Archive for the ‘Finances’ Category

Transitions – Part One

Posted: December 5, 2018 in Finances, Philosophy, Tools

Over the last few years (2014-) our lives have progressed through several transitions.  We both changed jobs, we added a few pets (admittedly not high on my list of favorable transitions), some kids legally became adults by hitting their eighteenth birthday (I will talk about that a bit in an upcoming post) and I began walking us down a more intentional path towards our “golden” years, though my target is to get us there sooner, through a process that has become known as FIRE (financially independent, retire early).  This last transition is one I will spend some time talking about in this post.

For those not familiar with the term, let me start with a bit of background.  FIRE is the goal of “buying your freedom” from work and making the conscious decision to be much more intentional with your decisions on what to do with your money with the goal of increasing our saving rate and/or lowering your expenses.  You can find a lot of detail about the math and the ideas on sites more devoted to that, and since my goal right now is to not convert this blog into a FIRE site, I will leave you to dig around on those sites if you want to get into the nuts and bolts, but I will likely talk more about concepts related to this as I go forward as it has become a big focus for me basically beginning in 2016.  You can find people who retired in their 30s.  I just read an article today about a woman who retired at 28 in New York City.  The variations on the how and why are endless and as the reaction moves from “you did/are doing WHAT!?” to “tell me more” the mainstream media is starting to take notice of this not-so-new lifestyle choice that prioritizes a meaningful and enjoyable life over the consumption driven lie that Madison Avenue likes to convince us is how life works.

So our unique story is that the E part of FIRE, by the nature of when we began is not so early.  As things sit now if all continues on the plan I hope to walk away from a job I must do about ten years earlier than I would have if I stuck with the traditional model and worked until my federally approved retirement date.  I am still about ten years from that point (a little less, but we’ll deal in round numbers), but the focus being shifted coupled with a less than joyful work situation for me in the last year has raised the level of urgency in my head quite a bit, which leads me to things like writing this post about it.  I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at houses in areas we have thought we might want to retire to, beginning in earnest a retirement budget in our budgeting software we use so make sure that the target level we’ve set really works for us (I plan to spend 2019 refining that and capturing expenses in enough detail that my wife and I can sit down and look it over and see if it seems comfortable and know our target seems solid).

I’ve always been relatively frugal (by American standards anyway), doing what I thought was a good job as keeping stupid expenses as bay.  As I got better jobs and the higher pay that came with it I was never a fan of keeping up with the Jonses.  I drove what I felt were relatively reasonable cars while colleagues went with the luxury lines, massive SUVs and sports cars that tend to come with a typical middle class American dream.  The inflatable house was never something that drove me either, feeling the need to expand the square footage per person available just because the bank said I could, like so many people fall prey to.  I was pretty proud of myself, that is until I started to learn about FIRE and get exposed to the thinking of the community.  It began to show how far I still could go.  My particular journey began as many do, with a quest to validate something I felt was right with some evidence.  In my case it was the long held belief that the insane amount in retirement calculators from large investment firms like Vanguard and Fidelity were not realistic and that we’d be just fine with less.  A lot less.  When I ran numbers in those calculators I kept getting values between $5-$10 million dollars as what I should be targeting, and try as I might, I could not envision how that was explainable.  I set out in late 2015 to find some discussion, with strong logic and math behind it, to back up what I felt in my gut was true.  I was expecting to find something that showed a decreased, but what I cam across was nothing short of life changing, a transition of massive proportions. I searched for a long time, finding more of what I thought was garbage, and eventually I stumbled upon a site that had been around for a few years at that time but one I had never heard of called (known as MMM for short).  The specific article I started with was ‘The 4% Rule: The Easy Answer to “How Much Do I Need for Retirement?”’  As I read it, I felt I had found exactly what I was looking for, but little did I know I had found so much more.  I had heard of the 4% rule before but it was couple with the 80% rule as well, which was what was spouted off by the investment firms who said you need 80% of your income to retire on, so if you did quote well at your job over time and got a salary a ways into six figures, which in my field of technology is certainly quite possible you would need $4+ million which was better than the calculator numbers but not by much.  The part of MMM’s philosophy (what I came to learn was a core principle of the FIRE community) that hooked me was that if you could get your expenses down you could retire on less.  A lot less.

I sampled a few other posts on the site and was amazed as what I was seeing.  I very quickly followed a link he had on his home page that let you start at the first blog post and then spent the next three months reading every single post consuming it voraciously, until I was done with the hundreds of posts.  It’s been joked from time to time that Mustachianism is a cult and boy was I hooked.  I now am a frequenter of the forum section where like minded folks can talk about all types of topics.  It really is a great community and if the FIRE concept intrigues you in the least, I’d suggest a visit to the site.

