Balancing Responsibility with Empathy

balancing responsibility with empathy

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When you’re giving advice, one of the main tensions is the idea of balancing tough love with, well, love. Balancing responsibility with empathy.

Part of me is team responsibility – team “lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.” I made all the right decisions. I put in the hours at a high-paying job and I’m frugal. Obviously you have to make the right choices or you won’t succeed. In order to make the right choices, you have to have the mindset that you’re the only one that can help yourself, because often, you’re the only one who can.

Part of me is team empathy. I’ve been in gifted and talented programs since I was in second grade. I’ve been surrounded by smart kids who have made all the right choices. And still, because of health or other circumstances beyond their control, some of them don’t get the same outcomes. It’s not all a matter of mindset or making the right decisions, but a matter of luck and timing.

So how do you balance these two competing ideas -how do you encourage or advise people to keep making the right decisions when luck is so integral?

When to Use the Responsibility Mindset

To me, it makes a lot of sense to focus on what you can control. I think talking about privilege is pretty stupid, honestly. Let’s take Bill Gates. He’s “privileged” in that he’s a healthy, white man who grew up in a wealthy area. Would he have gotten where he is if he were Asian? Why does it matter? Even if we prove that Bill Gates was lucky – so what? Everyone still has to play the cards they’re dealt.

Judging your life based on other people’s cards is futile. It doesn’t make any difference to look at others who might be more advantaged (envy) or less advantaged (pity). If I don’t like my life, I have to focus on what I can do to change it right now. And I have to believe whatever I need to believe to advance myself. Learning about my disadvantages doesn’t serve me. Neither does complaining.

There are often different mindsets between those who succeed and those who fail so mindset is generally important but it’s not essential and it’s not enough.

When Mindset Doesn’t Work

There’s this scene in Sex and the City when Charlotte and Carrie go to a seminar with a dating self-help guru (bear with me and try not to roll your eyes too much). The guru is all about manifesting and mindset (I told you to stop rolling your eyes!).

Here’s the scene: a woman in the crowd has just stated that she followed the plan of daily affirmations and has met a great new guy. Enthusiastic applause. Then, Charlotte stands up.

Charlotte: I’m just wondering how long that woman was doing her affirmations because I’ve been doing mine every day. And I want to believe but nothing is happening. I just don’t think it’s working. I just don’t think it will work for me.

Guru: I hear fear. I hear doubt. You have to believe love to receive love. Keep repeating your affirmations and eventually your heart will catch up with your head.

Charlotte: That’s the thing though. I did find love. I believed that there was someone out there for me. And I met him. Finally. And we had a beautiful wedding. And then everything just fell apart. …. And now I just feel lost. And I am I’m trying to put myself out there but I feel hopeless.

Guru: Perhaps you’re not really putting yourself out there.

Charlotte: Oh.

Guru: …I mean emotionally and physically…. Maybe you’re not really trying.

And at this point, Charlotte’s friend, Carrie, intervenes and defends her friend, saying Charlotte really is trying. Charlotte really is doing the best she can do and her mindset is strong.

I was reminded of this scene after hearing so many personal finance gurus talk about “Mindset! Mindset! Mindset!” What happens when the guru is pressured – hey, the mindset isn’t working? Well, the guru places the blame on the person, of course. You’re not following the plan! And I think this does a disservice to people following the plan for the following reasons:

  1. Mindset isn’t everything.
  2. Empathy is always important.

The Difference Between Good Decisions and Good Outcomes

You should all read Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets. Basically, Duke says that when we look back at our decisions, we tend to judge whether they’re good or bad based on their outcomes. The problem is that you’re ignoring the presence of luck.

This plays out often in the personal finance world. You’re told over and over to go to college. Georgina goes to college, gets a great job and benefits and can easily pay off her loans. Georgina must have done everything right. George goes to college, has trouble finding a job and struggles to pay off his student loans. Well, he shouldn’t have taken out the loans. George made a mistake.

The problem is that you’re presented with a scenario and people are trying to figure out cause and effect. Basically, they’re trying to place blame. We want to think we live in a world where we put in A and get out B, but that’s not the world we live in. Also, we’re terrible at figuring out cause and effect.

So what do we do? We haphazardly place blame whenever someone has a bad outcome. We see this play out in every aspect of our lives.

You got sick? You should pray for healing. If you’re not healed? Well, you didn’t pray hard enough. Or you have secret sin.

You’re fat? You should be more self-disciplined. Didn’t lose the weight? You’re not trying hard enough.

Can’t make ends meet? You’re not budgeting strictly enough. You likely have some secret luxuries.

Sometimes you can do everything right and be sick or fat. Sometimes you can cut your expenses to the bone and still not earn enough. Sometimes you can do everything right and the outcome comes out wrong. And the worst part might be the people that don’t know you, telling you where you went wrong.

When to Use Empathy

Pre-civilization, people used to think that if something bad happened, you must have done something to anger the gods. We haven’t actually gotten that far away from this kind of thinking. We see a bad result and there’s a kneejerk reaction – what did you do wrong?

You can be “mindset! mindset! mindset!” but other people are going to tune you out without empathy. I think it’s a huge problem not to have empathy anyway.

Balancing Responsibility with Empathy

Personally, I think the rule of thumb should be, that you use the responsibility mindset with yourself, and empathy with others. This is not to say you shouldn’t be empathetic to yourself or that you shouldn’t use tough love with others, but this seems like a good first approach. You know a lot about yourself, your decisions and your situation. You don’t know what happened to the other person. I’m pretty self-controlled and I know there are tons of people who could beat me when it comes to doing the right things. I don’t know that the person who had a bad outcome made worse decisions than me. I shouldn’t assume that.

If someone is reaching out to you for advice, they are often looking for empathy, even if they don’t know it yet. You don’t necessarily reach out to yourself for that reason. The  problem with the guru from Sex and the City is that she had very little emotional intelligence. Charlotte clearly wanted someone to affirm her. And perhaps the cold-hearted among you (cough Asians cough) might say, well you just need to know the information and ignore your emotions. But sometimes people need support and understanding. It’s the common trope that women often communicate for the sense of community, not to be given advice.  I think that’s really beautiful. Some people want to figure things out for themselves but they need support along the way. Hammering the same defective advice short circuits that communication. You’re creating problems where there weren’t any. You’re not solving anything.

