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I’m still working my way out of the beating at work. The process isn’t complete, but should be closing soon, yet challenges keep rearing up. Hope to make a post soon on this ordeal, probably a few posts for all that’s gone on. Until then, here’s that piece on Navy Seals and my friend who just joined their ranks.

For months, you have been put to the test. Grueling physical and mental strain has intentionally been unleashed on you, and you’re a willing participant through it all. You’re in a constant fight against your environment as it slams against your almost broken body in a constant wave assault. Your ultimate goal is making it another day, another meal, another minute, and their ultimate goal uncovering your limits.

At the end of this process, you’re at the top of your game. As you walk around campus, others make sure to divert their eyes and show complete respect for you, what you’re doing, and what you’ll become. You know you’re the best, and so does everyone else. Except, that’s not really true, and you know it and those you’ll be joining know it.

When becoming a Navy Seal, you must be a rock in both body and mind. Obviously, you can’t do what’s required of a Seal if you aren’t strong and fit. However, the real challenge is the mental challenge. I really admire the BUDs classmen even if they don’t make it through to the end. It seems like a constant fight against oneself and one’s own limits more than anything else.

When the only thing you have to do is say you’re done and ring a bell, there isn’t much keeping you from quitting when you’re already on the edge and possibly beyond what you thought the edge was. But to make that even easier, your instructors do everything they can to make quitting easy such as bringing that damn bell down to the shore while you get a beating from the waves, so you don’t even have to walk far to quit and ring it. Of course, this also gives you the perfect view of everyone else who’s finally pulling out, pushed to their limits once and for all.

You really have to be doing this for yourself. As much camaraderie as there is, and as much as you’re doing it for your country, or anything else, it’s really only those who do it for themselves that really have a chance. Not only do you have to go through a beating to get to the finish line, but once there you get little recognition to go along with the more daunting challenges to come. The Seal does not do what he does for recognition (it’s in their motto), and that’s definitely built into the training (most of their missions will be classified anyway, so get used to it).

Even to the last hurrah at graduation, they make sure you don’t forget to be the rock they made you into by welcoming you to mediocrity. Even as you yell to the next class of BUDs to hit the sand, you’re reminded where you too stand now that you’re joining a team of people who have already done what you’ve done, and they’ve even used their training in live action. You’re the freshmen again, for all you’ve gone through, and they make sure you remember that. Stories about 4 Seal in Iraq being surrounded in a Humvee killing over 200 insurgents before being overcome starts to make sense after understanding what’s produced by a program such this.

However, what’s really surprising is how jovial, friendly, and approachable these characters are. They’re programmed to be on the edge, and it blows my mind how they can come from training into the town of Coronado surrounded by rich, chic, older women in pink outfits and trendy guys with cool shades wearing Tommy Bahama, and not snap (or snap someone else’s head) from leaving such an intense environment and joining such a me-me, attention grabbing, easy street world. It was like a punch in the face to me, and I’d only been around for a couple days.

Yet, it makes sense in the same. How else could one go through such a rough training program, and not come out the other end all twisted and screwed up without having a great sense of humor and accepting the things that go on around you. As tightly wound, ready to act, as these guys are, they’re completely in control, and totally cool. Yeah, if they wanted to stare you down, you’d crap in your pants, but they’re just normal 20 something guys when they’re not doing their thing. Sure, they can shoot the eye out of a bird 200 yards away, and throw a knife across the room drunk and still hit a dime, but, they also want to appreciate life like the rest of us, and have fun with friends, kick back, play some Wii, and drink a few drinks.

We each have our own tests to overcome, our own limits to face. The ordeals faced by Seal trainees, and Seal graduates, is both an inspiration and an example for us all. “Be someone special,” and “The only easy day was yesterday” exemplify the Seal experience. It’s a good reminder that what we’re facing ain’t that bad, and if someone else can pull through so much more, then surely we can come out the better from our own challenges. Here’s to class 261, I know you’ll protect our country with the best of them, and make our enemies crap in their pants (which is the least they can hope for if they face a team of Seals).

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airport

“I hit the wall, and it wasn’t pretty. On the way back home from a work trip, I was walking down the aisle of the plane and passed out. Next thing I knew, the plane had landed and I was in a service area off the plane with soiled pants.”

“So, I was sitting next to this guy on the plane that was almost exactly like me – minus a few years. A veteran salesman who travels around for work a lot. High stress job with high demands. He told me his story of hitting the wall, and I know the feeling because I’ve come close myself. I can tell you all of the symptoms. I should teach a seminar on dealing with it.”