As I was moving through this material and sharing with my wife, the transition began.  I had a new focus for the retirement target and it was not to wait until 67 and it was liberating because it was clearly doable.  The challenge we have is that we came upon this concept quite late in our lives and have the baggage of some poor (by FIRE standards) choices that were made, but as a wise man once said, “you have to begin where you are”.  The discussions at times became heated because I would share what I was learning, and my wife was thinking just because I spoke about something, that I wanted to go do that.  The most obvious one of those was MMM’s focus on a car being a huge drain on savings and so you should bike everywhere and only use the car for long road trips or when you had to transport things you could not on your bike, like construction supplies.  I clearly understood that our bed was well made at that point, and was not proposing we sell our cars and bike thirty miles to work (MMM does bike year round in Colorado and has several posts about not whining about biking in winter).  I was just sharing to show some of the radical thinking that could be used to drive down costs that help you get to the 60%+ savings rates needed to get to FIRE in a 10 year period.  The part that was missed in this was that using the principle of begin where you are, we were not starting out from $0, so we can still hit the 10-12 year window without being so radical.  I did however want to make as many changes as we could that fit within our reality.  We also have the added challenge/goal of being at the phase of life that we want to help with our kids college costs, though not at the fully funded level that is still lingering with some parents.  With six kids though, even a partial funding is still substantial.  So we have not moved, nor are we planning to move, to within a few miles of our jobs so we can bike, but we are being conscious about our car expenses, looking for the cheapest gas with Gas Buddy, waiting for sale where possible on big ticket items like tires (just replaced the tires on my car after 83,000 miles during a sales event where I got to buy 3 and get the 4th for $1, and replaced them with the same Kumho tires with the target of getting 83,000 out of this $300 set), and likely not buying new cars going forward (since I keep the cars till they fall apart I always figured getting new was best and frugal, but not so sure after reading many articles about it in the FIRE community).  This has shifted my mind set to a much more engineered and focused exploration of how to maximize our dollars for happiness, including the happiness of retiring early.

We are targeting around $40-$48K per year as our expenses so that translates into $1-$1.2 million in savings, a much more palatable (and possible) target.  This is well below the 80% of what we make target that is most popular out there, and therefore makes for some interesting conversations with family and friends when it comes up.  The load lifted by not having to figure out how to support a much crazier target is immense.  That target is still pretty generous by FIRE standards and I am hopeful we may be able to lower it a bit however we need to plan for a target that is doable for us, not simply accept what others have accomplished.  There are some people in the FIRE community, known as Extreme RE who do things on $12K per year and love it.  The accepted FIRE level is $25K or less.  We are moving into what is known as “fat FIRE” with our level because we know we are leaving excess luxuries in the budget, but I still do not feel like we are going hog wild because I’ve seen a lot of fat FIRE targets of $60-$80K and we are still quite a ways below that, so I feel great about what I will call our Goldilock’s FIRE level.  Not to small, not to big, but just right, especially for us.  I do think we could do $30-$35K pretty easily but targeting a bit more gives us some added things which may be important as we want to travel with the kids or be able to host a bigger event or two each year that may cost a few thousand dollars and we have that room to do that.  We’d then have our social security on top of this as we move into normal retirement age and that gives us even more cushion (and also why I think we may settle on a lower number as we’ll have the added money later).  The benefit of a lower number is we hit the target sooner and can make the ultimate financial transition that much faster.

So that is a lot about one of the biggest transitions we’ve gone through in the last few years.  I will get into some of the others in future posts, and as I said at the start, I know more will be said about how frugality and maximization is impacting choices.

For the last several months I’ve been navigating through a new era in our household.  Marcia turned 16 earlier this year and we have been trying to get her into the workforce.  After getting immersed in this for the last five months it has been very eye-opening to me how much has truly changed, and sadly not for the better, since I was at that same age about three decades ago.  When I as a parent with a lot more understanding of what America is supposed to represent and allow have a hard time finding the silver lining, how is a sixteen year old kid who is learning to navigate the rocky road ahead supposed to feel upbeat?  The promise of anything is possible is no longer engaged in our schools, our workplaces or our country.  We have become a nation of robots, to use a term one of my colleagues mentioned at work today, this place has lost any soul.

I had been reading for the last few years the unemployment numbers in the 16-24 demographic and thinking it was typical media hype trying to raise the bogey man where things might not be so bad.  Just as if you watch the news and just take it at face value you might be afraid to leave your house assuming you’d be murdered while getting your identity stolen and being injected with heroin, I thought what can be so hard about getting an entry-level job at minimum wage when you come of age?

Well, what I’ve seen in the last few months has been interesting.  A lot of my information comes from just paying more attention to the actual situation; using my skills honed with three decades in the workplace to trying to figure out how to get a job by trying to place myself in a sixteen year old skin but with my experience baked in.  When I was working the only person over 25 on the McDonald’s crew was the manager.  Now the only person under 25 might be the customer on the other side of the counter.  It is staggering.  In a typical 10 person crew you used to have 9 teens or college students and 1 “adult”.  That ratio regularly appears to be about 8 adults to 2 work force newbies and as I said sometimes I walk in and see a whole crew of elderly folks.  So strike fast food off as an easy place to score a job for Marcia.

I cut my teeth in retail and grocery.  Surely that will be better.  Baggers no longer exist (that was my first job at the local grocery store) and even though my local stores still boast about 75% checkout lanes that need a human worker to 25% that only need the customer to do the self checkout, what is actually open on any given day you go into the store?  All the self checkout lanes (usually 4-8) and 1-2 humans required.  I went to the 24 hour grocery store around 11:30 earlier this week.  If I was afraid of computers I’d be going home with no food because my only option was the 7 self checkout lanes.  There was one person monitoring them, but not a single cashier.  I had a week’s worth of grocery shopping, not something I’d normally go through the self check for, but I had no choice, and also meant less job opportunities.  In my days at K-Mart through high school, every department was staffed by one full timer and then 3-8 part timers, 85% of which were high schoolers.  Today, try to even find someone working in the store to ask a question.  And just as at McDonald’s the demographic of those workers are adults as jobs have become scarce.  Retail looks pretty sad as a prospect for Marcia as well.

The next segment was restaurants.  The only option open to my daughter is hostess/busser or dishwasher.  Servers no longer can be younger because the bar is not staffed to allow drinks to be delivered by someone there which would make the age requirement go away for a server to be of drinking age or close to it.  (Where we live, I found out through my daughter that if you are 19 you can serve liquor though our drinking age is 21.  Where I grew up it was all 21).  You have one hostess a shift in most places and perhaps 2-3 bussers and maybe a couple dishwashers.  Again, the pool of available jobs continue to experience a giant sucking sound.

