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Anything but money: having self worth and control of your life

In his most recent newsletter, former Wall Street Journal columnist Jonathan Clements observes (correctly) that most of us will never be fabulously wealthy, that we should stop feeling bad about

Should you pay more taxes?

Embed from Getty Images We’ve all been flooded with rhetoric lately on the necessity of either a) tax cuts or b) tax increases. It’s been on my mind lately at

Retirement Accounts: keeping the advice sane and safe

When my daughter and I were at the Women’s March, I saw a number of signs saying I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t (and they didn’t have an

College planning, child-rearing expenses & a novel approach

I put off having a child as long as I could. My own mother made it seem like a lifetime sentence, where you’d have a continuous stream of hard work

Read more, spend less: financial planning lessons from novels

That would be one of my many, many New Year’s resolutions. But I already read tons of professional journals, work-related books, and general non-fiction. Like so many people since November,

College planning, child-rearing expenses & a novel approach

I put off having a child as long as I could. My own mother made it seem like a lifetime sentence, where you’d have a continuous stream of hard work and never have any time to yourself again. Also, in her assessment, I wouldn’t make a very good mother as I was far too impatient. She sure made it sound like fun.

How we live now

Okay, she was partly right but thank heavens mostly wrong, although you might get some agreement from my daughter on

Sunrise in Botswana

Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the assessment of my parenting, depending on when you ask. Nevertheless, my mom was pretty much in tune with our current U.S. culture of child-raising. I know more than one mom with a full time job and more than 200,000 miles on the mommy-mobile. Most parents I see are quite worried about college for the kids, and even more worried about what a top-level admission will mean to their finances. When I see people with infants, we always discuss not only college, but how much tutoring, music lessons, sports activities, and arts training are going to cost. And if the kids are old enough, we’re probably going to talk about a college admissions coach.  In 2009, estimates were that it cost $1.1 million to raise a child through college—and college costs have gone up a lot since then.

It can seem like a rat race from the moment they’re born. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been living in an alternate reality every night from 10:30 pm to midnight or so: I’ve been in Botswana. No not really, and I’m not even sure the actual Botswana is as depicted, but in the No. 1 Ladies Detective agency world, children are quite a different matter. In the 2nd book of the series, Tears of the Giraffe, we can experience an entirely different way of being with and rearing children.

Spoiler alert! Stop here if you don’t want to know details on this book!

An alternative life

A little background: Mma Ramotswe is the heroine and chief detective. Her fiancé is Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, a warm hearted and easily buffaloed owner of a car repair service. He spends significant time doing free work for a friend who runs an orphan farm (which seems to care for many children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, among other reasons). In one very swift meeting with the head of the orphan farm, Mr. Matekoni finds himself going home with two children, one of whom is in a wheelchair.

His thinking is extremely straightforward—these children would benefit by a home, he can give it to them, and Mma Ramotswe will be happy to have them also—because who isn’t delighted by children, any children? So the kids are bundled into his truck, with wheelchair, and off they go. He does consider that maybe he should have talked about it a bit with Mma Ramotswe, but he’s pretty confident she’ll go along.

Are you gasping at this point? Can you imagine this scene in the U.S.? Me neither. Contrary to my expectations, this is not setting the stage for a big blow-up. In fact, Mma Ramotswe does wish he’d talked to her ahead of time, but sees it as further evidence of what a good man her fiancé is. She does mention that some people have too many children—6 is enough, she says—but since they do have extra bedrooms and do make enough money to feed them,  she’s okay with the sudden transformation into parents.

Parenting transformations

I think the way this sudden parenting is handled is what makes it all so different, and indeed a pleasurable experience:

