Tax Reform Gave Us Over a Hundred Bucks

The second pay day in February is here for employees of the municipality where I work full-time in economic development and the school district where my wife supervises the school’s lunch hour.

My pay is the same week after week, changing only once per fiscal year and typically only in amounts nearly too small to notice, one or two percent.  My wife’s hours vary from fifteen to a little over twenty over each two-week time span and her paycheck fluctuates more than mine does as she is paid hourly and schools have far more days off than most places of work.

Thus, I gave it two pay periods to compare to before the tax reform was passed.  I can say without a doubt that my take-home pay has increased by $84 both times.  My wife’s increased by $71 on February 2nd and $36 today (she did not work last Friday due to school being canceled by snow).

Years ago, I would have been more excited for the two of us to take home an “extra” $155 or $120 per paycheck and might have even mentally put it into its own category, thinking that it was paying our monthly Comcast bill (around $175) or covering our natural gas and electric bills, which run between $150 and $200 combined depending upon the season here in the Chicago area.

Now I just think of it as $155 less of our money going to the federal government, which we will probably pay in some other form, for instance paying higher local or state taxes to make up for whatever shortfalls they have.

Don’t get me wrong; I would rather have an additional $155 in take-home pay than getting dinked an extra $155 or no increase at all.  It is just that with ten grand or more flying out of our account every month, it is hard for me to get excited about that amount.  If I made the $155 extra in eBook sales, I would be ecstatic.

I had been wondering about the amount of “extra” income that my wife and I would reap from the recently-passed tax cuts.  It was touted as a benefit to the middle class, which we fall squarely in the middle of in our area, so I was certainly hoping to pay less taxes.

My interest was further piqued earlier this month after the flap caused by Paul Ryan’s touting of a woman’s “extra” $1.50 in weekly take-home pay, which is so small it is amazing that she even noticed.

Without even being sarcastic about it, the secretary was genuinely pleased at taking home enough to cover her annual Costco membership.  If it was me, I might post the same thing, bashing the so-called tax reform that only resulted in a hard-working Middle Class Guy like me only being able to purchase an extra gallon of gasoline per paycheck or perhaps one Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

My new young boss, who makes about thirty grand less than I do (but will be rising quickly) told me that he was investing the “extra” sixty bucks that hit his bank account last pay day.  Now, there’s a smart Millennial and he does not even blog about it.  But he sure will have plenty of money to retire on decades from now.  He is only thirty-two years old, fifteen years younger than me.


Perhaps I should think of this new-found “extra” money as just that: extra.  But I really do not.

While I applaud the tax reform and would most certainly rather take home an extra $155 than pay an extra $155, I am really just thinking of it as having paid $155 too much prior to this.  As a long time cynic, I figure that while Uncle Sam puts the extra $155 in my pocket, someone else like the State of Illinois, Cook County, Comcast or our local grocers and fuel stations will reach in and take it right out.

I am not considering it new found money or extra to invest, although I probably should.

am investing more in my daughter’s 529 account this month than the $400 that I automatically invest on the first of every month and am also Paying Myself two hundred bucks more than usual and also sending a little bit extra to our mortgage lender, but that is a post for later.

So if you were paid today too or if you are paid on the Fridays when I am not or perhaps even weekly, take a look at the pay stub.  If you are a W-2 employee like I am, I know that you already know the amount that your check has gone up.  Maybe it is just $1.50 per week extra like the Pennsylvania secretary or maybe you are on the other end of the spectrum, taking in an extra $1.50 per minute.

Just don’t get too excited over it because there is one thing that the Middle Class Guy knows.  As soon as you start counting the “extra” dollars that hit your account, some other government or private company is devising a way to take it from you.  Most likely the one that “gave” it to you in the first place.

Would Paul Ryan Tweet about that?

Call me a cynic, but give it some time and you’ll see.

Losing My Receipts

For many years, and I mean more years than some of my readers have been living, I have saved my receipts and insisted that my wife do the same.

Prior to being married, I made little money, had even littler expenses and kept track of how much was in my bank account down to the very penny.

If I charged $22.15 at a restaurant while utilizing our bank debit card (which I always use as “credit”), I would write -22.15 in the checkbook, subtract the amount from what was in the account, and write the updated amount.

I know; that sounds crazy.

My better half and I have been married and sharing a checking account since June of 1996, and for years I would collect all of her receipts and enter them in our checkbook ledger doing the same thing.

About seven or eight years ago, I mentioned this to my best friend, who advised me how nuts I was for doing that.  Since that time, we only write the information about the checks that we write in the ledger, whether it is $25 for our daughter’s weekly music lesson or $3,000 for our property tax bill payable later this month.

As I have paid more and more bills online over the years, those checks go a lot further than they used to and we do not write the information in very often.  Perhaps just a few times per month.  To take that a step further, my young Millennial boss told me last week that he has not written a check for over a year.  We will likely never get to that point unless checks are done away with altogether.

So for the last eight or so years, what I have done upon getting our checking account statement every month is gathering all of our receipts and checking them off against the statement.

Our family averages about ten thousand per month leaving our account, with low months around seven thousand and many more higher spending months in the twelve to fourteen thousand dollar range.

Before you jump to any conclusions, please note that that amount includes $2,500 per month that we pay to our son’s college for his education, mostly paid for by 529 accounts that I spent years saving for.  I must also add that a fair amount of the funds that leave our account are invested in our daughter’s 529 account and in my wife’s and my Roth IRA accounts, so I do not refer to those funds as “spent” but as “leaving our account.”

We are not big spenders as compared to many people who we know, but I concede that spending/investing about one hundred thousand per year is more than most American families can afford.  I would like to make far more money than I do and I would like to invest far more too.  I suspect that the same applies to you since you are reading this.

This past December we spent quite a bit.

I am a Jewish man who strives hard to be a mensch.  I strive to be someone of strong character, a person who can be counted on, someone with a great deal of dignity and who strives to do what is right and serve as a positive role model and pillar of support for my two children.

That said, I fell in love with and married an Episcopalian girl who I met near the end of our sophomore year of college at the UW.

My sweet and loving wife loves Christmas a real lot, as do our children.  Like many mixed religion marriages, we unfortunately do not participate in many activities with either religion beyond the major holidays (Easter, Christmas, Passover, Hanukkah) and occasional visits to churches or synagogues for friends’ baptisms, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.  I do attend the high holidays with my mother.

So what does this have to do with receipts?

I’ll tell you.

Early this past January as I was going over our $12,000 of spending for Christmas, Hanukkah, payments for Disney trips, new outfits for our daughter, eating out about fifty times, buying gas for our cars, the lease payment for our new Subaru, doctor’s bills and on and on and on, I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?”

I have been going over these statements for twenty years and caught a mistake only once.  It was a blatant mistake, being charged the same amount twice in a row by a grocery store.  Obviously, my wife did not charge $146.73 (I am making that # up) twice in a row at Jewel.

I caught the mistake, called our bank, explained the error, and they credited the $146.73 back.  And that was about ten years ago.

Some of our December receipts.

So while poring over receipt after receipt early last month, I decided then and there that I had finally had enough of saving and checking every receipt.  Even though it only takes me thirty to forty-five minutes to go through it, those are thirty to forty-five minutes that I do not want to go over receipts every month.

The rest of our December receipts.

It was causing me plenty of unnecessary anxiety going over receipt after receipt.  Walgreens, Toys R Us, Godiva, Aeropostale, Whole Foods, Mariano’s, Jewel, Aldi, Home Depot, Jersey Mike’s, Qdoba, local taquerias, Walt Disney World and about a dozen Target receipts.

Altogether, it added up to over five thousand in spending beyond our bills and investments, and I did not even get anything very good!

It was nice getting our children some gifts that they wanted including us giving in and buying our daughter an iPhone, albeit through TracFone and an SE model rather than a 9 or 10 or 11 or whatever number they are on this year.

So I looked over the receipts, which looked kosher to me.  I either recalled making the purchases on our statement or knew that my wife did.  I dislike shopping so much that, truthfully, I would prefer her to do all of it, which she basically did.  I would rather have a joyous holiday season and a merry Christmas with my wife and children than fret over all of the receipts.