The process itself has shifted even in the last 5-10 years.  You used to be able to walk into an establishment, fill out an app, and usually be interviewed on the spot and at times offered a job.  Now most places simply say, fill it out online.  I sat with my daughter for these applications.  It takes a good hour to fill out one app due to all the personality questions and situational scenarios they have.  The Buffalo Wild Wings test was so complex I had to re-read the 80 or so questions multiple times to make sure they were not tricking me, which in fact at times they were, making the “right” answer on the scale actually be strongly disagree than strongly agree.  It’s hard enough for a kid with no job experience to find a job, do we need to make it so excruciatingly difficult to even apply that most of the hope is removed?  She also does not have the opportunity to talk to a human being, to make a connection, to show that she can speak without “umming” herself to death, can look you in the eye and all the other aspects of human interaction that have landed me jobs over my career.

Now I do not want to say the only problems with my daughter finding a job are the system.  She does not apply herself to the process as much as I think  she should, taking on the millennial generation view of work taking much less importance in her life (on that same BWW test she would only answer agree to questions that were clearly designed to see if she would put work over personal time demands).  I’ve talked with her about this and I do think it will cause her to have some problems, but I do see a lot of her peers exhibiting the same attitude.  On the other hand, I did not have to deal with my job hunting experience being sitting at a desk and using Google.  I got to drive from one place to another, ask for the manager and actually get an interview or two on the spot from two out of five attempts.  I ended up finding her a couple sites that seemed to have some aides for teen job hunters like teens4hire and snagajob.  Those appeared more promising but that’s where she still entered into the Buffalo Wild Wings nightmare of an hour long application with a lot of questions that do not pertain to someone with no job experience.  You ask the persons birthdate and/or age right up front on most of these.  Is it so hard to not demand information someone who has not worked would not have, like the last five years of employment?  I especially likes the Subway application that asked if she was over or under 40, and proceeded to not allow her to actually complete the application if under 40 due to a bug that would not allow her to submit her final application saying that her birthday in 1998 indicated she was over 40 and could not proceed beyond this point.  I tried for 20 minutes to find a way she could apply with no success.  The store had flat-out told us they accept no in person applications.  They still have the same help wanted sign out that they did three months ago.  Is it a wonder why?

Another source of jobs, helping your neighbors has all but vanished as people become less community oriented.  Ever notice that I when you move into a new neighborhood the only way to meet your new neighbors is to camp out on their driveway and intercept them on the way into their garage?  Once they pull in and close the door most neighborhoods are like a ghost town.  You’d be hard pressed to know any people actually existed.  Our daughters tried for many months to hire out as babysitters.  They received a call or two in a year.  Lawn mowing is done by a million landscaping services instead of allowing the kid with an old mower to walk around the neighborhood and charge $10 a lawn, thereby usually making a modest $10/hour.  This culture of fearing our neighbor and becoming most closed off and suspicious of everyone has made it virtually impossible for jobs to be available on a door to door basis.  Think about how often you see a little kid out on the street with a lemonade stand anymore.  I can’t remember the last time I saw one.  No one’s out to buy the lemonade.

So my daughter is faced with a world that still needs her to have money, but that has made it very, very difficult for her to get it.  I had a job in three days six weeks before I was 16, and have been lucky enough to only be unemployed for one stint of 10 weeks in nearly 30 years.  Looking at people’s resumes and seeing the challenges my daughter faces now being 16 ¼ and still not even having been called in for an interview makes me understand her reality will be very different.  As we as a country have created this dynamic we push back wage earning, which pushes back consuming, which pushes back home ownership or home renting and car ownership which drags down the economy which pushes all these things back further.  I love this country and it saddens me to see this decline in the fortunes of our young people because I am educated enough about economics to know that is means very bad things for all of us.  How will these people be prepared to take over the higher jobs in a career path, when they can’t even get on the path to begin with?  What will be the impact on the tax base when higher costs of services are paid for by fewer workers?  I was able to go to a great private college for $6,500 per year.  That same college for the class entering 2013 is $33,390 per year.  I left college and got a job for $30,000/year.  Those students who leave college in 2017 will not be getting a job offer for $154,107 to keep pace with their tuition increase, they will have jobs open to them averaging around…… wait for it….   $30,000 per year!   And that’s assuming they can find a job.  The barriers my daughter and the rest of our kids and all the kids in America face are staggering.  The only mention I hear of the American dream anymore is in stories about how it is lost.  I honestly would not be surprised if I asked my kids and they said they had never heard the term.  In my household and my family growing up I know it well.  We were a family of immigrants and the opportunities that had afforded us the ability to sit around at the Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter table and talk about the American dream, were a direct result of it.  My father who had barely finished high school and could barely speak English would not even get a call for an interview for the same machine shop job he started at today.  It’s not because the job has any different skills.  The job in the manufacturing company I work at is nearly identical to the job he had at 18.  We’ve added complexity to the job market that does not need to be there and we’ve removed hope from an entire middle class in this country that our kids may never reach because they can’t even get a job at 16.  All I can do is encourage my daughter to keep applying but I know her frustration as the calls do not come and the process gets more tedious.  We’ve all lived it applying for jobs but we at least have had jobs for years before.  Our state does not allow her to not carry car insurance even though she does not own a car and could certainly not drive anywhere.  So she has adult bills, but she can’t get an adult job.  I have to foot those bills right now because she has no income and no choice to have the bill or not.  This isn’t a cell phone or a video game, it’s a government mandated service from a government that is doing very little to improve her prospects of becoming a wage earning citizen.  She’s not looking to be on the government dole.  She understands work is many times boring and you stick with it.  Does she have quirks and traits that might not make her the perfect employee?  Sure, but we all do.  Would I as a hiring manager label her unemployable?  Definitely not.  She is bright, articulate and healthy.  She wants a job for the same reasons we did at her age, to gain some independence and have some money to spend with her friends.   However, the adults that ran the world before her someone screwed it up in such a way that all the “easy” ways open to us to go out and start making $3.50/hour are gone and those that are left are taken up by people who can’t retire or find good jobs outside the traditional teen workplaces once again because of adults who screwed up and can’t find a way to make the economy work again.  We spend more time and energy looking for a plane that will never be found than on trying to fix problems that actually have some possibility of being solved.  I try to maintain a positive outlook for my kids on their future but I have to do it knowing full well that I feel I am feeding them a line of crap.  When my parents told me what a great future I would have it was easy to believe because they believed it and because the world around it was delivering it.  We need to figure out how to right the ship or we are all going to go down with it.  It’s like the ferry that sunk recently.  All the adults worried about themselves and let a ferry full of kids drown.  As I watch my daughter struggle to get going in life I feel that’s what we’ve done with the American economy.

