Money Matters

Earlier this month, an article came out in The Atlantic called “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans.” The author, Neal Gabler, who is known for writing big biographies on people like Barbra Streisand and Walt Disney, decided for the first time to write about himself and about his secret, shameful struggle with money.  The article practically went viral because so many Americans could relate to working hard and yet still feel trapped by money.  In the article, Mr. Gabler cites a study showing that 47% of Americans who were interviewed confessed to not being able to come up with $400 quickly in an emergency.  He was shocked by that until he realized that he was, in fact, one of those people.

Mr. Gabler goes on to describe how in spite of his making a name for himself as a writer and a television personality, he made a series of bad financial decisions, such as cashing out his meager 401K  to pay for his daughter’s wedding, that have now left him and his wife broke, so broke that they had to borrow money from his adult children recently for heating oil. So many people responded to the article that The Atlantic set up a space for people to write their stories of financial devastation, in addition to the usual online space for comments.  Hundreds and hundreds of people responded, with stories of being left penniless from a divorce or a death in the family, or from bad financial decisions.

I do believe on a basic spiritual level that “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Many people are bankrupted by having an illness in the family, even with health insurance, which most civilized countries would never imagine letting their citizens endure.  For those people, we need a bigger safety net.  But what about the many Americans who don’t make a lot of money, but deserve an iPod or $30,000 car because they work hard?  We no longer think we need to have the cash to buy a car.  Many Americans finance cars for years and years; 7 years of financing is becoming more common.  We don’t want to say no to ourselves or to our kids.  I just heard of a family, for instance, whose son decided that college wasn’t for him, so the parents gave the 19 year-old son $200,000 that they had saved for college to do what he wanted.  He decided to go into day trading and lost the money practically overnight.

In Neal Gabler’s case, his wife made more money and had a more stable job, but decided to quit and stay home with their kids, even though they couldn’t afford it.  Both daughters went to private schools they couldn’t afford.  The parents gave the daughters what they wanted so that the girls could keep up with their friends in terms of status.  I have to say that I applaud Mr. Gabler’s candor, because it took a lot of courage to be so honest, and he obviously echoes what a lot of people are experiencing.  It’s easy to back yourself into a corner with easy credit and lots of societal pressure to keep up appearances.

And yet, to claim your world stage, it’s so important to be honest about what is going on in your financial life, to know what your net worth is (what you own minus what you owe), to identify any debt you have, and to come up with a written budget so that you can plan to pay off debt and save. One of the best financial advisors I know of is Dave Ramsey.  He has a free budgeting site called Every Dollar which is enormously helpful and very user- friendly.  Remember the antidote to shame (from finances or anything, for that matter) is recognizing the problem and then making a change.  Now is the time to deal with your money matters and to remember that money really does matter.

 

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Be Kind

Henry James once wrote, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” And yet, in this vitriol-filled election year, with every American seemingly pitted against another, it’s hard to see much kindness. The rhetoric seems to be about winners vs. losers, blacks vs. whites, Muslims vs. Christians.  Everyone seems angry that someone else is getting away with something, that rich people are supporting poor people or that immigrants are taking advantage of the system.  Women are perceived as a problem too.  People are angry and are casting the blame on everyone around them.  There seems to be no space for acceptance or understanding.

When my kids were in preschool, they learned to get along and they learned the phrase, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” While this applied to popsicle flavors in their case, it can also apply to things in our lives that we may not like but can’t easily fix, whether it’s an intractable health condition, or the way people perceive our race or culture.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a right to fight for what we believe in; of course we do.  But so often we confuse what we can change with what we have to accept as our reality. And yet we don’t.  We rail against it, the unfairness of it all. One of the best things I learned a long time ago is that life is not fair. The sooner we stop fighting against this, the better.

What politics shows us is the fact that many of feel helpless as we battle tough things in our lives.  My 40 year old neighbor is dying of breast cancer just a few doors down and will leave a 6 and 4 year old who most likely won’t remember her, and there’s nothing anyone can do.  One of my childhood friends lost her husband to brain cancer at 40 leaving behind young kids.  Two of my parents’ good friends are battling Alzheimers.  I have a friend whose marriage is crumbling and has no money in her name, and another who is an addict who battles everyday to stay sober. There’s a famous, anonymous quote that says, “Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I remind myself of that often when traffic feels hostile or someone is being difficult.

The problem with the self-help movement is that it makes people feel that if they just try hard enough, they can fix anything in their lives.  Even though I’m a life coach, I don’t fall into the trap that some coaches do that all people can fix their lives.  Sometimes they can’t or they can’t on the timetable or in the way they would like.  Yet we compare our broken insides to others’ shiny outsides and wonder why we fall short.  We just see the sanitized Christmas card version or the happy Facebook post.  We don’t hear the real story.

So this week, remember to be kind to yourself for whatever battle you’re fighting, and be kind to your neighbor who is struggling as well.  Imagine how different this political year would feel if we listened to each other and were kind?

