Time Is More Precious Than Money

As the Fed has taught us through the money-printing machine cloaked as quantitative easing, the potential supply of U.S. dollars is limitless. Even for most of us individually, we are capable, to varying degrees, of generating and regenerating money through work, investment and happenstance.

Time, however, is a different story.

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

Thanks to Emily Rooney for permission to feature her artwork

It brings to mind these lyrics: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life,” croons Marcus Mumford in the song “Awake My Soul” on Mumford & Sons’ debut album, “Sigh No More.”

Sure, musicians are notorious for writing lyrics because they sound self-important, or maybe simply because they rhyme, but Mumford has earned a reputation for lyrical brilliance and offers us something deep and meaningful here to apply in our lives and finances.

No matter how much we strive, delegate and engineer for efficiency, there are only 24 hours in each day. We are unable to manufacture more time, and once a moment has passed, it is beyond retrieval.

Of these 24 hours each day, if we assume that we will sleep, work and commute for approximately 17 of them, that leaves us with a measly seven hours to apply ourselves to loftier pursuits. After an hour at the gym, an hour to eat and another hour to decompress with a book or TV show, we’re down to four hours to personally affect those for whom we are presumably working and staying healthy—the people we love.

Our human capacity to love also has its limits.

While not measurable, we can all acknowledge that our capacity to love, in the four hours each day that we have to invest it, is affected by how we’ve invested the other 20 hours. By the “end” of many days, we are just beginning our four hours, and we are already spent. Even if we wanted to, we have nothing left to give—no love left to invest.

I am a chief offender of misallocating my love.

I often allow the four hours I have to give to my wife, Andrea, and two boys, Kieran (10) and Connor (8), to shrink to three, two or even one. In whatever time is allocated, I often serve leftover love, having over-invested myself throughout the day. Then I steal from their time, interrupting it with “important” emails and calls.

I must acknowledge that these are choices I make.

We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.

It’s entirely appropriate to love our work and the people we serve through it. It’s entirely appropriate to love ourselves and to do what is necessary to be physically, fiscally, psychologically and spiritually healthy. It’s entirely appropriate to love our areas of service and civic duty, and to serve well. Therefore, almost paradoxically, it’s entirely appropriate to spend 83 percent of our daily allotment of time in pursuits other than the direct edification of those we love the most.

But what would our lives look like if we engineered our days to make the very most of the other four hours?

Would we have a different job? Would we live in a different house or part of the country? Would we drive a different car? Would we say “no” to some people more and to other people less? Would we invest our time and money differently?

Would you invest your love differently?

I’m excited to be part of a contingent of financial advisors asking these questions of our clients (and ourselves).  We don’t believe that the only way to benefit our clients is through their portfolios, and we believe that asset allocation involves more than mere securities.

This isn’t a particularly new concept.  Indeed, the second phase of the six-step financial planning process, as articulated in the Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) practice standards, is to “determine a client’s personal and financial goals, needs and priorities.”  But thought leaders like Rick Kahler, Ted Klontz, Carol Anderson, George Kinder, Carl Richards and Larry Swedroe are persistently nudging the notoriously left-brained financial realm to reconcile with its creative and intuitive side for the benefit of our clients.

With statistics suggesting that as many as 80% of financial planning recommendations are not implemented by clients, it’s officially time to recognize that personal finance is more personal than it is finance.

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In 2014, Accomplish More By Doing Less

DO LESS-01Instead of bullying yourself into adopting new practices that are designed to overhaul your life for the better in 2014, consider finding the path to success by simply doing less.

The arctic blast of our fledgling 2014 offers a chilling reminder that the kindred warmth of the holiday season is over.

That’s enough being. It’s time to get back to doing.

“So, how’s it going?”

“Good. Busy. Super busy.”

“Me too. Never been so busy.”

It’s as if there is a self-worth contest sure to be won by the contender most frazzled.

But busyness is no virtue. If anything, it makes us—me included—distracted, forgetful and often late. It diminishes our capacity and saps our creativity.

That’s why we can actually accomplish more by doing less.

But how do we decide which activities absolutely must stay and which might have to go?

Five Minutes to a Leaner You

This quick and simple exercise should give you several top candidates for the chopping block. You need only one piece of paper with a line down the middle (or click HERE for a printable form). On the left side, write LIFE-TAKING, and on the right side, write LIFE-GIVING.

life-taking-life-giving---blank-2Fill the Life-Taking column with the roles (or tasks within roles) that drain you. They’re onerous chores, not labors of love.

On the Life-Giving side, list the opposite—those practices you can pursue for extended periods of time, wondering where the time has gone. You might be tired after a long day of life-giving activities, but you’re not weary.