OK, so I’ve been silent for quite some time.  Certainly life has not been event free, however, every time something happens, it just has not felt like something worthy of expounding upon, or it would be more of the same old, same old.  Even though life is that way, I don’t know, I just feel like if I’m asking you to come to the blog and see what I have to say that it should be worthy of your time.  I wrestle with the reality of that though, because if it is just musing from a divorced dad, then I should just muse, right?  Even if it is what has happened before, or a continuation or a variant, just as I talk to my family and friends, maybe I should just lower the standards, so to speak, or this medium and just let you know what is in my head on a regular basis rather than waiting for some new nugget of wisdom to share.

After all, when I first started, I had shared nothing, so I had all this pent up material.  It was like meeting someone for the first time.  You knew nothing about my journey, so anything I could share was new.  I was obviously very prolific then, since I felt I had so much to share to get you up to speed.  Now, however, you know the critical things about my journey and are up to speed enough to follow along without a lot of work.  Just like everyone else, thank goodness, I do not have monumental events happening all the time; otherwise I might just have a nervous breakdown or something.  I’m like a lot of other divorced dads out there.  I went through the cycle of divorce, recovery and finding a new love.  I’ve had issues taking care of my kids, disagreeing with my ex, and other work and life events that we all have.  So now it has just settled down and this blog, will I guess need to move a little differently, similar in fact to all the other ones from similar authors who have traveled the same road.

So lately, I’ve still been dealing with my legal troubles that should not be about the old house I had.  I’ve been doing my job to the best of my ability and juggling family and work responsibilities as best I can.  I guess the biggest problem has just been trying to stay as unchanged as possible through what is happening.  If I think about it, it’s almost the same process as going through the divorce with some key modifications.

I am trying to make certain that the financial strain of the legal issues has as little impact as possible on my family, very similar to how things went in the divorce.  While adjustments needed to be made I took great pains never to tell the kids we could not do something because I had no money because I was divorced.  In many cases they would not understand, as even my fifteen year old still lives in the blissful nirvana of having no real clue how much it costs to live.  Sure they see purchases as the store, but all those hidden adult expenses like utility bills, insurance, mortgage and now legal bills are not something that they can easily comprehend.  It’s my job as a parent to cover their needs of food, shelter and clothing.  When we go to the store, they should not have to use their allowance to purchase their jeans, underwear, etc.  That’s our job as parents.  Sure if they want to go over the top they can always augment what I am willing to spend, but it should not become the default.  I think both my wife and I are in danger of falling into that mindset more easily with the current situation and I push back strongly to avoid it.  It has not really caused any fights yet, but I can feel it may, and I am trying to get her to understand my point of view while understanding that her point of view of how she grew up, the struggles she had to go through as a single mom after bankruptcy and other things make her look at things on the financial front more conservatively than even my rather conservative self. 

As a man, God has made it my responsibility to provide for my family and lead them.  In today’s culture we have pushed this aside and said women can do some things and I’m certainly OK with assistance, but at the end of the day, God has ingrained in me the need to make it all work out and to shelter those I love from the tribulations of the world. So while my wife is OK with telling the kids they can buy something on their own, I am not.  So far we’ve worked this tap dance during the last few months well, but if it is through just briefly discussing or agreeing to disagree, I’m not always sure.  If the kids want to go to the mall, I’m OK with giving them a little money to use.  If they do it every week, that amount goes down a lot, but I see no reason they have to fund every trip to the mall on their own.  God has blessed me with the ability to support them in that way and I feel that is right.  There is always the danger of spoiling them or of being taken “advantage” of by begging children, but I do my best to keep that in check.  For the most part my wife and I are on the same page, however, as I said earlier, the implication the kids can do something carries with it a lot more of the self-funding variety than it did before the legal bills started coming. 

I am very upset about the fact that they are coming.  I have talked to my pastors, and many people I know about what I should be doing, seeking wise and godly counsel as Scripture instructs me.  They all are confused why this lawsuit is even occurring as I had done everything I was required to do and no one can see any issue other than unfortunate circumstances for the new owners of the home. While they may want someone to blame, it does not make it right.  For now we have a way to handle the extra expense through the grace of God and His grace to allow me a healthy bonus from work this year, so I view it as handled for now and trust that God will continue to provide and allow me to continue to manage my family and their finances as I did before the situation began.  I am being prudent about the reality and certainly there has been some cutting back, but I have done it more where I normally do, on things that impact the adults, rather than the children at this time as it has nothing to do with them.  So we go out to eat less often on our kidless weekends than we did and that saves us a few hundred dollars a month, as an example.