When people are struggling, I hope I can be more like Carrie and less like the personal finance guru. I want to be the person who seeks to understand, not seeks to promote my own agenda.

What about you?

How to KonMari Your Finances

konmari your finances

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There’s so much personal finance advice clutter out there – I think it’s time you all learned how to KonMari your personal finance advice. Wait, what does that even mean?

If you read my Twitter feed, it’s filled with tons of bad advice I’ve seen on other finance blogs. And if you’ve read the “At Age 35” memes that have been popping up all over the internet, you can see that many people were aggravated over the provocative Marketwatch tweet where “experts” stated that 35-year olds should have twice their salary saved.

Ok, let’s say you don’t have twice your salary saved by 35. That’s totally ok. I have twice my salary saved and I’m turning 35. But I didn’t meet the guidelines for 25 or 30 and I might not meet the guidelines for 40. Personal finance is personal. It doesn’t really make sense to be upset about what one person says is the “right way.” But sometimes you do get upset. What do you do with personal finance advice that upsets you?

Who is Marie Kondo and what is KonMari?

KonMari is a method of decluttering created by Marie Kondo that has as its central message: get rid of that which doesn’t spark joy. So how does this apply practically?
I used to have a Letterman jacket in high school. Huge waste of money. You can only wear it for four years tops and then it’s weird.

I never wore it. I kept it for years in my closet because of how much money my mother spent on it. Every time I opened my closet I would see it and feel guilty. It reminded me of my regrets from high school. I thought about how this would be a really weird thing to donate to the Salvation Army because it was embroidered with my name and year. I thought about my parents’ sacrifice and where I was in my life. I mean it was just a huge guilt explosion whenever I opened my closet.

So one day, I threw it away. Just tossed it in a bag and down the garbage chute.

And immediately, I felt immense relief. In fact, I felt elated.

Part of me thought I needed to keep the jacket into perpetuity as a reminder of my mistakes. But it didn’t make me better; it only made me feel worse. It was an anchor for me – keeping me rooted in the past and unable to feel free in the future.

I think about this jacket when I see criticisms of KonMari of the “Well I can’t just throw out my fridge because I’m indifferent to it” variety. I take the most commonsense approach to KonMari – if you hate it, get rid of it. And as simple and obvious as that advice sounds, it was a revelation for me.

KonMari-ing your Personal Finance

I love good financial voyeurism as much as the next person. But I recently read an article that made me feel pretty bad. It was from a couple that was younger than me but who had more money saved. I mean, it’s very likely that a couple would have more money than me because there are two of them. But even dividing by two, they had more. It made me feel inadequate. I didn’t know what to do with it.

So I tried to KonMari it. And I came up with the following mantra:

If advice or messages serve as an inspiration or a wake-up call, then take it and run with it. If they do nothing but make you feel ashamed or hopeless, then get rid of it. 

Does this Allow Me to Ignore Good Advice?

Wait a second, you say. This seems like I can just ignore the personal advice I need just because it makes me feel bad. That seems like an entitled millennial victim blah blah blah.

Sure, there’s the possibility of that. But I think, you have to be ready to take the advice. Even if advice is exactly right for you mathematically or practically, it still has to be right for your emotionally. If the form of the advice makes you more upset and angry than inspired or energized, then maybe it’s not the right advice at the right time for you. Sometimes you’re not at the right point in life to understand that advice. Sometimes what you need to do is work on what you can and get to the point when you’re ready to take that advice. The advice won’t go into the ether. There’s so much financial advice out there; it’ll come back to you in a form that’s ready for you to take it when you’re ready to accept it.

When Advice Doesn’t Incite Change

My brother, unfortunately, gets a lot of criticism in my family. He can be a little unrefined at times. For instance, when he’s excited he can speak so loudly that it sounds like yelling. He’s been doing this since he was a kid. And my family has chastised him since he was a kid. Nothing has changed. He is incredibly loud in settings where quietness is valued. The cycle continues. Loud. Chastise. Loud. Chastise.

A few years ago, I said, here’s the deal. You’re too loud sometimes. It bothers us. But we’ve told you this over and over again and it doesn’t seem to change. And the mark of an insane person is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So, if it’s something that we’ve already told you annoys us, I’m going to assume you’ve heard it. And I’m not going to say anything more about it. It hasn’t changed anything in the past and I would be an insane person to assume it would change something in the future. Further, I fear that it’s hurting our relationship. It seems we’re only chastising you to make ourselves feel better, not to effect change. So I’m putting an end to it. He said he appreciated it.

And you know what? It’s been years. He hasn’t changed. But I have.

Maybe one day, he’ll change. But I believe that it has to be the right message at the right time. Reading personal finance advice that makes you feel bad is guaranteed to make you feel bad, but it won’t guarantee change. It might even make it harder to change. Feeling bad is not the answer.

Conclusion

If you’re at the point where certain advice isn’t helping you to change, that’s ok. It can be the best advice in the world but if it’s not working for you, you have my permission as a totally unlicensed untrained personal finance blogger to leave it alone.  For what that’s worth.

This doesn’t absolve you from improving yourself. Everyone should be improving themselves constantly! But you can pick and choose what works for you. The best anyone can do is to put one foot in front of the other and make whatever progress we can. You don’t have to beat yourself up just to beat yourself up. And you shouldn’t let others beat you up just for the sake of it either. Shame isn’t the answer to your financial woes. Pick what inspires you to put one foot in front of the other. Follow that. Get more of that.

If there is advice or messages that make you feel bad about yourself and don’t encourage you to be better, you don’t need to keep them around. KonMari it and let it go.