I should be clear that this exercise is not a license to shed roles to which you’ve pledged yourself—like being a good parent or spouse—or common duties that appear on no one’s life-giving list—like changing diapers or cleaning dishes. Heck, the president of my company, Drew Tignanelli, washes whatever dishes he finds in the company kitchen sink.

But if the majority of your roles and the duties you’ve accepted are life-taking, I encourage you to consider making some difficult decisions in an effort to improve that ratio. That may mean saying yes to something, but it almost certainly means saying no.

Two caveats:

1)   Following through on this exercise may be simple, but it’s not easy. Stakeholders are likely to be disappointed, whether you’re giving up a board seat, book club, church committee or poker night. Your income may also be reduced if you sacrifice an activity that creates income, change jobs or invest in furthering your education.

2)   Many activities are not wholly life-taking or life-giving. For example, last year I decided that maintaining a presence on Facebook took more life than it gave. I certainly derived some benefits from being on Facebook, connecting with friends and family, but the net effect was life-taking. (By the way, I dumped FB six months ago and don’t miss it at all.)

Addition by Subtraction

You can cause a monumental shift for the good in your life and work by simply removing life-taking activities. Your performance in life-giving roles has room to flourish, increasing your productivity and satisfaction. Even more surprising, some activities will move from life-taking to neutral—or even life-giving—after your overall burden is lightened.

Hitting the delete button on even one or two life-taking commitments can make you a better partner or parent, boss or employee, friend or family member. And especially for those whose vocations fall under the creative heading, creating more blank space on the canvas is essential to maintaining and improving your art.

Special thanks to Josh Itzoe, a colleague and good friend, for encouraging me to undertake this exercise several years ago.

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Top 5 Posts of 2013

Top Blog Posts of 2013-01One of the great blessings of my career—heck, my life—is the opportunity I’ve had to communicate through the written word.  Thank YOU for reading my work.

In 2011, my bucket list daydream of having a book published came true; then in 2012, I began actively contributing to Forbes.com, for which I write a weekly blog post.

I enjoy the creative process enough that if only one person read a post, article or book that I wrote—and benefited from it—that would be reward enough for me.  The pleasant surprise of 2013, though, was that far more people read and responded to my work than I ever could have imagined.

Even more of a shock, however, was the subject matter of the posts that became popular and garnered the most attention.  I’m a financial planner who writes about the intersection of money and life, but my most viewed posts definitely skewed toward the life part of that equation.

In case you missed any of them, here are the top 5 most viewed posts of 2013:

5. Haiti Doesn’t Need Our Help (Forbes.com) — Though it only ranks fifth in views, I think this would be my personal favorite—and most important—post of 2013.

4. 10 Days Is the Magic Vacation Number. Here’s Why (Lifehacker.com) — This post was initially published on my Forbes blog, but Lifehacker republished it (with permission), where it racked up an even higher number of views.

3. Two Reasons Why Copying People Won’t Make You Successful (Forbes.com) — On this most recent post within the top five, I got to work with two of my favorite “success authors,” Michael Hyatt and Laura Vanderkam. We discussed why the path to success isn’t necessarily found following someone else’s footsteps.

2. What you don’t know about Social Security can hurt your retirement (CNBC.com) — I’ve had the privilege of working with CNBC for several years on video projects, but this article was my first contribution on the written front.  I’m looking forward to more of these in 2014.

1. 7 Reasons I Dumped Facebook (Yahoo! Finance) — I’m still dumbfounded by the popularity of this post.  Yes, I decided to quit Facebook and hesitantly chose to write about why.  Apparently, this sentiment happened to hit the online airwaves at just the right time, because after getting more views than anything else I’ve ever written for Forbes.com, it was picked up by Yahoo! Finance and went viral on their site. Crazy.

I’m really looking forward to 2014, excited about the opportunity to bring money to life—and life to money—in writing.  I’m soaking up wisdom from the Forbes editorial staff, have two new book projects in the works and was humbled by CNBC’s invitation to join their inaugural group of 20 financial advisors making up the CNBC Digital Financial Advisor Council.

But I’d love to hear what YOU want to read more of in 2014.  Please shoot me an email at tim[at]timmaurer[dot com] with your thoughts.  (Yes, I know email address is not “spelled” correctly; it’s so robo-spammers don’t snag my email address.)

THANKS AGAIN, AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you'd like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

7 Steps To Creating The Best Personal Task Management System With Trello

7 Steps-01I have tried more productivity systems and tools than could possibly be productive.  Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits are deservedly legendary, and I’m better for every habit I’m able to employ.  David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology was even more helpful for me, especially because it seems to hone the best of Covey’s principles to a more elegant simplicity.  But both of their complete proprietary systems proved too much for me to maintain long-term.

