Not Just Writing It – Living It

After the past five days, during which I experienced so many emotions that I thought myself manic depressive earlier today, I figured that tonight I should resume sharing my thoughts anonymously via Middle Class Guy.  I have not only had a tough week, but a tough month.  I have had tough years and sometimes it feels like I have had it mostly tough for forty-six years.

When things aren’t going your way, it seems an easier route to just give up, figure that things are not improving, and that writing for a handful of readers is not really worth the time or effort.

That is why it dawned on me this afternoon that although I enjoy sharing what I have read and what I have learned, it would be hypocritical if I continue writing about improving your attitude and lot in life, while at the same time thinking, “What’s the point?”

I have been trying to utilize much of what I have learned from the hundred or so books that I have read in what I call the Improve Your Life/Become Wealthy/Change Your Way of Thinking genre and the twenty or so that I have described on this blog.

These are the posts that my wife aptly calls “my book reports.”  They are, in fact, like book reports with the major exception that for many years I was assigned to write book reports to prove that I read books that I mostly did not want to read, whereas now in my middle age I have been reading two to three books per week and love almost every page of them and cannot wait to share what I have learned with you.

That is how it comes about that I resume my writing tonight with a scattershot of ideas and notions that have been swirling through my brain, but also sharing some thoughts about improving one’s attitude including my own.

Can’t Control Everything

My employer prefers to control things as tightly as possible.  While a noble endeavor, it is rarely, if ever, possible to control everything in a town.

I have long since learned that there are many things in life that you cannot control.  You can give things your best effort, but you cannot always control what others think, say, feel and do.  Sometimes people do not appreciate or like or abide by the rules that you try to enforce or the way that you would like them to behave.

Through my own experience, I have found that I can control my own attitude and effort when it comes to projects that I work on at work and in my personal life.

It took me over four decades to accept that – a long time to learn something important, but reading about it in dozens of books could never replace having lived through it and gaining the experience and knowledge that four-and-a-half decades of life have taught.

A Hard Teacher

Experience is a hard teacher.  A challenge or test is put before you, and often you have to learn how to handle it on the fly, and the lessons come afterward.

Image result for experience is a hard teacher

When it comes to experience and knowledge, you are either blessed to have someone who can advise and guide you through it, like I have had the benefit of about half the time.  The other half of the time, you have to learn lessons like I so often have, through the hard teacher of experience and a few hard knocks.

Small in the Big Scheme

Even though my Middle Class Guy family problems seem very difficult and overwhelming right now in April of 2017, I realize that a year or two from now, they may seem insignificant and I may not even be able to remember what they were.

(1) our minivan needed repairs and I had to drop a lot of dough at Car-X over the weekend.  We also had to rent a car for three days while it was in the shop;  (2) the one tub that we own in our 1.5-bathroom home stopped draining and we went three days (until right now) without bathing. Despite my wife’s and my best efforts, we had to pay a plumber $200 today to get our bathtub and bathroom sink to drain;  (3) my employer and I, specifically, were threatened with lawsuit by a small business owner who I have been friendly and helpful to for years due to her purchase of a building that I “talked her into buying” according to her and her lawyer; (4) my bad ankle still kills daily; (5) our son is in a depression now about breaking up with his girlfriend; (6) our old clothes washer died and we needed a replacement ASAP last week; (7) I have to return to the dentist again this Thursday for the filling in my root canal; (8) I have an inoperable vehicle in my driveway that I must look at every time I leave my house; (9) they are changing everything up at work, giving me new tasks weekly and overall just stressing me out; (10) my Toro lawnmower does not like to mow, although I did mow the front yard yesterday.

I could go on about more ongoing problems, but those are the April 2017 ones.

When seeing them listed out, it does strike me that pretty much all of them with the exception of our son’s current disposition could be solved with money, as written in my last post on the book by Needleman, who referenced Money as a great Problem Solver.

Enough cash would fix our house, cars, washer and even shield me personally from a potential lawsuit, instead of just my employer.  By the way, the potential lawsuit does not have merit per our counsel.

In the grand scheme of things, these are middle class problems, not life or death problems that many people face.  It was far more stressful when our son was hospitalized during the Cubs’ World Series last fall.

April 2017 will cause a major hit to our checkbook, but I hope to come back from that by, you guessed it, more working and saving like us Middle Class Guys must do to make it.

As I have written in my posts on Needleman’s and Hill Harper’s books, I prefer to think of it as an exchange of my energy as an economic developer for the energy of plumbers, mechanics, a new washer, the delivery and installation guys, our corporate counsel, my dentist, my reluctant lawnmower, and other service providers who are expending their energy and expertise on our behalf this month.

Perseverance

I am a very big believer in Perseverance.

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When my children are struggling with something, I subject them to a lecture of some sort or another, typically involving my own or another relative’s perseverance.

I remind them of this notion, when it is so easy to forget it.  Both of our children have faced and overcome many school-related, band-related, dance-related and life-related obstacles over the years.

We never coined an official family motto, but I always tell them “We [family surname]’s believe in perseverance.”  Both of our children are extremely fair-minded, generous, kindhearted children and hard workers. That is what gives me confidence that they will prevail in whatever they pursue, although our son is having a difficult time believing it right now.

If you have never been sued or threatened to be sued, and by somebody whom you have known and liked and worked with for years, it is not a good feeling.  Especially because I have done nothing wrong and was simply doing my job, like I have done every day for over two decades and will continue to do.

I do feel bad for the impacted business person, and I still do not really feel any animosity, even though perhaps I should.  In a way, I would relish the opportunity to tell my side of the story in court, but I doubt that it will ever come to that.  Furthermore, if this person continues accusing me via email and social media, she just might find herself on the receiving end of a lawsuit for slander or defamation.

Either way, it causes a certain amount of stress but I know in the long run that I will come out on top in this case.  Why?  Because I always, always persevere.

This is Money Smart Week

You have never heard of Money Smart Week?  That’s okay, I had not either until last year, when I saw some items about it in a local library.

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I had originally planned to write a post for eight consecutive evenings, April 22nd through 29th, about something money or financial-related, but three days passed while I was too busy or stressed out to work on it.

We did have a very nice weekend throughout all this coming and going, attending a musical on Saturday night with our son and our daughter and two of her friends.  On Sunday, we attended a major dance competition in a town about fifty miles away all day.

Due to our daughter’s plans for next school year, her freshman year of high school, she will no longer be part of our town’s park district dance company, so that was possibly the last dance competition that we will attend after several dozen over the past five or so years.

If that is the case, I will not miss them.

I am proud to be a Dance Dad, but those competitions are crazy!

There are many more reasons why I was too busy and consumed with other things to post for eight straight days about being smart with money, but suffice it to say that I did not.

Da Bulls

Since I do not want to post just about them, I will add here that I thought that the Bulls would sweep the Celtics after crushing them two straight times in Boston.  For anyone who watched either of those games, it was clear that the Bulls are a superior team.

Before game 3, they announce that Rondo had his thumb broken in game 2.  Game, set and match.

Image result for rondo's broken thumb
Source: SunHerald.com

Without a point guard, and believe me the dreck that they run out there does not count as a real NBA point guard, they cannot compete with the Celtics.  They are playing four against five at all times, so I do not expect them to win another game.

I was able to enjoy the six championships in the Jordan/Pippen/Phil Jackson years, so what is three or four decades of sucking?  I’m a Cubs fan, so I can be patient, but I am not sure how many decades I have left to wait for a Cubs-like rebuilding of the Bulls.

One thing that I know for sure is that it will not happen while Paxson or Gar Forman are involved with the team.  Those guys fall in love with every super-tall stiff white spot-up streak shooter that they see.

Image result for doug mcdermott with gar forman

Stocks

In case you did not notice, the Nasdaq Composite Index hit a major milestone today, surpassing Nasdaq 6,000, amid a broad-market rally.

The Nasdaq Composite COMP, +0.70% touched an intraday record of 6,036.02, ultimately, closing up 0.7% at 6,026.

According to Seeking Alpha, one of the dozens of websites that I read regularly and receive updates from, the tech heavy index first passed 5,500 points on December 27 last year and started the thousand-point run from 5,000 on July 11, 2016.

What this means for me is that several of the mutual funds that I hold on my own and my wife’s and my children’s behalf are doing well.  Do I think that they will always do well?  I do not.  Do I think that they might go down?  Yes.  Will I feel like I lost money when they go down?  Yes.

But I am not on the sidelines and have invested for many years and sincerely hope that they continue to do well.

Admin Day

Administrative Professionals Day is tomorrow.  After ten years of having an admin person who I did not get along with, my department has been blessed with a very nice, helpful and courteous administrative professional.  We call her a Secretary.

We are all pitching in for a gift (I contributed $9 today) and are getting a nice lunch together tomorrow.

The reason that I mention it in this post is that one of the Millennials in our department volunteered to collect the money and pick up the food.  He asked me if I want pop with my order, to which I replied the truth, that I do not drink pop, or very rarely do.  I told him that I drink about a gallon of coffee every morning, drink water during the day, and an occasional beer at home.

His reply was great, “One to keep me awake, one to help me sleep, and one to keep me alive.”  Touche!  I also told him that I drink juice at home, but ninety percent of what I drink is coffee, water or beer.

I Can Bathe Now!

As I mentioned in my list of stressors this month, our sink had trouble draining, which my lovely wife remedied through a number of products purchased at Home Depot including Instant Power and a cleaning brush.

Image result for instant power hair and grease

After several days and many hours of valiant attempts, our tub would still not drain.

Let me tell you, it is tough and stressful to attend multiple meetings for two days in a professional setting, including a meeting with the Mayor of your town, the Village manager and the Village attorney about a potential lawsuit without having bathed for three days.  It is not something that I would advise.

I did take a 30-second rinse this morning, just to scrub my armpits, but I still had not washed my hair or scrubbed the rest of my body since Saturday morning.

Come to think of it, why am I writing this now when I could pour a bubble bath and read for a few hours?  It is almost 9:00 p.m. this Tuesday night, the 25th of April in the year 2017 A.D.

Yours truly Middle Class Guy has another book to finish reading, so I can share what I have learned with you as well as taking it into my own heart as I write it.

As they say, everybody can have a good attitude when things are going their way.  But what happens when a determined, perseverant Middle Class Guy like you or me encounters a few obstacles?

It is days, weeks and months like this that I remind myself not just to write it, but to live it.

 

 

 

 

Meaning of Money

Attitudes Toward Money

I often marvel about what a different set of ideas and attitude I have toward money than others.  I even view it differently than the people I am closest to, such as my wife, my children, my mother and siblings.

My best friend views it differently than I do.  His family has always had a lot of money, just like he has now.  Unless I am very mistaken, he views it much like Monopoly money.

