Recently a post card came in the mail inviting me to attend my 35-year class reunion. The years certainly got behind me fast. My only excuse is that I am having too much fun.
Between the office and home is my gym. Three days a week I lift weights (normally Monday, Wednesday and Friday). Outside the gym I hike, jog, work on the farm, et cetera to keep myself in shape.
A few months ago a high school classmate, Doug Zastrow, joined my gym. It has been a long time since we saw each other and talk fairly regular now, catching up on life in our humble community.
Doug mentioned receiving the class reunion postcard, stating he had no intention of going. I nodded agreement. My argument was I didn’t want to pay $60 for a meal and a few drinks at a country tavern. Doug had a different reason.
Doug named two classmates he chummed with over the years. Both are dead now. We both started counting the number of classmates who had already died. The first victim was a girl who died from a genetic disease followed by a guy from my clique. He died spear fishing on Lake Winnebago with his son. He didn’t vent his ice shanty correctly and died of CO^2 asphyxiation. We kept tallying the numbers. Another died of a genetic disorder, one from cancer, a few accidents, a few heart attacks and even one suicide.
By the time we added all the classmates we know were dead we had reached 20 souls out of a class of 120. There is no doubt we missed a few. People move and word of a death doesn’t always reach my ears. It’s not what I focus on in life.
My classmates excel at dying. According to the Social Security Administration we should expect fewer than 10% of our class to have left this world by our age. I am 53. You would expect this number of deaths somewhere around the late 60s.
Figures don’t lie, but liars figure, or so the adage goes. Accountant or not, you can’t manipulate these numbers to your advantage: you are either dead or alive. The twilight zone in between is only a place you pass through; no setting up camp for any period of time.
I beat the odds so far; so have you. We also suffer from survivor’s bias. We only come to terms with death when we start adding up the numbers or face our own demise.
We are also lucky. There are no guarantees we live another day. Next week I am in a continuing education class on S corporations in Wisconsin Dells. I could die in a car accident on the way there or of a heart attack before the weekend is out. I could also live another 50 years. You never really know.
Part of thinking like an accountant is to understand the best laid plans often go awry. Plans can, and should, change. Sometimes the plans outlive the patient.
I get a large number of emails daily from readers. Many get the impression I chum around all day with guys like Pete (Mr. Money Mustache), Jim (jlcollinsnh) or Carl (1500 Days) or other personal finance bloggers. While it is true I communicate with these people periodically, we never really chum together consistently.
Pete is a client and has been for several years. I don’t think we ever tipped a beer outside of Camp Mustache. We talk (usually email) a few times a year discussing his tax situation. Once in a very great while he may ask my advice on a financial topic as it relates to tax. I consider Pete a friend, but I bet you would consider our relationship differently from what you consider a friendship.
Jim and Carl enjoyed more personal time with me as we spent a long weekend at Conclave. We email off and on since. More so with Jim as he is also now a client. I owe Carl a guest post. You would think I would get the darn thing written considering how many words I plaster to paper.
There are other bloggers I communicate with: Doug Nordman and the Fiery Millennial come to mind. Even climbed a mountain with the Fiery young lady. I consider them friends too, but you might have a different definition of friendship.
Each and every one of these people I admire and respect. I trust their council and look forward to meeting them again at the next personal finance conference. Social media means I have a vague idea what their life is up to. Anyone who sees my social media knows I share nothing online outside this blog of my personal life. I am an open book, but I have no desire to share with the world at large every detail of my life.
Life is a gift. I have been amply blessed with plenty of it. Throughout human history living to age 50 was rare. Infant mortality snuffed out more life before it ever got started. Slowly walk an old graveyard and experience the reality of human life—and suffering—over the course of history. No guarantees, kind readers. No guarantees.
I don’t have any friends, yet I am not lonely or alone. Outside family, employees and clients, I don’t see anyone on a regular basis unless you count the meet-ups at conferences with peers.
I rarely dine out and the number of times I haunt a tavern (remember I live in Wisconsin!) in a year is in the very low single digits. Travel is reserved for business with the exception of the family trip planned to view the eclipse in August. I dine with clients and readers more often than with Mrs. Accountant. Many times Mrs. Accountant tags along when I dine with a client.
It’s the life we choose to live; the life I choose to live. My life is filled with joy, not to be confused with happiness. The two are different. I am happy most of the time unless the steers get out and I have to chase them down. Those buggers can run a long time before they give up.
Every moment of precious life is a gift. Every moment of every day you must feel and express gratitude for being alive. Your actions, attitude and words mark this gratitude.
But there is one more thing we need to talk about today. One more thing to put life into perspective.
Last Man Standing
So many of my classmates are dead. What I failed to mention is a classmate who died when he was in grade school. I chummed with him because no one else would. He was sick. Very sick. Everyone knew he was going to die. He would show me his arm where the doctors put the needle in. They inserted some kind of device to make it easier to administer medication. The bulge on his arm pulsed. He wanted me to feel it. I was reluctant, but finally did. I could feel his pulse, his life.
