Putting Money In Its Place

Originally in ForbesWhat we believe about money will impact how we use it. Unfortunately, a central belief most of us hold about money is fundamentally flawed. We believe that money is either good or bad when, in reality, it is neither.


A belief that money is bad certainly is the minority mindset. But it may be a more dangerous conviction than its inverse, if only because it appears virtuous. After all, how could using less water, less square footage, less medication, less natural resources — less money — be a bad thing? Perhaps because there’s a deceptively short distance between being pro less-[fill-in-the-blank] and becoming anti-[fill-in-the-blank]. And if we’re anti-money, we may also become anti-people-who-have-money, including ourselves if such a circumstance arose.

A friend of mine has a huge heart for people with less — I mean, really less. So much so that he dedicated his life and work to serving them. He regularly goes to the world’s most deprived places, using his powerful combo of empathy, education and experience to rally the necessary aid. Once, when he received a sudden sum of money, I asked him if he was capable of committing financial suicide — by which I meant divesting himself of all the extra decimal places in his bank account — simply because it wouldn’t feel right for him to have such a possession as one so wholly dedicated to the world’s underserved communities. He acknowledged it was possible.

The far more common belief is that money is inherently good. Although this belief appears innocuous at first blush, it’s important to consider its logical conclusion. If money is good, then more money is better. If so, we might be inclined to accept a common lament as true: “If I only had more money, I’d have a better life.” Inevitably, money becomes personified, and thus becomes an unconquerable competitor pitted against the actual people in our lives. In this reality, our friends and family simply can’t compete with money. People let us down, while money only promises to make our hopes and dreams come true.

We need to put money in its place. Specifically:

Money is a neutral tool that can be used for good or ill.

That’s it.

When we believe that money is bad, we typically handle it poorly and strain our relationships. When we believe that it’s good, we tend to put money in competition with people and strain our relationships.

Business Travelers – Skip In-Flight Wi-Fi To Increase Productivity And Save Money

Originally in ForbesI travel a decent amount. I don’t mind flying, but I’ve always struggled with the loss of productivity. Hours waiting at the airport. Even more hours in flight. But with the advent of in-flight Wi-Fi, I thought my productivity problems were solved. I was wrong.

I’ve instead concluded that by nixing slow and unpredictable in-flight Wi-Fi altogether, we can save money and use flight time to more productive ends (like reading, writing and resting) better suited for that environment.

My initial plan was to use in-flight Wi-Fi to slay the email dragon. That way, I could land knowing that nothing had slipped through the cracks and that there were no surprises waiting. I might even allow non-urgent emails to pile up for a couple days if I knew I had an upcoming flight. Unfortunately, the strategy was a miserable failure.


A 4-Step Process to Integrating Money and Life

Originally in ForbesOnce you’ve abandoned the pursuit of balancing money and life in favor of integrating the two, the question still remains: Now what? How the heck do I better integrate money and life? Like most personal finance dilemmas, the answer is simple, but not easy.

It’s simple because it doesn’t require many steps. What’s more, it’s advice you’ve likely heard before, perhaps multiple times. But it’s challenging because you have to do some work—interior work. And then you have to make some difficult decisions.

money&life integration

Before I share the process, it’s imperative that we recognize a fundamental financial truth, often shrouded in a sea of marketing, misinformation and self-help rubbish that’s more sales than psychology.

RULE: Money is a means, not an end. Money is a tool—a neutral tool that is neither good nor evil. It may, however, be used in pursuit of either good or evil, and everything in between. Money can be well-utilized in the pursuit of goals, but it makes a very poor, lonely goal in and of itself.

Understanding—and believing and applying—this rule is the aim of the following systematic four-step approach to better integrating life and money:

Don’t Balance Money And Life, Integrate Them

Originally in ForbesWe got the subtitle of my last book wrong. It reads, “Balancing Money and Life.” And while the book is still substantively solid and its aging content remains mostly relevant, the subtitle, I now believe, is a misnomer. It may actually contradict the book’s fundamental message.

Whether we’re talking about money and life, work and life—whatever and life—the temptation is to see the “whatever” as a force standing in opposition to life. An alternative to life.

And, unfortunately, this isn’t merely a rhetorical conundrum. As it often does, life follows language. Indeed, the phrase “work-life balance” has become so common that most of us now consider it an either-or proposition. We picture a scale, balancing work on one side and life on the other, as though it’s a zero-sum game. Work or life.