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My late father most definitely viewed it differently than I do, not caring about money much if at all, and my two grandfathers viewed it differently, as well.  The person whose attitude most formed my own was my maternal grandfather, who taught me a lot about saving, investing and how to use money.

How did our attitudes toward money originate?  How were our attitudes toward money injected into us during our childhood, when our most powerful emotions are locking into place for the rest of our lives?

Even someone like myself, who values my family relationships far more than most people who I know, falls into the trap of allowing money to increase its power and influence over my life.

There are countless books, magazine, online articles and blogs dealing with how to make more money, how to handle it and grow it better, how to live more simply and just be happy with what you have and on and on. I have read dozens of them in the last year, and I still feel like I have only just barely scratched the surface.

I like to share what I have learned with my readers, so you can take away the most important points that I have gleaned from my incessant and avid reading, so you do not have to seek out and read these books or articles, yourself.

Through the process of this blog, I have come to realize that the true purpose of the Middle Class Guy (the blog, not the man that has many other purposes) is to help my readers learn along with me in a well-rounded way.

I do not intend to just share items of one or another ideology.  True, I do not care for the current occupant of the White House, and that is putting it mildly.  I could write a long, long book about the many ways that he is f—ing up this country and leading us closer and closer to war, but you can read that all day every day on nearly any website with the exception of Breitbart News, which I have never looked at and never will.

This post is about money and the meaning of it.

As I have continued pursuing it the way us Middle Class Guys do, to keep paying my bills, to keep up our basic middle class existence in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, I have often questioned “Why?” and “Is this all there is?” and thoughts like being able to retire is a worthy goal, but what about living my life for all the years between now and then?

Just this month alone, I have three “extra” expenses, above and beyond what we ordinarily would.  As I have written, I sent a check for $1,860 to the IRS last week, which has already been cashed.  The only washing machine that we have ever had in this house since we moved here before 9/11 up and died on us last Friday, and we are having a new $600 model delivered by Abt Electronics this Friday.

As we speak, our clunker minivan is sitting in Car-X, where we dropped it off yesterday for emissions work so we can renew our Illinois license plate. Also, it is just a little over $100, but I also rented a compact car from Enterprise for three days while we get our van repaired.

Like every month now, I also paid my son’s monthly college installment, about $2,400 which we mostly cover with the 529 accounts that I spent so many years contributing to.

Oh yeah, I also will be returning to my dentist next week to put a filling on the tooth that I had the root canal done on earlier this month.  I cannot afford to get the full cap done this month and have to wait until next January, when my dental insurance will pick up much of the tab.  I have already exhausted my $1,500 in annual dental benefits, but am glad to have done so after being a Middle Class Guy who had not visited a dentist in about fifteen years.

I’ll be lucky to get out of this month without spending more than $10,000, but that seems to be the case most months for us.  Maybe it will be $12,000.  I do not really know, I’ll have to wait and see and then will report it when our May bank statement comes out.

Why detail all this?  To disclose that the bottom line of our joint checking account balance is taking a big hit this month.  It seems to be the most real and vivid factor in my life this month, that I am working hard without taking any time off this month and next just to tread water with our bills.

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Source: www.dividendmantra.com

Don’t forget that I am also Paying Myself First with every paycheck before paying all these bills.

It seems to me like I should be getting more for my money than car repairs, paying taxes, buying a washing machine and paying my dentist. But as the post on the book by Hill Harper reported, and the post on this book does as well, I am coping with the stress of all the bills by considering it an exchange of energy.  More on that later.

Money as Power

Last year, I purchased Money and the Meaning of Life by Jacob Needleman. The book was published in 1991, but its points are as salient today as they were twenty-six years ago and they will be just as much so twenty-six years from now in 2043.  Doesn’t that sound like a long, long time from now?  It sure does to me.  I will be turning 73 years old in late November of that year, God willing.  I reread it last week, one of three books that I read.

Image result for money and the meaning of life jacob needleman

Needleman writes that in the household where he grew up, the most intense and violent emotions centered around money – the lack of it, the need for more of it, the desperate difficulties that went with not having enough of it, and the fear of what would become of his family without it.

In other words, the same fears that many of us have in 2017 and will for years to come.

Money was power, reality, happiness and a reality stronger than anything else.

The Gods of money were without mercy.  They were hard, unyielding and hostile.  They broke the author’s father’s spirit again and again and, through his violent despair and anxiety, they continuously broke the author’s spirit.

My own household was not in that boat.  My father was somewhat the opposite, not really caring about money.  I am not saying that we were wealthy, because we were not.  It is just that he did not much care about money, which is a rare thing in modern society.

My father was generous to a fault, and my mother made sure that the mortgage and utility bills were paid, food was purchased and that we had clothes to wear.  She arranged for our vacations.  My father worked like a dog, paid the IRS every April, paid our college tuition bills, but my mother took care of everything else.

The Gods of money did not break the spirits of my family when I was growing up, but I know of many families where it did, and I know of some of my contemporaries who were crushed by the Recession and money sure did cause them a great deal of anxiety and pain.

I worry that the loss of my job would put us in that category, but we can get by so long as I remain gainfully employed, and I will do everything within my power to keep it that way.

Money As Energy

Needleman writes that one of the commonest views of money is that it is a form of energy.

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Certainly, money is the main moving force of our lives at the present. Everything that we buy, do, eat, drink, travel to, watch, benefit from and are assessed on costs money.

The mechanics at Car-X, the teachers and administrators at our son’s college, the dance instructors in our daughter’s dance company, the teachers and administrators and support staff at our daughter’s school, our daughter’s private music instructor, my dentist with over thirty years of experience, the utilities that supply energy to our house, the children in Indonesia who are currently making our future clothes, farmers growing food, the delivery people at Abt Electronics and I could go on and on, are all exchanging their energy for my money.

Likewise, I expend my own energy and expertise on behalf of the taxpayers of the jurisdiction that employs me for money.  As an economic developer, my goal is to attract the energy and investment from other people including developers, financiers, business owners and everyone else affiliated with the field to increase the money and energy flowing through the community.

I called upon four potential new businesses in the last two days alone in an effort to attract their businesses, their investment and their energy to my community.

When I think of the exchange of my money for all of the extraordinary goods and services that my family is receiving this month (except for that f—ing check to the IRS), it is much easier for me to accept.

A Problem Solver

Most of the books related to money and bettering one’s lot in life eschew the notion that money can solve one’s problems.

Needleman, a professor of philosophy when he wrote this, is more realistic.  He writes that he told his students that surprisingly or shockingly few problems in life could not be solved with a finite amount of money – a distinct, specific dollar amount.

Almost all of the problems that we think of as ethical problems, problems of sensitivity, human relations, problems involving love, duty and honor could be resolved with a definite dollar figure.

He asked his students to think about their own problems and precisely how much money it would require to deal with it.  He writes that many of his students were disturbed by the notion and his cynicism, but when I thought hard about it, I realized that he was right.

A post about all of my own problems, including problems of others in my family that I take on as mine, too, would be lengthy and, even though I like to share a lot of my life on this blog, I do not wish to share everything.

What I realized upon reading this is that he is right.  Every problem that my family and I have could be resolved with money.  It would take a hell of a lot of money, more than a Middle Class Guy like me will ever lay my hands on, but the problems that I have viewed as an ethical problem or problem with human relations or love, duty and honor could be solved with enough U.S. currency.

Think about your own problems.  If they are health-related, could they be solved by the very best doctors or surgeons in the World?  If you never reach out to or visit a loved one that you would like to and should, do you not visit them because you cannot afford to spend the extra money traveling to visit them, and you cannot afford the time off to visit that old aunt across the country?

Would your children thrive more if they had a more conducive environment to study in or practice their art?  Or the means to purchase a piece of equipment or a new instrument or attend a certain camp? Perhaps attend a different school?  Those are some dilemmas for me that I can easily place dollar amounts on.  But even my more difficult problems could be solved with greater infusions of money.

Used rightly, money allows us to live, eat, drink, protect ourselves, help our families and friends, maintain our health and accomplish certain goals.

Yes, money is the perfect problem-solver, but I also know of many wealthy individuals whose problems dwarf mine.  Money cannot solve every problem, but it sure could solve most of mine.

Three Great Questions

In Chapter 12, Needleman shares a series of written questions submitted by his students pertaining to money.  Many of them are excellent questions and got me thinking, and I will share three of them that struck a nerve with me, and I think that they will resonate with you, too:

  1. How much of myself will I have to sell for money in order to be able to live more fully later, and can I regain what I’ve sold?
  2. Why do jobs that seem to contribute most to people seem to pay the least?  Must one choose between material well-being and service to humanity?
  3. If the human potential movement is fostering the concept of “Do what you love, the money will follow,” why is it that when I follow my greatest passions…I barely make rent.  Is it only the lucky few in our society who can ean a living doing what is meaningful?  Can we change this?  How?

Like I said, great questions and ones that I have asked myself.

As a Middle Class Guy with twenty-four years in the workforce since college as of next month, with the last seventeen years spent in the field of economic development, here are a few quick answers for those questions from twenty-six years ago.

You have to sell a lot of yourself, possibly all of yourself to make a living.  I think that you can regain it, but it takes a lot of time and effort.  And the right mindset.

Jobs like social workers and child welfare workers pay squat because that is how our society values them.  Our society values athletes, actors, bankers and traders manipulating currency far more than something like helping poor people on welfare search for jobs or for any of the jobs that exist to help others. A man who I went to high school and college with became a commodities trader at the CME in Chicago and made tens of millions of dollars, even trading wheat futures and pork bellies.

The guy had most likely never even been on a farm in his life, having grown up in the City and currently living in a building that he owns in Wrigleyville and would not dare get his hands dirty, yet he could make more in one morning of trading than the actual farmers tending the wheat and hogs could make in a year.

I will not disclose his name, but this particular person cheated most of his way through both high school and college.  I would be surprised if he did not cheat as a commodities trader.

Sad, but true.  Yes, you must choose between material well-being and service to humanity.

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The CME building in Chicago where a contemporary of mine traded in commodities.

If you “Do what you love,” sometimes the money will flow, but more often it will not.  For every successful writer, artist and musician, there are a thousand others who are either the proverbial starving artist or, like me, would love to be a writer but must work a full-time job to pay the bills.

A Material Boy

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The Ultimate Material Girl.                  Source: Playbuzz

I have a friend who is very materialistic.  He likes all the newest toys, gadgets, shoes, watches, cars.  He will buy shoes for $400 if they are on sale from $500.  He gets the newest iPhone every year.  He drives a BMW.

Me, not so much.  If my income was to be suddenly doubled tomorrow or my e-books sold at a clip of $10,000 per month, I still would not buy those shoes, iPhones, watches or a luxury car.