I’m glad I did. It made him happy to share his life experience. He always seemed happy, well adjusted. Dying was part of his worldview. I had decades ahead of me; he had only months. One days he stopped showing up for school. I never cried. I can’t remember his name. Why are my eyes blurry now?
Doug and I never discussed the true first fatality of our class. I don’t think anyone even remembers he ever lived except me and his family. I was his only friend, such as it was.
There is something special about the first and the last to die. The young girl who died shortly after graduation is known by all. She was the first survivor to go.
Have you ever wondered what it is like for a group of men who served together in a theater of war? Have you seen their stories of how they held each other’s lived in their hands? Have you ever seen stories of how they gather each year to share memories? Have you ever seen when everyone of the group is gone save one? I can think of no sadder place to stand in life, alone with no one to share your stories or your memories with.
One of us will live that eventuality. Only a survivor can walk that last mile alone. I wonder who will be the last one standing of my classmates. Could it be me?
I will not attend my class reunion. I wonder how I will feel if I discover they are all gone someday; only I survive. Will I regret my choice?
Probably not. I have a hard time remembering their names. Someone younger and full of life will wander along and be willing to listen to the stories of an old man, worn and ragged.
When the day is late and the light is low I will sit alone (or maybe that is you in the empty room of shadows) reflecting on a life well lived, grateful for all the people who passed through my life. I loved them all even if I couldn’t get to know them better.
I raise my glass to you, the survivors. You are the luckiest sons-a-bitches I’ve ever seen.
Normally when a parent leaves a letter to his children the doors and windows are closed. However, when your dad is a business owner and somewhat known due to decades of publishing, the public will want to look in the window. Regardless, this letter is for you girls and no one else.
My fondest hope is you will print and carry this letter with you. There are many things I want to share with you about life. I know it looks daunting and impossible at times, but it isn’t that bad. During those darkest hours, hours when you doubt your own judgment, you can reference this letter and know that your father has felt this way many times in his life. Watching me over the years you probably think it comes easy for me. It doesn’t. I fight as hard as or harder than the next guy to achieve goals.
The same applies for those moments of excessive glee. Honing the highs and lows is an important part of living a joyful life. Always keep an optimistic attitude. Regardless the situation, it helps. Things are never as bad as they seem and rarely perfect either. Life is lived in the middle.
Life is a journey best taken at a gentle pace. Don’t rush! Goals are fine as long as there is more. The only real goal life offers is death and you will get that right the first time, same as everyone else. What matters is what you do now, at this very moment. Yesterday is a memory; tomorrow a dream. All that is real, all that matters is this moment in time. The universe is not 13.7 billion years old. It is one moment only. This moment. The one you live in.
Living a Joyful Life
I see how confused you look at the world around you, Heather. You are not even sure what dream to follow or if your dream is just settling. It’s not. You are searching. It is what humans do. We take the world around us and try to make sense of it. People sell you a bill of goods they think is the right way to do things. The truth is, only you can decide that course. And the choice is not permanent! You will change your mind. It’s called evolving. Nothing to worry about. It is a good thing.
And you, my little sweetie. It breaks my heart to look at you. Life dealt you such a difficult hand. Medical issues will always be part of your life. Never allow it to define you. You are a young lady with a bright future before you. There is no hurry to decide what path you will take in life. Like your sister, take it one day at a time. When the right thing enters your life, you will know.
Notice I did not title this section “Living a Happy Life.” Happy is different from joyful. Life can test your happiness, but joy is something totally different. Joy is knowing it’s okay no matter where you are or what happens.
Joy is about living in the moment. The best way I know to feel joy is to stop feeling vested in the outcome. Sporting events and political dramas are things you have no control over. None. Placing your bet on the outcome is a sure way to destroy joy. And joy is the reason for living.
Art is such a huge part of your life, Heather. You create such works of beauty. Never let it die. Your life may take another path, but you can still create beauty. You can see it in your mind before it becomes real. It is a gift. Cherish it.
Computers mesmerize you so much, Brooke. The future is artificial intelligence. What excites you is what the future of the human race will become. You will help determine that future and how humans will live. It is an awesome responsibility. Like Heather, you see things in your mind before it turns real. You also create beauty, only in a different way. You are young now, but in time you will define how you wish to pursue your dreams. Allow it to flow.
Joy is bred in optimism. There is a guy, Warren Buffett. He is really rich. You heard me talking about him more than once. Well, as the years go by you may forget who he is, especially once he dies. Warren is a remarkable man. I never met him. What you don’t know is that I have a client who is on the board of directors of one of his companies. Small world.
Warren is the most optimistic man I know. Regardless the situation, he always proclaims it will get better. And he is right. Look what the human race, especially the United States, did in the 20th Century. The car, airplane, nuclear power, radio, TV and the moon landing were all achieved in one short span of time. Yet the planet suffered two world wars and nuclear weapons. The stock market crashed more than once, a Great Depression swept our planet and AIDS decimated many countries. And still, Warren said we will be okay and we are. Learn from his optimism.