“Really you should teach a class on something you can’t fix yourself?” I rhetorically replied.

The above conversation is a shortened version of a story that an older friend told me. We laughed about it at the time (defensive mechanism or something?), but it’s a pretty appalling story. Frankly, anytime a person hits a mental or emotional wall that physically forces them to shut down it’s tragic, and I have a list of friends headed in that direction. Few seem able to stimulate the change needed to correct course, though.

In case you’re wondering what this has to do with financial complexity, I’ve been trying to figure out how to address other issues around the money life cycle beyond just money management issues. It’s easy stressing that single point because it’s so common for so many people, but money management is also almost the least important part. Money management is as much about money as it is change management, and that’s something everyone has problems with, which money can’t inherently fix.

So, this hitting the wall story is pretty bad, especially when your friend can relate so closely to the person telling it. I have mixed feelings about how to react to these situations because I’ve got a specific view that most people don’t care to hear. It seems like most people just like to complain, and prefer ignoring the next step – fixing or improving the situation. I always try and gauge if someone’s open to hearing what I actually think, but I’m hearing complaints so often, I tend not to care anymore.

I’ve got a great life, and a job that I really enjoy. I like to stress living a balanced life, but personally I hope to live an unbalanced one. One that’s unbalanced towards good situations and away from excessive pains. It’s really easy to do actually, but so few people seem to get this. They’re afraid and feel trapped either because they feel limited in options – either not having options or having options that just won’t work. I have a habit of saying that I’m lucky, but that’s bullshit. I’ve planned this – in a way – so I get easily annoyed when others complain because it doesn’t usually take much to improve things, but as I’ve learned, it takes more than just wanting to change.

You can see the wall coming at you and you know that you don’t want to hit it, but then why do you keep working long hours, taking on more work than you should, flying around on errands for you boss, making excuses for why you can’t change? That really sets me off, but I usually (less so each passing day, each passing complaint) hold back my reply because it doesn’t seem to affect people (so I’ll rant a bit on my blog). It feels hypocritical someone telling a person such as myself that you can’t change when I’m a great example of successful change.

As I said, I planned this. I didn’t plan the exact address or complete picture, but I set out with my values and needs, and I found the situation that would fill them. Those adjust with time, so I’m always on the lookout, checking my internal gauges, to make sure I shouldn’t act again. I don’t settle for mediocrity, and that’s easily the biggest mistake that people make. You don’t have to fight the fight in every part of your life, but it’s almost magical how everything falls together when you make sure that you’re at least fighting the important fights and taking on the meaningful challenges.

However, life isn’t a set of challenges and obstacles to outsmart. That’s another thing my friend said when he told me the hitting the wall story. It makes sense coming from him, a person with a special forces military background, that he sees life as being solved by outsmarting it. It just makes me want to scream, “Life isn’t something you can outsmart. Life just is.” You can plan for situations, and adapted to different problems, but life isn’t an obstacle course that’s set against you, which you can then overcome. Shear force – accepting longer work hours, more demanding work situations, or whatever else – doesn’t break you through to the other side. There is no other side, only that which you’re at now and where you’d mentally like to be. More of the same, or less of the good, isn’t outsmarting an obstacle.

Of course, none of this is all that complex. Most people who want to change know what they want to change, but not how. My friend thinks that he can keep from hitting the wall by going to an annual three day decompression camp, but years – decades – of built up stress isn’t solved by decompression camp when you’re that far down the road already. And my other younger friends think they can keep from becoming like the other, but they’re in the same environment, doing the same things, surrounded by the people they hope they won’t become, and assume that time will make things better or that they can just cut of at some point in the future. “Riiiight,” is all I say. That’s why you’re dad and his dad are workaholics.

You have to push yourself beyond the wanting stage. You have to expect better and demand better. If you’re consistent at that, then you escape from life as a set of obstacles and walls to dodge. You move into a state of flow like finding flow on the soccer field or at bat on the baseball diamond.

These changes and improvements will follow you into your money situation. You might not become the richest man alive, but you’re view of what you need and how you’re fulfilled will change, which usually means you’re happier with less because you know the few things that actually matter. So, if you know you want change, but can’t, then figure out what actually matters to you, and if your values don’t match your environment, then you’ve probably got some clues now what needs to change.

eater

I’ve been reading a lot about souls in business lately. Doc Searls has a thread of posts going with other bloggers about the souls of businesses, and my last post highlights a speech by John Bogle about the soul of capitalism. So, that begs to ask, what or where is the soul of personal finance, and do the companies who handle our finances – the banks, fund companies, brokerages, etc – have a definable, desirable soul?