Knowing myself, as one should at the age of 46, I would invest most of it and save some towards a nice, safer car for my family, a nice car for myself, I would definitely want to move to a bigger home, and I would put some away for a Hawaii vacation and then a European vacation.  Perhaps I am materialistic after all, but in a different way than purchasing the materials that my friend does.

Needleman asks what is the reason we think of happiness as involving material things when our experience shows us every day that they are like a drug?  They never bring any lasting happiness.

Could we escape from the money trap by somehow learning to get along with less, to desire less?  Most of the other books that I have read in what I have coined the “Improve Your Life/Change Your Way of Thinking/Become Wealthy” genre suggest just that.  That if you crave less and can become more content with what you do have, that your outlook on life will improve and you will become “wealthy,” although not necessarily rich.

What it would mean to me would be peace of mind and future security for me and my family rather than the ability to collect more “things.”

Teach Your Children Well

Needleman urges the reader to consider what we are teaching our children when we teach them about money.

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Source: katieclarke2014.wordpress.com

How they observe us behave toward money, what they hear us say about it and what we tell them about money has momentous consequences for their own attitudes and behaviors toward it.

We must convey to them that in order to obtain the most serious good in life, it is necessary to give exactly the right amount of attention to the aspect of life represented by money.

We must realize that they are watching us very carefully and that we teach them that money is important and necessary to become independent from us, but that we show them that there is some things independent of money and that they are of first importance.

What could be more important?  Being a good, moral family-oriented, trustworthy person, in the Middle Class Guy’s book.

I have to remind myself of this often, as I am apt to complain about the high costs of everything in front of our children often, and I do not want them thinking that money is all that I think about and stress about even though sometimes it seems that way to me.

The Fruit of Others’ Sacrifice

Now that I pay so many costs for my children to the cost of thousands per month, I realize that, like the author, I confess that neither as a child nor as a young adult did I ever fully appreciate the fruits of someone else’s sacrifice.

When I handed my father my tuition bill every semester at the UW, I knew that it was a lot of money (although even considering inflation, a lot less than right now) but felt it my right to hand it to him, and for him to pay it.

When I wanted to attend basketball camp or buy new running shoes every few months or help purchasing my first car, I took it for granted that my parents would take care of it.  When my mother’s father lectured me on investing and then handed me a check for several thousand dollars to get me started, it never dawned on me how hard he must have worked for years and years to pay for everything that he did, plus give me thousands of dollars to invest.

“I’m not telling you what to invest in,” he said, “but I strongly advise that you investigate the Vanguard Wellington fund and their Primecap fund.”

All these years later, I still hold shares of both and both have fared very well over the years.  The Wellington fund is currently paying for the first two years-plus of our son’s college and is on its way to paying for the first two or more years of our daughter’s college in the future.

My late father used to give me money to take my wife on a date even into my late thirties (he contracted terminal cancer when I was forty and he was sixty-five) after driving out to our suburban home to sit for us, or when we drove into the City and dropped our kids with my parents.

After some token resistance, I would ultimately take the sixty or eighty bucks, take my wife out for a nice dinner and perhaps a movie, and return home with the same amount or more money than I left with.

I know it was just a few twenties, but I’ll never forget it and I now realize that even though it seems to me like my Dad was made out of money when I was growing up, I never heard him complain about paying for things even once, and he never hesitated to hand me some dough even when I did not ask for it.

I can only hope to do as well with our own children.

I cannot say that our children appreciate how hard I work to continue paying the never-ending onslaught of bills for all of the activities, goods and services that they receive, but, then again, it serves me right for not appreciating the sacrifice that my own parents made to provide everything they did for the three of us – me and my younger brother and sister.

Serious But Not Obsessed

What you and I should strive for is to be serious about our money, but not obsessed with it.

We should strive to provide for our families the best that we can, and then some.  I have already been doing that since our son was born nearly nineteen years ago and my wife became a stay-at-home mom.  Have times been tight?  Yes.  Have we had to make choices between fixing a car and replacing a broken appliance?  Yes.  Has our checking account balance dipped below $100 after purchasing groceries before the next payday? Another Yes.

Things have not always been smooth, but we have been resolute and I have continued inching my way up thousand by thousand in terms of my income.

Although I feel that I should be making three or four times as much as I currently do, by doing something else altogether, I remain grateful for continued gainful employment through the Great Recession and the past several years.

I always Pay Myself First and think and write about money a lot, but will strive to not forget or neglect the ends for which the money is pursued.

I have read many more books about money in the past year and look forward to sharing what I have learned.

 

Fleecing of the Middle Class

I recently read “How Middle-Class America Got Fleeced” by Noah Smith on the Bloomberg website.  It got me thinking.

As Smith writes, if you’re a middle-class American baby boomer or Gen Xer, you might have spent much of the past decade wondering what went wrong. If you’re a boomer, there’s a good chance you’re still working well after you thought you’d retire.

I’m a Gen Xer, but I also happen to work with and know may boomers who are still working, years into what they would have thought would be a well-funded retirement.

I am one of the Gen Xers whose parents were doing better financially when they were the age that my wife and I are.  Plus, there were three of us kids each doing our many things, and my wife and I “only” have two.

Actually, my parents paid off the house that my widowed mother still lives in when they were a little younger than we are now.  I happen to remember it because it was in December of 1989, I was very ill and trying to make it though finals week of my sophomore year at the UW.

I was feeling like I was at the end of my rope, with a 102 degree fever, sore throat and multiple final exams pending when my mother told me the marketing slogan “It’s better in the Bahamas” and told me that they had just paid off the house and were taking the three of us on a great winter vacation to celebrate.

Furthermore, they paid for the three of us to attend fairly expensive colleges (mine was the “cheapest” by far) and helped pay for our postgraduate educations.  My younger brother is a lawyer, my sister holds a graduate degree from Stanford and I went to a city school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, for grad school.  We are fairly well-educated and my brother, the youngest of the three of us, makes the highest income but has worked hard for many years to reach the point of being a successful self-employed lawyer.

Smith writes that back in the 1980s and 1990s, middle-class Americans looked forward to a future of wealth and leisure. If you were a small business owner, or an engineer, or a lawyer at a small firm, you might not have expected to be rolling in it, but you probably didn’t think things would go so badly awry.

So who fleeced us Middle Class Guys and Gals?

The answer to that is highly political and depends upon who you ask.

Trump’s camp might say that it is all of the illegals and the corporations that shifted production overseas to China and India, or south to Mexico, who took away millions of middle class jobs.

Free-market thinkers would tell you that it is the slew of government bureaucracy, red-tape and taxation that made it harder for guys like you and me to get ahead.  After sending about $2,000 to the IRS last week, I moved toward that line of thinking by a few ticks.

Yet others would tell you that it is the freeloading welfare mamas and people on food stamps taking away what is rightfully ours.

Liberals would say something that I also agree with, that the favorable treatment and taxation of multinational corporations over the years including the automakers and the too-big-to-fail financial institutions were the beneficiaries of funds that otherwise could have gone to support the middle class.

Smith explains who actually fleeced us – one partially correct answer is that your prosperity was taken by the very people who promised to ensure and enhance it. The decades from 1980 through 2008 were the age of neoliberalism — the ideology of the free market.

Financial deregulation, tax cuts and a lax attitude toward consumer protection and antitrust were supposed to free the entrepreneurial potential of the American middle class. And to some degree it did — those decades saw plenty of wealth creation, and the U.S. economy performed a bit better than most rich nations in Europe and East Asia.

An article entitled “How the Middle Class got screwed: college costs, globalization and our new Insecurity Economy” by Marianne Cooper on Salon.com from 2014 cites the oft-repeated reason for the rise of precarious work as the wholesale restructuring of the American economy from one based on manufacturing to one based on services.

Cooper writes that yesteryear’s social contract for long-term or lifetime employment has largely disappeared, replaced by nonstandard, part-time, contract, and contingent work, generally offering reduced wages and scanty benefits. Mass layoffs are no longer an option of last resort but rather a key restructuring strategy used to increase short-term profits by reducing labor costs in both good times and bad.

As an economic development professional, I have witnessed this happen many times with not only the companies that I have worked with, but many times to my fellow economic developers, as well.

In 2017 and beyond, individual Americans are increasingly being asked to plan for and guarantee their own educations, health care, and retirements. If today’s families want a safety net to catch them when they fall, they need to weave their own.

Citing Ed Slott on my April 14th post, this is a YOYO economy – You’re On Your Own.

Cooper writes that the high price of a college degree is linked with a significant decline in the number of low- and moderate-income students who enroll in and graduate from college. Between 1992 and 2004, the percentage of low-income students enrolled in a four-year college decreased from 54 to 40 percent and the percentage of middle-income students decreased from 59 to 53 percent.

As a Middle Class Guy and a middle income earner with a son attending a private college that costs us about $26,000 per year out-of-pocket, with a $22,000 scholarship to offset the $48,000 “list price,” I can attest to this fact.  We did save for many years to be able to afford to send our children to solid colleges, but it has most definitely effected our quality of life.

Our auto-related and home-related repairs cannot really wait any longer, and we have put them off for years in an effort to help our children attain college degrees without going into major debt for the following decades.

On his Wealthkept.com blog, Eric Hammer writes that another way the government screws the middle class is that Americans who are not very well off actually get quite a bit of help from our government. It’s not just Medicaid. There is also the Earned Income Tax Credit. In essence, this means that rather than paying taxes for having a job, if you make below a certain threshold, the government actually gives you money to supplement your income.

There are also lots of other federal benefits for the poor – Section 8 housing means the government picks up the tab for your rent on certain apartments and a whole host of different food programs provide free money for food for needy families. Having trouble paying the electric bill? There’s a program for that too. Not to mention the free phones for the needy.

Middle Class Guys like me?  I’ve never received any government help.  I do not consider the IRS refunding $2,000 that I overpaid for a year to be help from the government.  Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food and housing vouchers and free phones are all government perks care of us middle class taxpayers.  I’ll bet that if you are reading this, you have not received any of those freebies either.

I am not heartless, and lean more to the left than the right in many cases. I realize that government assistance is a safety net that allows many Americans to remain alive and to sustain a base level of existence.

I’m just saying that for every person who truly needs these services through no fault of their own, like children, there is someone else who could work to lift him or herself into self-sufficiency or who put him or herself in the situation that they are in through poor choice after poor choice.

Remember, I worked in the field of so-called “community corrections” and had women on my caseload with six different babies with six different gangstas and no means or desire to support them.

Likewise, the male Blacks on my caseloads had the opposite – six different babies with six different baby mamas.  You think they supported their shorties or even knew all their names and locations?  Guess again.

Generation after generation after generation of welfare recipients causing a drain on us middle class and the upper class taxpayers.

But I digress.

Smith concludes his article on the fleecing of the middle class by noting that we cannot lose what we never actually had.

Many of us expected our houses and pensions to act as our piggy banks, and when it looked like housing and stock prices were heading up forever, people naturally developed rosy expectations about the future.