And so it has become with money. We can choose to expend life in pursuit of money or deplete our financial resources in pursuit of life.


Perhaps there’s a third option—the integration of money and life. Consider these seven ways we might view life and money differently if our approach to them was less mutually exclusive:

New Report on the Cost of Kids: Reading Between the Lines

Originally in ForbesThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released its annual “Cost of Raising a Child” report. The news from it is really no news at all to us parents—kids are stinking expensive and growing even more so. However, if you read between the lines, there are three extremely important points that don’t show up in the executive summary:

My family outside of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston

1)   Parents still have a choice. The USDA estimates that households with less than $61,530 in income will spend a total of $176,550 per child. Meanwhile, “middle-income parents” making between $61,530 and $106,540 each year can anticipate spending $245,340 per kid. Those blessed with household income over $106,540 should expect to spend $407,820.  

Here’s how I read these numbers: It likely costs approximately $175,000 to care for a child’s needs in today’s dollars. Beyond that, it’s our choice as parents if and how we spend additional money on our progeny. When your household income jumps from $106,000 to $107,000, the USDA isn’t holding a gun to your head and demanding that you spend an additional $162,480 per child.

It’s completely up to you, and you may choose to spend more or less than some of the USDA estimates. For example, you may choose (wisely) to spend more on one child than another for various, justifiable reasons, including each individual child’s own gifts and weaknesses. If you choose to put even one child through private school, from kindergarten through a graduate degree, you could easily spend a million bucks just for education—and college isn’t even included in the USDA’s numbers. 

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: ESPN Goes “Broke”

This week, in their “30 For 30” special, “Broke,” ESPN expounded on the Sports Illustrated article alerting the nation to the systemic financial problems within the community of elite professional athletes.  Among other frightening observations, Sports Illustrated found (and ESPN corroborated) that “By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress” and “60% of former NBA players have gone broke within five years of retirement.”

The hypothesized causes of these frightening statistics are compelling:

  • Stratospheric salaries create the mistaken impression that the money could never be outlived.  When most pro sports originated, the players didn’t even make enough money to quit their day jobs.  And while pro football, basketball, baseball and hockey players have been making a fine living for a few decades now, the economic boom of the 90s and the corresponding leap in team valuations for owners has led to unimaginable salaries for the top players.
  • But keeping up with the Joneses is an even more gripping problem in the uber-competitive world of pro sports than it is at the country club.  Not everybody is making A-rod’s $32 mil in 2011, but everyone wants to look, eat and drive like they are.  As Jamal Mashburn observed, “The show wasn’t as much on the court as it was in the parking lot.”  Yes, the disease of more is alive and well in pro sports.
  • And unfortunately, even though many of these guys are becoming instant millionaires upon getting signed, they don’t know any more about the complexities of personal finance than any other kid in their late teens or upper 20s.  They may even carry less financial wisdom into their careers, as many young pro athletes hail from broken homes in disadvantaged communities.
  • Because so many athletes have risen out of poverty to their new fame and fortune, this also makes them a target within their communities.  Bart Scott of the New York Jets (but who spent his better years in black and purple) calls it winning the “Ghetto Lottery.”  At its peak, Andre Rison had an entourage of over 40 and Bernie Kosar had over 50 families relying on him financially.  50!
  • But it’s not just known friends and family that hound these instant millionaires—it’s also young ladies with an eye for upward mobility.  One restaurant owner in the nation’s capital confessed that she had 7,000 women who would receive an automatic text message every time Michael Jordan walked into the joint during his stretch as a Wizard.  Typically, over 2,000 women would heed the call.  Of course, these rich, young “ballers” aren’t exactly turning the ladies away either.  Travis Henry boasts nine kids, with nine different moms and $17,000 per month in child support.
  • And for those players who do settle into marriage, striking numbers of them have their assets cut in half shortly after retirement; fully 60% of NFL players find themselves divorced within three years after leaving the game.  This often doubles their expenses and halves their assets without diminishing their lifestyle.
  • Those athletes who do seek financial advice often find it through unscrupulous and opportunistic advisors, accountants, lawyers and agents who insist on taking a cut of everything.  They are often over-exposed in private equity, real estate and alternative investments—including hair-brained business “opportunities” with a 90% failure rate.  These competitive ball field warriors are especially prone to sales pitches with more allure than a bank CD or balanced portfolio.
  • All this happens typically before these men reach the age of 30.  Five years of income needs to last 50 years.

