Death By A Thousand Indecisions

indecisions

“Then indecision brings its own delays, And days are lost lamenting over lost days. Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute; What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Death by a thousand indecisions. As Goethe asked, are you “in earnest”? When it comes to decisionmaking, sometimes it’s quick: Ready-Fire-Aim. With other decisions, we take our sweet time. How much is indecision costing you?

Like death from a thousand cuts, indecisions can slowly deplete our energy, leaving little behind for ourselves or others.

Decisions are Draining

That’s because decisions are draining. Neuropsychologists like Dr. Moira Somers tell us that decisionmaking depletes our mental energy. According to Dr. Somers, every day we wake up with a finite amount of mental energy. As the day goes by, the more decisions we make, the less energy we have. And the bigger they are, the more energy they use.

Think about life’s transitions. One reason transition times, good or sad, are so stressful and exhausting – a move, a death, retirement, a child, a divorce – is the many seemingly small, plus a few momentous, decisions.

Further, lack of sleep, hunger, grief or even excitement can start the whole day off depleted.

Then, every indecision we “make” is a decision. In fact, a pattern of indecisions can take physical form, and stress us out every time we see it.

What does not-deciding look like? A pile of unfiled papers. Empty boxes stacked in the garage. The “miscellaneous drawer” in the kitchen. The “junk room.” Scattered financial accounts in too many places. Unfinished projects.

With a finite amount of mental energy at hand, who can blame any of us for having some kind of to-be-decided pile/stack/assortment hanging over us all the time?

Dealing with Indecision

What to do about it?

  • Make big decisions in the morning, before depletion sets in.
  • Automate it: Use a system to take care of small decisions automatically
  • Eliminate it: Ask often, “How important is it?”
  • Date-Activate it: Calendar the decision to deal with and be done
  • Delegate it: Ask for help

Automate It

An automation example I love and have yet to implement is the decision of what to wear. Michael Kitces, a noted financial expert, famously has a closet full of the same blue shirts, pants, and shoes. One less decision each day for a busy guy.

Another example is cooking. Thanks to Cassy Joy Garcia’s book, Cook Once: Eat All Week, our household now pre-preps ingredients on Sunday. Then, each work night is 15-30 minutes to assemble and cook the ingredients with pre-planned healthy recipes. The meals are delicious, but the best part is not having to make the decision of what’s for dinner. Hallelujah.

Eliminate It

In the summer of 2021 I began thinking about a new car. My financial plan called for me to sell my would-be 7 year old car in January 2022 and buy another one. I couldn’t decide what kind of car to buy.

Aware that the indecision was draining me, I wondered why I was having such a hard time deciding. Then it hit me. I didn’t need a new car. In fact, I didn’t need a car at all. My husband and I had both switched to working from home. Why did I need a shiny hunk of metal to sit in the garage? We had my husband’s car, which was only 2 years old. We ran a 6 week experiment without using my car to see if it caused any problems.

When we saw that it didn’t, I felt immense relief. This told me I was making the right decision. Besides, it was a good time to sell a used car. $15,000 later, we are both very happy about eliminating that decision!

Date-Activate It

My calendar rules my life. It tells me what to do, where, and when. If this is not you, then this tip might not work.

One decision that goes on the calendar every year is whether to take a ski trip and if so, where. The local ski clubs publish their trips around August/September. Ski season pass discounts usually end on Labor Day. So I have the calendar marked for that timeframe to do my research, poll my skiing girlfriends, and make the decision. While it feels sooner in the season than I would like to make a commitment, if I did not give myself a deadline, I would dilly dally into December as all of the good trips filled up. And in the meantime, I would be spending a huge amount of mental energy on something that’s supposed to be fun.

Delegate It

Part of my indecision problem has been the flawed belief that I should be able to do everything myself (and perfectly, which is a topic for another blog post).

However, after a divorce, when my brain was extra foggy, I had significant success with hiring a friend to help organize. At the same time, I had estate planning documents updated with a local attorney. With my friend’s insight, coordination, and diligence, I quickly had an uber-organized office AND an updated “emergency box.” I felt the fog lifting as things came together.

It turns out that hiring help accelerated my decision making and used less energy. Perhaps this is what Goethe meant by the boldness in beginning. Delegating to others can be bold.

Getting Better and Better

Goethe said in that boldness to begin the decision we find genius, power, and magic. Further, there is a spiraling effect – the fewer decisions left to make, the more time to do what we do best. This is far better than a daily slog through indecision-infused mud.

At some point, with excess energy, I felt ready to give back. Someone close to me suddenly lost her husband and her mother within a three month period. She had an overwhelming number of decisions to make about seemingly small stuff, and was in a grief-stricken state to be doing so. I feIt the capacity to help her. I could not have made that statement before I had my own house in order. I don’t know if that counts as genius, power, and magic, but it felt really good to do.