I certainly have been honest with the older kids that some expenses are being avoided right now because of the situation.  There are activities they would like to attend that just are not in the budget right now.  They understand and are saddened but they get it. 

So all this is what has been weighing on my heart since I last wrote and it keep me from getting too excited about other topics because it would only serve to further irritate me about the situation as it is and the drain of our funds when I can certainly do much more productive things for my family with them.

So many suits

Posted: November 29, 2012 in Anger, Divorce, Finances

There are so many new things you get to experience as you get divorced.   You get to see what it is like to be on your own, again, or maybe for the first time.  You get to see what it’s like to cover many of the same bills you had but without the same level of income and usually with additional child care or debt levels than before.  By far, the most fun has got to be how familiar you get with the legal profession.

In our case we’ve had a lot of fun with law suits this year, not all of them resulting directly from the divorces, but the ties are there even for the one that could have occurred regardless.  The issue for me has really been the drain on the bank accounts which I would certainly prefer to use for fun things for our family rather than just to provide them to an attorney to represent us on something stupid that should be decided in a much simpler way than with all the legal maneuvers needed in the US justice system.

A simple case of getting the kids to change school systems this summer ended up being billed out at $3,000 but happily the attorney discounted it to $1,100.  Then we have the case of removing alimony when all conditions are met and they even admit to them in their initial response from their attorney, but we still need to file all kinds of motions and fun things and then it is less costly to settle even though it is for a longer period than the evidence or anyone rational will understand, but because the legal system requires all this maneuvering it takes so long that you are better off doing irrational things.

Most recently I just got served with a suit on the house I sold after the divorce to down size and be able to afford my housing costs.  Turns out after they bought the house, they had a lot of things go wrong so now they feel I did not disclose something. When I was there none of the issues they are experiencing were there not did my inspector nor there’s find them in two different inspections within a year of each other, yet somehow I am supposed to know about them?  So we need to provide an answer, submit interrogatories, go through depositions and file a motion for summary judgment.  If somehow the fact that there are no facts in dispute as I disclosed everything I knew and we need to go to trial there will be document exchange, expert witness gathering, and who knows what else.  As I talked with my attorney, I have worked with a different one for each suit, he explained that these cases can take a year, but he does not expect this to go that way as it is a pretty frivolous suit.  It all sounds great until you understand frivolous is true in every way except one, the money spent on attorneys to work through the frivolity.  Can’t you hear me belly laughing already? 

So you could say that the house suit is not divorce related, yet it is because if I had not been divorced I probably would not have sold the house and therefore no one would have purchased it to sue me. 

The frustrating part of all this really becomes the system.  As I found out, the is really no way to get my attorney fees back if this proves to be what I know it is, a wild goose chase.  When I sold them the house it was in the condition their inspector found it in; aged but certainly not with any latent problems I was intentionally hiding or lying about as they contend.  Even if I prove that though, because we would have to prove that their attorney filed suit knowing that the case was bogus, I am out whatever thousands I need to pay this attorney to go through the fifty steps needed to simply tell the judge “this is a bogus law suit and I disclosed everything I knew”.  The complexity is astounding.

One can argue about the problems in time past but when Jesus stood in front of Pilate and was judged it was just him and Pilate in the room asking and answering questions.  In 10 minutes he had his answer and he went out and told the people “I find no fault with this man”.  Jesus did not have to pay a retainer, file a motion and ask for summary judgment.  He did not have to spend money to file a lot of paperwork with the right margins or get charged $20 for each page because the margin was off ¼”.  Sure, he was put to death but that was a result of mob rule and not the legal process.  Maybe I’d feel differently if I was on the other side of the coin and want the legal system to be slow and plodding and ineffective at determining I was a vicious criminal that should rot away for life or be put to death.  During those times you don’t want the traveling magistrate who rides into your town listens to the evidence for two hours and sentences you to death by hanging for strangling your neighbor’s daughter.  You want the interrogatories and expert witnesses and sitting around on death row for endless appeals for years on end.  But when you are living life as you should and being honest and doing the right things, having to pay someone thousands of dollars to settle a simple question is frustrating and a drain on family finances that makes no sense.  I’m not spending money on a life saving drug to keep a child alive.  I’m not donating money to a charity that is feeding starving people.  I am paying money to a system that is convoluted, bloated and very ineffective in doing anything other than enriching the people who work in it. 

We are supposed to be planning for a vacation in about a year and a half.  Instead all the money we have saved up so far is tied up in $5,000 of retainers on two law suits that both should never have happened.  In the house case I can at least understand that the people on the other end may not yet understand that I really knew nothing about all the terrible things that have befallen them and their house, but in the one it is only legalized extortion to allow my ex to get paid by a system that makes it ridiculous to prove what even my 9 year old child knows.  Mom is living with another person and they are paying bills together.  Mom can laugh about it openly knowing that the system will allow her to collect for months more even though she should have been cut off months ago.  In the house case, even though the people might soon understand that the unfortunate truth is that I knew nothing and these repairs are theirs to bear, the complex system will still drain our family of money we could certainly use for more useful things like clothing and food.

Sadly, I have few words of wisdom to offer on this topic.  It is just a reality of society today that legal wrangling takes center stage all too often.

Today or shortly thereafter you may hear a loud scream.  It will be the sound of Nan reacting to her being served with a motion to end spousal support.  I know in our family the sound will be deafening as I know Nan, but I also think it might be visible from space.  Obviously I exaggerate a bit, but personally the impact will be huge.

