Archive for Cash flow & Spending

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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The Affordable Care Act and an alternate future

I’m one of those people who had a policy I liked, and I’ve been able to keep it. Sounds great? Not so fast. Look how lack of regulation has affected the premiums I pay per month:

Year Beginning of year End of year (September increase)
2011 $360.87
2012 $405.32 $437.77
2013 $507.67 $559.99
2014 $588.72 $641.04
2015 $845.35
2016 $934.50 $1,180.95
2017 (notified of increase) $1,669.87

 

I cover my daughter and myself, with a $3,500 per year family deductible, a 100% coverage (no co-pay) after the deductible is met, and the plan is Health Savings Account compliant. Nothing being offered to me via HealthCare.gov is even close—all have co-pays and out of pocket maximums that would double my paid out amount because my daughter has a chronic illness where medications and doctor visits total more than $1,000 per month. No matter the plan, we’ll meet the deductible and out of pocket maximums every year.  None of the ACA plans include the three doctors nor the hospital we most frequently use, and the “best” of them equal or exceed our highest monthly cost.

Yes, it’s dismal. I was and remain a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, because so many friends, family, and clients couldn’t have gotten insurance except in a high risk (and high cost) pool before the ACA, due to pre-existing conditions. In fact, I’ve heard more than one story about people staying legally separated but not divorced, so that a spouse could continue health coverage pre-ACA. But without universal participation in health coverage, rates are exploding. Why?

  • Many more sick people are now getting health issues addressed. This has been a bonanza for hospitals, who can now actually get paid, but a drag on insurance companies who now have to cover these people and payments
  • If you have a non-ACA policy that you’ve had for a long time, you’re aging, and you’re likely keeping it because it covers more than the ACA policies, ergo you’re costing the company more
  • There are no breaks on costs—it’s a “free” market after all.
  • Many doctors are exiting acceptance of ACA insurance. These are doctors who want to be able to bill at an even higher rate, and do. Many are choosing to be completely out-of-network, which means the consumer will bear all the higher costs, making the insurance supplementary rather than full coverage.

 

Actually, I think my premiums are a pretty good representation of what we’ll see if we lose the ACA rather than improve it—after all, these premiums are from the unregulated segment of the market. We’re in a horrible mess, particularly in Illinois. I laugh when I hear that vouchers are the solution. My prediction is that this will drive consumer costs up even further, because the system will become  bill +voucher add on. It’s like selling a house by owner to save the commission—the seller think he’s saving the commission, but the buyer also is expecting a lower price because the seller is “saving the commission”. In the end, nobody saves, but everyone gets less service.

I see the terrible effect of these stratospheric increases. My clients who are self-employed, or run small businesses, professional services, or consultancies are being priced not only out of the market but out of running their own businesses by these astounding increases. If we want a climate of business start up, expansion, or new ventures, something has to be done to contain the nuclear explosions. The inability to get individual health coverage for business start ups was one of the benefits the ACA was supposed to provide, but the current toxic effect of sky high premiums is instead crushing those same entrepreneurs.

We planners struggle to estimate foreseeable costs for retirees, entrepreneurs, and early retirees, but I don’t think anyone in 2011 was contemplating a 462% increase in premiums (which is what mine have increased). Just to put that payment in perspective, my 2017 monthly payment for health insurance would support a mortgage of about $350,000. I’m buying a house with no equity to show, and no term end in sight.

From my point of view, the only way to rein in costs and get a rational health care system is a single payer system, sometimes known as Medicare-for-all. Unfortunately, it looks like the current administration and Congress is hell bent on taking us in the other direction—solving the problem by forcing people off health care, or providing poorer and fewer services, rather than focusing on a way to provide better, more efficient care. Unless you can Pay. A. Lot.  Why can every other Western democracy solve this, but not the U.S.?