The sites that track Christmas spending all have the average American shopper having spent about $967 on gifts this past December.  As they all claim that amount per person, I could vouch that our family basically met that number.  Once again, it would depend upon your definition.  We spent less than $2,000 combined on gifts between me and my wife, but we spent far more than that on our daughter, our son and my wife traveling to Disney World in the days between Christmas and New Year’s.


I do not ask a lot of personal questions of those who I know, but I do ask some.  I know that my mother, my brother and my sister do not keep or track their receipts.  As a matter of fact, when I am with any one of them shopping and a cashier asks if they want the receipt, they always decline.

I have asked a few co-workers, including my new boss, and all three of them told me that they do not save receipts, but they do look over their bank statements.

I have never declined receiving my receipt once, although I do shop at more and more places that use Square and email them to me, which I do like.

No, I pile up receipts in an envelope every month and ask my wife to put hers in there, too.

I should be more wary of them, considering that my identity has been totally stolen (through Experian) and someone is out there signing up for credit cards in my name.

However, what the piece of crap, very non-mensch thief has not done is charged stuff with our bank cards (yet).

So when our next checking account statement comes out at the end of this week I will photograph the impressive collection of receipts one last time.  I will (maybe) share the amount that went in and the amount that went out of our account, some of the highlights and lowlights of our financial month and then next time a cashier asks me if I want my receipt, I will politely say “No Thank You.”

1,175 Points of Pain

I got pounded today.

Perhaps I should rephrase…

While I was very busy working today on a snowy and frigid Monday in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, my family’s investment accounts were being pounded, along with yours if you invest regularly, like you should.

I take little solace with the realization that it was not just me.  I know that many people lost far greater sums than I did as the Dow plunged 1,175 points.  I also realize that many people lost far less and many people did not lose a dime.

Not too long ago, I had calculated my family’s net worth, not having ever done so before.

It was more than I thought it would be and was largely fueled by the run-up in stock prices since Trump had taken office.

Primecap – up.  Wellington – up.  Capital Appreciation fund – up.  Blue Chip Growth fund – up.  S&P 500 Index fund – up.  College 2018 fund – up.

Well, today they went down, down, down, down and then down some more.

My Roth IRA alone lost over $1,500 today, and I cannot even look up the others.  Altogether, I estimate about five grand in losses, which is nothing to sneeze at for someone in our tax bracket.

Just as the Dow lost 4.6%, I suspect that our family’s savings declined by the same or more.

I had been hearing wise pundits warn of a possible “correction” for weeks and weeks while listening to the WBBM 780 Noon Business Hour  for some time now, but I have been hearing that for a few years.

A few weeks ago, I heard someone who is the head of investing at some major bank predict just this, that there would be a massive and panicky sell-off in the weeks or months to come.  But did I act on that?  Noooo.

In retrospect, I completely understand why not.  I have been investing with some of these funds for ten years or more, and if I sold them off after hearing somebody predict doom and gloom for the market, I would have sold them off twenty times already.

Also, it makes me wonder if this is a golden opportunity to purchase more. The wisest and most successful investor that there is advises to seek opportunities like the one being presented to us right now to purchase more while others panic.  And they are panicking!

I do not want to lose faith in the markets, but I also do not want to be the sucker who invests more before the Dow plunges another 5,000 points over the coming weeks or months.

I am not advising anything here, just wondering.

I certainly do not know what the market will bring in the coming months or years any more than you do or anyone else does.  If someone says that they do know, do not believe it.  I just agree that the market’s success was overblown and I also know that investment fever will take hold once again and rise higher than they are as of now.

I previously had some different posts in mind for tonight, perhaps something urging you to continue the slow, steady investing like I do.  Ironically, I had Paid Myself First a few nights ago and have additional investments in both the Blue Chip Growth fund (down 1.83% today) and the Capital Appreciation fund (down 1% today) transacting first thing tomorrow.  I also have a check in the mail to my wife’s Vanguard 500 Index fund which will transact in the coming days.

Is this just a temporary blip in the expanding economy or the beginning of the end?

If I knew, I might tell you but probably would not.

My inclination is to heed the advice of Mr. Buffet and to be greedy now that others are fearful.

If the Dow plummets again tomorrow, I might consider purchasing additional shares.

If it plummets again the day after that, all bets are off and it may be time to bury your money in a box in your back yard.

One Twelfth Already!

Image result for one twelfth

What just happened?

No, I do not mean about all of the sexual misconduct allegations against famous men, the latest terrorist bombing or what the President Tweeted this morning.

What I mean is that just a minute or two ago, we were making our New Year’s resolutions as the calendar changed from 2017 to 2018, and here we are with one-twelfth of the year gone already.

If you are a technical sort or a deeper thinker, then another way to look at it is that even more than a twelfth or 8.33% of the year has passed since thirty-one out of three hundred and sixty-five days is 8.49% of the year.

So on a personal note, I am reporting to you, my accountability partners, how Yours Truly has fared so far in an effort to keep myself on task and not forget about those goals that I set thirty-one days ago and for you to think about the same as they apply to you.

Below is a recap of my 2018 Resolutions:

  1. Remain gainfully employed at the same or comparable position in a municipality within a forty minute drive from home.
  2. Invest another five thousand dollars into our daughter’s Bright Start 529 account.  The accompanying goal was going to be to get to the one hundred thousand mark in total savings for her accounts, but as of today we have attained that.  A dip in the market could put us below that number, but as of today she has over $100,000 combined in her two college accounts.
  3. Pay Ourselves First, making investments into my and my wife’s IRA with every paycheck or automatically every month as long as I remain gainfully employed.
  4. Self-publish two high-quality eBooks including a forthcoming book based on New Year resolutions.  Publish an additional two shitty books.  Just crank them out, list them for a buck and see if anyone buys them.  I will not even use my pen name for those two, but a pen name for the pen name.
  5. Cover our son’s college expenses – tuition, room and board, food, private music lessons, books and some spending cash.
  6. Resolve our car situation, which at this point means disposing of my inoperable old Subaru.
  7. Pursue at least one new job, maybe two.  This sounds easy peasy, but I have not seriously pursued more than two new jobs over the past five years or so.  I did not get either one.  The last two that I was offered, I declined.
  8. Be a better husband as measured by my actions rather than words.
  9. Be a better son, visiting my widowed mother at least one day in every month of the year if even only for an hour or two.  Note: she does come to our house nearly every Sunday for dinner and a visit.  I just do not go there.
  10. Take my family up nort to da U.P.  for a vacation.
  11. Visit NOLA with my son in March (already booked).
  12. At least fifty-two good posts.   I want to write far less posts and spend my time on more worthwhile ventures. I want my posts to be more informative and more widely read than my first two hundred or so have been.  Fifty-two is an average of one per week, which should be enough.
  13. I must net minus fifty books.  I aimed for this amount in 2017 and failed miserably.  I cannot and will not fail in moving along fifty more books than I obtain in 2018.
  14. I would truly love to take twenty vacation days, like I accumulate in a year.  I would settle for eighteen, which would be a new record for me.  I must improve upon the fourteen that I am taking in 2017 in my twenty-fifth year of employment.
  15. Have at least one home improvement made.  Not just fixing something broken, but doing something to improve our home like a new kitchen floor, having rooms painted, insulation or one thing that we do need to get fixed – a crack in the foundation.
  16. Unsubscribe from fifty things between my work email and my personal Yahoo! email accounts.
  17. Move along at least one dozen clothing items.  No elaboration.  Either I do donate twelve to the Salvation Army or I do not, but I certainly intend to.
  18. Print at least five hundred photos.  I know that this is an odd resolution and a high number of photos, but I have not printed any photos since before 2010 and have at least 10,000 digital photos between my current phone, our cameras and on CD’s with photos from two prior phones.
  19. Get the cap on my root canal done early in the year.  I gave up on dental improvements in late summer after tapping out my $1,500 in benefits plus paying an additional $900 or so on a root canal.
  20. Three or more beach days.  The last two summers, my daughter and I have ventured to the beach only once.  Pitiful considering that I grew up going a dozen or more times per summer.
  21. Weigh 195 pounds or less when I report fifty-two weeks from now.  This does not seem like much of a goal considering that I have weighed exactly 200 pounds for the better part of the past several years.    Like millions of other Americans, I have a goal of losing weight.
  22. Sell my NUGT shares if I go up by $10,000.
  23. Strive to enjoy my life more.  Worry and stress out about things less.  I realize that I cannot be a “I don’t give a f*ck” kind of a guy, but I do not have to worry so much about every little thing including those beyond my control.  Only my wife and I will truly know if I succeed in this somewhat.
  24. Become grittier.  I will measure this with the Grit Scale as conceived by Angela Duckworth and will answer honestly both now and at the end of the year.  I know that my grit score will rise if I succeed in the above twenty more measurable goals.
  25. Do not be afraid to try something new and fail.  I realize that failing is counter-productive to achieving your goals, but when many goals are things that I would do automatically like continue working, going on vacation or getting rid of an inoperable vehicle, you must strive to accomplish some things outside of your comfort zone.  What is not so easy is to start an e-commerce business or hit a specific income goal for my online publishing.  That number is $500 in a month, which would please me enormously at this point in time.

