Comparison and Time

Two weeks ago we posed a question, “What if we took all the time, money, and effort we spent on trying to keep up with everyone else, and started giving it away to those who really need our time, money, and effort?”

Let’s swing the spotlight over to time this week.  It’s doubtful many of us spend lots of intentional, thoughtful time making a list of what we don’t have and what others do.  More likely, however, we spend lots of that time without knowing it.  Whether we see someone we envy for whatever reason, or we find ourselves daydreaming about how much better our life would be if we were like him or her, it would be interesting to know how much that comparison robs us of time we could be spending doing more useful things.

This seems to be most of what goes on in our head when we’re deep into social media.  Without some careful boundaries, after seeing everyone’s vacations and celebrations, we’re tempted to feel worse about ourselves instead of cheering them on.  In fact, recent studies have shown that lots of exposure to social media can open the door to feeling depressed: https://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2016/04/30/study-links-heavy-facebook-and-social-media-usage-to-depression/#5535cc914b53

Let’s cut to the chase.  How do we get some of our time back?

1.) One of the biggest traps of social media is not just the informal comparison that it causes, but my challenge to myself (and to you, if you’re up for it) is to spend a little less time on what’s already happened around you and those you know and more time making some good things happen for the same people.  Write a note of encouragement (yes, even using social media), go on a walk and talk to a neighbor, get to that project that you’re beating yourself up for not getting to.  I’m not trying to sink social media (because ironically it’s one of the best ways this blog gets shared), but just trying to help myself put better guardrails around it.

2.) If you’re working more hours or extra jobs to try to keep up with an ideal lifestyle, take some time to evaluate what’s being spent for what you’re getting.  I know this might be a big can of worms, but some people I know who are the happiest are the ones who have traded a big house for a medium house and more of their life back.

3.) Spend some of your time listing out what you’re thankful for.  This will help your comparison emotion next time you’re faced with what someone else has or is doing.

I’m thinking about all these things myself.  Hoping that you can join me in wrestling some of my time back from comparison.

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What Comparison Gets You

When I was about 13, I was invited to Mario’s Party.  I know I’m showing my age a bit when I tell you that this had absolutely nothing to do with a video game – it hadn’t even been thought of yet.  This Mario was one of the most popular 8th graders at Longfellow Intermediate School, and somehow I ended up getting a chance to go to his birthday party.  I remember the week before, as I walked through the halls, looking at all those unfortunate classmates who I knew didn’t get an invitation to the party, feeling pity for them.  Poor non-Mario-party people.

Day of the party, I’m stoked and can’t wait to spend time outside school with the cool people (where I’m sure I belong, of course) who are going to be at this party.  Once I got to the very crowded party of about 30 of us, I spent most of my time trying to hang out with Mario (it was his party, after all).  He had the same two or three other guys around him the whole party, and I spent most of my time there (and after the party) languishing in the fact that I wasn’t in Mario’s close circle of friends.

Comparing ourselves to others will usually only produce one of two things in us – pride, or jealousy.  Neither takes us to good places.

I didn’t really think about it at the time, but I experienced both extremes in that two-week period back in 8th grade, and it hasn’t stopped since then.  Stacking myself up to others in school, in my career, in the imaginary scoreboard of money and posessions – it only gets more intense as we go through life.

What if…just hang with me, what if we took all the time, money, and effort we spent on trying to keep up with everyone else, and started giving it away to those who really need our time, money, and effort?

Over the next month, we’ll take a weekly look at some ways to do that.  Hope you can join us, and hope you can believe with us that all the things comparison offers us just aren’t worth it.

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The Anti-Lottery: Save Steady

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If I enjoyed giving guilt trips, I might want to talk to the guy who’s spent $10 a week for the past 5 years trying to win the lottery. I’d want him to have kept his box of 2,600 losing tickets. Then, I would show up with a box of $2,600 in cash and ask him which he’d rather have after 5 years. And even though I don’t enjoy dishing out guilt trips, and most people don’t save their losing lottery tickets, the reality is most of us want to skip the discipline and just get to the rich part.  We might even use wanting to be generous as an excuse to want to get rich (Soap box moment: Don’t wait until you consider yourself rich to start to be generous.  You’ll never be generous.)

