Every Breath You Take

Most days, I can’t breathe out of my left nostril.

Some days I can’t breathe out of my right.

Sometimes they’re both at a complete standstill like I-95 between Fredericksburg and DC.

This summer, I finally went to an ENT for him to take a look and find out what the problem is. He spent about 30 seconds with a camera in my sinuses before he said, “Well, you have some pretty significant nasal polyps. You’ll need surgery.”

There are, of course, other options, like interminable rounds of medication, but that’s just a band-aid, it won’t actually fix the problem.

So I’m having surgery on Monday. After 4-5 hours of scraping out my nasal passages, followed by a few days of misery and pain medication, I should be respiring again like a human is supposed to.

But let’s talk about how long it took me to get around to having my sinuses checked out in the first place. I can’t pinpoint exactly when the sinus problems officially qualified as being a hindrance to my quality of life, but I’ve been talking about going to an ENT for at least three years. And, of course, the issue would have been a problem for a long time prior to that for me to even get to the point of thinking about getting examined in the first place.

So what took me so long?

Was I scared of the ENT? No, very few things scare me, other than the prospect of a Bernie Sanders presidency or people who own more than three cats.

Was it too hard to get off work to schedule a visit? No, I own the place. I could walk out in the middle of this blog post if I wanted to.

I knew I needed to go and there was no real obstruction to prevent me from going, I just…never got around to it.

And now I can’t help but think about all of the fully-nostrilled (not a word, probably) breaths I could have been taking this whole time.

My procrastination hasn’t put my life in danger. It’s not going to cost more now than it would have cost in 2014. The main consequence is simply that my quality of life could have been drastically improved years ago if I hadn’t waited so long.

This is exactly where most people are with their financial planning.

You know that you need to do it, there’s no legitimate excuse not to do it, you just…haven’t gotten around to it. You’re not on the verge of a financial crisis, there’s no impending life event with financial implications that you need to address, you just don’t have the peace of mind that you could have.

After we get a financial plan in place for folks, at least half of the time, one of the first things they say is, “Wow, we should done this years ago.”

So that makes two of us. If I’d had surgery years ago (as I should have) and you’d gotten a financial plan in place years ago (as you should have), I would have been breathing better and you would have been sleeping better this whole time.

You can schedule a visit here.

The Lucky Boy and the Hurricane

I believe it was Rod Stewart who sang “Some Guys Have All the Luck.”

This is an apt description of my friend Dave. Best I can tell, the only bad luck he’s had in the last 20 years was ending up with me as a roommate in college.

Dave has somewhat of a penchant for stumbling into good fortune. The fact that he was able to attract a wife and successfully procreate twice is one of the great miracles of the 21st century.

Anytime he wants to attend a sold-out sporting event, tickets to that event just magically appear in his hands from some unexpected source.

One time at a Niagra Falls casino, he made a one dollar bet that won him $1000. (Canadian dollars, but still).

While trying to sell his house several years ago, he was frustrated about not getting any offers, so he pulled the house off the market, then suddenly decided to put it right back on the market two weeks later, this time at a higher price (because that’s the logical thing to do when you’re not getting any offers at your current price—make it more expensive)? But lo and behold, it had only been back on the market for a few days when some lady came along and inexplicably bought it at the higher price.

Maybe he’s lucky or maybe he’s a genius. But you’d have a tough time selling me on the latter.

So about a week ago, when we learned that his family trip to Disney World was going to coincide with a Category 5 hurricane hitting Florida, I thought, “Aha, finally some bad luck for this guy!”

Alas, I was wrong.

They assessed their options and decided to roll the dice and proceed with their trip. By the time they arrived at Disney, the hurricane had slowed down, meaning they’d at least be able to enjoy a day or two before the weather got bad. And then the hurricane came to nearly a complete standstill over the Bahamas, and suddenly their entire trip was unscathed.

Meanwhile, every other person who had scheduled a Disney trip for this week decided to cancel, so Dave and his family basically had the entire park to themselves. Rides that would normally require a 2-3 hour wait only took 10-15 minutes.

The world’s luckiest man pulls it off again.

Now, in fairness, their decision to forge ahead with the trip was actually strategic. They knew that regardless of the weather, Disney World was unlikely to shut down. In fact, Floridians often evacuate to Disney because the parks and the resorts are so well-equipped with generators that they’re rarely without power. And they were partially banking on the notion that a lot of other people would cancel their trips and crowds would be slim.

It was a calculated risk that panned out.

Financial planning has similar opportunities. Sometimes it makes sense to take a calculated risk with some significant potential upside. Sometimes we just want a plan that gets us from point A to point B with the highest odds of success and the lowest risk possible. Sometimes we just don’t want any risk at all.

There’s also such a thing as stupid, unnecessary risk.

This kind of risk also gets illustrated during hurricanes. These are the people who hear their local weatherman say, “You should evacuate.” And they don’t. Then the governor says, “No really, please evacuate!” And they don’t. Then the next thing they know, a Coast Guard chopper is rescuing them from the roof of their house.

There are similar risks in the financial world that should be avoided by virtually everyone. But they don’t get news coverage like an impending hurricane, so sometimes you don’t even recognize when you have significant exposure to those risks. Inflation that you’re not equipped to address, potential tax rate changes in the future that will cripple your retirement income, too much exposure to one particular asset class…

Risks like these (and dozens of others) could leave you on the roof of your retirement house waiting for the chopper.