    Image result for $500
    My goal is to make $500 in one month with my online endeavors.
  26. Create more and consume less.  By the end of the year, I would have liked to have created more than one new income stream.  It may be a new website, designing tee-shirts, selling my photos, recording podcasts for sale or delivering packages for Amazon, but I want to create more thoughts, words and income.  I want to consume less hours watching TV, less cookies, less second helpings and less in general.  In my case, less would be more.  I would also write “consume less coffee,” but that would be an automatic failure.

I fully realize that I had set a wide-ranging set of goals and resolutions for myself, but I thought it wise to do so and to review it monthly to try to keep myself on track.

After one month of the year, I feel good about several things on my list, not so good about others, and with yet others I am glad to have this chance to review them to keep them in the forefront of my mind.

Here goes:

I remain gainfully employed; I have Paid Myself First in January and am doing so again this week; I have paid our son’s college expenses and I have disposed of my inoperable old Subaru, now having moved along both junker cars that I have driven for years.  I got $180 for it from Victory Auto Wreckers.

I have been a better husband as shown by actions rather than words after a long drought, and I have also visited my mother in the City after not having done so for all of 2017 (she does come to our house many Sundays).

I have been a good father, taking both of my children to things that I would probably rather not have.  I took my daughter to a new horse riding stable and will be taking her there again in February.  I took my son to a jazz concert at Symphony Center last Friday that I loved, but would not necessarily have done it without reminding myself to be a good father.

I published one New Year’s resolution-based eBook right on the first, fulfilling part of a resolution.  However, its five dollars in sales for the month is only a mere one hundredth of the $500 in sales that I would like to achieve in a single month.  I have a long freakin’ way to go to achieve that resolution!  I currently have a second eBook in the works and plan on publishing it by the end of next month.  It will be the first of many 2020-oriented self help books with the words “2020 Vision” in it.

My son and I are scheduled for a flight to New Orleans next month on the 19th, returning on the 24th.  We will be staying at my sister’s lovely home in Uptown.  Not having gone anywhere beyond southern Wisconsin from my suburban Illinois home for the entirety of 2017, I am very excited to be going there and we plan on eating and drinking well, taking in many sights and hearing a lot of live jazz music.  We also plan on staying out of harm’s way, as New Orleans has a much higher murder rate than Chiraq despite all the news coverage.

I have not yet shed even one pound.

I only took one vacation day in January on MLK Day when both of my children were off.  I plan on taking at least one in February before taking five in March.  As of now and after thinking hard about it on National Plan for Vacation Day this week, I sincerely hope to take at least sixteen more this year or to possibly set my personal record by taking a total of eighteen.

I donated twenty-four books and thirteen of my clothing items to the Salvation Army.

I have already given away over a dozen clothing items, along with donating twenty-four books to the Salvation Army in late January.  I am not yet declaring victory on these two resolutions, recalling how I got off to a great start on moving along my hoard of books last year.  However, statistically, I am well on my way toward achieving them.

I have unsubscribed from over twenty email lists already and should have probably resolved to unsubscribe from a hundred considering how many I get.

I am scheduled to have my root canal completed on two consecutive Wednesdays this month, so I anticipate checking that off of the to-do list.  After not having gone to the dentist for over fifteen years, I resolved to get my teeth “fixed” last year and stopped once I had tapped out my dental coverage plus laid out around a grand of my own money.  I will get the root canal completed this month and still intend to continue going for regular cleanings like we are supposed to.

Image result for dentist looking down

I have not yet had a home improvement made or printed out any photos, but reviewing this has reminded me to do so soon.

No worries about cashing out my NUGT shares yet.  Although their value has increased by a few thousand dollars since the first of the year, I remain over ten grand away from being ten grand up on them.

I have not pursued another position yet, but there is one current recruitment that has piqued my interest.  I would apply tonight for it if I could firm up who my five references will be.

This is my ninth post of this year.  In terms of good ones, I put the number at maybe three so far.  I am relatively pleased with Keys to Our Prosperity, Need a Hard Nudge and My Own Decade and a Half Journey.  The others are for shit but, of course, your opinion may differ and to each his or her own.  Writing forty-seven more good posts this year is easier said than done, but I intend to before we head out to Arizona at the end of the year.

Insofar as the more difficult to measure resolutions, I am not sure how to answer any of them.  I have not been particular grittier, nor have I vastly improved at creating more than I consume.  I have not enjoyed my life any more or worried less this past month than in years before.  I have not yet launched my own e-commerce site, for some reason wanting to make enough with my self-publishing in a month to pay the two year cost for the website, a mere $136 on name.com.


I am not patting myself on the back one bit.  I am just trying to hold myself accountable for achieving my largely mundane goals and resolutions.  Resolving to remain gainfully employed is not exactly earth-shattering, but it is important.

I am giving myself two more months until the end of March to report again and I aspire to have a few more positive things to report.

Or at least a great vacation with my son to write about.

You now about my progress or lack thereof on my 2018 resolutions.  How are you doing on achieving your own?

 

Overcoming My Fear of Vacation

Thirty-two months ago in June of 2015, I hit my ten year anniversary at my current place of work.  Upon that anniversary, my annual allotment of vacation days increased from fifteen days to twenty.

I had already been a good hard worker bee for twenty-two years at that point consisting of nine years with Crook County and then three years with a horrible town that employed me from spring of 2002 through spring of 2005 during which time my son was very young and my daughter was born, and ten years with my current organization.

I had occasionally cashed out vacation days over the past few years, one here, two there and occasionally three, but it was then that I decided that taking a day off was more valuable to me and my family and my mental health than the extra dollars.  The extra dollars were much needed, but my sanity was needed even more.

Since that first of June in 2015, I have accumulated an additional fifty-three and one-third vacation days but have taken only forty-two.

In all of 2017, I took only fourteen.  In 2016, I took seventeen, which matches the most I have ever taken in a year.  From June 1st of 2015 through the end of the year, I took ten.

During the first month of 2018, I took one vacation day on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day since my children were both off from school.

So on the U.S. Travel Association’s Project Time Off National Plan for Vacation Day, why don’t I plan for nineteen more vacation days this year?

Image result for fear

One word: Fear.

Per Quentin Fottrell’s May 2017 article on the issue, fear is the underscoring theme of why more than half (54%) of us Americans did not take all of our vacation days in 2016.  The 2017 statistics will come out in the spring.

Like many others, perhaps including you, I fear getting behind on my work, I fear that someone else will screw something up while I am out, I fear my new boss questioning my dedication and I fear being seen as replaceable.  All legitimate for a middle aged Middle Class Guy.