I have as solid a case as my attorney has seen in twenty years of law and I even have a proverbial smoking gun , so if it does not work, it certainly will not be for lack of giving it the good old college try.  I do understand that nothing is guaranteed so all I can do is trust in the Lord that the right thing will happen and spousal support will be removed.

The thing I wish I could change is the impact on my children.  Nan will use all her resources to paint a dire picture without any of the facts that do not impact her self-centered view of the world.  She will confide too much in the kids about what is going on and I will be vilified and need to deal with that.  In the end, assuming things go our way, it will allow us to more easily pay for the eyeglasses, school supplies, food, clothes and all the other things that kids need but that Nan and Bert fail to provide.  Nan is certainly not required to use these funds to do anything for the kids, after all it is not child support (not that courts do anything to insure that is used for the kid’s versus a vacation to the Carribbean), it is spousal support, but I still do not understand how she does not to some degree.  All I hear from the kids is how Nan tells them she has no money.  I can only imagine what she will tell them now.

In preparation for what I expect to occur I have been trying to determine how I will answer the accusing, perhaps angry and very loud questions of my kids about how I could do this to their mom.  It is none of their concern about all the adult reasons Nan should not be getting spousal support, but what is of relevance is for them to simply understand.  As people in society we must abide by rules.  If we violate those rules, just as when they violate household rules, there are consequences.  Nan knew the rules and with the choices she made, this is the consequence.  This is not something I did, this is something she chose to do when she violated the rules that cover the spousal support agreement.

Once again, Nan will place the kids in an awkward position where she will be cursing me up and down and demanding they get mad at me and stressing the kids out because they will understand at some level that they still have no idea why they should be mad at me.  Rather than point out what the purpose of spousal support is and how it no longer applies here, which they cannot grasp, I will focus on a message they can.

As I explained to a friend, it would be ridiculous for me to expect my kids to understand why even though Nan is still their mom, that my relationship with Nan is not the same and that includes finances.  I hear their arguments all the time.  In the beginning when they came home with stories about how Nan is struggling financially they did not understand why I would not give her money since she needed help.  An easy way out would be to take her approach and burden the kids with all the details about how money is tight in this house too.  How the economy is rough, no job is safe and that we still are in a precarious position if we have a financial hurdle we cannot clear.  I will not be telling them how we even had to discuss if we wanted to go ahead with this motion given the retainer we needed to pay the attorney and knowing we might still lose and owe the support payments going forward.  Nan would bare all this to them, much of which they would not understand, and which would only add to the anxiety over the parts they would understand, that we could have problems.  The kids will have their whole lives to wrestle with adult problems.  They do not need to begin that now, but that is just one of many views Nan and I do not share.

They will also not hear about how I delayed this filing a few days to not ruin their weekend with their mom, knowing she will be fuming.  In the end that costs our family some money as I keep paying a little longer on something I should no longer need to pay.  Again, Nan or Bert would share something like that to puff up their value in their kids eyes.  As a parent we sacrifice for our kids.  As a husband I sacrifice for my wife.  These are not things a modest, godly person seeks recognition for.  These are just things that are and should be.  Nan does not understand this.  She has never really taken ownership that she contributed to the failure of our marriage just as she will not take ownership that if she wanted to keep her support going all she had to do was what she insisted she was leaving for.  She wanted to live alone and make her own life without a man.  If she had done that, none of the conditions to terminate support would have ever been met except the one that limited the support to a specific number of years. 

Nan will spin this as me being my typical mean-spirited self who will do anything to save a dollar, even hurt people.  In her self-centered way she can never understand that this action is a direct result of choices she made going all the way back to the choice to leave.  She will spend hours on the phone with her family and friends cursing me and how evil I am.  That’s all OK.  I just dread what she will drag the kids through in this process.

For the love of money is the root of all evil – 1 Timothy 6:10 KJV

A similarity with both our exes is that they both have the ability of a toad when it comes to managing money.  For the sake of storytelling, and now that more and more of the posts in the blog seem to be focusing on issues with the exes and how we deal with them, I’ve decided to finally grace them with names, so we shall call our protagonists Nan and Bert (bonus points to those who can pinpoint the source, though I will tell you in the next post).

This inability to have two dimes to rub together for too long results in a challenge for us as parents.  We teach the kids money management, and in this process that means they have money, and in many cases they want to use that money over at Nan or Bert’s.  There are some differences in the two approaches, so I will cover them individually.

In Nan’s case, she was given a lot of money in our divorce, and she has proceeded to either whittle through it in less than a year.   She now finds herself on public assistance in her current state and proceeds to fill the kid’s ears with how at my house we all live like rich people and we suck.  I regularly hear when the kids return from visits about how they did not do much of anything, ate poor food and listened to how life sucks.  This creates a situation where the kids want to take their money over to Nan’s finance something to do.

In Bert’s case, he is just the typical poor steward of money.  However, his mode of dealing with this is to seduce women who he then convinces to pay for his life.  This can result in wild swings of having no money to having a lot of money, though he then blows through it with abandon and usually ends up back with having no money.  Bert also lives off the dole of the state since he has no job.  Since Bert like to put on a show, the kids are usually entertained at his house so the same dynamic is not created as with Nan.

The common result here that is presented to us is that my wife and I have agreed that it is not our job to finance the entertainment at Nan and Bert’s.  This means that we have placed a rule in force that says the kids are not allowed to take any allowance money or gifts from family over to Nan and Bert’s.  My kids have had this rule for a while, but still complain about it because they are bored and Nan does not have anything for them to do so they want to buy things themselves to have at her place.  I refuse to allow this on principle that just as it is my job at my house to handle the finances so it is at Nan’s.  For Bert’s kids, they do not have that same urge, they just have the desire to use their money, and it has resulted in just as much complaining when the rule was set down. 