What About You?

What if you took an indecision pile and automated, eliminated, date-activated, or delegated?

Who might you then be able to help?

Genius, power, and magic are waiting, if we have the boldness to begin.

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The Ideal Retirement Plan: It’s About More Than Money

view from the porch

The ideal retirement plan: it’s about more than money.

I knew a man who couldn’t wait to retire from his government job. With a few decades of hard work and wise money decisions, he was able to call it quits at 55. Thrilled with his newfound financial freedom, he immediately took to cooking, golf, dating, traveling, fishing, and having fun. For the first few years, every time I saw him, I could see the lack of work responsibilities had lightened his step and his heart.

At 65, he moved to a Florida retirement community, the kind with nearly identical roofs, lawns and mailboxes. One of the few ways to stand out was by the cover on your golf cart. To outsiders, everyone looked the same, dressed the same, exercised the same, and seemed to absolutely love their new life in the sunshine.

Happy on the Outside But No One to Talk To

One day on the phone the man said, “Y’know, I really like talking with you. I don’t have anybody to talk to here.”

This was a shock. “What?” I said, “Surely there are some retired CEOs, executives, people that think like you there, that play golf, and that you have a lot in common with.”

“Nah,” he said, “I don’t have that much in common with anybody here.”

I thought that was crazy. He talked like them, dressed like them, shopped like them, and played golf and pickleball with them. He probably was just as well off, financially, as any of them. How could he not have someone to relate to?

Unfortunately at that time, I was unfamiliar with the signs of depression. Five years later, it took his life.

Three Myths About the Ideal Retirement

According to writer Mitch Anthony, there are three myths about the ideal retirement plan.

Myth 1: “This part of my life is going to be about ME.”
Anthony says, “This is a formula for emptiness.”

Myth 2: “I am going to surround myself with people like ME.”
Anthony’s reply: “This is a formula for stagnation.”

Myth 3: “I am going to do nothing but relax.”
Anthony: “This is a formula for boredom.”

Emptiness, stagnation, and boredom. Doesn’t sound much like the ideal retirement. Yet, these three myths form the basis of a lot of retirement plans.

A Mayo Clinic gerontologist told Anthony, “A life of total ease is two steps removed from a life of total disease. The first step is they get bored, the second step is they grow pessimistic, and then they get ill.”

The Dark Side of Retirement Plans

This is what writer Robert Laura termed the “dark side” of retirement. For some who don’t think about how to bring meaning and purpose to their life after work, serious mental health maladies, like depression and addiction, await. Florida retirement communities have some of the highest suicide rates in the country, particularly growing among white males over age 65.

Of course not everyone in retirement communities is depressed. It’s common to have constant fun, be social, and live vibrantly, filling time with volunteering, mentoring, and circles of friends.

Plan For More Than Money

For those like the man above, jumping off the work treadmill onto the retirement scene without a plan can be risky. Instead, South Dakota financial planner Rick Kahler responded to Laura’s article with several wise suggestions for the non-financial part of a retirement plan:


*Ask yourself how much of your identity is tied up in what you do, rather than who you are.
*Start creating a life to retire “to” rather than simply a job or business to retire “from.”
*Consider gradually reducing to part time and taking extended vacations, rather than showing up one day, and having nowhere to go the next.
*In your ideal week, identify how would you spend your time, and with whom?
*Have a diverse social network outside of work.

As one example, writer Douglas Bloch complained his parents’ retirement community had no children, while his retired friends were finding fulfillment in their own neighborhoods mentoring youngsters in math.

The best retirement plans start with a plan for a fulfilling life first, then match up the plan with money decisions. That’s why good planners ask, what’s the money for? For most, it’s not to support boredom, stagnation and decline. If you define what an ideal retirement means first for you, then your retirement plan and your retirement life have far better chances of success.

Dedication to Mental Health Awareness

Following May’s Mental Health Awareness month, every June I republish this story in memory of the man who inspired it. Retirement is a life transition that has an under appreciated impact on mental health.

Resources for Ideal Retirement Plans:

Dori Mintzer, Ph.D. has a weekly live interview series and podcast called “Revolutionize Retirement.” In it, she interviews experts on retirement life.

Mitch Anthony’s book, The New Retirementality.

Holly’s book, The Mindful Money Mentality: How To Find Balance in Your Financial Future

Sign up for our free monthly e-letter, “The View From the Porch.” We never share your email address.

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The ABCs of Behavioral Economics

The ABCs of Behavioral Economics: This article was originally published in NAPFA Advisor magazine.

