There is never a wrong time for a great idea. The trouble is, great ideas usually come across as bad ideas. This is why most people will make incremental changes - or none at all - at crisis points, even when a radical change is the only real solution to the problem.
Example: evacuation. Nobody ever *wants* to evacuate. Even though we all know what wildfires and hurricanes and floods are, we don’t want to believe that this is our movie now. There are always stubborn holdouts, and then there are the last of the procrastinators who always think we have more time than we do. Groups with different motives and different emotional reactions can still wind up with the same sad outcomes.
Making decisions is hard. There are consequences for being wrong that tend to look more likely than the consequences of what probably feels unrealistic. (The category five storm, the ashes that used to be a house, the empty retirement account, the foreclosure, whatever is the name of the new living nightmare). Not me, nope! Not going to happen!
This is why it’s easier to plan for these eventualities, game them out and prepare. Then it doesn’t feel as much like a ‘decision’ as simply following a policy.
This is why we have go bags, and it’s why we have emergency savings, and it’s why we have advance care directives, and it’s why we occasionally do a bit of theoretical modeling of threat scenarios. Put a plan in place, and those couple of hours of forecasting can translate to peace of mind that lasts for years.
Ironically, we worry more when we have no plan than we do in the process of making a plan.
Some of the toughest plans to make are the financial plans. It’s not uncommon for a couple to know exactly who they would want to take their kids if something happened to both of them. That is an incredibly depressing scenario! Yet everyone involved feels better if there’s a plan, because those kids really, really matter.
Why and how would it be scarier or more depressing to talk about various financial outcomes than it would the prospect of orphaned children?
Simple: The orphan scenario will probably never happen, but the financial situation is happening right now.
Troubleshooting is a process of root cause analysis. Without professional training, it can feel like someone is looking for someone else to blame. Default reaction here is always going to be defensiveness. “Me?!? What about YOU?!?”
That’s the thing about radical change, though. It doesn’t matter what happened before. What matters is that from now on, the entire nature of the game is going to be different. We’re just starting fresh.
We’re going to sit together, and we’re going to learn what we don’t know, and we’re going to figure out a plan that actually works.
No matter what anybody else thinks.
My husband and I are living a radical lifestyle that is wildly divergent from the values we were both taught as kids, which are basically:
Live near where you grew up, where you know everyone and you have a network of people to trade favors. Buy a house there so it will grow in value. Have two cars for maximum freedom.
Neither of us has any plans to do any of these things, and we’ve had to explain ourselves to family, friends, and colleagues several times. My husband will even get out a calculator and go through the math to show that we’ve done our due diligence. Our financial policy is pretty unpopular.
Buying a house is a bad idea in many cities, and it’s always a bad idea if you live there less than five years. Owning one car (much less two or more) is unnecessary, expensive, and even dangerous. Relocate strategically for your career. Live on only half your income at most.
Granted, most couples are not going to do what we do, and that’s perfectly fine. Be normal, be happy. You do you.
Just because you don’t want to do what we’re doing, though, doesn’t mean that your current plan is working for you. It’s not an either/or choice. It’s a false dilemma to hold up something extreme as the only possible alternative to what you’re doing now.
The questions are:
Is your current plan working for everyone involved?
What does everyone involved want to be doing in five years, and do you have a plan to get there?
“Working” means that it’s sustainable indefinitely. The schedule is manageable, everyone involved carries a fair load and has high quality leisure time, everyone involved is living their most cherished values and working toward their purpose. Income is higher than expenses. If there is debt, it’s trending downward, not plateauing or increasing.
Note that this probably does not describe the majority of American households.
The way to initiate a radical reassessment conversation with your partner is to be willing to go first. Come to the table with some ideas of what you specifically want - that helps - but also try to outline something that your partner wants. If you lead with how making a change will help get them what they want, you can start the conversation on a high note and skip right past all the blame and recriminations.
It can really help to bring a story, an example of someone else who has done what you want to do. Fortunately, there are couples in the FIRE community of all ages who share their personal stories of financial independence. You can share ours:
We radically downsized to 1/4 the living space and got rid of over 80% of our stuff. Now we live in a nice apartment less than a mile from the beach, working our dream jobs, and we invest over half our income. We’re debt-free, of course - we don’t even have a mortgage. We haven’t argued about money for many years.
It’s a pretty basic formula. If you’re in financial trouble, you can either increase your income, cut your living expenses, or both. You can make a temporary change, like moving to a much cheaper home or selling a vehicle, and agree to reinflate your lifestyle at a designated point. You can choose to approach your situation with good humor and excitement at how relieved you will be when all this stress is gone.
Look each other in the eye and commit: We’re a team. We can do this together.
I got a new job, and one of my first priorities was setting up automatic deductions for my retirement plan.
Hopefully, this is the most boring thing I’ll ever say.
It should be boring because it should be seen as:
Almost too obvious to mention
When instead it’s one of the most commonly procrastinated tasks. Women especially tend to refer to it as confusing or overwhelming. I did, too, until my first husband spent our entire house savings behind my back and I wound up divorced and flat broke.
Now I think of financial planning as the ultimate in self-care.
You think a hot bath and a massage would be relaxing? Try knowing you have an emergency savings cushion.
Out of all the causes of a tension headache, in my opinion, money worries are the worst. I used to lie awake and cry myself to sleep because I was so freaked out about my finances. Now, it’s one of the touch points I use when I want to calm down.
I set up my first retirement account when I was 26, a couple years after my divorce. I felt old as the hills, like I had been procrastinating for years, but the truth was that most of my jobs didn’t allow for such an option.
I remember the first time I got a quarterly retirement statement, and it said I had about $40.
“There are double digits in my retirement account!” I said to everyone in my office. “I can retire for... half a day!”