After keeping up for a few weeks—even past the 21 days that supposedly cement a new habit—I always failed to maintain the system after a reliably random task turned into a seemingly wasted day followed by a week of piled emails and unfulfilled pledges (and all of the guilt and shame to boot).

Another reason I’ve failed to maintain well-meaning systems is that after the initial novelty wore off, the checklists and to-dos all seemed to become rote and, well, boring.  I needed something more visual and engaging to hold my attention.

Then Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, introduced me to Trello (via blogger Leo Babauta).  Trello is a highly visual (free) online collaborative project management tool (with access online and on iOS and Android devices), but Carson re-engineered it to become his go-to personal task management system.

I’ve been using it for five months now without fail, synthesizing everything from Covey and Allen that stuck, along with Carson and Babauta’s wisdom, to create the only task management system that’s ever really worked for me.  Here’s how it works for me and could work for you:

skitch

1)     After creating a Trello account, create a new “board” and call it Tasks.  Each board is comprised of vertical “lists”—these will function as your task prioritization system.  Then, each new “card” you add to a List represents an individual task.

2)     Create your lists.  My lists are a conglomeration of what I’ve learned from Covey’s 7 Habits and Allen’s GTD.  My first list on the left is called “Big Rocks”—the priorities in life that I want to consume the majority of my time.  Next is “Today,” the list of items that I hope to accomplish today, followed by “Incoming,” new tasks that have yet to be prioritized.  As you might guess, “This Week” houses the tasks I hope to accomplish this week; “Later,” those tasks I’d like to get to eventually but are not yet urgent; “Waiting On,” that which I’ve accomplished but requires action on another’s part; and “Done,” a list of the tasks I’ve accomplished that day.

3)     Whether you call it Big Rocks or Big Picture (Carson) or Most Important (Babauta), create a list under that heading with your biggest priorities in life.  Mine are Spiritual, Family, Health, Writing/Speaking, Business and Personal.  Now, click on your first prioritization category listed; you’ll see an option to “Edit Labels.”  I recommend making each of your Big Rocks a specific color, and clicking “Change Label Titles” will allow you to give each color a name corresponding with your Big Rocks.  Now, each time you add a new task, you can color code it with an appropriate label.

4)     Add tasks.  If you’re importing tasks from another system or just want to do a brain dump, add all of your tasks to Incoming and then decide where to put them later.  Click “Add a card…” at the bottom of the appropriate list and type a brief description describing the task to be performed.  Before you even hit the green “Add” button, hit the drop down in the bottom right corner and that will give you the option to add a label.  Once the task is added, a host of new options can be seen by clicking on the card itself.  Here you can give the task a longer description, create a checklist within the task, attach a file or give it a due date.  Preferring the GTD approach, I keep it simple and trust my daily prioritization ritual.

5)     After adding a bunch of new tasks, it’s time to prioritize each one by placing it in the appropriate list.  Simply click and drag the card with the task you’d like to prioritize and move it to the appropriate list.  If your lists span beyond the edge of your screen, you can simply hover on the screen’s edge and watch the board traverse in that direction, allowing you to place the card in the list of your choosing.  You can also grab and drag the screen in any direction you choose.

6)     The one essential habit you must form for this—or any other task management system— to work is to perform a review of your tasks board each morning.  Ryan Carson recommends taking 19 minutes to start every day organizing your to-dos.  “Limiting this to 19 minutes,” he says, “keeps you focused and ensures you don’t spend all your time prioritizing instead of doing.”  First, add any meetings or calls on your calendar that day to Today with a precursor (M) for meetings and (C) for calls, along with the time. Then, relocate new Incoming tasks to the appropriate list.  Review This Week to determine which tasks should be completed Today.  Then, review Later to see which tasks should be bumped up to This Week and scan Waiting On to determine if you need to nudge someone else.  Only keep tasks that were completed for a single day in the Done list, purging this list each morning by either moving the task to Waiting On or archiving the task.  You can archive individual tasks by clicking on the card’s drop down, or you can “Archive All Cards in This List” by hitting the list’s dropdown in the upper right-hand corner.

7)     Now, the fun part—getting things Done.  If you spent 19 minutes reviewing your board in the morning, you shouldn’t need to look at any lists except for Today and Done for the remainder of the day.  Throughout the course of your day, move completed cards to Done and reprioritize Today, leaving the next action to be performed at the top.