Behavioral economics, with its long lexicon of “biases,” has enjoyed great popularity for a couple of decades. However, it’s also one area where financial planning students feel the least prepared. Experienced advisors, too, find this relatively new field fascinating, but yearn for practical ways to apply it, especially amid the market volatility of the past couple of years.

Sometimes it’s helpful to boil things down to basics. At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three reminders, A-B-C style, of what behavioral economics is about, how it works, and how advisors can use it.

A—What is behavioral economics about? A: Actors (economic ones) are not always rational.

Economists used to assume that actors (people and companies) always act rationally to increase their profit, wealth, or “utility.” The father of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman, won a 2002 Nobel Prize for proving they actually don’t. However, even today, both clients and advisors still tend to assume finance is about facts, not feelings.

Throughout my early banking career, I made this assumption. For example, when the estate tax exemption was $675,000, I reveled in suggesting ways that nearly every client could save on estate taxes. One husband, whom I knew liked to argue, pushed back when I brought this up. “Why do you automatically assume I want to save taxes?” he blurted.

His wife looked at my jaw hanging open. I answered, meekly, “Because nearly everyone I talk to wants to save taxes?”

“Well, maybe I don’t!” he said. “The government has a lot of good programs.”

Before that day, I had never asked how anyone felt about paying taxes (who would ask such a stupid question?), or what the idea of legacy meant to someone (too personal, I might upset them). My job, before that day, was like Sergeant Joe Friday, “Nothin’ but the facts, ma’am.”

Now I know all facts, especially anything with the word “estate” in it, for goodness’ sake, come with feelings. It’s far better to get to the feelings first if we want any chance of rational decision making.

B- Why Does This Happen? B: Brains have powerful primitive parts.

In his 2011 best seller, Thinking: Fast and Slow, Kahneman divides the brain into two systems: System 1 and System 2. To oversimplify, System 1 is the older, primitive part, and it generates emotional responses. System 2 is the newer, intellectual part.

Most of the time we’re quite aware of what’s going on with System 2 (intellectual), and quite unaware of System 1 (emotional). We fail to remember how much more powerful System 1 is than System 2. To make matters worse, System 2 falsely believes it can override System 1 anytime it wants.

For example, have you ever been sitting at a traffic light and suddenly heard a honk from the car behind you? My System 1’s initial thought is, “Who the !@#$ is honking?” as I glare in the rear-view mirror. A fraction of a second later, it occurs to System 2 to, duh, see if the light turned green. System 1’s embarrassment kicks in with a little wave in the mirror, “Sorry!”

One of the signs of a true professional is the ability to override System 1 through experience and practice. Kahneman uses firefighters as an example. After many fires, they learn that fear doesn’t go away. They accept it as part of the job, then, with experience, use it to make split-second but measured decisions.

In the last couple of years, have you not been a little scared, at least once? A study from the Journal of Behavioral Finance showed financial professionals are just as prone to emotional errors as retail investors. Knowing and accepting this should make us even more cautious. Younger advisors know from their training not to act irrationally based on fear. Senior advisors know from experience not to act irrationally after seeing advisors who did.

Our System 2 can try saying, “I won’t be scared the next time the market falls 10%,” but your System 1 will decide that involuntarily, not you.

System 1 beats System 2 to the punch nearly every time because System 2 is wired to conserve energy. So, it allows System 1 to do most of the work, which mainly involves scanning for threats. Fear isn’t wrong. It’s unavoidable. Whether and how we handle it is our hallmark.

C—What can we do about it? C: Curiosity can help.

How do we foster conversations in which System 2 creates a measured response to System 1 impulses? One way is to concentrate on being curious. This means to expect our own emotional response but not react to it. Accept whatever the client brings up. Focus on better understanding the client’s responses.

Here is an example:

Client: “I think we should buy/sell/do something different than what we’ve been doing.”

Advisors’ thoughts under the influence of System 1:
Fear: “Are you leaving?”
Guilt: “I should have called you sooner.”
Contempt: “You stupid idiot!”
Impatience: “No. You are acting irrationally. I don’t have time for this. Here’s my advice. Take it or leave it.”

Advisors under System 2 (with System 1 emotions in the background):
“I understand, and I would like to hear more about what you’re thinking.” (Fear: Yikes! No! You might blame me for this.)

“It sounds like you are really concerned. Tell me more.” (Contempt: After all our meetings, why can’t you just be calm?)

“I’d be happy to talk about that further. Help me understand how you are feeling.” (Impatience: Do I really have to listen to this?)

We can help the client discover their emotions themselves, simply by creating a safe space for it. Upon reaching that point of self-discovery, ironically, they feel more understood by us. Once someone feels understood, only then will System 1 sometimes step aside and make them ready for System 2-based factual advice.

