Things to do differently this year

Starting ahead of time is probably the best idea

After going through all the pain of sorting through my taxes from several years, I am strongly motivated to do things very differently this year, than in past years.

What became very clear to me, in the course of sorting through all my past records, is that lack of organization has really messed me up in so many ways, financially speaking. And this is the year to do something about it.

I had not realized — partly because I glossed over certain parts of my tax prep that I thought were “non-essential” — was that there were deductions I could have been taking all along, that I didn’t. Perhaps the tax law has changed, so it’s more prevalent, now, but I uncovered close to $1000 extra dollars that I could deduct, simply by claiming my spouse’s van for business expenses in a different way. They use that van almost primarily for business, and if they didn’t have their work, they wouldn’t be driving it. They put hundreds (sometimes thousands) of miles each year on that vehicle specifically for business.

So clearly it counts as a business expense.

Live and learn.

After finalizing the last of my old tax returns, I took some extra hours yesterday to download all my bank statements and put them into a spreadsheet. And I started organizing them and figuring out what can be counted towards what deduction and what kind of income.

And so it starts. In tried doing this a few years back, but I was very unorganized. And I got confused. So just like I did with the refiling of past taxes, I gave up after a very short time. And I never looked back.

Till yesterday.

I can really tell that my thinking is much more organized than it used to be. This is leaps and bounds ahead of where I used to be. I think a number of things have helped me:

First, keeping this blog going.

It disciplines me to organize my thoughts each day — usually first thing in the morning. Because I’ve got over 500 followers, and more keep joining, I really feel a responsibility to write something useful and meaningful, not just toss a bunch of blather out on the screen.

Second, the logic work I’ve been doing.

I’ve been specifically working with logic problems for about a year and a half. I come up with a statement, and then I prove it to myself on paper with a detailed step-by-step explanation. I don’t do it for others, rather for myself. I’m my biggest critic, after all, and if I can’t convince myself, I’m not going to convince anyone else. I really believe it’s helped me collect and organize my thoughts in ways that few other exercises have.

Third, working with a lot of different kinds of people and organizing them to get things done.

In my job, I am in charge of making sure people get things done, so that’s really forced me to think in organized terms that direct people in a certain way. I’ve had to really dig deep to learn how to do this … and I’m still learning. And it’s doing wonders for my ability to gather, process, and organize information. That whole process actually started in my last job, so now I’ve been at it for about five years, and work has been hugely helpful in getting me more cognitively functional all across the board,

So, yes, I’m better organized in my thinking. And now I need to get better organized with my doing. I need to get my papers in order — all the bank statements in a folder together, all the bills in a folder together. It’s really a question of just having a place to put them all. I need 3-ring binders, for sure. That is a simple fix for what amounts to an incredible amount of needless complexity in my life.

I bitch and moan about how complicated the modern world is, but I also don’t do myself any favors, at times. If things are too confusing at a 50,000 level, then I need to get in closer — more frequently — and take a closer look on a regular basis. I can break this down into more manageable pieces — and I can also use it to my professional benefit, because my household expenditures numbers are data I can use to create meaningful visualizations that will not only be good experience for me with the new programs I’m trying to learn, but also help me understand my world better.

The beauty part of all this is, because we’re now halfway through April, I have three months’ worth of numbers to plug into my 2015 taxes spreadsheets, and I can get a jump on things.

Plus, if I keep on top of it, next year I won’t get sidetracked by all my disorganization and freeze response, and end up pushing against the deadline to get my taxes filed. AND I can have a good sense along the way, of where things are problematic, financially, and need to be fixed.

I’m also going to continue with my logic problems. They really seem to be helping me. That, and being really engaged with my work… letting myself mess up without getting too bent out of shape about it… learning as I go… it’s all good.

So, this feels good. I just need to keep at it.

Onward.

Did the math. Yes, we can afford another car

Math is not my strong suit, but this situation looks pretty good.

The numbers are in, and it’s looking pretty good. So far. Based on all the work I’ve done over the past year or so, I can actually afford to buy a decent used car outright. I found one yesterday that looks promising. Granted, it’s not top of the line, but it’s looking solid, and I’ll be going to look at it later today. Here’s hoping it will check out okay, so I can just buy it and get on with my life.