The temptation is to watch “Broke” or read about this and come to one of two conclusions:

  1. These poor athletes!  They’re used and abused to line the pockets of wealthy owners, only to be left with broken bodies and bank accounts.
  2. These stupid athletes!  They’re handed the world on a silver platter and all they do is wreak a path of destruction with their lives and let down the fans and families who support them.

Yes, it was stupid of Evander Holyfield to build a 52,000 square foot house with not one, but two, bowling alleys, not knowing whether he’d ever win another fight.  It is nearly unfathomable how John Daly gambled away $50 million and how Mike Tyson blew through $400 million.  And yes, it is heartbreaking to hear of Keith McCants’s story of being arrested penniless with two prostitutes, high on drugs that were first recommended by doctors to keep him in the game.  Leagues and owners are complicit, but so are universities cashing in on prime-time athletes and sending them away without any personal financial education whatsoever.

The temptation is to think that we’re bystanders or third-party participants, that we’re inherently different.  But we’re not.  What we see in the financial mismanagement of athletes is merely a magnification of the worst that lies in all of us regarding money.  I, for one, can certify that if I had that kind of money in my late-teens and early-twenties, I’d likely have done the same damn thing.  And I didn’t grow up without the benefit of loving parents and wise instruction.  Go ahead, think about the dumbest thing you’ve ever done; and then think about having a seemingly unlimited amount of money with which to do it AND the paparazzi drooling, waiting for you to screw up.

Money is a tool that can be used to great effect to magnify the impact of our foolishness, and also our wisdom and discernment.  But when money becomes an adornment, when richness becomes a personality trait, and when wealth becomes an advertisement or proposition, we very well may end up agreeing with McCants’s final conclusion: “’The love of money is the root of all evil.’ It destroyed everything around me.”

Your Personal Money Story

This is the first exercise in a series designed to walk you through an entire financial plan.  The spreadsheet is embedded in an Excel spreadsheet you can download and save for personal use.  You can get the background for this exercise in my Forbes post HERE or just jump right in with the instructions given below:

Write your own Personal Money Story.  What is the earliest memory you have about money, and how old were you?  For many, it will involve some combination of a piggy bank and an allowance or birthday gift somewhere between ages 3 and 6.  Then, rate this experience numerically between +10 for a great experience and –10 for a scarring memory.  Continue this pattern, marking all of the notable experiences you had with money—good and bad—throughout the course of your life.  As you fill in the columns in chronological order, you’ll see the graph begin to populate.

As you reflect on the completed exercise, what story does it tell?  Is it notably fortunate, happy, tragic or sad?  Is it relatively level or particularly volatile?  The answers to these questions might just explain the health of your 401k or your burdensome credit card balance.

As you develop your own realizations about your money beliefs, consider sharing your story with a select family member or friend, especially a spouse or loved one upon whom your Personal Money Story might have a meaningful impact…and suggest they do the same.

The Real Point Of Financial Planning

Whether you’re a do-it-yourself-er or working with a professional financial planner, the real point of financial planning is often obscured in a process so deep and wide that it’s easy to get lost.  The most prominent mistake in financial planning is to allow the process to be reduced to an exercise in which success is solely derived from a single number—your net worth, today and projected into the future.  In truth, the real point of good financial planning isn’t to have more money, but a better life.

One may argue this point suggesting that more money is simply more…better, that few financial plans have suffered from a surplus of financial resources.  This is true at a moment in time, but the problem with making “the number” the ultimate goal of a financial plan is that it steers behavior to get there.  But that is the point, many of my esteemed colleagues may insist, that we subordinate our todays to our tomorrows in hopes of securing comfort and prosperity in both.  Then I ask you this:

Is comfort and prosperity the chief end of life?

I’m privileged to teach the Fundamentals of Financial Planning at my alma mater, Towson University, and every semester I pepper the class on the first day with a barrage of questions, among them, “How many of you are HERE because you WANT to be here?”  The average positive response is 10% of the class.  Most of them are accounting majors, so I engage them in discussion to determine WHY they chose that course of study.  The primary reason given is to secure comfort and financial prosperity in life.

