One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m a “do-it- yourself” kind of guy. There are things I know I can’t do but given the opportunity, I like to learn. It enriches my own capabilities, and broadens the resources with which I can be useful to others. On a couple of occasions when Judi and I bought and restored foreclosed homes as a hobby, YouTube provided instruction on various repairs I had never undertaken. Ever needed to install a ceiling light in a location where no rafter is available to secure the electric box? No problem. Want a nice tile floor to spruce up the bathroom ambiance? Tedious, but simple enough to do – if you have a level subfloor and good knees!
So perhaps it should be expected that when thinking about money and finance, I have preferred to learn how to manage funds and grow assets rather than rely exclusively on someone else. Even when the help of others is needed, it is useful to know enough to ask the right questions. When approached by an insurance salesman who fed me a proposal promising hundreds of thousands of dollars by retirement age, I asked to see the calculations that supported that proposal. He had no idea how it worked. “Don’t worry about that!” he said. “It’s all taken care of by the back office.” That may well be true, but in the absence of good information and in the “beware of taking candy from strangers” category, I declined.
A few years ago when faced with the question of how to assist students facing the financial challenges that accompany developing non-traditional, outside the box ministries, I went back to school. It took a few months to complete a certificate program in financial planning. I enjoyed it profusely because honestly, I have been interested in money for as long as I can remember. Parents and grandparents helped me learn to distinguish between different pieces of money at an early age. My maternal grandmother gave her grandchildren coin folders to encourage us to start small collections. My paternal grandfather “paid” me to “work” as a preschooler. That mostly meant accompanying him on his morning rounds to check fences and livestock, plus have an oatmeal cookie and a soft drink at the local country store when his rounds were completed. Thanks to experiences like those, early in life I began to know what it meant to have small amounts of money to call my own. I learned to make decisions about spending and saving at a period in life where the consequences of poor decisions were minimal. Not everyone has that opportunity and can spend the rest of their lives paying for it.
I laugh when I remember my various youthful entrepreneurial ventures. Stops at the country store on the way to elementary school allowed me to purchase quantities of candy that I then resold to classmates, at a profit of course. That lasted until the principal discovered my operation and shut me down with a stern warning. He may have just been upset that I was out of M&M’s by the time he reached me. With a Creepy Crawler Bug Maker received one Christmas, I sold rubbery insects to my friends. I still remember the day a would-be customer was interested in a spider I had priced at 15 cents. She only had a quarter and a dime and I had no change, so I agreed to take the quarter. I guess price gouging came more naturally to me than fair pricing in those days! Thank goodness my conscience developed along the way. (Too bad I didn’t keep that bug maker. I saw one for sale today on Amazon for $250!) A couple of years after the rubber insect phase, I biked around our rural community hawking personalized Christmas cards. People were remarkably kind to my door-to-door interruptions. I sold several boxes for the holidays. Now as an adult, I realize how much more I appreciate receiving a handwritten signature and brief note than a computerized John Hancock, but I understand the preprinted cards save time and avoid hand cramps.
A background like mine can appreciate that many of us gain our understanding of money from trial and error and occasionally the school of hard knocks, which rarely grades on the curve. In our country money is often treated as such a private matter that open conversations about the subject with people who love us and whom we trust are rare. We’re fortunate if get past the likes of “My money talks, but all it ever says is good-bye!” It just might be easier to strike up a conversation on religion, politics, or sex than an in-depth conversation about the ins and outs of money. Meanwhile, we unknowingly absorb much by watching their actions, especially if they affect us. For some, no amount of money is ever enough. For others, the goal seems to be to spend it as quickly as it arrives with no thought of tomorrow. A good mentor is hard to find.
Many people view money as an indication of their self-worth—the more they have, the more they matter. That is a shallow, unfortunate point of view, especially if you have little or no money to call your own. I believe money is better viewed as a tool that helps us achieve the life we desire. Unless you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you’re at the mercy of those who offer you advice. The problem is, they usually have something to sell you, and that can create prickly situations. Do they offer you what is best for you, or what will generate the most commission for them? Good advisors exist, but they aren’t always easy to find. Even if you do, they often only accept clients of a certain asset level—and that level is higher than many of us ever attain. As the saying goes, “You’re all dressed up and ready, but with nowhere to go.” We are a country of haves and have nots, or perhaps better stated, have-lots and have-less. For many of us, it is difficult to find a trustworthy resource to help us advance toward our life goals. Often it seems that those who claim to want to help us mostly would like to have a portion of what is ours for themselves. It is in moments like those that it’s imperative to find someone whose philosophy is compatible with yours and whose values ensure integrity of purpose in their work on your behalf.
Over the years as I have worked with people in various capacities, here are things that I have observed. Alongside and in contrast to the well-to-do are groups like these:
- Those just beginning to handle money who aren’t sure where to start. The whole world of having resources is new. Even if the funds don’t burn a hole in their pocket, a multitude of choices not previously available present themselves. If you’ve not had good mentors or role models, the experience can be overwhelming.
- Those who’ve been at it for a while without sufficient guidance who often find themselves at the bottom of a huge hole they’ve created. A consumer-oriented society that encourages us to purchase things that have little value and upgrade often doesn’t help. Who doesn’t need a box of twigs or empty paint cans, which my wife actually did sell at a yard sale?
- Those who’ve succeeded to save who may have settled for subpar strategies to reach their long term dreams. A solid understanding of investment vehicles and corresponding risk are crucial to growing your financial base.
In the face of that reality I’ve seen:
- Those overwhelmed by debt. Credit cards. Educational loans. Car loans. Personal loans. Even if it felt good and right to borrow those funds, helpless feeling turn to hopelessness as the debt piles up.
- Persons so far underwater on a bad mortgage deal that bankruptcy appears to be a better strategy than homeownership, or burdened by outrageous rent that prevents them from building equity of their own.
- Those whose main saving strategy is a mason jar or other hiding place, or a simple savings account, unaware of the exponential impact that compound interest would have on their investments.
- Mostly, I’ve met many who, unless an employer provides access to an advisor, have nowhere to turn for the advice they need.
This, in turn, is leading me to a next do-it-yourself project: to test whether or not there is a way for me to be a useful resource to those seeking to turn over a new leaf, especially if they are among those who have been overlooked and underserved. Like the proverbial boy scout trying to escort someone across the street when, in fact, they don’t want to go, one lesson I have learned with life in general is that it is important to know when people want your help and when they don’t. It may be that there is no work to do here, but at other times, strangers surprisingly gather to take advantage of the moment at hand. The photo above is from a trip to Southern India. I paused for a rest while our guide talked at length, only to find myself surrounded by four young men. I was curious as to what they wanted; they merely wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to talk with an American. We often don’t know if what we have to offer is a resource of interest. However when it comes to money, if given the opportunity, I can provide assistance that is:
- Conversational, invested in helping you learn what matters to you.
- Educational, intended to help you make the best decisions for yourself while also understanding why.
- Knowledgeable, meaning I expect to understand the rationale for any recommendations I make and to be able to explain why they appear to be in your best interest.
- Trustworthy, meaning that I’ll never intentionally deceive or mislead you.
- Objective, as a good third party should be. These conversations are about working on your dreams, not convincing you to adopt my ideas.
If that is enough to pique your interest, you can read more at www.newleaffinancialplanning.com. Self-promotion makes me uncomfortable, but I think this is important. Sometimes one of the best things about learning to do it yourself is that it provides opportunities to enrich the lives of others. Perhaps this is one of those occasions!