“What are we, a mile from the sun?” asked Lawrence Bourne III in one of Tom Hanks’ lesser films. Hanks played Lawrence, a spoiled rich kid that inadvertently gets himself enrolled in the Peace Corp and shipped off to the tropics. The only thing I remember about the movie was the Hanks character getting off an airplane with the temperature reaching for the 100s and the humidity over 90, and asking that (presumably) rhetorical question. That, and John Candy playing the lovable lug loser he did so often, “Hi, Tom Tuttle from Tacoma!”
Have you been outside this month? It is hot, Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer as Roosevelt the weather reporter hot. They tell me the Southwestern United States is worse, but it’s a “dry heat”. Yeah, so is my oven, but I don’t want to vacation there.
After Dad died five years ago, my siblings and I elected to let the U of F football tickets go after 50 years. It was hard to let go of so many memories, but not nearly so hard to let go of sitting in the 1:00 early September Florida sun with 85,000 other overweight, overheated alumni.
You’ll have to tell me if it’s age, too many days at the desk in air conditioning, or climate change, but this heat is hard to tolerate anymore. Summer used to be my favorite season. I still enjoy it, but I do like a little breeze and some shade to go with it now. But at least we have hurricane season to look forward to … or not.
So far, you may be wondering what this column has to do with investing. I haven’t been able to find anything yet either, but maybe it’s taking shape. Although, as Sigmund Freud didn’t say, ‘Sometimes a weather discussion is just a weather discussion.”
But despite the heat, people from all over the world are flocking to the Florida theme parks. I heard a news story that said Disney World had increased ticket prices, only to see attendance increase. The number of people that will take kids in strollers to the Orlando parks in the middle of summer is a constant source of amazement to me. I’m not critical mind you, I’m happy for the people and the parks, but the parks start to lose their magic for me somewhere in the high 70s – temperature and capacity percentage both.
Although I’m skipping the parks this season, I am doing my part to celebrate the time honored family vacation. This year, since all the little urchins are grown and gainfully employed, time off is at a premium so it’s just a few days at the beach. I’m taking the whole crew to Vero. We’re going to the east coast since that’s what my parents and grandparents did for me. Those granddaughters of mine are just the right age for playing in the surf and pathetic attempts at sand castles.
So there we are. I found an investment theme after all. It’s about giving back. We started with Tom Hanks joining the Peace Corp and somehow got to keeping family traditions alive.
My siblings and I had a text-based discussion about our ancestors just this past weekend. My sister has done the research on the websites and in the graveyards to identify people going back about four generations. Before that, it’s pretty much a mystery. It occurred to me that so many of us work so hard to make our ‘mark’ and except for a famous few, we tend to disappear from memory in a just a few generations.
Realizing this, it seems that maybe I don’t need to join find a cure for the incurable or even join the Peace Corp to be a person that makes a better world. Maybe, going outside in the heat and teaching a grandchild to ride the waves on a raft, to tie a fish hook, to earn a dollar and to save one too, how to cook for one or twenty, and how to be a family, maybe these, and a few more, will do.
And, oh yes, if you’re doing the same this summer, remember have a little fun while you’re at it.
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.
Who-hoo, or as my friend Martha says, “Wooty-hoo!” She’s very Southern.
Why am I celebrating with such reckless abandon? My daughter just graduated with a doctoral degree in pharmacy!!! She has a job. She’s moving out. I get a pay raise (in theory, at least).
Now to be a little less glib and a little more serious, it is a great milestone in both our lives. My son graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering last December as well. I am so pleased they have chosen two great career paths with job possibilities all over the country (world?). The third little nestling has been out on her own for some time working as a nursing aide while going through an RN program; her husband has a new job as an electrician and he is very excited about it.
Thirty years or so of blood, sweat and tears (not the old R&R band, but I did listen to “And When I Die” more than a few times through the years…as well as “You Make Me So Very Happy”). What a long strange trip it has been, and pardon me if I stop at this waypoint to enjoy the scenery.
These successes in my children’s lives give me such a great feeling. Many of you have graduates too, I’m sure. High school, college, and post graduates are in all my newsletters and Facebook communications. There’s even a kindergarten announcement or two as well. I hope you are enjoying a celebration, too.
For those of you who are looking down the road towards post-secondary education, you’re probably asking how, on earth, are you going to pay for it. To quote one more old tune from my youth: “It ain’t easy.”
I, like many, struggled with the question of where to put my savings dollars in my kids’ early childhood. It is hard to know what the priority was between saving for retirement, paying the mortgage, or funding future education. There is no clear general answer to this, but I will offer some guidelines that may be of help.
First, let’s not assume everyone needs a four-year college degree to “get ahead.” The traditional trades are an excellent career path for many and now they are open to both genders as opposed to the expected gender roles of the 20th century. The country is facing a shortage of welders, plumbers, electricians and a/c technicians. It’s hard work and necessitates one having disability insurance in case physical health issues dictate a short working life. Two years at a junior college with some business courses wouldn’t hurt either.
But as to the question of what to pay first, and how to allocate those savings dollars in our early working years…I am a big proponent of paying yourself first. Obviously this isn’t absolutely literal, the government needs to get their taxes off the top or they will put you in the pokey. And if charitable giving isn’t high on the list it has a way of dropping off entirely. That said, however, I have always encouraged my kids to save 10% of every dollar they receive from work, gifts or windfalls from the sky. I think the first place to put these dollars is your 401(k) at work or in an IRA. Next up for me was some college savings; in Florida we have the state-sponsored Florida Prepaid College Program. I bought it for all three of my kids and it was a great choice for us. It was not enough, however. The living expense of kids away at college was a drain on the mythical “discretionary income” for about a decade. A child to Pharmacy School for a doctorate (that’s eight total years of college) was an expense I did not foresee. Graduate school was expensive…try $22,000 a year (+/-) in tuition on for size. Ouch.