One in three people in the United States believe that winning the lottery is the only way to financial security. Look, people win the lottery. I can’t argue that. People also get struck by lightning, and I can argue that you are six times more likely to get struck by lightning than winning the average state-lottery (about 45 times more likely if we’re talking about one of those multi-state lotteries).  Plus, did you know that after five years, two out of every three people who have won a big lottery would rather not have won the lottery?  Too much money too quick messes with you and those around you.

“Saving steady” saving means you give up on get-rich-quick chances like: the lottery, investment ideas guaranteed to make you rich, and striking oil in your backyard. Those things usually end up just wasting your money, and in the case of trying to strike oil, your landscaping. A good rule of thumb is to try to put aside 10% of what you make each week or each month for saving for the future. Do this steadily and over time you will watch the balance in your savings account and understand what good discipline can do.

But let’s say 10% is too high a place to start.  No problem, start where you can, but don’t aim too low.  Comb through your spending to see what you can cut back on, and devote that amount to savings.  Need some incentive?  Don’t look at what you can save each month.  Instead, take that amount and look at what you would be saving each year, or what you would have saved at the end of 5 years.  Even $25 a month turns into $300 at the end of the year, and $1,500 at the end of five years!  No matter how small, you’ll be glad you started.  Plus, increasing the amount you’re saving is easier than starting to save.  So get started!

 

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In Case of Emergency, Relax…

Relax?  Yes, if you’ve got an “emergency fund”, you have a reasonable shot at a state of non-panic when financial emergencies occur.

The first thing to do here is to define “emergency”. Emergencies are situations that interfere with your basic needs (shelter, food & water, transportation, etc.). Emergencies are not situations that interfere with your social life – they are not trips you want to go on, and they are definitely not late-night hunger or caffeine trips (yes, even if it’s your second consecutive all-nighter during exams or sick kids). Emergencies are also not things you can see coming (like those tires that your car is going to need, or that swiss cheese roof on your house you’ll need to fix in the next two years)

You’re going to want to set a certain amount aside for an emergency or two. How much, you ask? Most of your run-of-the-mill emergencies run $300-$500 (broken major appliance, unexpected car repair, etc.), so start by getting enough in your emergency savings to cover one of those things.

When (yup, you caught it, I did not use if) an emergency happens, you can use your emergency savings (so you don’t have to run to a credit card and get yourself in trouble), and then get to work building up your emergency savings back up to its original level.

Even More Emergencies

That doesn’t mean that we’re done with savings, though. Here are some other things that it’s smart to save for so you don’t get caught in the world of credit:

  • When it rains, it pours, right?  Make your next emergency savings level enough to cover 2-3 of those run-of-the-mill emergencies at the same time.
  • Want to reach a new level of emergency savings?  Try the “mild catastrophe level”.  This is enough to cover 3 months of living expenses in case all your income ceases due to job loss or sickness.  This should “buy” you enough time to find that next job and/or recover so you don’t have to add financial stress to your mild catastrophe.

Once you’re comfortable with your level of emergency savings, get working on your other financial goals – save for other future needs, or get to giving some of that extra to the needs that are out there!

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All Debt Costs You is Your Freedom

Shortly after leaving college and getting married, my friend Chris and his wife felt a calling to move to Europe and begin working with those less fortunate. They also wanted to be under the guidance of an organization that would help send them overseas. With a good number of agencies working in and around Europe, their hopes were high and they were excited to be sharing in the same unique calling. And while the calling was in sync, the timing apparently was not.

