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Archive for September, 2008

Wall St….Main St…..and Madison Ave.

Friday, September 26th, 2008

As our economic situation worsens, the finger pointing escalates.  Of course we need to hold Wall Street accountable.  And in a previous post, I noted Main Street, much as the inclination is to pity the individual debtors as “poor victims,” is every bit as much in the wrong.  But there’s another major “road” in this that we are ignoring.  Madison Avenue.

Since I wrote that post about people buying more than they could afford, I’ve been chewing on what contributed to that behavior.  One of the big “what’s” is advertising.   In this culture, the only way to avoid the impact of paid persuasion is to drop out and live in a cave in Mongolia.  The effort to sell us something is everywhere.  My TV news has more ads than content.  (I timed them.)  That is probably true of most of what’s on TV.  There are ads on the bus.  Ads when you log onto your computer.   Big billboards on your way to work.   Ads on taxis.   Schools are even starting to sell ad space on their walls as a way to pay for programs lost to budget cuts.

And of course, there are the big, beautiful glossy ads in magazines.

So what?

Well…that’s a lot of pressure toward thinking that you really need–or worse deserve–all those things.  When there’s been too little time spent figuring what really is important, it’s easy to succumb to that pressure, believing that the magic product just touted will solve his/her need to feel good about him/herself.  It doesn’t.  But the money is spent, sometimes when it wasn’t even available.

So let’s add another street to the map of this disaster.   Madison Avenue is in this, too.  We have way too much advertising in this country and far too few means of giving people the chance and the motivation to define their real purpose for being here.  People who live on purpose don’t need all the “stuff.”  People who live on purpose are healthier.  They are kinder and more open to other points of view.  Why aren’t we selling PURPOSE?

It does, of course, come back to Main Street for a solution.  We still have to live within our means–regardless of their level.    We still need to tell those who spend our money “No” when what they want is not within the budget.  We still need to get creative in making ends meet when the money doesn’t go far enough.  But we also need to learn to stop listening to all those damn ads.

If we did, then the value of a PR compaign would go away. Then. to stay afloat, the PR industry would have to provide a real value instead of encouraging irresponsible behavior.  Welcome to Main Street, Madison Avenue!

Did I Help Create This Mess of an Economy?

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

Okay….there are some things I could have done differently–you, too, probably.  I want to blame the credit crisis and the financial sector meltdown on somebody else’s mistakes, but is there anything I could have done differently to help avoid it?  Below is my “examination of conscience” if you will.  (Sorry, I was raised Catholic.  These are familiar words in that world.)

  • Did I watch as someone I care about spent money they didn’t have on something they didn’t need?
  • Did I tell someone who’d just used creative financing to buy a home they could not have otherwise afforded “Good for you!”
  • Did I put stuff on my own credit card that I couldn’t pay for when the statement came due?
  • Did I intentionally invest in funds that were supporting the run-up in housing costs via subprime lending because I wanted to “get in on the action”?

The ones who made a business out of stoking this unconscionable fire must be held accountable in big ways.  But those of us who helped in little ways need to take a step back and rework our sense of responsibility, too.

We can all do better: 

  • Learn how credit really works. (You want to be the one receiving interest not paying it.)
  • Teach your loved ones the same thing…and don’t wait until they are adults.  Hold kids and grandkids accountable for money they borrow.  (I’m heartily in favor of having them execute contracts so they learn about that, too.)
  • Speak up when those you love are making bad choices with their credit.  Let then know it’s not a good idea. With love.  With concern.  With conviction. 

We’ve fostered a culture that’s oblivious to the horrendous consequences of spending more than you have coming in.  It’s time to make lemonade from this debacle by turning that around.

If you can’t pay for it, don’t buy it.

Living in a Scary Economic World

Saturday, September 20th, 2008

What’s happening in the US economy is no longer just the usual unpleasantness of a downturn in the normal economic cycle.  What is happening now is major.  And for those of us who are relying on paying day-to-day expenses from investment income or with pensions from companies now looking at bankruptcy, it is terrifying.  Terror is not a healthy place to live.

Even worse, we are now being required as taxpayers to bail out the people who made the bad decisions that created this mess.  The ones who thought subprime lending was a terrific moneymaker.  The ones who thought loosening the standards for mortgage credit was an intelligent step in a consumer environment that was already overextended.  The ones who blythely told homebuyers eager to move into a dream home well beyond their means “We can get you into this house.”