Joy is found in peaceful thinking. Worry about disease or nuclear Armageddon is wasted time. If it happens, it happens. Live each day until the end. In the end we are all dead. What defines us is how we lived before we died. Too many people die while they are still breathing. Don’t be one of them.
Joy is contentment. It can be had anywhere. You decide, you choose. And when you feel joy, you are generally happy. If nothing else in life works, this one thing, joy, makes it all worthwhile.
I know you struggle hard with this, Heather. And Brooke, don’t knock education.
For you Heather, don’t demand education to be as you want it. Allow it to happen. Read good books daily. Forced education is worthless. Very little education comes from the classroom. Most learning is done out in the real world as you gain experience. Remember, all the stuff they teach in college someone though of on their own. Many more read the books and learned the same knowledge as taught in school without a formal education. When the time is right you will get your college degree. You are an intelligent young lady. You try so hard, only to hit the wall. The truth is, you don’t know what you want yet. Ask the questions. The answer will come to you. Then do it. Then live it.
If you are to reach your dreams, Brooke, you will need a college education more than Heather does. Focus on your studies. Steve Jobs, he is the guy who started Apple Computers, dropped out of college. And look what he did. But he did take classes that interested him. He found a way to learn and grow. For you, Brooke, education will be more about not reinventing the wheel. You need to learn where everyone else left off so you can take the ball and run. You have an awesome future. Always stay focused on what fills your mind when you close your eyes.
Learning never stops. Read good books. Find ways to have as many experiences as possible. The failures teach more than the successes. And think of all the stories you can tell. Look at all the trouble dad got into and never quit! Makes for some good stories, doesn’t it? I can see you smiling now. Knowing dad like you do, would you want me any other way? Yeah, I feel the same about you girls. You are just perfect as you are. Always be you.
If there is one thing that can destroy happiness and joy, it is debt. Debt is a harsh taskmaster. Debt is the acid which destroys the vessel which holds it.
Some debt is worse than others. Consumer debt is the worst. Credit cards and similar debt has no reason to be in your life. The worst parts of my life generally included money I owed someone else, usually the bank. It’s not worth it. If I can convince you of one thing, it is to avoid debt.
Student loans are a tough one. I still say you should avoid student loans. I am willing to spend what I have on learning, but paying interest means you will have less later to spend on learning and experiences. With rare exception, student loans must be avoided. If you find yourself in a situation where a small student loan makes sense, pay it off as fast as possible. No games or gimmicks to avoid paying the debt at all. Life is too short to waste on such burdens.
Business loans sometimes are the right thing to use. Again, use business loans sparingly and only for things that currently bring a profit. Borrowing for a speculative business venture is gambling and that always ends badly. Pay down the business loan as quickly as possible. Profits and cash flow are always better when the bank is not getting a piece of the action.
Mortgages are the biggie. Buying your first home probably requires a mortgage. I am okay with a mortgage as long as it is not a tool to buy more house than you can afford. Make extra payments. Kill the mortgage as fast as possible. Never fall for the tax deduction trick either. The mortgage interest deduction is a joke and really worthless. You still get the standard deduction if you don’t itemize, so paying off the mortgage can sometimes be like double-dipping. Of course, the tax code will probably change by the time you get that far. You understand what I am saying. Keep debt low and retire it as quickly as you can.
Debt is a lot of stress, stress you don’t need. Debt will distract you from the things that bring you the greatest happiness and joy in life. It will take you away from family and friends. Tie you down to a job you hate. Debt causes people to do things they would never consider otherwise. If you never had a penny of debt in your life you will not have missed a thing.
Society wants to convince you you need stuff now. Don’t listen to society and marketers. Most stuff, most things you spend money on you don’t want! If you don’t buy it you will not remember what it is you wanted a year later.
Be slow to purchase. Spending is best done later, if at all. Some spending is wise. Fixing a leaking roof will prevent greater expense later. But leaking roofs are not the problem. The latest gismo is. I’m talking to you Brooke. Choose a limited amount of electronics and buy no more. Learn to say, “Enough.”
“I want” are the two words preceding most suffering in life. Want causes pain. Heather, you can walk out of a store without buying something. Looking at something does not require purchase.
Major purchases are especially important to delay. The fewer cars you own in life the wealthier you will be. Only simple minded people are impressed by a fancy car! Too much home is a drain on wealth and will force you to work more than is necessary. Then you will have less time to enjoy the big house. Smaller is better. Trust dad on this one. I wish we had a smaller home. It is more than I ever wanted or needed.
The trick is to be satisfied with what you have. Dissatisfaction in one area of life spills into other areas. Wanting more destroys relationships. I think the reason mom and dad have such a happy and fulfilling marriage is because we were always satisfied with what we had. So neither of us desired another bed. And we are still human. We notice other attractive people. We just realize we already have what we want.
