How To Be Unhappy But Successful

“Are you measuring yourself in the gap or the gain?”

No, this isn’t a question pitting retail clothing against laundry detergent. It’s a question posed by Greg McKeown, the author of the essential book Essentialism, in his recent 1-Minute Wednesday newsletter.

Your answer matters, both in the way you approach money and life—but especially money.

“Gap thinking means looking at the distance between where we are and where we want to be (or comparing ourselves to what other people have achieved),” said McKeown. “Gain thinking means looking at the progress we have already made.”

For example, I had breakfast Friday morning with two friends, both of whom have experienced degrees of success in their professional lives that I could argue dwarf my own. That’s where my head would be if I was a gap thinker, anyway.

If I was a gain thinker, however, I might relish the fact that these dudes thought highly enough of me to give me a seat at the table…or at least that I was in good company for a free breakfast at a great restaurant!

As a financial advisor for a couple decades, I can tell you that the #1 question I’ve been asked by clients is some version of, “So, how am I doing…you know…relative to your other clients in similar situations?”

It’s not because these people are overly insecure or emotionally needy. But money—and, in many ways, financial planning—breeds gap thinking. Dollars, cents, credits and debits make it so easy to create a seemingly tangible success scorecard.

Perhaps you’re familiar with Lee Eisenberg’s book from several years back, The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest Of Your Life. He recalls a regular-rotation TV commercial at the time (that may still be running in some form today) for a big financial institution where you see people walking down a busy street, each with a dollar number hovering over them.

This is the type of image that the very nature of money makes it hard to avoid.

It’s not an entirely unhelpful notion to quantify our financial security in the form of a single number, despite the risk of oversimplification. But such thinking leads us very quickly to comparison, which many years ago Teddy Roosevelt accurately declared to be “the thief of joy.”

The Crazy Stuff We Do With Money—Explained

I’ve got some good news. You’re not crazy. 

That’s the message of one of my favorite books of 2020, “The Psychology of Money,” written by Morgan Housel and inspired by a popular blog post he wrote in 2018. It’s a compelling read and the book offers many great lessons, but I thought this particular encouragement was worthy of the fresh slate afforded us all by the start of a new year:

“We all do crazy stuff with money, because we’re all relatively new to this game and what looks like crazy to you might make sense to me. But no one is crazy—we all make decisions based on our own unique experiences that seem to make sense to use in a given moment.”

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Author and financial planner Rick Kahler echoes this sentiment, suggesting that “every behavior around money, no matter how illogical it seems to you or others, makes perfect sense when we understand the underlying thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.”

What difference does it make if we just keep screwing up? Can we increase our accountability to ourselves? Here are four steps you can take to help you understand these insights—and screw up less:

How Much Impact Does The President Have On The Market?

The question of whether or not the U.S. President or a particular party has an impact–positively or negatively–on stocks, bonds, unemployment, inflation, the deficit, and GDP growth–has been flying around like crazy. But especially in the midst of a contentious election cycle, it’s never been harder to find clear answers.

But take a glance at this interactive chart that enables you to click on each U.S. President going all the way back to 1929 to see what the major market and economic indicators looked like for each presidential cycle. I think you’ll find that it’s conclusively inconclusive:

So, should you consider changing your investment plan ahead of the election?

Short answer: No.

And here’s the slightly longer answer from one of the brightest investment people I know (and a darn good guitar player), Jared Kizer, CFA, Chief Investment Officer, Buckingham Wealth Partners:

How To Survive The Election

Everything coming at us right now is purposefully designed to unsettle us. We have to work to be settled in an environment like this. Here are three simple steps you can take to find peace in the midst of the chaos, and likely help others around you do more of the same:

1) Control Your Inputs.

A friend told me yesterday that he needs to replace the screen on his brand new, fancy-schmancy, big-screen OLED television. You know why? Because the banner running across the bottom of the screen of his news channel of choice has scorched itself into the screen. I didn’t even know that was possible.

Turn off Fox News. Turn off CNN. The former has a daily show called “Special Report,” a phrase that was once reserved for something that was Earth-shattering news, and the latter has a daily show called “The Situation Room,” which used to be an actual place in the West Wing of the White House reserved for the most serious of situations are discussed.

