17 Dec 2020 What do we do with the extra?
My oldest son Miles is in kindergarten this year, and for the last 6 weeks or so has been going into the physical classroom after starting the year 100% virtual. It’s been a strange year for everyone, but Miles has done a great job adjusting, and the teachers at Hunter Elementary (and everywhere else!) deserve a special shout out, and higher pay while we’re at it.
At any rate, something happened this week at school which sent my wife Amy and I down an interesting path. Because of everything going on, Miles has to bring his laptop to school to use at one point during the day, and while he was packing up Tuesday afternoon he put his water bottle (which wasn’t closed all the way) in the main part of his backpack, thereby getting water all over everything in the bag, including his brand new laptop. Of course, water and electronic components don’t typically mix well, and you can’t exactly put a laptop in a bowl of rice, so you know how this ends.
But the real story is the effect that fried laptop had on Amy and I, each one of us kids of preachers. We both grew up in amazing, universal lottery-winning families, the kind where, when people start talking about family difficulties we have to really reach to add anything to the conversation. But the thing was, our families didn’t have a whole lot of money lying around, to put it lightly. Lord knows I never missed any meals, but the word “extra” was not part of our economic vocabulary. So my dad worked on his Fridays “off” for a brick mason, and my mom made extra cash tutoring/homeschooling other people’s kids, and we all made do. It was a blessed existence.
You know what though? If you transported my childhood to the year 2020, and put me in a kindergarten class with a laptop, I almost certainly would have spilled water on it, and my family (and Amy’s too) almost certainly could not have replaced it. Many families in 2020 can’t afford the first one, much less the second one. And yet here we are, Amy and I, bummed about the damaged laptop certainly, and yet not being able to say in truth the words “We can’t afford another one.” That’s what sent Amy and I down an interesting path. We have lots of extra. What do we do with it?
Every year around this time I sit down to read Charles Dickens’ classic short story, A Christmas Carol. Page for page I think it is the best book about money ever written, and I think it’s especially important for people like me—and maybe people like you—who don’t often find ourselves able to truthfully say “We can’t afford.” If you haven’t read the book I of course highly recommend it, but please know it’s not technically a “money” book. It doesn’t talk about how to budget or how much insurance to buy or how to make sure your estate is in good shape or how to prudently invest your portfolio. What it does talk about is business:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Those of us who are wealthy have to set artificial constraints on our resources. Decisions don’t often get made for us financially. We can buy whatever we want at the grocery store–brands, freshness and nutrition be damned. We can live where we want and send kids to certain schools and transport ourselves in style all over town (and to the beach and the mountains). We can put money into a 401(k) and know our employers are doing likewise. We can buy a replacement laptop. None of these are bad things, of course, they just are.
But with the lack of meaningful external constraints comes the real responsibility to create our own constraints, for the sake of our future selves, for the sake of our own contentment today, and for the sake of “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence.” Without setting our own constraints, we’ll end up in a sort of “artificial poverty,” where it feels like there’s never enough and yet we have way more than we need.
And here’s the kicker: when we set these boundaries in our own lives with purpose and intention, rather than decreasing our own happiness (as perhaps the pre-reformed Scrooge thought), we actually find that the constraints free us up to enjoy what is most important—the people, time, and experiences that give money any meaning at all.
At Beacon, we take immense pride in our technical expertise. In an industry where nearly anything goes and folks can easily find themselves paying full price for advice they never receive, it’s imperative to us that we are constantly getting better so that our clients get top tier guidance. And yet sometimes, maybe especially this time of year, the most important question we can ask ourselves and our clients is, “What do we do with the extra?” That’s not a technical question, but maybe it will imbue all the technical questions with purpose and meaning, and therefore, joy.
Give us a call if we can help you figure out what to do with the extra. That’s ultimately why we’re here.