Saving and Investing
This is an easy one. The world makes this out to be some great big challenge. It isn’t. All you do is save half of what you earn and invest in broad-based index funds with enough money in short-term vehicles (bank accounts or short-term government bonds) to handle current needs. In short order you will accumulate a modest fortune. The best plan is an automatic one. Set it and forget it. Markets will go up and down. Neither matters to you. What interests you is the income stream of the investment and that doesn’t change much day-to-day.
You will read about retirement. Society has a clear vision of retirement. It’s a trap. You never really retire until you die. You’re retired at your funeral. One of the things they say about someone who has died is they expired or retired. Don’t rush it. It happens easy enough on its own.
How much is enough? That is another pressing problem the world seems to have. It takes only a small amount to live. No matter where you are, even traveling, you can always turn some coin. Heather, you could always do caricatures in the park; Brooke, you could help people set up and fix computers as a side hustle. Your interests will change with time, but you understand what I am saying. You don’t need a massive nest egg to set aside the grind society demands you pursue.
Personal finance preachers talk about the 4% Rule and similar advice for determining when you can give up the rat race. It’s all garbage. I know you hear me talk about the 4% Rule or sometimes telling people they need 25 times their spending in investments. I say it because people believe it and I need to go where people are to get them to where they need to be.
Follow your great-grandfathers advice instead: Never take off the pile. Your invested capital is sacred. Never touch it! The income stream from the capital is all you use for consumption. Never more. The 4% Rule and similar advice can fail under certain circumstances, even unlikely circumstances. Great-granddad’s rule never fails, ever. If your broad-based index fund fails only consuming the income stream, there are bigger problems in the world affecting you. There is no advice I can give to deal with such an unknown other than to encourage you to embrace the Stoic philosophy. Keeping a copy of Seneca and Epictetus at your bedside is always a good idea.
Find Fulfilling Work
The world will have plenty of advice on how you should live your life. Disregard it. Only you know what is fulfilling work. Look to dad and grandpa as examples. Both of us started businesses in a very untraditional manner. If you follow all the rule society tells you to follow, your business will fail.
Find what you enjoy doing. The search for meaningful work is not as hard as you make it. Stop looking! It will come to you. As you go through life there will be more fun things to do that generate an income than you will have time for. Pick what works for you and go with it.
Don’t be Afraid to Change Your Mind
And when something different shows up you can either incorporate it or change course. You are not locked into one path. I have been accused in the past of changing my mind a lot. It sure beats sticking to a path not working. Changing your mind is a good thing. It means you are growing. Never allow someone to lock you into the past when, after careful consideration, you wish to change direction. Think, then act.
Consume Less Commercial Media
I can see you girls rolling your eyes already. This is a case of do as I say and not as I do. Reading is awesome, but most news is less than worthless. Immersing your mind daily into all the crises of the world sends your brain the wrong message. It feels like the world is always crumbling when it isn’t doing so any more than in the past. Worse, you can’t do anything about it!
As bad as watching/reading news can be on the brain, commercial media is even worse. The constant repeating of a message built to serve a large corporation is not in your best interest. As much as you try to avoid the influence these commercials have, they still have an effect. Best to avoid them. Besides, life is best lived doing things. Spending your precious time as a lump being spoon fed drivel is a bad idea.
Good books, even novels, are generally not a part of commercial media. Take time to read each day, but only a modest amount of time. Read, then do. Reading is important. I’m talking to you, Brooke. Leaving the house and doing other things is important too. I’m talking to you, Heather.
Remember, balance in everything.
Dating, Marriage and Sex
Oh yes, the sex talk. Amazing as it sounds, I feel I have something to add on the subject. Once again, societal norms will mess with your head and the push is much stronger when it comes to interpersonal relationships and sex. People allow emotions and lust to guide their actions. It is a toxic mix.
I only knew one other woman in my life. Mom can say the same with men. Neither of us was ever promiscuous. I think that is important and both of you seem to be following in our path. It goes back to that feeling of enough. I wasn’t looking for something better; I was looking for someone I could spend my life with happily.
When dating, look for certain traits. Attractiveness is important, but time will take care of that. Instead, focus on what is inside. Avoid people with thin skin or who are easily offended. There is always something to be offended by. People like that don’t change. Their dramas will suck the pleasure out of your life.
The best place to find a mate is where you live life. When you are doing things you enjoy you will find like-minded people. Since you will spend more time talking and sharing than in bed, best to find someone pleasant to talk with and do things with. Sex is just window dressing. I know, I know. I am turning sex into some rather boring subject. But it is. It goes in and out until the explosive moment, usually within ten minutes or so. Now you need to fill the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day.
Sex is one of those awesome things in life. People want to make it dirty. Is isn’t. The human body is marvelous and beautiful. There is nothing wrong with pleasures of the flesh, religion aside. I’ll get to that in a moment.
But sex is also personal. Spreading it around takes away the specialness of it. Sex is more about intimacy than lustful desire and pleasure. The tenderness between a couple after sex is more nurturing than the actual act. Lust, or more to the point, hormones, drive us toward sexual contact, but afterwards is the beautiful part.
