dream about. But we pulled ourselves up to get there. A tax break didn’t do it, a government program didn’t help me find term life insurance, and my employer doesn’t force me to live on or off a budget. We bootstrapped and put the financial prosperity wheels in motion. It may be slow, it may be ugly to financial snobs, but step by step, quarter after quarter we are getting to where we want to be.