One of the perpetual faux-tasks that leads many of us astray from the completion of actual tasks is our email.  As Claire Diaz-Ortiz reminded me this week, “Email isn’t work.”  It certainly feels like it, but email is more a conduit leading us to tasks than a task in itself.  Your email inbox is also a horrendous task management venue because it distracts us from the next task on our priority list, but we do often send and receive tasks through email, so Trello provides us with an answer:

Hit “Show sidebar” in the top right of your Trello screen; under the Menu header, click on Settings, then click on Email settings.  This will allow you to copy and paste a specific email address that will send emailed tasks from your inbox to the board and list of your choosing.  (Be sure to create a contact for that email address—something like Trello Tasks—and you won’t have to remember the email address.)

Trello is intended to be an interactive project management solution for groups, but it has become my highly-individualized, personal task management system of choice.  The interactive, visual nature of Trello is what attracted me to it and has kept me using it, but the best part about it is that you can create your OWN system within Trello.  Once you do, or if you already have, I’d love to hear about it.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you'd like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

10 Reasons To Take A 10-Day Vacation

10 Day Vacation-01For only the second time in my adult life, I just completed a vacation of more than seven days—10, to be exact.  Corroborating my first experience, I am now convinced that there is a certain magic to the 10-day vacation and have resolved to make them an annual habit.  Here’s why:

1. Most importantly, a 10-day vacation gives you the time necessary to surrender, to capitulate, to truly vacate.  It wasn’t until fully four days into our Grizwoldian adventure that my wife was able to observe a genuine change in my demeanor.  “You just seemed to visibly loosen up in that moment,” she told me.  The moment she was referring to was when she, our two boys and I got caught in a torrential downpour in the middle of a bike ride.  I wasn’t an overbearing ogre early in the week, but I was still in work mode; a tad too productive, efficient and compliant for vacation.  It took me the first four days of vacation to transition from being a hesitant bystander to a willing participant.

2. Travel consumes a lesser percentage of your total vacation time.  If you’re going someplace worth going, you’re likely sacrificing a day getting there and another getting back.  Whether by plane, train or automobile—and even if the actual travel time is only half-a-day—the stress and logistical maneuvering consume a full two days.  That’s almost 30% of the seven-day vacation, but only 20% of a 10-day break.

3. Because travel consumes proportionately less of the 10-day vaca, it also opens the door to a traveling vacation with multiple stops.  With the family truckster fully loaded, we drove to Charleston, South Carolina from our home in Baltimore for three days prior to heading northward to Williamsburg, Virginia for another week—a highly improbable feat if you only have seven days to spare.  This change in geographic context gave our single vacation the feel of two separate trips, each with their own set of lasting memories.

photo4. You’re gone long enough that you’re forced to off-load your duties at work.  If I take a three or four-day weekend, I rarely even set my email out-of-office notification or update my voicemail message.  I’m effectively taking a vacation while still on the clock in my mind.  When I take a seven-day vacation, I’m hesitant to completely check-out of my work responsibilities and even feel guilty asking for help.  But if I’m going to be missing days in more than two different work weeks, I really have no choice but to arrange for enough back-up help at the office to truly separate myself from the duties I’m hesitant to relinquish.

5. You’re gone long enough that you’re forced to budget financially for the vacation.  Heeding Carl Richards’ advice, I don’t take a trip of any length without having budgeted for it.  It takes away from the refreshment I seek when I have to wonder how I’m going to pay for the vacation when I get home.  The additional time and cost of a 10-day vacation really demand budgeting in advance of your departure.  Additionally, I recommend seeing where you stand financially five days in so you can recalibrate if necessary for the second half of your trip.

6. A 10-day vacation leaves sufficient time for the creation of memories through experience and the catharsis of do-nothing relaxation.  One of the books I enjoyed over vacation was Laura Vanderkam’s, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend.  I found much of the wisdom therein applied just as well to vacations as to weekends.  Vanderkam suggests that we “set anchors”—activities to which we apply some forethought, with the aim of memory creation—and allow relaxation to fill the gaps in between.  None of us wants vacation to feel like work, filled with have-to-dos, but these anchors are, in contrast, want-do-dos.  For us, a couple anchors were to take a horse-drawn carriage tour of downtown Charleston and to ride our bikes as a family into historic Williamsburg for Colonial-era root beer and ginger cakes.

photo[1]7. You have the time to actually develop rhythms of life unique to that particular vacation.  One of my favorite things to do on vacations is to find new rituals that seem to apply to that particular area and our family’s phase of life.  Personally, I try to maintain some semblance of a workout regimen so I don’t feel quite so guilty about over-exposing myself to the local cuisine, so I found a fitness center I could ride my bike to most mornings.  Our boys, Kieran and Connor, are at those ages (nine and seven) when they could swim all day if you’d let them, so most nights we went for a night swim to cap off the day.  But it takes a few days to explore and find the rhythms that will work in a particular place and time.

