As I sit here at a Chicago Starbucks, in the heart of the funky Lincoln Square neighborhood, the first brisk snowfall of the season is coating the cars on Lincoln Avenue like a thin sheath of whipped cream on a warm mocha. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, just a few short days before Thanksgiving.
It also offers a bit of visual respite after three straight days of reviewing my finances, top to bottom, with my older brother Joe, who is a CPA and CFP based in Baltimore. Sorry if this sounds too graphic—especially after a lovely snowfall scene—but at times the financial exam felt like an enema delivered by firehose. Brother Joe looked at every aspect of my monetary life, and I needed it. Just because I write about personal finance doesn’t mean I’ve got my house in order.
I went to see him in a panic about some unsecured debt that’s gotten out of control, and emerged stunned. For starters, my wife and I have amassed net worth in excess of half a million dollars. Time to pass out the cigars? Uh … not yet.
We’re on our way, thanks largely to the equity we’ve amassed in our home, But we’ve also got some heavy lifting to do to restore financial sanity to our lives. This is mostly because every penny we make goes to some bill or creditor, when we could reallocate where our paychecks go and buy some breathing room. As I process the lessons learned from that trip, I’ll share them with you.
But there’s one nugget of wisdom I gleaned from the three-day financial boot camp. And it’s ideal to share this Thanksgiving season.
It is this: Circumstances should never change our attitude. But our attitude can change our circumstances.
My little financial attitude problem begins in 2009, when the Chicago Tribune let me go the same week they gave out millions in bonuses to muckety-muck executives. Then I went to AOL, and lost my job there after a year. Then I landed a prized, lucrative freelance account—the equivalent of full-time work—and lost that after 18 months. Every time, I gave it my very best. I always delivered what I promised, and more.
And every time, the reason for getting let go was the same: Cutbacks.
Maybe you can sympathize. Maybe not. Regardless, these financial setbacks caused me to rail bitterly about The Man. About how it doesn’t matter how hard you work. About how the system is rigged. On and on and on.
You might think my brother would sympathize. I think he did. But as a former Penn State middle linebacker, he knows when some players need a little tough love. And so, he made me call a time out.
Then he kicked my butt.
He forced me to memorize, and recite again and again, the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not piss whine, moan, or complain.”
Then he taught me that maxim I cited above, which I’ll repeat here: Circumstances should never change our attitude. But our attitude can change our circumstances.
I’ve heard this expressed other ways. “Tough times don’t last but tough people do” is an old favorite of mine. But Joe’s directive to preserve a positive attitude at all costs caught me off guard. Employers caught in a financial pickle had on several occasions taken away my livelihood. Was I going to let them take my can-do attitude as well?
Every week, I hear or read stories about people who are downsized by CEOs who collect fat paychecks. Or else, it’s the Vampires of Wall Street sucking the system dry while pluggers like you and I have to fight with banks just to get a lousy loan, even if our credit records are healthy. Life is not fair. Will it ever be?
It’s easy to turn little slights and big hurts into a chip on the shoulder. And I’ll be frank: I let this happen to me. I’d become bitter. Angry. And in the process, I gave away the one thing that nobody had the right to possess: my tough-minded optimism.
But there’s more. Looking at what you don’t have—or what’s been taken away from you—keeps you from seeing and counting the treasures you possess. My wife and I have been married for 17 years now. We have two kids who are so unique, funny and smart, I hardly need to watch cable for entertainment and information.
Our home in Chicago, for all the repairs it still needs, has shot up in value. Our 15 year mortgage is a strain, but somehow we’re making it work. I’m healthy. The family’s healthy. Who wouldn’t call these riches? And yet…
The perfectionist in me—the guy who is harder on himself than anyone else—obsesses about high credit card debt, my lack of a steady job in journalism, and the constant scramble of a dozen deadlines a week. (As a Chicago Tribune staffer, I wrote one to two stories a week and called it good.)
To my surprise, my brother the CPA spent more time working on my head and my heart than my bottom line. It was one of the best weekends of my life. And I promised him that I’d emerge from it with triple the resolve to stay positive and focused.
Will it work? Will the next financial setback return me to the land of Piss, Whine, Moan and Complain, Inc.? I wish I could tell you. I want to say it’s all behind me. But let’s see if I can walk the talk first.
This much I can say with 110 percent confidence: Today I give thanks. I count my blessings. I plan to build on them to find my fortune. And invite you to so the same as well.
No matter your bank account balance, your stock portfolio, you job (or lack thereof), you have riches you cannot fathom unless you count them. This is not pollyanna bullshit. It is fact.
The most young, broke, and single of us live at a much higher standard than a majority of the civilized world, and certainly above the homeless, orphaned, and chronically destitute. If you are not in a child labor camp, a captive in the black market slave pool, or a worker under the iron fist of a sweatshop baron, give thanks. Give thanks. Always, always give thanks. And count your blessings.
Circumstances should never change our attitude. But our attitude can change our circumstances. My brother the CPA taught this to me, and it’s the best financial advice I’ve gotten all year.
And it’s my gift to you, Happy Thanksgiving.