Occupation Preoccupation

While many of the headlines dominating today’s news are very important and financial in nature—a collapsing union in Europe and corporate greed in the U.S.—a disproportionate focus on them, considering our relative lack of control over their outcomes, does little more than increase our stress level.  This increased stress level only leads to lower productivity in those parts of our lives we can control.  It’s important, therefore, to ensure you’re addressing all of those things you CAN control in your money and life as a pre-requisite to the occupation of any given street.

The following exercises are designed to decrease your stress level, increase your financial health and make you a better occupier of whatever cause you pursue:

Tune-out.  We live in an age in which news is not just pervasive, it’s invasive!    As a financial planner, I’d even fooled myself into believing that it was a vocational requirement that I take in as much news as is humanly possible.  Sadly, I must confess I have failed in my more important duties as a husband and father at times, barking out nonsense like, “Do you have any idea what’s going on in the market right now??” as justification for being emotionally missing on the home front because of my preoccupation with volatility on Wall Street.

Last week, I took some advice to tune out and reaped the benefits.  Instead of defaulting to the radio in my car, I defaulted to silence.  What an incredible exercise!  Instead of fretting over fresh news of the devaluation of my home, rising unemployment in my community and riots in Greece over calls for fiscal discipline, I was able to breathe at a more normal pace and appreciate the changing leaves for the first time this fall.  It was as if time slowed down.  The benefit?  I walked into my office, my meetings and, at most importantly, my home, with a refreshed spirit and clearer mind.

Name your worries.  With greater clarity from your tune-out session, you’ll be able to better identify those things currently weighing on you.  If you’re like me, though, one of those primary worries is that you simply don’t have enough time (our most valuable commodity) to complete everything you need to do that day; so begin one of your days with silence on your drive into the office and before you turn your computer on, write a list of those things that are currently worrying you.  Many will be financial in nature: Your real estate losses, concern over a job loss or income reduction, frustration with market volatility, confusion regarding your 401k elections, increases in your health insurance costs and inequity in household cash flow.

After you’ve completed your list, you’ll notice that simply writing your worries down and looking at them will be impactful.  You may realize quickly that this-and-that are just silly, not worthy of worry.  Some items may represent areas where you don’t have control, but you may have some influence and can determine how best to exercise it.  But I also encourage you to take notice of how many of them you lack control over.  Draw a line through them, and begin disciplining yourself to cast off your worry for those things over which you have no control.

Control what you can.  Regardless of whether or not you could’ve been wiser about your last home purchase, you don’t have any more control over the depressed housing market today than the boom we all enjoyed in the early- and mid-2000’s.  You do have control, however, over your ability to refinance your loan at historically low interest rates, thereby reducing your monthly housing costs.  If your loan-to-value ratio won’t allow a standard refinance, look into a loan modification.  You don’t have control over the increasing cost of food, but you still decide what to put in the grocery basket.

The number one way to relieve your financial worry is through better cash flow management.  Regardless of whether you’re a struggling graduate making $20,000 per year or a business owner making $2 million, the health of every financial household is dictated by your discipline in the management of income and expenses.  It’s not easy to budget, because of the tedium and time required, but it is simple.

Many mistake budgeting as a chore for the financially desperate or destitute, but nothing could be further from the truth.  If you were the CFO of a company and were presenting your annual plan to the board, they’d ask to see your budget.  Can you imagine if you said, “Ah, money comes in and money goes out—it just always seems to work”?  You’d be hunting for a new job, and the logic is no different on the home front.  You’re the CFO.  Budget.

The protest movements across the U.S. that have gained steam in recent days and years are centered on economic issues, from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement.  I seek in no way to condemn or ridicule anyone choosing to spend time engaged in a lawful occupation of whatever street for whatever cause near and dear.  But before you occupy Wall Street, please occupy your street.  You’ll have less stress and be better financially prepared for whatever occupation you undertake.