In Praise of Deceiving Your Audience

Giving advice is tricky. First, you might not know what advice to give. Then, even if you know the absolutely right solution, the asker might not follow your advice. This has led some people to give advice based on what they believe the asker might follow instead of what may be more useful. I guess for me, that rings false because lawyers don’t get to give illegal advice just because we believe our clients are crooks.

Others believe that people may follow their advice but will be disappointed if they get different results. These people are very wary of giving advice of the “I did this, you can too!” varietal. They say insinuating similar or even positive results could be misleading. I’d like to think that people have seen the Etsy Fail blog  and/or understand the term “your mileage may vary.”  You train as hard but you don’t run as fast in the race. You study as hard but get different grades. You can diet and exercise and still not be as skinny as someone who eats whatever they want and lays on the couch. This is something we all learn about pretty early in life – life is not a simple cause and effect machine.

My thoughts on this: if the advice is solid, I don’t think we should concern ourselves with the results. First of all, none of us can guarantee or predict results. (The only people who try to do so are selling something.) If you write solid advice to a group of people, you can’t take on too much responsibility for what happens. We can’t predict the future for ourselves, let alone anyone else. The only thing we can control is our choices.

Second, the process is more important than the results.  I believe in teaching good habits, even if the results will inevitably vary.  If we focus too much on the end result, if we get too caught up in “well she has these advantages” or “he has these deficiencies,” no one will ever start anything. And that may be the worst kind of advice. If we focus on the journey and the good habits, I think it would be exceedingly rare for anyone to get to the end and think, I wish I hadn’t even started. 

I think about the call for transparency in personal finance blogs and I wonder if that’s beneficial. Let’s say someone reads the Frugalwoods, who have gotten some heat for pretending to be middle class while earning a $300k salary, and the reader is inspired to live a simpler, less expensive lifestyle and save more. Is there a bad outcome in this scenario? To me, the ends justify the means.

Some might say, bloggers can be inspiring while being honest. But I’ve disclosed that I have a high salary, and I’ve already heard a few comments that imply that  I’m unrelatable. I think people get most inspired by those who seem similar to themselves. If you broadcast you have a high salary, fewer people will think they can follow you, even if the advice and the steps are the same. If you broadcast your high salary, other people will focus on the results, see it as unobtainable and they might not even start. That’s a bad outcome. So if some bloggers want to create a facade of being low-income and that facade helps more people, who am I to judge? They are helping people. I am unrelatable.

Some might also say that bloggers could more transparently advertise the difficulties in their paths, but I wonder if this is also counterproductive. When I think about everything I’ve ever accomplished in my life, I’ve never thought about the obstacles or my deficiencies. For instance, my friends wanted to run a marathon, and I figured I would join them.  I had never run more than 10 miles before but I followed Hal Higdon’s program and I was fine.  I think if someone had told me that I wouldn’t make it, I probably would have backed out.  Some people like to prove people wrong – I am not one of those people. Lots of people are easily discouraged.

This is the beautiful thing about tiger moms. They assume their kids are capable and make their kids keep trying. Usually the kids soar because the kids have no idea that they can’t do it. I think it’s also true for adults – if you have high expectations, people will reach them more often than you would expect. Part of it is that you have no idea what the other person can accomplish and the other part is that people stretch to achieve what they believe they can achieve.

I think there are enough naysayers in the world that I don’t need to be one of them. And I think the basic tenets of personal finance are something that nearly everyone can do.

In fact, succeeding in personal finance is not that surprising, even if you start from the bottom. When I think of all the amazing things that people have accomplished when they really shouldn’t have, personal finance seems easy. Like Spud Webb never should have made it to the NBA. There are guys who are 6’8″ who don’t make it to the NBA. So someone who is 5’7″ generally has no chance. And no way would he ever have the chance to compete or win a dunk contest. I’m sure everyone told this to Spud Webb. I’m sure the number of people who believed in him making it to the NBA was very small. I’m sure there were a number of people who told him to do something easier. If he focused on the results, he wouldn’t be Spud Webb. He just focused on being an awesome basketball player. (See also Muggsy Bogues)

I think of the pianist with only one hand. There are people with two hands who aren’t pianists. Hey buddy, let’s steer you to painting instead (I mean, you don’t need both hands for painting and there’s a quadriplegic painter, so one hand doesn’t seem so bad). There are tons of things that someone with only one hand can do easily – playing the piano is one of the hardest. But that guy said no, I want to play the piano. And he did.

I remember I heard an interview with a man without limbs who became a wrestler and when I tried looking him up,  I couldn’t figure out which search result was him because there were multiple successful limbless wrestlers.  

I’m following the budding career of Shaquem Griffin, the first one handed-NFL player in the modern era. Now, if I had a son with one hand who wanted to be in sports, I would direct him towards running or soccer. And those would have been the safe choices. But it’s also less inspiring.

Shaquem Griffin was selected in the fifth round – he wasn’t a sought-after prospect. He knew the odds were against him in the draft. But from what I read from his interviews before he got drafted, the results of the draft, which he couldn’t control, were not the most important thing. He had already created a life for himself where he didn’t say, this is my disability, what can I still do? He started with, this is what I want to do and I won’t let my disability hold me back. And that’s the kind of mindset that is going to get him far and inspire others. That’s the kind of mindset I want to cultivate in myself and others.

It would have been very good advice to tell any of these people why they couldn’t do what they were trying to do. Why waste your time? Try something easier. That’s focusing on the results, not the process. All of these people succeeded because they focused on the process and weren’t too afraid to start.

So when people say, people can’t save money, I’m surprised. There are countless dyslexic authors, but telling someone they can save money is setting people’s hopes up. Because saving money, that’s impossible.

I’m not saying the message should be, you will get a million dollars by age 35. The message should be, if you develop these habits, you will have a great chance at succeeding no matter where you start from. Yes there will be obstacles and challenges and setbacks. I have no idea what those will be like for you. But I believe in starting and I believe in the process. And I believe anyone can. I also believe in the great Rumi quote:

Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.