That is why Smith writes that there won’t be a quick fix for middle-class boomers and Gen Xers. You can’t get back what you never really had.

Although the economy and technology will continue to progress, and the government may manage to give the middle class some relief, for the many who had expected much better, that will seem like a booby prize.

Image result for booby prize
Source: www.owenparachute.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If There’s a Cure For This, I Don’t Want It

Every one of us has our own ideas about what it means to be wealthy.

As my dear reader, your idea may differ from mine.  What my wealthy uncle and two of my wealthy friends may consider wealthy probably differs from my notion of it.

For some people, it may mean being able to send their children to exclusive colleges, while for others it may be owning a large residence and a vacation home.  Perhaps some fancy cars too.

For you, it may mean having half a million dollars sitting in your bank accounts.  For my rich uncle, it may be ten times that amount.

For others, true wealth may be having one’s life balanced and organized so we are free to pursue any dream or happiness.

The $84,000 Question

As I have previously written, I have mulled over this blog for at least four years, reading and taking notes about things that caught my interest and that I would like to share with others.

A few years back in 2010, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School produced a study that claims a salary of $75,000 is the key number to make people feel generally happy with their financial situation.  I recall reading about the study quite a bit when it first came out and also when it was rehashed many times on other websites and blogs over the years.

According to the study, the lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness.

Think of it as more like $84,000 now, since the 2010 study is now seven years old.  Per the inflation calculator at Savings.org:

Inflation by Year

Year Value
2010 $75,000.00
2011 $76,121.79
2012 $78,376.84
2013 $79,741.40
2014 $80,938.90
2015 $81,551.20
2016 $82,146.13
2017 $83,850.35

As my last post attests, I do not feel particularly wealthy, having surpassed the salary of $84,000 several years ago, but I do feel solvent, usually able to pay all of my family’s bills and debt obligations while still having a few bucks left over.

Due to extenuating circumstances (isn’t it always extenuating circumstances?), things will be tighter this month after I had to send some money to the IRS and our twenty-five-year-old washing machine just broke down.  My wife ordered a new one for about $600 which is not so bad when you think about it, considering that we have never purchased a new one in nearly sixteen years in our house and we use it every day.

Oh yeah, I just had a root canal with the bill coming due soon and we need to repair our minivan etc. etc.  Like I said, extenuating circumstances this month.

The Wealth Cure

If there is a cure for wealth, like Donna Summer said over forty years ago in 1976, I don’t want it, I don’t want it.

I have read nearly one hundred books in what I call the “Change Your Way of Thinking/Improve Your Life/Become Wealthy” genre in the past year or so.

One of those is The Wealth Cure: Putting Money In Its Place by Hill Harper.

I saw it at a used book shop for a few dollars, and figuring that I might take a tip or two worth more than that to me in the long run, via blogging about it or publishing an e-book to make future income, and to perhaps learn something, myself, along the way, so I could not pass it up.

Image result for The Wealth Cure Hill Harper

I also want to mention that in the hundreds of books that I have read in the past few years, I cannot recall any others written by an African American, and the author’s sharp appearance on the cover also drew me in to part with the three bucks, roughly the cost of a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Harper has other bestsellers to his credit, acted in CSI: NY (I will confess that I have never watched one episode of any of the CSI shows), and holds a B.A. from Brown University and both a J.D. from Harvard Law School and a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government.

This is one seriously smart dude!

What Does It Cost To Be You?

Harper poses the question of how much it costs to be you.

Money is the biggest stress inducer in the lives of Americans.  We worry more about it than our marriages, our health and our children.

We get caught in a never-ending cycle of spending and debt, which can lead to overindulgence with food, alcohol and other substances, which in turn increases our stress and harms our health even more.

Hill writes that our lifestyles cost too much.  Amen to that!

Being stuck in an unrewarding job, like I am, and afraid to make a move because of crushing debt and the never-ending slew of bills that come in every month can be soul destroying and make you feel trapped.

Almost a third of Americans say they would need $3 million in the bank to feel as if they were rich.  I would say that number is about what I would claim as an amount to make me feel rich, rather than just well off.

Hill writes that if the cost of being you is too high – if the spending has you feeling trapped so that you cannot see a way out – then you are not free and you cannot lead a fulfilled existence.

This is where he introduces the concept of a Wealth Cure.

Your Wealth Factor List

It is very true that there is more to life than money.  But I will tell you one thing – money sure can make your life better.  Just ask anybody in the lower classes who live in crime-infested inner cities with lousy schools if more money would help them.

Hill writes that true wealth isn’t the value of your bank account but the value of the items you have in your life account.

He advocates examining your life and identifying what provides you with a deep, enduring sense of well-being.  He provides a sample of what he calls a Wealth Factor list.

Here is a sample of what my own list might resemble:

  1. Time to take my family to outdoor nature areas like forest preserves, hiking trails, the lake and vacations a few times per year.  By the way, in our case, “the lake” is Lake Michigan.
  2. More family time at home with the TVs, iPads, computers and video games turned off.
  3. A date night with my wife at least six times per year.  This does not sound like much, I know, but over the past five years I seriously doubt that we have gone on six dates, just the two of us, in any given year.
  4. Sex with my wife more often.
  5. A night out with my best buddy at least four times per year.  As of late, we have just met about halfway between our homes two or three times per year.
  6. Visit my widowed mother at her house, the one that my parents purchased in the summer of 1973 a few months before I turned three years old, once per month.
  7. Some small amount of recognition at work beyond just keeping my job for another year.
  8. Being more charitable with my time and money.  Start out by giving a little more each year to Ronald McDonald House, my favorite charity these days.
  9. Publication of at least three e-Books by the end of 2018.  I will most likely start by creating a few e-Books comprised of compilations of these posts. I do not anticipate any becoming best-sellers, but I do anticipate selling several copies per month.
  10. Continue trying to address my own health issues including fixing my long-neglected teeth.  Having had my first-ever root canal a week ago Friday and having visited my primary care physician this past Thursday for a follow-up (my Lisinopril prescription was increased from 5 mg to 10 mg per day), I am doing better in this regard.

Money = Circulation of Energy

My favorite aspect of Harper’s book and one that has been stuck in my mind since reading it is the concept of money as energy.

By shifting my concept of money as energy, it has helped me move at least one step closer to my own Wealth Cure.  I can literally use my money as energy, paying my home’s electric and natural gas bills and filling my car with fuel.

Or I can use it to make somebody do something, like expend his or her energy preparing and bringing my family food to eat, I can make a mechanic expend his energy and use his shop’s tools to fix my car or I can use it to make a third World laborer working in a sweatshop make shirts, pants, undergarments and shoes for my family to wear.  Sorry, but this is the truth of where and how the clothes that we purchase at Kohl’s every month are made.

We can use our money to make Kohl’s supply chain ship those clothes from Indonesia to the northwest suburbs by ship, plane, rail and truck.

The biggest portion of our property taxes, around seventy percent, goes toward the energy and expenses that it took to construct buildings, playgrounds and educational materials for the good schools in our district and to pay teachers, administrators and support staff (including my wife) to make those schools much better than average for our State.

The school district’s budget amounts to many millions of dollars per year, but we can see the energy that this money converts to in accomplishing one of our family’s primary goals, providing a great education for our children.

While thinking about the abstract concept of money as something used to circulate energy, it makes a certain amount of sense.  I sell my expertise and energy on a salaried basis to my employer and then I, in turn, use the proceeds of that energy to pay for the energy output of others.

I like and accept the concept put forth that money represents the circulation of energy when we pay someone for a service or product.

Dumbest Money of All

Harper writes that credit card interest payments are the dumbest money of all.

If you continue purchasing on credit and do not pay off the full amount at the end of the month, you are allowing interest to accrue and the item can wind up costing twice as much as its original price, which is definitely a dumb use of money.

According to Value Penguin:

  • Average American Household Debt: $5,700. Average for balance-carrying households: $16,048
  • Total Outstanding U.S. Consumer Debt: $3.4 trillion. Total revolving debt: $929 billion
  • 38.1% of all households carry some sort of credit card debt.

Interestingly enough, if you combine the first bullet point with the third, it indicates that about one-third of households carry credit debt, so the $16,000 or so in those balance-carrying households, divided by three because two-thirds do not carry the debt, is why it averages out to a little less than $6,000 per household.

My own household has many months when our three combined credit cards (my wife’s Bank of America Visa, her Kohl’s card and my Chase Visa card) add up to around $2,000, but we strive to pay them all off every month.

By striving to become credit debt free, you are giving yourself the chance to start saving more money for your own future rather than just enriching the banks that issue your credit cards.  In our case, we definitely need the money more than J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America do.

From Fear to Courage

Hill’s book details his shifting view of money and what is important in life due to a health crisis.  He worked to overcome his fear of death, writing that it is inevitable and to truly enjoy his own life, he had to release himself from that fear.

Part of Hill’s Wealth Cure was to embrace a shift in perspective and attitude.  Away from fear and toward gratitude no matter what God put in front of him.

It will take more than a few paragraphs in an inspirational book or a few sentences on the Middle Class Guy blog to shift your attitude, but reading about how the author decided to appreciate the things in his life whether he had one hour, one year or fifty years left in his life made me think about being more courageous with the time that I have left on this earth.

Find Work That is Your Passion

Hill cites something written by one of my top five favorite authors, Stephen King, in his book On Writing, which I have not yet read but will.

King describes finding work that is your passion: “Writing is not about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends.  In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well…When you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head.”

Of course, making millions, becoming famous, making friends and getting laid isn’t so bad, but that is not the point of this post.

A Middle Class Guy like me with nearly twenty-four years into a pension fund and many obligations including a mortgage, college tuition, and dozens of expenses that add up to $8,000 to $10,000 per month cannot exactly walk away from my job.  We’d be sunk!

Hill advocates finding happiness when you take control of your life’s direction, working to achieve your own Wealth Factors, particularly the ones within your control.

You can use achievements of your goals along the way as stepping stones to a greater sense of well-being.  It can be scary for you and me to be honest with ourselves and admit that this is our lives, here and now, and that we must commit to being happy with it.

Image result for stepping stones
Source: www.decorifusta.com/

With today’s tight job market and automation coming to take more and more jobs year after year, if you are gainfully employed, you would be well-served by appreciating the good aspects of your work and try to find some happiness in what you are doing.

More than half of all people feel stuck in their jobs.  Hill writes that unless you are a careful observer of your own thoughts, you are living by default. Do you believe that you can change, or that you can’t?

I, for one, believe that I can.

Case in point, launching the Middle Class Guy blog after pondering it for years.  I realize that it is just one voice in a sea of them, but I can assure you that you will learn more from reading my posts, even if it is summarizing something that somebody else wrote, than reading about someone else’s lunch or watching cute pet videos.

