Tag Archives: financial planning

Easy Street Detour

When I was 26 years old, I thought 46 was ancient. That 20-year span of life seemed like eons back then – more than enough time to live life to the fullest before I turned into an old hag.

Now that I’m 46, I don’t have enough time to be an old hag. In fact, the last 20 years seems to have flown by like some kind of runaway train, and just when we thought we’d be on Easy Street, life is more hectic than ever.

What happened? Did we take a wrong turn? Will we ever reach our destination?

Obviously, when I was in my 20s, I was naïve. I knew that we’d have to work hard for the next 20 years to establish careers, buy a house, raise children, and save for college and retirement. But I thought by the time we reached our 40s, our life would look like one of those trendy wine commercials with handsome middle-aged post-yuppies lounging in Adirondack chairs at their lake house after 18 holes of golf, secure in the knowledge that they’re saving far more than they spend.

The eldest child, smartly garbed in a J. Crew sweater which compliments his sun kissed hair and excellent orthodontic work, asks to borrow the keys to the imported European car, which was purchased new with cash. With a chuckle, they toss him the keys. After all, the college acceptance letters are rolling in and he’s becoming a fine upstanding young man — it’s time to let him spread his wings and fly. They nibble overpriced smoked Gouda and toast to their beautiful life.

“California Chardonnay from XYZ Vinyards . . . because you’ve earned it.”

Fade to black.

Unfortunately, my life at 40-something is nothing like a chardonnay commercial. Maybe an ad for laundry detergent, or antacids, or Hamburger Helper, but definitely not fine wine.

Although we have two plastic Adirondack chairs my husband picked up at the grocery for $9.99 each while buying dog food, we don’t own a lake house. We faithfully contribute to our college and retirement funds, but have not attained the kind of financial security that enables one to casually nibble expensive specialty cheese after 18 holes of golf. Despite the fact that every molecule of our energy, attention, and financial planning goes into raising our kids to become independent, we aren’t ready to lend our eldest the keys to our dirty white minivan, much less an expensive foreign import.

To the contrary, our days are filled with work, running the kids to and from school and activities, monitoring homework, checking grades, paying bills, incessant errands, endless laundry, and throwing dinner together at the last minute. Rather than golf, our free time these days is largely spent collapsing. Collapsing onto the couch to zone out into a mindless television show, or onto the bed to sleep so we can wake up and do it all over again the next day.

On weekends, we treat ourselves to pizza and TWO movie rentals. Now that’s livin’.

What have we done wrong? Does life get any easier? When can we sit back and enjoy what we’ve worked so hard for? Will we ever casually nibble expensive specialty cheese after 18 holes of golf?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I figure, if we can manage to make it through this gauntlet of child rearing without losing our minds and our neglected friends, we will reach our destination one of these days.

detour

We may never find Easy Street, but as long as we keep going, we’ll find our own way. The ride may have ups and downs and twists and turns, and we may get lost every once in a while, but sometimes it’s the detours that make the trip interesting.

No matter how we get there, when we finally arrive, there will surely be a chair for us to sit – not collapse, but sit – in and relax. It may not be an Adirondack chair overlooking a lake, it may just be a lawn chair overlooking the back yard sprinkler. The point is – someday, we will be able to stop and smell the proverbial roses, or dandelions as the case may be.

No one ever said life was easy, but when you consider the richness of the journey, it’s easy to see why we took this trip in the first place.

plasticchair

Hypothetically Speaking, Of Course

With two children, one in the oven, and a new mortgage breathing down our backs, my husband and I were more than nervous about our financial situation a decade ago.  A couple bad personal financial planners left us doubtful that there were any decent, honest people out there who could give us good advice about our college plans and retirement.

Our first financial manager was more like a used car salesman, placing supreme importance on his commission and his hypnotically colorful pie charts.  Our second consultant was knowledgeable, but could not hide his secret life as a regular customer of the local escort services. 

Third time’s a charm, they say, but we were skeptical about finding Mr. Right after meeting Mr. Cheeseball and Mr. Pervert.