I definitely believe that soul is missing from personal finance. It’s too much about the money, and not enough about the people and the things people do with their money. As the Chief Happiness Officer, Alex, writes, money does not make you happier, always thinking about money is bad, fairness is what really counts, and more great and true points. That’s what I consider your money mentality, and companies have that too.

A company’s money mentality is derived from its soul, and that shines through (we hope) in how they treat customers and what services they offer. So, what makes up the soul of companies that handle our money? You get poor customer service, long holds on the phone with annoying music and ads that you don’t care about, high interest and credit card rates and companies ready to raise them on the drop of a hat. You get companies that profit their managers more than they profit their investors, and you get a general picture of a bad soul. Excluding a few special companies, I doubt many people would argue with me on this point.

I believe the problem begin with money. These companies see their job as money mangers, people who take money, move it around, and make more money. Banks have become so large that they number their customers just like they number their employees. These companies need to define themselves by more than the dollars they’ve been given. John Bogle defines this as returning to a “trusting and being trusted” environment, but that trust is built on top of action, and that begins by engaging customers and being concerned with their values and goals. Focusing on the easy bottom denominator of big numbers doesn’t provide any added value to the retiring couple or the college graduate.

It might feel strange talking about the soul of business, but if you think about it, then it’s hard to deny that it’s there. Companies are run and owned by people who have their own soul, and this feeds the soul of their companies. Companies have to do more than service a basic need, and I think we can all list off a number of annoyances or grievances, but both companies and customers need to understand their needs, values, and goals before either can help the other.

windy road

It seems like retirement is such a big issue right now. I’ve helped my parents a little in choosing retirement options by helping them figure out which were best for their situation. However, there doesn’t seem to be much good information out there. It’s mostly fear and scare articles written by journalists who have little or no financial knowledge. I’ve read all too many opening lines such as “the stakes are high and the issues complex…” Oooh. Really? It might feel that way with a impending retirement, but if you take a step back, breath, and think about this for second, it’s rather simple and straight forward.

Retirement for anyone breaks down into three concerns: finances, enjoyment, and general fear. Finances is pretty obvious, you need and want $X for retirement – how else can you retire if you don’t have enough money. Enjoyment is pretty obvious, you’re entering a new part of your life that’s there precisely for your complete enjoyment – no one telling you want to do tomorrow morning, or when to wake up (besides your significant other at least). The fear involved should be obvious too, but there are many facets, most bad, but some are actually good – fear of your financial situation and having enough money, fear of finding enjoyment after a lifetime of having outside objectives define your day, and fear of the unknown such as the impact on the stock market, or whether social security will hold up, or any number of other issues.

I think the most common problem for baby boomers when thinking about retirement is the over obsession with your financial picture. As with everyone else, there’s already the basic misunderstanding of fiancial matters, but then there’s the added fear of a new financial situation – no job bringing in new money. However, this is probably the easiest part of your whole retirement because you can either educate yourself by reading books or websites, or by talking to a professional. In the end, run some numbers and do some planning. If you don’t have enough money, then maybe you don’t go into full retirement, but the bigger question is, “what is enough?” because that depends on what you want to do. What kind of enjoyment and activities do you expect to do and want to do?

The second most common problem comes at this point, “oh my. What do I actually want to do? I’ve got 10+ years of retirement that I have to plan out.” Wrong. You have 10+ years of retirement to LIVE. Planning your finances with enough flexibility for many different options is relatively easy. The key is keeping it simple. Don’t over plan, and don’t look at too many options. Make a check list of things that would be great to do in the next year, two, or three. Get an idea if that’s financial feasible. Also, most importantly of all, pick things that will have meaning to you. This might not be an easy task if you’ve never really thought about this much before.

Finding meaning is the real dilemma of retirement. Not social security, not the stock market, and not your kids’ inheritance (this doesn’t apply to you mom and dad – inheritance is numero uno for you). A life defined by your work, and now what? Work had some level of meaning, and through that meaning, you derived (hopefully) a high level of fulfillment and enjoyment. Now, you have to find that meaning from some place else, or so you think.

If work has really been a place for meaning and fulfillment, then there is no requirement to stop working. Maybe partial retirement is a better option even if you have enough money. Remember, with the workforce getting smaller as baby boomers retire, baby boomers will be in growing demand. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience that’s still valuable. Either way, partial retirement or no, the key is finding meaning, and if you aren’t finding ways to give back either to your community or elsewhere, then you might find retirement lacking.

