What would you do with a windfall?

Sigh. The N.S. house that got away — where I had hoped to invest my money.

By Caitlin Kelly

The word dates back to the 15th century — fruit blown from the trees, no need for the labor of picking it.

These days, it’s a bit of luck, often financial, that appears when we least expect it.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of these over the years, like a five-figure copyright settlement for misuse of my work (and many others!) by Canadian publishers.

A four figure sum, a dormant bank account, also in Canada, I had no idea existed.

The greatest was a surprise inheritance from my late mother, who died in 2020, after a decade of no communication with me, her only child. I would never have expected she would leave me a dime, but she left a decent sum, to my shock and gratitude, and five pieces of art I really love and wondered if I would ever own.

That money paid, in part, for my trip to California in June, one of the best vacations of my life, allowing me to explore a place I had long dreamed of, to connect with 11 friends out there and even with a cousin I hadn’t spoken to in years.

I bought myself a very good watch, an estate piece (i.e. previously owned by someone else) and love wearing it.

I still haven’t figured out what to do with the rest of this inheritance, which is a pleasant dilemma, for sure. The markets are a mess, so investing it feels like not a great choice. It’s not really enough to buy appealing North American real estate. I would never touch crypto or bitcoin, so for now I look at affordable properties in far-off places like Brittany.

If you’ve never had much money to manage beyond the basics of survival, it’s overwhelming to figure out what to do, who to trust, where to use it (or not) and how soon. Financial literacy is a learned skill — many people don’t know what a fiduciary is — someone managing your money who by law must act in your best interests, not their profit.

If you suddenly came into some serious coin — $10,000 or more (and even $100 can make a huge difference for many people, especially in an era of rampant inflation) — what would you do with it?

We often fantasize about winning the lottery, but it’s a hell of a responsibility!

Work should be fun! (Really?)

By Caitlin Kelly

Long loud harrumph.

Thumps cane for emphasis.

No!

Ok, yes, of course, often, maybe, if you’re really lucky, much of the time.

But always, every damn day of a 40+ year career?

Unlikely and foolish to desire.

The tedious cliche is “that’s why they call it work.”

The opposite fantasy is “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Ask anyone who’s been in the working world for a decade, let alone 20, 30 or 40 years.

This is also, I know, somewhat stiff-upper-lip generational — and I think an insistence work be “fun” is really proxy for a lot of other frustrations: carrying massive student debt for decades, low wages, terrible/non-existent promotions and raises, toxic managers, coworkers and/or customers (hello, foodservice and retail!)

As I’ve written here many times, I generally enjoy my work as a writer of journalism and content marketing, coaching and teaching. But there have been many times I was utterly miserable, even for a full year — like my last staff job as a reporter at the New York Daily News — where I was consistently ignored or bullied. It was torture.

It was a steady, decent paycheck at a then-respected newspaper, then the nation’s sixth-largest.

But happy? No, I was not happy. Fun? No, it was not, ever, fun.

When I worked for a few months in Toronto at Canadian Press, the national wire service, I had to write up every weekend’s accidental deaths across the province, slugged (named) Fatalities — aka Fats. NOPE. Not fun.

As a trade magazine editor in New York, I had a terribly low freelance budget and a highly demanding boss. Not a fun combination.

I do not subscribe to the belief that all work is, or should be, drudgery. But accepting that even the coolest-looking work has downsides and frustrations is more realistic. Even the best-known and wealthiest musicians and film stars have had work that failed to find an audience, auditions that were a disaster, spent years in the trenches working away before hitting the big time. Fun? Probably not.

I think we’re fortunate if we can find work that:

pays decently

offers kind, fun, funny, smart co-workers (even one of these!)

decent management

respect for the work we do

offers room for growth, internally or a boost to our next job elsewhere

helps other people live better/safer lives

I admit that, at its best, journalism has been amazing fun for me, many many times.

But it’s not a well-paid career.

It’s not a secure career and getting fired or laid off is pretty normal, even if expensive and annoying.

Forget a pension.

It’s often insanely competitive, even within your organization. So there’s plenty of stress and anxiety as well.

What’s the most fun job you’ve ever had?