This is a good joke to make around older, more established people. It makes them feel better about their own situation.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and that account has significantly more in it than my entire annual earnings from that job.
Time does most of the work. It really is “set it and forget it.” For every minute you spend reading materials and figuring out where you want to allocate your funds, you get a year of peace and tranquility.
I was determined to learn all this investing stuff as a young woman because I had learned the hard way that you can’t trust anyone else to do it for you. I also knew, from observing older women among my friends and family, that I would probably get old, too. Older ladies that I knew were almost exclusively broke.
It’s been my observation that elderly people tend to live around 15 years longer than they thought they would.
Nobody can picture themselves being old, frail, and poor. Why would you want to??
I understood, though, that if I had forty years to prepare, that was plenty of time to try to take care of Old Me. Even if I always earned well below the median. Even if I lived alone and had to do it all by myself.
The irony here is that my frugality attracted my second husband. Not only am I still in charge of my own money, I have a partner to share expenses, and he’s in charge of his own money, too.
This is where the challenge came in. It was time to set up my new portfolio at my new job. Since we are working from home, for the same employer, in the same room, and it was the end of the day on Friday, my hubby noticed what I was doing. (Probably because I talk to myself a lot).
He wandered over and started peeking over my shoulder.
This is a moment of choice.
It’s so easy to sit back passively and let another person make our decisions, take our risks, do our labor. Like when I had to assemble my own office chair this weekend - it only took an hour and an Allen wrench, but I was also doing laundry and I would have loved to just have someone else do it!
There is nothing like the pride of knowing you’ve done it all yourself, though. I’m sitting in my chair right now, enjoying it so much more than the wooden folding chair I was using over the past three weeks. And that is an analogy for the two types of retirement I could have.
I thanked my husband for his interest and reminded him that I had a strong track record in choosing my own investments. I broke even in 2008 (+0.25%) and I’ve beat the market a few years.
He went back to what he was doing, probably smirking on the inside, because he loves that I am good with money. He also loves that I can stand up for myself.
The default at my employer, it turns out, is to set aside 10% and put it in a target date fund. That’s totally reasonable. It was a weird moment though to see that they had chosen the same date I would, and also to know that there are now only twenty years left of my traditional career arc.
It’s a long time, though!
I maxed out on everything. I like to think of it as being ‘extra.’ I like to think of my investment choices as somewhat flamboyant. Rather than whatever image people have of extreme savings, I like to see it more as the ‘sequins and a feather boa’ version. We’re allowed to put 15% of our incomes into our 401(k), pre-tax, so I do. I also put aside another 10% for my IRA.
We save more than that, of course - we like to live on just half our income - but where we put the rest of it is a different subject for a different day.
Where did I put my funds? It doesn’t matter, really, because there are only maybe a dozen or so options for most employers. Those funds are generally only available to institutional investors, which is cool because it means I couldn’t get into them as a freelancer.
Really the only thing that matters is that Old Me is going to look back and be proud of the decisions that Young Me made. We still have time, and time is better than money.
(Although money is pretty darn great, too).
Empty shelves two weeks in. Our grocery situation here in Southern California is gradually improving, but there are still large blank sections in even the best-stocked stores. If your situation is like ours, you’ve already been putting together some pretty ad hoc meals. For those who have never experienced food insecurity before, this is probably stressful, until you learn to accept it and get creative.
I’ve been here before, and this is my advice. Eat the weird stuff first.
My husband and I ventured out on a supply run this weekend. We went to a grocery store about a quarter mile from our apartment. There was plenty of produce... but almost nothing else. It basically had: some dog food, wine, honey, maple syrup, one can of pumpkin, Maine lobster juice, and a single bottle of raspberry pomegranate açaí cultured goat milk kefir.
They did have disinfectant wipes when you walked in, though!
What struck me about that bottle of kefir was that someone had obviously bought the rest of the bottles off the shelf at $8 each.
I’m a weird-groceries person, which I think the popular name for that is “foodie.” I’ve always enjoyed trying new things. In fact this is part of how I hooked my husband. He’s from a semi-rural area and his town had no fast food, much less anything more exotic than spaghetti. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant, introduced him to Vietnamese cuisine, and by the time I got him into an Ethiopian place the ring was on my hand. I feel very fortunate that we are both intrigued by novelty, especially now.
That’s how we’re framing this. It’s a grand culinary experiment and the prize is: dinner.
There are no picky eaters in my family. It’s a cultural thing for us. I can share a few of our family guidelines, if you’re not always getting buy-in with what’s available that night.
If we didn’t like something, we would tell each other, “Just wash it down.” Usually with milk.
“How do you know you don’t like it until you try it? It might be your new favorite.”
“Three more bites.”
All of these ideas are helpful for the hungry backpacker. Food discipline is fundamental for any expedition. If you eat everything in your pack, guess what. You’d better be good at foraging and hope that everything you recognize is currently in season or you’re going to wind up like that guy in Into the Wild. Start with portion control or you simply can’t go as far or have as much fun.
One time our car broke down on the way to camp. We had been planning to stop at the little general store in town before the turnoff. All we had was whatever was in the bottom of my dad’s pack. Because my dad is a genius at improvising and because we had been trained to eat whatever was on offer, we did okay. Trout for dinner and... instant-mashed-potato/whole wheat pancakes with trail mix for breakfast. Delicious? Infamously no. Enough to fill our bellies until we got home? Yup.
This is a wacky time to be hunting for provisions, when it’s easier to find expensive luxury goods like swordfish, oysters, chocolate, kale chips, and organic raspberries than it is to find beans, rice, or tortillas. At least for now. It’s almost precisely the opposite of what everyone had during WWII rationing.