Jordan B. Peterson describes a very optimistic view of life whereby a person thinks that all one’s problems are caused by oneself. That way, each person is totally in control of his/her own destiny. I mean, it’s not true. We are not the masters of our own fate. But what if we acted as if we were? Those who think they are the protagonists in their dramas have a lot more say in their outcomes than those who see themselves as victims.

People say you can encourage people but the ethical thing to do is to stifle their expectations lest they be disappointed. I say, why? If more people believe they can, more people will.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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Frugality – Don’t Stop Can’t Stop

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I have two friends who own successful small businesses. One spent $25,000 on two watches recently but the first time I met him, he was giddily boasting about his $6 t-shirt. The other sold his share in his company for $1.2M and the first time I met him, he was looking for street parking to avoid paying for a lot.

One would think, both of these men being cocky alpha males, that they would have tried to impress me from the get-go with their wealth. But they were flaunting their cheapness when just meeting me and I only learned about their wealth over time. I think they both tried to flaunt their wealth to me later (I did learn about the watches and the selling price of the company after all), but what I initially saw was that these were people who were still interested in saving a few bucks here and there even when it didn’t matter to them.

For a different perspective, I remember a grad student telling a friend and me that when she got her first real job she would get a wardrobe full of designer clothing. My other friend in this conversation is a very successful vice president of a major company and I remember her balking at the cost of designer clothing. $600 for boots? No thank you.

So why am I telling you these anecdotes? Well, I’ve seen posts where people wonder if they’ll have to be “frugal forever.” It seems like people are wondering if they’ll always be miserable clipping coupons or comparing prices. What I learned from these anecdotes is that there is no end to frugality. I’m not saying it’s an endless treadmill of counting pennies, but if you get into certain money-saving habits that work for you, that you develop over years, you don’t turn them off even when you gain wealth. You may not be able to turn them off either. Think of it like a train – you spent all this time getting it going that it’s hard to stop it. You’ve built these habits for life.

For instance, I still look at coupon inserts because I used to clip coupons with my mother. This is a habit I’ve had since I was a little kid. I look for promo codes when I purchase items online. I still cook most of my meals at home. I don’t need to save the dollars here and there anymore, but 1) I’ve gotten quite efficient with how I save money because I know what works and where to look; 2) there’s very little incentive to spend more when I know the cheaper option works; 3) I’ve learned to enjoy the cheaper options; 4)  the high of saving money doesn’t go away; and 5) I just don’t know another way to be.

So if you’re frugal, you are mindful with your money. You have forced yourself to make decisions that resulted in spending more  on things that are meaningful to you and less on stuff that isn’t. If you live that perspective, you probably start to believe that mindset and that’s a hard mindset to break out of. In fact, you probably don’t want to break out of that mindset. You are that mindset now.

So if you’re wondering if you will get to a point in your life when you can finally get rid of your frugal habits, the answer is probably not. Once you develop the habit, you’ve changed something about yourself and your goals. The positives are that it only gets easier to save money because you will find it second nature and you will want to do it. It’s like flexing a muscle. It becomes less awkward and then it just becomes second nature. The negatives (possibly) are that you have fundamentally changed what you value and how you live your life. You may never get that designer wardrobe because you have realized different goals in life.

The other option you have is to get the designer wardrobe, the fancy vacations, the upscale apartment. The truth is that all the choices you make at the beginning of your career and all the ones you are making on a daily basis are creating the habits you will get used to. As I’ve heard Whitney Cummings say about snowboarding, you go in the direction that your feet are pointed. If you’re used to saving, the more you’ll save.   The more you spend, the more you’ll get used to spending. The more you do something, the more you’ll value it, the more it’ll become part of you. It’s the habits, the things you do everyday, that will make you into the person you will eventually become. And it’s only much later that you realize what you decided you valued, because that’s the person you became.

What kind of person are you becoming?
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Photo by Mado El Khouly on Unsplash

Quick Thoughts on 15 Books I’ve Read this Year

The more I read, the more excited I am to read. It’s like learning more about what I don’t know. And it’s exciting and also a little bit embarrassing because I start to get paranoid and think, wait, did everyone else already know about this? Given the rates of reading in the world, maybe not.

I’m sure someone will ask how I read so much. Well, it’s easy to read a book a week if you are a type-A neurotic who takes public transportation and also doesn’t have a very exciting social life. I read whenever I’m in a queue to calm the internal rage that comes over me from waiting in line and whenever else I have a spare moment. I only watch one or two TV shows a quarter and they’re all shows that can’t be binge watched – i.e. I don’t have Netflix.  Even so, I’m a little short on a book a week, particularly as one of these “books” is a movie, but I’ve been working like mad recently. I hope to get better!

*These aren’t affiliate links.

1. Dollars and Sense: How we Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter by Dan Ariely

This book focuses on the irrational ways we handle and think about money. The biggest one that I noticed for myself is faulty comparisons. In the book it’s how car salesmen get you to add on extras to your car, because you mistakenly compare the cost of the extras to the car, which make the extras seem insignificant. For me, I’ll nitpick about the cheapest Uber but forget that I used to spend so much money owning a car. Or I remember this one time when my boyfriend and I had just come back from a pricey European vacation and we balked at paying 10 cents to print out a Groupon for a “free” meal on our way back. We were adding the 10 cents to the vacation and were trying to take a stance of “not a penny more!” but that’s a really illogical way to look at money. And vacations. I should have been comparing the 10 cents to the cost of a comparable meal out, not adding it to the tab of the vacations. (Also no one was keeping track of my budget for vacations for me so it didn’t matter to anyone anyway).

In the same way, I’ve always thought budgets were a little odd. Like if your budget is $100 on clothes and you’re already at $100 in April, what does it matter if you buy the dress you like on April 30 v. May 1?

2. Win Bigly by Scott Adams

If you still can’t wrap your mind around how Candidate Trump became President Trump, this one cuts through all the BS.

3. Great at Work by Morten Hansen

Most employees focus on a million different tasks and projects and do middling jobs at them. The best employees focus on fewer things but obsess to be the best at them.

4. In Pursuit of Silence [documentary]

Ok it’s not a book so I’m cheating here. It showcases the negative effects of noise in our lives.

5. Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone

Understand whether you want coaching, compliments or information regarding your position as feedback and interpret any of the feedback you receive as such. This helps you understand others’ feedback for you and communicate your needs for feedback from others.

6. The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

What I took from this book is that Ms. Haddish is a powerhouse of positivity. I also remember that she wrote that if you’re not having fun on stage, no one’s having fun.

This is the book that finally helped me understand that affirmations were not crap.

The way humans are socialized, we hold a somewhat irrational attachment to our tribes. It’s not that we should break our allegiances but we have to understand others’ allegiances if we are to understand their motivations.

9. The Year of Less by Cait Flanders

Like a coming of age story when it comes to money and someone in their 20s.

10. Barking to the Choir by Greg Boyle

I’m so impressed with Father Boyle’s compassion for former gang members. It really makes it hard to judge anyone after reading this book.

A lot of good emotional work here.

12. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

I love this idea of cleaning out your house early so your family won’t have as much to do. And it’s such a hilarious gem of a book too.

Forget the 1%, the upper middle class are keeping income inequality alive.

14. Nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg

This is a way of communicating to de-escalate potentially explosive situations (not necessarily violent in a gang way, but could just be violent in your personal relationships).

15. Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix

I buy into the idea that I’m attracted to people who represent the negative characteristics of my primary caregiver in an effort to subconsciously repair that rift. That’s why I always date men who oddly remind me of my mother.

What are you reading?

The Write Everyday in May Challenge

pexels-photo-316465.jpegToday I will tell you how a tiny bit of success ruined my life (or just derailed my blog). If you check out the archives, you’ll see that this blog was started in 2016. I didn’t start writing regularly, however, until October. Starting in the middle of October of 2017, I tried to write everyday. I didn’t quite make it, but I created enough of a habit that I posted more in November than any month before or after. It felt good building the habit.

Then in late November, I got featured in Rockstar Finance. I can tell you honestly that was not the goal because I didn’t know regular sites got featured on Rockstar Finance. But with that feature, my middling viewership skyrocketed, even if only for a few days. But the surge had a profound effect on me. I changed from thinking, I’m just writing for myself, to, I COULD BE POPULAR. And for a hot second, I chased popularity. I read up on SEO and (ugh) Pinterest. I tried social media, which was great because 1) I finally could claim some Millennial cred and 2) I met some cool people and 3) had very cool experiences like attending CampFi on a last minute ticket. I’ve even set up some interviews with people I met on Facebook that will soon become posts. All in all, I don’t regret social media the way most people do.

But I found that the social media and other activities were distracting me from what I really wanted – which was writing. Yes, the number of people visiting my blog went up a lot, but I only made 6 posts in April, the lowest number I’ve done in 6 months. I’ve heard that successful bloggers focus more on marketing than writing and I’m sure that’s true but that’s not my vision of success.

I think some people may be misled to think that I’m trying to make my blog popular and then monetize like every other personal finance blogger. I mean, I wouldn’t hate it (the monetization anyway, though I’m terrified of popularity) but the overarching reason I write is because writing benefits me.

I have a lot of stories I want to tell. I have 165 drafts in my inbox that represent posts that I’m trying to write. When I started writing my blog, I had 150 drafts. Rather than diminishing, the number of drafts has increased because I haven’t finished them and I keep adding more. My blog wasn’t accomplishing its mission of inbox zero.

I have to remember (sorry readers) that this blog is for me. I mean, I hope it’s helpful to you too, if only in that I encourage you to write more. For instance, here are some ways that writing has helped me:

  1. It helps me store memories and experiences away like Dumbledore.  It’s just a relief that I don’t have to remember everything in this tiny little mind I have. Without my journal and my blog, my life would just pass me by and I wouldn’t spend the time to reflect on my experiences or learn from them.
  2. It helps me synthesize thoughts and ideas and organize my thoughts.
  3. It has helped me to connect with others. It’s been lovely reading comments.
  4. Writing helps me remember the things I read in the tons of books I read per year. Otherwise it’s all in one ear out the other.
  5. It helps me chart my progress. It’s amazing when people take pictures of themselves every day for years – you can see the changes as they happen.
     Writing down your thoughts is like seeing your mind change. It doesn’t always seem like we are changing but we are, often subtly. If we don’t make a record of who we were before, we might fail to see the progress and think we aren’t getting anywhere. It’s very difficult to take a picture of your mind though – but writing can help take a snapshot of who you were at this period of time.
  6. It helps exercise the creativity and self-expression muscles.
So I’m going back to my original purpose. I pledge to write every day in May. Why don’t you join me? My challenge to you – whether you’re a blogger or not – is to spend some time writing every day this month. It doesn’t all have to be perfect or even intelligible. I will try to make my posts as intelligible as possible, readers, but mostly I just want to make a dent in my pile of ideas and take some weight off my brain. I hope you do the same.

Will you join me in my writing spree? Why do you write?

At the Crossroads of Student Financial Health and Mental Health

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I learned that there was a suicide at my very competitive high school earlier this month. He was a freshman. When I learned this from a friend, I told her I was surprised it hasn’t happened more often.

When I was home on break my fourth year at college, I received a very strange phone call. It was the father of an acquaintance,  a current senior, already accepted to attend my college. The father asked about my senior slump, i.e. the expected drop in grades a high school senior has after being accepted into college. Oblivious, I stated honestly that my senior grades improved my last semester, likely due to teachers caring even less than the students. I treated it as a bit of a joke, but he didn’t take it that way.

Apparently, my acquaintance had suffered the usual senior slump and his father had taken it upon himself to punish him based on whether I had done the same. (I was currently attending the college, so clearly I was not a good example for the father to call).

I later learned that the father hit his son after our call.

I think people hear this story and are surprised that I’m surprised. That family and my family are both Asian so I should have known what the call was about, right?

Over the years, I’ve learned that my parents are not normal. For instance, once when I was in a group of Asian people, someone said “people don’t understand that all Asian people get beat by their parents.” I piped up:”my parents don’t hit me.” One of my friends burst out laughing. Then she stopped and asked if it was a joke.