And yes, the homebuyers who marched blindly down High Rollers Highway believing the real estate agents and mortgage brokers rather than their checkbook balances.   Much as every person who contributed to this mess and made a profit deserves to be flogged, the buyers are not innocent little sheep either.  No one rolled back the requirement that you know what you can afford before you buy a house.  Before you buy anything.

The most frustrating aspect of all this is that we just did it twenty years ago.  How did an entire financial industry forget what we learned then–that it is way too easy to get carried away with selling homes that people cannot afford at prices higher than the homes are worth?  We are smart enough to  put equipment on Mars to look for water but we can’t remember that home prices sometimes go down?  No way can an entire sector of the US economy be that inept.  The fantasy was just too enticing:  this time, prices won’t go down.  Yeah, right.

There’s a lot that went wrong and a lot of people to blame for getting us into this mess.  That doesn’t change the fact that we need to live through it.  How do we do that?

Some of it is a matter of stress management.  Be sure to give yourself a strong and frequent dose of the things that help you be calm.  (Hint: Neither durgs or alcohol are legitimate tools in this quest.)  Walk the dog.  Meditate.  Call a friend who makes you laugh.  Try to keep the stress reduction to dollars spent ratio high.  Forget the day at the spa.  Go watch the sunset instead.

Some of it is basic common sense–like not making any knee-jerk decisions.  Postponing major expenditures when you can is a good idea.  And focus on your health, too.  Good lifestyle choices will make it easier to deal with the stress. but they also make you less likely to need expensive medical procedures.

But just being a spectator about having to pay for this mess as a taxpayer will make your blood boil.  Enduring that unfairness silently is not a good idea.  We need to do something.  And that something is to let “the government”–your senators and congressmen, the President, and whoever you can find an e-mail address for–know just how wrong and unfair this is.  And that we expect a far more equitable and effective solution this time.  The ones who made the mess need to suffer significant negative consequences from it. REALLY significant.

Don’t tell me there’s no legal means to do that.  If the government can justify pawing through my carry-on at the airport, they can find a way to get the money these jerks made during the boom into the Treasury to offset the mess they handed off to us to clean up.  This is not spitefulness.  This is an important piece of getting it right.

People who don’t have to deal with the consequences of their behavior don’t learn from their mistakes.  They do the same stupid things again and again. Then they are the first ones in line when things go wrong because it was so easy to dump the problem in someone else’s lap the last time.

Yes, the government needs to step in.  Yes, putting the taxpayers on the hook to get things stablized is probably unavoidable.  But we can’t let them stop there.  Make some noise.   This is not about an act of nature and people unintentionally in harm’s way.  This is about greed and bad business decisions made by people with annual incomes in the millions.

There is nothing in The Constitution about bailing out people who make bad decisions.  This is a national emergency and warrants those kinds of powers and actions.  That doesn’t mean giving the ones who created it a free pass.  Tell your legislators what you think.  Tell them more than once.  Enough is enough.

What Color Is Your Retirement Attitude?

Friday, September 12th, 2008

There are two ways to look at retirement—gray and silver.

So much of what we assume about this stage of life comes from what happened to Mom and Dad or Grandpa. They retired and traveled. They retired and took up woodworking…or quilting….or golf. They retired and took a backseat to what was going on in the rest of the world. They retired and pretty much disappeared. Gray isn’t very noticeable. Or very interesting. Eventually, they were gone but usually long after they’d been forgotten by the culture.

Is this approach unavoidable? Is it what’s going on with people who retire now?

Only if they choose it. There are a lot more options than moving to Tucson or playing bridge five days a week.

The traditional version of retirement is built on the concept of “the Golden Years” which was given to us as a culture by Del Webb in 1960 as part of the inaugural marketing effort for the first Sun City, a retirement community outside of Phoenix, Arizona. It was a way to put a positive spin on a very negative situation. At that time, American workers were required to retire at a certain age and once they did, society pretty much forgot them. Webb and others turned this invisibility into the idea that retirement was time to play—that retirees have earned the chance to have fun all day every day. A life of 100% leisure.

