Last Friday I shared my reaction to a young man. In my opinion, his case was a clear example of when college is a waste of time and money. He didn’t really need to go to college but did so anyway because it was fun. I became agitated because he had taken his education (and the expensive financial commitment his parents made) for granted. Lots of readers were nonplussed by my post. They thought I was too harsh on the kid.
Your comments got me thinking about where all my “energy” around this young man was coming from and I realized (thanks to Dana’s comment especially) that I allowed my personal “story” to color my reaction to Andy. I have to own that. Everyone is impacted by the experiences they had growing up and I guess I’m no different.
It occurred to me that it was time to talk a little more about my “story,” how my parents handled money and how that influenced me too. They “wasted” no time creating a financial plan, and when they passed away, our family was completely destroyed. Clearly that has a lot to do with what I write about and how I write it. It also might have a thing or two to do with the person I am.
Before we get started, I have to tell you that this post is longer than usual. I apologize for that and I hope you find it worthwhile. If you’ve read my story, you already know most of the “facts” behind this post.
My mother died when I was 15 and my father was killed in an airplane crash two years later.
I must add that my father worked very hard, but he was a speculator.
He invested all he had (and even money we didn’t have) in crazy land deals that didn’t work out. Not the best investments to say the least. As a result, he lost it all. We were evicted from a very expensive home, and we subsequently moved into a small dingy apartment. He couldn’t even consider buying a condo; we were that broke. Whereas I grew up in a middle-income family, we became a low-income family overnight. I often used the money I earned as a teenager to pay bills to keep the lights on and water running.
After my father’s accident, my siblings and I bounced around to different people’s homes. I was homeless in the sense that I really didn’t have a home to call my own. I never slept under a highway overpass because I was very lucky. Just the same, it was a very weird feeling not to have a place to call home.
Ultimately, I went to college, got a degree in accounting, learned how to become a financial planner and have been working in the investment world ever since. I now have a dream family, wonderful business and beautiful home. I’m not rich…but I feel complete and financially secure. That’s wealth if you ask me.
I consider myself exceptionally blessed for a variety of reasons. I’d like to explain the core forces that helped me survive and thrive.
1. I used the resources that were available to me.
I contacted Social Security and the Veteran’s Administration when my folks died. (My dad applied for Social Security spousal benefits but didn’t qualify.) I learned that I could qualify for benefits from both agencies if I went to college. They told me that the payments would last until I reached age 22. Once I learned that, I came to the following three conclusions:
a. I better go to college.
b. I better finish college by age 22.
c. I better learn something that would help me get a job as soon as I graduated.
Looking back, I didn’t use all the resources available. I didn’t even know about financial aid at the time. I probably could have qualified, but I didn’t apply for it.
I inherited a little money, invested it and received interest on the bonds I bought at the suggestion of a stockbroker. I figured that together with the Social Security and VA benefits, I’d have enough. It totaled around $220 a month. (I’m amazed that I remember that figure after all this time, and I’m also amazed that $220 was enough to live on and pay for college in those days. I guess that just shows how old I really am!)
2. I was very lucky.
First, I was lucky because I grew up in a middle-class environment. No gangs or violence. I went to decent schools with decent kids. Lots of other people grow up in far worse conditions. My father “encouraged” me to work since I was 13 years old with weekend jobs. I knew how to work and I knew the value of money. I grew up with the understanding that I should and could take care of myself and that nobody “owed” me anything.
Second, I was lucky because I was taken in by a family who became my family. All the kids became my brother and sisters. The older kids all went to UCLA, and even though I didn’t, I got the message that college was a good thing for me to do. I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I wanted to study but I knew I needed to learn a trade that would help me find work.
3. I was very focused.
I had no illusions. I knew that I had one chance to make something of myself and I could not waste it. I studied night and day in order to make sure I’d graduate in four years. I also worked hard in school because I wanted to be an attractive job applicant.
Focus and drive really served me well, and it didn’t stop when I graduated from school. When I started my business I would show up around 6 AM and usually go home no earlier than 8 PM. To tell the truth, it hasn’t changed much since then. I’m still a workaholic without a doubt.
4. When I hit a dead end, I found a different path.
The first job I had after graduating college was terrible. I was on the accounting staff of a major aeronautics company. I hated my life and my job. I left after nine months and decided I’d never work for a big company again. I didn’t know have any entrepreneur ideas at the time or know what self-employment was at the time, but I understood that I was young and had nothing to lose by taking a chance. I looked for small ponds where I could be a big fish.
5. I looked for mentors and took direction.
I was smart enough to know that I didn’t know squat.
I sure didn’t know how to succeed, and failure was not an option…mainly because I had nowhere to go.
I had to learn business survival skills and quickly. I found people who were willing to give me a job, work closely with me and train me. I carefully watched what they did and how they did it. I mimicked what worked and interrogated my mentors continually.
6. I took advantage of some opportunities and stayed away from those that didn’t fit.
I missed some business opportunities because I was afraid of making a mistake. I still carried a great deal of financial fear. While that fear cost me, on balance it served me well.
There were opportunities that I did take advantage of that worked out great (starting my business). And shying away from others were also good moves. I say that because those were not consistent with the person I am or the clients I serve. I understood that it’s not just about making the most money possible. I remained conscious of the risk side of the equation. That has helped me in my life and business tremendously.
7. I was very conscious of my spending.
Overspending for me was not possible – I didn’t have any money to overspend with. I didn’t even have a credit card until I was 25. The idea of spending money I didn’t have never occurred to me.
I’ve always thought that it’s dishonest to spend money that I don’t have and don’t have a way to pay back. I have always lived well within my means.
I have always understood that the very basis of financial security rests on appropriate spending.
8. I worked (and work) hard.
Excuses weren’t going to pay my bills, so I had to work hard. I learned that if I took care of clients in a way that other people didn’t, my business would thrive. It worked.
I am an extremely lucky man.
Did I grow up in an Ozzie and Harriet household? No. Neither did you or your children.
Sure there were very tough, frightening times. But it wasn’t Treblinka. Lots of people had and have it much worse than I did. Over the last 25 years I’ve met many people who have stories that make mine look like a day at Disneyland.
What’s remarkable about my story is that it is not remarkable.
Lots of folks have had to deal with much more severe handicaps and have done significantly better than I have.
I was simply given an opportunity to learn, and the only reason I did learn is because I had to.
My experience tells me that adversity really is a great tool. I’m not asking you to parachute your kids into Mogadishu on their 18th birthday. But I do believe we act at our highest level as parents when we let our kids grapple with life on life’s terms – whatever the consequence.
My core belief is that you can explain these 8 ideas to somebody until you are blue in the face. If they aren’t ready, they won’t get it.
Let them swim in an ocean where they must get these ideas, and they’ll master them in no time.
High school and college is the best time to introduce our kids to these lessons. If we don’t, they may graduate with a degree…and little else.
What have your experiences been? How did you transform your challenges into opportunities?