8. You get the joy of seeing the week and weekend vacationers leave—while you’re kicked back “working” on reading your second novel by the pool.  There is nothing fun about leaving an enjoyable vacation, but when your vacation begins or spills over into the middle of a week, you get to watch other people yell at their kids for slow-playing the departure process while you order a fruity umbrella drink.  Those days on which everyone else is travelling and checking in or out are also great days for planning an anchor event (see #6) when you’ll likely have less competition.

9. You can avoid the dreaded vacation hangover.  Long weekends can feel torturously short and seven-day vacations often leave you wishing you could go back in time, but by the time a 10-day vacation is over, you’re starting to warm to the idea of getting life and work back to normal.  The idea of sleeping in your own bed has increasing appeal, eating out has started to weigh you down, spending money like the Greek parliament has begun to feel self-indulgent and you’re almost anxious to get back to the daily rhythms of work and rest.

10. You come home a better spouse, parent, employee­—a better person.  A 10-day vacation has the highest probability of providing the rest, relaxation and lifelong memories that we all hope to get, but rarely do, from the highlight of our summers.  Conversely, taking fewer days often leaves a residue of dissatisfaction that leaves us perpetually wanting more.  So go ahead, tack a few extra days onto your next vacation.  We’ll all be better for it.

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know on Twitter at @TimMaurer, and if you'd like to receive my weekly post via email, click HERE.

The Art of Screwing Up

Screw Up2-01I was enjoying breakfast with my good friend, Danny O’Brien, recently, when our conversation moved to the topic of screwing up, making mistakes and the steps we take thereafter.  Danny said, “The quality of our lives is not determined by whether or not we screw up—because we all will.”

“No, the quality of our lives is determined by what happens next.  Will we hide or come clean?  Will we make excuses and search for justification or take responsibility, even if it means receiving consequences?”

Whether in our families, businesses or financial management, mistakes are a given.  So as long as screwing up is a part of all of our lives, why not make it an art form, transforming it from a curse to a blessing?  Here are three steps to doing so:

1)     OWN – Our first instinct is always to deny and defend.  Our self-preservative nature fights to keep our better judgment at bay, but in the face of a clear but yet un-owned error, we have an opportunity to claim full or partial responsibility.  And while family, friends and employers don’t love our mistakes, they hate buck-passing even more.  However, owning our failure isn’t easy, because owning also means accepting the natural consequences of our actions.  Claiming bankruptcy might eliminate your debts, but you’re also not likely to procure credit for another seven years or more.  Demeaning your children still weakens their resolve that you’re their biggest fan, blowing up at your employer can still get you fired, and calling your spouse a choice word could leave an impression that lasts for years, even decades.

2)     APOLOGIZE – John Wayne famously said, “Don’t apologize, Mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”  Hogwash!  (As someone from Wayne’s generation might say.)  A willingness to apologize is a sign of strength—an unwillingness to do so is a sure sign of both delusion and weakness.  Do you avoid apologizing to perpetuate a façade that people might perceive is impenetrably perfect?  Do you think people are more likely to trust, love, respect or follow you if you can (apparently) do no wrong?  The opposite is true.   If you try to prolong the ruse, the best case scenario is that people will fear you—if you’ve succeeded in fooling them—but it’s impossible to truly trust, love, respect or follow someone (in a healthy way) if we believe them to possess the inherent infallibility we know to be present in our own lives.

3)      REFORM – “Only the penitent man shall pass.”  Do you remember that classic line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?  As Indie mumbled the cryptic phrase written in his father’s journal on his quest to retrieve the Holy Grail, he properly (and in this instance, necessarily) infers aloud that, “The penitent man is humble…kneels before God…KNEELS!”  And right as he drops to his knees, he narrowly averts sure decapitation.  Penitence, repentance, humility—whatever you want to call it—might be seen as only the first step of reform, followed by a second step, an action of a more preferable sort.  But true penitence quite naturally results in different (better) behavior; if it doesn’t, the humility itself is merely superficial.  Indeed, the root meaning of the verb “repent” actually implies a fluid continuum: contrition, followed by action that is the stark inverse of the errant behavior.

If you have followed this path before, then you know that the satisfaction of recovering from a mistake is often proportionately greater than the pain suffered in being humbled by our own fallibility.  You also likely know that when our misdeeds cause others pain, we can somehow mysteriously surpass the strength of our pre-mistake relationship after owning, apologizing and reforming.  Although it’s no guarantee, practicing the art of screwing up is often endearing to family, friends and even clients.  But let’s not forget that if we’re genuine in our penitence, we shouldn’t be screwing up quite so much in the first place.