The managing of money

A tiny annual check I receive as library royalties for my two books — but it all adds up!

By Caitlin Kelly

There’s a whole new crop of young women offering financial advice to their peers, writes The New York Times:

But rather than rallying behind meme stocks or the latest hot crypto trend, she [Tori Dunlap] is part of a growing tribe of largely millennial women aiming to change the narrative around women and money, often by drawing from their own experiences. There’s Berna Anat, a.k.a. Financial Hype Woman; Melissa Jean-Baptiste, the Beyoncé of Personal Finance, also known as Millennial in Debt; Delyanne the Money Coach; and Haley Sacks, founder of Mrs. Dow Jones and Finance Is Cool.

I find this fascinating and encouraging, since so many women earn less than men and often outlive a husband or male partner.

I learned early to handle money because at 19 I was living alone in downtown Toronto on a monthly trust fund, thanks to my maternal grandmother — $350/month. Out of that enormous sum, I paid rent on a studio apartment ($160), food, phone, answering service, subway, clothes, haircuts, dental care.

Oh and tuition and books for University of Toronto.

My father had suddenly and without warning sold the home I lived in and decided to move to Europe. He never offered a dime and he was making enough I doubted I would even qualify for student aid.

So I started writing and selling my photos freelance to supplement my income.

I still remember a can of tuna cost 89 cents then. I guess I ate a lot of it!

At 25, I inherited some money, enough it scared the hell out of me — as I had a good staff newspaper job and didn’t need it. I stuck it in the bank until I was 30 and moved to New York, grateful as hell to have a decent downpayment for the apartment I’ve lived in ever since. I could never have afforded it without that family help.

But no one in my family — and there was plenty of money sloshing around (like a spare $150,000 to pay cash for a house in Ireland) — ever discussed how to save and invest. I learned to be frugal, obviously, and that was a powerful and important lesson; when you’re living on little and have no one to turn to, you have to.

And since my family was far away, there was one to ask for advice or help if something terrible happened. And it did…I was attacked in my $160/month apartment when a man leaned in my ground-floor bathroom window and tried to pull me out (mid-bath.)

I left the next day.

So all I’ve really known about managing money is to make as much of it as possible — and save a lot! Only after maybe a decade of hard saving (like 15% every year) did I feel I’d accumulated anything. The past few years were a godsend because the markets, for my investments, returned tremendous gains, which I needed since freelance writing fees are dropping every year.

I did great for years, alone, freelance in the 1990s, managing to pay for health insurance ($500/month alone) and mortgage and maintenance. I’m fine buying and wearing consignment shop clothing and shoes, and have some pieces I’ve worn for a decade, quality bought affordably. So I’m OK pinching pennies when need be. I tend to keep things for decades.

When I do have more to spend, and look at buying some lovely new clothes or shoes, I often break into a sweat of anxiety. Crazy. Not fun.

Managing money can feel terrifying if you’ve never done it and don’t even know who to trust for solid advice.

I’ve never touched an ETF or index fund, (as many people do) but have several mutual funds and four Canadian bank stocks — Canadian banks are notoriously conservative and consistently profitable; Canada never had a 2008 bank crash as Americans did, (thanks to lending millions to people with no ability to actually pay their mortgages.)

I read a few finance books, but the basics never change — live on less than your income, saving and investing what you have. Rinse and repeat!

I now read the Financial Times daily, even though it’s mostly for institutional investors moving millions. It helps me see where the global economy is going and which companies and sectors are doing well or terribly.

My peak earning years are over, sorry to say, so managing every dime is really essential now.

How are you managing your money?

Where did you learn how to do it?

A family reunion, of sorts

My maternal great grandmother, Blanche Gresham, 1924

By Caitlin Kelly

For years, my late mother and I were estranged. When we were in touch, even as her only child, she almost never discussed her childhood or adolescence before, at 17, she met my Canadian father in the south of France, then left her native New York City to move to his hometown, Vancouver, where I was born six years later.

Both parents grew up wealthy — in large houses with servants, attending prep school (my mother), owning a horse and a sailboat (father). But neither childhood was necessarily calm and happy.

So their histories have remained mostly a mystery to me.