I admit to being jealous of those who are at liberty to take far more vacation days than I do.  My sister, for example, takes a six week-long vacation every summer.  She is an educator in New Orleans and rather than facing the harsh, humid climate there over the summer, she travels with various combinations of her  husband and two daughters camping out, staying at our mother’s home for a week or so, staying in a hotel here or there, and mostly staying at the homes of her well-to-do friends.  I have to bit my tongue until it bleeds as her journey winds to an end and she complains of having to return to school in a week or two.

Even though it has yet to turn February, my sister is already lining up her family’s lodging for their annual summer journey around the Midwest and east coast.  And I do not think she has ever even heard of Project Time Off.

My brother sprinkles his vacations throughout the year, but he works so hard as a self-employed attorney that he spends much of the time on his phone with clients.  I am still not sure how to qualify staying at a rental condo on the beach for a week with his children when he spends three to four hours per day discussing cases on the phone.

My daughter’s friends skew towards the upper middle class, so we are constantly subject to viewing their vacation photos over school breaks on Facebook as their families travel to Hawaii, Mexico or some resort in the Caribbean.  These families typically include two higher-income parents like lawyers, doctors, teachers, finance professionals, engineers and the like.  Some own small businesses.

So My Vacation..

Today being National Plan for Vacation Day, I am not able to fully plan for the rest of my 2018 vacation days, but I do have a crude plan.

I have planned to take a full week off, something that I have not done since the last week of December 2016 (in New Orleans), to spend a week in New Orleans with my son in mid-March.

I will take a couple of days in February because I am coming up on my accrual limit of forty days.  Despite my philosophical opposition to cashing days out, I might just do so this “one last time.”

Image result for lake havasu city postcard

I plan on taking my family to visit my wife’s father and his wife in Lake Havasu City for the Christmas holiday.  I need take only three vacation days, December 26th thru 28th, in order to have eleven days off in December, from the 22nd through January 1st.

A big wildcard is whether or not we make it to the U.P. this summer or perhaps even a new destination.  I cherish going somewhere in the country with my family to take some time out from our hectic lives together.  We were not able to do this last summer due to my unexpected transfer to a new department with a new boss early last July.

Besides spring break, Christmas week and maybe a week during the summer, I would like to take random days here and there.  A few Fridays and a few Mondays here and there.

Speaking of My Boss

My boss is in a different career place than I am, obviously, since he is my boss.  I continue adjusting to his more blustery, aggressive style.  Sometimes like a bull in a china shop.

He still gets three weeks of vacation per year and has told me that he only has a two weeks on the books and is saving them for when he and his wife have their first child in the next four to five weeks.  My boss upholds the Millennial trend of not taking many days off, as he plays a big role in the operations of the town that I work for.  Even on his odd days off, he emails me and his other subordinates a few times per day.

Although he has not yet given me any negative feedback about taking time off, he certainly gives off the vibe that only less than completely dedicated employees take more than the odd day off here and there.  As the key economic development person for my community, it is true that missing time makes me fall out of the loop when it comes to projects that I am involved with.  Nevertheless, I require time off in order to recharge and to maintain my sanity.

Irony Comes With Age

Ironically, the closer I get to reaching the brass ring, the closer I will get to feeling like I can take the vacation time that is due to me.

As of today, January 30th of 2018, I am compelled to work for an IMRF employer for seven years, eleven months plus tomorrow.  That is how long it is, 2,892 more days, until the year 2025 comes to a close.  I would be fifty-five years old, plus six weeks, and would thus qualify for a modest pension of about $75,000 per year plus 3% annual increases.  A post for another time, I would still need to remain gainfully employed, hopefully self-employment, but would need to generate a significant amount of income beyond my pension.

The closer that I get, say five years from now, the more I would be able to think “F it” in my mind when it comes to any negative feedback about taking time off.  Don’t get me wrong: I would not be in a position to walk away from or lose my job five years from now.  I would just be five years closer to making it and less trepidatious about taking vacation time.

Having an additional source of reliable income would also help me overcome my fear of taking vacation time.   But as of now, with no other source of income to rely upon, I simply cannot afford to put my continued employment in jeopardy.

Despite being a card-carrying member of the American middle class for 4.7 decades, my family would rapidly fall out of it should I lose my income.  Thus my fear of falling out of favor at work due to taking too many vacation days.

So don’t get me wrong.

I would much prefer to be on vacation today than at my stressful job in a middling town in the Midwest, making calls and inquiries of potential businesses at the behest of a young boss who truly does not understand any of the subtleties of economic development.  Since I discuss it with him for about an hour per day, I think he is at least learning the difference between what businesses want (great location, easy approvals, low risk, the ability to reasonably profit) versus what the elected officials want (great photo opportunities, businesses that their friends and family like, businesses that the towns that they envy have).

But alas and alack, I am not going on vacation today.  No trip to New Orleans, the UP or Arizona for me today.  No dream vacation in Hawaii.  I am not heading to the Bahamas or out of the country.

I will be traveling from my suburb to the suburb that I work for, for eight hours, and then traveling back home again.

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But National Plan for Vacation Day has at least got me thinking about taking another fifteen or more vacation days this year.

I urge you to think about taking some vacay too.  Who knows, maybe we will pass one another wearing our shorts and sandals with smiles on our faces and drinks in our hands.

 

Need a Hard Nudge

Over the past decades, I have sometimes or even often come to regret a decision that I have made.  Although I take solace in the knowledge that there are millions who have made worse decisions than I have, it does not help me when I come to realize that had I chosen differently, things would have turned out better than they have.

In many cases, it has been shown that individuals make pretty bad decisions – ones that they would not have made had they paid full attention and possessed complete information, computer-like analytical skills and complete self-control.  Rarely having all of the above, I have chosen wrong many a time.

In my resolutions for the year, I have a list of actionable and measurable items, but two things that I did not list and would trump all of them would be to make better decisions and to create better habits while eliminating bad ones.

To achieve self-improvement this year, I need a little more than just desire and wishful thinking.  I need a nudge in the right direction, and not just a gentle one.

Why the Optimism?

Also like millions of other fallible humans, I, too, suffer from unrealistic optimism.

Being unrealistically optimistic is better than admitting failure and giving up hope for the future.

Why is it that I still think that I will become successful with my writing or launching an ecommerce business when my daily routine is struggling to please others including a young, aggressive boss fifteen years my junior at a middling community?

That is not something that a successful Infopreneur would have to deal with.

As we overestimate our personal immunity from harm, we may fail to take sensible preventative steps.  This may come in the form of leaving a job that you should not have, making an investment that you should not have or doing something that you know you should not, like smoking, drinking too much, gambling, taking drugs, engaging in an extramarital affair or, in some cases, all of the above.

The Planner and the Doer

In Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, the authors write about the difference between a far-sighted “Planner” and a myopic “Doer” lurking within us.

Nudge cover art

The Planner is working toward promoting our long-term welfare.  Our inner Planners are able to resist temptation and implement plans for our own well-being, whereas the Doer is heavily influenced by the Automatic Systems within us.  The Doer wants the extra drink, does not care about safe sex when aroused or saving money for decades down the road.

The Planner knows the benefits of stocking away money for the future, politely declining the extra drink, exercising instead of sitting on the couch and resisting  the temptations that are so bountiful before us.

Inertia Sets In

Nudge co-author Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago  won the 2017 Nobel prize in economics for documenting the way people fail to conform to models that assume they always act in their own self-interest. As one of the founders of behavioral economics, Thaler has helped change the way economists look at the world.

I came across his writings and sought Nudge out after reading about his award-winning theories late last year.

For those of you who do not want to read all of the self-help information that is out there and has become a multi-billion dollar industry, some of which I seek to benefit from myself, this would be a good one for you to read earlier in the year if you believe in New Year’s resolutions like I do.

I, myself, am a victim of inertia, as are many other people among my family, friends and colleagues.  We become used to doing something and it becomes nearly automatic.

It does not matter your age or your occupation. People, whether employees, homemakers, managers or students, can feel weighted down by depression. The energy necessary to get up and do something is outweighed by the inertia of the depression. The motivation to defy the pull of lethargy and move is minimal.

This section of Nudge introduced me to StickK.com, a website by which you can help the Planner within you constrain the Doer.