Success Is Overrated

Success-01I’m curious, what pictures come to mind when you read the word SUCCESS?

Time’s up.

Almost invariably, this exercise results in visuals of sports cars, attractive people, tailored suits, high-end electronics, golf clubs, jewelry, home décor and stainless kitchen appliances.  Now please look past my stereotype-ing and recognize the one thing all of these have in common—they’re all material things, designed both to consciously give us pleasure and subconsciously increase our standing in the minds of our peers.  Please don’t feel judged—I’m right there with you.  But while most of us spend the bulk of our adult lives pursuing success (that is visibly recognizable) as the penultimate goal, I posit that it’s simply not what we really want in our hearts.   But if not success, then, what is it that we really crave that leads us to a satisfying life?

This morning, I had a breakfast meeting with four men, each from the generation preceding mine.  In their respective fields, each of them has reached the point where they are publicly recognized in the community as models of success.  Actually, they each reached that point a decade or more ago.  (No, I still haven’t figured out why I was invited.)  But we were convening to discuss, among other things, the establishment of a non-profit entity to serve the weary hearts of people and businesses.  People and businesses who, most often, are already recognized as successful.  People and businesses who’ve grown weary striving for the success they thought was the goal.

So, if it’s not success that brings the satisfaction in life we crave, what then?  It’s another “S” word—SIGNIFICANCE.

In all of us, there is a desire for significance.  We want to be about something.  And that’s why I start every financial planning discussion or speaking engagement by telling folks to clear their minds of all things financial for just a moment—forget about 401ks, IRAs, taxes and insurance—and focus first on what it is that you want to be about in this world.  Franklin Covey calls them Values, Ben Franklin called them Virtues—and since each of those words has taken on a slightly different connotation since those wise men used them, I invite you to call them whatever you want—I call them Personal Principles.  These are the collective essence that you want to mark your time on this earth.

It’s true that you can reach someone’s view of success by reading any number of financial and self-help books and periodicals telling you what to do with your life and money.  The downfall is that they’re telling you what you should be doing based on their personal principles—not yours—and that means you could end up achieving these financial or life goals successfully while still feeling hollow because your path lacked significance or your personal purpose.

Is life planning with significance as a primary goal extra work?  Could it mean leaving today’s success or money or influence or comfort on the table in pursuit of significance?  Yes and yes.  It will take some time and deliberation to articulate a defined set of personal principles and may well lead to an overhaul of that which you’ve come to know as life.  But it is time, effort and money well spent, because it validates—or sometimes, even more helpfully—invalidates the steps that you’ve taken and are taking in money and life.

2013 Personal Finance Reading List For The Attention Deficient

When a student of mine recently asked for a reading list that could help satiate her budding interest in the intersection of money and life, I was pleasantly surprised and inspired to aggregate a list of titles that met the following criteria:

1)     Not boring

2)     Not long

3)     Not salesy

As you may have suspected, these criteria ruled out the vast majority of those books written in the subject matter, and forced me to expand my search well beyond prescriptive how-to books.  The list is bookended with two novels, but every entry utilizes a fair amount of narrative to communicate its message.  This is vitally important, because regardless of how much the financial industry lobbies to make your financial peace contingent on its proprietary products and processes, personal finance will always be more personal than it is finance:

Warm Up

The Ultimate Gift

Master storyteller, Jim Stovall, has sold over 4 million copies of this book that was turned into a movie and spawned a series of associated books and movies (one of which was co-authored by yours truly).  The original is a novel about a billionaire who dies and attempts to save his grand-nephew from destroying his own life with money.  Although it was never intended to do so, The Ultimate Gift attracted a cult-like following among financial, estate and tax advisors who bought the book en masse to give away as…gifts, pun intended.

Simplifying and Downsizing

Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money

This book is written by a good friend of mine, Carl Richards, who, in additional to being a great financial planner, also writes for The New York Times.  He uses simple drawings to distill the complexities of personal finance in a way that is practical and approachable.

You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap)

This book is written by Tammy Strobel, a woman who previously worked in the financial services industry and then went on a quest to radically simplify her life.  I doubt that many of us will take it to the extreme that Tammy has, but if you could take just a few of her principles into account as you craft your existence, I think you’d get more out of money and life.

Preach!

The Total Money Makeover

Need your butt kicked into financial shape?  This book, by radio/TV superstar, Dave Ramsey, is my first recommendation for people who are in trouble with debt.  Dave’s message has helped thousands (millions?) get out of debt and live true financial freedom.  And even if you’re not in debt, this book helps lay out a foundation for making sure you stay that way, save enough and keep your priorities straight.  Dave tends to oversimplify some financial disciplines to a fault—like investing—but nobody gives a better kick in the pants to those ready to receive it.