I’m also hoping the salesman I talked to yesterday can cut me a break on the price, if I write him a check. It will save us all time and money, instead of dragging us through all the paperwork and hassle of financing. It works out for him in a way – maybe he’ll sweeten the price a bit for the equivalent of cash.

Heck, I could even give him cash, if he liked. Run to the bank. Get some large bills. Hand him a sack full of Franklins.

That could work.

If I buy the car outright, then I won’t have to carry comprehensive coverage for it — I can get what I need, without insuring it for the financing company’s sake. What they don’t tell you about financing and leasing new cars, is that you have to carry pretty robust coverage for the vehicle, until it’s paid for. Then you can adjust the coverage you have and save yourself some money.

By paying for the car in full, it saves us from a monthly payment, which is good. It’s also nice to own the car outright — which is why I don’t think I’ll ever buy a new car — unless I’m independently wealthy. Heck, even then I don’t think I could justify it. I don’t need a new car smell. I just need reliable wheels to get me to and from.

So, there goes my safety net — my three months of living expenses. On the one hand, it might make more sense to finance just a little bit of the car, so we still have a bit of a safety net. On the other hand, it will be nice to not have to hassle with yet more complexity.

Then again, I expect to be getting a tax refund, and the insurance company will be cutting me a check for the totaled vehicle (not sure how much that will be yet, but I’m hoping it’s more than a fistfull of dollars). So, there will be more money coming in. And I’m working a lot of hours, which means overtime. Time and a half is pretty sweet.

Well, anyway, it’s time to get ready for work. Get myself in gear. Go out and take care of business. And be done with this crap, so I can get back to my regular life.

Amen.

Onward.

Brain has ability to adapt and change through life

Check out this Chicago Tribune story (courtesy of The Dallas Morning News)

By the time Scott Hayner of Highland Park, Texas, was 7, he had had one skull fracture and three major concussions from falling off horses.

Nobody connected those accidents to the difficulties he had in school as he acted out, stopped talking for three months and cried daily for two years. As an adult, he seemed to be a thriving, successful stockbroker, until traumatic brain injury from a 1999 soccer accident led to seizures and sidelined his ability to talk to people and stay on task, it seemed, for good.

Two realizations have turned his life around at 42. First, he realized that brain injuries were behind the troubles he had had all his life. And second, he read about brain plasticity — the concept that the brain can heal and learn at all ages.

“It was a relief,” says Hayner, who credits his 2008 training at the University of Texas at Dallas‘ Center for BrainHealth for helping to restore abilities that he thought were long gone. “It helped me regain my self-esteem and self-confidence. It gave me hope.”

Read the full story here

Actually, I’m not that way at all

Thinking, as I have been, about TBI and sense of self, I have realized something pretty important lately — namely, that I’ve formed a somewhat faulty perception of myself over the years. My sense of self has definitely suffered, and without correcting it, I’ve had my self-image re-shaped in ways that are not only harder on me than need be, but also incorrect.

For example: I tend to think I’m stupid. I’m not. I’m just not as brilliant as I’d like to be — but the thing is, I set my standards so high, noboby could meet them.

Another example: For the past six years, as I’ve had more and more money problems, I’ve had it in my head that I didn’t know how to manage money or make arrangements with insurance. I had it in my head that if I’d just had disability insurance when I fell, I could have possibly gotten help, and if I’d been smarter, I wouldn’t have parted with so much (as in, almost all) of my savings.

But the thing is, I did have insurance when I fell — short-term disability and long-term disability. I was also in a job that gave me 4 weeks paid vacation. I could have taken sick time, and I could have gotten help, had I understood what was going on with me. And as for my money  management… the fact of the matter is, I did have my act together before I fell. I had made smart choices about my mortgage, I had made smart choices about my use of debt. I had not gone overboard with refinancing my house to pay off other debts, and I had lived quite frugally for many years. Never, ever have I been extravagant. I’ve always had a very simple, modest lifestyle. It wasn’t me that screwed things up. It was the TBI’s.

Looking back now, I can see that I was just so turned around and messed up by the fall, that even if someone had offered me help, I would have pushed them away. I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t think I needed help, and I was slipping farther and farther into a hole that my brain told me I should be happy to slide into. Totally messed up. And very different from how I’d been prior to my fall.

It wasn’t ME that caused my life to go off the rails, it was my head injury. And all those concussions I’d had prior to that.

But I can turn things around now. I am… and I’ll continue to do so.