According to CNBC, stickK is a way to put your money or your reputation where your mouth is. It’s a way to achieve your goals. You put your money on the line. You make a commitment. If you don’t achieve your goal, you pay. Or you can post your goal and notify your friends. Then if you don’t achieve your goal, everyone knows.

Fungible

Do you know what “fungible” means?

I happen to have known what it means for several years due to my obsessive reading about self-improvement with particular attention to improving my financial life.

Fungible means that money does not come with labels.  A dollar in your checking account equals a dollar in your trading account.  A twenty dollar bill in your purse or wallet equals twenty dollars sitting in a savings account earmarked for your next vacation.

The authors cite ample evidence that most of us do the same thing that I do, which is earmarking mental accounting schemes that violate fungibility for the same reasons that organizations do: to control spending.

Despite the imminent nuclear threat that Hawaiians are now living under, it has become a dream of mine over the past two years to take a long, inclusive Hawaiian vacation with my family.  A vacation of at least ten days with no expenses spared when it comes to meals, touring the islands, renting cabanas and the whole nine yards.  One of my decidedly upper middle class colleagues went on such a trip two winters ago with her husband and two children and had the time of their lives.  She told me that the whole shebang cost them about fifteen grand.

As of now, we have at least fifteen grand sitting in three separate accounts – in my new Capital One money market account, in a GNMA fund with T. Rowe Price that I have long thought of as another savings account, and in a taxable Vanguard account in my wife’s name invested in the Primecap account.

If my brother wanted to take his wife and three kids on an all-inclusive trip to Hawaii for a week, he would likely cash out one of those accounts, take them on the vacation and have some money to spare for the next vacation or remodeling project or new vehicle.

There are many differences between me and my brother, one of them being that it has taken me seventeen years to grow the $8,000 investment that I made into the Primecap fund to grow into the $30,000+ that it is now at.  I have never invested another dollar into it since 2001 and have reinvested every dollar in dividends and capital gains.  My brother will likely make $30,000 this month or next month by settling one personal injury case, taking thirty percent of a $100,000 settlement, which is his bread-and-butter.  Mind you, I do not disparage him.  I love and admire him and envy his ability to do that.  For me to accumulate another $30,000 would take me the better part of a decade at my pace.

Also, the $30,000+ in that account is completely earmarked in our minds.  Ten grand is earmarked for our son’s college education and ten grand is earmarked for our daughter’s.  Whatever remains in that account will remain there until it is absolutely needed.  Also, since Primecap has been closed to new investors for several years, I dare not close out the account.  If anything, I want to add to it.

We have several other accounts earmarked for certain expenses so although I know and write that money is fungible, I dare not use a dollar for our children’s college accounts to fix our minivan, seal the crack in our home’s foundation or replace our tube TV with a flatscreen.  Because of this, as our family’s financial person, my mental accounting matters because we treat each of our accounts as nonfungible.

Now and Later

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As a child, I used to purchase and eat Now and Later candy.  One of my childhood friends who introduced me to petty shoplifting at a local corner store stole them quite often.  I usually swiped a candy bar like a Whatchamacallit or a Snickers bar.

We both ate a lot of stolen candy together and both of us spent most of our money at the same corner store on trading cards of various types.  I stopped petty shoplifting about forty years ago after being caught while shopping with my mother and her mother.  Even as an eight- or nine-year-old,  I was extremely embarrassed having been caught and especially out with my grandmother who had taken me clothes shopping at Sears for the beginning of fourth or fifth grade.

In 2018, over twenty-five years since both of my grandmothers have passed away, my thinking is more along the lines of making financial decisions that have to do with Now and Later.

The Nudge authors explain that at one extreme are what might be called investment goods, such as exercise, flossing, dieting and sending money to your retirement accounts.  For things like these, you bear the costs immediately and the benefits are delayed, sometimes for decades.

At the other extreme are what they term sinful goods, for example smoking, alcohol and doughnuts.  You have a smoke now, consume doughnuts or drinks and you experience the pleasure not but suffer the consequences later.

The authors ask how many people resolve to put on more weight, eat more doughnuts, smoke more cigarettes or drink more martinis.  Probably not too many.

Both types of goods are ripe for giving you and me nudges toward making the right choices.  I do not smoke, but other than that, I certainly have fallen short many a time when I have had to make a decision testing my capacity for self-control.  It is definitely something to improve upon.

Just as the commercials for Now and Later candy urged us, “have some now and save some for later,” so should we enjoy some of the immediately gratifying things now, but always remember to stock something away or do something good for yourself now that will pay off later.

Frequency

One of the major challenges that we face in making important decisions is that we do not have many opportunities to practice.

Most students only choose a college once.  Many of us, myself included, only choose a spouse once.  Few people get to try out different careers and, when they do, it is often out of necessity more than preference.  Once you purchase a home, it is not so easy to pick up and leave.

Typically, the higher the stakes are for our choices, the less often we are able to practice.

While it is easy to pick what type of pasta, milk, coffee and bagels that you are going to buy next time you are at the grocery store, what is not so easy is deciding what city you might want to move to, what investment funds you will stake your retirement savings on or if you are going to take a new job that is offered.

Padding the Path

So what are the authors, including Nobel Prize-winning Thaler, saying in terms of a nudge?

What they mean by addressing people’s inertia, status quo bias and difficulty in making the right decisions is that, through policy, people can be nudged into doing things better.  We can pad our paths of least resistance.

People’s behavioral tendencies toward doing nothing will be reinforced if the default option comes with some implicit or explicit suggestion that it represents the normal or even the recommended course of action.

A simple example of this is having some amount of your paycheck automatically deducted into a savings account.  Let’s call the amount $100.  If the $100 is deducted from every one of your paychecks from day one, you will learn to budget with the net amount that you receive, all the while building up $2,600-plus per year depending on what you invest it in.

On the flip side, if your current expenditures take up every dollar and then some, you may find it impossible to do without that extra hundred every pay day.

The authors cite an example that I, myself, have fallen victim to.  I currently subscribe to about ten magazines at home, down from about fifteen.  Years ago, I charged some to my credit card and those have generally been renewed at a higher rate than the $10 per year that I originally got them for.

Two years ago, I called to cancel Real Simple magazine, noting that it was a decent deal for $10 but definitely not worth $20 per year.  Of course, they offered a $10 renewal, which I took.  Last year, I called again, but this time canceled it for good.  Perhaps for free I would have kept it, but instead now have one less magazine sent to our home every month.

Two more of my magazines are set to expire this spring, and I will do the same thing.  For too long, I have allowed my complacency to get the better of me in terms of magazines.  It is a very small thing, but it actually kills three birds with one small stone: One, I will save an extra $40 or $50 per year by canceling three or four subscriptions.  Two, it will help reduce the constant clutter of paper that finds its way into our home.  Three, I will be nudging myself to take a small action.

What will you nudge yourself on today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Mentors

Everybody needs a mentor or several mentors.

I was blessed at having had several great role models while growing up and have encountered others who have taught me things and shared their knowledge.

The closest thing that I ever had to an actual mentor was my father.  He not only supported me in whatever it was that I endeavored, but he also provided advice to me when I most needed it as a young adult.

Unfortunately, the cancer that took much of his own mother’s side in their sixties also took him away from us in his mid-sixties.  He passed away from bone cancer in 2012, and I still miss him and think about him most days.  I am close with my mother, but she has not and does not serve as a guide and mentor for me like my father did.  I love her dearly, but I do not turn to her for advice.  I am moving more to a helping stage as she is seventy-three years old now.  Financially, she mostly lives off of what my father earned years ago.

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That said, when four-hour workweek guru Tim Ferriss came out with a new book called Tribe of Mentors late last year, I had to read it.  Who could not use sage advice from those who have attained what you and I can only dream of?

The book is over six hundred pages long and packed with musings, wisdom and advice from over one hundred celebrities, athletes, tech founders and other well-known and not so well-known celebrities.