Use birth control and protect against diseases. As much as I avoided sexual contact with multiple women, I also know things happen. It isn’t worth dying over.
Limit your sexual partners. More is not better. Mom was a lot more puritan when she met me. Poor girl. She never saw it coming.
You girls laugh when I say all guys are perverts. Well, we are. Guys all too often think with the wrong appendage. It doesn’t make us bad, only human. Guys like to act tough, but we are just as emotional and tender underneath as you are. We feel acutely. We cover it up with false bravado. Always know we hurt inside, too. Let us act strong. We do it to provide support for the woman we love. Give us that.
Women are perverts too, if you haven’t noticed. It must be a people thing. Don’t worry about it. It is okay to be what you are. Love and lust, especially lust, are part of the human experience. Tell your partner what you want. Guys don’t automatically know. I was married for years before I discovered certain things people with more experience know. It happens. Encourage your partner to share the same. There are things they like. Get them to share what those things are. It makes the experiences more fulfilling.
Always remember, sex is not dirty. There is nothing wrong with sexual intercourse. Intimacy is an important part of the human condition. Always be kind and gentle. Allow your partner the same intimacy.
Don’t withhold intimacy. Sometimes life or illness reduces the drive. It is okay to abstain then. Even intimacy declines at certain times. Just never use it as a weapon. Sex, love and intimacy are not bargaining tools. Sometimes the best way to work out a problem is to start with a romp. I know, hearing this advice from dad is a bit, um, awkward. But trust me. The greatest gift I ever received in my life was your mother.
Long-term relationships are something I know I have something to say about. As I write this mom and I are weeks away from our 29th wedding anniversary. My greatest success is life is my relationship with your mom. She is an awesome woman.
People don’t get married as much today. I am fine with that. You can still have a fulfilling life-long relationship. I wish I had a magic formula to give that led to mom and dad surviving for so long. All I can say is that I look to mom for guidance and trust her and she reciprocated. We share everything; we are open books to each other. Talking is vital. We talk a lot about everything. Even crazy stuff. We have fun while allowing each other to live their life.
Mom and I both changed over the years. Our interests evolved, sometimes in different directions. Rather than try to manipulate mom into a path I find more familiar or similar to mine, I allow her to find her own path. We are different, but so alike. We enjoy being together. We planned our life together. We are always satisfied with what we have. When I started the business and I cut spending to poverty levels, mom never once complained. She was as happy then as she is now with what we have. That is what you want in a mate; it is how to live your life, to be a mate. Notice I did not say perfect mate. There is no such thing. Each side will make mistakes. It will happen! Forgive quickly. Get the hurt out, then forgive.
Do these things and you will have a long and happy relationship with your significant other. And the sex will be awesome. Okay, enough grossing you girls out with sex talk from an old person. (Remember, you will be older faster than you realize.)
One last thing on interpersonal relationships. I don’t think either of you are gay, but if you discover you are, know I will love you all the same. If you are in a loving, nurturing relationship and happy, then I will know I have done my job as a parent.
God and Religion
Religion is always a tough issue to discuss. My parents were very religious and the rigid demands eventually destroyed my faith. When the words were not backed up with actions I quickly learned religion was a tool to manipulate people.
Having said that I still have faith, only in a different way. Organized religion is a weapon used to control the masses. I stand opposed to such manipulation. At the same time there are many Bibles around the house and I read them on a regular basis. The words of Jesus are straight from the Stoic philosophers. Most of what Jesus said was not new when he said it, but who cares? They are good words. Even to live by.
I gave up church a long time ago. You may wish to return to my roots. I am okay with that. Remember, at some point in the past one of our ancestors was not Christian. If you go back 2,000 years they certainly were not Christian. At some point they decided to follow the Christian teachings over their own. Probably at the point of a gun. Better to read the Bible than take an ounce of lead to the skull. What I am saying is that man has come up with a lot of gods over the generations. They all thought they were right only to be replaced by another god. Don’t be so certain you are right. Instead, seek to learn from the message while always questioning. Questioning is always a good thing to do in every part of life.
You need to find your way on your own when it comes to religious thought. You will evolve as I have. The one thing I encourage you to do is avoid fanaticism. That absolute determinism you are right is what sickens most people to religion. Allow others their faith and self-discovery. Even mom and dad took a different path for a long time. We maintained a solid relationship as we each made our way.
Learn from Mistakes
You will make them. I certainly did. Some were doozies. Mistakes don’t define you, how you handle the mistake does.
Learn from your own mistakes, but also those of others. Learn from dad’s mistakes. You may want to try the same thing anyway with a slight tweak. Fine. Just do it knowing the risks. Repeating the same mistake again and again is insanity. I know you girls are not insane. Dad might be a little and since it could be genetic. . .
This letter is getting long and I want you to know you can laugh at any situation. Even death. It’s going to happen anyway so why not make the most of it with some hearty laughter.
