Friday, May 15, 2015

Finding Splendor in the Ordinary--Part One

Almost all the writers I read about say they knew they were going to write along about Kindergarten time. Not me. I didn’t write seriously until deep into middle age. And when I began, I didn’t really think of myself as a writer. Writers were weird.

Parents with the best of intentions tell their kids they can be whatever they want to be. My daddy used to say, “Son, there’s no such word as can’t.” I owe him a debt of gratitude for that. But the truth is, we sometimes really can’t become what we most want to be. I could not be a pro athlete like I dreamed. Just didn’t have the body or the skills, not matter how long I practiced.

But we can make the best use of the talents and physical skills God gave us.

I once had a unique opportunity to get to know a well-known motivational speaker and author. In a rare one-on-one conversation, I found the courage to make an admission. “After reading books, attending  seminars, and listening to motivational tapes for years, I have come to the conclusion that this feel-good rhetoric just does not work for me.” He asked why and I answered, “I’m just an average guy with realistic expectations for myself. The rah-rah stuff is just not me.”

He answered, “But don’t you see? Being ordinary is a gift. You know what ordinary people want, need, understand and enjoy because you are one of them. You can communicate with ordinary people by the written and spoken word because your language is their language.”
Still, who wants to be called ordinary or mediocre? But it did get me to thinking. Twenty years before my first book, I began keeping a journal, then making notes about ideas and recollections that came to mind. Writing them down brought a veritable onslaught of memories from the deep recesses of my mind. And I somehow knew that those memories must not be dropped back into the grave of forgotten moments in time.

In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, acclaimed author Brad Meltzer says his core belief is that ordinary people change the world.

A book you write may not change the world, but it’s almost guaranteed to change you. By writing, you can relate your own misgivings, doubts, and how achieving a purpose is a lifelong journey that may not happen in the order we want it to. In my book, A River of Stories, I quote Frederick Buechner, . . . “a book you write, like a dream you dream, can have more healing and truth and wisdom in it (at least for yourself) than you feel in any way responsible for.”

Ordinary people can be writers. In fact, well-adjusted people should write more books. I think there should be more memoirs about good parents and handling the blessings as well as the tragedies of life.

Boring you say? Nonsense. What’s more interesting than to reach into the lives of ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations? Brad Meltzer, in that same article, said, “I have no interest in the great person, I have interest in the regular person who finds that great moment within himself.”

Anton Chekhov said, “Any idiot can face a crisis---it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” I don’t know about the first part, but the last part is definitely true. And that’s why stories of ordinary people living their day-to-day lives can be filled with splendor. 

So how do we find that splendor in the ordinary? First, we have to recognize, no matter how hard it is, no matter how skeptical we are, that all our lives are filled with splendor—and that splendor often comes from adversity. Writers find a way to bring that splendor out of the depths of our subconscious and put it on paper. Ravi Zacharias in his book The Grand Weaver, said, “… how easily we take for granted the gift of being normal. Sometimes those of us who have been blessed the most seem to be the least grateful of seeing God’s gracious hand on us.”

So what form will your splendor take—a memoir, an autobiography, a biography, a children’s book, or a novel? And who will want to read something that comes from an unknown writer?

Answer: The form it takes should not be your primary concern. Just start organizing your notes and writing a few scenes. The form will come to you.

More about what distinguishes an also-ran from a winner and finding splendor next time.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Which Comes First?

Most of the stories of my years advising clients on tax and financial matters have happy endings.

But recent conversations and requests for advice by some reveal that the primary problems facing Middle America are the same ones faced when I was in the business, only much worse.

Too many believe that managing their money is unpleasant and arduous. The opposite is true. The management and enjoyment of money are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the only way to truly enjoy your money over a long period is to manage it wisely. Otherwise, you may go through life enduring one crisis after another. 

Most financial problems can be traced back to one fundamental mistake—the failure to build and keep an emergency (or comfort/safety) fund. A comfort fund lays the foundation for the rest of your financial life. You must save before you invest for complete financial freedom. 

Why do we need a comfort fund? Because things happen—always have, always will. Cars and appliances malfunction, tires wear out, plumbing breaks, accidents, injuries, and surgeries happen . . . and jobs are lost. That’s a partial list of things guaranteed to happen—and most happen when least expected.