Thanks for reading and now I can donate Hill’s book and the two others that I read last week to a Little Free Library.

 

 

How To Stay Solvent For Life

Image result for breadwinner
Source: BrainlessTales.com

As a middle aged Middle Class Guy, there is not a day that goes by that I do not consider my financial future.  I am the primary breadwinner in my family, but I also want to be able to slow down from my intense and stressful workload at some point in the future.

I think that the word for that is “retirement,” although I do not plan to ever truly “fully retire.”  I want to supplement my theoretical future pension with other forms of income, for instance advertising revenues and royalty payments for writing things like this.

I read like a madman, having devoured three books this past week (today is Good Friday, April 14, 2017).  I would not mind writing up book reviews for a fee or outlining my favorite six to ten things in a book that someone else like me writes, for a fee of course.

I invest some and love collecting divvies from divvy-paying companies like REITs and limited partnerships, although I just saw today that the company (Western Refining) that recently stole my shares of my favorite dividend-paying limited partnership (Northern Tier Energy Partners) is being acquired by yet another company.

I will be electing to receive the cash offer, which will amount to about $1,000 for me because I only hold 28 shares of WNR.  Plus, I hate to admit it but I am about $3,000 in debt to E-Trade, having purchased shares of something that I thought would go up fast, but did not.

Here is a snippet of one of the hundred emails that I received in my Yahoo! account today and gives me until next Thursday to make an election of how to dispose of my shares:

  Electronic Documents
We are writing to notify you that AN ELECTION for WESTERN REFINING, INC. has been made by TESORO CORPORATION.

You can view the offer material and submit instructions by clicking the link below and entering
the following control number: https://reorgaction.com

Control Number: [15 numbers]
Account Number: [my E-Trade account number]
Cusip Number: [9 numbers]
Job Number: E[5 numbers]
Financial Service Provider ID Number: 54R

IMPORTANT DEADLINE: Your reply must be received no later than April 20, 2017 at 11:59 p.m. ET.
The offer expires on April 24, 2017.

Anyway, the point of this post is to share with you things that I learned from a financial adviser named Ed Slott.

Haven’t heard of Big Ed Slott?  Me neither, but he is a guru when it comes to Individual Retirement Accounts as evidenced by his many books, TV appearances and website, www.irahelp.com.

One of the hundreds of books that I purchased and read last year, and one of the three that I reread this week was Slott’s Stay Rich for LIFE! Growing & Protecting Your Money in Turbulent Times

Image result for stay rich for life ed slott

Two comments on the title and how it pertains to you and me.

First, it is always “Turbulent Times.”  Ever since I moved out of my parents’ home and began supporting myself at the age of twenty-three back in 1993 it has been turbulent times.

While growing up throughout the seventies and eighties as my parents worked hard and raised me and my two younger siblings, it was “Turbulent Times” for them.

When my grandparents weathered the Great Depresssion and World War 2, it was “Turbulent Times.”

There is always the threat of international conflict.  Just this week, the U.S. dropped the Mother of All Bombs on some caves where ISIS was hiding in Afghanistan and Trump seems to be moving toward greater conflict with North Korea and possibly Russia.  Times are Turbulent.

I graduated college in a minor recession in the early nineties, when my friends and I took jobs at places like Blockbuster Video, shoe stores and as customer service agents with our newly minted bachelor’s degrees from UW and U of I.  Nobody was hiring new college grads despite us Gen Xers thinking we knew it all at the time, much like the Millennials think now.

There was a tech bubble that burst around 2001 and a massive Recession with a capital R from about 2008 through 2011 or 2012.  For millions of people, it remains a recession today as their jobs have gone overseas or replaced by robots or soon to be replaced by robots.  Some of them are employed, but only as temps or contract workers or in the sharing economy.

Middle aged guys our age are prime targets to be replaced by eager young tech-savvy Millennials who would work for half of the price of us.  They would work about half as well, to boot.

Let me ask you, when isn’t it “Turbulent times?”

Second, I cannot Stay Rich because I never have been.  I would like to “Stay Rich for Life,” but never having been considered rich and never having felt like I am rich or considered rich by American standards, I am not sure that I can.  If you compared my family’s middle class suburban lifestyle to a third world family or a refugee family or even my own predecessors three generations back, they would consider us rich.

But for all intents and purposes, by 2017 American standards, I am not rich thus I cannot Stay Rich for LIFE!

Here are some good points brought up by Slott in the book that can apply to you and me although we are not rich.

Where Slott uses the word “rich” I may use the word “solvent” or another substitute.  According to Wise Geek, being financially solvent means being able to pay all financial obligations in a timely manner and still have liquid spending capital left over.

Being solvent generally represents a certain level of financial freedom and being able to meet all financial obligations while still having money left over is a state that most people aspire to regardless of career or current economic status.

Take Inventory

Whether you are twenty-five or forty-six like me, the first step toward staying solvent for life is to take an inventory of yourself – who you are, where you are and what you want to accomplish.

Slott advocates writing your thoughts and ideas, much like I do in this blog and in several idea notebooks that I keep.  By the way, I began keeping such a notebook long before I read the advice to do so by several pundits.

Writing your goals down is a powerful tool because it helps you to focus and be specific, which is a great start toward accomplishing any goal.

Take Small, Consistent Steps

I like this advice.  Slott writes that every action you take toward achieving your investing and retirement goals, however minimal that action may seem at the time, produces a big payoff.

I can attest to this, as the $300, $400 and $500 payments that I made to my two children’s college accounts added up to quite a bit over the years. Considering increases in the value of the investments, the reinvested dividends, and my automatic contributions to their accounts, those payments have now added up to nearly $200,000 combined.  Not shabby.

The mistake that I may have made, depending on your perspective, is not sending enough and, in some cases, not sending anything to me or my wife’s Roth IRA accounts.

I am working toward building those funds up now, “paying myself first” from every paycheck before paying my mountain of bills.

Image result for mountain of bills

I now take the small, consistent steps that Slott advocates, having sent $250 last week to my IRA and I am mailing $250 to my wife’s this coming week.

Y.O.Y.O. Economy 

Slott must have written this for me, besides my never having been Rich. He has you imagine that it is 2040, you have just turned seventy years old and your account has grown to a sizable sum.

As it so happens, I was born around Thanksgiving in 1970 and would be turning seventy years old around that time of year in 2040 if I remain alive, which I hope to.

He writes that, of course, you will be collecting only half the benefit amount that our baby boomer parents and their parents did from Social Security.

But, hey, half a loaf is better than none, right?

The bottom line is that at the very moment when you and I need most of the cash that we have diligently saved over the years, our nest eggs will be sucked dry by huge expenses.

Then Slott goes on to crush my dreams, writing that making retirement, buying that second home or paying for our children’s or grandchildren’s educations will become an impossible dream.

The precariousness of our financial structure as a result of huge national and State deficits, multi-billion dollar bailouts like the auto and banking industries have been the recipients of, skyrocketing health care costs, coupled with the insecurity of employer-sponsored pension plans have made it abundantly clear that if you and I want to live decently and remain solvent for life, than we must rely on ourselves.

There will be no bailouts for your retirement or mine.

That is why I hope that the $500 that I am investing in our IRAs this month will grow to $1,000 or more in the 2030’s, and that might just be enough to cover some medication that we need at that time.

Save More Now

Slott writes that we are currently in our accumulation phase.  This is because we still have years to recoup any losses and rebuild our wealth although the closer I get to fifty years of age, the less I feel that way.

During what he terms the first half of the game while we are working hard and saving, we can weather more storms than we can during the distribution phase because our focus in the accumulation phase is on saving consistently.

Slott’s book, and most of the financial books that I have read, would actually benefit a much younger person than myself and middle-aged readers.  Those who start saving earlier in their lives will automatically have a lot more leeway and choices open to them than someone who starts saving in their forties.

Mr. Roth

Image result for senator william roth
The late Senator of Delaware, William Roth Source: C-Span

Over a dozen years ago, I was advising my new brother-in-law to open a Roth IRA.  I explained how it works, and he turned to my sister and told her that they were going to “call this guy Roth” about opening an IRA.

I explained that it was simply named after a dude named Roth, but that the type of IRA that he created takes the after-tax money that you invest and allows it to grow tax-free for years, creating a wealth-generating machine that will take care of you and your loved ones during your golden years.

Contributions to a Roth IRA can also be withdrawn at any time, for any reason, 100% tax and penalty free.

I mention contributing to my wife’s and my Roth IRAs all the time, assuming that all of those who read this know what I am talking about and have one of their own.

Slott writes something that I could not agree with more, that the biggest mistake you can make with a Roth account is not contributing to one.

If you are reading this and are in your twenties or thirties and do not have a Roth IRA, do yourself a big favor and open one up.  I opened one for my wife with Vanguard and mine is with T. Rowe Price.

If you are really looking forward to purchasing a new big-screen TV or the newest iPhone and have a “spending gene” rather than a “saving gene,” please heed this advice and send the equivalent amount of money to your IRA instead.  You will thank yourself years from now.

AARP

I started reading articles on the AARP website and began subscribing to their newsletters late last year, while I was still forty-five years old.

My wife would see me reading an AARP publication and ask why.  I replied that they provide good information about investing and many other interesting articles.

The AARP site is a wealth of information, and I enjoy reading about walkable, safe communities with many amenities since they frequently review various places to retire.

Even if I am never actually able to fully “retire,” I at least enjoy reading about it.

I typically simply summarize investing advice that I have read in other places, but I have acquired a wealth of knowledge on the topic from having read about it in dozens or hundreds of sources over the years, and AARP is a good one.

I feel like I know a lot about investing and money-related issues, but there is always more to learn.  AARP is one of the three websites that Slott recommends and the only one of the three that I use.

The Only Constant Is…

Image result for the only constant is change heraclitus

 

Slott is a professional investment advisor but I am not. He spends much of his book urging the reader to engage the services of a professional (maybe him??) to guide and assist with your financial plan.

My own policy is that You Are Your Own Best Advisor.  I am not going to claim to be as knowledgeable about investing as he is, or any of the other authors that I read.  I do know that I can read and comprehend anything as well as they can, if not better and in a broader array of topics, so if I want to learn about something, say deferred annuities, I will read up on it or ask one of my friends in the financial field.

What I will definitely engage a professional in is in estate planning, which I have not done.  I still feel the need to build up more of an estate before I think about preserving it.

Slott writes that a financial plan used to be valid for twenty years.  Now it doesn’t last twenty minutes.  Market volatility, tax law changes, economic conditions and family situations are constantly changing.

We must anticipate changes and create plans that are fluid and flexible enough to accommodate them.  Remember that when you and I come up with a plan, it is not a one-time thing that we can just forget about.

