Monday, January 24, 2011

These Are Your Options

Good morning. I've been thinking about how I've gotten through difficult times in the past and how that applies to what we're all going through with this economic downturn. Let's face it, unless you are a Saudi prince with a bunch of oil fields, you've been effected by the recession in some way.  I've watched it happen among my clients. 

Good hard working people from all walks of life come to me to say they have to stop taking riding lessons because they are afraid they are about to lose their jobs, or they've just lost their jobs, or their hours have been cut back significantly, or they've been forced into retirement, or the self-employed folks whose business has suddenly dried-up.  I'm watching other horse farms close and put up for sale signs.  My business has certainly decreased.  Recreational horseback riding and recession don't mix.  Of course, it makes me nervous just like it makes everyone nervous right now.

I'm not telling you anything new.  Even if you still have your job and your home, you've seen your 401-K dwindle, your home's value is less than you paid for it, or banks have raised your credit card interest rates despite on-time payments and paying over the minimum.  It's an economic environment that feels unfair because it's taking down people who've been financially responsible along with people who haven't been.

So, now that I've stated the obvious, let me tell you how I'm choosing to think about it:

Every morning when you wake-up, you have two choices:

1. Live
2. Die

Those are your options.

Everyday, you make a choice. The vast majority of us get out of bed and keep going.  We keep doing that until God calls us home or if you don't believe that...until you die and fade into nothing. 

In all seriousness, if you are considering Option 2--dying--as your chosen response, call 911.  The operator will get the on-call mental health professional in your area on the phone with you. If you're in immediate trouble, they'll send law enforcement to make sure you safely arrive at the local hospital where a mental health professional will meet with you and discuss your OTHER options. As socially isolated as you may feel right now, we are still a community and someone WILL help you.  I was the on-call worker many, many times when I worked at the mental health center.  We've heard it all.  The professionals will help you through.

Ok, now that my obligation as a former therapist has been met, let's talk about how the 98% of us who won't end-up in the ER are going to get through this recession.

To most of us, what's happening to the US economy hasn't felt like a recession--we've been through those before and it was never THIS bad.  I'm not an economist, but this recession sure feels a lot like the Great Depression of 1929 we read about in school.  People are in serious financial trouble no matter how responsible they were before the crash. I wonder if the government is afraid to call it an economic depression?  I wonder if they are afraid it will send people jumping off of buildings like it did in 1929?  As a compromise, I think of it as The Great Recession.  Except it's not all that great, it sucks.

So, if we choose to keep living and then we make the choice to actually get out of bed. How do we keep going with a sense of purpose? How do we escape our own personal great depression, emotionally?

For me, it's idetifying my top priority.  I know, it's not a sexy answer.  But, give it a minute to settle in on you.  When you aren't sure of what you're going to do next, think of what is THE MOST IMPORTANT PRIORITY to keep you going? 

Think about it.  Not the easy answers like food, money, someone to love me.  No.  That's not it.  Think beyond that stuff.  Food?  What is going to motivate you to keep going when you're too broke to eat or if you're lucky enough to have food, too depressed to eat?  What is that answer? 

Money? No, think beyond that answer.  What will most motivate you to make money? What will force you to take a job just to have the income? Yes, even if it's not what you had in mind and even if you are seriously overqualified.  What priority will make you get your ego in check and do what you have to do?

Someone to love you?  Ha!  Here's what the fairy tales never tell you about that goal...that "someone" can always stop loving you.  That's right, stop.  End of story.  Good-bye. Gone. Don't place all of your hopes on someone else to keep you going.  Obviously, I'm not talking about your small children or elderly parents who may need your hands-on care. I'm talking about the fantasy that a relationship will make it better. That's the kind of placing your hopes into someone else I'm talking about.  Early in my divorce process, a wise man said to me, "When you wake-up in the morning and wash your face, look in the mirror and recognize YOU are the only person you can depend on." It's very good advice.

Now that I've snatched all of the easy answers away, think beyond the easy answers.  Ask yourself what will keep you going above all else? If it were 1929 and people were jumping off of buildings, what would stop you? What will pull you back from the edge...of the building, of depression, of anxiety, of giving up on things ever getting better?

It will get better. The economy will get better. The job market and the real estate market will get better. Your 401-K will recover, at least to a certain point.  I decided to get happy when mine got back to even--the amount I had before this disaster started.  Look historically at the US economy, it bounces back.  So, this can't last forever.  Forever is a very long time. It's infinity.  Nothing concrete last for infinity.

You don't have to have a plan to last forever, you simply have to have a priority for now.  We will get through this, but we have to be brave enough to do it.  We have to be strong enough to outlast it.  We have to emulate the people of the late 1920s and early 1930s who made it.  What did they do?  My maternal grandparents didn't give up.  I'm not going to give-up either. 

My maternal grandparents were in their mid-twenties during the Great Depression. In 1930, their choice was to get married and make a go of it.  And, they did, for 59 1/2 years.  They were a wonderful example for me in many ways.  But, what I'm going to tell you isn't what you think of as a typical good grandparent example. 

My grandfather started reading the stock page to me when I was six weeks old.  I don't remember that, but I do remember being three years old with him reading it to me.  I assume when I showed up at breakfast at six weeks old, when my mother went back to work, that he was reading it, as always.   He started sharing the morning financial news with me as a normal part of our morning discourse.  I remember being 5 years old and asking him to explain what it meant. 

He showed me the numbers and the symbols and explained what they meant. He explained how the economy worked.  He started with what was appropriate for a child and those lessons grew as I grew.  Most children, especially girls at that time, never get those lessons about money, the economy, and what it all means to you. It is that very early understanding of the stock market and how money works that helps me understand what happened and that it will improve. I can never thank him enough.  I am not afraid of how it all works, because I have always understood it to some extent.  Without knowing it, he kept money and economics from becoming overwhelming and scarey.  Without knowing it then, he saved me from the overwhelming fear that a lot of people are feeling right now.  I get a little nervous about the business, but I'm not fearful of the long run.

My grandfather was not a banker or a stock broker.  He was a typewritter salesman.  He was a very successful typewritter salesman, but he wasn't a financial professional.  He made very wise financial decisions and gave the best financial advice I've ever had.  When I meet with a new broker, he starts talking to me like I have no idea of how to manage my finances.  I stop him and tell him the advice that I steer by, my grandfather's advice. It stops them cold.  They agree with him. They agree with what I want to do and how I want to invest.  In fact, I still have some of the stock he bought, probably in the 1950s, that I inherited from him.  It's utility company stock.  It's solid. It grows slowly, but it doesn't lose money.  It's steady.  What an appropriate inheritance from a man who taught me to be calm and dispassionate about money--because that's how you'll make the best financial decisions.

Ok, I'll stop teasing you and pass on his advice:

1.  Don't invest money you can't afford to lose.

2.  Don't fall in love with stock.

So, now, we've identified your options--live or die, remember? Those are your basic options.  You've got my grandfather's best advice and my best advice.  My best advice is to identify your top priority, remember?  Think about what I've suggested as parameters for that choice.  Find your top priority.  I'll share mine in the next essay and how it keeps me motivated.  I'll give you a hint: I bet it will surprise you.

Thank you for reading Postcards from the Farm.  Go and have a good day.  Remember, it will get better.

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