In Nan’s case she has tried to do things like take the kids to restaurants and then have them pay with their money.  She has tried to take them to places like amusement parks and have them buy food and souvenirs with their money.  This last point was something we did when we were married, minus the food part to the level Nan takes it.  We would purchase meals and some snacks ad also usually agree to a dollar amount we would spend on souvenirs per child, but if they wanted more stuff, then they were free to use their money.  Nan’s argument to me was that this is still what she does.  The difference she fails to grasp is that we are no longer married, and so that’s great that she’s keeping this part of our money management training for our kids intact, but she needs to fund the kids on her time with her own money.  It’s not my fault she does not have any.  She of course disagrees.

The reasons are similar for Bert’s house in consistency.  While Bert handles his money differently and we have seen no evidence of him asking kids to pay for meals out of their money, we also understand that having the kids take $100 over will result in the probably using it, and the expectations we have are still the same as for Nan; it is Bert’s job to fund the kids activities in total while they are with him just as it is our responsibility when they are with us.  In short, we are not going to subsidize either household. In both cases no child support flows in either direction.  In Nan’s case the state calculation sets her as owing my child support but it is deviated to zero due to finances.  In Bert’s case he did owe child support, though like a typical deadbeat dad he never paid, and last summer to avoid him constantly going to court to fight the child support she was never getting anyway, my wife agreed to remove the child support obligation by stating that since the kids were at each household equally there is not child support to be exchanged.

The challenge here is that while the rule makes sense when explained, due to the nature of divorces and what we are allowed to say to our kids, we can’t explain it to them.  Couple that with the fact that even if we did, kids will still think it’s stupid and therefore we are stupid, the result would be the same as it is, they think the rule and our choice is stupid.  So be it. In Nan’s case she is more than happy to reinforce the kid’s feelings that the rule and I am stupid, so when this flares up from time to time it is always fun. 

In talking with other divorced parents this seems to them very logical and would or is very similar to how they handle it.  The kids still see a mom and a dad and cannot make that connection that while that still exists, the monetary relationship does not.  They go back and forth freely between the two houses, so why shouldn’t the money?  I can see the clear logic to a child. 

God expects us to be good stewards of our money and that is what we are doing with this rule.  I believe at some point as the kids grow they will each understand that as they transition into adulthood and gain a different perspective when the money source changes from us to employers.  In the mean time we will continue to say no when the request occurs.  A different variation of this with our two oldest is that they want their money in cash and it was explained to both of them that they need to leave it here when they visit Nan or Bert.  This creates and environment ripe for lying and my daughter has said the two of them have already had such conversations.  I’m less concerned about the accuracy of that claim, than the fact that we would be naïve to assume that whether they influence each other or if they just desire to do it from within, the temptation would not be there to lie in some way to circumvent this rule.  I have explained that even if they fool us, God will know if they lie and hope that will make them think twice about what type of person they want to be.  Certainly I will keep an eye out for situations and made it clear if they are caught lying they will not only lose the ability to get cash they will be punished in other ways to be determined later.

I pray for wisdom on this issue and know this will be an ongoing challenge for us.

Emotional separation

Posted: June 30, 2012 in Communication, Divorce, Finances

One of the hardest things to do in the divorce process is to disengage from the emotions of the situation and make good choices.  An entire segment of our population, divorce attorneys, are very, very wealthy because they understand this and encourage the contention to manifest itself as long as possible.  As long as you have two people fuming mad at each other, it makes it easy to help them overlook the thousand dollar checks they write each week to keep the adrenaline going.

I think the challenge is more difficult for women, who are more emotional in general than men, but I talk to guys who are just sucked into “not giving that @#%@! a dime!”  One piece of advice given by a divorce lawyer in the DivorceCare program, is to avoid divorce lawyers at all costs.  Once they are involved you lose all control over the process.  Realistically, I understand this is a little utopian in its statement, and we talk about this in the group discussion after the video, but you can still avoid getting them involved except where absolutely necessary and you can maintain control by only working with one who does not insist on advising you on every aspect of your case.  If you read or hear this advice in an unemotional state, it makes a lot of sense.  Problem is no one calls a divorce lawyer in an unemotional state and far too many will manipulate it to their advantage.

A great example of this inability to detach is my brother.  He is involved in what by any stretch of the imagination would be classified as a messy divorce.  They will not cooperate with each other in anyway even down to whether the kid can eat snacks at night.  This has created a situation where they cannot talk or even use a mediator.  He shares e-mails with me from time to time that they exchange through a piece of software (that they must pay for to officially document their inability to be civil) and they are very sad to read.  The accusations and the finger pointing and the “you did” and “you didn’t” that just drag everything into the cellar are all over.  I have had discussions with him about this, but when in that emotional state, it is all about the fight.  I do want to state, that I do understand that in many cases there is one party that will just not give it up, but it also takes one party to keep trying to draw the other away from the chew rag.  If you both are just pissed at each other, the chance of anything civil is zero.

I have talked with people who are insistent they want to get something in their divorce decree that is just not going to happen.  There are at least three different people I am in contact with right now who are in some form of this in their proceeding.  It hurts to watch them complain about how much money they are spending, yet realize that what control they have they refuse to exercise.  How does it serve you to fight to the death and end up with the same result you would have had if you had just realized the court would rule in the middle?  Is there some badge of honor I do not understand that gives us points in some magical land for fighting the fight?  I have never seen it, and all I see are upset, emotional people fighting for that reason.  Just as a parent needs to step away from a child before issuing a punishment and rationally thinking about it and calming down first, so should adults act in the divorce process.  If not, just as I said yesterday, you are free to choose to behave like a hot head, but you are not free from the consequences of behaving that way, and in a divorce nine times out of ten that consequence is a big fat check to continue a process that will end poorly anyway.

