My Sirius radio preset channels are a rather eclectic lot: I have the 60’s, Willie’s Roadhouse, Jimmy Buffet, the Metropolitan Opera, College Sports, Fox Business News and newly added to the lineup, the Beatles channel. I wish they had a history or book channel; something like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, only without the random profanity that makes me cringe every time someone spews a most vulgar, and most unnecessary, spate of vulgarisms.
But today I’m thinking of my one channel dedicated to the country music genre. As I was scrolling through the channels last week trying to find something to soothe the frazzled noggin, I came across George Jones singing, “The Bartender’s Blues.” Here are a few lyrics (penned by James Taylor!) for all the working people out there:
“Well, I’m just a bartender
And I don’t like my work
But I don’t mind the money at all”
Ha! Isn’t that a great line? I always quote it when people complain to me about their jobs. Have you ever noticed how many people complain about the job they have, and then fall into desperate panic if they lose said job? I understand, it’s human nature to grouse. Remember the Israelites in the wilderness? They longed for the good old days of slavery in Egypt because there, at least, they “had all the cucumbers, melons, onions, leeks and garlic [they wanted].” Really? Leeks?
But to today’s point, and to why a Financial Advisor would be referencing George Jones, I must turn to Ben (“Ben” sounds better than “Benjamin” when paired with a Nashville old-school artist) Franklin, alias Poor Richard of Almanac fame. “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Ben and George, George and Ben, separated by a pair of centuries, had a lot in common. They were ‘accomplished’ womanizers and purveyors of strong drink, but that’s neither a topic we wish to examine today, nor attributes we wish to encourage. Really, I mean it: stop that! If for no other reason (and there are plenty) it will make your finances a mess to travel that “Lost Highway.”
So where I am going with this you ask? Well, in the first place some of you expressed a distinct lack of whimsy in my columns recently, and complained of too much politics and too little of my “free association” trains of thought. As Grandma said, “Be careful what you ask for.”
George Jones sings on:
“I’ve seen lots of sad faces
And lots of bad cases
Of folks with their backs to the wall”
I think Ben Franklin was thinking of these same types of “sad faces with their backs to the wall” when he was encouraging people to spend frugally and save vigorously. If we are not already, we need to start that lifestyle today to avoid ending up in a George Jones’ song in retirement.
“Now the smoke fills the air
Of this honky tonk bar
And I’m thinkin’ ‘bout where I’d rather be
But I burned all my bridges
And I sunk all my ships
And I’m stranded at the edge of the sea”
Now that verse right there is about the saddest word picture I ever did hear. So be a Ben Franklin devotee, and not someone stuck in a sad old tune: build some bridges, save some pennies and dollars too, keep your boat in fine trim and set your sights upon the horizon. Then sing your own song.
Today we’ll take a look at understanding debt. This may sound like a bridge-too-far in having a child understand debt when so many of us get this wrong as adults. But what I believe you need to get across to them is quite simple: While debt is not always a bad thing, it requires you to borrow. And “when you borrow, you steal from tomorrow.”
I wrote it earlier and I will reiterate that debt leveraging can be a very useful strategy for both business and personal finance. The problem is that most individuals do not have the discipline to use debt leveraging wisely. I believe that the misuse of debt stems from the foundational concept through which someone first learns of the capacity and availability of debt instruments such as credit cards. Typically, the first encounter is through a marketing effort on behalf of the lender. This first lesson is usually the simple idea that “you can have it now even though you can’t afford it now.” Additionally, “you can pay a little every month rather than having to pay the full cost right now.” Hopefully, you have already recognized that this view perpetuated by marketers and lenders coupled with a lack of opportunity cost rationality blindly leads our unsuspecting young adults into the trap of I-didn’t-understand-debt-until-I-was-knee-deep-in-it.
When we can plant the downside or the cost of debt as the first reflex, we can empower our children and their future adult selves to forgo impulse and instead rationally consider the consequence of choosing debt. What we want is for our children to choose “I want” over “I owe” the vast majority of the time. Here is an example of how to plant such seeds:
My son was being rewarded for an outstanding achievement and we drove to Wal-Mart to get a toy. I told him he had a $15 limit. He made a beeline for the Legos and promptly picked up a $25 set. I told him that if we got that one he’d be in debt of $10 which happened to be his monthly allowance. We got the toy and I explained that his borrowing the $10 means he stole from his future $10 allowance. In the moment, it meant nothing to him. But by the time the newness of the toy rubbed off it was time for his allowance. I gave him his $10 dollars (placed it in his hand) and had him give it back to me to “settle his debt”. He was none too happy.
After a couple learn-it-the-hard-way situations and consistently repeating “when you borrow you steal from tomorrow” he began to understand the sting of owing money and grew an appreciation for delayed gratification. And that, my friends, is the gold ring! In a world of increasing desire for immediate gratification, delayed gratification is a tough sell.
Ultimately, our children need to realize that most of the time “I want” is better than “I owe”.