My mother died April 15, 2020 and a very large, heavy packing crate arrived a year later from her final home, a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

For a variety of reasons — partly fear the works inside would be very damaged (they weren’t), ambivalence about owning the final items of hers and knowing we have no one in our family to leave these things to — I didn’t open it for nine months.

It took a lot of hard work to get it open — thank you Jose!!

This week, finally, we did, and my husband Jose attacked it with a hammer and crowbar and a lot of determination!

Amazingly, the four things inside were in excellent shape; only a few bits of one frame had chipped off and the glass was wholly intact on everything (having been taped.)

There were two family portraits and a gorgeous Inuit print of a polar bear from 1961 I had long admired. And a sampler, from 1845.

This is one of the earliest Inuit prints, by Lucy, 1961; ignore my unbrushed hair!

So now my maternal great-grandmother — Blanche Gresham — later the Countess Casagrande of Park Avenue — has come almost full circle, some 3,011 miles.

I only met her once, as a very old, very infirm lady in that apartment. My mother adored her. I adored my grandmother — while we both had very difficult times with our own mothers. Go figure!

These women led quite extraordinary lives, cocooned by enormous wealth, but with marital mayhem — my grandmother married six times, four in a decade. I never met any of them, long gone by the time I met her.

I think (?) the smaller image is her with my grandmother Aline, and her sister Lois

I am very curious about these women and their lives; the money came from my great grandfather, Louis Stumer, a Chicago stockbroker and developer of a gorgeous skyscraper in 1912, The North American Building, on State Street in Chicago, (since torn down):

Developers Stumer, Rosenthal and Eckstein hired one of Chicago’s busiest, and best, tall building architectural firms Holabird & Roche for the project. William Holabird and Martin Roche, along with a team of talented designers and engineers, had developed a commercial building system that was not only pleasing to the eye, but more importantly for an investor could be built quickly, efficiently, and ready for rent-paying tenants on schedule. They were instrumental in helping make what came to be known as the Chicago School world famous.

One reason I chose to move to the U.S. was my fascination with this family and their lives. One relative became an ambassador, one an archeologist, one (!) a bullfighter. My cousins had lives that included piloting their own Cessna and running a rug business from Morocco. They were all intimidatingly confident — and so much larger than life than most of the quiet, polite Canadians I grew up around.

It’s quite comforting to finally have these women in our home now.

The Nova Scotia debacle…

By Caitlin Kelly

Note the small lot….a problem for adding a septic in a town of dug wells and septic systems…

Well, kids, it sure wasn’t dull.

The house dream blew up in fairly spectacular fashion Monday morning the 15th.

That was the day we were to commit to purchasing the house or losing our $3,000 deposit if we missed that deadline.

Friday morning — i.e. with two days to spare — I discovered the house is actually illegal, thanks to its antiquated septic system that, like many in that village, empties into the ocean.

Gross!

Also, against Nova Scotia environmental laws.

We needed probably three weeks to seek and win necessary government approval to install a wholly new system ($12,000) but the seller — a wealthy and powerful local businessman — refused us even an extra day.

Busted!

That was that. We bailed.

Then — do not ever mess with a skilled reporter! — I placed three calls that day to the local office of the environment and an official called me right back and is launching an investigation.

Also writing a letter to the top three people of the seller’s realtor to point out how crappy this is: either she lied or the seller lied and this put us in tremendous financial jeopardy if we’d been forced to buy an uninhabitable house.

Lessons learned:

1. The house’s owner, a local grandee accustomed to deference from the little people, isn’t going to suddenly get all ethical and nice for an outsider. Probably the opposite. Our realtor made clear he was furious to have dropped his price and then we dared ask for more time.

2. Never assume that a small town in a largely rural province is de facto any nicer or gentler than the iron-fisted ways of New York City! It’s very clear that panic pandemic buying has massively inflated prices and created a feeding frenzy for realtors and sellers that only leaves any buyer vulnerable.

3. Never stop asking questions!!

4. Take lots and lots and lots of notes; an email paper trail is also useful for reference. Also photos and videos.

5. If something feels off, it is!

6. My love for the physical structure of a charming house was blinding me to local conditions that would have made life there unpleasant and expensive — to reach the town means taking a car ferry and missing it (as I did one day) means losing valuable work time. I was warned that no one would even deliver a sofa that far because of lost waiting time; same for other services like pumping out the septic.