Sometimes Advisors Need to Hold the Advice

In a 2016 article for The Journal of Financial Planning, Brad Klontz wrote,


The secret is this: when we are doing our best work, we are bringing little or nothing new to the exchange. We are asking no questions. We are offering no advice. We are making no recommendations. We are providing no analysis or insights. We are abandoning our goals and agendas and are just bringing ourselves. Sure, we are facilitating a process, but we have learned that our effectiveness grows as our ability to be present grows. In our best moments, we are engaged in exquisite listening, which is the best therapy.

Klontz, Van Sutphen, and Fries, “Financial Planner as Healer: the Role of Financial Health Physician,” Journal of Financial Planning, December 2016

Behavioral economics can feel counterintuitive: Expect irrational responses, and accept that feelings are more powerful than facts. By not immediately reacting with advice, we become the best advisors.

For more on applying behavioral economics principles to real-life financial planning, see The Mindful Money Mentality: How To Find Balance in Your Financial Future.

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Guest Rap Song Post: It Won’t Go To Zero

Guest rap song post: It Won’t Go To Zero. In early 2010, Ken Robinson, JD and Certified Financial Planner in Ohio, produced a funny rap video with a serious educational message: “It Won’t Go to Zero.” Whenever markets start back on their once-in-a-while roller coaster ride, it’s a good time to resurrect Ken’s lyrics and rap-star antics. Thank you Ken!

In 2007, the stock market began falling and didn’t hit bottom until 2009. Although it recovered throughout 2009 and 2010, it took several months to 2 years for the investing public to actually believe it. Who could blame them after the traumatic crash – a 50% drop in the S&P 500 – in the fall of 2008? Ken’s video in early 2010 occurred during a recovery many didn’t yet recognize.

During those couple of years, people and pundits asked, “Is this time different?” “Will it ever come back?” “Is this the New Normal?” “What if it goes to zero?” In times like these, it is usually confusing and difficult to separate reality-based facts from emotional actions.

Get to the Chorus

The chorus of Ken’s song goes,

“The markets are resilient, and although they may bend, they won’t break, the stock downturn will come to an end. I can’t say what might finally make things turn around, but eventually we will get back on solid ground. I’m not here to be some investment hero, I’m just letting you know; the markets won’t go to zero.”

The lyrics are just as relevant today, in a different decade, under a different New Normal. I wouldn’t change a thing he’s saying. In fact, yesterday I had nearly this exact conversation. I just wish I’d had the talent to say it in a rap song.

Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3GtxtWSZxE

Choose Composure

Ken’s message is to keep our composure. After a recent NBA playoff win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors was asked by the reporter, “You were down 13 points. How did your team come back to win?”

His answer: “Composure.”

Fortunately for the Warriors they did not have pundits on the sidelines screaming, “You’re finished!” “A comeback is impossible!” “This time it’s different!” Unfortunately for the investing public, scary messages are way too available on nearly any media source we choose. And the primitive part of our brains is hard-wired to look for danger, whether or not it might truly exist.

Choose media messages wisely. When things get scary, no matter what you are hearing and reading, choose composure.

For more on the ways our brains mix up our money messages, see chapters 6 and 7 of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future, or any of the books on our Recommendations page.

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A Buckets Approach To Retirement Income

buckets

A buckets approach to retirement income: One of the most common questions financial planners receive from pre-retirees is, “What’s the safest way to give myself a paycheck once I quit working?”

Those who have been around long enough probably know someone who retired close to a particularly bad market year, like 2001, 2007 or 2008. Because that someone had to, or chose to, sell some investments at that terrible time, they ended up living off of much less than they originally thought. This can be a scary thing to watch. It makes some wonder, “How do I make sure that doesn’t happen to me?”

The Buckets Approach

Enter the buckets approach to retirement income. Below is a link to a video excerpt from the online course, “Retirement Readiness,” outlining a buckets approach in more detail. (A link to the course can be found at the bottom of this article and here.) A description for each of the buckets follows below.

https://youtu.be/mkeqzgJfeFc

Bucket 1 – Cash and Money Market Accounts

The first bucket will provide your paycheck. The rule of thumb is to
1) calculate any retirement income you will have (pension, Social Security, dividends, interest, rental property, for examples);
2) figure your annual recurring expenses (do not include one-time expenses such as replacing a car, roof, or paying for a special trip or wedding);
3) subtract 2) from 1); and
4) keep 1 to 2 years of that difference in Bucket 1.