To those still working, this sounds like Nirvana, but as a lifestyle, it can be grim. Not even children play all day every day. Not having a purpose or a way to contribute creates a vast array of health problems–both mental and physical–for individuals and robs society of their talents and skill.

But this mindset continues because many believe:
• People old enough to retire are frail–in poor health, with no stamina, and physically unable to do much of what younger people can.

• They are short-term members of society; they will either die or enter a nursing home (and then die) in a few years or even months.

• They’re inept–“Out of it” the vast majority of the time, with no idea what’s going on in the world and no ability to do much about it anyway.

• They’re irrelevant or worse, a burden–nothing they do has impact beyond their own lives. Many of them can’t even take care of them selves.

This is the GRAY version of retired life. Lifeless, fading, dull. Also WRONG.

NONE of this is mandatory, necessary, or wise. Most of it is just plain false. The truth about people old enough to retire is much less limiting. But to get to where we plan using a better model, we have to embrace a new set of assumptions:

• At this age, we are still robust . The vast majority who elect to retire are at the top of their game. Physically, they are in better shape than their parents were even at ten years younger.

• We are stepping into a long-term stage of life. Those now retiring are likely to be around at least another fifteen years and more likely twenty-five to thirty. Those who retire at 55 could easily spend more time retired than they did in the workforce.

• We are a significant segment of the population. In numbers. In buying power. And if we take the time to plan for it, in the roles we take on and the challenges we step up to for our families, communities, and society as a whole.

• We are energized. The chance to do things we believe in with the flexibility to accommodate all the other things we value is revitalizing. This age group has the potential to recharge both ourselves and our communities—and whatever else we decide to take on. We can have “the good life” and “do good” at the same time. We are in a position to give but also to take the time to enjoy what life has to offer.

This version of retirement is SILVER—sparkling and full of energy. Retirement, using this set of assumptions, is the time of life when we really can have it all.

Why settle for gray when silver is just a matter of mindset? What color attitude are you going to choose?


“The Perfect Job”

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Day before yesterday I met the guy with the perfect job.  He found it after he retired.  He drives a sand rail.

For those of you not blessed with sand dunes in your local vicinity, a sand rail is specialized lightweight vehicle that skims the surface of a sand dune–similar to but more sophisticated than a dune buggy.  It’s an open vehicle made largely out of pipe.  Typically they have more power than rental ATV’s you can ride on your own.  The only way we could get on one when we were looking for this kind of adventure was to “book a tour.”  Bob–the guy with the perfect job–was our driver.  He had a great set-up for himself that made for a great experience for us.

Bob retired as a lineman and climber for the local power company a few years ago.  A few months later, he was approached while waiting in line at the grocery store–by a stranger!  He’d been driving the Oregon Dunes since he was nine and had been active in the local club most of his life.  Dune buggies are a part of who Bob is.  He drives them WELL.  Plus, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area had been his playground for a long time.  He knows where he is in all that white sand.  The stranger had learned all this because he had asked around in the community when he bought the business.  Bob had been involved for so long that “everyone” knew how good he was at driving.

So why am I writing about Bob?  Well, he’s living the best fantasy of all–having someone pay you to do what you love.  He gets to drive a sand rail all day with someone else covering the cost of the vehicle, fuel, and insurance and worrying about the maintenance.  And he gets a paycheck for doing it.  Sweet.

But the guy who offered him the job was a big winner, too.  He has an employee experienced enough to know to check the oil before he heads for the dunes.  (We made a detour to the shop area to add a quart before we headed out.)  He has a guy whose enthusiasm makes whoever gets in the rail more ready to have a great time.  And he also has a guy who makes the ride a whole lot more fun simply because he projects an easy confidence–because of all that experience.

Do you think I would have been able to sit calmly–worried only about laughing with my mouth shut (to avoid a mouthful of sand)–as we careened around steep massive dunes–if a seventeen-year old had been driving?  No way.  I would have been frantic the whole time, waiting for the kid  to turn the thing upside down doing something unintentionally reckless.  Bob was a different story.  I relaxed enough to enjoy a very wild ride because it was quite clear he knew what he was doing.  (He’d survived doing it for a long time!)  Too often the benefit of experience gets lost in the background.  Bob’s driving and my resulting good time made it wonderfully vivid.