This is why I say, eat the weird stuff first. Whatever you have that’s been hanging around in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets since... since when exactly? Certainly anything you know you did not buy in 2020 should go first.
I work with hoarders, and almost every single one of my people is a food hoarder. Some of them do it by accident, such as the households that have a full wet bar even though none of them drink alcohol, or the ones who keep finding ketchup packets mixed in with their mail. There will be things like jars of gifted jam, cake mix for a potential special occasion, or other holiday foods like a single can of cranberry sauce.
My friends who cook play a home version of Iron Chef. Pretend it’s that.
The idea is to take something like that can of cranberry sauce, and think of ways to use it, then build around it. Divergent thinking, brainstorming. Creativity. Gamification. Because the alternative is to eat through all the default stuff and then find yourself with a bunch of random ingredients that, try as one might, can’t be fitted into an appetizing meal.
I have a game that I call Freezer Surprise. It’s a little inside joke amongst our closest friends. Normally I like to go by the book and follow recipes meticulously, because that’s how I learn new cuisines. The first time I ever had risotto was after making it from a cookbook with no photos. When I do Freezer Surprise, I’m improvising with whatever I happen to have on hand. One night I made this absolutely insane pot pie with some leftover roasted vegetables, homemade vegan sausage crumbles, and a dab of gravy that had been in the freezer since Thanksgiving. It was outrageously good... and I have no idea how to ever repeat it.
Freezer Surprise is a great game for confident cooks, but probably not for the beginner. When I started learning to cook, I could ruin literally anything, from instant macaroni to frozen pizza. I even made an inedible peach pie.
Fortunately, one thing that we do have in lavish abundance is advice. We can look up hundreds of millions of recipes on the internet, and we can even use recipe generators based on whatever specific ingredients we type in. We can ask our friends, What would you make with this? We can let our mealtimes bring us together. We can even turn on our cameras and cook and dine together. Kinda.
What I gained from my experience with long-term food insecurity was an immense, endless gratitude for basic weekday dinners. I have the ability to eat anything without complaint. I know how to make dozens of variations of inexpensive meals. I’m a frugal shopper, alway have been. I never thought I’d need those skills again. Turns out it’s like eating a bicycle; you never forget how.
For those of us who have ever been flat broke, busted, or dirt poor, now is our time! We get to turn all that old trauma and heartache into helpful information for our communities! Watch this space, because I’m going to use my self-isolation time over the next few weeks to share everything I know about turning nothing into something.
Let’s start with alternative sources of acquiring work, creating job opportunities, and solving problems without money.
First, there are thousands of fresh new job opportunities right now. Someone is going to have to build all those ventilators! Everyone I know in construction, engineering, and tech has more work on their hands than they can handle.
Some businesses are offering loyalty programs. Our gym is offering special-access workshops for “after this is over.” Other businesses are selling gift certificates. There are adjacent opportunities here; for instance, if I worked in a salon I would offer consulting for all my clients who are now on camera all day.
For some of us, the problem is one that I refer to as the Fish Cannery. An old friend of mine and her boyfriend used to work in an Alaskan fish cannery for a few months every year. They would get tons of overtime and work seven days a week. The bad news was, they couldn’t shower or wash their clothes most days, and they went to bed with rank hair every night. The good news was, room and board were included, there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy, so they just racked up money. Then the boyfriend would live on the beach in Mexico for six months and surf all day.
Those of us currently doing Fish Cannery are working mega overtime. We have money but no supplies and no free time to do much of anything else. Like fix things.
Keep this in mind if anyone or everyone in your household is out of work.
Crisis has a cream pie in each hand, one to feed you and one to grind into your face. The trick in times of scarcity is to take the pie in the face and scrape a little into a jar to save for later.
If I were out of work right now, I would sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and I would do two things.
Right now, we’re adding the constraint that this chore should not involve physical contact with another person.
One of the worst things about scarcity mindset is that it tends to convince us that we’re worthless, helpless, and hopeless. THAT IS A LIE. If you’re an able-bodied person right now, you’re better off than anyone in a ventilator, so quit the pity party and start ideating.
I’m going to do this ideation for you, right here, right now! I’m dividing the list into digital and physical, as in, things you can do on a phone or computer vs. things you would do with, like, tools.
You and client can wave at each other through the window, they leave the job outside, you do the work and they Venmo you. Or leave you trade items like TP, groceries, or whatever you have arranged.
Fix bicycles. Or small engine repair, like sewing machines, if you know how.
Home repair. I think it would be legit to do something like unclog a drain, if the family shut the door and stayed isolated in a room until you left.
Roto-tilling and putting in a Victory Garden. Also maintaining it. Most people who have a big yard don’t actually know how to grow vegetables. So they’re stuck on a three-hour conference call safe indoors, and you’re growing food for the neighborhood, safe outdoors.
Teaching. If you have specialized skills in anything from IT to canning, someone may be willing to pay you, or trade you, to get online with them and share your knowledge. Sure, they can watch videos online, but they probably already tried that before they called you.
Consulting. For example, what do businesses need in order to go paperless? I know for an absolute fact that some people are still being forced to commute into their offices because management has no clue how to do business virtually. PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE because of reluctance to learn these skills.
Entertainment. We have the entire internet to entertain us, and people are already climbing the walls with boredom. Offer something live and unpredictable, especially if it’s child-focused and educational.
These are just a few ideas. I certainly hope that it will be easy to add all the glaringly obvious opportunities I’ve missed.
Now I’m going to do a little futurism and offer some forecasts.
This thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. H1N1 lasted for a year back in 1918. We are currently just beginning a process of incredible transition. The world of 2023 is going to look very different than it does today. We’re going to need all hands on deck to make it happen.