The whole thing is fairly interesting, and each mentor in the tribe issued something of interest.  The sheer volume of it and lightness of each mentor’s advice were my two biggest gripes about this book.  Personally, I prefer better written books by a single author, but if you wanted to gain a brief insight into what drives these hundred-plus folks to success, this is the book for you.

Given enough time and money, I could easily pontificate at length about things written by nearly every single mentor, but in the interest of brevity, I will share thoughts from six mentors, two of whom I had heard of and followed prior to reading this book and four that I had never heard of in my life and I doubt that most people have.

Richa Chadha

Ms. Chadha is a beautiful Indian actress.

She acknowledged something that I have come across many times in my reading and agree with in general.  That is, that the educational system gears everyone up to adhere to set industry standards.

While conformity with the educational system will, by and large, gain you entry into a profession and live a so-called normal life, very few people can break out of the cycle of the mundane to be adventurous, inventive and selfless.  That, in essence, is the path that I was set upon early in life and continue to travel.  Straight A’s through middle school, pretty good high school student and athlete, bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison, Master of Public Administration at UI-Chicago and a quarter century of office jobs.  Eight more years to go to qualify for a decent pension.

Chadha writes that people make recommendations on what they think is safest for you, or based upon their understanding of who you are and what you ought to be.  Because of this, they set invisible limits on how much you can achieve in life and pass those limitations on to you inadvertently.

She broke free and moved well beyond growing up to be an anonymous Indian woman in academia like here parents were.  They were supportive of her acting endeavors although they were apprehensive.

I will strive to do the same when it comes to my own children, especially our son, who has the brain to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, but is pursuing a degree in jazz studies at the cost of over a hundred grand just for undergraduate.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Blog posts and Hubs tend to be very “lite,” just skimming over a few basics in a few hundred words for easy consumption.  One does not have to think very hard when reading things like this.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an actor who taught me about Google Scholar.  Just like searching Google, but it only searches academic and scientific studies.  If you want to know something, rather than reading a short post or something designed as clickbait, you can find out what the actual evidence says.

This does not apply to things like how to change a tire or someone’s ten favorite quotes on a topic, but for those of us who desire a deeper understanding of more complicated topics, Google Scholar is a valuable resource that I now use on a regular basis.

In the future, when I post about particular topics, I may include data and results from academic studies.  Those studies have to be good for something in real life!

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

How could a Jewish guy like me not read advice from a mentor who is a rabbi and in the House of Lords?

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Sacks is a British Orthodox rabbi who served as the Chief rabbi in Jolly Old England from 1991 to 2013.

Rabbi Sacks referenced the sat-nav system of his life.

We all use sat-nav systems when we are driving somewhere unfamiliar, but we often do not use one for the more important things in our lives.  Many people live like I have for decades, just taking things a day at a time without some bigger picture or SMART goals.

The rabbi asks where you want to be in ten or twenty years from now and writes that remembering that destination will help you make the single most important distinction in life, which is to distinguish between an opportunity and a temptation to be resisted.

As a religious leader, the rabbi references two things that are an ongoing challenge to me and many others.  Just this weekend I gave into a temptation that I should not have and thought hard about various opportunities that I should take advantage of.

If you and I want to get to a certain place by 2020, 2025 or 2030, we may need to reset the sat-nav systems of our lives.

Leo Babauta

I have followed Leo Babauta’s blog, Zen Habits, for about a year now.  It is one of the many blogs to which I often refer to when I note that I subscribe to and sometimes read several dozen per month.

A wealthy and very successful man now, Babauta writes about how down and out he was, deeply in debt, overweight and addicted to junk food and feeling like an overall failure in 2005.

He decided to make a change those thirteen years ago and began researching habits and how to change them.

The valuable advice that he imparted is that he put his entire being into making one single change.  And then another one.  Eventually, making these changes one at a time led to his entire life changing and then to him helping others to change habits.

This is a different take on self-improvement as I have read over the past few years.  I, myself, create to-do lists year after year for my resolutions and goals rather than trying to change habits.  In a way, resolutions like Paying Myself First, contributing a certain amount to our daughter’s 529 plan and writing a specific amount of posts entail changing of habits.  But things like ridding myself of an inoperable vehicle and finally printing out photos are not.

Next year or sooner, I may scrap the prescriptive list or perhaps try to make a significant change in addition to the list that I spent so much time mulling over.

Mr. Money Mustache

Pete Adeney, aka Mr. Money Mustache, is one of the most prolific financial bloggers out there.  I have heard of him before and read his posts over the past year or two and just subscribed to his blog last month.

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With his wife and son, Mr. Money Mustache lives a frugal lifestyle, retired early and explores a freeform life of interesting projects, side businesses and adventures.

Mustache offers up some interesting advice on improving your life.

He acknowledges that we all have our ups and downs, so your goal should simply be to maximize your “up” time and minimize those down times to as close to zero as possible.

Mustache writes that the key to a great life is simply having a bunch of great days.  He includes simple pleasures like sleeping well, eating good food, going on a walk, leaving your phone, newspaper or computer behind, and some hours of physical activity, hard work and a chance to help out and laugh with other people.

Writing this on a Sunday evening at home after a pleasant weekend spent with my family, I realize that I have just had a pretty great two days.  Unfortunately, for me the drudgery, stress and pressure cooker starts again early tomorrow morning.  But as I tell my son who has had some rough times in college, I try to take some positive moment or several of them every day if I can.

With a name like Mr. Money Mustache, how could he be wrong?

Julia Galef

Julia Galef is co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality. She is a writer and public speaker on the topics of rationality, science, technology, and design.

Although over a decade younger than me, like many of the other mentors, Ms. Galef made two good points in her short section which I will gladly share.

First, she thinks that most recommendations on how to improve one’s lot in life are bad because they are one-size-fits-all.  Some examples are those gurus who advise you to take more risks, to work harder or to not be so hard on yourself.

Galef points out that some people should take more risks, while others take too many already and must learn to take fewer risks.  Some people do need to work harder, while some work too hard and must learn how to ease up before they are completely burned out.  Some people should be harder on themselves because they are already too self-forgiving.

As someone who often shares and writes advice on improving oneself, I will keep Galef’s words in mind.  I know that I do share many commonalities with many readers, but there are some things that may come naturally to me that would be enormously difficult for them.  Vice versa, there are a multitude of people showing others how to build or fix things online, and my brain goes kind of foggy while watching them.

There is no universal one-size-fits-all piece of advice.  Galef writes that the most useful kind of recommendations are about improving your general judgment – your ability to accurately perceive your situation, weigh your possible options, the tradeoffs involved, and your best course of action.

Second, Galef shared that she has learned to avoid consuming media that is just telling her things that she already knows and agrees with and uses politics as an example.  She believes that it is like venting, you do not learn from it and indulging that impulse makes you less able to tolerate other perspectives.

I find this take on it fascinating, as I have been striving to broaden my own horizons of late.  I do not want to just keep reading the same type of stories over and over, like how Americans are so deficient in savings, how automation is going to take all of our jobs and how Trump is leading us headlong into disaster.  I know and agree with all of that.

What I am trying to broaden out into are topics such as mindfulness, becoming grittier, creating more while consuming less and changing your habits for the better.  I would like to be able to declutter, be happier with what I already have and be able to chill on some things and not give a f*ck.

 

$1,000 and the American Dream

Two things that caught my interest today and may capture yours.

I have referred to this ongoing story in the past, as it gets posted several times per year on multiple websites, citing multiple surveys and in multiple amounts.

Today, the story of how most Americans cannot come up with $1,000 to cover an emergency made the rounds.  The one that was in my Yahoo! feed was from CNN Money: money.cnn.com/2018/01/18/pf/lack-of-savings-cover-unexpected-expense/index.html.

According to Bankrate.com, its report does not cover scenarios that are unlikely to happen. Over the past year, according to Bankrate, over one-third (34%) of American households have had a major unexpected expense. Half of the time that expense topped $2,500 and more than half that hit that threshold (30%) had an unexpected expense that was over $5,000.

This story, whether the amount is $500, $1,000 or $2,000 drives me crazy.  Without poring over our bank records, I recall having had to spend $2,500 twice, although how unexpected it was remains subject to debate.

