Community

Talking Turkey, Talking Trump

Posted on Nov 24, 2016 in Community, Family

This month my book club read Where the Right Went Wrong, E.J. Dionne Jr’s book about conservativism in America, a selection made long before Election Day, and back when we thought we’d be in a different place politically when we met to discuss it. One of our group told us how she was anxious about her upcoming visit to family for Thanksgiving. Her political views differed from theirs, and she would be outnumbered. She told us about the letter she was drafting to send to them prior to the holiday, in hopes that they would sensitive to her feelings.

Everyone in your household may be on the same page regarding the election. In case that’s not the case, before you lob a turkey leg or a fistful of Tofurkey across the dining room table, take a breath.

Think about how you’d guide two kids arguing over a toy. What is the value you want to instill in the kids? Sharing? Fairness? Generosity? What is the value you want to demonstrate at your table? Respect? Gratitude? Love? Let that be your rock, and if the conversation starts to get heated or voices are raised, grab onto it and let it anchor you.Then consider these steps to help bring the folks at your table together:

Set some ground rules: In your first toast or when everyone sits down at the table, give your values a voice:

I’m so glad we can all be together, and share this holiday, even if we don’t share the same views on events in the news

OR

I’m so grateful to be part of this family, and to respectfully sharing all the differing points of view we each have

OR

Thanks to everyone for coming, and for sharing this food, and good conversation, with love and understanding

OR

I have spent the last five hours preparing this meal, and I hope whenever you feel like saying something about the election, you will choose instead to say something nice about my cooking. I hope that’s something we can all agree on!

There are some families in which this approach simply won’t work. In this case, you may have to accept that ground rules aren’t going to constrain some. You’ll need to decide with whom you want to engage, but I’d encourage you to ask for space, or time if needed, or to try turning what might feel like an attack to you into an exploration about what matters to the other person. And if none of that works, you can always change the subject and ask them to pass the mashed potatoes.

Acknowledge feelings: Think about how we encourage good sportsmanship in our kids. We encourage the same behavior in winners and losers. We encourage respect, and acceptance of the outcome as well as the feelings winning or losing brings with it.

Expressing sadness or grief over the outcome of the election is not a sign of weakness.  If we can separate out the feelings from the events that generated them, we can start there. No one wants to see those they love hurting.

Recognize that however YOU are feeling, not everyone may be in the same place, even if they are on the same side. At yoga the Saturday after the Election, our instructor led us through a practice and a meditation about anger. Except I wasn’t angry. I was sad. Grief-stricken. Heartsick. I cried most of the way through the class. Recognize that not everyone will be processing events in the same way, at the same pace. They may not be ready to talk. Let them grieve, or be angry, or sad, or quiet. Ask them how they feel, whether they want to talk. And respect the answer.

Ask questions: The biggest challenge we face now is talking with those who we see as holding a diametrically opposing view. You can’t understand how someone on the other side can BE on the other side. So let’s find out: Take out the political angle, and you have either an angry/despairing/grieving family member, or a happy/excited relation. If you were just responding to the feelings, what would you ask?

What is your biggest hope for the new Administration?
What concerns you the most about the next President?

Listen: Ask your question, and then just be quiet. Seriously, just stop talking. Take in what the other person has told you. You actually don’t have to say anything. Each of us needs to feel heard. Resolve that right now your goal is not to persuade the other person to see the light. Your goal is to hear what the other person has to say.  You can think up a counterpoint tomorrow.  Right now you’re listening.

This stuff matters because what we’re really arguing about is values. I believe we have more in common, and share more in terms of values, than the highly-charged campaign hype may lead you to feel. Headlines and sound bites are made to amp you up, not usually in a good way. No question there is much at stake.  Talking past each other is just not a productive approach to keeping the nation – or your family – together.

Change happens in living rooms and kitchens, and at dining room tables. Ground yourself in what matters to you, ask questions, and listen. Democracy is often messy, frustrating and loud. Just like families.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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A Post-Election Note

Posted on Nov 9, 2016 in Community, Investments, Planning, Tax, Women

Like me, you may have felt that the world would look different this morning (if we even woke up at all) after the results of the presidential election. And yet, the sun rose, the day began, and here we are.

What we know after the election is that our country is seriously divided. As we saw when we elected Barack Obama, we want real change. The trouble as I see it is that the direction in which President Trump will lead us will be more of the same. Right now, markets — and the people who make them up — are orderly. There may come a time when the emotions that drove this election will react negatively to a lack of any real change.