I think most entertainment will become either audio-only, animated, AR/VR, or gaming because it will be a while before sports or Hollywood are doing anything in person. I think people will quickly adapt to remote personal training, education, and commerce. I think there will be more opportunities than ever to make and package food, manufacture products that can’t be shipped overseas, and make deliveries. Space, robotics, drones, medical equipment, security, and PPE (face masks, gloves, etc) are going to continue to expand. Pent-up demand for clothes, toiletries, and basic housewares will build until we finally get the all-clear. There will be jobs that don’t currently exist and money to be earned.
Do you know someone who has been unemployed since rocks were soft? I’m thinking that even that person will be able to find work soon. Even if it’s you! You can read, cantcha? So why not? We’re in a new world now, and I don’t think even a criminal background, lack of credentials, or being non-neurotypical is going to be as much of an obstacle.
One thing that poor people and wealthy people have in common is that they both think in terms of “multiple streams of income.” The only people who rely on one job or one salary are middle-class people. It’s time to learn new ways of thinking and new skills. We all need to work together to dream a new world into existence, and we’d better start acting fast.
I had it in my mind to write about multi-level marketing, after being pitched by a friend, when it happened again. A random stranger started chatting me up, mentioned that he sells a particular something, and I instantly intuited that his product was also an MLM. Whatever, people can do what they want, and the appeal of this marketing structure will probably never die until it’s regulated out of existence. It’s still worth talking about.
99% of people who sign up for multi-level marketing lose money
It just takes a while before they admit it to themselves or others
If you try to sell me MLM products I will stonewall you and probably quit talking to you
Please don’t destroy your friendships and alienate your family by doing this
People do not want to BE SOLD, they just want to hang out with you
If they want to buy anything at all they will find it online and order it
Please research your target brand online and read what the skeptics have to say before signing anything
Okay, enough of all that for a minute. It either sinks in or it doesn’t. I got sucked in by an MLM when I was 18, and that’s because I was too young and dumb to know what I was dealing with. I believed every single thing I was told. It cost me close to a month’s pay. All I can say for an excuse is that this was before Wikipedia and Google, and there wasn’t really a quick or easy way for me to educate myself.
You can spot this stuff a mile away once you know what to look for.
Your friend suddenly wants to hang out, even if you haven’t seen each other for a while, or a new friend magically becomes more interested in you.
They keep changing the subject back to something like “nutrition” even though the conversation up to that point had nothing to do with it, or you haven’t discussed it with each other before.
They won’t usually come out and say what they want, but sometimes they’ll say there’s “something they want to tell you about” or that they just went to a conference and they’re super excited.
We have to remember that one of the major appeals of these programs is the free motivational speaking. An aggressive up-line person who is lit up by the dream of quick, easy money is going to spend as much time and energy as possible trying to inspire others to sign up, buy product, and push hard. Love-bombing works because it works.
Someone who might be drifting a bit in life, maybe a little lonely or isolated, suddenly gets swept up in this wave of fun, energy, and excitement. They keep hearing stories of how rich some other person got by selling these products. Now they’re getting tons of encouragement and support. Let’s do it!
The more desperate the up-line person is, the more they’ll double down on how much benefit they get from the program. They may truly believe this because they haven’t crunched the numbers yet, or they may be surfing on a wave of optimism, or they may be lying with a black heart because they’re frantic to make back all the money they’ve already sunk in.
Regardless, the industry statistics are very poor.
Step back a moment and compare multi-level marketing to other types of sales.
There are all kinds of sales jobs out there that actually include a salary! If you’re excited by commissions (I’m not), then why not sell cars or go into corporate sales? I have a friend who travels around selling heart defibrillators, and she makes a good living. Most products don’t require pressure or storing stuff in your garage as a key part of their business plan.
As an ordinary person, I am automatically suspicious of why a product would be somehow limited or only sold in a specific way. Like, why can’t I just order it myself from the website? Wouldn’t it be easier for the company to make more sales if customers didn’t have to buy stuff from someone’s living room?
I’ve been invited to so many of those. Someone’s Tupperware party, someone’s lingerie party, someone’s jewelry party, and on and on. I’ll do what a lot of women will do, which is to make a small one-time purchase out of embarrassment or guilt, or at best mild interest. Then that’s it. If this person makes another invite, I’m out of there. Are we actually friends or are you just hoping to make money off me? The up-line person may temporarily come close to breaking even by exploiting one social group after another, while you’ve just burned your one shot with everyone you know.
The last two MLM pitches I’ve heard have to do with nutritional supplements and “alkaline water.”
I’m automatically suspicious of both these things. Why would I take health advice from a random citizen? I can make an appointment with a doctor or someone who has credentials in nutrition or dietetics. If I were in the market for one of these products, I’d look one up and do my own research. There is basically never a situation where someone will pitch me something I’ve never heard of and I will find their marketing material convincing in isolation.
So quit asking
I knew there was a pitch coming just now, because this guy started going off on a heartfelt tangent about how the world works, and that people owe it to each other to help each other out. His philosophy seemed to be that if he spent time with someone or threw them business, they were then morally required to help him out by buying his alkaline water filter. (I looked them up and those things are like a thousand bucks).
Then I realized that this guy believed he could create some kind of energy exchange. By interrupting me and talking at me for several minutes, he would cause me to be indebted to him, and then I would owe him a sale.
I was totally right. Twenty minutes later, he came over to interrupt me again, saying that if I wanted alkaline water I would see him around.
Yeah, you and probably a thousand other people who are gradually starting to realize that they don’t know enough individual people in their area to support themselves by selling these products.
I agree that it’s good for people to help each other. That’s why I’m offering my advice for free. Buy into the concept that you can turn your personal social network into quick cash, and you’ve just cost yourself all of your accumulated social capital. That’s because there’s a lot more involved than commerce or financial exchanges.
