Sunday, March 15, 2015

If you feel you have to give back, did you take too much?

Lately I find myself thinking about things. Sometimes it's small stuff, like if I've put socks and underwear into my swim bag. Sometimes it's big stuff, like wondering if I need to work 37.5 hours a week anymore, and how much money I actually need.

Need. How much I need. Most people seem to have the idea that they never have enough money. They think there is no such thing as too much money. They ask themselves "can we afford it?" If they aren't quite that forward thinking they end up asking "how do we pay for that?" But the question that has troubled me most over the last bunch of years is "do I want to afford it?"

It was a big change when that question first happened. I was a little startled. The first years of our marriage we didn't have much money. Signing the mortgage papers terrified us; it seemed like all the money in the world. Now, depending on exactly the choices I make at tax time I might net that in a year. So unless I develop a sudden taste for round the world cruises on the Queen Mary II, you can see where the "want" part of affording comes from.

Many people 'want' all sorts of outlandish things, which leads to the problem of paying for it. Some of them think what they see on TV is real, and decide they not only want, but deserve that. Some people think their things provide status for them. My personal experience is that BMW drivers have that one bad.

I've never been particularly troubled by having the newest, shiniest thing. I put off buying an iPhone till the 4 came out, and still have it, until the 6 had been out for a while. My desktop computers have been an Atari 800XL, then a Mac 5200 (the shame), the cube (which I still have and use for playing DVD's while on the spin trainer,) and now a 24 iMac (the early 2008 model) I've had for a while. So you can see I don't go crazy buying computers. Just don't get me started on the whole software update thing.

Or cars. 66 Ford Falcon (used, of course, I wasn't old enough to drive in 66). 78 Pontiac LeMans. 83 Honda Accord (I still miss it!). 95 Dodge Caravan (the shame!), and now a 2004 Honda Accord. Think of it, a car more than 10 years old, with 266K or so on the clock, in big money oil and gas Calgary. I am not ashamed. It runs just fine, and gets me from place to place. What do I need a new car for?

The first time I came across a study that showed money ceased to be a motivator surprisingly soon, for a surprisingly large segment of the populace I was shocked. But it's true. I took a 10K a year pay cut to get off shift work once, back when 10K was a lot of money to me. I took an extra week of vacation rather than a raise. I'm just now figuring out how much time I want to take off this year, because I don't want to work a full work year minus a few weeks of vacation.

No. A buddy of mine once said "I aspire to schedule my work life the way most people schedule their vacations." (Hi Alan!) That idea has been rolling around in my head for a while, and I'm asking myself the question, why am I not acting on it? What does it take to act on it?

The answer comes back to those wants. How much do I want? I'm a simple guy, and my wants are not big. That part is straightforward. But there are two other elements that are more complicated. How long am I going to have those wants? I just read a study that says a married couple in their mid 60's have a 50/50 chance of one of them seeing 90. That is mumblty many more years for me, and anyone that really wants to know can figure out my age from an assiduous reading of my blog. Plus, I have a parent and a grandparent still living, unless someone has forgotten to phone me. My financial plan is already assuming I live to 95, and I won't be surprised if that gets bumped to 100.

The other piece is the stability of the markets. Right now is a dumb, foolish, ill-considered, downright stupid time to buy a house for almost anyone, almost anywhere in Canada. I have a very smart financial advisor, and we've done very well by her. Yet, shit happens. I do not want to be a Walmart greeter because I have to work, and that's the only job I can find.

There are two things balancing here. Make hay while the sun shines. Even with the downturn in the markets, the sun is shining on my situation. I keep in mind that could change. Oil and gas companies are notorious for abrupt layoffs. Every hour or day I don't work when I could, I am forgoing an exactly known number of dollars. The balancing thing is that I don't want to be the richest guy in the graveyard. You don't need money when you're dead. I am wanting the time more than the money. (Shush! Don't tell my boss; I will need to break it to her gently.)

And yes, I'm thinking about retirement, though not in the sense of stop working entirely. I don't have a company pension, so I will be living off my investments. One advantage of being a contractor is that I can work work in short bursts, then take some time between contracts. Depending on the market, of course. At this writing, that's my retirement model. Work some of the time, enough to fund the rest of the time off. I keep doing the math. At my current rate, I don't have to work all that long per year, to fund a nice retirement for the rest of the year. I have no shortage of things I want to do besides work in a downtown office. And every year I can put off drawing down investments is all to the good.

So, back to the beginning. Some people give back with a monetary gift, and you won't see me complaining. I think that's great. I was just listening to a TED talk by Ricardo Semler. One thing he said was "If you feel you have to give back, maybe you've taken too much." He used as an example of one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffet, giving away money by giving to one of the few people even richer than he is, Bill Gates, for further distribution. The Gates foundation has demonstrated expertise at giving away billions. Billions! Most of us struggle to conceive of that much money. 

But Semler has a point, perhaps those people took too much along the way. As the saying goes, money works like manure, best spread thinly. 

Many people consider giving back to be giving of their time. Volunteering. There used to be a thing called "dollar a year man". Just like John Oliver wonders "How is that still a thing", I wonder, why ISN'T the dollar a year man STILL a thing?

One of my personal goals is to volunteer at as many races as I've done. I'd have to count up, but I think I'm still a few short. Lately, I've been coaching Michelle on her swim. That's a form of giving back too. Today at Talisman Center in their 10 mile Tri, she swam 500 m in 16:22. The swimmers among you scoff. Keep in mind, last fall she couldn't swim at all. I have video as proof. Her bike and run put her on the podium for her age group. I have photos, but if she wants to write and photo, she has a blog of her own, or she can do a guest post here if she feels the need. Or, you could have had a twitter account and seen it live.

Yes, she will say kind things about my coaching. But the important part is that she listened, she tried, she kept trying, and didn't get discouraged. I am so proud of her. That's part of the reward of giving time. But there's a selfish element too. Coaching her swim stroke made me think about my own, and it's improved enormously.

I have to post this. Calgary weather today. Gotta love it.

Your turn. I am curious, have you volunteered? Doing what? Have you thought about retirement and what you'll do?


  1. Thanks for being there today Keith. Such FUN! Sure, I'll take you up on your offer to do a guest post. Thanks! :)

    1. Stay tuned everybody! I have an email with text from Michelle. That will go up tonight I think. It will give you something cheerful to read, rather than my ponderous thoughts on whatever that I've been inflicting on you all lately.


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