“So you’ve chosen,” I ask, “to dedicate four-to-six years of your life becoming educated sufficiently to spend the bulk of your waking adult hours thereafter in a job you don’t particularly love to hopefully secure financial prosperity?”

Unfortunately, too many financial planning processes look just like this.  They begin with numbers and back into the actions—and life—necessary to achieve those numbers.  Planners may justify this by disclaiming that the client dictated the data (in the questionnaire designed to force the client into a box that can be managed by the planning software du jour).  The recommendation is simply the output.  But that’s because the process is backward.

It should start, instead, with three simple questions:

  1. WHO are you?
  2. WHAT do you want to be about?
  3. And, WHY?

Then and only then should the numbers come into play.  And the numbers shouldn’t exist to extinguish the who, what and why, but to support them.  If I’m really a good teacher, I may have to recommend you consider an alternative educational or vocational path.  If I’m really a good planner, I may have to recommend a course of action that could have a negative impact on your bottom line—today and in the future—but which leads to a better, more fulfilling life.

At best, the benefit of financial planning is minimized when reduced solely to a process intended to give you more money, today and in the future.  At the very worst, such a process could temporarily or permanently derail your entire plan for life.

Your financial plan must submit to your plan for life.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to take you on a blog journey through an entire financial plan, including an examination of topics you’d expect—like how to judge your investments and determine how much life insurance you should have—as well as many you might not anticipate—like how to create your own Personal Money Story and articulate your Personal Principles.  We’ll discuss everything from homeowner’s and disability income insurance to navigating death and taxes.

Each week’s blog post will be on a different topic, building on the last, and will include online exercises you can download (at no cost) for your own personal use in developing your financial plan.  It’s not designed to supplant the intangible benefits of a personal financial planner, but to be a starting point, a supplement and/or a second opinion.  And throughout, we’ll work to maintain the real point of financial planning—a better life.

Why We Do Dumb Things With Money

“How could I be so stupid?”  Maybe you’re looking at a bulging credit card bill after over-spending during the holidays, just hoping your tax refund is enough to pay it off.  Or maybe you’re looking at a budget that simply won’t balance—for the 77th consecutive month—wondering how you made it this far in life without being able to master the simple math of addition and subtraction. 

Why is it that informed, educated and even brilliant people can be so dense when it comes to basic matters of personal finance?

I’m reading a book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, based on his fascinating article, “The Checklist,” in the December 2007 edition of The New Yorker.  On his way to making a compelling case for the use of checklists to ensure accuracy in even the most multifaceted procedures—like emergency room surgery or skyscraper construction—he gives us some insight into why we’re capable of doing dumb things in seemingly simpler processes.  In his words:

Two professors who study the science of complexity—Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto—have proposed a distinction among three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.

Zimmerman and Glouberman give us a tangible example of each type of problem.  Simple is to baking a cake from a mix as complicated is to sending a rocket to the moon.  The latter requires “…multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise.”  But once you’ve marshaled the necessary manpower and know-how to send a rocket to the moon, the exercise can be successfully repeated.

This is not the case in complex problems, however.  The example they give for a complex problem is raising a child.  “Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient.  Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one.”  As a parent of two, this news was both heartening and frightening.  But it also helped me realize something groundbreaking, at least to me:

While many matters of personal finance seem so simple on their face, they’re actually quite complex…because WE’RE complex.

Even as a single person with no dependents or pets, our innate proclivity for self-deception is remarkable.  But within the context of a couple or family, it’s easy to see how the “simple” discipline of cash flow management, for example, can become quite complex.

Further complicating the problem is that most areas of personal finance require perpetual decision making, in which each individual decision to save, spend, buy, sell, re-allocate, contribute, distribute, insure, reduce coverage, file, expense, deduct, bequeath, endow, receive or disinherit is its own fertile ground for success or failure that could compound positively or negatively to impact the whole!

So let’s all enjoy a collective “WHEW!” as we momentarily enjoy the fact that making mistakes with money doesn’t mean we’re a complete nincompoop.  Of course, this is an explanation, not an excuse.  We’re still responsible.  Here are three ways we can all keep our financial decision making as smart as we are:

1)     Be cognizant of things financial.  Be present and deliberate when dealing with your money.  Keep these topics at front of mind by reading a good financial blog or two (ha, ha).  And consider reading my friend and colleague, Carl Richards’, new book, The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money.  (It’s the only financial book I know of that is strewn with pictures!)