Wealth: Is it Worth It?

You don’t have to like chicken sandwiches to enjoy this book—and even have it change your financial life.  Truett Cathy is the 90-something founder of uber-successful fast food giant, Chick-fil-A, and while he does have a tendency to sermonize, he does so lovingly, and heck, he’s earned it.  (You can read my review of the book and hear an interview I conducted with Mr. Cathy by clicking HERE.)  In addition to much of his own wisdom, he shares feedback he’s received personally from other notable luminaries, like a guy named Warren Buffett, whom I’ve heard knows a few things about money as well.

Exposé

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

This book, written by Michael Lewis (bestselling author of Moneyball, The Blind Side and others) is the best explanation of how the financial crisis really played out that you’ll likely find.  And because he’s an amazing author, it’s also very entertaining.  Please be aware that this is Rated R for language—the default vernacular under the pin-striped exterior of the financial industry.  (You can read more of my thoughts on this book HERE.)

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator

This book may be considered THE classic on security trading, but while it is the most technical of my selections, it’s actually a novel based on the life of famed trader, Jesse Livermore.  [Spoiler alert] The hero actually died—at his own hand—virtually penniless after making and losing at least four fortunes.  But while this book was written as a cautionary tale, many in the financial industry have strangely deified it, still handing it to new recruits as a how-to.  The morale of the story, in my opinion, is actually that beating the market is exceedingly difficult and that the voracious pursuit of money leads to, at best, a big pile of money and at worst, death.  Although it’s a great deal longer, I do recommend the annotated edition by Jon D. Markman, which embeds this fascinating story in historical context.

Life Planning—The Most Important Part of Financial Planning

Anything You Want

This is a very short book—more like a manifesto—by a guy named Derek Sivers.  Derek was a rock star who started a company, CD Baby, to help musicians sell their music online.  It became huge and he sold it for millions of bucks…but he donated all the proceeds to charity and moved on to his next project [insert screeching record sound].  You’ll love this short volume.

The Art of Non-Conformity

Chris Guillebeau is a lifestyle/travel blogger—not a personal finance guy—but this is a great book for opening your eyes to the type of career and life you want to have.

The 4-Hour Work Week

Speaking of non-conformity, meet Tim Ferriss.  This book has turned into a phenomenon and a “4 Hour” series by Tim Ferriss.  Read it and you’ll see why.

Life Changing

Same Kind of Different As Me

Let’s finish up with a break from all that wisdom and practical advice to enjoy this brilliant re-telling of a true-story in novel form.  This is really a book about greed and spiritual awakening, co-told by an adulterous big-shot art dealer and a homeless man.  This will break your heart…and then warm it.  Enjoy.

Oh, and I almost forgot…

The Ultimate Financial Plan

Yes, the one financial book that every one of my students is required to read[i] I did co-author, with the aforementioned Jim Stovall.  It’s intended to walk you through a comprehensive personal financial plan in the spirit of The Ultimate Gift’s timeless truth with timely applications you can use to the benefit of your todays and tomorrows, personally and financially.

Most of these books are pretty short and fast reads—I’ve got a touch of (depending on who you talk to) A.D.D. and it takes a really gripping book for me to make it through, but all of these passed the test!  I’d love to hear your thoughts if and when you read any of these, as well as your suggestions to be added to this list that meet the three criteria.


[i] The other required text for my class is the Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the short classic writing/grammar book, because one thing most educational institutions forget to tell their students is that if you can’t communicate well, your degree is WORTHLESS!

Less: The New More

One of the things that frustrates me most about financial planning and financial planners is that it seems we’re simply in the business of helping people accumulate more.  More of everything—cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, houses, cars, collectibles and other belongings.  Indeed, how many financial success stories are based on depictions of households who have LESS this year than last?  If anything, the financial industry may be in the business of inspiring a spirit of greed—albeit in the guise of commercials and marketing slicks with beautiful, ageless smiles in ideal settings typically involving sailboats, golf courses and vineyards.  Come pay us to help you get…more.

And I don’t think anyone would deny that we, as a country, bought it—hook, line and sinker—over the course of the 80’s and especially the 90’s, during the birth of the now foreclosed McMansion.  Yes, it was as if an entire generation of Americans consented to hopping aboard a giant hamster wheel of accumulation, all striving toward the imaginary objective of acquiring enough stuff and a pot of money big enough to sustain a comfortable level of consumption through to the grave.  The results speak for themselves: a housing bubble that has left a quarter of the country under water, the corresponding market crash that left a slew of investors without a positive rate of return for over a decade, perpetual car payments and credit card bills, the decline of selfless charity, the demise of the single-income household and millions of workers who abandoned their dream jobs for whatever would pay the most money.

