My 600lb Life – 8 financial observations

600lb-lifeMy wife and I fell into a rabbit hole mini-binge watch of TLC’s “My 600lb Life”. Besides being very motivating, the show is a fantastic look into human behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that many financial teachers have used weight loss as a picture of getting our personal finances under control.

As I watched these episodes, I noted a couple observations:

  1. Real change takes two years

The show follows a subject’s story over an extended period of time, generally about 2 years. It’s obviously not easy to lose 300-400lbs, but it’s easy to forget that a huge change can take a long time. For people in large amounts of debt, I’ve also noticed it takes about 2 years to get out of a massive financial hole. This could be discouraging – but I choose to think of it as encouraging. No matter how big your problem, there is a decent chance that two years from now you could have a completely different life.

  1. Surgery doesn’t fix it

The people on the show are there because they’re seeking to get a lap band surgery to help them lose weight. It’s interesting that the doctor doesn’t let them get the surgery unless they lose a significant amount of weight first. He understands that surgery isn’t the solution – the patient has to be willing to change first. The first step is always a change of the heart and mind. It’s helpful to remember that there isn’t any financial fix (more money, better job, lower interest rate, rich uncle) that will ‘fix’ your life. Instead…..

  1. It always starts with a choice

Any big life change will always be initiated by being ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. It’s being ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore’.

  1. Caused by trauma

It’s heartbreaking to hear the back story of the people on this show. Nearly all of them can trace their physical problems back to a major trauma – often being abused (physically, sexually) in some fashion. It seems obvious to this amateur physiologist that there is a direct connection between an event that caused the victim to hate their body and the ensuing weight gain. Finances aren’t always like this, but often we can trace our attitudes and behaviors back to the way we were raised to understand money. Often students I counsel will start our conversation with some version of “My parents weren’t very good with money”.

  1. A million small choices

Nobody gains 400lbs in a day, week, month, or year. Similarly, most of us got into debt over a period of time through a lot of small choices.

  1. This will change your life

Losing 400lbs over 2 years will change your life. The show’s participants are always so grateful to have made the journey. Nobody loses that much weight and says “You know, my life is pretty much the same just with smaller jeans.” When I’ve felt the crushing burden of too much debt, it expands into my mental and spiritual spaces. I’ve found myself thinking about money throughout the day, or trying not to think about it and feeling guilty about ignoring my problems. Getting out of debt will change your life. Once you’re out of debt, your life won’t be “pretty much the same just without any payments”. No, I think you’ll find it affects lots of decisions and emotions that you never considered.

  1. Takes a team

The story of the show isn’t just the main character, it’s always the supporting cast.  There is usually a massive enabler or two that helped the protagonist get to their current state. Once they are ready to change, a team of doctors, nurses, personal trainers, nutritionist, friends, and family all come along side the person and help them toward their goal. Finances are similar – if you can build a team of encouragers around you it is wildly helpful. Here’s some more info on working toward a goal with a team.

  1. A persistent spark of Hope

When things are dark, we need to remember that it will be worth it. In “The Pilgrims Progress”, Christian is helped in his darkest times by his companion Hopeful. When we’re ready to quit, what we really need is Hope. Hope that all the sacrifice will ultimately be worth it. Watching the TV show I’m reminded what Paul taught:

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Financial Peace Classes

fpuTen years ago exactly this month, Noelle and I opened the credit card statements from Christmas and realized we owed over $7,000 on those two charge cards. We also owned a condo that wasn’t rented, had a car loan on a sweet Mustang GT convertible, and one more student loan for old times sake.

That week I was playing basketball on a Monday night at Smoky Hill Vineyard church and saw a sign there for a class: Financial Peace University. We had missed week one, but the next night – week two of the class on a Tuesday in January, we were there.

It didn’t happen overnight, but we sold the condo, sold the mustang, lived on “beans and rice”, and paid off all of that within the year.

It isn’t a coincidence that these classes start this time of year. January is a time of new year resolutions and new beginnings. If you’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired”, now is a great time to push the reset button.

You can find a class at a local church. CLICK HERE FOR LIST OF LOCAL CLASSES.  

Feel free to reach out to me for more on our experiences and what we’ve done in the 10 years since.

Loan Forgiveness and PSLF

Tnythis article surfaced in The New York Times a couple weeks ago:

They Thought They Qualified for Student Loan Forgiveness. Years Later, the Government Changes Its Mind.

I’ve written several times including this long post in September of 2015 that I thought the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program was risky and I did not think it was wise to plan on the PSLF program to be your primary loan repayment strategy.