Here are a few thoughts on what comes next:

Economics – We have limited specifics on Trump’s plans for “national growth and renewal” in the economy, but there are echoes of Reaganomics: lower taxes, relaxed regulation, big government spending. If the fiscal stimulus he plans repairs and expands our infrastructure, that’s a plus. Reduced regulation (such as repeal of the new DOL Rule (which requires advisors to your 401k to act in your best interest), repeal of Dodd-Frank (Wall Street reform), repeal of the Affordable Care Act) means you’ll be more on your own to protect your interests.

Taxes – We can expect lower taxes, at least on higher earners. I am doubtful Trump’s plan to bring overseas corporate earnings home; if he is able to do this, that’s again a plus for higher earners. Given the structure of our Federal budget, we can’t grow our way out of a deficit spending situation, so lower taxes means increasing deficits.

The World – We are more connected globally than ever, and building walls and reducing trade is likely to hurt us economically, as well as in our leadership role in the world. Bombastic rhetoric in discussions with other leaders and nations could have dire consequences.

The Rhetoric – The most difficult part of the campaign for me has been the vitriolic, threatening language that stirred up some of the ugliest facets of the American character. As a woman, I feel unheard, less safe and decidedly second-class. But I believe we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge, and we must admit this election cycle has revealed a dark side we have wanted to ignore. How we continue the conversation around these issues and change them is the real challenge.

Markets are mixed this morning, after some strong negative indications overnight. We can expect to see more volatility in the months and years ahead, and increasing economic inequality. What we can do is focus on what we can control: diversifying the risk in portfolios, organizing your accounts for tax diversification and to keep expenses as low as possible, saving more, and when we spend, spending with intent.

The table next to mine at the Election Watch Party I attended last night joked that at least here in California we also passed a recreational marijuana law, which we’ll need all the more after this election. (To be clear: I don’t recommend that as a personal financial strategy.)

In the meantime, we need to continue the conversation, and fighting for what we believe: “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”

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Why I Love Tourists

Posted on Oct 12, 2015 in Community, Planning, Simplicity

Most people who live someplace even moderately interesting are likely to say they hate tourists. Tourists can be slow, plodding, don’t know where they are going. They drive too slowly and walk erratically. They gawk, mouths agape, and point at things.

That they do these things is exactly why I love them.

4th St Bridge-WalkwayThis past week I was back from a business trip to New York City and I was walking over the Fourth Street Bridge in my neighborhood. The bridge is a World War I relic, a working drawbridge rebuilt in 2006, which spans Mission Creek. From the bridge there is a view of houseboats, Potrero Hill, cormorants, herons, cranes, and occasionally seals, manta rays and starfish.

But to see these things, you have to be paying attention. I was walking across the bridge, my head down, looking at the wooden slats of the pedestrian walkway, thinking of the 12 million things I needed to do now that I was back from my trip. I was halfway across when I thought to look up. To notice the light on the water, the brown gull crying out, the fog beginning its morning retreat to out to sea. I cross the bridge every day, I was taking it for granted, and I was missing my life.

Tourists remind us of what we often miss.

What does this have to do with financial planning? Because it’s true what they say about life happening while you’re making other plans. These little things, these minutiae, so easy to miss, are critical to happiness. It is important to have a portfolio that meets your needs. It is important to know that you have a complement of insurance coverage that protects you from catastrophic loss. It is important to have plans in place to help you break down and tackle the Big Goals. But it is the small things that make up our lives and bring us happiness.

Planning doesn’t guarantee you certain outcomes. But it starts a process of clarifying what is important to you, and putting your attention there. When you can be confident you’re taking care of your financial business, you can allow yourself to focus on the rest of life. Take the time to look up, notice what’s happening around you. Slow down. Put the museum exhibit you want to see on your calendar. Stop in at that café that you pass by every day, though it looks so inviting. Our days turn into months, the months turn into years. Add up those years, and that’s your life.

This may be a long weekend for some of you. Even if it isn’t, take a minute this morning before you get swept away in your daily routine and look around. At the kids playing with their breakfast, at the garden bed you planted this spring, at the other passengers on the bus or train. Gawk, point, be in awe of something new. Even something mundane. Be a tourist in your own life.

We can lay out plans for a good financial life, but the good life, truly, is in the day-to-day.

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Planning in One Page

Posted on Sep 14, 2015 in Blog, Community, Family, Planning, Simplicity

Colleague and sketch guy extraordinaire, Carl Richards, has a new book called The One-Page Financial Plan. My work is all about organizing, simplifying, and getting clarity around what really matters for you, and a one-page plan sounded awesome. As I often do, I test-drove this process myself and here’s what my One-Page Plan looks like:

To be able to take care of myself:

1. Own my home

2. Financial freedom at 70

3. Ability to participate in the communities I love

What you’ll see right away is that the plan is very focused, and simple. But for any of you who have practiced yoga or tried meditation, steadying the wiggly body or calming the monkey mind is harder than it looks.