Does replacing a central air conditioning unit that is over twenty-five years old and has been cooling our house since before we purchased it in 2001 count as unexpected?  Well, we certainly were not expecting to be forced to replace it during a string of ninety-plus degree days this past August.

Does being forced to obtain a new car after your nineteen-year-old rusted out old Subaru count as an unexpected expense considering that I was planning on replacing it sometime this spring?

What was truly unexpected was our washing machine breaking down, after which we purchased a state-of-the-art deal which jiggles around and determines how much water to use for the load and our old stove breaking down, which we replaced with a $500 or so variety.

Our daughter’s poms team making nationals while she is a freshman is completely unexpected and adds another two grand or so to our expenses next month.

All told, it is a rare month for our typical middle class family that does not entail an “unexpected” expense of $500 or much more.

As the saying goes, expect the unexpected.  I do not know what unexpected expenses 2018 will bring, but I know that there will certainly be several.   You will have some, too, so do not forget to set aside a few dollars here and there so you are ready for when something unexpectedly breaks or a health-related issue comes up.  We had at least one costly and unexpected health-related thing come up in 2017 and I hope and pray that we do not this year.


Another article that I came across that my readers may find interesting is that the advertising industry continues selling us a crock of shit about an American dream that most of us are not living.

www.fastcompany.com/40516540/the-ad-industry-keeps-selling-an-american-dream-that-most-arent-living

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You have seen the ads.  A group of well-groomed, thin and attractive folks drinking beer on the beach.  A young husband wrapping a new luxury vehicle in a bow for Christmas.  A Millennial flying across the world in luxury.

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Do you often drink beer on the beach with a bunch of good-looking couples who gaze longingly at one another while a fire roars?  Did you purchase a new luxury vehicle for Christmas?  Did you fly to the Emirates first class?

I know that some, even quite a few people do.  One of my college roommates does all of the above, and regularly.  But three things about him: (1) like me, he is into his late forties, but he does not have any children;  (2) he puts all of his travels, dining and partying on Facebook every day; and (3) he was indicted by the FCC for his trading practices, so that is not something to be proud of.

But he does travel to the south of France and other exotic locales while I am taking orders from a young, inexperienced and altogether not very good boss in a middling town in the Midwest.  This week he is in Mexico.

But I digress.

Most Americans do not live that type of lifestyle and as the earlier article cited indicates, would have trouble coming up with $1,000 or $2,000 in a pinch.

In the ad industry, brainiac professor Tom O’Guinn from my alma mater states that “the idea of the American Dream, which is what a lot of advertising in the United States is about, is used to affirm our aspirational goals, and that was really true demographically, economically for a long time.”

“It’s not true now. The American Dream is very challenged. We don’t have the upward mobility like we used to. Ads have always overrepresented the rich and under-represented the working class, but they were still pretty resonant with people’s everyday reality. Now, they’re more myth.”

Well, you do not need to be a professor to see that.  All you have to do is watch TV or view ads online for a while, and then take a look at yourself and people that you know.

True, there are those like my former college roommate who do live the lives that include luxury watches, vehicles, international travel and fine dining.  But for every person like him, there are many others who trudge along in the service economy wearing a Seiko like I do or generic watches, driving old clunkers, taking little to no vacations and eating McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Ramen Noodles.

I only mention it because it kind of pisses me off and, as a Middle Class Guy, I also find it fascinating.

 

My Own Decade-and-a-Half Journey

I read blogs, magazine articles, books, trade publications and whatever I can lay my hands on, on a daily basis.  Although I have not written any “what I learned from” posts for a while, I have been reading even more than usual of late as the temperatures hover around zero degrees in the Chicago area for weeks on end.

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Also, I hereby confess to having binge-watched all four seasons of Treme on DVD over the past three or so weeks, often three or four episodes per day.  I just finished watching the episodes yesterday, on MLK Day, as I took my first vacation day of the year and just returned the fourth and final season to the library today.

It is a confession because with one of my resolutions to create more and consume less, it is hard to justify having spent dozens of hours following the trials and travails of this cast of characters set in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, a city that I love despite its high preponderance of violence.  I do not love its violence; I love its food, culture and music and will be heading there with my son for a week during his spring break.

But I digress.

While going through some finance blogs yesterday, I clicked on one, that led me to another that led me to one that a middle aged Middle Class Guy like me would not normally read, www.chiefmomofficer.org.

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I came across a post called Sending Three Boys To College – My Decade Plus Journey about her family’s fourteen years of saving to send her three sons to college.  This is the type of post that I find inspiring, someone who invests with Vanguard, like I have for many years, with the goal of sending her children to college without taking on a massive amount of debt.

In her post, the Chief Mom Officer writes about why she is putting this out there. Like me, for years all she read about saving for college was generic advice. It’s either yet another financial media person talking about how you shouldn’t be bothering to save for college because you’re probably behind on retirement, and how “your kids can get loans for college but you can’t get loans for retirement.” Or how you need to pay off debt and save an emergency fund before you start putting money aside for retirement.

Unlike her, I actually started saving diligently for my two children’s college funds prior to reading all the advice about how it is sacrificing your own retirement to do so.  Also unlike her, I am coming up on a quarter century of working for a public pension system that is actually funded, and I expect to qualify for a decent pension to help support my wife and I in our “golden years.”

It was not until I embarked upon my self-help journey in early 2016 that I consistently came across the advice to Pay Yourself First and made it a priority that I have stuck with over the past two years.  Although it sometimes seems “too little, too late,” I continue sending payments to my wife’s and my Roth IRA accounts every month prior to paying our other mountain of bills.  Our cost of living typically runs from $8,000 to $12,000 any given month, including $2,500 that we send to our son’s private college every month.


On another note, my identity was stolen once again as I received a credit card in the mail today that I never signed up for.  This could be a post or series of them on its own, but the short version is that I received one of the top credit cards with Capital One in the mail today with a very high limit.  High enough to pay for a year of my son’s college on it.

The problem is that I never signed up for it.  I do have two Capital One accounts, one online savings account and another trading account with a few hundred shares of NUGT parked in it.

So who filled out an application for a credit card for me and had it sent to my own house?  I will never know.  I called right away to cancel the card and sincerely hope that one of my readers is not the identity thief.

Anyway, because of that, I am not going to go into great detail into the accounts that I have for my children besides noting that they are through the Illinois Bright Start program, the Vanguard Wellington fund, and the T. Rowe Price college portfolio 2018 (which is finally here) fund.

At some point, I will share in more detail how a Middle Class Guy with a stay-at-home wife with a salary that slowly inched its way up from the thirties to the forties to low six figures over the period of twenty years was able to support his family and save one hundred thousand for each of his two children.  It may be one of the more inspiring tales that I have to tell.

But here is the short version:

I diligently saved for years and years, contributing everything that I could while forgoing many of life’s luxuries like vacations, expensive meals out, iPhones, flat screen TVs, sporting events and concerts.  We still have tube TVs, here in 2018, but we do have more saved for our children’s education than many with superior TVs do.

For years, we did little besides local things that were not very expensive.  True, we traveled to Disney World six freakin’ times over these same years, but there were quite a few years where I socked away every spare dollar that I could find the rest of the year.  I drove clunkers until they could not drive anymore, while millions of Americans with little to no savings drove cars much newer and nicer than mine.

It is not a glamorous story.  Before our accounts were online, I would write paper checks to the Vanguard Wellington fund in equal amounts for each kid, say in the amount of $300 or sometimes $400 or even $500 each, and then walk the checks to the mailbox.  A week or so later, I would receive the statement from Vanguard and would put it in the three-ring binder that I still use after fifteen-plus years of doing this.  Some years later, I started the Bright Start accounts for both children and have automatically contributed to them ever since.  All of our accounts are now online.

There were months when, after all of our bills and expenses, we would have $900 left until our next payday.  On months like that, I might send only $200 to each account, leaving us $500 for the week.  On months when there was $3,000 in the account, I was more comfortable sending $300 or $400 to each account.  On months when there were three paydays or a relative gave us some holiday cash, I would send $500 to each kid’s account.

