Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Another Life Lesson?

Blogs are supposed to be short, because generations of American children raised on Dorling Kindersley pictures-and-blurbs books have no ability to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. We live in Attention Deficit World, it seems. But that’s not true, is it? People are quite able to concentrate for long stretches to play and win video games. People still watch entire movies; they don’t routinely walk out halfway through. They can still read long paragraphs, and follow arguments that take more than a sentence or two to develop.

So here’s my latest thought about personal finance, inspired as usual by events in my own life. Recently, I obtained some freelance work, a very encouraging thing in such a depressed year. Then I broke my ankle. The costs associated with the injury will absorb all the profit from my work, even though I have excellent insurance coverage. I could look at this with dismay and frustration, thinking that bad luck dogs me, that I can never get ahead financially, and so on. Or, I could be grateful to have extra income just at the moment when I incur involuntary extra expenses. It’s the old “the glass is half empty” versus “the glass is half full” dichotomy. How do I decide which response to choose?

Widen this question to the financial situations of millions of Americans right now. We can choose to feel completely at the mercy of random bad luck, or we can decide that we are the happy recipients of good luck. The system is corrupt, and we haven’t got a chance. Or the system is silly, and we have to make our own chance. If bad things happen, maybe they’ll be followed by good things. Someone loses a job, but gains time with the children, which strengthens previously strained and distant relationships. Or someone in the family has to take on a job who didn’t previously, and gains self-esteem. Pulling together as a team and planning finances together brings spouses closer. Ceasing idle spending sprees helps a person regain control of common sense about money. Even stopping the much-maligned latte habit gives someone a chance to learn the difference between following a fashion and fulfilling an important personal need. These are all good things: Improved relationships with other people, with oneself, and with money, plus the opportunity to decide on one’s own what is important.

Sometimes, life pulls us up short, and demands that we examine the rationale behind our choices. I wouldn’t say that breaking an ankle per se is a good opportunity to examine my financial plans. But it certainly reminds me of mortality, of the consequences of behavior, and of my constant opportunity to shape my own future. I knew, for instance, that a house with stairs wasn’t going to be practical in old age. But I bought it anyway. Now, as I struggle around on crutches, I’m getting a preview of how difficult life in this house could be in the future. Will this play a large part of my thinking about whether to stay in this house and put in ramps and an elevator, or move to another place that has no stairs? You bet. Previously, it was only theoretical, as the future always is. But since injury temporarily makes me as fragile and helpless as an elderly person, I’m getting an unexpected tryout. And a wake-up call. The next time I go looking for a house, I will treat its livability in old age as a deal-breaker.

Drag this back to the financial situation we face today. The economy has tanked to a frightening degree, as we all know. But most people have jobs and many are doing well. No matter where we are on the spectrum right now, this is our opportunity to think seriously about taking whatever steps we can to ensure that we have sufficient income to live comfortably. In my case, that means actually going looking for freelance, rather than sitting at home and hoping it will come to me like manna from heaven. Which we all tend to do when we get discouraged, when we think that no matter what we do, we can’t get ahead. Maybe I won’t get ahead of the medical bills that will soon pour in. But I’ll be even. And I will have had the benefit of the shakeup in my expectations, the confounding, if you will, of my belief in my robust good health. Stuff happens. There are steps I can take to make sure more of the same bad stuff doesn’t happen, or that the consequences are less severe, and that I will be okay regardless. Life is filled with possibility, and on the whole I believe that it’s a good thing that we’re not all just on an endless treadmill.

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