Financial Advisors: How To Talk To Clients About Politics

The last time I put a presidential campaign sign in my front yard was 2004. We lived on a small court, and we had just moved in that September. One of our neighbors was another young couple, but the other two families had lived there since the houses were built in 1960.

My political convictions were (and are) important to me, but one day, as I pulled into the court and saw the sign, it struck me that while it may have been a bridge to one neighbor, it could almost certainly be a stumbling block for another. I hadn’t even met all my neighbors in person yet—did I really want my vote to be the first impression I made?

I pulled out the sign, and I haven’t raised another since.

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Sometimes I have to pinch myself, because as a financial advisor, my job is to meet people, learn about what’s most important to them, help them articulate those values as intentions and goals, and then help create and follow a plan designed to reach them. What a gig, and what a privilege!

One of the greatest gifts of my 20 years and counting in the business is the wide variety of people with whom I’ve been able to engage. While you might tend to think that there is a stereotypical financial advisory client, my experience has been anything but uniform. From teaching college students—one of the best educations I’ve ever received—to advising individuals and families, it’s the striking differences between people that have left an indelible mark on me.

Sure, aside from the college students, they all had something in common—they were blessed with means sufficient enough to hire someone to help in its stewardship—but that’s where the similarities stopped. And their political proclivities have ranged across a vast continuum.

Especially over the last decade, and increasingly over the past four years, I’ve also seen these political opinions manifest as convictions so gripping that I’d describe them as visceral. People seem increasingly concerned with the potential for politics to shape their lives externally, and these concerns are so deeply internalized that I can see, hear and feel the weight of them in the faces and voices of my clients.

These feelings seem just as strong across the political spectrum. It’s not uncommon for us, as advisors, to have a conversation with someone who is convinced that their livelihood is doomed and the very fate of our nation sealed if so-and-so wins only to find, in the very next conversation, that another person is convinced of something equally cataclysmic if such-and-such wins.

So what are we advisors supposed to do? How do we navigate these intense emotions with our clients? And how should we navigate the opinions we hold, knowing that our convictions are rarely, if ever, going to be entirely aligned with those of our clients?

The Non-Conformist’s 4-Step Education Savings Plan

It’s become almost passé to bemoan the exorbitant cost of a college education and the collective debt burden, now over $1.6 trillion, resting on the shoulders of U.S. students and parents.  While it’s true that college tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation, many academic consumers refuse to recognize their complicity in skyrocketing costs.  Indeed, educational institutions charge what they do because we’re willing to pay for it.

Yet a perplexing antinomy exists—a college education can be excessively expensive, holding students and their benefactors financially hostage for decades, or it can be surprisingly inexpensive.  Case in point:

Harvard Vs. Harford

Without accounting for any financial aid or scholarships, a student could trade one semester of Ivy League education for a four-year undergraduate degree from any number of excellent state universities.  Specifically, if a student, living in Harford County, Maryland, were to commute from home to Harford Community College for two years and then commute to Towson University for the second two years, the total cost of tuition and fees—for an entire undergraduate degree—would be approximately $27,826 by my calculations, based on 2020 published estimates.  That would buy you just a hair under 10% of four years of tuition, room, board and fees at Harvard–it wouldn’t even cover a single semester.

This is quite obviously a gross oversimplification, only factoring one of many important dimensions of the full college experience, and not accounting for the fact that few students at any college pay full price, but the illustration forces us to recognize that there are other educational options available aside from paying a fortune.

It also begs the question: In a day and age when the undergraduate degree has been largely commoditized and viewed as a prerequisite for virtually every white collar job available, do the intangible benefits to be derived from any collegiate scenario costing more than the $27,826 represent a good value proposition?  Is the nearly $200,000 premium (in today’s dollars) you pay for the elite private or Ivy League undergraduate experience worth it?  Is the $100,000 premium you pay to live on campus at an out-of-state, state university worth it?  Is the $50,000 premium you pay to live and eat on campus at your state university worth it?

The answer for any of the above may very well be an emphatic and justifiable YES! but the value proposition for each student/school/benefactor combination will be different and worthy of exploration.  Here’s a four step process that will help you make that determination and properly fund the resulting decisions.