For example, Justine retires at 65. She expects to live past age 82 so she is waiting until 70 to claim Social Security. She has a pension of $800/month. Her recurring expenses are $70,000 annually. The annual difference is $70,000 – $9,600 = $60,400. To start retirement, she decides to keep 1.5 years of the difference in Bucket 1 so $60,400 x 1.5 = $90,600. She puts that in a high-yield money market account and sets up an automatic transfer of $5833.33 monthly to her checking account. Voila – she has a new paycheck.

When she turns 70, she will collect $45,000 in Social Security. At that time the annual difference will fall to $70,000 – ($9,600 + $45,000) = $15,400. She decides to keep 2 years of the new difference in Bucket 1, so $15,400 x 2 = $30,800. She reduces the monthly transfer from the money market to $1283.33 per month.

Bucket 2 – Bonds, CDs, and Bond Funds

The second bucket replenishes Bucket 1. As the paychecks come out, the principal in the money market account will naturally decrease. When the balance reaches a level you have predetermined, a transfer is made from Bucket 2.

Bucket 2 is comprised of a combination of CDs, bonds, and or bond funds. CDs and bonds have maturity dates, so they are structured in a ladder (staggered maturity dates usually 6 to 12 months apart into the future). As each one in the ladder matures, the principal is either transferred to Bucket 1, or redeployed into a new CD or bond with a maturity date at the end of the ladder. If bond funds are used, they are laddered according to the duration in the fund, and the funds are sold as needed to replenish Bucket 1.

Bucket 3 – Stocks and Stock Funds

Bucket 3 replenishes Bucket 2 through harvesting gains in stocks. To do so, the general rule of thumb is:

  1. Review Bucket 3 on a regular but infrequent schedule (at most quarterly and at least annually). I
  2. f there are gains, transfer those to replenish Bucket 2.
  3. If there are no gains (i.e. the market is in a correction), then do nothing until the next scheduled review.

In this way, stocks are not sold at the most inopportune time. With up to 5 years of paychecks in hand, the first two buckets provide a secure cushion from market corrections.

Final Notes

It’s worth noting that whether the buckets are held in a tax-deferred account or a taxable account makes a difference. Buckets may be spread across accounts in different combinations to minimize taxes.

The goal of the Bucket approach isn’t to generate the best returns of any retirement portfolio on record, but rather to help prevent retirees and pre-retirees from selling at an inopportune time. Thus, a new retiree could use the bucket concept to replace their paycheck without worry about what markets are doing that month.

For a short online course on how to speak “finance” about retirement readiness, see Simple Finance Retirement Readiness: https://bit.ly/3p3BkXE.

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Minimalism, Kakeibo and Happiness

saving money

Minimalism, Happiness and Kakeibo: Minimalism trends have been around at least a decade. They contributed to the rise of the FIRE (Financially Independent Retiring Early) movement, where 20- to 40-somethings shared ways to “retire” before the conventional 60-something age. Much of the movement’s advice questions how much one really needs to spend to be happy.

While staying-at-home one morning in 2020, my husband and I had a heartfelt talk about the future. We began with guessing how the world might change; and then how our microworld-within-the-world might change. We braved scary thoughts about health, family, finances, and society. Then we shifted to how little we need to be happy.

Choosing Wisely

In other words, should scary stuff happen, we agreed to make a choice about our response to it. The pandemic helped affirm that stuff, even money, isn’t our highest priority.

It’s possible we aren’t the only ones coming to these conclusions. Minimalism might enjoy a pandemic-inspired boost. For example, in 2020 journalist Sarah Harvey described her discovery of the Japanese art of kakeibo (“kah-keh-bo”) in this article: https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2020/01/08/how-this-japanese-method-of-saving-money-changed-my-lifeand-made-me-richer.html

What is Kakeibo?

Kakeibo is the Japanese art of keeping a written financial ledger. Writing Harvey’s expenditures down brought their relative need (or lack thereof) into sharp focus for her. It helped her spend less by watching what she spent on. As a result, she chose more wisely in her spending.

For me, I already keep a spending journal, but joining Weight Watchers also worked the same way. By tracking what I ate, I quickly learned where excessive calories came from. As a result, I ate more mindfully. More frequently, I paused before grabbing the next snack. As a result, I chose more wisely in my eating.

So, kakeibo kind of works like Weight Watchers but for wealth.

Paring Down the Excess, Like, a Car

Looking at our spending during the pandemic caused us to wonder, if we are being forced to do without, what won’t we miss? While being forced to stay home, we discovered upsides to more home-cooked meals; more family time (even if on Zoom); more movies at home; and more neighborhood bike rides. More downsides were discovered to driving, commuting, and shopping in stores.

We began to realize – could we slow down, spend less, and actually be a little happier?

For example, because we got outside more, we met more neighbors. We stayed closer to home for socializing as well as shopping and working. In fact, I was using my car so much less that it began to feel like excess. Why were we paying insurance, license renewal fees, and letting it take up room in the garage? So In July 2021, we sold it.