Debt was the culprit as multiple agencies declined partnering with the family. Both being relatively recent college graduates, Chris and his wife had a combined student loan debt of almost $90,000 between them. Because fundraising meant asking for others to sacrificially give to support the family’s expenses, it became obvious to the mission agencies that a majority of this donor-raised support would be dedicated to student loan payments, so they were told they could not be sent overseas until their debt was more manageable.

Debt can seem normal and needed (“everyone’s doing it”) until it starts to place demands on your life. Debt loads us down with financial burdens that keep us from things like financial freedom, generosity, and saving for future needs. We look to those who have money (and therefore who we borrow from) to provide for us what we can’t provide for ourselves…and what we won’t wait for.

An ancient proverb states, “the borrower is slave to the lender.”  Meaning what?  Well, in addition to stories like Chris’, above, it means having to go to your debtors first when money comes in, paying them off and only then exercising your freedom with the rest. The more things we obligate ourselves to each month, the less “free” we are to do what we want to do with our finances – whether that’s helping others or getting ready for the future.

We need to show debt to the door, escort it out, and triple-bolt the door behind it.  Make a budget (other posts on this blog can help you), don’t get discouraged, don’t lose hope, keep at it!  Our futures and the futures of those whom we can influence depend on it.

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The Real Payoff From School Loans

For those of us with school loans (or those of us who know someone with school loans…there, that should be everyone, right?), there are a few emotional moments when it comes to paying them off – the first tough moment is that month that they start becoming due – depending on how much you owe, that can be a small or a seismic shift for your living expenses. Another more euphoric moment is the day that they are all paid off.

Most of the days in between, though, are consumed with the ins and outs of life and our school loans fade into the category of being just another bill. It’s hard to get serious about paying off student loans. Why is this? Two big reasons. First, the amount is often huge and seems insurmountable, so we surrender to the impossibility of ever seeing the day they will be paid off and dutifully make our monthly payments and live our lives. Second, the interest rates on our student loans are usually low enough to fly under the radar when compared to other debt that we may have, so we focus on that and forget the school loans.

Assuming the more urgent and expensive debts have been taken care of, this particular post is not about debt or how to pay it off (but this one is). This post is about putting the slow and quiet repayment of those school loans front and center for one reason – those monthly payment amounts. Yes, you’re losing money with each month of interest that goes by, but the real goal here is about freeing up that monthly commitment you’re having to make each month.

So here’s the more important question – whether you are paying $100, $300, or $600 per month right now, what would you be able to do with that money if you weren’t paying off your school loans?

If I can simply offer an idea – assuming you’ve been making payments for some time, your financial life has adjusted around that fact. When your loans are one day paid off, it would almost be like having “extra” money each month. Therefore, since you’ll get to rewrite where that previously committed money goes from that day forth, don’t forget to be generous with some or all of it. Opportunities to carve some of our monthly finances out to help others more is a rare thing, so take advantage of it (for more on the why, check this out.)

So this is an encouragement to sell what you have to sell, set aside extra money in your monthly budget, whatever you need to do to be out from under that monthly obligation – then on that exuberant and joyous day when they’re all done, you reap the rewards of 1) no longer losing money every month to interest and 2) choosing how you can change the lives of others with what you do with your newfound “wealth”.

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First Things First

Starting to spend that tax refund (at least in your head?) Had an unexpected financial gift come your way? While it may not happen as often as we like, it is a really nice thing to have a little (or, hey, we’re not picky – a lot of) extra money come our way.

Whether it’s a real thing for you right now or not, there’s a good chance it will be, so…pop quiz:

How are you using it?

If you’re familiar with some of what we’ve shared here, you’d expect me to talk about using that extra money to meet financial goals you have (if you expected me to talk about lottery tickets or blowing it all on an ice sculpture of yourself, you’ve got the wrong blog). And yes, financial goals are a worthy use of that money, but since we’re here to learn more about generosity together, here’s the challenge:

Make your first thought a generous one. Truly, this is a thought revolution when compared to what’s probably going on around you.