Fortunately, we’re starting to see a shift away from our self-worth being determined by the square footage in our houses, the emblem on our cars or the title on our business cards.  Led by a generational strain more impressed with subjective quality than objective quantity, folks like Tammy Strobel, author of the book You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s Cheap) and the Rowdy Kittens blog, are showing us by example how LESS really can be MORE.  Prone to material minimalism and houses as small as a parking space, they are not condescending or judgmental.  They’re just choosing to live a different way, disregarding much of the supposed accumulation gospel preached by the financial services majority, and inviting a growing community to do the same.

Tammy and her husband, Logan, are both 34 years old, and while she told me it wasn’t a particularly easy transition to go from the life they had to the simplified one they have, it has been a wholly gratifying experience they’d never trade.  A few years ago, they were spending in excess of $70,000 of household income, and they owned two cars and a big apartment filled with stuff.  Now, they live in a tiny house—128 square feet!—have no cars and rarely have monthly expenses in excess of $700.  I’m sure your response to that was similar to mine: “That’s crazy!”  But they have simply chosen to value relationships, community, independence and the most valuable commodity of all—time—over the everyday trappings that dominate most of our lives.

What is to be gained by simplifying life from a physical and fiscal perspective?   It“… allows you to create your own lifestyle, one with the freedom, money and time to do what you love…” according to Strobel.  Sounds an awful lot like the promises offered in a retirement planning pitch, doesn’t it?  But many of these folks are living this unique style of financial independence decades away from a traditional retirement age.

While these simplifiers may be light years away from qualifying for any of the big dogs’ wealth management services, they’re actually living by the foundational precepts of sound, commonsensical personal finance.  And while some may be inclined to dismiss them as a cult of upstart hippies, their behavior is more vintage and classically conservative than nouveau and socialist, most closely representing the habits of our grandparents and their parents.  Those generations actually owned houses they could afford, using mortgages sparingly.  They put in a day’s work and enjoyed the balance of their time with family and friends.  They considered a single car—much less two or three—to be a luxury, and couldn’t have imagined using leverage to buy one.  And they spent more time seeking to reduce their expenses than increase their income.  What a novel notion.

If it sounds crazy for a financial planner to be lauding deleveraging, downsizing and dispossessing, please let me remind you that the goal of the best financial plan isn’t necessarily to have more money…but to have a better life.

The 5 Hour Energy Scam And The Power Of Self-Deception

“We asked over 3,000 doctors to review 5 Hour Energy, and what they said is amazing.  Over 73% who reviewed 5 Hour Energy said they would recommend a low-calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements.”

The first time I saw this commercial, I had to double check to see if it was a Saturday Night Live skit.  But alas, it wasn’t.

Yes, they asked “over 3,000 doctors.”  According to the fine print, they actually asked 5,000 in person and only half of them agreed to review the drink, and by review the drink, they clarify that they agreed to read the ingredients and their associated descriptions.  An additional 503 doctors responded to an online survey, but they don’t tell us how many they asked to respond online.

73% of the docs who actually reviewed the stuff recommended a low-calorie energy supplement—not 5 Hour Energy, specifically, just a low-calorie energy supplement.  But this “recommendation” was still further qualified; they recommended the low-calorie supplement only to their healthy patients who actually use energy supplements.

What do we really learn, then, from this not-so-highly scientific study?

For those statistical anomalies who can somehow be deemed “healthy,” even though they require a regular chemical boost merely to survive the day, 73% of the doctors who didn’t blow this study off as an absurd waste of time recommend that you use an energy supplement that won’t also make you fat, accelerating your already rapid pace to an early grave.

My first inclination was to be offended that 5 Hour Energy thinks there are enough people dull enough to be manipulated by the lady with the perma-smile sitting next to a bunch of fake documents, but then it hit me—they’re not trying to get non-users to take 5 Hour Energy.  They’re trying to help existing users perpetuate their own ruse of self-deception.

Self-deception is more powerful than coercion, because we’re more inclined to believe the stories we tell ourselves (both true and untrue) than the convictions of others.  So the most effective external manipulation is that which supports what we’d already prefer to believe.  I know my body does not naturally require the daily infusion of 5 Hour Energy if I actually get enough sleep and exercise—but I’d rather not, so I’ll buy your story about the 73% of doctors.

What stories are you buying regarding your health, marriage or other relationships, work or finances that are rooted in self-deception?  And what forces may be seeking to perpetuate that self-deception?