Ukulele

What I learned at Ukulele Camp that applies to finances

I’m pretty die-hard about DIYing everything I can. Yes, I know there’s a lot of argument that you should pay someone to do things while you’re out earning more per hour at something else, but I don’t buy it entirely. First of all, most of us spend plenty of time scrolling Facebook, binge-watching Netflix, and staring into the refrigerator. None of that is billable time.

There are a lot of projects that just require brute force and minimum skills—I’ll paint my bedroom over a weekend before I pay someone $800 to do it. However, I draw the line at danger (painting the trim on my second floor from a loooong ladder), back-breaking difficulty or heavy hauling (digging post holes and installing a fence), or things that I’m not confident about learning from YouTube (installing a new kitchen faucet and drain).

I’ve had quite a few music lessons over the past, um, decades, so I have been pretty convinced that I could teach myself to play ukulele and guitar from the huge number of books, YouTubes, and online courses available. And, they’ve worked pretty well. Feeling somewhat confident, I went to a few jam sessions at the Old Town School, where I discovered I had miles to go before I cheep. I definitely needed some real-time instruction.

This weekend we trucked up to Midwest Uke Camp in Olivet, Michigan. I came home, not only reinvigorated about playing, but about the place of music in life in general—playing, performing, singing, dancing. With all the grinding away, I had lost sight of the pure joy of it all. And since November, 2016, I think I’ve lost sight of some of the joy available in life. As so many blues masters knew, no one can take music away from you.

But, like everything else I do, I did see some parallels between the very delightful Uke Camp experience and our financial life:

  • When there are a lot of choices, you can’t swoop up everything.

For some time slots, there were 3 or 4 classes I wanted to take. I tried to find out who was a good teacher (all of them!) or offered something particularly appealing. No matter how much you wish, you can’t take more than one—and you probably can’t afford to hook on to every good investment. Go with what you can, given what time and knowledge you have available.

  • It’s not possible to make the optimum choice every time.

There was one class where, maybe, I could have chosen better. The teacher’s style just wasn’t right for me, although his music, omg… But that doesn’t ruin the whole selection, nor the other seven or eight choices I made. Similarly, for every given number of choices (investments) you make, some will not turn out as well as you expect. And some will perform far better—who knew I loved Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz? You have to look at the total experience (performance), incorporate what you learned, and try to do better next time, where you will make mistakes again. Improvement is not perfectly linear, but it should lurch in the right direction.

  • In person makes a difference.

I adore self-study. I can make all kinds of mistakes and make them LOUD, and no one will hear me, except for my dog. When she sees me grab the uke, she immediately asks to go out.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be gained from the personal interaction with a good teacher. They can correct subtle mistakes in real time, come up with a trick that solves your individual problem, and there’s the serendipitous addition of techniques and information they just happen to think of that’s not in their books or videos. A good teacher always knows more than they’re putting in print. That’s the chief benefit—the individualization. Sure, you can learn a lot about playing (and financial planning) from a pre-fab program, but at some point, you need it to apply to you, particularly. I think online lessons, websites, asset allocation programs, and all that jazz are great, but everyone has some unique challenges. In fact, if you come to the professional already having a good background, you can probably get more benefit from the one-on-one.

The interaction with other people can often give you new insights and ease your mind about how you compare. It’s oddly comforting to see other people struggling or making and recovering from mistakes. I’d love to see more opportunity for people to be part of investment clubs.

  • Seize the opportunities when offered

The best teachers may not be back. The event probably will not go on forever. It can be hard to find fiduciary, fee-only advice. The crowd was mainly older than 50 and so many said they wished they’d done it, younger. I hear it all the time about financial planning, too. Don’t put it off—neither playing an instrument nor making a financial plan are as difficult as they seem in your imagination.

Person in hammock

Financial smarts: maximizing weekends

I’m all about getting the maximum juice from the financial lemon. I really believe you can get far more pleasure out of your dollars with a little forethought, and lead a much richer life with less money. But then again, I’m not the kind of person who would ever buy pre-boiled, peeled eggs. How is that even a thing? Except for elderly or disabled people who need things made as easy as possible, and that is most definitely not who they’re marketing to.

Recently,  Lifehacker’s Nick Douglas had an excellent article on maximizing your holiday weekend, and that’s really in my wheelhouse. I think much of it could apply to any weekend. Having been a horrible student of math in childhood, and dreading every Sunday night with its attendant un-done math homework, it’s been really hard to get over the rumination and fear at the end of the weekend. And even my daughter, who never even went to school, gets depressed on Sunday evenings. I guess we’ve all had enough terrible bosses to develop that dread of Monday morning. If nothing else, a lot of us feel that the days we so anticipated on Friday afternoon feel wasted by 8 pm Sunday.

I’d like to stress some of Lifehacker’s points, and add on a little of my own thinking.

  1. Do something to celebrate Friday night. Lifehacker regularly runs “three ingredient drinks” so if you need an idea to try something new, I can recommend the maraschino martini from last week. Friday night is the only night we have mixed drinks, so it’s special. Stop for a beer, invite friends over, go out to eat, whatever. I favor watching the expenses on this one, and not cultivating practices that result in a hangover Saturday morning or the rest of the plan falls apart.
  1. Get up on Saturday and Sunday by 8 am. Douglas makes the excellent point that this probably allows you to sleep later than in the rest of the week, but that you haven’t then slept so late that you feel the morning is wasted.
  1. I recommend you set aside half an hour to an hour before noon on Saturday to clean or repair something. This should be something doable—not requiring a run to Home Depot—so that you can feel pride that you’ve actually accomplished something. Sort a drawer, re-pot a plant, sweep the kitchen, vacuum the car. Bonus points if it’s something you’ve been putting off. Even if you get nothing else done, I promise you’ll feel better about yourself. In fact, keep a running list of achievements. If you note it in  your planner you can use it to reinforce yourself that you have indeed accomplished something.
  1. Make at least one effort to get out of yourself. Go out for coffee and be extra nice to the people surrounding you. Chat up the checker at the grocery store. Call your mom. Just do something to define yourself as a nice, social human being.
  1. This one is critical: plan something special for Sunday late afternoon/evening. You need something to look forward to, not dread. This has to be something you’re really looking forward to, not just watching the best PBS programs of the week. Go to a movie, schedule a mani/pedi (what we did last weekend), explore an inexpensive ethnic restaurant (again, bonus if you go with a group), go over to a friend’s or invite them over—and don’t sit around commiserating: remember board games?
  1. Spend some time with your pets. When was the last time you spent some focused time playing with your cat? Taken your dog on the walk she really wants? We’re always excited to get the kitten or puppy, but then they tend to become part of the furniture. Their joy can enhance your joy.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Do you have any ideas or activities that take away Sunday night dread? Do share!