That means that you’re making generosity one of your financial goals. Bonus points if you’re able to make it one of your top financial goals.

I’m not talking about giving all of your new-found wealth away (although, if that’s what you want to do, I’m not stopping you either). I’m simply saying that there are a growing number of us who, after one thorough walk through our house and garage have said “I have (more than) enough)”. Combine this with the fact that there are many people around us (in our world, our country, our very city) who have significantly less than and are simply asking for a chance, and we’ve got an opportunity to put generosity into action.
So here’s the practical challenge – you can take it or leave it (but I really hope you’ll take it). Make an agreement with yourself (or with your family) that whenever you receive unexpected income, that the first thing you’ll do is dedicate 10%, 20%, or half of it to give away.

(Disclaimer: If you’re about to be foreclosed upon or evicted, make this your challenge when your basic needs are not at risk)

Think about it this way – if you (like me and many others) have reached a point where you realize you have “enough”, and you’re about to get more, it’s very possible that you would still be doing OK if you gave some of it away.

Then use the rest for your financial goals, but do so with a bigger heart, knowing that you’ve changed others’ lives for the better by not feeding the lie that we need to spend all we get on ourselves.

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Got a Need? Give your way out of it.

My wife and I just had our first baby, and as everyone predicted (in no particular order): We have lost sleep (and hope to find it again someday), we can now change a diaper in the dark in under fifteen seconds, we are in constant awe and amazement, and our world has indeed been turned upside down.

When your world is turned upside down, whether for joy or for tragedy, it seems to attract both people and food. The food is (usually) a welcome gift because it’s one less thing to have to think about while you try to right yourself in the new season that has arrived.

When it was easy to come home and cook dinner (before our little one arrived), I took for granted how great it was to have a hot meal to sit down to and enjoy. Now it’s a little (lot) harder, and we so appreciate the effort people went through to bring us dinners for a little while – it enabled us to put our focus on trying to learn how to be parents.

As a result, never in my life have I appreciated more having a meal provided for me. I went from the kind of person who would have had trouble accepting that kind of help to the kind of person who opened our front door wide for the parade of food that descended upon us.

Talking with a friend about this season that we are in, I reflected on what to do with that appreciation. Obviously, thanking the people who came by to feed us was a start, but my friend challenged me to use that appreciation to meet someone’s similar need. His point was that the appreciation inside me was there so that I could understand how much I valued having that need met. This was the time to provide the same thing, while the iron was hot and the need was most felt.

So we’ve gotten a little creative, sometimes it’s a take-out pizza with a box of salad (by that I mean the boxy-type things some store-bought salad comes with now) – I’ve had to swallow the pride of wanting to show up with a fully prepared meal.

Honestly, it was rather easy to provide a meal since so many meals had been provided for us, but I asked myself – would I have still been willing to provide a meal during our time of need even if no one had shown up at our door? That’s the challenge I’ve given myself going forward – to identify my needs and try to meet them in one other person’s life even if that need has not (yet) been met in my life.

So your challenge this week is the same. What’s your need right now? It might be a meal, but it also might be money for Christmas gifts, a gift of time, or just a note or word of encouragement. Whatever your need is, see if you can think of someone in your life with the same need and do your best to meet that need in their life.

While it’s true that meeting their need may not change yours, you will have done two very important things – you will have increased your capacity for generosity and met a very real need for someone else. Both have the added effect of impacting your spirit of generosity, which is a need for all of us.

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Phishing for Trouble

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Recently, I’ve had a few people forward some spam and “phishing” (trying to get unauthorized information from you) e-mails that they have received, and I am saddened to report that the bad guys are getting better at this.  While your e-mail program or computer might have good software to block these, the people who have chosen these unseemly activities as their pastime are working hard to make what they send you believable.

As we enter into this holiday season, both work life and home life can get busier and we are more susceptible to rushing through e-mail and thus are more vulnerable to these attacks. Becoming a victim to one of these can be just what is needed to derail us from where we truly want our focus to be, and it can even take money away from us that we could have chosen to be generous with.