Sorting things out, bit by bit

I am at a complete impasse with my money. I am doing well, salary-wise, in a competitive field, but I am literally living paycheck-to-paycheck, in no small part because my last brain injury happened at a really crappy time. There’s never a good time for a head injury, but this one took place about a year before I was about to become vested in an options program at work, which had siphoned off all my extra earnings for the past three years to pay into, so that I couldn’t pay off any of my credit cards all during that pre-vesting time.

So, after I fell, I was left not only with crazy credit card balances, but also the inability to finish out my vesting term, which means I lost half my money to taxes, a remaining fourth to paying down out-of-control debt, and the last quarter fled from my wallet in an amazingly short period of time. I hate when that happens…

Long story short, I’m earning a good living, but I’m barely scraping by. It’s straining my marriage, it’s threatening my house and my sanity, and I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t ask for help from anyone close to me, because all my friends are in terrible shape, losing their houses and marriages and jobs, and my family is all fairly not-well-off… plus, they all think I’m made of money, not knowing the details of where I’m at — and why. I can’t even begin to explain my situation to them. They wouldn’t understand. They just don’t get a whole lot about me, including why I’m having as much trouble getting by, as I am. I just can’t do the lecture-thing. Just can’t.

Sometimes it just sucks to look good, while you’re struggling.

Anyway, enough feeling sorry for myself. I’ve made some calls, and I’m getting my financial situation in order. I have been wanting to do this for years, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with approaching others about my money. I got too turned around, and I didn’t know how to ask for clarification. I literally didn’t. I thought I had to tough it out and soldier through and try to figure things out on my own. That never worked, and it was debilitating. Disabling, really. I was trying to go it alone, while that was about the last thing I could manage.

I’m not going it alone anymore, at least in this respect. I’m asking questions when I need things explained. I’m getting help, and it feels good. Scary as hell, but good.

After being on the phone about this for the past two hours, I am utterly bushed. So, I’m off to bed. More on this later. Just the fact that I was able to pick up the phone is a real sign of progress. And the more I think about it, the better I feel. But for now, I’m too tired to do more than click Publish and head off to bed.

Cheers.

Basta with the credit lectures!

Here’s a somewhat rambling end-of-day post about something that’s near and dear to my heart — credit cards!

Lately, it seems like I can’t turn on my radio without hearing someone offering help for credit-strapped consumers. Let the record show that my own credit  card debt load far exceeds what the recommended amount is. And there is no way I’m going to pay it off in a year. I don’t care what kind of magical schemes they’re selling. I’m not going to come up with half my annual salary to pay off those balances.

Now (and I apologize in advance for my snarkiness), the popular response to carrying that much credit card debt is a well-conditioned horror. Everyone – from my parents (I quit telling them how much I make and how much I owe about 10 years ago), to the government, to my bank, to my peers, to strangers I stand next to at the post office – is avidly anti-credit-card-debt. Who isn’t? Paying up to 29% APR to people who are prone to cut your available credit without warning and just ’cause they can really sucks.

And our current popular culture is chock-full of gurus, financial “advisors” and online/broadcast marketers who are telling us in no uncertain terms that we need to be credit-free. For the sake of our savings. For the sake of our peace of mind. For the sake of our children (that’s always a compelling reason). For the sake of our retirement. And for three low installments of $129.95 (plus shipping and handling), they’ll tell us just how we can do that in less than a year!

But I’ve had it with all the personal finance pomposity. I’m sick and tired of all those “money people” lecturing me about how bad credit cards are, how much they threaten my safety, how zealouslyI should avoid them. I’m sick and tired of people who supposedly know all about money (and many of them do, because they have an awful lot of it) telling me how I should handle mine. I don’t have an awful lot of it, and I sincerely doubt I ever will — being RICH is just not that big of a priority with me, and any extra money I have, I tend to give away to organizations that are defending the defenseless or spend on occasional vacations and computer stuff… and my house. I’m tired of people who operate at higher financial levels thinking that their rules apply to me, down here in the “pedestrian zone” of personal finance. I’m sick of people preaching budget-budget-budget, as though anal-retentively socking away $25 a week is going to dramatically impact my long-term prospects.