7. Take time to do every possible inspection and made each one a condition of purchase.

8. Getting a larger sense of the community and its culture quickly reduced my enthusiasm — after people lied to me, I had no wish to live there, even part-time.

Waiting for the car ferry; it carries 17 vehicles, and takes about 10 minutes

This was also just emotionally painful for me to let go of all the attendant hopes I had:

— welcoming friends

— getting to know a new community and province

— coming back to Canada

— a chance to use my decorating and design training to make the house lovely

— maybe getting summer rental income from it

— owning a place with no rules (like our co-op apartment)

— finding a property within our budget. Impossible now, really.

A visit to Nova Scotia

By Caitlin Kelly

Back again!

I spent last week visiting a province I had only been to once before, in my 20s, when my father then owned a big old Victorian house in Lunenburg on the South Shore.

This visit included a lot of driving!

There are no direct flights from NY to Halifax, so it becomes an all-day affair with a layover in Toronto (90 minutes north then 2 hours east.) I arrived, of course, sweaty and exhausted after an entire day masked, just in time for sunset — to drive 90 minutes in the dark on unfamiliar roads.

How had I forgotten how tiring and stressful travel can be?! Because I hadn’t been in an airplane since June 2019…

I was staying with my best friend from Toronto high school, who designed and built an off-grid home on a lake in a forest there. I hadn’t seen them in three years, since they left their rural home in Ontario. They were super welcoming and their 27-acre property was so blessedly beautiful and silent.

Morning mist at the lake!

I went up to see a house we are thinking of buying, after years of looking fruitlessly at real estate ads, watching prices literally double in the past year as wealthy people fleeing COVID have snapped up a lot of Nova Scotia real estate, driving up prices and making anything in our budget unattainable.

I finally found a really pretty gray shingled house, 2 bedroom, circa 1906, its interior unchanged for decades and uninhabited. We made an offer which was accepted.

The dining room…the house is full of their stuff.

Every room has wallpaper — I really like this one!

There are 3 calendars in the house — 1938, 1947 and 1953

But only then did the true fun begin….I was now dealing with 10 different individuals (!), including a realtor, lawyer and eight different tradesmen, from septic to wells to two general contractors. One afternoon, I was trying to talk to two of them at once with only an hour to conduct business because the realtor had to leave — and we had all missed the earlier ferry.

Oh yeah, you need to take a five minute ferry to reach the village, (pop. 300), one of three on an island.

The car ferry, which takes five minutes, and holds 17 vehicles — including tanker trucks and schoolbuses

Why do anything EASY?

So it was a week of a lot of learning for a woman whose entire life has been spent in apartments in cities and towns of 10,000 to millions, never in a remote village.

Even at our advanced ages, Jose and I have never owned a house, or even looked at one or made an offer — but a surprise inheritance (!) from my late estranged mother made this possible.

The house is not winterized or insulated so this would only be for summer use. That doesn’t bother me, since I really enjoy my NYC life, with easy access to museums, shows, ballet, opera, shopping and restaurants,

If this goes through — and we have hit yet another unforeseen potential deal-breaker just now — it would also give Jose and I a foothold back in my native Canada. Because if T—p wins again, and it is not looking good right now for the Democrats (trounced in recent elections), I’m not going to live in chronic anxiety for another four nasty years of GOP rule.

Highlights included three-hour drives to the house and back; sitting in morning silence by their lake; visiting a friend in Halifax I hadn’t seen since my wedding in Toronto a decade ago.

I loved the Nova Scotia accent, with its drawn-out vowels, and people were kind and helpful.

Will keep you posted!

This writer’s week

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

It seems obvious that writers write, certainly when every word adds income — and our health insurance alone (God bless America!!) is $1,500.00

The truth, as every freelancer knows, is that before I write a word about anything, I also spend a lot of time, probably 80 percent, just finding and getting the work and negotiating payment and conditions. For one recent story, I had to read and sign a nine-page single-space contract.