  • Everyone sits down to dinner every night after school and work. Mma Ramotswe cooks dinner nearly every night anyway (with help from the girl, and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni at times.) What’s on the table is what Mma Ramotswe likes (with an eye to pleasing Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni). No special meals, no complaints, and plenty of family togetherness. No extra work.
  • School is pretty simple. They walk, and go to the public school. Private schools are mentioned, but in the context of helping kids with problems. At one point the kids experience some bullying, but it’s dealt with very matter-of-factly by helping the kids (in a family discussion) decide how to respond.
  • Entertainment and recreation are simple and center on the family. After dinner, the kids clean up and study (no driving to endless activities). They spend time with each parent, and when the boy starts acting sullen, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni spends more time with him and takes him to some sporting activities. On weekends, the kids go to visit relatives with one or both parents. Mma Ramotswe remarks how one aunt is extremely long winded, but it’s good for the kids to hear her stories because it teaches them about Botswana and who they are.
  • There’s a huge awareness of the natural world, and one of the favorite recreations is sitting outside listening to sounds, talking with each other, and walking through the garden.
  • When there are behavior problems, the parents are confident that they can be solved by connecting with the kids. Mma Ramotswe also attributes some misbehavior to “kids are like that” and is certain that with time will come wisdom. She has a great ability to laugh things off.
  • Both parents are confident that the kids will find their niche in life. They both value education, and are very impressed by people with college or other advanced training, but there’s no mad rush to channel the kids toward anything specific.
  • Even though Motholeli has a significant handicap, it’s not a cataclysm. She is still regarded as a capable person who can make a contribution, has tasks, and has interests that the family finds ways to involve her participation. No one is ashamed of her, and she’s fully integrated into all activities.

What financial planning lessons do I take from this?

People more than things.  What gives this family pleasure and solid relationships is the emphasis on being together. They have very little interest in acquiring more than is necessary and they are very dedicated to making things last and wringing the last bit of use out of anything. The things they treasure have personal meaning, not monetary value: a photo, a commemorative plate, a teacup, but mainly each other.

Confidence, optimism, and realistic expectations toward life. Without a pre-planned agenda or specific expectations for the children, they are much freer to allow natural talents and preferences to emerge.

Reliance and enjoyment of friends and family. When you keep up with even remote relatives, there are plenty of ways to get help, advice, entry, information, and support when you need it. Mma Ramotswe is also very conscious that she has reciprocal obligations, and hands out time, sometimes money, and effort for her vast network of distant relatives and friends. When, in a later book, an employee asks her to be godmother, she sighs a little knowing that this will require obligations to contribute to school fees, gifts, and all sorts of needs (for the rest of life), but focuses almost immediately on the need of the child and the honor being done to her, and gracefully accepts the offer. She thinks we cannot always choose whose lives will become entangled with our own; these things happen to us, come to us uninvited.

We don’t live in Botswana, but these books are giving me lots of opportunities to think about how to dial down the burners a little bit, to enjoy what we have, and to choose relationships and activities over possessions. Even for a financial planner, it’s not all about money.

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Read more, spend less: financial planning lessons from novels

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (TV series)

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That would be one of my many, many New Year’s resolutions. But I already read tons of professional journals, work-related books, and general non-fiction. Like so many people since November, I need a little happy talk to counteract the general mood. So lately I’ve been popping a series of mystery books instead of OxyContin. I might add that these are all available from my local library as free ebooks, so I haven’t violated the second half of the resolution.

But, I guess everything looks to me like financial planning. If you want to have some fun while getting a very small dose of good financial decision making, I strongly suggest taking a look at the book series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Before I get into the books, let me say that the brief TV series of the same name was delightful, but the books are somewhat a different experience. The financial insights are a little more prominent in the books because, like all good novels, we get to roam around inside the characters’ heads.

I’ve popped 4 of these delightful happiness pills since Christmas, at the rate of about ½ hour invested per night—so you can see this isn’t going to take much time and you’ll be able to sleep nights.

The first book in the series is titled, not surprisingly, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Briefly, the books are set in Botswana, and are highly descriptive of the physical setting and culture. N.B. I have no idea whether it’s an accurate description of the real-world Botswana, but it seems like a near-Eden, albeit with cobras, scorpions, and mambas. (The tone of the thing reminds me a lot of the movie Mathilda—realistic, but it’s indeterminable whether it’s actually real).The protagonist is Mma Ramotswe, an extremely practical and sweet-natured 30-something with a “traditional” build (love it!)

What I am so struck by, looking through the lens of a financial planner, is how absolutely down-to-earth is Mma Ramotswe’s decision making process. To whit, her adored father dies and leaves her—more than 100 cattle. Maybe not the inheritance most of us hope for, but in Botswana cattle appear to be extremely beloved and are the best evidence of wealth.