If you don’t have the available funds to handle these inevitable events, the problem is always intensified. If enough of them happen, they can cause financial disaster. You may start “flushing” money on late fees, interest, penalties, and you can ruin your credit.

So how do you build a comfort fund? The cliché is that people are penny-wise and pound-foolish. They pinch pennies while spending dollars lavishly. I found the opposite to be true with many middle-income clients who are rational about their money. 

Couples who seem to be living a barebones lifestyle usually have “leaks” (expenditures for little things) that keep them from saving. They don’t drive fancy cars or live extravagantly, are neither shopaholics nor abusers of credit cards. Their money dribbles away a dollar or two at a time. The leaks are hard to find, because they are usually paid for with cash. 

With credit cards, a “day of reckoning” comes when the bill arrives. For cash leaks, there is no such day. Most don’t even know they’re wasting money. 

“It takes every cent we make to keep things going.” Rarely is that accurate. If you are not saving at least 10% of your take-home pay, you are living beyond your means. So how does one do what seems impossible? Here are a few hints.

Withhold only enough cash for emergencies when you deposit your paycheck. 

Set up a separate account for your comfort fund. Put 10% into that fund before you put a dime into your checking account. Think of your checking account as a bottomless well and your savings account as a locked treasure box.

Saving is a reward, not a punishment. You reap huge benefits from doing it.

Set priorities on expenses. Is it a need or just a want? Does everyone in the family really need the latest smart phone? Which is more important—a new car or saving for a down payment on a nice house? Ever see a $50K car in front of a dilapidated house?

Know the balance in your accounts at all times and reconcile them monthly to see where your money is going. 

Tobacco? Quit. A tobacco habit wastes enough money to educate two children.

Alcohol?  It’s very expensive, usually exacerbates your financial woes instead of drowning them.
Stop saying, “It’s only.” Confession: I like Cokes. I used to drink at least one a day. Soft drinks from a vendor or restaurant usually cost more than double their cost at the grocery store. If a family of four consumes just twelve (3 each) $2 soft drinks a week, that’s more than $12K in ten years for drinks that are harmful to your health and your pocketbook.

Bottled water costs roughly 2000X the cost of tap. In many cases, it isn’t any better.

So stop with “It’s only.” Everything counts.

Does this mean you can’t enjoy life’s little pleasures? No. Just be discriminate and you will actually enjoy more big and small pleasures that come with financial security.  

Always buy from a list, never on impulse.

Keep a want list for things you want but don’t have to have. Most wants go away in a month.

Take care of your stuff. Maintenance now saves big later.

For each major purchase consider  where it will increase your net worth, help you to be more financially secure, make you smarter, advance your career, improve your life in measurable ways. If not, pass.

Will the purchase hold its value or even grow in value (stocks, bonds, real estate) or will it rapidly depreciate (cars, furniture)? 

Will skipping the purchase have a serious negative impact on your life?

Start with a goal of one month’s salary in your fund. Keep building until you have a year’s salary. Don’t use it unless you have to. Replenish if you do.

Nobody wants to be a skinflint or tightwad. You don’t have to be. Just be frugal—it’s wise. Plus, your children will learn from watching what you do. Also, conservative folks are much more generous with good causes than spendthrifts. Listen to a story about a man who spent his life working at low-paying jobs, yet accumulated $8 million. 

Yes, I am keenly aware that clueless politicians and bureaucrats punish savers by overtaxing and by keeping interest rates artificially low. This arbitrary manipulation of rates causes bubbles and busts much more than letting the free market set rates. But until we can get new leadership, we still have to save. 

One more thing. A lot of these inept folks who have never started a business, never created a job, never competed in the private sector, believe that consuming drives the economy and creates jobs. Wrong! It’s production of goods and services that does both, not consumption. Think about it. Which comes first?

Yes, someone has to buy those goods and services, but even retail jobs are created by someone producing a product to meet a need or want that we often don’t even know we have (think smart phones). 

And saving and investing is what fuels production. When you put your money in the bank or into a stock or bond, then money is fed back into the economy and used to produce products and create jobs. So you’re not only helping yourself, you’re helping America.