A lot of people will humor you and spend a few minutes listening to your pitch. Once they realize that they’re little more to you than a potential convert or part of a sales funnel, they’ll be annoyed and disappointed. They probably won’t tell you face to face, and neither will the next person. You’ll probably be hundreds or thousands of dollars in the hole before you realize it isn’t going to work.
Multi-level marketing won’t work for you because it hasn’t worked for 99% of people who’ve tried it, and it isn’t designed to. Please quit pitching your friends and start focusing on your real purpose or passion, which probably wasn’t tights, juicers, vitamins, or weird water six weeks ago. Your passion probably didn’t start with someone else’s pitch, remember?
Money Diaries is like a combination smart personal finance class-slash-dirty secret. There is something seriously naughty about snooping through the intimate details of other people’s daily expenses. Would I be willing to share mine? *snort* Not likely! Even posting everything I read on Goodreads is pushing my limits.
This is a very smart book, partly because it shows people making what may not always come across as smart decisions. These stories are unique, though, and each person makes different spending priorities. I like reading the examples from women who earn significantly more than I do and imagining if I would spend my income in the same way. This, among other reasons, makes Money Diaries a great book to share with a romantic partner. You can pick through the details and talk out whose side you take. This is how a couple starts to form a united front and start making team financial decisions.
This book is aimed at younger, urban people. While it does touch on “extreme” savings and debt reduction, this is definitely not a frugality book or a financial independence book. As such, it may be a better choice for those who are repelled by austerity measures. This makes it more pragmatic than other books, especially because it includes realistic material about wine, birthday presents, yoga, therapy, and other personal necessities like buying hardcover books to read during chemo.
I respect Money Diaries as an approachable and practical book about financial literacy. All the case studies are not only fun to read, but enlightening, and they make sense of abstract, complicated topics like health savings accounts. Money Diaries reads like a glossy magazine, if there were any glossy magazines that could get you out of debt and help you set up a retirement account.
Maybe we don’t even realize that we’re doing it, but it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that we should be able to afford those lifestyles.
Real wealth is about being able to make choices.
I’ve been thinking about strategy lately, and I am coming to the conclusion that not everyone knows the difference between a plan and a strategy. The reason I think this is that most people get upset when their plans are disrupted. A good strategy begins with the assumption that the disruptions will arrive in a continual stream.
When I was young and poor, I never felt like I could make much in the way of plans, much less strategy. I didn’t know it, but my overall strategy was, Get the rent paid this month, somehow or other. That was it, that was the whole thing. I had few policies or systems in place. Little about my life was intentional. I thought that was because stuff kept happening to me.
I didn’t realize that chaos is the natural result of lack of a plan.
This is one of the interesting things I have noticed about chronic disorganization. My disorganized households are similar in many ways and unique in others. For instance, one household has laundry covering most of the floor, yet the kitchen is sparkling clean every day. Another has dirty dishes everywhere 99% of the time, yet the laundry gets washed, folded, and put away like clockwork. Another house looks immaculate, yet there are two storage units stuffed to the rafters and they’re going broke, and of course the fourth house is the total package of hoarding and squalor.
These different outcomes arise naturally from whatever it is that each individual does in default mode.
Default mode is its own type of strategy. It’s the thing we’ve found that works if we keep doing it, at least in the short term.
I used to have a roommate. He had a friend he would bring over, an obnoxious guy who would insult my housekeeping yet keep coming back. This guy had a plan where he would go to various drive-thru restaurants and claim his order had been messed up. He had never actually ordered or paid for anything; it was a scam. He figured if he threw a big enough fit, they would give him what he wanted just to get rid of him. In this manner he would ask his associates what they wanted, and day after day he would scam them bags of hot fast food. (Never me, because I was already a vegetarian and also because I wanted nothing to do with that guy). Eventually he had become recognizable at every place in our area and that plan quit working.
It should not have surprised me that the roommate who kept bringing over the scam artist would wind up living off me rent-free for months, until my boyfriend made me kick him out.
I got into situations like these when I was young and poor because I did not understand much about other people’s motivations. I wasn’t very good at recognizing patterns of behavior. I assumed that other people were honest and well-meaning.
The truth is that they usually are; they do not set out to trick or defraud other people, unlike the scumbag fast food scammer. They don’t consciously intend to cause problems. Problems like not “being able to pay” the rent are the unintentional results.
Results of what?
A plan that does not include enough fallback options.
In other words, a plan that is not a strategy.
After my divorce, I spent quite a lot of time reading self-help books and writing hundreds of pages in my journal. I wanted to figure out how I had gotten myself into that situation. Why had I trusted someone who was untrustworthy? How had I missed what other people later told me were obvious red flags?
One of the conclusions I came to was that I needed to be more selective in who I trusted and how I would vet the people I allowed into my social orbit. I would never tolerate having someone like the fast food scammer in my home again.
It was extremely difficult for me to come to terms with this, and it took a few years, but finally I concluded that I couldn’t blame anyone but myself for the financial ruin that followed my divorce. I had wanted to tell myself that it was someone else’s behavior that “got me into this mess,” but the truth was, it *was* my behavior. I was “the kind of person” who would trust an untrustworthy person. I was the kind of person who signed a lease and set up accounts with an untrustworthy person, and that therefore made me untrustworthy as well.
If I rent a motel room, and I then invite someone into the room who starts spraying ketchup everywhere, then I am clearly liable for the mess even though I myself did not make the mess.
This burned me up, but once I made the connection I couldn’t disagree with myself. If I have one set of values, and the people around me have a different and incompatible set of values, then I am in effect living their values instead of my own. How would anyone know any different about me, other than my associations and my behavior?