If you want help assessing your exposure before the storm comes, schedule a visit now.

The Commies Are Gone, Y'all

If you ever visit Prague, don’t expect them to be happy to see you.

We just spent a week in “The City of a Hundred Spires” last month, and while the Czech Republic has a lot to offer, “service with a smile” isn’t one of them.

Molly’s personality doesn’t allow her to interact with another human being without asking their name and how they’re doing. This usually brightens the day of Target cashiers, post office workers and the guys flipping the stop/slow signs during road construction.

But the Czechs were less than enthused about this line of questioning. She was always met with suspicious looks or blank stares and an awkward pause before they’d mutter, “I’m fine,” and walk away.

On our first day in town, we were assessing lunch options, thinking we’d explore some authentic Czech food. But after perusing the menu at several restaurants, most of which consisted of goulash and mystery meats, we opted for a local burger joint instead. It was called MeetBurger (the burger meetpoint!) and all of the staff was wearing Jack Daniels t-shirts, which made it seem like a place that would be friendly to Americans.

So we walked in. And we stood there. And stood there some more. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to sit down or wait to be seated. I meekly approached the bartender and asked if we should seat ourselves, to which he curtly replied, “You can wait…you can sit.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.

We eventually made our way to a table and sat down, hoping we wouldn’t be scolded. The waitress walked past us at least seven times before even acknowledging our existence, but eventually food was ordered and served. For the record, it was an excellent burger if you ever happen to be in the neighborhood—just be prepared that it’s going to be served with some very spicy fries and definitely no smiles.

My favorite example of Czech hospitality came at the end of our tour of the castle of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Our tour guide didn’t end the tour with a “thank you for visiting” or “I hope you enjoy your stay in Prague.” She concluded with this:

“And now you will see the main hallway where the tour began. At the end of the hallway is the door. Goodbye.” And she was gone.

Every time I’d mention the Czechs’ dour approach to life to our fellow Americans on the trip, they’d all say the same thing. “Well, it’s a former communist state, you know. People in communist countries are always like that.”

Yes, I’m aware that they were once part of the Eastern Bloc under the thumb of the Soviets, but that ended 30 years ago. Most of the people we interacted with would have been too young to remember that era, if they were even alive then.

But it occurred to me that I see people in my office almost every day who are holding on to something from their past (often the distant past) that affects their financial decisions and behaviors today.

The lady who has nearly a million dollars but still exhibits hoarder tendencies because her father’s bankruptcy when she was young forced her to grow up in poverty and something inside of her makes her think she’ll eventually end up there again.

The guy who got swindled by a financial huckster in the 90s and still can’t fully trust anyone to help him with his money.

The couple that’s been married for 20 years, but still keeps all of their finances completely separate because they both had spouses in previous marriages that couldn’t be trusted with money.

The woman who “doesn’t believe in the stock market” because she saw her brother lose everything in the market many years ago and she’s avoided it ever since.

Issues like this are buried deep in your psyche and aren’t going to be magically cured with one visit to our office. And that’s ok, it’s understandable if you can’t shake some of these mindsets overnight and you need some time to work through them.

But at some point, it’s time to recognize that the commies aren’t in charge anymore. It’s ok to smile.

Warning: Toilet May Explode

A few weeks ago, the City of Durham left a door hanger on our front door alerting us that city crews would be in our neighborhood to perform some preventative maintenance on the sewer mains. They wanted us to know a few things that could potentially impact us:

1) There could be a brief period of sewer odor in the house if you have faulty plumbing.

2) You might hear a gurgling noise in your pipes.

3) Your toilet may experience “a pressure wave that causes the contents of the bowl to be ejected.”

In journalism, that’s called burying the lead. Or if we’re using the industry spelling, “burying the lede.”

If I’m in charge of this memo, I’m definitely leading with point #3.

“Attention Citizen: the contents of your toilet could erupt all over your bathroom. Please read further to learn why.” Much more effective. I’m compelled to keep reading after that.

At the very least, I’d like to see the exploding toilet get top billing ahead of a possible “gurgling in the pipes.”

People sometimes bury the lede in their financial lives too. A few weeks ago, I met with a lady who was married, but came in without her husband. She explained that they keep their finances completely separate and each contribute to a joint checking account to cover household bills.

We discussed when she should start her Social Security, did some tax planning, and assessed a reasonable withdrawal rate on her savings to make sure she didn’t run out of money.

After a 90-minute discussion, she added this: “One more thing I should mention. It’s highly likely that I’ll be moving out and pursuing a divorce within the next few months. Will this have any effect on my plans?”

Why, yes. Yes, it will. That’s a bit of an exploding toilet that probably should have been mentioned well over an hour ago.

Her thinking was that because they keep their finances separate, she could easily just lift herself right out of the relationship and go do her own thing. But just because you’re suddenly single, that doesn’t mean your expenses get cut in half. And now you’re filing a single tax return instead of a joint return, which completely changes your tax bracket. Not to mention the money that will be spent on attorneys to make this divorce happen in the first place.

What’s the lede that you might have buried? Are you ignoring a potential career calamity on the horizon and just hoping it doesn’t materialize? Are you refusing to mention your recent medical diagnosis because you’ve convinced yourself that it won’t affect your future plans (even though deep down you know it will)? Are you telling yourself that the divorce isn’t going to happen?

It works a lot better if you’ll just put the potential exploding toilet on the table first. If the contents of the toilet never get ejected, that’s great. But at least you’ll have a plan if it happens.