Remember this tried and true expression about the best-laid plans:

Image result for the best laid plans of mice and men
Source: Quotefancy.com

Halftime Score

In the final chapter of Stay Rich for LIFE! , Slott employs an analogy that I like as a sports fan.  He cites the philosophy that the score at halftime is irrelevant; give me the score at the end of the game and I will tell you who won.

Slott likens your post-accumulation years to the second half of the financial game and writes that it is all about keeping as much as you can of your unspent wealth from disappearing into the clutches of the IRS at the time when you need those assets the most.

Too many people quit at halftime and walk off the field thinking that they have the money game licked.  Meanwhile, the IRS comes out to play in the third and fourth quarters with no opposition, and it winds up winning the game.

I am not going to launch into tax-sheltered ways of preserving your estate.  There are thousands of books, blogs, newsletters, magazines and websites where you can read up on that.

This post was meant as a way to get you and me to think about these issues a little bit more, like ways to remain at least solvent for life if not rich.

Ed Slott and Yours Truly Middle Class Guy agree – we want you and I to end up with “More, More, More – more money for you to enjoy now, more for your retirement, and more for your loved ones.  And more of it tax free.”Image result for more more more

Advice From Little Old Ladies

I got some advice years ago from some little old ladies from a small town in downstate Illinois.

Image result for beardstown ladies
Source: Six Sigma Daily

Always being open to excellent advice and always willing to learn something new, I thought that I would learn a thing or two from these ladies from Beardstown.

I purchased and read two books last year in an effort to learn something from them, but I really did not.

 

So until late the last few nights, I reread The Beardstown Ladies Guide To Smart Spending For Big Savings and The Beardstown Ladies Common Sense Investment Guide hoping to pick up some wisdom from these little old ladies.

I just learned that these ladies actually earned a much lower return than they claimed to have made in these books.  Whoops!  Someone typed in the numbers wrong according to an L.A. Times report on them way back in 1998.

The ladies from Beardstown, Ill., whose average age is 70, said the error stemmed from a mistake they made while typing data into a computer program.

“We feel very badly,” said Ann Brewer, a club member.  But not so bad that she would not enjoy her share of the massive royalty payments made on these books.

Regardless, I was not looking to these little old ladies for stock tips.  Tips given by anybody that many years ago would be obsolete and pointless at this time.    In 2007, their investing advice and stock picking advice from 1994 is, in fact, severely outdated.

What I do glean from some of the older books that I read is timeless advice.  As I have previously written, human nature does not change much and great advice from one hundred years ago is still great advice today and will likely still be one hundred years from now.

Here’s some takeaways from the little old ladies from Downstate.

Goals

Like every self-improvement book that I have read including the one that I recently read by Coach Holtz, the ladies advocate setting goals.

The ladies told you to visualize yourself in the near future.  What about in ten years?  Where do you want to live?  What are you going to be doing? How much is that likely to cost?

After asking yourself these difficult questions, it is tome to come back to earth and make a list of your goals for the future.  Though they should be guided by your dreams, this is a time for prioritizing and pruning, as the ladies say.

You are more likely to realize your ambitions if you choose goals that are practical.

Pay Yourself First

This is like a broken record to me.  Like most of the financial books, magazine articles, blog posts and everyone that I have spoken with about it repeats this mantra.

Repeat it for me.  “Pay Myself First!”

Image result for pay yourself first

I did it once this week already ($250 to the T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation fund) and am ready to pay my wife first next week, with another $250 to the Vanguard 500 Index fund.

The Beardstown ladies say not to let a month pass without investing in yourself.  Each month, set aside your bills until you determine how much you can save and then pay yourself before you pay anyone else.

The little old ladies said it doesn’t matter if it’s only $5 or $10 to start.   Yours Truly Middle Class Guy multiplies this by ten or twenty, so my advice is to send at least $100 to $200 per month if that is all that you can, but $500 or $1,000 (or more) per month is far better.

The Power of Reinvesting

The little old ladies advocate reinvesting dividends.  I say Amen to that although in the cases of a few stock holdings in my E-Trade account, I have not enrolled in DRIP or their Dividend Reinvestment Program.

How DRIPs work
Soucre: CNN Money

When it comes to our children’s college accounts, my GNMA fund account and my wife and my Roth IRA accounts, we have automatically reinvested all dividends for years and years.

From personal experience, I can tell you that it works.  We now collect several thousand per year in dividends due to the fact that our number of shares has continued to grow for years, decades in some cases, allowing the dividend amounts to increase as our number of shares increases.

It is a beautiful thing and automatically reinvesting your dividends is a great way to ensure continued, steady investment growth over time and is one of the best and easiest ways to build up your portfolio.

Rewards of Investing

I enjoyed reading about how these little old ladies from a tiny rural town in downstate Illinois used some of their investing proceeds to renovate their homes, travel the world, help their children financially, help pay for their grandchildren’s college educations and other things that they used it for.

After all, there has to be some future reward for automatically squirreling away money for years and years when you could be enjoying it in the present.

Case in point, Yours Truly.  I drive one of the most beater cars in our entire suburb, we still own two tube TV’s (and this is 2017), our family’s smart phones are all pay-as-you-go and most of our furniture, our three cars and much of our house is falling into disrepair due to deferred maintenance and normal wear and tear.

I sure would like to have a lot more money to fix and replace what needs fixing and replacing, but I am committed to investing on my own and my family’s behalf.  I was taught to do so by my grandfather, who told me to do it often, and I regret not having worked a little harder in my twenties and thirties.

I have many regrets.  But also many things to be proud of.  As I continue to invest, one of my goals is to have both of our children graduate college with little to no debt.  And good colleges, like the private school that our son attends.   Our son will be wrapping up his first year next month and is well on pace to complete college in four years.  However, as us middle aged Middle Class Guys know, life has a way of throwing a few curve balls and wrenches in the way, so I will not hold him exactly to that.  Also, I know that graduate school is in his future, as it is for most in music-related fields unless they become huge stars.

I would like to have a more tangible goal date to pay our house off.  That is a post for another time.  It would be nice to actually go on several great vacations per year.  It would be great to get the health care that me and my family deserve and should receive due to my many years of hard work. We really do need to get a safe, trustworthy family car.

Saving for college, for retirement and for health care are goals and things that I have to constantly remind myself of instead of purchasing a shiny new car, buying us all iPhones, getting new “smart” TVs, going to Hawaii and Mexico like our daughter’s friends’ families, and the other upper middle class trappings that we are still tens of thousands away from obtaining.

Enough ranting about my own wants.  Our family’s struggles are definitely middle class struggles shared by millions of other families throughout the U.S. and the World.  Even though the American middle class continues to shrink, about half of us Americans are still in it per the Pew Research Center.

It made me glad to read about the things that some of these little old ladies from Beardstown were able to do with their investment gains, whether it was properly reported or not.

Coach Holtz’s Great Advice

I hate Notre Dame.

Image result for notre dame lou holtz
Coach Holtz giving some strong advice. Source: www.csmonitor.com

People who are Notre Dame football fans and/or alumni of the University in Indiana that is most famous for its football prowess are hard for me to stomach.  I know a  few Notre Dame alums, and they are even more arrogant and conceited about it than you would find of Duke, Northwestern or Harvard grads.

You may think me a jerk for thinking and writing this.  You, yourself, may be one of those people who, for whatever reason, root for the Fighting Irish to win their football games.  Unless you are an alum of the school, I would ask you why.

For some reason, the sportscasts in the Chicago area always seem compelled to report on Notre Dame football scores during the season, often before they report on the Northwestern score or other Illinois schools.

For those of us who root on Chicago-area teams, I really could not give a crap about what Notre Dame does or does not do in football.  If their football team never won another game for the next decade, I would be fine with that.

Nobody epitomizes Notre Dame football in my mind and the mind of many others like Lou Holtz.  He led the Fighting Irish to the National Championship in 1988, forever gaining fame and accolades for his leadership and coaching abilities.

He served as head coach for eleven years and took his team to to nine straight New Year’s Day bowl games from 1987 through ’95 and coached the Irish to finishes of sixth or better in the final Associated Press poll in five seasons per Notre Dame’s sports website.

I am not a college sports fan, in general, knowing that most college athletes are only token students, at best, and mostly there for their sport or sports.

The manner in which the UW football players were coddled while I attended made me sick, and the team barely won any games in the five seasons spanning 1988 to 1992.  This was well before their Rose Bowl days, but had you met any of the players, you might have thought that every one of them was a Rose Bowl MVP and shoo-in first round NFL draft pick by their attitudes.

Per www.sports-reference.com, the Badgers’ record was 14 wins against 45 losses during the five football seasons that I spent on campus, yet if you met any of the players at a party, you might have thought that their record was 45 and 14 with five straight bowl game bids.

25 1992 Big Ten 5 6 0 .455 2.34 1.89 Barry Alvarez (5-6)
26 1991 Big Ten 5 6 0 .455 -2.86 -1.50 Barry Alvarez (5-6)
27 1990 Big Ten 1 10 0 .091 -6.73 6.00 Barry Alvarez (1-10)
28 1989 Big Ten 2 9 0 .182 -8.67 4.05 Don Morton (2-9)
29 1988 Big Ten 1 10 0 .091 -12.99 3.01 Don Morton (1-10)

So how did I glean such excellent advice from Lou Holtz, a man who I never met and who I generally despised during his coaching tenure?  A middle aged Middle Class Guy living in a middle class neighborhood in the Midwest?

By purchasing and reading a used copy of Winning Every Day, a book that Holtz authored in and was published the same year that my son was born, in 1998.

Image result for winning every day lou holtz

Before I detail my nine primary takeaways from Holtz’s book, I should mention that I no longer despise him, even though I would still root against Notre Dame in any given game.

Without summarizing his life story, Holtz is a scrawny five-foot-ten 150 pound guy with thick glasses who was born into a poor family in 1937. Nobody in either side of his family had ever even been to college, and he details how he worked his way up through the coaching ranks for many years, sticking to his high standards all the while until reaching the pinnacle of college coaching that allowed him to gain admiration from millions of people and even convinced me to buy a book by him.  Who could not use advice from a man with intense focus and commitment to become a champion?

Here are a few pieces of advice that Coach gave me.

Have a Strategy

Holtz writes that much of what he accomplished came out of a strategy that he devised many years ago.  He says that choices are your game plan’s bricks and mortar.  We choose to act or procrastinate, believe or doubt, help or hinder and, ultimately, to succeed or fail.

Holtz writes that his book is designed to help the reader put your game face on and to ensure that you are in a winning frame of mind every time that you charge out onto the field.

You Are What You Think

Holtz writes that winners and losers are not born, but are products of how they think.  Mothers do not give birth to lawyers, doctors, scientists, business owners, bank presidents or successful football coaches.

What those individuals become is a matter of the choices that they make. He urges the reader to eschew mediocrity while embracing greatness and to welcome adversity as a test of your resolve.