I started to make the connection between my results and my state of being in constant reaction mode. One crisis after another. I had always felt that it was unfair that something always seemed to be going wrong in my life. Gradually I started to realize that I needed to have some kind of plan in place in order to avoid these crises.
The first part of my new life strategy: Stay away from scam artists, jerks, criminals, or other lowlifes.
I also realized that a huge part of avoiding untrustworthy people was to build more financial security into my life. I needed to be in a position to turn away bad roommates, avoid being on road trips with sketchy people, and generally make sure I only had to share housing and transportation with people who were reliable and honest.
This was what led me to start obsessively reading personal finance books at the public library. I wanted to learn everything I could so I could avoid the worst parts about being poor, which starts with having criminals for neighbors and roommates. I also wanted to avoid going hungry, not being able to go to the doctor, and not being able to pay my rent or my bills.
Reading all those free books gradually helped to teach me how to put a basic plan into place. More importantly, these books helped to teach me what questions to ask and how to start thinking strategically.
My life as an educated investor is wildly, radically different than my life was as a poor twenty-something. I have been in worse and scarier situations, but I have been able to resolve them because I am better at problem solving and critical thinking. It’s not so much that having money solves a lot of problems, although IT DOES; it’s that the ability to think strategically can solve many types of problems, including lack of money.
My husband and I just found the ten-year financial plan we made together shortly before we decided to get married. I wrote about how that plan worked out (spoiler: we were 0.4% ahead of projection), and I wrote about how making a ten-year plan helped us make the decision to get married.
What I haven’t really shared is how we did it. How do we have that kind of talk (which we do regularly) and how do we do it without fighting?
This is where even a five-minute conversation can go well or badly, based on the entire structure of your relationship.
Whether you respect each other
Whether you’re willing to humor each other and listen to an unusual pitch
Whether you actually know what a “pitch” is
What emotional pitfalls either of you are likely to fall into
Note that this is the same whether you’re having a financial conversation with a roommate, travel buddy, business partner, sibling, parent, child, best friend, random stranger, or talking squirrel. The only real reason that it would be different when talking about money with your romantic partner is that you’re more likely to be sharing accounts.
Think that through. As far as the *duration* of your relationships, you may have a roommate, colleague, or bestie in your life far longer than you’ll have a husband or wife. (Or talking squirrel, for that matter. Regular squirrels only have a lifespan of about… sixteen years?? What the…???)
The very most important part of a strategic discussion is to choose your moment.
It’s the context and the situation and the timing.
Where most people go wrong when they start learning how to pitch or negotiate is here, in the timing and choosing the optimal context. When we act out of panic, desperation, or pessimism, when we’re anxious, we tend to blurt things out at the worst possible time.
This is because
We are thinking about OURSELVES and our feelings and our guesses and our projections
The OTHER PERSON and their perspective and their needs and their likely reaction.
It’s the same with public speaking. When I am anxious, it’s because I’m thinking about myself. What will people think of me?? (who cares) I can relax when I refocus on my audience. I can crush it when I focus on… my message. Not how I look, or who’s watching, but what I am saying and how important that is.
When I believe that my message is valuable, then I increase my motivation to share it.
LOOK OUT! .. is a very important message, as is FIRE! Obviously people need to know if they’re in the path of chaos or if something is on fire. We should never hesitate to call out if we have that information and other people don’t.
Honestly, talking about money with people who are close to us can often be much more important to their long-term survival than open flames or a runaway shopping cart.
We avoid these conversations when we are afraid of conflict, and we are afraid of conflict in a lot of avoidable situations. We’re afraid when we don’t know how the other person will react… yet the only way to get to know this person’s reactions is to get to know them better. That happens through open communication.
We’re also afraid when we’re insecure in our position or when we have something to hide. Yet open and honest communication destroys the reason to hide anything.
We can only find that security in our position by thinking strategically about it, figuring out many approaches to solve our problems and create our desired results.
What we are trying to accomplish when we talk about money is a mutually satisfactory result.
In the case of bad roommates, the result might be “how do we both move out without owing extra money?” In the case of siblings, the result might be “how do we take care of our parents without them having to move in with any of us?” In the case of romantic partners, it should start with “how do we have rational discussions about this so we don’t have to give all our money to a divorce lawyer?”
I’m not even kidding about that. I’m a divorced woman married to a divorced man. Our entire friendship started over lunchtime conversations about our divorces and the cannonball-sized holes they blew through our finances.
The first thing a strategic thinker asks is, How do I mitigate my risk?
That means, what are the obvious pitfalls? Where am I going to get myself into trouble? What do I need to avoid in order for this to work out?
When we’re first reaching out and entering negotiations with someone, about anything but most especially about money, we want to avoid alienating our discussion partner. If we’re going to trust each other in any kind of contractual situation (marriage, lease, mortgage, creation of entire new human), then we have to have a basis for ongoing communication.
That’s also true after a painful, explosive divorce, by the way. Just because you hate each other and never want to see each other again does not excuse either of you from having to fill out financial forms together. If you have kids, then you’re involved in each other’s tax planning for years.
It’s a lot easier to talk about money with someone we like and want to spend time with!
Remember that and try to keep it that way. Give what you wish to receive. Listen attentively and with courtesy and consideration. That is literally the only way that you can earn reciprocal respect.
One little trick that I use is to avoid the word “you” as much as possible when speaking to someone. I try to only use the word “you” when followed by a complimentary observation, such as “you got Exceeds Expectations on your performance review.” There is something inherently accusatory about saying “you” to someone that tends to make people tense up.
What you want to do is to choose your moment carefully. You want to make it low-stakes. Make it easy to agree with you. Start with an easy win.
Be willing to go first. Start with an offer. If you don’t know the person very well, engage with curiosity about something that they would like. What’s important to them? What are their values? Hopefully you already know at least a few things about the values of your spouse, if you’ve already married this person.