Here are some questions to ask yourself that may help you determine whether an unusual e-mail is real or a scam:

1.) Is the e-mail from a company that you normally have accounts or activity with?  If not, and they want information, forget it.  Likely this is illegitimate, but even if it is real, they don’t have a right to your information or to get it this way.

2.) Always look for grammar, spelling and punctuation.  These e-mails often come from other countries and are sent by those who don’t have the best grasp on the English language.  Big companies normally have people who do nothing but check the grammar, spelling and punctuation on e-mails that go out to customers.  If you see bad grammar, over or under-punctuation, or bad spelling, toss the e-mail.

3.) Check the sending e-mail address.  The e-mail may appear to say it’s from “Citibank”, for instance, but look deeper into the actual address that initiated the e-mail.  You can usually do this by clicking on it or by setting up a blank reply e-mail to see where it goes).  If the sender has an e-mail address that begins with something obscure and/or ends in @yahoo.com or @hotmail.com, or ends in something even less well known, you are looking at a phishing (or scam) e-mail.

4.) The main way these e-mails can get you is by getting you to click on a link within the e-mail, so when in doubt, DON’T.  Sometimes these links will open up into something that looks like the company’s website but is just window dressing to try to get your information from you.  If in doubt, go directly to that company’s website (without using any links in the e-mail) and log into your account that way, or send them a customer service e-mail asking them if the e-mail is legitimate.

If you’d like to do more reading, check this out: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt127.shtm

If you get one of these, just delete it.  If you have extra time (and for extra credit), send a copy of it to the company who’s being imitated so they can alert their other customers.  And then pray for the people who sent it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Power of an Envelope

a-letter-envelope-2A few years ago, I started receiving some gifts that came in envelopes but weren’t cash, weren’t gift cards, and they weren’t homemade coupons for washing my car the following summer (though those in particular are always encouraged.)  These gifts weren’t even for me.

The gifts in these envelopes were given to me by people who had helped others in need, but done it in my name.  The envelope contained a simple certificate that honored me as the reason the gift was initiated.

OK, true confessions.  I will admit when this started I felt somewhat cheated.  I mean, I’m glad someone somewhere got some help, but where was my gift?  My possessions?  The things that were going to continue to get me ahead in the world?  At least throw a gift card for me in with this gift for someone else, right?  Sort of a hybrid gift?  Not very generous thoughts, I know, but I think that is the default for a lot of us.

I got married last year, and with all the fun and celebration there came the very real task of consolidating two people’s earthly possessions which, for my part, took about as much planning as the wedding did.  And while I didn’t make the connection immediately, as I sorted through my stuff, I realized that many of my possessions I had hung on to out of sentimentality for the giver, or on the off chance I might need that third yo-yo someday.

This Christmas season, my thoughts have begun centering around the sad fact that many of my possessions don’t do much good sitting around – how I wish that my stuff could do more good than just sitting here with us.  And, slowly but surely, I have begun to realize the “power of the envelope”.  Instead of leaving me with more stuff, other people’s resources have gone into very real and tangible gifts that are at work doing very real and tangible good, most of which I will never see, but for which I can be as aware (and thankful) as I choose to be.

I am thankful that stuff that I never received is doing way more good than stuff that is sitting around my house.

So I’m still giving out some “real” gifts this year, when an item or thing makes me think of someone in my life and I know they would appreciate it, but I’m also giving out more envelopes this year.  And I can’t count the number of people who have told me they “have enough stuff”, which is saying something since counting is my profession.

My hope is that by choosing some gifts that actually help others who are in need, my heart (and our hearts) will continue to fall more in love with all the good we can do with the good we’ve already received.  We are truly blessed to be a blessing.

The challenge?  Give at least one “envelope” gift this year.  Many charities have made it very easy, even offering “gift catalogs” for you to send these kinds of gifts to others in your life.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and see you in 2016!

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