But this is exactly what you must do to have a plan that works: You must get to the “why” of what you’re doing. I call what I do “values-based” financial planning, and at its core it’s about what you value, what is important to you. The “why” will become your litmus test for financial decision-making.

The “Why”
Carl’s one-page plan starts where I also start the planning process, with the “why.” The Why is your financial mission. His question is: Why is money important to you?

To have a secure retirement?

To take care of your family?

To die with the most toys?

The Why is totally internally-driven. If you are looking for external validation, your “why” will always fail, because you’re not directing it. When it’s externally-driven, you’re looking to the outside for validation, and you won’t feel a sense of calm when you answer the question. When you answer truly, you relax, you feel a relief from anxiety. You’ve answered the question.

What Gets in the Way of The Why
Part of getting to The Why is digging into what money means to you. My financial mission is to be able to take care of myself.  My process looked like this:

Money is important to me because I want to be financially secure.
Because I want to be able to take care of myself.
Because no one else will be there to do it.

In those three sentences, I got to one of my core values: self-sufficiency. I came from a working class family. My parents bought their first house on the GI Bill, my dad went to school and worked part-time, and money was a struggle. I worked my way through college, and graduate school. There was a lot of messaging in my early life around my family not having any support outside the four of us — my parents, brother and me — and how we could only rely on ourselves.

Being able to take care of myself financially – pay my bills, never get in over my head, take educated risks but don’t bet the farm, have a little money socked away, a few staples in the pantry always– is at the core of how I run my financial life.

For you, it might be thinking you “should” have a house, but you’re really fine renting and would rather put your savings into a business idea. It might be feeling you deserve a certain standard of living, when the fear is really not living up to someone else’s (or your) standards, of not being as good as your peers. Only you can know why money is important in your life.

The “What”
Once you figure out why you’re working hard and saving – or spending your nest egg in a certain way – then you can get more specific about the actions you need to be taking to work towards these goals. What Carl notes – and embraces – is the certainty of change. Don’t wait around for the perfect answer or the “right” decision. Good planning is a lot like living your life fully: you start where you are, with what you can do today, and do it. You have to translate The Why into actionable goals. You need to list everything you want to do or have, then prioritize in terms of how “The What” supports the Why.

To live up to my Why, I want to own my own home, save enough to be financially independent at age 70, and participate in the communities I love.  Taking care of myself doesn’t mean spending all my time at the office, it also means having a good life today, and so I’ve included how I’ll spend my time in addition to what I’m doing with my money.  Your plan is about you and building a meaningful life.

The What is the top three specific things that you need to do to fulfill your financial mission. You’ll note that not all these goals necessarily require financial resources: two of the communities I love involve dogs and books, and I’ve volunteered in animal shelters, libraries and school reading programs. What is your What? What are the three goals you’ll work on now?

Putting Your Why and What into Action
Once you have your Why, you have a measure against which you can evaluate the financial decisions you face. When you wonder how to spend your money or how to save, ask yourself, is this action supporting your Why? For me, I ask “Will this action enhance my ability to take care of myself?” Then test the decision about which of your three top goals it’s advancing.

OnePagePlan_napkinv2That’s it. Write your Why and your What on a post-it or an index card (Carl wrote his, shown here, on a napkin with a Sharpie). Put it on your mirror, keep a copy in your wallet. This isn’t about other people telling you what to do, this is a talisman of your creation, your money mantra to keep you centered and on track to get what you really want out of this life.

Get out your Sharpie and get to work!

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Getting Kicked Out of the Tribe, Part 1: You’ve Struck it Rich

Posted on Apr 28, 2013 in Community, Family, Philanthropy, Relationship

Congratulations. You’ve won the Google/Facebook/Amazon lottery. You got in on the ground floor of a successful company, you’ve worked hard, and it’s paid off. So what’s the downside?

Unless your entire social circle consists of co-workers enjoying the same liquidity event, you will likely experience shifts in your Tribe. That group of people you depend on for social connection, feedback, belonging, and the occasional phone call at 3:30 in the morning for bail money. That’s your Tribe. You’ve typically accumulated them over time based on shared experiences, or from a particular, notable point in your past. These are the friends you’ve had since kindergarten, the buddies you hung with in college, your cohort at that first job.