As an example, I had some roommates in a big, drafty house. Someone gave them a smart thermostat after upgrading theirs, and none of us really knew how to install it, so it sat on a table for a few months. I knew it would save us money to hook it up. As the child of an airplane mechanic, I believed I could either figure it out, or make a phone call and get some guidance. My pitch was basically, Do you want to try to install that thermostat together? Low stakes, non-accusatory, mutually beneficial outcome. As it turned out, it took five minutes, worked right away, we all cried out in joy and threw our arms in the air, and it saved us hundreds of dollars over the next few months.
Every time you pitch something that is a mutual win, you build trust and rapport. This can quickly build to outright enthusiasm, such that when you say, I have an idea, everyone’s head swivels in your direction. Yes please! More ideas please!
Another important aspect of negotiation is to think through your position before you start talking. You have to know what you want. If your position is, I wish to abdicate and convince someone else to shoulder my responsibilities, then I sincerely hope you’ve spent some time choosing your target.
My starting position was, I am on track and I am a total accountability person. I will share my financial statements and the fundamentals of my strategy. We can make plans together as long as you are willing to be as open as I am.
This is part of how we opened our first major financial planning meeting together. We had started talking *before* we started sharing accounts, before we moved in together, before our money started to mingle. We didn’t blame each other for anything, we didn’t try to throw down ultimatums about each other’s spending, and we didn’t ask each other for anything we weren’t willing to do ourselves.
We succeeded at talking out a ten-year plan, and succeeded at staying on track over those ten years, because we saw each other as equal partners. We also did it without fighting because we had no reason to be angry, hurt, or upset. We reached out to each other in friendship, in an invitation to combine forces, us against the world.
Hey honey, let’s pay off our debts together and save enough to retire, and go on vacation too!
* copy and paste that and send it to your money buddy *
Interesting things always happen when you clear clutter, and this was no exception. My husband was going through a bag of papers, the last thing left from our move six months ago. Yes, a bag, a reusable shopping bag. Aha, he said, here it is! We’d been looking for this. The first financial plan we ever put in writing together.
In 2009, we made a ten-year financial plan. It turned up just as we were getting ready to do our taxes for the tenth year.
How’d we do?
Before I answer that, I should explain what is so significant about this ten-year plan and why anyone other than us would care about it.
What I didn’t know that winter was that my boyfriend at the time had already decided he wanted to marry me. We had been dating for nearly three years, living in separate cities the whole time, and I was perfectly fine with this arrangement. We had both been divorced, mine five years before his, and I didn’t see any reason to disrupt what we had.
I also felt like it was his decision if he ever wanted to get married again, because his divorce was much fresher and he had a kid. There was nothing to be gained from exerting any pressure on my end, especially because I value my independence and I need a lot of alone time. I had steadily been doing better for myself and I was proud of my progress.
Keep in mind that when we met, I was sleeping on an air mattress in a rented room, working as a temp, with no benefits. After I paid my student loan every month, I had about $30 of wiggle room in my budget. This boyfriend of mine, the one who was secretly contemplating marriage, had watched me as I consolidated my position:
The first raise. The permanent job offer, with benefits and another raise. The first promotion. Moving to an apartment of my own, with no roommates. Paying off two credit cards. Paying off a student loan six years early. Applying for, and getting, two promotional opportunities. Going on a proper beach vacation (without him) and paying for it in cash. Moving to a small rental house of my own.
I didn’t necessarily see myself on a clear trajectory at the time. I felt I was constantly pushing away from a very rough period in my life and recovering from the disaster that was my divorce. I still thought of myself as… temporarily non-broke. I knew I wouldn’t feel any kind of peace of mind until some later point, not one that I could imagine, but probably something like a hundred thousand dollars of savings, that or annual income. Why would I ever stop what I was doing when I felt the dark alternative in my bones?
When my boyfriend of nearly three years called and suggested that we have a financial planning meeting together, I was intrigued and excited. Sure, sounds great!
He came over to my mini-house. I loved that place! It was the first time in my life that I felt really proud of where I lived, the tiniest house in a safe, quiet, and upscale neighborhood. (It was really more like a servant’s quarters, to be honest, a granny unit on the same lot as a house that was 4x larger). I had built all my IKEA furniture myself, bought and paid for it all in cash, and although I was renting, my place was nicer than my boyfriend’s.
The financial planning meeting wasn’t too different from the New Year’s planning I had invited him to do with me for the last three years. I think that process opened the door for this. We had already had some practice being open and honest with each other, we’d already seen some of our plans work out, and we had been talking about money since before we started dating.
He worked the calculator and I wrote everything down on ordinary lined notebook paper.
Most of our discussion was setting the parameters for what would go into the plan.
We started with the assumption that neither of us would ever get a raise, a promotion, a bonus, or a windfall of any kind. That way, any successes of this nature would come as pleasant surprises, not baseline requirements.
We each have our own page. Our names are right at the top. We’re set up slightly differently, because at the time our retirement savings were structured differently and we had different expenses. I supposedly had a pension and a deferred savings account, while he had a traditional 401(k). He was still paying child support, alimony, and a note on his truck. (I had already gone car-free by then).
It took me a while to reinterpret the math, because almost everything I had written out for both of us was arithmetic, not notes or dictation. We were estimating our retirement contributions and savings. In his case, we were forecasting how much more he could save after he paid off his truck and no longer owed alimony or child support.
What we failed to anticipate was a couple of layoffs, major moves, and surprise expenses. *gulp* We also didn’t include consumer debt or my last student loan.
Oh, and, um, we didn’t include me quitting my day job a year later. *nervous laughter*
Or the wedding, since the entire topic of marriage had not come up yet...