I’ve got news for those folks – in case they hadn’t realized it by now – people like me don’t live by the same rules that people like them do. If they haven’t gotten that simple fact through their thick skulls, either their math isn’t nearly as good as mine – which is frightening – or they don’t have a clue how people like me really live, or they are actively concealing the truth about money management, so they can sell little shreds of hope to those of us whom they assume know precious little… after all, if we were that knowledgeable and smart, we’d be rich like them, right?

Anyway, even if I did put away $25/week for 52 weeks a year, I would save $1,300, which is nothing to sneeze at. And if I earn 5.5% on this amount (compounded monthly) like I do on my ING Direct savings account, after a year I would have $1,336.38. Not bad – that’s the magic of compounding, where every month your total balance (including interest) gets compounded.

But let’s remember, that’s a little over $100/month I’d be putting away. And in these tight times, there are about 1,336 other places I can think to put that money. And like the trickles of water that carved out the Grand Canyon, those places and reasons have a way of seriously eroding my savings. Or it can take just one or two ill-fated twists — like car repairs after being rear-ended in holiday traffic, or veterinarian bills when one of my pets gets in a fight with a stray animal or falls ill.

Now, if I want to be a little more modest — and realistic — and calculate for $25/month, at the end of a year at 5.5% compounded monthly, I’ll have $308.74 in the bank. Great. That should just barely cover the emergency dental work I need that my insurance doesn’t cover.

Note: I used the savings calculator over at Bankrate.com for these calculations.

There are countless sudden low-scale financial crises that can crop up over the course of a year, which are unpredictable, unavoidable, and immediate. Indeed, there have been more sudden extreme needs for cold, hard cash that have cropped up in my life on a regular basis over the past 20 years. Many an event has been as extreme as it has been sudden and unexpected. Car accidents. Medical and dental emergencies. Getting laid off. Health-related relocations to cleaner and safer parts of the country. Family crises that require immediate travel. Veterinary bills. You name it, I’ve probably whipped out the plastic to pay for it.

Never were these events foreseen. Many of them might have looked predictable to the trained eye, but trust me, if I’d been able to see ahead and take steps to avoid them, I most certainly would have. Unfortunately, being human and all, and living in a country that simultaneously doesn’t favor paying a living wage and demands that we all “play our part” as active consumers, the proverbial cards are well-stacked against me and my kind. And make no mistake, the cards are stacked. Anyone who tells you otherwise is sitting across the table from you in the dealer’s seat.

I don’t want to be a whiner and blame the rest of the world for my troubles. I’m big into personal responsibility. But at some point, the gross inequity of power and influence starts to get a little ridiculous. At every turn, the American middle and working classes are constantly prodded to buy-buy-buy… and all the while, our employers keep telling us they can’t afford to raise our pay… and we’re being lectured from every corner about how we shouldn’t borrow more than we earn. It’s a recipe for disaster, mental illness, systemic infrastructure collapse, or all of the above.

The system truly is totally schizoid, at odds with its conflicted self, and seemingly incapable of any sort of sustainable, consistently coherent cultural message. Sure, we’re supposed to be Good Americans by being good consumers. But heaven forbid we be paid what we need to live on, or have access to adequate medical coverage for the procedures and the tests that we are assured are absolutely necessary for us to stay alive and healthy. And God forbid we charge it — or don’t charge it. If someone could tell me, once and for all, what exactly I’m supposed to do, to keep America strong with my wallet, I’d be deeply grateful.

Now, on the whole, I’m doing pretty well for myself. Credit card debt notwithstanding, I’m making decent pay. But countless other Americans are not, and that’s what tweaks me to no end. Because we are all — no matter how much money we are making — are under constant pressure, these days, to manage our money better. Money we only wish we had. Money we’re sure we had just a few weeks ago, which has mysteriously disappeared. It’s so maddening. I’ve got siblings whose whole families are working more than one job, each, and they’re struggling. It’s stupid, for such good, hard-working people to suffer so much, and live in constant fear of Losing Everything, while our lawmakers languish in Washington with their cushy benefits plans, pontificate about how to be Patriotic, and vote through legislation they haven’t even read.