Asians think this is bar none the strangest thing about my family – no one gets hit, no one hits anyone else.  I know, as children, my parents got beat, but that was in Asia and a long time ago. I figured it was a bygone barbaric time. My grandparents did not know any better.

I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t beat your kids. I don’t understand it myself but I’m not judging. Still, it’s not the hitting that bothers me so much as the reason for hitting. My acquaintance was going to a very good school. Why would you hit a good kid like that?

And the answer is, because slumping grades are not good enough in the Asian American community. I am cognizant of the pressures to be perfect, but mostly from a distance. Most of my pressure growing up was internal; I tiger mom-ed myself. I signed myself up for piano lessons. I applied to gifted and talented programs. I applied to law school on my own urging.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I saw the external pressure my friends were under. This pressure to be perfect, top of class, high-earning. And I didn’t even grow up in a  super-pressure-cooker area like New York or California, or (heaven-forbid) Asia.

Asian immigrant parents often came to this country with nothing and they wanted a better life for their children. This has led to an arms race in education and money. And Asian parents will literally do anything to get their kids to succeed. There’s an incredible amount of sacrifice involved. Some Asian parents will sacrifice their own financial well-being for their children. With that, there comes a lot of pressure (psychological, emotional and physical, to name a few) to do well and give back. It’s not just about earning one’s keep; it feels a little bit like the guilt that Private Ryan has after so many people sacrificed for him. But if he had known about the guilt he would suffer, Private Ryan probably would have told those soldiers to call off the search. It’s just too much of a burden to bear. Nothing will ever seem enough to cover the sacrifice.

When I thought of student financial health, I thought about student health, and I thought about this. I was thinking, the best way to work on your financial health as a student is to give yourself a break. It’s too much of a burden to achieve super-perfect grades to get into that super-perfect college so that you can get that super-perfect job and earn super-perfect money. It’s ok to make ok money.

It’s ok to struggle at school or finances or relationships or anything. It’s also ok to fail sometimes. Failint doesn’t make you a failure and people will not see you as such.  Not being perfect only means you are human. And if that’s not ok for some people, well it’s their own problem. It’s not your problem.

In a way, it was good that I wasn’t such a stellar student because it meant that I didn’t have to live in fear of knowing what might happen if I failed. I met the failure and found it was ok.

Your parents probably love you even without all the bells and whistles. I mean, I can’t say for sure because I’m an Internet stranger. But it’s probably true. I eventually found out my own parents cared about me apart from my (paltry) accomplishments.

I always noticed that when pushy Asian moms would brag about their kids, my mom would bring up whatever marginally impressive thing her kids had done to use as a weapon to fight back. And then she’d bemoan the other moms later. From this, I did eventually get the feeling that my family was all on the same team. She didn’t tell me to get better for the sake of other moms; she just hung around other moms less. (Not because she was ashamed of us but because it’s just exhausting and no one’s ever going to top Danny who went to Yale on a full scholarship).

I wish you all the same luck with your families. And, y’know a scholarship to Yale (while we’re wishing). #finhealthmatters

 

 

Don’t Let Anyone Shame You For Your Financial Journey

pexels-photo.jpgDuring a tough time, a friend asked me how I was doing  and I deflected with my usual disclaimer. I said it was tough but I acknowledged that people were suffering much more than me. There was hunger and there was death and disease.

I wasn’t saying this just to be polite. In fact, I was incredibly embarrassed by how difficult things were for me. I shamed myself often, telling myself, c’mon Lisa, get over yourself. People are fighting wars and running for their lives and you have stupid X, Y, Z problems. Anyone would be happy to have your silly problems.

My friend, though, saw right through me. He said, that’s a terrible way to look at it. Acknowledging that I have problems is not the same as discounting other people’s problems. We are not in a competition for who has it worst.

His message has stuck with me. In fact, after I started letting myself wallow in a carefully regulated amount of self-pity, I finally got over it. I think discounting my  emotions as silliness held me back. I spent all this time shaming myself and not enough time figuring stuff out.

Sometimes I follow the same pattern when I talk about my financial journey.

I have a high income. I have quite a bit of savings. So when I feel inadequate that people younger than me have saved so much more, have higher incomes or have already bought multiple houses, I tell myself, well there are people who are worried about losing their house or their job or their kids. My worries are inconsequential, I think. But that’s the wrong approach.

It’s ok if your problems are really hard for you.

I don’t have to have the biggest problems in the world for them to be valid. I don’t have to have the best story in the world to own my story. Being honest about my floofy problems and my true story might be helpful to someone else. But nothing good is going to come from me tamping down my problems and my story.

I don’t have the biggest problems but they are my problems and I’m figuring out how to deal with them. I don’t have to compete on problems with anyone else.

But won’t treating my small potato problems like big problems indicate a lack of self-awareness? Isn’t that the kind of thing that should be ridiculed? Look, if someone is trying to diminish or one-up you on your problems, then let them diminish or one-up you and then find some other people to talk to. If someone is telling you your problems don’t matter, then they don’t care about you. My friends, who are all saints in my opinion, still care about what problems I’m going through even when they have their own setbacks. And I care about their problems so why can’t I care about mine?

This will sound very unproductive, but I hereby give you all permission to wallow in your problems. Don’t be obnoxious about it but don’t be dismissive either.

Shame isn’t the answer.

I heard this story on a podcast. This woman slept around quite a bit and she was ashamed of herself for doing so. But, she figured, at least she felt the shame. If she didn’t feel the shame, then she knew she was really far gone. Later, however, when she learned to accept herself and her actions without the shame, she found she didn’t want to sleep around anymore. So paradoxically it was the shame over doing the things that she didn’t want to do that kept her doing them. In fact, rather than preventing her from doing something worse, it was the shame that was the instigator of it all.