Step 1: Can you?

This instruction is directed largely to parents, but the logic is identical and the process just as important for those flying solo in their educational endeavors.  In developing your Family Education Policy, you must first ask the question “Can I?”  What is a reasonable expense for your children’s education that your household could bear without unduly hampering your own financial plan, present and future? 

It’s actually a selfish act to prioritize your children’s education over your retirement savings, because it will be much less costly for your children to pay off finite student loans than to bail out parents in the midst of a financial and health crisis in their old age.  If you can’t, don’t; then set your pride aside and discuss this reality with your budding scholars.

If you’re having trouble answering the question Can I? without more of a frame of reference, let me give you a rough idea of how much you’d have to save monthly, from the day your child is born, for 18 years, assuming the cost of education rises at 5% and you’re able to earn 7% on your savings:

  • Community college / In-state State U commuter:                      $ 155/ mo
  • In-state State U resident:                                                                 $ 542/ mo
  • Out-of-state State U resident:                                                         $ 857/ mo
  • Premier private / Ivy League resident:                                        $1,618/ mo

Does that offer some perspective?

Step 2: Will you?

After determining whether you can, you should follow that with “Will I?”  The financial entities who sell and administer education savings plans have seemingly colluded with academia to create an unspoken moral imperative for parents to fund their children’s college education.  And while I have no desire to strip you of a healthy desire to pay for your child’s post-secondary schooling, I want to give you the freedom to recognize that it is your choice to make.  This is an opportunity to parent, and to make a mark on your children based on your articulated personal principles and goals—the first step of every good financial plan.  I urge you to capitalize on that opportunity.

Step 3: Develop a Family Education Policy

At this point, you can, with the aid of your co-parent, clearly set forth a Family Education Policy.  This is your answer to the question your kids will eventually ask: “Hey, Katie’s parents told her they would pay [whatever] for college—what are you doing for me?”  My hope is that you won’t even wait for that query to arrive, proactively communicating this message even before curiosity forces the issue.  Maybe you’ll offer to pay up-to the four-year cost of an in-state state university education; or possibly up-to four years at your alma mater (although I’d warn you that this common directive seems less about them and more about you); maybe you’ll offer to pay the first two years of school, or a fascinating idea one client proposed—the second two years (to ensure her children were serious about the endeavor).

If you have the wherewithal and desire to offer your children the educational blank check—you can go wherever your heart desires that will accept you—by all means, do so.  But if all you have is the desire and not the wherewithal, you’re doing no one a favor.

Step 4: Develop an Education Savings Plan

The number 529 has become nearly synonymous with education savings, and in part for good reason.  529 plans offer education savers options for hedging the future costs of education and/or tax privilege.  Prepaid tuition plans give us the opportunity to pay for tomorrow’s tuition at today’s prices.  The plans are state administered and typically only cover the cost of tuition in your state (although you may be able to use the equivalent of the tuition cost of your state’s universities in another state).  If the cost of education continues to rise at its current pace, this would appear to be a good hedge, but the solidity of your prepaid plan of choice must also be considered.  Since many states are enduring financial difficulties of their own, the solvency of some plans has been reasonably questioned.

A 529 investment savings plan is very different conceptually.  It is an investment bucket of mutual funds you own that receives tax privilege similar to that of a Roth IRA.  You contribute after-tax dollars to the plan, and the principal and growth can be distributed tax-free if used for a wide range of qualified education expenses.  You may also receive a state tax deduction for a portion of your contribution.  The contribution limits are quite liberal, allowing $15,000 per parent (or even grandparent), per child in 2020, also with an allowance to prefund up to five years.  But since the funds invested in these accounts are subject to market volatility, a bigger concern over the past decade has been whether or not you are actually making money at all—much less over the college inflation factor.

If your children are very young and you can stomach the volatility, a college investment savings plan is an excellent tool, but I highly recommend using a no-load version of one of these 529 plans so you don’t start your investment in the hole via a brokerage commission.  If your children are older and you live in a state with a strong prepaid tuition plan, that may be a good option to consider.  But in either of these cases, I recommend you apply the 50% Rule.  Save 50% of your expected education needs in education-specific 529 plans, but store the other 50% in conservatively invested taxable accounts (or even savings accounts and CDs) since there are so many other variables at work.