What the hell can people at the bottom of the barrel do? On the one hand, our country pats us on the back for being responsibly contributing citizens by spending like crazy… while our political, social, and thought leaders keep lecturing us about doing more with what little we have, and not being such irresponsible, greedy gits. Their pulpits are the television, the internet, the radio, the bookshelves. And they just keep preaching away. Sinner, put down your credit cards! Repent! Come to your senses and lay your burden of debt down…

Indeed, there is a quasi-religious fervor to this anti-credit craze. People are spinning the mortgage lending crisis into a sort of anti-credit virtual run on banks, with all these hawkers standing at proverbial street corners shouting that The End is Nigh, and it’s all the fault of “easy credit”, so zero out your balances, bite the consumer bullet, and “live more simply so that others may simply live” (as though my doing without plastic is going to save Darfur or put roofs over the heads of homeless Katrina victims).

But it’s an overly emotional message they’re sending, and it’s at complete and total odds with the reality many of us live with — that we’re just getting by, no matter how much or little money we’re making, and even if we did rob Peter, it wouldn’t be enough to pay Paul. And then Peter would come looking for us and break our kneecaps with a lead pipe.

And as much as people love to tout the benefits of everyday budgeting and personal money management, for some of us, that level of attention to detail to our pitiful little pile of coins is unrealistic, if not impossible.Again, I don’t want to blame the rest of the world for my money woes, but I actually have had certain issues that prevented me from handling financial complexities in a sustained way. I do the best I can, and I’m learning how to do it better all the time, but back when I fell in 2004, I was about as far from being able to make wise money decisions, as a color blind person is from being able to dress models for New York Fashion Week. Sometimes, you just can’t make good money management decisions, no matter how hard you try. Especially when you’re dealing with a neurological condition that hides your own limitations from you.

Yes, some of us — perhaps more of us than care to admit it — are genuinely challenged, when it comes to handling money with facility and grace. And when I think back on all the screw-ups I’ve made about money, these gung-ho messages about dispensing with credit cards just irk me. They’re just so idealistic, so pie-in-the-sky, so insistent that credit cards can be just gotten rid of, like that.

Now, I don’t dispute that there may be some useful strategies for doing away with debt out there, but how many of them are for real? So much of the marketing is driven by raw emotion — fear – fear – more fear — I have to wonder if folks are able to truly use their heads when they take panic-instigated steps. And in the long run, might not some of those schemes to get rid of debt actually be more trouble than they’re worth? Some of the most beloved schemes involve additional mortgages on your house… and by now, most of us know where that can lead.

So, I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. All I know is, I’m in deep with Citibank, Chase, Discover, Sears, and Bank of America, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. I can only hope that someone somewhere on down the line I’m able to dig out from underneath these creditors of mine and keep some of my money for myself. I am very grateful that they hauled my ass out of hot water, time and time again. I’m grateful for the dental work, the prescription drugs, the veterinary services, and the emergency plane tickets they’ve all made possible. And now that they’ve managed to keep me alive and a viable member of society, I can pay my debt to them… like I pay my debts to society in general… gradually, sometimes grudgingly, but with a certain sense of duty and the hope that perhaps the resources I’m putting into them will help someone else on down the line. Someone like the customer service rep on the line who’s asking me when they can expect my next payment.

How I figured out something was REALLY wrong

Yes, I picture’s worth a thousand words… Here’s a graph of what happened to my financial situation, after my fall down the stairs (I hit the back of my head on the top 3-4 stairs) in 2004:

The interesting thing about this is that I never fully realized that there was something really really wrong with me, till I looked at my finances in 2007. Prior to that, I had thought that the problems I was having with my moods, my temper, my attention, my sleeping patterns, my pain… welll, everything… were due to things outside myself.

I literally thought that it was other people who had the problem. Or, it was just job stress. Or it was an unhappy childhood. Or I didn’t realize there was something wrong at all.

But then, in 2007, I looked at my finances and I realized that something was very, very wrong. I, who had been in the financial services industry for a decade or so, who was studying to become a financial advisor, who had been all about money for years and years and years… who knew about all sorts of common sense investment and savings vehicles… I had literally forgotten to keep track of my finances. And I had forgotten to stash a large lump sum I’d received in a secure interest-bearing savings account.

People, that’s just common sense. It’s the bare minimum you do with a lump sum of money, let alone all the other things you can do with it.

But I hadn’t. Even knowing what I knew, even having the positive orientation that I had to money, even having all this domain experience in savings and investments… something had broken down. And it forced me to take a long, hard look at all the other factors that had been plaguing me in my life.

Suddenly, a pattern emerged. And I started to remember things i hadn’t thought about in years…