This week involved no writing, but lots of meetings:

— My web designer, now living in Asia and who I’ve been working with since 1995, suggested my writing skills to a client of his, a physician in Virginia, to help refresh the copy on his website. I spent half an hour speaking to the doctor, a specialist, to find out if we might be a good fit. I was a little nervous, as he might have been as well. These initial conversations are something of a mutual audition. Do we speak the same language? Do we each have a sense of humor? Did we enjoy it? I also had to name an hourly fee and rough estimate of how much time I thought it would take, not knowing if this would be acceptable. It went great, so onward!

— A former coaching client who’s become a friend needs new freelance writers so we skedded a call to discuss.

— A new design website needs copy focused on antiques, something I know well and have studied many times, hence a call to talk about some ideas.

— I’m working on a very cool story for The New York Times, (I’ve written more than 100 for them), but it’s moving very slowly. My key source lost his mother very suddenly, so I stayed away for a while. This is a story where I think personal introductions to sources will prove more fruitful. There are different ways to find and approach people, some better for some stories than others, and some just take a lot more time to pull together. None of this time is paid for, just built into the one fee we get per story.

— A calm and civil conversation with the editor I had walked away from mid-story. I’ll get a kill fee, 25 percent of the original, instead.

— Emailed an editor in England I’d hoped to be working with on a story in July, but she warned me of changes at the company.

I recently did a Zoom webinar with Jose and counted up the number of clients I worked with in 2020 — 19.

This year, already, 19!

I enjoy this variety, but I admit it’s tiring adapting to 19 different people and their needs and their individual style.

I’ve had one boss before in many staff jobs. It’s a bit easier!

Working more…or less

By Caitlin Kelly

Longtime readers here know this is something I think about a lot.

The New York Times ran an editorial on this, urging Americans to seriously consider working less:

Search online “work too much” and you’ll get screenfuls of information about the harmful medical, mental and social consequences of spending too much time on the job, going all the way back to that old saw first recorded in the 17th century, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

It should be “makes Jack a dead boy,” says the latest contribution to the literature of overwork, this one from the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization.

A new study by the two groups says that working 55 or more hours a week is a “serious health hazard.” It estimates that long working hours led to 745,000 deaths worldwide in 2016, a 29 percent increase over 2000. Men accounted for 72 percent of the fatalities; the worst concentrations were in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia, and particularly among 60- to 79-year-olds who had worked long hours after the age of 45.

Reading this book is enough to set one’s blood to boiling…but so many Americans are still too scared, too poor and too disorganized (i.e. no union) to do a thing about their terrible hours, conditions and pay.

But there’s also a peculiarly American insistence, beyond financial need, to keep proving to everyone all the time how productive you are, as if there’s some Powerful Person standing somewhere with a clicker to clock every minute you ever worked and you’ll be rewarded by….not dying?

As if working all the time for money, to burnish your professional reputation, to boost your income or status, is the only thing worth attaining or achieving.

What about:

Family?

Friendships?

Caregiving?

Travel?

Leisure?

Hobbies?

Volunteer work?

Education?

If Covid’s terrible damage to millions — destroying their long-term health or killing them — wasn’t sufficient warning that our time here is limited and we have many other ways to spend our time, what is?

A perfect stylish day — at last!

A grande dame of design — Bunny Williams discussing one of her projects

By Caitlin Kelly

I don’t know about you, but ohhhhhhhhh, have I so missed style and wit and elegance!

Being in a room with other people, quietly paying attention to something riveting.

So an out-of-the-blue press invitation to attend a day of panels by Big Name interior designers and architects was just the ticket. I wore my go-to black pleated Aritiza maxi-dress, black denim heels, my $3 thrift shop black necklace, a Lucky brand shawl — and off I went to the city.

Jose sent me with a toasted bagel, so one of the many commuter skills I got to use once more was unwrapping it and eating it while maneuvring the FDR, the narrow, busy highway that runs along the east side of Manhattan, beside the East River.

I scored on parking — having resigned myself to a $50 day for an Upper East Side spot — by getting into a garage by 9:00 a.m. (early bird special), for a daily cost of $18, less (yes!) than a cocktail here and even less than the round trip commuter train fare of $19.

