The School of Hard Knocks

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“Never trust anyone over 30!” That was a bit of advice that teens and 20’s cynically gave each other in the 60’s and 70’s. Now that we’re IN our 60’s and 70’s, that sentence seems too absurd to even consider.


I approached this “labor of love” from the perspective that I’m fortunate to still be breathing and rolling out of bed in the morning. I’ve fathered and co-parented two sons, now 40 and 43 years old, and I noticed that life is so much more demanding and less forgiving, at least vocationally and financially, than it was for me and my peers, the Baby Boomers (a label that many are tired of hearing).


As is so often the case, particularly with sons and fathers, advice is not always well received or utilized. So, I’ve decided to annoy a larger contingent…YOU. Of course, it would be presumptuous to assume your individual circumstances, direction, and resources, so I’ve decided to lay it out as a general accounting of MY past, both steps and missteps. Don’t expect a lot of “gory details”. We don’t know each other that well. But if this camouflaged confessional helps an individual or two, then its well worth it to me. At this point, I need to disclose that I have no formal financial training. I'm just another guy passing through life. 


So, to “set the stage”, I was basically a “good little boy”, finished college and enrolled in grad school while awaiting the draft. Yippee! I got my draft notice the same day as my last final, the first semester of grad school. Off to the Army and Viet Nam. I was “one of the lucky ones”, arriving home without a catch, but waiting for the next explosion as I walked and rode around my hometown. 


Marriage came fast, coinciding with my return to grad school. With analyzing my motivation to marry, and certainly, without casting any negativity toward my bride, it's easy to conclude that I was in a big hurry. It’s also easy to deduce that I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have my “head screwed on straight”. I'll guess that my head wasn’t anywhere nearly straight enough until I was about 40 or so. I was so bright, but such a slow learner. Regardless, my wife and I had two sons, for whom we are very grateful. I consider myself extremely fortunate. 


So, aside from not marring prematurely, what else would I do differently? Okay, some of you just thought, “STAY MARRIED!” Well, that's the general direction of this article, as I likely would have been a wealthy man, had I done so. That aside, what other financial missteps did I take? 


Back around 1980, I remember walking into a convention. Three older gentlemen, who worked for the same system, were discussing investments, specifically their own accounts. They mentioned a favored mutual funds company, and asserted, “A young guy like you could become a wealthy man,” assuming I followed suit. Of course, as with most good advice, I failed to follow it. I had failed to take advantage of my youth, discretionary income, and the wonder and power of COMPOUNDING. First financial mistake, unless you’re counting divorce as #1. 


Next mistake? In 1999, I had a chance to retire early, and I jumped at it. I “crunched some numbers” to justify it, but chances are I massaged the data in favor of leaving the job and seeking my “fortunes” elsewhere. In retrospect, I could have doubled my pension by staying another five years. Dumb!


Nevertheless, things worked out okay. My new venture allowed a lot of freedom and leisure time, and it paid well. So, I did that for 12 years, during which I made another big blunder. SOCIAL SECURITY. I second-guessed myself on that one, intending to wait until full retirement age, 66. Then, the temptation to spend money in another direct hit, and I started drawing just before I turned 63. VERY dumb! I could easily have lasted until 66, or even to 70 when benefits would have jumped substantially. That sounded like a long time to wait when I was 62. It sure looks different now, at 71. Of course, Youngers don’t have much faith in the stability of Social Security. But, you can apply my mistakes to related possibilities (e.g. tapping into 401k’s and IRA’s). 


Oh, just one more money-burning tendency. I like to buy new cars, OFTEN. I understand that's pretty dumb, too. I can say with great assurance that I've literally thrown away tens of thousands of dollars buying a new car. 


I could illustrate other mistakes, but I'd need to write a book to do so. It’s not that I enjoy expounding on my errors. It’s that I wish better for all of you. I guess I could summarize my intentions to advise as: (1) find a passion that will pay your bills and a little bit more, (2) invest that little bit more, especially while your young (3) keep working at that passion, and (4) don’t break the piggy bank. You’ll need it if you make it to my age. 


Best wishes,