I’d start a chronological list of all the mistakes I made in life, but by the time I reached the end I would have more to add. What I am saying is: Don’t be afraid to fail. You learn more from failure than success. Success causes us to believe we are right. It takes a good beating to force us to up our game.
Never use failure as an excuse not to try. People will ridicule you, even arrest you, for doing the right thing. Do it anyway. Better to live ridiculed, better to live in a prison, than to not have lived at all. I am not encouraging criminal behavior either. What I suggest is keeping your mind open to ideas which help you grow.
People laughing at you is a sure sign you are on the right path. Nothing is more common than everyone in agreement prior to a disaster.
And here is where I come to an end and you begin. You are young girls as I write this. Maybe you will read this long after I am gone and you a very old. This letter will be more powerful then than at any other time. My words echoing down the corridors of time to talk with you one last time. I know. I am here with you.
Don’t rush life. Relax. Enjoy each moment. Once the moment passes it will never return. Make now the most important time. Share it with people you love. Always live. Learn. Love. And remember. It is all any of us really has.
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Amazon is a good way to control costs by comparison shopping. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you very much!
You did everything right: maxed out your retirement accounts, invested in index funds, paid off all debt, saved half your gross income, and did every home project and car repair yourself to save money. If you are like me this describes you to a T. I save a massive amount of my income in tax advantaged retirement plans and stuff non-qualified accounts, too. Very few jobs are off-limits to me. The roof is bad; I go up there and spank on another set of shingles after tearing off the old ones. A bad light switch is an easy fix after a short visit to the hardware store. I clip my own lawn at home and the office; I grow most of the food I consume; I bike to work even though it is a 30 miles round-trip; change the oil in the car; and I have no problem with a paint brush.
Once per month Mrs. Accountant makes a major grocery run. Once per week she picks up milk and a few perishable staples. There are times we make our own bread, but milk needs constant resupply with kiddos in the house. Most items we consume at home or at the office are ordered online. Most of the time the price is cheaper, even with shipping costs added. When you consider the value of time and the cost of driving around town shopping, most online purchases delivered are a bargain.
Several months ago I overheard Pete Adeney, aka Mr. Money Mustache, say he was toying with the idea of having his groceries delivered. His argument was his time was worth more than the few dollars in savings running around town doing it himself. My first thought was, How un-Mustachian of the ‘ol boy. Here is a guy who does all his own projects. He bikes around town and consumes only 25 gallons (95 liters) of gas a year. Now the bum wants to have his groceries delivered? Really!
But he has a good point. My time (and his) is worth a lot. My billing rate at the office ranges from $120 and up. There are projects I get paid $2,200 an hour to do. How much is grocery shopping worth now? My time is valuable and so is yours. Even in retirement your time is a valuable asset. You have the same amount of time in a day as the richest man on the planet and the poorest bum. The rich/wealthy have no time advantage. What you do with that time is up to you. Spent wisely you have a cherished life of happiness and wealth; squandered, and you have increasing regrets as time takes its toll.
There is an advantage I have over most people. Pete is my tax client and I get to speak with him as much as I want. My worldview is beneficial, but guys like Pete see the world in a way that is not always obvious to me. There are times the guy says things that blow my mind away. Who the hell is the one working with clients every day for the last thirty years? You would think my experience working with people from all walks of life and business owners would put me front and center. For some reason Pete sees the world differently. It should be obvious, but it eludes us mere mortals.
The Next Step
There are things I insist on doing and justify the actions by saying it saves me money. For example: I clip the lawn at my office. If I hired the work done professionally it would cost under a thousand dollars per year. Knock another 30% off the cost for taxes. Now I saved maybe $600. Was it worth my time? Hmm.
Karen is my office manager. Her husband, Chris, is in the military. When he is home he loves working on buildings. He spends most of his time helping a landlord with a large number of properties. I had a project in the office to repair some water damage around the sump pump exit. I dragged my feet forever until I finally asked Chris to do the job. He did. I bought the parts needed and he billed me $150 for his day of labor, including the running around to pick up parts. I am certain my gas and tools required to do the job would have been more than $150. Doing it myself would have been more expensive and Chris did a better job than I would have and faster!
There are only so many days we get to live. We need to choose wisely what we do with them. People like me want to experience everything life has to offer, but it is impractical. Sometimes it is best to defer to the professionals. I discovered years ago installing flooring was not a good project for me to undertake. I decided to install carpet in one of my first rentals and quickly learned it was a skill I would probably never master. I don’t want to talk about how the job looked when I was finished. If you ever meet me and I tell you I have installed carpeting, just smile and humor an old man. I can still remember the address of that property, how we found the property, and what we paid for it. That was twenty-five years ago. Some scars run deep.
There are no hard and fast rules for valuing your time. A starting point might be to put a price tag of at least $40 per hour on the time it will take you to complete the job and compare it to what it will cost a professional to do it instead. Your level of experience and competence with the project involved will weigh heavy in the decision-making process of who does the work.