Over the years of doing this, and as the Wellington fund thrived and paid out dividends, which we reinvested, the accounts continued to grow.

Again, this is not a glamorous or sexy story.  Like the Chief Mom Officer, I wondered how we could save such a huge amount of money for our children.  When my late maternal grandfather, who I was especially close with and who got me started in investing (and recommended the Wellington fund) told me that I should try to save a hundred thousand per kid when I was making about forty-five grand and my wife was staying home with our baby boy (now a college sophomore), I thought he was freakin’ nuts.  I felt like crying, having only a few hundred dollars to our name.

Instead of crying, he staked me out for about two thousand dollars to start our son’s account.  Because this was before 529 accounts were in vogue, I opened a UGMA account with Vanguard, and opened the same type of account for our daughter when she was young.

For years, I kept that high number in mind as a goal but never seriously considered reaching it.  Just sent $300 here, $400 there and $500.  For about four straight years, I automatically contributed $500 to each kid’s Bright Start account on the first of every month.  New month…mortgage gets paid and a cool grand goes out of our account and into our kids’.

You do that for enough years, and add a friendly market since the Recession, and there you have it.  The fifty grand that they each had turned into sixty, then into seventy grand each and continued growing.

I, myself, have only recently eclipsed having $40,000 in my own retirement accounts, and that’s for a forty-seven-year-old.  I know, it is not the sage advice from a financial adviser.

But as the Chief Mom Officer seeks to put her three sons, Nick, Nathan and Alex through college without them accumulating staggering debt, so this Middle Class Guy wants the same for his two high-achieving, super-smart, super nice kids.

Our son certainly appreciates it now, and I can only hope that our daughter will come to appreciate it someday too.

Ripples

Ripples in Our Lives

Think of this as urging you to commence a self-audit this week.  No worries, it should not lead the IRS or any other agency to commence an audit of your life.  This is an audit for you alone.

As Jerry Garcia once sang in one of my all-time favorite tunes, “Ripple,”

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

So regain your focus here for a few minutes if you have lost it in previous sections and ask yourself the following:

Where are you at, right now in your life?  What are you truly doing to better yourself and/or your current situation?  Where on God’s green Earth are you heading?  For another year of treading water and running like a hamster in a wheel, like I have done for so many years?  Or are you focused and determined to better yourself and your life in 2018 and beyond?

If your life is filled with doubts, fears, anxiety and low self-esteem, can and will you replace them with a more positive sense of direction?

As simple as these questions are, they are ones that go through my head at some point or another nearly every single day.  It is rare for me to be content with myself and my family’s place in the world of today for an entire day.  Perhaps when we are together on a too-rare vacation many miles away from our home, my job, my wife’s part-time job, our son’s college and our daughter’s high school and their many obligations can the four of us truly unwind for a few days.

The only way that you and I are going to improve our lots in these lives of ours is to convince ourselves that we are going to make it, and then to take appropriate actions.  If there is one central theme to everything that I have written for my own and your benefit, it is the notion of taking action.  Actions speak louder than words and nobody has ever become successful just by thinking about things and keeping them to themselves.

True, reading, thinking and planning are important aspects to improving our lives.  But unless we follow through on doing things to achieve those measurable goals and aspirations that we have, it is all for naught.  At the end of 2018, and I reiterate that this book is not meant to describe some magical way of reinventing yourself in one short year, you and I both want to be better off than we are today, next week or next month.  As many a wise person has said, if it were easy to accomplish, everyone would do it.

Some days, like today, I would have rather remained in bed.  I would have gladly utilized one of my ninety-four sick days, claiming to feel under the weather.  Part of my own grittiness is that I basically never succumb to that notion, dragging myself to my stressful job day after day, month after month and year after year.  I have certainly had my fair share of failures at work, but I pride myself on coming in every day, confronting not only my own shortcomings but the many shortcomings of the community that employs me in an economic development capacity, and get up every time that I am knocked down.

Every day, week, month and year from here on out I intend to keep paying my dues and making small strides here and there to bring myself closer to achieving my goals.  I urge you to take the same approach.

My own biggest dream among many smaller ones, and one that has just recently taken ahold of me, is to start an e-commerce business.  The prospect of starting one frightens me more than I can say.  I am not tech-savvy, I do not possess the salesmanship gene and I tend to say and write more when less will do.  On the plus side, I do know my own limitations fairly well, I am not averse to hiring out contract help to do things like design work and website design, and I do not mind working at something for hours at night and on weekends and holidays while other people are relaxing, traveling or vegging out in front of the tube.

Without belaboring my own story of coping with anxiety and stress for the latter part of this year, suffice it to say that I received a major kick in the pants this past July which has led to my thinking about and researching the launching of my own business after helping others achieve their own dreams of opening or expanding businesses (although in the brick and mortar world) for the past seventeen years.

Invest in Yourself

I spend so much time, words and money on investing in financial products for my wife’s, children’s, and my own future benefit, but not so much investing in myself.

This New Year, let us you and I spend some quality time with ourselves and discover what is truly important to us within our own hearts.  However hard and unlikely it may be, like me making tens of thousands of dollars from my eBooks or launching a successful e-commerce business, let us adopt and maintain positive attitudes and do not let setbacks discourage us too much.

Look at the opportunities that we have before us to reach our objectives.  While it is true that my own eBooks may never sell like hotcakes, I know that many other people will gain success in that endeavor, so why shouldn’t I?  True, self-improvement books by self-proclaimed experts on the topic are a dime a dozen.  What makes this one different or worthwhile?  I ask myself that same question.  The answer lies in that we are taking this journey together in baby steps in a measurable, actionable manner.  Not just the hopey dreamy stuff but concrete measurable things by the use of numbers.

To invest in yourself, find and do something every single day or at least once per week that brings you one step closer to your goals and then reward yourself for your efforts, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.  Heck, having a handful or readers read this post or purchase it in eBook form is an extremely minor accomplishment.  However, if hundreds or thousands read this over the years and it helps spur some small measure of action and ensuing reward, then I would gauge these past few lunch hours writing this a resounding success.

I am going to strive to practice what I preach.  I have been generally dissatisfied with myself and my lot in life over the past year.  More so since the indignity of being transferred to a new department and young boss who was hired as an intern in our organization eight short years ago.  I could cry in my beer over it or I could use it as motivation for self-betterment.  I am choosing the latter rather than the former and have been working on improving my own mental outlook nearly every day for the past five months.  And that after reading dozens of self-help books over the prior year and a half, taking the advice to heart and sharing it here.  I acknowledge being in the midst of a midlife crisis; however my hope is to emerge from it stronger than ever, in better mental health than ever and poised to succeed over the coming decade and beyond.

I am taking more responsibility for my life, which means making better decisions, improving my attitude and finding the courage to go forward.  Neither I nor anybody else expects you to transform your or my life overnight.  But we can and should both start transforming some of our attitudes right now.

I have previously written of a better version of myself locked within me somewhere.  I have recently opened my eyes wider than they have been opened upon reaching a Prime Age this past November.  Not that I was pleased with myself prior to that, but something about reaching that age with a new thirty-two-year-old boss in a municipal economic development job entirely based on politics and arcane rules made me feel like an utter failure.

I realize that others would gladly trade places with me, but I dwell on those who would not for a million bucks.  I study those people, question them and try to learn what I can from them.  I strive to discover the resources that I have to make my life happier, fuller and more meaningful, but they are not always apparent.  I do not expect to shed 4.7 decades of restrictive conditioning in one short year, but I do expect to be in a better place at the end of 2018 than at the beginning.

It is not all about me me me.  I write this for you you you to think about the things that I write about.  When you begin taking stock of yourself like you are now, you begin to see possibilities in what could be.  Meeting our lives head-on begins when we begin to appreciate and understand our own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  I have completed these SWOT analyses of various sites in my community, but it is quite a different thing to analyze it as it pertains to your own life.

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As the last line in Ripple states, “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”

And I would.