However, unlike some people I see who seem to view their inheritance as sacred (yes, you CAN sell grandpa’s municipal bonds and stock in what, 30 years ago, was a good company), Mma Ramotswe has an immediate plan to use her inheritance to do what’s right for her, not her father. She views the inheritance as an expression of the love her father had for her, not a specific legacy that must be enshrined. She sells the cattle.

With the proceeds, she buys a nice but modest house (at one point she decides to wear bedroom slippers after stepping on a scorpion in the middle of the night) and set herself up in business—which is something she has thought through pretty carefully when she is faced with needing to be an independent woman outside the traditional role of caring for a family.

What’s perhaps more notable is what she doesn’t do: no extravagant vacation, spending spree of any kind, no dramatic upgrading of her life style. She invests in herself. Mma Ramotswe appears to be quite content with a very modest level of possessions: her prizes are a picture of her father, a commemorative plate of the founder of modern Botswana, a teacup with Queen Elizabeth II’s picture on it. What is so moving is that these possessions actually mean something to her, and she looks at them every day—constructing a home environment with objects that carry meaning for her, not something professionally decorated for the benefit of impressing others. She chooses furnishings that will make her comfortable. In a later book, another character comments on how delightful it is to have a rug underfoot—so soft and grass-like, instead of a concrete or beaten dirt floor. Would that ever occur to any of us?

Mma Ramotswe spends her evenings sitting on her porch, listening to night sounds, and talking to people. Again—no cost at all (except for tea). What would our lives be like if we did this? Would we be better connected? Would we be closer to our families and neighbors? Would we be bored out of our gourds? The relative silence allows her the pleasure of her own thoughts, a sensuous enjoyment of the natural world, and a connection with family that endures.

What I admire here is just how well Mma Ramotswe has decided to use her windfall to secure the (modest) life she wants, set her up for independence, and find contentment in a very frugal lifestyle, salient characteristics I see in people who (even with our more complicated lifestyles) manage to quietly amass a secure financial foundation. And is any life really more complicated than any other, except by our choices? More in subsequent posts about the other books I’ve so far read (all with financial lessons)…

 

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Giving to charity: doing the best you can

By now, your mailboxes (IRL and virtual) are probably crammed with year-end catalogs and heart-rending appeals for donations. But just as with spending, we want to maximize the use of our hard-earned dollars when we make charitable donations.

As I’ve suggested before, it’s worth checking out any potential charity with Guidestar.org and Charity Navigator. These ratings groups aren’t infallible, but they can give you some idea of how well your money will be spent. There are lots of well-known charities whose funds seem to go mainly to publicity and their CEO’s salary. Really, look up a few that come to mind—you’ll be shocked. And just because the charity says they focus on minorities, or women, or autism, or your favorite religious orientation doesn’t mean they’re good stewards. As Harry Truman once said, when anyone prayed too loud in the Amen corner, you’d better go home and lock your smokehouse.

Many of us are considering directing more of our charitable contributions to advocacy organizations this year and going forward.  However desirable and necessary such donations are, they may not be tax-deductible. For example, donations to the American Civil Liberties Union are not tax deductible, although donations to their information and education arm, the ACLU Foundation, are. Another organization that interests me greatly, the National Lawyers Guild (motto: Human Rights Over Property Interests) is also an advocacy organization, and donations are not deductible except to their foundation. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which constitutes its mission as fighting hate through education, is a tax-deductible charity organization. You want to look for the term ” 501 (c) 3″ if you’re looking for the tax deduction.  Of course, if you care passionately about current issues, you may not feel the tax deductibility of your gift is the most important factor, or you can allocate some portion to advocacy and the rest to educational or service delivery organizations.

Most of us have a tendency to give small amounts to any request that crosses our paths. However, I’d encourage you to consider a more planned approach. Giving larger amounts to fewer charities actually helps them: it saves on fundraising, processing, and other administrative costs.  Consider where your priorities lie or where you believe there is the most need: rights advocacy (disability, women’s, ethnic & racial groups); international poverty; animal rescue; anti-violence; gun control; legal change are all areas to consider.  While you’re at it, try not to use a credit card until you determine if the charity will be charged the fee for use by that card company (some don’t charge charities, some do).

As with any money management, there will always be more demand than funds available, so do think about your priorities. Many of these organizations will be particularly embattled or short of funds under the next administration, so need for your thoughtful contributions can only grow.