And then the third choice for me was to pay the mortgage. This meant a couple of things to me: it meant I bought less rather than more house initially, it meant deferring car purchases, house renovations and other large outlays; it meant smaller vacations; and so on. We made lots of mistakes. We disagreed as a family on choices along the way. But today we have arrived. It’s a nice view.
I went to see “King Kong” a few weeks ago. It was a hoot…at least it was for me. I can remember how exciting it was to see the old 1933 version on our little black & white TV back around 1960. Given the reception we had, I thought it snowed on tropical islands until I finally made a trip to the Bahamas about 20 years later!
So what, you may ask, does the big guy have to do with investing? Not much, I’ll grant, but there is this: I believe the movie I saw last week corresponds to reality with just about the same level of fidelity as what I hear reported out of Washington today. While we can sometimes chuckle, it’s a sad state of affairs when the affairs of state are reduced to so much foolishness, dishonesty and absurdity, isn’t it?
If that isn’t bad enough, it’s doubly insulting that the disingenuous pontificating that we get from our elected officials, and the over-the-top screaming dialog the press somehow has the gall to label as reporting, is so obvious in its transparency. It seems as if they are not even trying to present believable information. It is wearing me down…can you tell?
And the problem is, of course, that it matters. I will admit, however, in this age of social media everything seems to matter. I am quite confident after hearing the recent hullabaloo over “Shaq” (jokingly) endorsing a “flat earth” belief that there are all too many that will take the leap from watching matinee monster movies to assuming there are dinosaurs and the like roaming the Pacific Islands.
I got up early to see the 7 AM monster movies on Saturday mornings when I was a kid. They switched off with Tarzan movies every few months or so as I recall. On rainy afternoons, the double-bill Creature Feature was just the thing to pass the dreary day. Unfortunately, my over-protective mom wouldn’t let me watch monster movies until I was in my 30s (ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration); perhaps it was because I didn’t sleep the second half of my fifth year on earth after watching those flying monkeys steal Dorothy away. Full Disclosure: They still give me the creeps.
Now it’s the creatures’ features in Washing DC that are keeping me awake. When did the culture of Professional Wresting and Jerry Springer TV extend itself into our political discourse? I’m not sure when it happened, but happened it has.
Okay, that’s probably enough venting on my part. Let’s get down to what matters to investors. At this writing, the probability of smooth passage of new health care legislation looks shaky at best. If this effort fails in March, it will likely cast doubt on the market’s confidence in the ability of the administration and the congress to cooperate, regardless of party affiliation. This, then, casts doubt on the ability of congress to pass meaningful tax relief this year, and at this point, faith in tax relief is the biggest driver for the stock market.
I believe we’ve seen a significant increase in the US equity markets since the November election. The DOW was a nominal 18,000 during the first week of November and hit an intraday high of 21,000 on March 16th. That’s a smoking 16.7% by my calculation. It’s also an indication that the new administration’s commitment to regulatory easing and the Federal Reserve’s projection for slow tightening are now priced into a market that was starved for hopeful signs from Washington for a long time. If we get tax relief, we will probably see some additional upside, but if we don’t, we will more than likely see a significant pullback.
This, as you might guess, leads me to the conclusion for my investing of “stay the course”. Neither a potential market surge’ nor a possible pullback in the latter half of 2017 have me planning a significant change to my long-term strategy. As I’ve told you, I am a long-term investor and I believe in holding good quality and growth over time. Steady as she goes, is where I’m living these days, even if the politicians and the markets aren’t.
If you asked your children to define the word rich, what do you think they would say? What’s surprising is that their answer, at its core, would be largely the same at any age including most adults, “Rich is the accumulation of stuff.” The child may say, “lots of toys” or “mounds of candy” or “a giant house with a swimming pool.” The adult may say, “a million dollar income” or “the ability to eat out every night” or “a giant house with a swimming pool.” It is all the same – more and more stuff.
There are two problems inherent with this definition. A definition, by the way, that is repeatedly sounded by every magazine, movie or TV show we come across. The first problem with the ‘accumulation of stuff’ definition is the appetite mentality it promotes. An appetite is never fully and finally satisfied. Therefore, this definition has a constantly moving and unattainable target. For example, will you ever expect to hear your child say, “No more toys, mom. I’m good. I think I have all that I need from here on out.” Think about this, if someone told you as a teenager that someday you would have what your current household income is today, your teenager-self would be excited about the prospect of so much money. Yet you do not feel that way today. This phenomenon is the appetite mentality. No matter what you have, you always want more.
The second problem with the current definition is the ceiling it can subconsciously manifest. Most kids will think you need to be a doctor, lawyer or business owner to have the income needed to be rich in the first place. Why would we want to allow our children to carry a definition that they may see as an impediment for them to attain or fulfill without a specific title?
Time for a new definition that doesn’t suggest that only certain stratospheres of income can reach it. Let’s define rich in such a way that allows our kids to achieve the mark AND feel emotional benefit. To that end, here is your new definition of rich:
Rich is having breathing room in your finances. Rich is spending less than your income.
Let’s look at it from a different perspective…
Imagine you are at the Grand Canyon. You’re standing on the edge of a cliff with your toes hanging over and a strong tailwind behind you. Where is your focus? All of your being is concentrating on not falling. You can’t relate to anything going on around you and you certainly can’t relax. But what if you were 30 feet away from the edge? You’re enjoying the majesty of the site before you, aware of your surroundings and relaxed. Why? Because you have margin, room between you and the chasm. Our new definition of rich centers on the quality of life and the emotional benefits of having distance between income and spending.
Rich = Breathing Room