Does education have a price?  Learning has inherent value which is incalculable.  Education is one of the primary ways we learn.  I taught at the college level for seven years and believe that it is one of my most important contributions; but while the educational process may be priceless, we must not ignore the associated price tag.

This article, updated in 2020, was originally published in my blog on Forbes.com.

Is COVID-19 Creating An Education Planning Crisis?

Few things in our lives have been so dramatically altered throughout the COVID-19 crisis as school and education. From online coursework to cancelled proms to a March devoid of Madness but full of uncertainty about whether or not college campuses will even reopen for the fall semester, there seem to be even more questions than answers.

How events unfold is especially high stakes for the students and parents facing the myriad of decisions surrounding the meaningful investment—personally and professionally—of college education. So, both as an advisor and a parent of teens, I asked one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the topic of college planning, my colleague Dave Ressner, a wealth advisor and education planning specialist. And he answered:

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Tim Maurer: What impact is the COVID-19 crisis having on institutions of higher learning?

David Ressner: COVID-19 has affected almost every sector of the economy, and higher education is certainly no exception. One higher education group estimates more than $100 billion in emergency response costs across the sector, and some schools are worried they won’t be able survive this crisis.

The Key To Saving More For Retirement: Using Your Imagination

The coronavirus is dominating our attention so pervasively in the present moment that the notion of retirement seems even more distant for savers. That’s understandable—natural, even. But it’s precisely our fixation on the present that causes us to struggle to follow through on our intentions to secure our future. Let me show you why.

I have a proposition for you: I’d like to give you one of two gift certificates to your favorite restaurant (that is sure to reopen when the quarantine is lifted). But first, please picture that inviting atmosphere at 7:00 p.m. on a bustling Saturday night, the thoughtful waitstaff, the right musical backdrop, and the perfect meal in front of you and your ideal dinner companion. Now, choose between a $200 gift certificate you would receive today or a $400 gift certificate you would receive 10 years from now.

Time’s up. Which did you choose?

Unless you’re gaming the system – that is, you’re anticipating a financial advisor would never encourage seemingly impulsive behavior over deferred gratification – you almost surely chose the $200 gift certificate today. I would too. Lord knows we’re going to be ready for a night on the town when we return to public life! And that doesn’t make us wasteful or foolish. It makes us human.

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To be clear, our all-so-human behavior isn’t inherently foolish or wasteful, especially in this instance. After all, your tastes could change 10 years from now. Another new restaurant could come into town. Heck, your favorite restaurant could shutter its doors, making your gift certificate worthless! A guaranteed two hundo today is almost certain to win over $400 a decade from now for most of us.

This tendency is a cognitive bias called hyperbolic discounting. It suggests that we’d prefer having something today rather than tomorrow, and that our bias for the present only compounds the further away on the calendar we place our hypothetical tomorrow.

But hyperbolic discounting moves out of the hypothetical and into reality when we examine it within the context of saving for retirement. Psychologically – biologically, even – we’ll generally default to today over tomorrow, and the result is that a generation of retirees hasn’t saved enough to meet their goals in retirement.

The odds were stacked against future retirees when the 401(k) was introduced. Think about it. You’re enduring one of life’s more stressful endeavors – starting a new job. You’ve exhausted your mental capacity and willpower on a long series of important decisions. After selecting tax withholding, choosing health insurance coverage, and navigating an array of other benefit options, you arrive at your 401(k) or equivalent retirement plan. And this is how your brain hears the question:

“Would you like to further reduce the amount you can spend today by setting even more money aside for a day decades in the future that might never come?”

How many people do you think opted-in to a 401(k) within the first six months of work? The numbers are atrocious – one study found 34%. But then, inspired by behavioral economists, companies started using an opt-out mechanism, requiring new hires to choose not to set aside at least a modicum of savings. The numbers shot up.

That sounds great, but our bias to choose the default doesn’t actually address hyperbolic discounting. More people may be saving, but they still aren’t saving enough. How, then, can we solve the hyperbolic discounting dilemma? Can we rewire ourselves to prefer saving more?