Waiting in the lobby of our third financial guy’s office, we wondered if he might be in the witness protection program or on parole for a double murder. A receptionist brought us Styrofoam cups of coffee and led us to an office filled with family photos, basketball trophies, and children’s artwork.  As we waited for the new guy, we wondered if the poor family in the photos knew that their husband/father was really a hit man for the mob.

After a few minutes, our new financial manager walked into the room with a folder under one arm and a “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee cup in the other. He was a tall, wore glasses, and had a warm smile. We imagined the horror that the tellers must’ve experienced at gunpoint when he robbed all those banks out in the Midwest.

Our new guy introduced himself as Russell, and we started to talk.

Regardless of our complete cynicism about him, we knew we would hand over our life savings, just like we did with The Cheeseball and The Pervert, and allow him to invest it for us. But this time, things would be different. Sure we’ll give you every penny we’ve got, but we’ll never trust you.

At our fourth or fifth meeting, Russell was so exasperated with our suspicions, he slumped into his chair, put his hands over his eyes and said, “Do you have any idea how little money I make from your account?”  Dropping his hands onto his lap, he said, “Exactly eleven dollars and seventy-five cents a month.”

Slowly but surely, Russell won our trust. He and his family lived nearby, and we ran into them all at school functions and community events. He chatted with my husband and I at a Cub Scout meeting one night, wearing a large dried-up splotch of spaghetti sauce on his chin. We didn’t have the heart to tell him about it. To us, the spaghetti sauce represented Russell’s private life and showed us that, perhaps, he had nothing to hide.

As our friend and financial advisor, Russell felt comfortable being completely blunt with us. It was refreshing, but on one particular occasion, his straight-talking style went a little too far.

He called us in for an annual review and to tell us about a couple new life insurance options. As usual, we were totally confused, and Russell struggled to make the concepts clear to us.  As he often did, he used a personal hypothetical to explain.

“Ok, how can I clarify this….What’s the name of your youngest again?” he asked.

“You mean our five-year-old, Lilly?” I asked.

“Yes! Lilly! Ok, let’s say Lilly turns sixteen, and she get’s pregnant,” he said as his eyes looked around the room for the next part of his story.

“And then, God forbid, she dies tragically, and you are left with the kid,” he continues.

“How much more income are you going to need to cover the added expenses of raising your grandchild?” he glances across his desk proud of his detailed hypothetical.

As I see my husband counting on his fingers, I exclaim, “Hold on a second. Do you really think you are going to sell us a life insurance policy based on some hypothetical contingency involving the teenage pregnancy and death of our five-year-old daughter?”

Russell chuckled at his own mistake, thought a minute, and with his finger raised, said, “OK, OK, never mind about Lilly. Let’s use my six-year-old as the example. OK. Annie turns sixteen and gets pregnant. A few years later, she tragically dies, and we are left with the kid….”

“Russell!” I shrieked. Needless to say, we did not buy the life insurance.

Despite the unfortunate hypothetical, we contact Russell every year, and he helps us manage our money.

Each time, we look at him like deer in the headlights, and he has to re-explain how it all works.  He uses graphs, props and his dry-erase board to drill the simple principles of personal financial management into our heads, and every year we think we’ve finally got it. Ten minutes after walking out of his office, we have no idea what we are doing with our money.

Our financial manager may not be E.F. Hutton, Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch, or T. Rowe Price; but we’re just happy he’s not an axe murderer or an international spy.

We trudge right along, blindly faithful that, if we stick to his plan, we will be able to pay our mortgage. We will put our kids through college. We will have a little nest egg for our retirement. We’ll be OK.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Financial Ruin Can Be Fun!

Shortly after getting married, my husband and I knew we were going to need help.

A lot of help.

Facing my massive student loan debt and my husband’s maxed out credit cards from his single junior-grade lieutenant days, we decided to try a budget first. We sat down one night at our Montgomery Ward’s kitchen table and came up with our own debt reduction plan.

It worked, and within a couple years, we got rid of frivolous debt and started saving money. We were in control.

But then, something happened that turned our simple life plan on its end and threatened to ruin us financially — we had a baby.