Minimalism, Money, and Mindset

Like an ecosystem hit by a natural disaster, some parts of our old lives may now begin to feel excessive, or may crumble and not come back. Others will adapt and grow to take their place.

Having to make do with less highlighted that happiness is more dependent on our mindset than our stuff and our money.

What discoveries have you made about your spending in the last 2 years? Share a comment below.

For more psychology of money, tax, and funny video tips, subscribe to the award-winning monthly e-letter, “The View From the Porch,” at https://bit.ly/3t2uwfn.

For a short online course on how to speak “finance” about retirement readiness, see Simple Finance Retirement Readiness: https://bit.ly/3p3BkXE

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2021 Book Reviews

books

2021 Book Reviews: Last year I read or listened to 48 books. That’s not a number particularly worth bragging about (I think my bookworm mother probably read twice that many). But, it was enough that I felt like I was learning, re-learning, or being entertained from other authors constantly.

Of the 48, below are those selected for recommendations this year, arranged by topic. For past recommended books, check the Resources page. It includes other recommendations for finance, lifestyle, and life improvement books.

Fiction

19 of the 48 I read were fiction. Of those, The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams, was my favorite. Taking place in Oxford, England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it chronicles how certain words were left out of the original Oxford English Dictionary. Told from the point of view one of the original editors’ daughters, it reveals the subtle dismissal of women, of the poor, and the uneducated through leaving out their vocabulary. The daughter, who starts out as a youngster underneath her father’s working table, makes her own collection of “lost words” that were literally left on the cutting room floor. Ultimately she becomes a respected scholar, though still with the inferior rank of being a woman in a man’s profession. Women in male-dominated professions everywhere will relate well to this story.

Psychology of Money

I always include this topic in the annual book review list. Last year finally saw the publishing of a book with the actual title The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness, by Morgan Housel. Housel reviews the many different tricks our minds play on us when it comes to money, why, and what we can do about it. The field of behavioral economics, upon which the book is based, is difficult to explain in layman’s terms, but Housel does an excellent job.

Finance

Reverse Mortgages, by Wade Pfau, Ph.D. Dr. Pfau upended the financial planning profession nearly 7 years ago when he published research saying, “Financial advisors are not doing their jobs if they aren’t at least considering reverse mortgages.” Initially brushed off, subsequent independent studies have confirmed his findings. Regulations have tightened and these products have evolved into a legitimate option for many different financial goals. His book outlines the details, which can be quite complex, but understandable to non-professional readers. It’s now a reference book on my shelf. I am including it here for the second year in a row because I referenced it enough in 2021 to have read it again.

Life-Improvement: (also known as “self-help”)

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport, was a perfect segue from reading “Rest” two years ago. Both books emphasize the importance of pausing, rest, and breaks in doing work that requires great focus. Newport begins by listing all the ways that society and our screens keep us distracted. We end up working mostly on superficial tasks. To get into the deep work space, most people require a great deal of uninterrupted, undistracted focus time. In the past, I would try to squeeze in that time between working on the superficial tasks.

As a result of reading the book, I made more changes to the calendar. Larger blocks of time are now set aside for client meeting time, preparation, and followup, in addition to writing time. So I might have 10 days straight of meetings, followed by 5 days of writing and working on course development. I cannot report, sadly, that I am sticking to the plan as well as I thought, but I can definitely sense improvement. (To clients, you may experience longer than expected email response times. But hopefully the responses will be better thought-out than before.)

Life-Improvement XXtra Help

These next two are perhaps controversial and definitely don’t belong on a financial planning reading list, but I learned so much from them I want to include them. Along with money, sex and our sexual anatomy are the most under- and mis-communicated, misinformed, and misunderstood topics in our society. These two books spell e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g out in simple, understandable, relatable and occasionally humorous terms. If all adults of all ages would read BOTH: The Vagina Bible: Separating the Myth from the Medicine by Dr. Jen Gunter and The Penis Book: A Doctor’s Complete Guide – From Size to Function and Everything in Between by Dr. Aaron Spitz, oh, how much happier we all would be. I considered giving both books to my adult nieces and nephews for Christmas presents but realized they might not open them, and I still want them to visit me once in a while.

What books were life-changing for you in 2021? Let me know in the comments below.

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Monthly Money Dates

couples and money

Monthly money dates sure don’t sound very romantic. However, it’s said that money and sex are the two biggest reasons for divorce*. Could it be just a coincidence they are also two of the most difficult topics for couples to discuss? So perhaps it might make sense to figure out how to talk about them. Making regular times to talk about a difficult topic can often break down walls within other relationship areas.