It’s a bit funny that all of us can feel ashamed of our finances, of where we’ve come from, of where we are or where we’re going. And maybe we justify all of it by stating that at least we know we’re wrong or privileged or a spendthrift and we feel badly about it. Maybe that’s not the right approach at all. Maybe the first step in everyone’s financial journey is saying, this is how I feel and that’s ok. I’m ok for feeling these things.

And maybe what follows is that we need to forgive the past and everyone that played a role in the mistakes that were made. Of course, forgiving everyone includes forgiving ourselves.

Forgive yourself for having privileges that others didn’t have. Forgive yourself for not having the privileges that others had. Forgive yourself for not saving as much as you wanted, making investment mistakes, not making a high enough salary, making too high a salary for what you do, for anything unethical you’ve done, for anything unethical done to you, for any jealousy that you’ve harbored against anyone else.

Forgive yourself for having problems. Then wallow. Then fix it or get over it and then go help someone else.

Change Your Money Story; Change Your Life

pexels-photo-261889.jpegI unashamedly love watching America’s Next Top Model. To me, it’s not mindless entertainment. I have learned a lot from Tyra Banks’ timeless wisdom over the years (although I still haven’t perfected “smizing”) and from watching the contestants talk to themselves in their confessionals. It’s easy to see the patterns because the formula for how ANTM picks its contestants always stays the same: they pick stereotypes.

There was always the one who struggled with doing “girly” things (yet wanted to be a model). There was the one that struggled with her age. There were others who thought they were too heavy, too thin, too short, too tall, too pale, too weird-looking, too foreign.

And every model thinks that, of all the models, she was the one that fit in the least.

I always wanted to take them all home with me and tell them, can’t you see that everyone else is as insecure as you? But I don’t think the ladies would believe me. The producers don’t feed these stories to the women; instead, the producers pick women who have these stereotypes deeply ingrained inside themselves.

At some point in their lives, these women had interpreted things about themselves based on their situations. And no matter how wrongly they had interpreted the previous set of circumstances and no matter how things had changed since their initial investment, they keep looking for facts to confirm these ideas to themselves. This is known as confirmation bias.

So the lady who thinks she only likes boyish things – that has become her identity no matter whether she actually still likes stereotypical masculine things or not. It doesn’t matter that she is trying to become a model, which is one of the most stereotypical feminine activities ever after, say, giving birth. She is, in her mind, boyish.

And perhaps it wouldn’t matter if this belief wasn’t holding her back. But she tells herself that she can’t wear a dress, which is a big problem if you’re a model. She can’t have long hair. She can’t even act the part of a pretty lady in photographs, which, again, are basics of the job of being a model. These are thoughts that come from the past but they’re ruining her present and her future.

I remember listening to a woman talk about manifesting success and I was ready to tune out. She said, she was manifesting a call from Oprah to be on her show. (eye roll). But then she said something that made her belief seem normal.

She said that she had spent years creating a great product, a great company, a great story, and that she had applied to be on the show and had been networking with the producers. It wasn’t like she was sitting on her couch dreaming of being on the Oprah show – she had put in a tremendous amount of legwork to get on the show and, when she basically had nothing left to do, she was thinking good, positive thoughts. Any bit of further contact she had with the producers or anyone connected with the show, she kept this thought in her mind – I’m going to be on this show. And what do you know, she got on Oprah.

I don’t want to get all hippy-dippy on you, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that you’re more likely to achieve your dreams if you believe you can and you’re less likely to achieve your dreams if you believe you can’t. Both Ms. Manifesting and Ms. Tomboy Model both had the raw skills it would take to achieve their dreams. But one of them used her thoughts to move herself forward while the other used her thoughts to hold herself back.

And now, how this applies to money.

I can tell you all sorts of reasons I would be bad at money.

I never had any financial education in school. My personality type makes me a likely victim of financial abuse and overindulging. I’m a minority woman. I like being generous. I didn’t grow up rich.

I could tell myself all these things, which are all true, and come to the conclusion that I am bad at money. In fact, I could believe that I have to be bad at money and there’s nothing that I can do about it.

But I could also look at some other facts. I have very simple tastes. I don’t “get” FOMO. I have good financial role models. I earn a salary that far exceeds what I need.

And it turns out, I’m pretty good with money. I save 70% of my salary mostly because I don’t know what else to spend money on. When people say I shouldn’t be good with money, that’s a story that I don’t agree with. I’ve created my own story.

So what happens if you have a bad story? I think the thing to remember here is that we are all telling ourselves a story, every minute of every day. I’m this kind of person. I’m not that kind of person.

Maybe these stories are based on past events. Maybe they’re aspirational. Maybe people have told you things and you believed them. Maybe you think you’re like your family or your spouse or a certain TV show character.

The important thing to realize is that 1) the story you tell yourself might not be true and 2) the story you tell yourself can change. Maybe you were a big spender before, but you aren’t necessarily a big spender now and you don’t have to be a big spender in the future. Maybe you were a responsible kid, but that doesn’t mean that all your decisions now come from that same responsibility framework.

So I would question the stories you make up in your minds. You can ask if the stories are rooted in truth, but perhaps the more important question to ask is are they serving you. I have this belief that I’d rather lie to myself to get what I want then to tell myself the truth and miss out. The dirty secret of Asian American success is that everyone expects Asian Americans to succeed. Asian American C-students become A-students merely because the students are inundated with the belief they will succeed.  (Based on this, I’m wary of all the reporting on minority underperformance because I think it’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for other minorities).

Are you good with money? Don’t look at your bank statements. Tell yourself you’re good with money. Think of the reasons that you should be good with money. Envision yourself being good with money. Envision everyone believing you are good with money and watching you. Create the story that you are good with money. Then act like you’re good with money. See what happens.

I think people often underestimate how important our thoughts are in achieving our goals. Our thoughts become our words and our words become our actions. Thus, the stories we make up in our minds become our lives. 
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The Unexpected Reason Why It’s Easier for the Rich to Save and Harder for the Poor

unexpected reason easier for the rich to save and harder for the poor to save

That feeling when you see a low-income person with nicer stuff than you

My mother had heard that some kids at our church couldn’t afford new clothes. She asked me to help her pick out some clothes to give to them. This was the 90s so we went to the typical teenager stores of the time – Old Navy, Guess, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger.