Have Goals

Like many other motivational books that I have read, Coach Holtz urges the reader to get back in touch with the dreams that you once had.

He writes about writing out a list of his own goals, breaking them up into five categories of things that he wanted to accomplish:

  1. As a husband/father
  2. Spiritually
  3. Professionally
  4. Financially
  5. Simply for excitement

Coach Holtz had some interesting items on his “for excitement” list including attending a White House dinner with the president, meeting the pope and jumping out of an airplane.  Mine and yours might not be so lofty, but I think that I might have to try this out and list out some goals of my own.  Not New Year’s Resolutions, mind you, but goals that I generally have that amount to dreams of things that I want to accomplish before I leave God’s Green Earth.

Saving As Sacrifice

Even a successful college football coach has to think about saving for the future.  You can read about Coach Holtz’s many years of struggling at smaller, lower paying jobs than the ones that he later became famous for. His first big-time coaching job as an assistant at the College of William and Mary paid him $5,900.

Coach Holtz writes that he and his wife decided to invest 5 percent of every paycheck into a savings account.  He employed the Pay Yourself First method as described by every financial guru on Earth and pretended that it was a bill and made it their first priority every month.

He said that every time you put a dollar in your savings account, you’re making a sacrifice.   Holtz writes of the sacrifices that he and his wife made, but it was important for them to build a nest egg.

Image result for build a nest egg
Source: Lifecoach.com

As Coach told me, “With the money we saved, we were eventually able to buy a house and send our children to the colleges of their choice.”

Tackle Adversity

Have you ever had any adversity?  I have.  Are you facing adversity right now?  I am.

Holtz writes that we could complain about the terrible things that befall us, but that would be a waste of time.  Adversity is part of life.

Holtz and I have something in common in that we have never met anyone who achieved success without first overcoming some misfortune.  If Coach or I asked you to discuss your accomplishments, you would highlight the obstacles that you overcame to achieve your goals.

Preparation is Key

Coach says that preparation dispels pressure because it builds confidence.

He uses the example of a salesperson rather than a football team, but writes that they can’t do what they need to do to reach their full potential unless they do their homework.

If you are going to sell – as I am going to have to do tomorrow in a meeting with a potential business on behalf of my town – you have to arm yourself with information about your products.  Learn as much about them as you can so you can dazzle your customers with your expertise.

Great advice from the Coach, and a good reminder for me to review details of the property that I am going to pitch tomorrow.  Square footage and price are a given in this case, but I am also going to review the traffic patterns, one-, two- and three-mile demographics, drive time demographics, nearest competing businesses, Assessed value and taxation history of the property and many other items before my 10:00 a.m. meeting so that I am as prepared as Coach would want me to be.

If I am going to Win this one, which would be to attract a much-desired business to the community, preparation is key.

High Standards Start With You

Coach says that you want to work with someone who is committed to excellence.  He says that it is the only criteria.  You would not want to be operated on by a surgeon because he submitted the lowest price for the job.

He also says that it is important never to underestimate any individual’s capabilities.  In his coaching philosophy, which can easily be transmitted to your and my place of work, Holtz writes that while you should demand more from your ultra talents, you should have the same requirement for each player on your team: Give me everything you have.

Words Have Weight

When Coach told me this, it really hit me.  He said that rhetoric is a weapon.  We often string together phrases to persuade, but persuasion can become coercion.  He asked if we can tell the difference between communication and manipulation.

What really struck a nerve is when he asked if I am one of those who has trouble hearing what people are saying because I am too busy framing a response in my head?  Yes, that’s me.  I do that.

I think very fast and always have something to add or clarify for those who I speak with.  But since reading Coach’s book, I have strove to not interrupt others in the past few weeks and to concentrate on what they are saying more.  This includes relatives, co-workers and business people who I work with.  Guess what?  Coach is right.  Every conversation becomes an adventure and their words touch deeply and evoke responses that I never imagined.

Thanks Coach.

The Future

When Coach Holtz told me that I don’t have a future, I did not understand. I hope to be around for future decades.

What Coach told me was that the future is not something breathing and alive waiting for you to encounter it.  You create it.  Your future does not exist until you decide what it should be.

Bright or bleak, vibrant or mundane, your life is what you make of it and the actions you choose will carry over because the future is nothing more than an extension of the present moment.

As Bill and Ted would say in their Excellent Adventure: “Whoa!”

I am glad that I decided to seek out Coach Holtz’s advice.  I will work on taking his words to heart and I hope that you do too.

 

 

 

Three States in Three Days for Three Bucks

Image result for illinois iowa and minnesota
Source: obamawhitehouse.archives.gov

I had recently listed several of my books on eBay, hoping to gain a few dollars while culling the hoard by a bit.  Most of the books that I “move along” are marked up with my notes and only sell for $2, $3 or $4 anyway, which is not really worth anyone’s while.

If you have never sold anything on eBay before, without looking up every percentage, when you sell something, say a book, for $3, eBay takes a cut and PayPal takes another cut when payment is made.

Unless you are an expert at shipping, which I am not, the cost vary based upon weight, distance being shipped, and type of mail, i.e., first class, media mail or what have you.

After listing eight books for auction in late March, only one of them sold.  It was a beautiful leather-bound volume of short stories that I sold for $31.  I listed $3.99 as the shipping price, U.S. only, so a payment of $34.99 was made to my wife’s PayPal account after I used her eBay account to sell the book.

When someone pays you for the purchase made on eBay, you are informed and receive information about where to ship it to.

In this case, the purchaser of the old leather-bound short story book was a guy in Minnesota.  Probably another middle aged, Middle Class Guy in the Midwest, but Minnesota is a state that I have never been to and have no desire to go to.  I hear that it is very beautiful throughout the warmer months, but Minnesota’s winters are crazy when compared to Chicago’s winters, which are crazy enough for me.

My wife helped me wrap the heck out of the book, using bubble wrap, a Trader Joe’s bag cut up into the wrapping paper, and then we taped the Hell out of it, taping every corner and crease and also applying tape over our address and the recipient’s so it would not get scuffed on any rainy days or mishandling between the northwest burbs and Minnesota.

After the lazy clerk at my local town’s post office weighed the item, asked me twice if there was anything hazardous, etc., with me replying twice “It’s just a book,” she told me that it would be a little over three bucks to send the item to Baxter, Minnesota.  $3.12 to be exact.

What surprised me was when she pointed out a tracking number and said that I could track the item, which previously would have required an additional payment at least as high as the three bucks.

I thanked her, saved the receipt, and tracked the item traveling from my own clutches on 10:11 a.m. on March 28th to the purchaser’s mailbox at 2:31 p.m. on the 31st:

USPS Tracking® Results

Tracking Number: XXXXXXXXX

Delivered

Updated Delivery Day: Friday, March 31, 2017

Product & Tracking Information

Postal Product: Media Mail Features: USPS Tracking®  
DATE & TIME STATUS OF ITEM LOCATION
March 31, 2017,    2:31 pm Delivered, In/At Mailbox BAXTER, MN 56425 
Your item was delivered in or at the mailbox at 2:31 pm on March 31, 2017 in BAXTER, MN 56425.
March 31, 2017, 7:48 am Out for Delivery BAXTER, MN 56425
March 31, 2017, 7:38 am Sorting Complete BAXTER, MN 56425
March 31, 2017, 4:24 am Arrived at Post Office BAXTER, MN 56425
March 31, 2017, 3:19 am Arrived at USPS Facility BAXTER, MN 56425
March 30, 2017, 10:40 pm Arrived at USPS Facility SAINT PAUL, MN 55111
March 30, 2017, 4:37 pm Departed USPS Facility SAINT PAUL, MN 55121
March 30, 2017, 2:56 am Arrived at USPS Destination Facility SAINT PAUL, MN 55121
March 29, 2017, 4:01 pm Departed USPS Facility DES MOINES, IA 50395
March 29, 2017, 2:02 pm Arrived at USPS Origin Facility DES MOINES, IA 50395
March 29, 2017, 2:59 am Departed USPS Facility CAROL STREAM, IL 60199
March 28, 2017, 7:19 pm Arrived at USPS Origin Facility CAROL STREAM, IL 60199
March 28, 2017, 6:56 pm Departed Post Office (MY TOWN), IL 60XXX
March 28, 2017, 10:11 am Acceptance (MY TOWN), IL 60XXX

As you can see, in my area, mail goes out to a town called Carol Stream for sorting on the 28th, and left from there on the 29th.

From there, the book made a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, where it spent the afternoon of March 29th, before heading off to Minnesota, where it arrived around 3:00 a.m. the following morning.

Less than twelve hour later, it made it to the mailbox of the purchaser in the tiny town of Baxter, with a population of under 8,000 at the last census and lily white, at 97%.

I have had many complaints about our postal service over the years including days where we were skipped and many times when we get mail from someone with the same numbers in their address, but on different streets in our neighborhood.  We have also occasionally not received things that were shipped via USPS or have received damaged or opened packages.

I am sure that if you have been around as long as I have, you have similar stories.

However, in this instance I am highly impressed that not only did the book that I shipped make it from my local northwest suburb of Chicago to a small town that I had never heard of in Minnesota, but that I could also track its progress and all for a measly three bucks.

Image result for three dollars
Source: blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/

Caught Between The Scylla and Charybdis

Image result for caught between scylla and charybdis
Source: tractsofrevolution.com

As I often write, I read hundreds of articles per month in dozens of publications, many in print and many more online.

In my readings last week, I happened across Geoffrey L. Brackett’s post on the Higher Education Today blog entitled “Between Scylla and Charybdis: Navigating the Cost of College.”

I often read, think and experience stress about the insanely high cost of sending my two very bright and talented children to college without making them, or us, go broke.

I know that things have changed over the nearly three decades since my wife and I both entered the UW as freshmen in fall 1998.  Both of our parents covered the costs of our undergraduate educations, although as an in-state student, my wife’s costs were a small fraction of mine as an Illinoisan attending the school.  By the way, the Cheeseheads in my freshman dorm typically referred to those of us from Illinois as FIBs: F-ing Illinois Bastards.

Image result for fib illinois bastard
Source: www.blacktable.com/whitacre040930.htm

I recall the phrase of being stuck between the Scylla and Charybdis from the lyrics from one of my favorite 80’s songs, Wrapped Around Your Finger by the Police:

You consider me the young apprentice
Caught between the Scylla and Charibdis
Hypnotized by you if I should linger
Staring at the ring around your finger

I also recall the scene from one of my favorite books that I read, memorized things about and wrote papers about in both high school and college, Homer’s Odyssey, when the hero must navigate his ship between the cave-dwelling six-headed monster Scylla and the ship-destroying whirlpool known as Charybdis.

