Breaking taboo: Ask your friends and family for financial advice

Last weekend, Kim and I went out to breakfast. The only other table in the small restaurant was a party of four youngish women who were laughing and having a good time. They were having such a good time, in fact, that it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.

“My dad is such a cheapskate,” one of the women said. “Last week, I drove my parents to Salem. I had to stop for gas, so I just pulled into the first service station I saw. ‘Are you sure you want to buy gas here?’ Dad asked. ‘It’s more expensive than the place down the street.’ What a tightwad! He doesn’t get that my time is valuable too. I’m not going to drive three blocks just to save a few pennies.”

The other women laughed.

“My parents are like that too,” offered a second young woman. “The other day, my mom was giving me a hard time because my husband and I like to go out to eat. We invited them to join us at Andina but she said they’d pass unless we went someplace less expensive. Can you believe that? It’s not like my parents are poor. They’re millionaires!”

Again, the other women laughed.

“My parents are millionaires too,” chimed in a third woman, “but you’d never know it. They don’t spend their money. And they’re always getting on my case about the money I spend. I’m like, ‘It’s my money. Get over it.'”

Her friends nodded in agreement, and the conversation moved on. A while later, the waitress brought them their check.

“Oh crap,” the first woman said. “I didn’t bring the right credit card. This one’s maxed out.”

“I’ll cover you,” said one of her friends. “But I’ll need you to pay me back. I have just enough money to last me ’til payday.”

“How’s your new house?” asked one of the other women.

“It’s great,” she said. “We have so much room! I just wish we could afford to furnish it all right now.” Her comrades murmured in agreement.

“Wow!” Kim said after the women had left. “That was insane. You ought to write about that.”

“I will,” I said. “I will.”

Breaking taboo
It’s all too easy to condemn people like this as shallow and short-sighted. That they don’t get the connection between their spending habits and the fact that they’re struggling with money is obvious. It’s also obvious that they don’t understand that one of the reasons their parents are millionaires is precisely because they’re frugal. Being rich doesn’t mean you spend more on gas when you don’t have to or that you go out to eat in fancy restaurants all of the time. Rather, when you watch how much you spend on gas and you’re careful about which restaurants you choose, you tend to build wealth.

This stuff is obvious, even to a casual observer.

What’s more interesting to me is that that these young women had easy access to folks who are successful with money. Yet rather than pick their brains or learn from their behavior, they make fun of them! This is more common than it ought to be. In fact, most of the people I know who struggle with money have role models whom they could learn from — but don’t.

In some ways, I sympathize. I used to be one of these people. When I was deep in debt, I was surrounded by folks who had things figured out (including my wife!) but I never bothered to ask them what I was doing wrong. It was only once I hit rock bottom that I finally reached out for help.

Today, it’s different. Now I know that one of the best ways to improve my personal finances is to talk to others who have done what I want to do.

You see, it’s taboo in our culture to volunteer financial advice. It’s rare that a person will speak up to tell you what you’re doing wrong. And when they do, you probably resent it. It’s likely that your brother or your best friend is well aware of your weaknesses, but is unwilling to mention them for fear of offending you.

But if you take the initiative, if you ask your friends and family for financial advice, that taboo doesn’t apply.

The best $20 you’ll ever spend
If you want to know how to improve your finances, choose a financial role model and take them to lunch. Pick somebody you trust. Most of the time, these folks are obvious. They’re the ones who never complain about debt, the ones who’ve accumulated a lot of savings. (Sometimes they have a nice house and nice car, but not always.)

In some cases, these role models might be family members or close friends. If you feel comfortable asking these folks for advice, do it. But you might feel more at ease if you talk to somebody who’s merely an acquaintance: a neighbor, a colleague, a mentor. (In my case, I’ve learned a lot from my real millionaire next door.)

Invite your role model to lunch. Explain that you want to pick their brain about how they’ve managed to do so well with money. Tell them you want some advice.

Before you meet for lunch, prepare some specific questions. Do you want to know about investing? About increasing income? About cutting costs? Start the conversation by sharing your story — where you’ve come from and where you want to go. Be honest. Be realistic. If you’re in debt, say so. Next, ask the other person about their story. How did they achieve their financial success? Based on their experience, what would they do if they were in your shoes?

Take notes. If the other person offers advice, don’t take it personally. Listen with an open mind. Don’t get defensive. If there are extenuating circumstances, feel free to share them but don’t try to explain away every problem in your life. A lot of times, things that seem like external barriers to you are actually internal barriers.

At the end of the meeting, ask your role model if they have specific recommendations for your situation. Pay the bill, thank them, and go home to think about what you’ve learned.