The answer, according to extensive research by Hal Hershfield on the subject, is to picture yourself in retirement. In one of his studies, Hershfield showed that digitally altering images of present-day participants, extrapolating what they might look like years down the road, could positively affect their saving behavior.

Furthermore, we can employ our imaginations to animate those future images. What do you most want to be doing in retirement? How do you want to feel?

In other words, to save more, we should first think about the lifestyle we want in the future and then back into the financial decisions required to make it a reality. And the degree to which these visions of our future self are vivid and positive will increase our propensity to save more.

Man standing in field admiring imaginary house
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Now, back to our initial proposition. The notion of $200 to spend today or $400 to spend 10 years from now isn’t so outlandish. If you’re earning an annual average return of 7% – a reasonable expected return for a balanced investment portfolio – your money doubles in roughly 10 years. And in retirement, it’s precisely stuff like food – and housing, transportation, travel and recreation – that add up to the lifestyle we desire.

So, wherever you are on the continuum from now until your personal retirement then, consider using your imagination to help increase your motivation to save for the future.

1 Book, 1 Practice, And 1 Post For The New Decade

To help you kick off your New Year — and the new decade — with more clarity and purpose, I’d like to recommend a blog post, a simple daily practice, and a transformative book that I believe could propel you not just through 2020, but the 2020s. I’ll list them in the order of the lowest investment of time to the greatest:

Post about a family who suffered the greatest loss imaginable in 2019, and the lessons their loss teaches us about making the most of our lives, personally and professionally:

The biggest challenges most of us had in 2019, thankfully, pale in comparison to that which my good friends continue to endure — the sudden loss of their 17-year-old son to a previously unknown heart condition. It was the last, most challenging, and most important post I wrote for Forbes last year, or in any year.

But the life of this young man and the habits he embodied — sharing his self-confidence, speaking words of affirmation, and finding the best in any circumstances — could change the course of your life and those you love. I know it has mine.

Practice that draws us away from the distracting world of electronics and into the “analog” space where the research shows our time is best managed:

There’s an app for everything, and there are more than we could possibly count that promise to make us more productive and to manage our time better. Ironically, research suggests that the very best tools for optimum productivity may actually be a good old-fashioned pencil, paper, and most importantly, a little uninterrupted time.

With an attention span easily swayed, I’ve spent the better part of my career hunting for the best productivity methods and mechanisms. After getting on and falling off of that wagon more times than I can count, with complex “systems” that seemed hard to adopt and even harder to adapt, I finally found a method that has stuck with me now for three years without fail — Bullet Journaling.

Book that changes the way we think about work — and life — and helps us get more from each through the power of intention:

You’ve heard that multi-tasking is a myth, and it’s verifiably true. But most of us are still working — and playing — in such a way that this realization and its ramifications have not yet sunk in. In so doing, we rarely leave the realm of “shallow work,” where our attention is sufficiently divided that we slow the process down and decrease the quality of our efforts.

By reordering our time and space to facilitate “deep work,” we can actually get more and better work done in less time. And the same applies to our less laborious pursuits in life.

This book, this practice, and the subject matter of this post have left a mark on me — a mark that has already outlasted a few New Year’s celebrations — and I have no doubt will impact my life and work through the 20’s. I hope they are of some value to you as well.

Living A Life Worthy Of A Legacy At Any Age

What do you text the father, a good friend, who I’d just learned had lost his 17-year-old son the previous night?

“I don’t have the words. Praying. Anything at all, we’re here for you.”

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I’d spent the previous hour hearing the news, breaking down, sharing the news with my wife and then my sons, breaking down, calling other parents who’d want to get to their kids before they learned in the middle of class, breaking down.

No, a text won’t do. Not in this case, not in this moment. They only live a few blocks away. So began the most painful walk my wife and I have undertaken, to a front door that we didn’t want to open, to see the face of a father and mother still stunned by the worst news a parent can receive.

Thus, we were initiated into a holy cycle of hugging, crying, story-telling, laughing and loving that culminated with a service—the day before Mother’s Day—celebrating Logan Janik’s life, as over 800 family and friends graduated into a new, dimmer reality.