As a Middle Class Guy, I feel similar to Odysseus as he must navigate this dangerous passage, while helping our son survive his freshman year of college, prepare for paying for and completing his next three, likely to be followed by graduate school while our daughter enters her college years.

Paying for college while also trying to save for retirement while also footing the considerable bills and costs of maintaining a middle class household in the northwest suburbs of Chicago is definitely challenging for me.

As I previously written, I saved a cool hundred grand for our son’s undergraduate years, and am closing in on the same amount for our daughter, who is set to graduate from eighth grade this spring and enter high school this fall.  No small task for a family whose household income has exceeded one hundred thousand for only the past three years.  I was socking away $1,000 per month for my kids’ college back when I was still making in the seventies.

If the stock market crashes, all bets are off.  If it does not, then I should meet my $100 K goal for her by the end of 2018, mid-way through her sophomore year.  As I have previously mentioned, I currently automatically send $400 per month to her Bright Start account on the first of every month.  I used to send $500 per month to both of my children’s accounts; however, paying for two sets of braces forced me into cutting that amount by a little.

As a Middle Class Guy who is also middle aged and living in the Midwest, I often feel stuck between a rock and a hard place or, in this case, like Odysseus or the Young Apprentice caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.

When it comes to paying for college, I am in the middle of the Middle Class.  Those with little or nothing are paying little or nothing at my son’s college.  With a $48,000 sticker price, only the very rich kids with little or no scholarship-type talents pay anywhere near that much.  Those with Middle Class Guy amounts of money and savings, like me, pay dearly.

Although, I must admit that I do know quite a few families that have told me that they are paying $30,000 or more out-of-pocket, which is definitely more than the $26,000 or so that we are paying.  And paying it,, we are.

Brackett’s article points out that for Generation X parents, like my wife and I are, with kids in the college pipeline, many of us still have our own debt and these expenses are a source of major concern.  No kidding!

Many people my age have experienced job loss, foreclosure, or both.  I consider myself lucky that I remain gainfully employed in the difficult field of economic development, and made especially difficult by the f-ed up State and one of the counties that I work in.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust’s 2015 report, The Precarious Sate of Family Balance Sheets, the typical middle income family is unprepared for a major economic shock:

“Unfortunately, a majority of American families are experiencing financial strain at the intersection of these balance sheet elements: • Almost 55 percent of households are savings-limited, meaning they cannot replace even one month of their income through liquid savings (money in cash, checking accounts, and savings accounts).

• Just under half of households are income-constrained, meaning they perceive that their household spending is greater than or equal to their household income.

• And 8 percent are debt-challenged, which means they report debt-payment obligations that are 41 percent or more of their gross monthly income.

Seventy percent of U.S. households face at least one of these three challenges, and more than a third face two or even all three at the same time. (See Figure 11.) These statistics have been fairly stable, including before and during the recent recession.”

Talk about being caught between the Scylla and Charybdis!

I am one of those who believes that a college education is a must-have. Not necessarily for what you learn, but that piece of paper serves today much as a high school diploma served decades ago.  It should show a minimum baseline of knowledge, work ethic and the ability to follow through on assignments.

You could read all day about the massive debt burden of the average U.S. college graduate in 2017.  It was recently reported in Forbes that the $1.3 trillion in U.S. student debt now surpasses both credit card debt and auto loan debt and is second only to mortgage debt in the Good Old U.S. of A.

Source: Forbes

The latest student debt statistics now show an average debt of $37,000 and that the country’s student debt load increased by an additional $31 billion in the fourth quarter of 2016.

Brackett cites his own institution’s December 2016 poll, which finds that more than one-third of households are having trouble making ends meet.

According to the poll, 65% of Americans say that, financially, they either live comfortably, 39%, or meet their basic expenses with a little left over for extras, 26%.  However, a notable 34% of U.S. residents report they just meet their basic expenses, 24%, or do not have enough money to meet their basic needs, 10%.

I suppose if I were to be perfectly honest about it, my family and I fall within the 26% who meet our basic expenses with a little left over for extras.  If I could make some money writing, we could edge closer to the 39% who “live comfortably,” but we are definitely not in that category now, nor have we been for over twenty years since our wedding.

We are only a few missed paychecks away from truly being…

 

Live From New York…

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Source: CafePress

I have spent many a Saturday night watching SNL.

It began when I had my first babysitting job, sitting for the young five-year-old daughter of my Hebrew tutor when I was a mere twelve-year-old, back in 1983.  My parents never really watched it, and it was on too late and was to risque for me up to that point.  Once I was babysitting past 10:30 p.m. central time, with my young charge tucked into bed, I could watch whatever I wanted.

Remember, this was prior to the cable TV age in Chicago, and even when cable came out, my own family did not get it until around 1990.  Those of us who grew up in Chicago remember the channels well, Channel 2 (CBS), Channel 5 (NBC), Channel 7 (ABC), Channel 9 (WGN), Channel 11 (WTTW), Channel 26 (WCIU), Channel 32 (WFLD), Channel 50 and Channel 66, showing Spanish shows.

SNL was by far the best thing on that late at night.

This was the ninth season of the show, but the first for Yours Truly Middle Class Guy, so the cast remains special to me.  Cast members included my number one pick, Eddie Murphy, as well as Joe Piscopo, Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and even included one of my and many others’ least-favorite actors, the less funny brother of the late John Belushi.

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Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy as Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder singing Ebony and Ivory

I have watched the show on and off since then, and have witnessed many funny and even more not-so-funny actors over the past thirty-four years.

The bug for this post was planted in my brain in February 2015 when I purchased the Rolling Stone magazine with Rob Sheffield’s insanely ambitious, ruthlessly exhaustive ranking of every ‘SNL’ player ever.

I read it thoroughly, thought about it a lot, and have my own thoughts on the topic.  Even more so now, since I look forward to viewing Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of the POTUS.

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Source: CNN.com

It may just be the recency effect playing upon me, but Baldwin has definitely shot up into the top three in my book with his portrayal of the buffoon in charge of the country.

The top ten as described by CBS Local from Las Vegas back in February 2015:

#10.  Chevy Chase – You know the cocky guy in your office that everybody hates, but they all want to top him?  Yep, that was Chevy Chase.

#9.  Gilda Radner – She should have had more of a career after she left SNL in 1980.  And, yes, she did die way too young.

#8.  Amy Poehler – Do you get the feeling that Kristen Wiig is raising her very small hands, saying, “Excuse me, I was the Target lady!”

#7.  Phil Hartman – The Everyman.  The Straight Guy.  And here’s a strange fact: the woman that’s he’s talking to in the bar in the show’s opening credits is his real-life wife.  She killed him in 1988.

#6.  Bill Murray – Holds the distinction of being the first “new” cast member ever on SNL when he took Chevy Chase’s vacated spot in 1977.

#5.  Dan Akroyd – The dude pureed a fish in a blender on live, national TV.  That’s worthy of the 5th ranking right there.

#4.  Mike Myers – Where have you gone, Mike?  I know you did Dr. Evil on SNL a few weeks back, but it’s time to come out of hiding for good.  Please.  We need you.

#3.  Tina Fey – I don’t think there’s any cast member in the history of Saturday Night Live who was more made to do this show.  She was 5 years-old when SNL debuted in 1975.  You get the feeling that she watched every episode of the show from ’75 until she debut in 2000.  As Rolling Stone so eloquently put it, Tina Fey “almost made it worth having Palin around.”

#2.  Eddie Murphy – This is my #1 choice.  If there is no Eddie Murphy, then there is no 40th Anniversary of SNL because he was the ONLY reason to watch the show from 1980 until 1984.  The show would have been yanked off the schedule in 1981 if it were’t for Murphy’s James Brown, Gumby, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, Buckwheat, Stevie Wonder…  I could go on.  He was the youngest ever… and the best ever.

#1.  John Belushi – Listen, I would never hate on John Belushi.  But saying Belushi was the best SNL cast member ever is like saying Mickey Mantle was the best New York Yankee ever.  You can make a case for each, but you could also argue each was amazing BECAUSE of his teammates.  Eddie Murphy had Joe Piscopo… and that was it!  Belushi could play off Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris and the rest of the original brilliant cast.  Belushi led a Hall of Fame TEAM…  Murphy was a one-man comedy wrecking ball.

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Rolling Stone ranked John Belushi #1.

Like in this article, Eddie Murphy is also my #1 choice but, then again, John Belushi died before I watched my first episode.  Of course, I have watched his cheeseburger routine many a time and also a bumble bee routine and loved him in the Blues Brothers.

There are some heavyweights in the next few including Dana Carvey at #11, Will Ferrell at #12, Bill Hader at #13, Chris Farley at #15 and Adam Sandler at #17.  Rachel Dratch at #16 and Maya Rudolph at #18 were not favorites of mine, but I admit that they were good.

I am glad that Bill Hader was ranked very highly, among Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler.  Although I do not know of him in any major blockbuster movies like the other three named, he certainly was hilarious on SNL, which makes me wonder why he never went on to great fame like the others.

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Bill Hader was a favorite of mine on SNL. Source: IFC.com

In my book, Will Ferrell would crack the top ten.   Amy Poehler could be dropped by about twenty to #28, and Jimmy Fallon could rise a few notches above #36.

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Will Ferrell would definitely make my top ten. Probably #2 on my list.

While discussing this post and this list with my wife, we reminisced about some of those on the list and, needless to say, we have some differences of opinion on the rankings.

I also subscribe to Time magazine, and came across an article by Daniel D’Addario this past February describing the show’s sketch format as prehistoric, but reporting that the February 11th episode hosted by Baldwin was SNL‘s most-watched episode in six years. Among the key demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds, it scored higher ratings than any prime-time programming that week.

Even though Trump dismisses the show as stupid, boring and “the worst of NBC,” I am liking SNL again after not caring much for it the past few years.

Although I am on Twitter, just to follow lots of other accounts, I refuse to follow the President’s.  In case you have not gathered as much, I do not care for him as a person or as the Leader of the Free World.  Thus, I will not look at or follow his Twitter account, but hear or read about his Tweets nearly every single day.

Case in point, an article entitled Alec Baldwin Goes High as Donald Trump Goes Low in SNL Twitter Battle on the Daily Beast back in January:

“Using the occasion as an excuse to extend his war on the free press to yet another mainstream media outlet, Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon, “@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”

.@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!

Of course, Trump not liking Baldwin’s impressions and being so incredibly thin-skinned about it just makes guys like me like it more.

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Darrel Hammond played Bill Clinton to a tee. Source: NBC.com

I recall seeing every President during the last thirty years from Carter to Reagan to Clinton to the Bushes to Obama lampooned on this show.

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Fred Armisen portrayed Obama. Source: www.nbcdfw.com

So why shouldn’t the by-far biggest buffoon and most inept occupant of the Oval Office in my forty-six years of life be made fun of?  Trump getting so pissy about it just makes it funnier.