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Find Your Light

Recently I heard a leading expert speak on the topics of teenage girls.  She spoke about the culture of meanness and how girls use micro-aggression so that they can be hostile while appearing to be nice.  She talked about how girls don’t stand up for themselves and don’t take themselves seriously, how they apologize and defer to others.  The speech was compelling, but what was most interesting to me was how the speaker contradicted what she was saying by how she was presenting it.  We sat as an audience in risers above a black box stage, where the speaker had positioned herself literally off-stage, next to the piano shoved in the corner, right next to the exit sign.  I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day analyzing this.  The speaker tried to take up as little space as possible, as though she might be in the way of the real speaker who was going to come on as soon as she was done bothering us, when in fact she was the only speaker.  I also noticed that she had no idea where her light was. Much of the stage was well-lit, but of course the wings were not.

As a performer with lots of experience on stage, one of the first things I ever learned was to 1) claim my stage (in other words, allow myself to take up space on the stage) and 2) to find my light and place myself in it so that I could be seen.  This renowned speaker did neither of these things.  And the strangest thing was that the mostly female audience didn’t even seem to notice.

The speaker not only couldn’t be seen, but her powerpoint has so many light colored fonts, that much of what she presented couldn’t be read either.  Not only was she not seen, but she didn’t seem to see us either, in the sense of doing her homework and understanding her audience before she spoke.  Many of her jokes were directed to Jewish people, references the fact that our town is probably 30% Jewish.  But the only 70% of us in the audience were left… well, in the dark.  And she apologized for her presentation, that she didn’t have a great ending, that she couldn’t come up with an example for something, that she ran over time.  I was surprised that she didn’t apologize for taking up space in the wings.

The point of this is not to bash this speaker, who made some great points and was well-received.  But, if a well-regarded national speaker shows up like this, chance are that many of us show up similarly in our lives.  How many of us apologize, or metaphorically speak from the wings, as though we’re not really meant to be on stage?  How many of take the time to understand our audience, whether it’s a room full of colleagues or our own child?  The fact is what we say matters, but how we say it matters even more.  You can make the best tasting cereal in the world, but if the package looks like garbage (real or metaphorical), people aren’t going to buy it.  If you have a great message, but we can’t see you and don’t feel that you see us, how powerful is it going to be?

To claim your world stage, remember:  1) find your light 2) make sure you’re onstage and not backstage and 3) don’t apologize and 4) know your audience.  Remember the world is waiting for you.  It’s up to you to claim your place.

 

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The Best Gift

As Mother’s Day approaches, I always feel some disdain toward the Hallmark aspect of the day, with the overpriced brunches and the uncomfortable corsages.  Shouldn’t mothers be celebrated more than once a year at a fancy brunch?  Mothers need to be praised more regularly and more boldly, perhaps with banners proclaiming what we really want to hear, like “You go girl!  You rock!”  I can hear my husband and kids snickering, since that’s pretty unlikely.  And yet, we moms in the day-to-day trenches of mothering could really use that.

Instead, we beat ourselves up for our missteps and imperfections and judge other mothers mercilessly, competing with them over whose child is more outstanding.  Is it any wonder that many of us are exhausted trying to keep up? We feel anxious that we can never be good enough, no matter what we do.  But what would happen if we cut ourselves and others some slack? I notice how often mothers are complimented with, “You’re such a great mom.”  What does that really mean?  I’m a good mom in some areas, like teaching kindness and manners, but in other areas, like baking with my kids or volunteering 24/7, frankly I’d rather take a nap.  Am I like the mom in my neighborhood who once was up all night delivering babies as an OB/GYN, got almost no sleep, but still emerged the next morning perfectly coiffed with homemade goodies for the second grade class? Um, no.  I hadn’t been delivering babies all night– just wrestling my kids into bed the night before, and the baked items I brought in looked a bit lopsided, even though they tasted good.

Last night, the other mom in our car pool just simply forgot to pick up our daughters.  She was busy and distracted and her cell phone died and she just forgot.  Our daughters ended up having to wait around for an hour before they could find anyone with a phone, since the dance academy doesn’t have one and the teacher and other students had left their phones at home.  The girls were bored and slightly anxious, but they figured it out.  But the mom was beside herself once she realized she had forgotten and apologized profusely, saying, “It will never happen again.”  I said to her, “Stop being so hard on yourself. You don’t know if it’s going to happen again.  It might happen with you or with me and it’s not a big deal.  Think of all the times we did the car pool right this year.”  The mom seemed so surprised by my response and it then it struck me.  We are all so hard on each other that very few of us are offering grace, which is what we need.

So here’s to the moms all over the world– whatever color or religion or country or culture– we are all deserving not only of acknowledgment for all that we do, but grace as well.  That is the best Mother’s Day gift of all.

Here is my favorite poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese.”

 

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You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.