So what’s the point of all this?  There are two things to learn from Bob in terms of how the rest of us do retirement.

  • Experience has value.  Be confident enough of what you know to value yours when you think of what you might want to do next.  It does make a difference, but, unlike Bob,  you may have to be the one to point out why to the person you want to let you use it.
  • The better you are at knowing what you like and honoring that in how you live all along, the easier it’s going to be to find your own”perfect job” once you retire.  People know Bob is good with dune buggies.  Those people passed the word to a stranger when he was looking for exactly what Bob is good at.  That is networking at its easiest.

And let’s be very clear about one last thing.  This WAS a wild ride.  A great adventure that I would have missed entirely if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have someone like Bob driving.  So I was a winner here, too.

We are good at so many things when we get this far in life.  Doing the ones you really like to do makes for a much more satisfying retirement.  “Perfect job” stories might become delightfully common as more of us seize opportunities to do what we love for someone who needs exactly that done.  Thanks for the great example, Bob!

How to Use the Economic Downturn to Improve Your Retirement — Part 10, Confirm What’s Important

Monday, September 1st, 2008

Having to endure something awful usually has a least one positive outcome–you get honest with yourself about what’s really important. An economic downturn doesn’t have the same heft as a hurricane for serving as a psychological two-by-four, but it still gives you pause. As the last piece of this series, I offer you the best of what a downturn can give you–the chance to reflect on what you really need in your life–and what you don’t.

When times are good and life is humming along, we flow with it. The focus of any given moment is on what’s happening or needs to be happening, on what we have planned. But when things start to slow down–or stop–because what you thought was going to happen can’t, the first thing to look at is whether you really needed to have it happen in the first place.

Some of us are learning what it’s like to not be working because of this downturn. So what do you miss? The paycheck? That seems like a no-brainer, but maybe not. There are two ways to deal with a sharp reduction in income. Find a way to replace it or find a way to live on significantly less. Each has its benefits. Only you know which is the more authentic strategy for you.

Some of us might need to assess plans we made for fun, either as vacation or as a retirement lifestyle. How authentic were those plans in the first place? More critically, have you grown beyond them in what you’ve learned about yourself since you made them? Are you assuming you have to follow through on them because you’ve told other people? How important is that in the grand scheme of your life?

The tool that’s absolutely essential to doing a good job of this is understanding what you value. When a downturn–or something more dramatic, like a heart attack–gives you the chance to reconsider the direction of your life, your values form the bedrock from which a solid stand is possible.

So what do you believe? What’s important to YOU?

This isn’t about getting a certain kind of car or even about getting a certain candidate elected. Go beyond the immediate in how you look at this. Also go beyond what’s fashionable. (Right now, that’s “going green.” A laudable value and worth including, but not the sum total of what makes you unique as a human.)

The consequences of living from your values are highly beneficial. Knowing what’s important to you makes it easier to find work that suits you. (Work is not always for pay. We may be talking about a volunteer effort or creative endeavor with this.) Knowing your values helps you avoid being directed by the mass media. (Just because cute little dogs are currently the rage doesn’t mean you need one.) Knowing your values is the first step to acting on them. And acting on them is what makes life meaningful.

In retirement, knowing your values is critical. Values provide direction and when you leave work, the only direction that’s defined is “out.” Once you’re past the door, it’s up to you to figure out what to do with your time, your energy, and your money. Perhaps you’ll want to sit around for a while or take some time to clean the garage and redecorate the living room. You can do that. In fact they have a name for it now–a “transitional sabbatical.” But eventually, you will need something to do that makes one day different from the next. Something that makes you feel connected and relevant. That something will be a direct reflection of your values.

So what is important to you? How do you even start to figure that out? Ask yourself these questions and be patient with the silence that comes at first. Sit without an answer for a few minutes–or days or weeks.

  • What you would attend to if you had just one week to live?
  • Who would you talk to if you could make just one phone call before life ended?
  • How many things are you doing now because they were someone else’s idea of important? What would happen if you stopped doing them? Is having that not happen important to you?
  • If you had to do what you plan to do next for the rest of your life, what would it be?

It’s important to know what’s important. It’s also hard to do when life is moving forward at full speed. Use the slow down to be sure you have the right stuff at the middle of your life. It’s the best benefit of all in living through a sluggish economy.