Even if the members of your tribe all won the lottery along with you, family members might see you differently, and expect different things from you. Take an extreme case, that of Michael Jackson and his family. Jackson was a hugely talented, hard-working artist whose success was deemed by his family to belong to them collectively. He was most conflicted about how to help his mother, Katherine, a fight many successful kids face. His painful struggle was meticulously and poignantly described in Randall Sullivan’s biography, Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. Four years after his death, Jackson is still in the news, and his family is still fighting to get what they feel is theirs. (Katherine Jackson’s wrongful death suit against AEG, Jackson’s concert promoter, seeks damages based on Jackson’s future earnings potential, estimated to be $40 billion.) Jackson’s effort to make everyone happy took its toll as the extended family piled on to let his wealth support their lifestyles. Expectations regarding what you can do for family now that you’ve hit the jackpot can create new tensions in these relationships.

What Happens When You Come into Money
Any major shift in one’s personal circumstances is accompanied by a shock to the system. New money often comes with a rush of emotions: euphoria, guilt, fear, numbness, relief, feeling unworthy, depression. Making financial decisions in an emotional space is never wise, so first give yourself some time to adjust. Don’t spend it all, don’t give it all away; you can do these things later on if you still want to. Right now, wait, and do some research on getting help to sort out your financial options.

Once it becomes known you’ve hit the jackpot, you are a target. A target for scam artists, money-seeking paramours, friends and distant and not-so-distant family who may have a changed view of you. Part of my work involves helping clients given away their excess – helping them design a philanthropic strategy to improve the parts of the world they value most. In the beginning, I was impressed with those who gave anonymously. I felt slightly guilty that personally I wanted the credit for my own donations. But often these lists of donors are targets for salespeople, scammers and highly specialized professional lawsuit creators. These donors were giving anonymously perhaps because they didn’t need the validation of seeing their names in the annual report, but in large part they were giving anonymously to protect themselves.

You Will Need to Work to Keep the Friends Who Matter
Most celebrity success stories – those people who manage to skirt the ego-engorgement and excesses that often come with renown — have a Tribe that goes back to their pre-fame days. These are the people who will laugh in your face when you get a little too full of yourself. Who will be there to bounce ideas off of, with no vested interest in the result other than trying to give you the best advice they can. They are the people who liked you even before you came into money or fame. These are the people who know you, and can call out when something you’re suggesting doesn’t fit with who they know you to be. They will remind you who you are.

Once you’re surrounded by people who are on your payroll (for real, or just every time you’re picking up the tab) it becomes very hard to know whether they are telling you the truth. An early Microsoftie who signed on in the late ‘80s retired several years later at 33. He found himself surrounded by a great group of people who enjoyed a lot of the same music, the same clubs, the same lifestyle he did. Until the tech bust wiped out his ability to buy them drinks. Suddenly he was dealing with a personal financial crisis that turned his world upside down and a time in which needed friends the most. Turns out that’s when they needed him the least. He was alone in his house, sorting out what was left of his portfolio, including a hefty tax bill, with no one to turn to for support.

What to Do?
•  Recognize that your friends will not be able to keep up.  You might pick up the tab from time to time, but the friends that are worth keeping won’t want to be on your payroll. Consider mixing up time in the VIP suite at the Giants game with lunch at a food truck to maintain some reciprocity in your relationship.
•  Be aware that you will attract attention. Buy that Model S and you’ll get attention. Carry that Prada bag and you’ll get attention. Move into that posh place in the city, and you’ll draw attention. That’s not always a bad thing, but recognize that it becomes more difficult to discern the draw of your charm from the draw of your dough.
•   See an estate attorney. You might not yet have stuff to protect, but you have moved into a situation in which establishing trusts to protect financial assets could make sense. You may also want to shield future acquisitions of property from the probing eyes of others.
•  Take a minute to think about what a shot at what financial freedom really means. The first question I ask new clients is what they would do if they were financial free. Money is no longer an issue. What would you change in your life? Would you change anything? Continue to work? Focus on different things? Retire? Can you really handle 50+ years of golf? Include everything – things, people, experiences — you think you want. Now is the time to consider how you really want your life to look.
•  Recognize that building new relationships will be challenging. I think this is the hardest part of new money. How do you want to develop relationships going forward? It might be easy to offer to buy lunch, treat a friend to a show, or try in other ways to even the playing field. But are you trying to make things more even between friends, or subtly buying affection? What are you worth to your friends, new and old? Do you feel you have something to offer besides money? Recognize that you may literally buy in to new groups to which access comes with money, but these relationships are based on a monetary foundation. They may evolve into more, but don’t confuse buying access with earning acceptance.