Not just for beginners
This exercise isn’t just for people in debt. It’s also great for folks who are learning to invest, or for those who want to boost their income. When I thought I might like to get into rental properties, I invited a friend to dinner to ask him how he started investing in real estate. I’ve had dozens of readers take me to coffee so they could get my advice on their financial situation.

If you want advice about how you could improve your finances, ask your friends.

Out of the Doldrums

On Saturday, Cody came over to hang out. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were kids again for an afternoon. (Forty-year-old kids but still kids.)

We spent several hours traipsing through nearby neighborhoods. We wandered through parks. We walked through Eastmoreland and imagined what it must be like to live in one of the mansions. We searched the hundred-year-old sidewalks, looking for clues about when they were poured and what the streets used to be named. For lunch, we stopped at Otto’s Sausage Kitchen. As we walked home on the Springwater Trail, we picked blackberries for dessert.

As I say, it was like we were kids again.

“How’s your back?” Cody asked during our stroll.

In April, Kim and I took surfing lessons in San Diego. While trying to “pop up” on my board, I felt my back give out. It hasn’t been the same ever since. And that’s just one of a long line of injuries that has plagued me this year.

“My back is better,” I said. “I’ve been seeing a chiropractor. I was skeptical at first, but there’s no doubt that my mobility has improved. I’ve even been able to do a bit of exercise this week.”

My fitness routine has been in the doldrums for most of the year — even before the back injury. Because of my injuries — and because of my workload — I haven’t exercised nearly as much as I need to (or want to). As a result, I’m fifteen pounds heavier than I was last year at this time. And that’s not fifteen pounds of muscle.

“How’s everything else going?” Cody asked. “I noticed you haven’t been posting on your blog lately.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem too,” I said. “I’m not just in the physical doldrums. I’ve been in the mental doldrums too. I haven’t written anything in weeks. It sucks. To be honest, I haven’t done much of anything for the past two months. I have a long to-do list, but I’ve ignored it all summer. I keep adding things to it, but nothing ever gets crossed off.”

“I get like that sometimes,” Cody said. “I’ll have a few days that are intensely productive and then it’s like I’m drained. I sit around and do nothing for a day or two — except maybe look at Facebook.”

“My pattern is a little different,” I said. “I’m productive for weeks or months at a time. But then something shuts off. Some switch inside my head is triggered and all I can do is watch TV, read trashy novels, or play videogames. After a few weeks in the doldrums, something toggles the switch in the other direction and suddenly I’m productive again.”

“Do you know what flips the switch on or off?” Cody asked.

“No,” I said. “I wish I did. My entire family seems to be like this. My brother has lost a lot of weight this year, for instance, but it’s because he’s completely devoted to his fitness program. He flipped a switch in his head and now he’s eating well and exercising. My cousin is like this too. It’s just a part of being a Roth, I guess.”

Note: I wonder if this “all or nothing” behavior style — something that both my ex-wife and current girlfriend have noted — is related to the relationship between moderators and abstainers.

“Fortunately, I’ve started pulling out of this current funk,” I said. “When Kim and I got home on Tuesday” — we took a long weekend motorcycle ride to the Oregon Coast — “we spent several hours cleaning the condo. The next day, I challenged myself to see how much I could get done on my to-do list. That was so satisfying that I did the same on Thursday. And Friday. I feel like I’ve turned things around. On Monday, I plan to sit down at my desk and start writing again.”

Cody nodded. “It’s like inertia,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said. “When I’m in the doldrums, it’s just so easy to keep loafing, to keep doing nothing. But once I start moving, it’s as if that momentum has a life of its own. The trick is to force myself to get moving. That’s one reason that I like to exercise first thing in the morning. If I get out of bed and go to the gym, or if I get out of bed and go for a walk, then I know I’ve done that one important thing before the day has even begun. That knowledge helps propel me to do the next thing, and the thing after that. It’s like a snowball.”

“Exactly,” Cody said. “Plus, if you’re productive early, then if you reach midday and find you’ve run out of steam, you still have all of that stuff you got done in the morning. That’s satisfying.”

Cody and I continued to talk about life, the universe, and everything. We walked home, got on our motorcycles, and rode to the Portland Timbers match.

Sunday morning, I got up at five in order to participate in the Portland Bridge Pedal. By ten, I’d ridden my bike for fifty miles through the city streets. I was exhausted, but I felt good. I knew I’d exercised for the day. And this morning? This morning, I got up and started to write again.

It feels like I’ve pulled myself out of the doldrums, and that makes me happy. Being productive feels a lot better than loafing around all day.

At the start of the Portland Bridge Pedal
On the top of the Fremont Bridge, at the start of the bike ride.