In fact, a money date doesn’t have to last that long. Probably at most 15 minutes. (Unlike that other difficult topic, quicker is better.) One suggested format for a money date has 3 parts, with each partner taking turns:

For Part 1: “Here’s what I contributed this month.”

And Part 2: “Here’s what I see for major expenditures coming up.”

Then Part 3: “How are we doing?”

Money Date Part 1: What You Contributed

First, telling what you contributed, no matter how big or small, starts the conversation with recognition for your efforts. If one partner stays home or is out of work, find a way to recognize other ways you contribute – whether it’s nurturing the kids or searching for that next great job.

Money Date Part 2: Upcoming Expenditures

Second, talking about what’s coming up, or could come up, leaves little room for unpleasant surprises. While this may be the hardest part of the conversation, it’s placed here for a reason. Psychological studies show that thinking about how much we spend or have spent can induce the same emotions that lead to depression. On the other hand, counting what we have induces the same emotions that lead to happiness and fulfillment. That’s why the spending question is sandwiched between the other two.

Money Date Part 3: How Are We Doing?

Third, how well you are doing? Ask, what goals are worth tracking? If you are unsure where to start, try the following four indicators: retirement accounts; savings levels; debt levels; and charitable giving. Rather than constantly comparing to an ideal number, find a way to recognize progress from where you were at some point in the past. No matter where you might see room for improvement, walk away with at least one thing you can both point to and be glad or hopeful about.

Money Date Wrap-up: What Next?

Sharing your hopes and working through challenges about money decisions, even for 15 minutes, can be an intimate couples exercise. If you follow this formula successfully, you might find you’re a little more interested in that other intimate topic that’s hard to talk about. (And feel free to take longer than 15 minutes for that one.)

For more tips on the psychology of money, subscribe to the award-winning monthly e-letter, “The View From the Porch,” at https://bit.ly/3t2uwfn, check out Holly’s book, The Mindful Money Mentality: How To Find Balance in Your Financial Future, or sign up for the online Retirement Readiness course.

*see Dr. Dae Sheridan’s Tedx Talk, “Real Talk about ‘The Talk'”

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Decision Fatigue and Shopping

retail shopping fatigue

Decision fatigue is a real thing. I discovered this poignantly on a recent shopping trip. The mission was simple: Buy a spice rack. I figured the best shot was at Bed Bath Beyond (BBB); a store I had not entered in over a year, much less at the holidays. I had a specific size and type in mind, so there was no doubt BBB would provide all the choices I needed. Little did I know that trip would be the beginning of the end of my day’s productivity.

Upon entering, I scanned quickly, bypassing a cart to stay focused on the single item I wanted. Smugly, I glided past the holiday specials to the kitchen department. Lo and behold, there were spice racks. And all kinds of other racks. An embarrassment of choices.

Because I like choices (or thought I did until this day), before long, I was nose to nose with shelves and shelves of plastic, rubber, wood, aluminum, and chrome gadgets, and doodads for kitchen storage problems I didn’t even know I had. It was an assault on my single-mindedness. More than once, something other than a spice rack caught my eye. At first, I had the mental wherewithal to ignore them.

Decision Fatigue Begins

As the minutes wore on, my brain was presented with dozens of items for which a decision had to be made. Does it look like what I came for? If yes, is it the right size and type? If no, move to next item. As this process continued, some strangely gleeful part of my brain, a la Martha Stewart, said, “It’s not the spice rack, but….is it something I COULD use? Hmmmm…it looks very handy. And sleek, too! After all….maybe it could make even more room in the cabinet?” The cabinet, of course, had nothing to do with the spice rack.

“STOP IT,” another Jean-Chatzky-part of my brain, said. “You are here to get the spice rack. Move on.”

Next doodad. Does this look like the spice rack? No, not quite. Yet, the label showed the entire matching doodad set in a fantasy-organized kitchen. Then that Martha Stewart voice again, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if my whole kitchen looked like this doodad’s label?”

“STOP IT,” Jean intervened. “You would have to buy every doodad like it in here, which is a) exactly what you did not come here to do and b) doesn’t even include a spice rack. Next item!”

And so it went….back and forth over a dozen items for fifteen minutes. My mental wherewithal was waning.

Finally, I found exactly what I was looking for and grabbed it.

Decision Fatigue Leads to Aimless Shopping

By then, Martha and Jean had gone 144 rounds. I felt drained. So why did I feel like, oh, taking a look around? Just to see if there was something I couldn’t live without? I got to the bath side and wondered what got into me.

To check out, I had to walk the gauntlet of holiday specials again. I actually pondered chocolates. That’s how beaten-down my willpower was.

When I left the store only $8.35 poorer, I felt like Rocky – beat up, but victorious.