When she gave them the clothes, I noticed that they discarded the Old Navy duds but were quite excited about the name-brand items. The name brand items weren’t better looking but they were emblazoned with the brand name (this was the 90s when that was the style). I thought this was peculiar because new clothes are new clothes. I proudly wore (and still wear) clothing from Walmart and would have been grateful for the gift.

Similarly, when I visited a child for whom I was performing pro bono services, I couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing a Helly Hansen coat. That coat was probably more expensive than the one I was wearing, as her attorney.

Something similar happened when I was talking to a woman I mentor at an event for our mentees. Nearby was a child of another mentee decked out in a shiny rose gold shirt with matching rose gold accessories, including cat ears, hair trinkets and shoes. I definitely never had such nice things when I was a kid, and I’m sure my parents earned at least quadruple the income that hers did.

The Confidence of the Middle Class

When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the dichotomy. When you don’t have anything shouldn’t you be grateful for anything? Why spend a lot on clothes, particularly children’s clothes, when you are worried about the rent, the electric, the car, etc.? Shouldn’t these families learn to be minimalist and frugal?

But sometime after seeing my mom donate those clothes, something clicked for me. Yes, I was wearing cheap hand-me-down clothes. But I also never had to worry about where I was sleeping for the night. I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from.

Most importantly, I never had to worry about someone accusing me of being poor.

My family wasn’t rich, in absolute terms or in comparison with the people in my middle-class public school, but we were safe – both in terms of living in a safe neighborhood but also in terms of social status. I could “afford” to wear cheap clothes because I had confidence that if someone even joked about me being poor, my classmates could vouch for my living in their neighborhood in a suitably sized house.

Why the Poor Have Nice Stuff

If I were poor, I’m sure being called poor would be absolutely terrifying. I wouldn’t have the self-confidence of a middle-income person. I wouldn’t have people who could vouch for the size of my house or the white collar-ness of my parents’ jobs.  Because of this anxiety, I’m sure I would change my lifestyle so I would never fear being accused of being poor. I would wear nicer clothes, eat fancier meals, drive a nice car. I would do these things not because it made mathematical sense, but because, I would want to avoid anyone second-guessing my social class, and thus, subtly second-guessing my worth. (I’m not saying a person’s worth is dependent on their social class, or that it should be that way – I’m just saying that many people feel this way).

You try to keep up appearances to bolster your own self esteem. Maybe you can barely afford rent but no one needs to know that. The very last straw isn’t homelessness or even when others stop believing in you. The last straw is when you can’t believe in yourself. And if you can’t have the stable life, you can at least look the part, to others and to yourself.

A Poverty Mindset

This mindset isn’t only held by the poor. You can grow up at any income level and still have a chip on your shoulder. There are people who grew up far richer than me that might identify with it. But it’s a mindset that is easier to overcome as a rich person than as a poor person. It’s a simple matter of looking around and being grateful for having the roof over your head. It’s much easier to be confident when you have some constants in your life.

When a rich person says that he could pull himself up by his bootstraps if he had a reduced income, he may be right. To be more specific, he is right that he may have the skills, health, education, connections and confidence that if he were put in a situation with low income, he could lift himself up by his very own bootstraps. He could visualize where he was before and say, well I got there once and I believe in myself to get there again.

But the poor aren’t “rich people pretending to be poor.” The poor are the way they are.

When people point at the poor and say, why do you have the newest iPhone or the big SUV when I, as a rich person, have a flip phone and take the bus, this is part of the reason why. It’s not that the poor are secretly not poor. They very much are. In fact, they are acting in ways that very much show that they’re poor, though perhaps not monetarily. They are poor of mindset. And that can be harder to fix than a cash flow problem. They may very well not believe that they can get out of their situation so the thinking may go, I might as well have my fun now. You may not have hope, but at least you have an Xbox.

The Unexpected Reason Why I’ts Harder for The Poor to Save

When people say, the poor shouldn’t care what other people think, that’s a fallacy too. The rich don’t need to care what people think of them. The rich can insulate themselves from people they don’t want to have around; the poor cannot. The poor have to see social workers, teachers, school administrators, government workers, neighbors and family because they rely on all these people to survive. So the poor have more people judging them than the rich. Thus, the poor have more people they want to and need to view them positively. In fact, the poor likely get a lot more bang for their buck by spending extravagantly on appearances.

Additionally, being rich drastically changes how you’re viewed even without spending any money. For instance, I can be frugal because I have so many indicators to show that I’m wealthy. When people come to visit, they don’t care that my furniture is secondhand Ikea because my apartment is in a neighborhood where the median home values are $1 million.  They don’t notice the lack of TV, because I have a laptop laying around that costs over $1000. When I say I don’t have a car, the understanding is that I choose not to, not because I can’t – because everyone knows I’m a lawyer and I make bank.

Similarly, when I say my clothes are several years old, low-priced and sourced from ignoble locales like Payless and Walmart, it doesn’t affect others’ views of me because I’m young, thin, pretty and rich so my humble clothes seem more expensive when I wear them. Everything seems more expensive in my life because of me. It’s actually a waste for me to spend on more expensive things because I will get compliments whether my dress is from Target or Gucci.

The Dirty Secrets of the Rich

No one wants to wear Mark Zuckerberg’s clothes, but they want to be as rich as Zuckerberg and then be free to wear whatever they want. The people who get away with wearing junky things are the rich.

The purpose of expensive things is so people will think you’re rich. If you’re already rich, you don’t need people to think anything of you. People will come to you if you’re rich. If you’re poor, you still need to prove yourself to get a job, friends, connections, business partners, etc. The irony is that the Gucci works best for those that can’t afford it.

The dirty secret to being frugal is not caring what people think. The secret to not caring what people think is being rich.

If you don’t have these indicators of wealth, it’s a lot less likely that being frugal seems like a worthy goal. Having the junky items I have just makes you look poor, and no one wants to look poor without secretly being rich.