The day offered a lively mix of topics, all focused on interior design, from the use of color to what makes a pretty room to choosing and using antiques. Each designer and architect had about 20 minutes to show slides of their work and explain the thinking behind their decisions.

Typical of this world, many had worked for some of the same firms and some had worked together on projects.

The back-stories were delicious!

But also…whew!

It’s easy to forget, or not know, or not care, how staggeringly wealthy so many people are now.

So there’s another 10,000 square foot mansion with 11 bedrooms and a bowling alley and a skating rink and a theater…

Here’s a mega-yacht with a bed inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Here’s the 6th or 7th home of another mogul, this one in Mexico.

And so on.

It would be easy to disdain all of this as appalling excess.

I get it. I do!

Or the fact that every project employs hundreds of workers, many in the unionized building trades.

But I still loved every minute of the day, and savored the stylish people seated all around me — the woman in leopard trousers with a massive leopard hat; the older woman in her navy leather Roger Vivier flats; the man in black Belgian loafers (a very specific NYC old-money brand), the speaker in from Dallas in perfect patent Manolos….

The shoe game was strong!

I studied design at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s and planned to leave journalism for a new career in the industry. After my first husband walked out, starting over at the bottom at $10/hour wasn’t a viable option, so I stayed in journalism.

But I learned a lot at school, and really enjoyed my education.

My maternal grandmother had money and hired Toronto’s top decorator, so my taste was formed early! I still remember one of her 1970s bathroom wallpapers.

I love design dearly, so an entire day listening to the greats and legends of the field — and seeing the depth of their knowledge — was a fantastic, free pleasure.

For all its challenges, New York City remains a vibrant center full of talent and inspiration. What a relief to see it finally, slowly, coming back to life again!

Understanding my mother…now

By Caitlin Kelly

Long-time readers here know my mother and I were estranged for the final decade of her life. I won’t repeat all those details. She died in her chair, watching TV, on Feb. 15, 2020, my best friend’s birthday, in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.

Her friend and executor was kind enough, at 2:00 a.m., to say Psalm 23 over her body, a gesture I’m really grateful for.

She was cremated and I was to have gone to B.C. — basically impossible thanks to Canadian border closings and quarantine demands — to scatter her ashes there.

Now they’re in our living room, in a nasty plastic container they arrived in (for now) and it’s oddly comforting.

Because our relationship was so difficult for so many years, we usually lived very far apart — I in her native New York, she in my native British Columbia.

The closest ever? I was in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she lived in Bath. We had a few very good visits, until the week I was to fly back to Canada for good, and she ended up in a locked ward of a London psychiatric hospital.

So there was always tension and fear and anxiety for me with her.

A cliche, but true — her death has released me from this, and for that I’m very glad.

It has also, thank God, lessened my anger and frustration over the behaviors and decisions that cost us thousands we couldn’t really afford, over her unwillingness to address her alcoholism, even to acknowledge my annual Christmas cards and newsletters, including 2018, when I got early-stage breast cancer. (She had had a mastectomy.)

But, to my absolute shock, she left me a significant sum of money.

I would never have imagined this.

I assumed she was, by then, broke.

I assumed whatever she might have had would go to someone else.

I assumed…nothing.

That money is now in my bank account and I keep flailing about emotionally, alternating between guilt (it’s unearned) and gratitude.

It’s even enough to buy a small house, although — as one friend said — not in a place I would actually want to live!

I spent a lot of years, decades, dreading the next argument or insult or unwanted phone call alerting me to some fresh chaos. I left her care for good at 14.

She never taught me to cook or dress or wear make-up or how to handle money.

Even my minimal sex education was a booklet she left on a table.

What I did learn was how to be independent.

How to make and keep good friendships.

How to confidently and effectively manage my own affairs.

Only in a recent conversation did I finally, belatedly, understand something fundamental about her that I had always taken too personally.

She did not invite or enjoy intimacy.

Her alcoholism and bipolar illness and tough personality all made sure it was very difficult to get close to her.

That kept her safe.

It hurt me, but with hindsight and distance I now see them as coping mechanisms.

Better late than never.