I needed a nap.

Emptying the Decisionmaking Fuel Tank

Dr. Moira Somers, a decision fatigue expert, talks about the mental energy required to make decisions, particularly ones avoiding temptation. It seems we wake up each day with a finite amount of mental decisionmaking energy, like a full tank of fuel. After exhausting our tank, it’s free-for-all shopping, chocolate, smoking, sleeping, nagging, drinking, or whatever your personal favorite fallback behavior happens to be. That devilish irrational voice, (“it’s ok to have it this time” “I won’t do it again” “I can make it up later”) is most powerful when we’re depleted.

To make it more challenging, now we have online shopping. Savvy retailers are perfecting the presentation of temptations on our phones as well as they do in stores. It’s devilishly easy (and I confess, enjoyable) to click and shop.

Finally, stress of any kind (had a little bit of that the last 2 years?) burns fuel in the tank too. When we worry, we erode the ability to resist spontaneous decisions we later regret.

How To Keep the Tank Full

Some solutions? Plenty of sleep. Meditation and mindfulness. Frequent rest breaks. Having someone with whom you can share your struggles.

Also, put fewer decisions into every day by asking whether they can be:

  • automated
  • delegated
  • eliminated or
  • date-activated (meaning putting it on the calendar so it doesn’t take up space in your head).

For more on decision fatigue, see Dr. Somers’ work at http://moneymindandmeaning.com, or Chapter 6 of The Mindful Money Mentality: How To Find Balance in Your Financial Future.

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Letting Go of Money Self-Doubt

Letting go of money self-doubt is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Sometimes these messages operate in the background, quietly driving decisions when we don’t realize it. Other times they’re front and center.

What does money self-doubt sound like? “I knew I’d screw it up.” “I’ll never be good with money.” “If I can’t manage my own finances, I’m a failure.”  “Why am I so stupid with money?”

Painful statements, these are. While sometimes spoken out loud, they are spoken silently far more often.

Money Self-Doubt Origins

Where does money self-doubt come from?  It could be one traumatic event or a repetition of harmful moments that lead to flawed beliefs about our financial capabilities. Without counterbalancing mantras like, “You’re still good. You just made a mistake,” or “You can do this,” the message delivered can be, “You’re a screwup. You’re a failure. You will never get it.”

Sondra (not her real name) is a highly educated and accomplished professional. Her parents came from Depression-era families where money was tight in their younger years. Money was never talked about in Sondra’s home, although she was given everything she needed. She grew up with the belief that her parents didn’t discuss it with her because they believed money was something she was not capable of handling.

Money Self-Doubt Results

Without realizing these beliefs exist, we allow th to influence what actions we take or fail to take. It can affect who we allow into our lives, and who we don’t. It can affect our choice of career. Or how we spend, or choose not to, on our own needs, wants, and wishes. Ironically, money self-doubt can lead to overspending with some people, and deprivation with others.

Sondra chose a career where she was assured a salary and the chance of a bonus if she worked hard enough. She worked longer hours than she wanted to. She lived minimally, foregoing many comforts and rewards of her hard work. Her dreams of having more work-life balance were put on hold because she never felt financially secure. In her personal life, she chose friends and partners who also didn’t talk about money, leaving a gap in her closest relationships.

Letting Go of the Messages

If you’ve been operating under flawed assumptions, and now you know it, you’ve taken the first step to reset your relationship with money.

What else can you do? Here are two suggestions to start:

1) Be aware of those who are too willing to reinforce doubt-based messages – family members, partners, friends, or even (especially) financial professionals. Instead, seek the company of those who say, “I am confident you can handle this,” and will work alongside you, not put themselves ahead or above you.

2) Be aware of body messages. Self-doubt, sometimes manifesting as shame, has a feeling to it – it might be tightness in the chest, nausea or butterflies. Breathe through the feeling and redirect your thoughts to positive truths. You are smart. This is something you can do. You got this, even if you have to ask for help to get started. Call someone supportive to talk about it.

After talking with a friend, Sondra decided to educate herself about money. She began to read books that explained things simply, and take online courses that took a simple approach. Patiently, she interviewed many financial professionals. The more she talked about money, the more confident she became. In the end, she found someone who prioritized her financial education and independence. She began to feel more secure, and consider a daring career move.

The Gift of Letting Go

Letting go of money self-doubt can be one of the greatest gifts we give ourselves to reach peace and security about our financial future.

For more on unspoken money messages see Chapters 2 and 3 of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future, or this 5-minute video with mental health counselor Ken Donaldson on Money Shame.

For a short online course on how to speak “finance” about retirement readiness, see Simple Finance Retirement Readiness: https://bit.ly/3p3BkXE

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