All of this might be a little scary because it’s a part of life that’s new. Personally, I think that should be exciting. Life is uncontrollable and unpredictable, so when something new comes up there is something great in that, especially after a lifetime of semi-predictable work. The freedom in retirement is a little scary, but has a lot of potential. After 40+ years of work, when was the last time you thought about the potential in your life like when you graduated from school? Potential eventually turns into fulfillment (or not), but now that’s back again, and should be a fun thing to deal with.

Brining this to a close, you shouldn’t be overly worried about the financial situations that are outside of your control. Baby boomers are the most powerful political group out there, and if you think the government is going to let social security fall apart, then you’re forgetting how influential your generation is. Additionally, many people are worried about the stock market. With so many people moving their money around and potentially getting out of the market, what will happen your money in the market? Easy, as you and other retirees take your money out, you’re going to spend it on something. You’re not taking the money out and hiding it under your bed. Your money is going directly into another company and providing economic growth somewhere, and that is what the market thrives on. The circle of money will continue, and baby boomer retirement money will leave your hands and move into the hands of those worthy of that money. I expect the stock market to do quite well in that situation, so don’t worry about a thing you can’t actually control, but instead get started on what has meaning to you.

overgrown tv

I’ve decided to write this mostly because of this post at the great I Will Teach You To Be Rich called How do you budget when you have irregular income? The sum of the post is a reader asking Ramit how he should budget with his very irregular income. Check out the post, but I won’t cover it more than I have to because you can just read the original if you like. I’ve left my own comments under the pseudonym MyNameIsMatt.

Yes, budgets are bad. Not just because we don’t like doing them, but for many of the reasons I’ve covered in previous posts in how they relate to your money mentality. Now, budgets aren’t necessarily bad, and they have helped a number of irresponsible spenders, so I can’t say everyone should swear them off. However, they’ve been tauted by the “wise ones” almost as some magic bullet that should sit on a pedestal for anyone desiring responsible personal finance. The problem with this is that it leads to the type of question asked of Ramit where the individual has no real problem. He just feels that he isn’t budgeting correctly for his irregular income. He feels out of control, and thinks that the only means of correcting this is by correcting his budgeting. This is far from the truth and actually establishes a bad habit for any responsible personal finance.

The budget is not king, and your budget has no direct relation to your income. Your expenses, and hence what you derive your budget from, is based on your lifestyle. Income provides options that support your desired lifestyle, but has no direct relation to your expenses. If you make more money, then you don’t inherently increase your expenses. If you make less money, then you may need to change your lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean you therefore budget based on your income.

If your budget is based on income you’re doing two things wrong. First, you’re succumbing to the always “need more” affluent society that corporations pressure us to live in. Living based on income means you’re limiting yourself to your current financial paradigm and not based on how you want to live your life nor how your need to live your life. The money numbers that you see now define your life instead of you defining it yourself.

The second thing that happens is the budget becomes king. When the budget is king you’re more likely driven to two extremes. Either you live at the short end of your money numbers where you live within your mean (all very good and well), but less likely to stretch out of those means. Instead of being driving by needing more (or less), you should be driven by personal growth. That is expanding yourself and not necessarily your possessions. Taking adventures and living life through all of your opportunities. However, if you can only see the opportunities that you’ve budgeted for, then you’ll invariably miss out of tons of great life experiences.

The other extreme you could go in by making the budget king is by living beyond your means. Not caring about your budget in the least because it’s just too much trouble, too painful, and therefore not worth your time. In the comment thread of Ramit’s posts two points were made obvious, and they’re right for any situation (irregular income or more regular annual income), which is that you need to know your minimum living expenses and have a small emergency buffer so that you can handle any challenges from changes in income or lifestyle. This is really the extent I think anyone should budget unless you have specific goals like buying a house or saving an extra 5%. However, when you take the view of budget is king yet too troublesome to take seriously, you begin living life beyond your means. All you see (or don’t see) are the money numbers driving your growth and life adventures (“gotta have this and that – be the rockstar”), and not the numbers that actually support that life.

Budgets are bad because they have a tendency to limit and limit not based on personal needs and wants, but probabilistic situations (“I’ll probably need $X for this and $Y for that”). For many people, they have a problem spending and saving responsibly without that kind of help. That’s OK, but that doesn’t mean every one of us has to do the same, and then that we’re irresponsible for not doing it. Life is not about control, so don’t try and control your life with a budget. When you’re facing the fear of control, whether it’s a mental manifestation or a real problem, you need to address the problem directly and not hide the issue behind a prescribed and overly glorified process (harsh I know, but true).