Readers of Mr. Money Mustache and The Wealth Accountant sometimes feel they have to do everything in life exactly like us. That is crazy! What Pete or I do is irrelevant to what you do. I installed carpet to save money, but hated the job; I’m not much of a remodeler. It was no surprise it turned out the way it did. Tax preparation may be the same with you. The odds are high I will prepare your taxes faster, better and cheaper than you can do it yourself. If you over pay your taxes because you don’t understand all the tax advantages available, your higher tax bill is what replaced your tax preparation bill. Bet I am starting to look cheap. Okay, I am not always faster; I am busy as hell.
Your time is worth something. Maybe not $120 per hour or even $40, but it is worth something. Certain jobs should be handled by an experienced professional. Your furnace or air conditioner is best left to a pro unless you happen to be a HVAC professional. That said you can educate yourself on any subject you want. I recommend educating yourself on a project before hiring a pro. It is not necessary to possess the skills of a star quarterback to be an outstanding quarterback coach; the two jobs are not synonymous. I enjoy certain roofing jobs and will happily join in when a roof needs repair. I am not afraid of hard work or long hours, but, as Clint Eastwood said, “A man has to know his limitations.”
Picking the Right Projects to Do Yourself
The hard part is deciding what to do on your own and when to bring in the cavalry. Money is not the only deciding factor. Life is about happiness. Money can bring freedom to choose and, if handled properly, accentuate happiness. Money allows you the ability to choose which projects bring you the greatest pleasure doing yourself.
Clipping the lawn at the office is a bit of exercise at the end of the day I enjoy so I will not hire out the work at this time. If it becomes a chore I have the financial resources to hire the work done. At home I love working around the farm. My place is not immaculate by any means; I like the old, used look more. I don’t care what the neighbors think. In my neighborhood the neighbors pretty much live like I do. I hired the best contractor in town when I installed a mound system; the project was well out of my league. Other landscaping and gardening projects only exist because Mrs. Accountant and I like doing them. Once they stop being fun the projects end.
If a DIY project does not trip your trigger consider hiring it out. Life is too short wasting time on things that do not bring you pleasure. This is not selfish pleasure I am talking about either. What I am talking about is jobs that bring a level of satisfaction when doing them. It is not about money then, it is about doing something you like doing. Once you understand what a project entails from your research, you can decide if it will bring you happiness performing the tasks of the project. If it makes you happy then you can decide if it is a wise financial move to DIY. Now you are able to make the right decision.
Or, you can do what I did installing carpet over on Roosevelt Street. It was a work of art. As memory serves I sold the damn place shortly thereafter. Nightmares.
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A thought experiment: Why do you want money? What drives you to attain financial independence? Why is retirement such a powerful draw? Think about these questions before you read on. I want you to really understand why you do the things you do when it comes to money. Think about what money does for you.
Readers here already understand they don’t want the headline. Money, in and of itself, is worthless. It is paper with inked pictures of deceased individuals. So what. But money also symbolizes something. Money is how we trade value when we are not bartering. Because money is a store of value until needed, we can do things with money impossible with barter. Money can earn a profit. I guess you could barter for seeds. Then you could create some of the characteristics of money if you farm. Still, money is a tool, nothing more.
Having money, lots of money, does not make you happy. Money gives you choice. By building wealth you can open opportunities unavailable to you before. It takes money to invest to build passive income for an independent lifestyle. With money you can open your dream business, travel, spend more time with family.
So much focus is on accumulating money, saving, investing, retiring. What you really want is something totally different. I always dreamed of owning my own business and except for one year of my adult life I have. A certain level of wealth is necessary to reach personal goals. But even these goals do not come from money.
The next logical question is: Why do you want to retire? Travel? Spend more time with family? The end game is a feeling. If you carry the questions far enough you will come to answers that really matter. Having money gives me freedom to travel and spend time with family. Traveling and family time make you feel good. Make you happy.
Every action we take is to avoid pain or gain pleasure: real or imagined. You overspend because you think the things you are buying will make you happy. By questioning all purchases you will find most expenditures only provide illusory happiness. The new car is not new for long and the cost of maintaining the car hurts.
Research shows we gain more lasting pleasure from experiences rather than things. A family vacation is a fond memory; the flat screen TV is not. My family trip to Costa Rica with my parents is filled with great memories we still talk about around the card table. Our discussion on the TV is usually filled with derision, if it is discussed at all.
The Greatest Feeling in the World
People love to laugh. It is a universal feeling. There is no culture I am aware of where jokes and good-natured fun are not a part of daily life. Some cultures smile more than others, but all people enjoy a good laugh, even the sour-pusses.
I am asked to speak multiple times per year. Since I am not a big fan of travelling, I limit the number of engagements to a handful each year and most are relatively close to home. Slowly, I am opening myself to more gigs. When I speak to one group, people in the audience take the experience home with them. Organizations they belong to now ask me to speak for their group. Goodwill Industries has asked me to speak every year for many years now. Last year they wanted me twice so I could discuss two topics.