The risk that the government could change the rules at any time was one of the original reasons I wrote that I didn’t like the program. That is exactly what happened to the subjects of that NY Times article and we’ll see how the pending litigation plays out.

There are other alternatives. If you’d like some help working through those then hit me up.

Two Causes of Poverty

powell-poverty-quoteWhat causes poverty? Thinking about this question can teach us a lot about how to create personal economic mobility. Those are big words for get out of debt, build an emergency fund, save for retirement, and create stability for our children.

In my post-election reading, I came across this long interview (actually made and posted before the election).  The author makes a case that endemic poverty is caused by two main factors:

  • Social Structures That Harm. These are cultural forces that are weighted against the poor and against upward mobility. These aren’t unique to our society, the author of Proverbs 22 points out as a matter of fact that the “The poor are always ruled over by the rich.” In the past I have used the term “Risks” to bring personal awareness to some of these structures. Examples of these cultural forces include redlining neighborhoods, the town factory closing, poor educational systems, payday lenders, having bad parents, and corrupt governments. You might call these “Things that happen to you.”
  • Personal Choices. The interviewee calls this “helping people make better moral choices.” This is the personal responsibility that is required to change your life. Proverbs also address this in a number of says such as “Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time.” Examples of “Things you do to yourself” include substance abuse, not living on a budget, spending on wants vs needs, not deferring gratification, a poor work ethic, and having a negative attitude.

Here are two personal questions to ponder:

Do my thoughts and beliefs lean one way or the other?

One of the points the interview makes is that Liberal leaning folks tend to over-emphasize the social structures and those that bend Conservative tend to over-emphasize the personal responsibility.* This makes me think that you and I probably overemphasize one side or the other in our thinking and beliefs:

Do I think poor people are lazy? Do I believe it’s impossible to get out of debt in today’s society? Do I tell people that there aren’t any good jobs out there? Do I complain about my lack of money while wearing these sick new Jordans? Do I define my employability by the time I was laid off? Do I believe that employer really isn’t looking for someone of my age, sex, or color?

The biases and beliefs I carry will dramatically affect my ability to change my story.

Where is my personal greatest return on investment?

If you are called to change the social structures, I encourage you to go for it. I believe these are evil institutions of oppression and that Jesus was directly addressing these when he said the Kingdom of Heaven is advancing and the “Gates of Hell” won’t prevent good from eventually breaking these down.

However, practically for us today complaining and worrying about these cultural forces isn’t helpful. To personally change, we need to First recognize the cultural forces so I can artfully navigate around those to the best of my ability and Second accept the moral responsibility for that which God has entrusted me, managing my life.

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*Footnote:  An interesting side note on this I heard this week. The fundamental difference between a liberal and conservative world view is the condition of mankind. A liberal worldview leans humanist, meaning that given the right circumstances humans will move toward goodness. A conservative worldview lends itself toward humans in their nature doing the wrong things.

As I understand it, the Biblical worldview is more centric, that humans are created good and to do good (“In the image of God”) but that because we are infected with the virus of sin we will inevitably do what we don’t want to do (Romans 7:15-20).

Election day and Worry

merleWorry is one of the most destructive emotions to winning with money. Jesus commanded “Don’t worry about your life.” The prayer for “this day’s bread” is a continuous reminder that regret of yesterday’s bread wasted and fear of tomorrow’s lack is worthless.

35 years ago Merle wrote this beautiful poem/song:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam war came along

Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday’
When a man could still work, still would
The best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

Wish a Ford and a Chevy
Could still last ten years, like they should
Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Are the good times really over for good?

Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell

People were worried and scared and afraid 3.5 years ago, 35 years ago, and 350 years ago.  Fear destroys Faith and Thanksgiving, both of which are overwhelming indicators of happiness. “Do not be anxious about anything.” Including money. Including elections.

Elections and Change

networkUPDATE: Read this as a complement to to this post.

 

Shortly after the 2002 elections, I remember being optimistic that we might see some real change on several conservative key issues. Republicans had just won several swing seats and took a majority in the Senate. They already owned a majority in the House and had a very conservative George W. Bush in the presidency for the next 6 years.

Near the end of 2007 I distinctly remember President Obama’s acceptance speech in Grant Park where he famously proclaimed his administration’s CHANGE with the affirmation “Yes we can”. It was a great speech. Democrats controlled the House and Senate for the next four years.

I remember telling my wife on that night 8 years ago that there were a lot people putting their hope in this man to make their lives better. It’s a hope that no human being can fulfill.

At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru, “If it’s to be it’s up to me.”

The night of November 8th there will be a lot of disappointed people and worse there will be a lot of happy people that think they accomplished something.