2)     Develop good habits.  We often need to force ourselves to be cognizant because personal finance either bores us or is loaded with self-deception.  The development of good habits, beginning first-and-foremost with a functional cash flow system, will help us develop the behavior we’d prefer.

3)     Be accountable to someone or something.  Some are willing and able to develop their own system to maintain accountability, but for many, a healthy relationship with a professional financial planner is the key.  In my Forbes post this week, “Hey Financial Planners, Do Your Job!” I gave advisors a gentle nudge, encouraging them (us) to make financial planning a simpler, more client friendly process that eliminates complexity instead of creating it.

What are some other ways you’ve been able to keep from making dumb financial decisions in your life?

The Victory In Failure

This past weekend, my seven-year-old son, Kieran, got beat up.  Worse yet, I was forced to stand by powerless, watching the whole thing, unable to intercede on his behalf.  Thankfully, everything’s fine.  He sustained no lasting physical injuries although it may take a while for him to recover emotionally…from his very first official wrestling tournament. 

Believe it or not, at seven he’s two-to-three years behind most of the other kids his age, so he spent the majority of his three matches getting his 60 pound frame slammed and twisted into the mat.  After spending weeks building his skills and confidence, he realized within 10 seconds into the first bout that he was outmatched.  At the end of the second (of three) 60 second periods his disappointment crescendoed and erupted into tears, doubling his embarrassment.  He spent the third period struggling to keep from getting pinned with tears streaming down his face.

Personal Failure

The worst part was that he still had two matches to go, and having seen the other two kids wrestle already, we knew it wasn’t going to get any easier.  He wanted to quit and go home.  What was I to do?  Parents in the movies always have the right thing to say, but I was searching and finding nothing; that is, until I remembered Tim Tebow.

We live in Baltimore, and that means we root for two teams—the Ravens, and whatever team the Steelers are playing—but over the course of this season, our household also admittedly got wrapped up in Tebow fever.  We’re suckers for underdogs and comebacks.  But what impresses me the most about Mr. Tebow is not his ability to win, but his grace in failure and his impervious defense against capitulation.  Whether deified in victory or discarded in defeat, he seems to maintain the same sincere posture of positivity, even after Denver’s 45-10 loss to the Patriots.

Kieran indeed lost his final two matches, but got successively stronger in each.  In the third, his dedication even earned him a couple points against a far superior opponent and a small cheering section of coaches, parents and teammates anxious to affirm his courage in the face of sure defeat.  He carried himself with respect and a sincere smile on his face to the fourth place (out of four) podium.

Financial Failure

Kieran’s story has little to teach us about money, but much about failure.  In no period since the Great Depression has financial failure been so widespread and felt with such impact.  There are those, like my son, who did everything they could to improve their chances of success, but lacking a certain level of experience or knowledge found themselves pinned down by the weight of decisions that turned on them.  Even many of those eminently qualified and gifted—like my friend and financial planning colleague who bared his soul sharing the story of his real estate blunders during the crisis—were humbled in defeat.

Losing your home, losing your job, or losing your ability to retire due to market losses is harder to handle than losing a football game or a wrestling match.  Failure of this magnitude can be absolutely crippling.  But it is, indeed, possible to gain something from losing.

The Depression Baby generation became the best savers in U.S. history (see Beyond Our Means, Princeton University Press, 2011).  Foreclosure and bankruptcy have spawned inspired financial counsel that has changed the lives of millions for the better (see Dave Ramsey).  Many job losses have imbued the aggrieved with enough frustration towards corporate hierarchy that they’re becoming our next wave of innovative entrepreneurs (see report by the Kauffman Foundation).  And market losses have encouraged the first generation of early retirees to pursue meaningful vocations they’re happy to perpetuate over occupations they were racing to end.

I’d love to know what you have gained through loss or failure, so please share in the comments section if you’re willing.

(This wasn’t the only emotional experience I had with Kieran this past weekend relating to sports and somehow, in my mind, things financial.  I wrote about the other in my Forbes blog this week—you can read “What Do NFL Playoffs And Money Have In Common?” by clicking HERE.)