Anyone who knows me knows I do not take life seriously. I have a grab bag of one-liners I use to illustrate life lessons.
Keith’s Rule # 15: Life is a joke and then it is over.
Rule 15 illustrates my personal worldview. When I am at home or in a crowd I always share stories. My favorite stories have a twist with a humorous slant. Stories should teach a lesson while still having fun. There is so much to laugh at. When I speak I include a lot of one-liner asides. I take a serious topics (frequently taxes since I am an accountant) and get people to laugh at the craziness of the make believe world of tax law. There is no real world connection to your taxes. Your taxable income has no relation to your real world cash flow. (Okay, smart ass in the back row. There is a relationship, a damn poor one.) Taxes are make-believe, like the boogie man.
Turn it into a Skit
Anything happening in my vicinity is fair game. The gym is a fertile playground. People do crazy things at the gym while I am serious about my workout. I will not share my well-developed skit on the gym here. If you catch me in public, just fire me up and watch the sparks fly. Yikes! You need to do the same thing. Turn events that irritate and annoy you into a big joke. Stress melts away when you do. Okay, you talked me into it.
Yes, I went to the gym this morning to lift some stuff. I try to avoid the early morning as the geriatric crowd is in control. But Mrs. Accountant wanted to go to Zumba, so I went with her. Let us start with the locker room.
- You do not need to use the locker on top of mine when you can space it out a little. I DON’T want to touch you, even a brief glace, when you are naked!
- Wear clothes! I know you think you are a perfect specimen for a 94 year old, but for the love of god, cover up. Do not stand in the middle of the locker room talking to another dead guy, I mean old guy. Nobody likes walking around you. We do not care about your story about mole removal. I know you are proud of the family jewels, but please, do not force the rest of us to see them. We are not as excited about it as you are.
- Close the shower curtain. Really, people. The curtain is there for a reason. There have been a few instances where I experienced snow blindness from accidentally catching sight of your alabaster cheeks.
On to the gym floor.
- Wear a shirt guys. Sure you have a rock’in hot bod for someone 72. But the gym rules say you need to wear a shirt. Your sweat on the equipment is disgusting.
- Wear a real shirt. To circumvent gym rules a few geriatrics have decided to wear shirts with no sleeves, full of holes and baggy. Christ people, your nipples look like age spots; cover them up.
- Don’t jump on a machine in front of me and just sit there talking. When you see me using a machine it does not mean you take the first chance to slip into the seat and discuss your flatulence problem with Carl for two hours. Other people would like to use the machine, too.
- As long as we are talking about hogging a machine, workout if you are on the gym floor. The equipment is not a random place to sit. I see you enter the gym. You do zero exercise, talk with every old lady in the place (you Casanova), and occupy as many pieces of equipment as you possibly can.
Thank god, they all need to get home by noon for a nap.
See how much fun that was. A situation which has caused a fair number of people to disappear, never to be seen again, is turned into a good laugh. I can lift 40, maybe 50 pounds more when people drive me insane at the gym. As my temperature rises I focus on all the hilarious material I am gathering, lowering stress, until it is much more manageable.
My favorite comedian, George Carlin, was fond of saying you need to stop feeling vested in the outcome. All the money in the world will not bring happiness if you are vested in the outcome of the next election. You will be upset, mad, or angry non-stop as long as your happiness is predicated upon someone else’s action or inaction. I laugh about the gym, but in reality, if some old guy pulls one of the above mentioned stunts I change my workout to a machine or bench available. My body is always happy with a mix-up in the routine. And yes, I laugh when I see some old guy standing around naked, thinking he is god’s gift to the Nutcracker Suite. Idiots are always the most fun anyway.
Money is important. Anyone who tells you different will lie to you about a lot of other things too. I still argue it is not money that you want. You do not want the big investment account, fancy car, or vacation. My guess is you want the feelings and experiences these things provide. A well-stocked portfolio of index funds gives you the feeling of freedom and safety; cars, homes, and other stuff pretend to give you value when they are mostly wasting assets or require more spending to maintain; travel allows you to learn and experience while creating fond memories you can share a lifetime.
I am not against stuff. The less stuff you have the better, but I am not against a few material distractions. Creating memories (even if I hate travelling) is important. Memories bring meaning to life. Drama Queens can set aside the annoying whining and replace it with something fun and entertaining most people enjoy listening to.
My dream of owning my business is now filled. It has been filled for 30 years. Early retirement people say I held on too long. A business owner client of mine once gave me this advice on why you should sell your business in 15 years regardless: if you can’t make enough money in 15 year in your business to retire, you never will. He is right. Most of us hang on too long because we love what we do.
Money has not been an issue for me for two decades. If I had a zero net worth outside my business I could still retire comfortably selling my business. The rent on the building alone would cover most of my personal expenses. As important as questioning our spending is, it is equally as important to question our retention of stuff, including home and business. I will cover how I am handling the transition of my business in a future post.