Nothing spells financial panic like looking into the eyes of your newborn. 

Before the baby, we dreamed that our savings would go toward Caribbean getaways and self-indulgent automobile purchases.  We had no idea that the “fun” in our “fun money” would be sucked dry like milk from a bottle, and we would soon be scrambling to save money just to give the little rugrat a fighting chance in the world. 

Experiencing our first child and the resulting financial panic attack, we immediately called for help.

A few weeks later, a man in a suit arrived at our door, and we thought he was ready to sort out our money situation and tell us exactly what we needed to do to avoid certain disaster. But our new financial planner had other ideas.

Instead of getting down to brass tacks, he sat at our table (still the one from Montgomery Wards) and asked us a canned series of rhetorical questions from a script in his faux leather-bound three-ring binder.

“Do you want financial security for your family?”

“Would it make you proud to be able to send your kids to college?

“Would you like to retire with enough money to pay your bills and live a comfortable life?”

As he rattled off the absurd rehearsed questions, my husband and I glanced sideways at each other.  We knew that with each cautious “Yes” we were leading him through a flow chart that would necessarily end in us forking over a bunch of money so this guy could earn a commission. Although we were both disappointed that the man we thought would be our financial savior turned out to be a cheesy salesman, we couldn’t help but see the humor in the situation. 

We both silently answered his silly inquiries in our heads – Financial security? Hell no, we are plotting another Nick Perry Triple Six Fix on the Daily Lottery so we are set! College tuition? Nah, we’re just shootin’ for junior to get his GED and support us with his online poker winnings. Retirement? Isn’t that what Social Security and Medicare are for? Let the government worry about it! 

After the painful presentation, we led Mr. Cheeseball out and politely waved toodaloo.  As the door clicked shut, my husband and I doubled over with pent up laughter.  The rest of the night was spent asking ridiculous rhetorical questions.

“Is it your dream to have edible food for tonight’s dinner?”

“Do you enjoy the feeling of good dental hygiene after brushing?”

“Is it your ambition to have hot coffee in the morning?”

A couple years later we tried again. Arriving at the office of a new financial consultant, we were relieved by his straightforward yet casual style. After very little small talk, he got right to it. No canned series of questions, no faux leather three ring binders, no glossy pie charts with pretty colors.

This short bald man knew his stuff, and we knew he was there to help us. He scrambled excitedly around his office like a chipmunk, gathering our financial nuts and building our little nest egg for the future.

At one point in the meeting, he was having some difficulty getting us to understand the various options for setting up college funds.  Loving the challenge, he tried simple verbal descriptions, dry erase board drawings, and even hand motions. Seeing us still dazed, he scurried behind his desk to retrieve an explanatory graph that he had saved on his computer.

As his plump frame plopped into an oversized leather chair, he swung the monitor around so we could see it. In his excitement, he hurriedly tapped the keyboard to display his computer desktop files, and the screensaver photo of his wife and kids blinked off.

We could hardly believe our eyes. Suddenly, our sense of relief over finding a trustworthy financial manager was shattered. There on his computer screen was a full color picture of a prostitute lounging in skimpy lingerie, advertising “Virginia Beach After Dark Escort Service.”

After a split second of intense shock, our perverted little financial manager quickly swung the monitor out of our view, found the college fund chart file, and began nervously jabbering away about 529 plans as if we had not seen his dark secret.

Not knowing what else to do, we went along with his little charade. Paperwork complete, we said falsely cordial good-byes and headed for the parking lot. 

Closing the doors of our 1992 Saturn, my husband and I looked at each other and exploded into repressed hysterical laughter, which continued uncontrollably the entire drive home. Every time we wiped the tears from our cheeks and tried to take a breath, one of us would remark, “We just gave that guy access to our life savings.” And the wheezing, tearful cackling would erupt all over again.

A couple months later, we got word that our sexually deviant financial planner was moving away, and we had to find someone new. We wondered, what kind of corrupt slimeball are we going to entrust with our money next?

[To be continued next week in “Part II: Hypothetically Speaking, Of Course."]

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