I’m reading “Getting Things Done” and came across this about making a change and getting something accomplished:

 …anything personal or professional, big or little, of urgent or minor importance, that you think ought to be different than it currently is and that you have any level of internal commitment to changing.

 There it is. The key to my success and happiness and meeting my goals (financial and otherwise) is summoning the burst of energy needed to make a decision about what needs to change (getting sick and tired) and making an Internal Commitment to Changing (mad as hell and not going to take it anymore).

It sure isn’t in this election.

Do Rich People Stuff

The_millioner_mind_bookcoverDave Ramsey is fond of saying “If you want to be rich, do what rich people do. If you want to be broke, do what broke people do.

I was reminded of this on a couple different occasions recently. One friend posted a dumb picture on Facebook and another ordered a “Dewars on the rocks”.

Thomas Stanley in his incredible book “Stop Acting Rich” tried to differentiate between the “Glittering Rich” and the actual wealthy – the “Millionaire Next Door” type.  Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of wealthy people don’t drink expensive liquor or own extravagant things.  Perhaps the fastest way out of debt is to stop buying stuff we don’t need.

If you want to “Fake it until you make it” with money, you can start right now by living frugally.

Quick Thought

jason dayI taught a small group this morning on “The Long Defeat”. It’s a quote from Tolkien that I came across this week via Wesley’s wonderful essay (which links this from Alan Jacobs) and I think pairs perfectly with this beautiful poem and reflection by Richard Rohr.

One connection I’ll make here: If I’m results driven, bitterness will eventually become the defining characteristic of my life. Instead, I submit the outcome (including the possibility of defeat in my life, my relationships, my projects, my country, all my needs and hopes and dreams) to God and I learn to ‘practice’ living.

This is true of budgeting and raising children. It’s true for world number one Jason Day: “I got addicted to the process of getting better.” It’s equally true for every non-famous person that does their taxes, serves a client, prepares a meal, teaches a child math, or pays off a debt.

Income Inequality

Rio Opening CeremoniesMy wife loves the Olympics so we’ve been watching a lot of them this week. Yesterday I saw some stunning images like the one on the right accompanying several articles like these.

On a recent Malcolm Gladwell podcast he raised an interesting question about how to solve problems. Is a particular problem a ‘basketball problem’ where teams need to improve the best player or is it a ‘soccer problem’ where improvement comes by improving the worst player?

His point was that some problems have top down solutions and other problems have bottom up solutions.

The image above really provides a stunning portrait of income inequality. When it comes to Income Inequality, almost all the articles talk about it like a ‘basketball problem’. That is they focus on the top .01%. That’s understandable because broke people are always at zero. When the .01% get even more money the Inequality goes up. The reality is that the top 1% of income earners receiving 20% of the pre-tax income is a problem.

But assuming you are not in the 1%, I would suggest that the best use of your and my time is not trying to tear down the 1% but rather work on lifting up from the bottom. Specifically what do I need to do to lift myself and others up from the bottom?

I believe that creating opportunities and paths out of zero is the key. It’s a soccer solution. I can’t lift everyone up, but it’s a lot more impactful to move from destitution to the middle then to move from the middle up or from up to slightly less up.

In today’s world, there are a lot of opportunities, but the traditional paths are no longer clear. Instead, we need to really get creative on how to create and find opportunities to help myself and others into financial stability. I think it starts with a lot of questions:

 

How can I create a financially stable environment to raise my children?

How can I pull one friend out of instability and into financial peace?

How can I create an emergency fund that will take the crisis out of my financial life?

How can I prepare my children for life so they won’t be financially burdened for decades into the future?

How can I help one impoverished person start a business?

How can I avoid and payoff debt?

Do I need to work more or at a different employer?

Are substance abuse issues causing me to stay in poverty?

How can I pay my house off and take back my income?

How would a small business I start create future financial freedom?

If I could earn an extra $500 a month as a freelance employee at night or on the weekends how would that change my life?

If I could cut my lifestyle expenses by $200 a month, what would I do with an extra million dollars in 40 years?

Would something as simple as access to clean water enable a poor person to start working and producing something of value they could sell?

How would personal financial margin create opportunities for myself and others?

What do I need to change to create a path to financial stability?

Do I have a plan?

In what ways to I put a higher value on luxury then on stability?

How do I evaluate needs versus wants?

 

If I am drowning, it’s really difficult to save another drowning person. It takes personal capacity;  savings and extra cash flow to be able to give and be generous. I believe lifting myself out of poverty is step one in helping others do the same and creating greater income equality.