Education is your best defense against missteps that can derail your good fortune. Finding a financial advisor who can offer objective analysis and support over the course of your transition to your new circumstances, and a sounding board for decisions going forward, can be hugely beneficial. At a minimum, your advisor can be the “bad guy” who you can blame for not being able to fulfill the demands or other financially questionable requests from others. Fee-only financial advisors offer their advice free of conflicts from selling specific products, and many offer holistic planning that incorporates aspects of your financial life beyond your portfolio, including taxes, residential real estate, asset protection, charitable giving and long-term planning. You can search for a fee-only financial advisor in your area through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA): http://www.napfa.org/index.asp

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Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here

Posted on Mar 31, 2013 in Blog, Community, Family, LGBT, Relationship

I’m adding to the already crowded blogosphere with the intent to explore the following question: how do we deploy our resources – financial and otherwise — in a way that makes us happy?  And how do we do this with eyes wide open to the distractions and detours that lead us astray?  It’s one thing to have money; it’s another to have a rich life.  I’m operating on the premise that money alone doesn’t do it; it’s our connection to others – partner, family, friends, community – that makes life worth living.    

There’s not a better time to start the thread of this blog, with the Supreme Court hearing two cases on the future of marriage.  Technically it’s about same-sex marriage.  But at the core of this issue is our ability to partner with someone who lets us be our best self, supports us in good times and bad, and helps us build a life based in love.

We all know how imperfect heterosexual marriage is.  Ok, every relationship is imperfect. But that struggle to find someone who will hold you, fight with you, defend you, love you despite bad hair (or no hair), embrace who you are and challenge you to be your best –THAT is what it’s all about.  The idea of denying that when someone has found it is beyond my understanding.

When I was married, I loved my husband with my whole heart.  And I wondered how life would be if I couldn’t love him because he was blond, like me.  It didn’t make my feelings any less strong. It just made me feel incredibly sad to think that as a society we were denying others love. I didn’t love him because he was blond.  I loved him for who he was, and he happened to be blond.

Under the marriage contract as it stands, we have laws that make it difficult if not impossible to allow us to protect spouses who are victims of domestic violence.  That is the kind of marital bond we should be working to end.  But instead we fail to recognize another couple’s commitment to care for one another and deny them this right often at the most vulnerable time, at the end of life.  The closest comparison I can make from personal experience is being with my canine companion, my dog, Katie, when she was humanely put to sleep several weeks after a diagnosis of terminal and painful liver cancer.  I don’t know how I could have left her in a strange room, with strangers, in her last moments.  I cannot fathom that we would deny someone the right to be with the person to whom they’ve committed their life at the end of it.

Some of the fretting over same-sex marriage has to do with “”redefining” the institution.  It’s about time.  You promise some lofty things in a traditional marriage ceremony, but there is little to back up performance under this contract. (All you men can relax, I’m not talking about THAT kind of performance.)  It used to be that women were property in a marriage.  It used to be that sex was a husband’s right and a wife’s obligation. 

Those things have changed – we have already redefined marriage. Now let’s bring it into the 21st century.  What would a newly redefined version of marriage look like?  Maybe let’s set some performance standards and look at how a couple “loves, honors and cherishes” each other.  When was the last hug?  The last compliment?  The last kind act?  We want to foster long-term relationship, so let’s evaluate this over time: When was the last compliment after 10 years of marriage? After 30 years? If having children is one reason for marriage, many same-sex couples have met that requirement — and as I’ll hit 50 this year, I’m past that life stage. Am I to be denied marriage if I find a man I love? In a traditional ceremony, you promise to “forsake all others.” In no fault states[1], being a faithful spouse doesn’t count for anything under the law, and there’s no penalty for cheating.  Perhaps under a redefined marriage contract you’ll lose those tax benefits of marriage if you stray? 

As a happily divorced person, I’m more inclined to channel Mae West’s philosophy on marriage being a great institution — and how I’m not ready for an institution. In the end, what I support is finding love, partnership, community – wherever it leads you.  To live without those things is to be exiled to a half-life.  This is an opportunity to look at actions over words, at what we want to cultivate in each other, and define marriage in those terms. 

Love, respect, safety, integrity, equality.  We could start there.



[1] “No-fault” divorce is one in which a finding of wrong-doing is not required by either party. Prior to passage of no-fault legislation (first signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1969), divorce required a party to prove breach of the marriage contract to sue for dissolution.  Passage of no-fault laws effectively eliminated the marriage “contract.”

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