Ten years is a pretty long time for anyone. It’s quite a long time indeed in the life of a love relationship. My first marriage was over and done in a three-year span. It was a little nuts for us to be forecasting this far, and we knew it at the time. WHO KNEW what the future would bring???
Trust, love, and optimism, that’s what it brought, along with the usual share of disruption, dread, and calamity.
When both of our ten-year financial forecasts were finished, a full page for each of us, we sat back and looked at each other. Wow! That was actually fun!
Just a couple of months later, he proposed, his decision already made. He chose the one who likes to crunch numbers and talk about money, the one who is a careful saver, who reads personal finance manuals and manages her own investments. The one who beat the market in 2008. He chose me.
I chose him right back. I could choose freely because I didn’t need him, I wanted him. I was doing fine on my own. It just so happened that we liked it better when we were together.
How did it turn out?
After ten years: roughly two thousand dollars ahead of forecast. That’s a 0.4% win, pretty much as close as one could get.
How about that? Not only do we still like each other and find each other attractive, we just found vindication of our decisions from a decade ago buried in a stack of papers. Our methods apparently worked.
Now it’s probably time to put together a new ten-year plan, since the old one just expired. We can add in the perspective we’ve gained over the past decade, with the assumption that the next ten years will probably include a long recession and the firm knowledge that we can’t expect a single thing in our lives to stay the same. Well, except for our ability to have rational discussions together about our plans. That part we get to keep.
This is a window into possibility. There are infinite ways to think about money and to talk about it. This is ours. Maybe our way will make you feel cheerfully smug about how much better your way is working. Maybe it will boggle your mind. Either way, please accept this invitation to have your own strategy session.
We started talking about money together at the very beginning of our friendship, long before dating each other had ever crossed our minds. It was how we bonded. We were both stressed out and feeling broke and victimized, both recovering from divorce. I was sleeping on an air mattress at the time and he had two metal folding chairs at his dining table.
Part of what we both had in common was that we didn’t trust our exes about money. Both had been secret spenders and both resented us for wanting to save money or make financial plans for the future. We both resonated with the feeling that total transparency is good. It feels easy and light and clean to us.
We like talking about money and strategizing together. It makes us feel like a team and it makes us feel smart.
Not everyone is going to feel this way, and that’s good to know. If you’d like to avoid these kinds of discussions because your partner is not as focused on financial security as you are, then you can. You can just plan your own finances and set a good example. Maybe try to find a way to make the discussion lower-stakes and less tense. Or, like we eventually did, you can come to the hard realization that the two of you simply are not compatible.
Sometimes someone just can’t give you what you need.
No matter what you say or what you do, no matter how hard you try, another person may never fit with you. They have zero ability or intention to change because they are who they are. Their values are not your values, and they never will be.
The tough thing to realize here is that in this kind of situation, I may be the villain! My desire to change another person may make ME the bad guy. This other person never claimed to be any different, never agreed to change, never endorsed my values, and never signed onto my plan. Maybe this other person will have a difficult life because of this, but that is their right. Autonomy is their right. Why waste my time and life energy on this person, out of seven billion possible partners, when they don’t want what I want anyway?
On the other hand, maybe I’m the sloppy one, maybe I’m the one with no plan. In that case, it’s my job to figure out what to do, because it’s my responsibility no matter who I’m with, whether I’m single and alone or in any kind of shared situation. Trusting someone else to figure everything out for me means trusting in the illusion that that person is immortal, omnipotent, and immune to change.
The bedrock of financial strategy is asking, “Can I handle it?” In response to a list of scenarios, what would I do if that happened? If there is a way for money to fix that type of problem, do I have that money? If not, could I get it?
This is why we keep some small, crumpled bills in our go bags. We start with the assumption that in a major crisis, the internet may be out for at least three days and we may not be able to access any of our accounts. We need food and water and we need a way to pay for transportation. A gold brick would be useless in that kind of scenario, and so would a ten million dollar house or a fat stock portfolio.
After the emergency cash comes the default strategy. What if everything is basically fine and crisis-free for the rest of our lives?
We make sure our expenses are lower than our income, that we’re on track. If we kept doing what we’re doing, and we ignored our finances for several months, what would happen? Would it be okay or would it be a disaster?
Next is the part that takes actual concentration, and that is tax season. We sit down and do a little research. As time passes, our ages change and regulations do, too. Can we put more away for retirement? Have the contribution limits changed for our IRAs or our 401(k)?
There was definitely a time in my life when I felt like this type of question did not apply to me, and never would. I felt so broke that I could not imagine a different future. As a result, I missed a lot of opportunities to apply for better jobs, build credentials, or even make a new and improved financial plan.
Assuming I would always be broke almost guaranteed that I *would* always be broke.
There are two things that my husband and I do that most couples do not do. One is that we have a weekly Status Meeting when we talk about our finances. The other is that we took a financial workshop together a few years ago, and as a result we are living on about half our income.
We’re able to talk about our shared accounts cheerfully and with enthusiasm, because we have a working plan. Since our expenses are so much lower than our income, we have a lot of leeway. We can handle surprises (which, financially, are almost always the bad kind of surprise) and we can also “afford” vacations and treats. We live radically, in a tiny home, with no vehicle, and because of that we have almost no financial worries or stress.
Talking financial strategy raises a few extremely salient questions. Can I have that kind of discussion with my partner? Am I at least as focused and prepared as I expect anyone else to be? Am I ready to make changes to my core lifestyle? Do I have reason to feel optimistic about my situation and the future, or is this more of a time for brutal truths?
Financial strategy means caring for Future You, both yourself as an individual and “you” as future partners. It can be a loving gift that leads to long-term contentment. Eventually. And maybe with someone else?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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