My attorney explained out local judge’s favorite statement when a divorce case is finalized in her court; “Neither of you look happy at all.  Means we got a fair settlement.”  That advice was our guiding light as we drafted our papers.  Whenever I wanted to push for something I really wanted, she would bring me back saying we can spend a lot of money to fight long and hard for it and end up back at something the court would do.  Full custody is a great example of this.  Many, especially moms, are convinced they can get this with “no problems” by their attorney who is really thinking that “I can fund my new Porsche with ‘no problems’ by getting her to believe this”.  There are no definitive statistics as the results certainly vary by state as the laws do, but I have found a few examples where if there are no risk factors involved full custody is granted in less than 1% of cases.  The problem ends up with then fighting the battle on risk factors.  Again citing my own case, I was told that in our state unless the PARENT (notice the non-gender bias) is currently in jail or has an active recent arrest for drugs, there is zero chance of them not having joint custody.  Once can certainly go with the group who responds to these stats with the mantra that that attorney does not know how to try that case successfully and that’s why they tell you that.  I guess it could be true, and you need to decide if you want to pay up to find out if your lawyer is the one who can.  I have heard about way more cases where all that happened was the client was out a lot of money and the result was still some type of joint custody, yet everyday people write checks to attorneys who convince them their case will be different.  Emotions and decisions are a poor mix.

There is a reason with serious decisions that phrases such as “sleep on it” and other attempts to encourage people to disengage and calm down and think about it exist.  The decisions are high-risk, yet for some reason we are OK doing this with a decision to take a job cross country, invest a lot of money, or anything else but divorce related issues.  The challenge is that the emotions tend to go on and on in a divorce so that lull does not come as easily.  I hear the argument of it being owed to them because their marriage was so bad, it is for the kids, it impacts the kids.  The problem that needs to be grasped is that if you take it to court they are not emotionally invested, they are impartial and they will award in that vein.  If you can work to get yourself to that mindset, of treating the divorce as a business proposition, because that is what it is, you will save yourself a lot of heartache and money.   Figure out what is really, really important.  No, no, it can’t be all of it, or most of it, or even a lot of it.  It needs to be one or two things.  In my cases it was time with the kids.  Everything else, money, possessions was not on the list.  Even though I feel my ex was not a good parent and my kids have said several times, even once in the last month, where she has told them directly so wants nothing to do with them, I still understand that that would be so ridiculously difficult to prove let alone get action on that if she asked for a 50-50 split in time I have already told her I would just agree to it.  It does not do me or the kids any good to drag things into court to try to keep something that has a small chance from happening anyway.  

So your next question may be, “How is that not just getting taken advantage of and/or giving in?”  Let me be clear.  I do not just give in to any demand that comes along.  What I do is very, very methodically pick my battles.  I would not agree to her having more time with the kids than me.  I would not agree to her wanting the kids to move to her school district, though the level of effort I would expend on that would not be great.  The calculation, if you will, is as unemotional as I can make it.  The chance of me getting sucked in by a lawyer, investigator, or other individual with claims of magnificent victory that feel good on an emotional level is almost zero. 

Even when the specter of getting pulled in against my will surfaces, the analysis I always strive toward is to be dispassionate.  If I feel myself getting angry, or bitter or something else about what she dared to suggest or pull I know I’m not in the right mindset to act.  This is a really tough place to get to.  It is so much more pleasurable to lash out, call a lawyer and get ready to rumble.  A whole industry exists fueled by self righteousness.  “I should win because I’m right!”  or “No one will ever stand for my kids being in that environment” are all heard as the same thing from another perspective—“Ka-ching!” 

In the end the only advocate you have for yourself is you.  Do not be convinced that an attorney is working for you.  They always are working for themselves.  You goal is to be done; theirs is to go on and on forever.  Do you think they really care which client is being billed in a given hour?  Would you in their shoes?  I understand they have a livelihood to make just like I do and in the end if you understand that, you should be able to control things to a certain degree.  It is your life.  If it is not important don’t let someone who gets paid by the hour convince you it is.  Step away from the anger and make the decision calmly and rationally.  It is so excruciatingly hard to do that many times, but you do yourself no favors by giving in. 

I would also suggest asking tough questions.  When I have talked to attorneys about ending spousal support I am not afraid to have them tell me what percentage of cases they win.  The numbers are staggeringly low.  In that case it’s a cost benefit thing.  It eats me up that I know my ex is violating everything in our agreement that should make it a slam dunk, but the reality of how those cases are tried and proven and the legal arguments that can be made will result in such a long drawn out contest with little chance of success that the right answer is to not pursue it.  Emotionally it eats me up from time to time, especially when I’m angry or bitter about something she did.  If I let myself be ruled by emotions I’d be calling up the PI and the attorney saying to let’s go get her.  In the end I’d be out tens of thousands of more dollars with an outcome as uncertain as if I could hit a quarter in my front yard by throwing a pea over the house from the back.  Those ain’t good odds, Hoss. 

It is really, really, really, really hard to boil down decisions about who gets the kids and when, how many holidays you get, what support your kids receive, and what support you receive or provide to a risk/reward calculation.  I think doing it any other way is just a slide into misery.  I’ve seen it played out over and over as I talk and read countless stories.  The best outcomes are from those people who just got through it and moved on, not who slogged it out in the trenches and emerged beaten, battered and bedraggled.  You will feel terrible regardless.  Do yourself a favor and minimize the damage as much as you can.