Throughout this cycle, as I grew to know Logan much better through the intersecting narratives, the pervasive thought that stuck was that this young man had left more of a legacy in 17 short years than most leave after a statistical lifetime

And no, these are not the mere musings of a mourner struggling with recent loss. Logan lived his life embodying a few commonly known but uncommonly exhibited traits that, if emulated, would help all of us live a life worthy of a legacy:

First, he made a habit of sharing his self-confidence with those who might lack it. Logan was a six-foot-two, 210-pound athlete with an enviable head of hair and an inimitable smile—the first word that came to mind both as his most memorable feature and the expression he most often inspired.

When my son first stepped foot on the campus of what has now become his high school—attended by over 4,000 students—he was an unsure eighth grader attempting to make the JV lacrosse team. I have no doubt that his attempt was successful in part thanks to Logan, then a seasoned sophomore, who insisted on driving my son to and from practice.

This rhythm continued as my son began his freshman year—Logan’s junior year—causing my wife and I to wonder, “What 11th-grader risks his popularity on an unrelated freshman?” But unlike most of us, even as adults, Logan didn’t see his personal confidence and credibility as an exhaustible resource. He spent it freely, not choosing to invest it only in those who’d provide a relational ROI, but more so in those who really needed it.

Second, Logan spoke words of affirmation. Such words can feel empty when actions don’t coincide, but there was no such incongruence here. For instance, my son wasn’t the only freshman beneficiary of Logan’s encouragement—another young man remembered Logan’s final words to him when, picking him out of a crowd, he simply said, “You’re my favorite goalie.”

In an age where so many affirmations come in the form of “Likes” worth little more than the click they require, a single, timely, genuine word of encouragement can buoy us when we fail and shape us when we succeed.

Finally, Logan extracted a redeeming reality out of circumstances that would waylay most. More succinctly, he was a glass-half-full kid who chose to find the best in both people and situations. 

Of his passions in life, lacrosse may have been the foremost. But despite being an imposing athlete and an ideal teammate, he didn’t always make the team he tried out for, especially at his 4,000-student high school. “He handled it better than I did,” his father told me, when he missed the final cut for varsity.

We would all be disappointed, as Logan was, but our natural tendency is often to cast external blame and protect our vulnerability through embitterment. Logan did neither, and in retrospect, it also gave him the opportunity to play his final season of lacrosse alongside his younger brother, celebrating another high school league championship together just days before Logan’s passing.

Helping came naturally to Logan—but it doesn’t to most of us. We live in a time and place where crafting our individual narrative and boosting our resume is sadly very much a part of adulthood. The perception machine is always cranking, and the very design of “friending” and “connecting” is to pad our own stats and build our own credibility.

Spending time, effort, and social or professional capital, therefore, is seen as the domain solely of the untouchable philanthropist who has acquired more than it appears possible to spend in multiple lifetimes.

“I’ll give back when [fill in the blank],” seems a sensible refrain. But Logan’s example reminds us that our “when” may never come, and that we do not have to wait on an estate to build a legacy. Material riches are not required to make an investment in time or influence.

But if altruism isn’t enough motivation, there’s also a pragmatic case to be made. Helping others—without any expectation of reciprocity—is an entirely valid strategy for those (read: most) of us who are still in the accumulation phase of building a meaningful life, personally and professionally. Indeed, it is the premise of Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, and the inspiration for his weekly productivity routine:

I try to start every week with three things that I want to accomplish that I care about. And then three ways that I want to help other people. And that’s the compass for the week. I’ll plan my whole schedule around those things.

Adam Grant

As I’ve been stumbling my way through Logan’s loss, I found myself asking a question about the equity of my accomplishment/helping ratio:

How much more of an impact could I have if I followed through on my best intentions, specifically relating to helping, affirming and building-up others versus striving toward my own accomplishments?

Would you consider asking the same question?

Consider allowing yourself, as I have been, to be humbled and inspired and challenged by a kid, an “old soul,” whose legacy will extend long beyond his life.

In loving memory of Logan Michael Janik: December 6, 2001 – May 7, 2019