Having extra means feeling rich

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Custom made pillow covers. A splurge.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

She had in her early teens what some would call “a reversal”, my late step-mother, and so, later in life when I knew her, she owned a lot of stuff.

She never talked about her family of origin; in 40 years of knowing her, I only learned the names of her mother, brother and sister — none of whom I ever met — but never that of her father, who had been well-off, then wasn’t.

Never having gone to university, needing to work right away, she later worked as a highly successful writer and editor of TV show scripts and, in good years, made a lot of money, which she spent on expensive shoes and jewelry, amassing garment racks filled with designer clothes, her cupboards bursting with products and cosmetics…all of which proved even more overwhelming to dispose of for my father when she died of lung cancer at 63.

I never understood why having so much stuff — basically, extras of everything — could feel so satisfying.

Now I do.

When Jose and met and started dating 20 years ago, times were tough for me and he was extremely generous, buying me everything from a colander and toaster to new air conditioners. I was living alone,  divorced, paying — in the 1990s — $500 a month health insurance as a freelancer. There was very little money left over after paying all the bills.

 

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I certainly had no need for this lovely early 19th. century tea set. But it gives me such pleasure to use.

 

Now we do have extras: cloth napkins and tablecloths, rolls of toilet paper, candles, rubber gloves, multiple computers. Summer and winter clothing.

We own sports equipment for bourgeois pursuits like skiing and golf.

I feel alternately guilty and weird for having more when so many have less,  but I admit it also comforts me.

When you’ve run in survival mode for years, extra is luxury.

Who exactly is “middle class” in the U.S.?

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Can you afford a house? We can’t. Not anywhere near where we live….Maybe this is why I enjoy reading about others’.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And, another hate read from The New York Times, somehow insisting that an annual income of $100,000 to $200,000, even $400,000 (!) or more means “middle class”:

This is the introduction, while the story focuses on seven families, with only one single man.

Being middle class in America used to come with a certain amount of leisure and economic security. Today it involves an endless series of trade-offs and creative workarounds, career reinventions and an inescapable sense of dread.

We asked readers to tell us what it’s like, and more than 500 people, with widely varied incomes, submitted responses. They described not just their financial worries but also he texture of daily life. Even those with very good incomes expressed fears of instability. They have seen their wages and bargaining power stagnate and wealth spiral to the top, while they struggle to acquire the markers of middle-class life — a college education, health care, the deed to a home.

As one reader, Kristin DePue, put it, “There is an extraordinary burden on my generation to fund our own retirement and also afford college costs for our children.” Indeed, “middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago,” the journalist Alissa Quart writes in “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.” And yet, for all the talk of “everyday Americans” among the presidential candidates, politicians do not seem to understand what it takes to get through the day, or what would really help.

 

 

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Georgetown, DC. Pricey but lovely

A few thoughts:

 

— No American — unlike some Britons who will proudly say they are “working class” — will use that language to describe oneself, even if it’s true. There are so many euphemisms for poor: broke, impoverished, low-income, underprivileged, each of which is vague and subjective. One man’s “broke” is another man’s notion of luxury.

— Many factors affect how far one can stretch a budget: housing, health insurance (if you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, free), educational costs, number of children, etc. If you’ve chosen to raise a child, or many children, that’s an assumed cost bringing many additional costs with it: food, clothing, medical care, etc. Plus childcare!

— Some areas of the country are brutally and punitively expensive for housing and if, for reasons of employment, health and/or reliable family support you can’t leave, that cost alone is going skew what you need to survive.

— If you have multiple children and every one of them attends a private university or college, let alone graduate or professional school, it will cost a fortune. Yet it remains a very loaded and un-American idea to suggest trade school or vocational training instead, even though many such workers, unionized, make very good incomes, have plenty of work life-long and tremendous pride in their skills.

— This story generated 1,358 comments (that’s a lot for the Times), as “class” is a loaded word for Americans, raised from birth on the “American dream” of social mobility.

Here’s one of them:

The median household income is $59,000 per year. All of these people in the article are far above that, but they are still struggling to afford basic things like education for their children because life is very expensive. Imagine what a family making $25,000 is going through, trying to send children to college. Everyone that is thinking about this election needs to realize that the real middle of the country is hurting. All of our security has been turned to risk, and the billionaires pay themselves as if they carry the risk, instead of us. The corporate establishment “center” has completely discredited itself, by telling us how great the economic numbers are, how “free trade” has really been great, and that there “is no money,” for the things that most people need, because, according to the owners of capital and the media they own, the only way for capitalism to work is for their corporations to get fat, no-bid, cost-plus contracts, while those same corporations have their taxes cut to zero.

Jose and I live in a suburb of New York City, in a one-bedroom apartment. Our monthly housing cost is $2,000, health insurance $1,700, various other insurances another $400+. Add food, gas, the $95 cost of a 10-trip off-peak train trip into New York City for work or pleasure, parking, dental, etc.

In our good years, we make just over six figures, as full-time freelancers — i.e. wholly self-employed; in bad years, we have had to tap our retirement savings (and thank heaven we have some.)

That, for many people, is a fortune!

But our combined income can also disappear at any moment without warning if one of our clients cuts their budget or management changes. We have no paid time off or paid sick leave.

At this point, effectively shut out of any full-time job (that would cut $20,000 a year in costs with job-supplied health insurance) by age discrimination, we are OK, partly because we have no children or dependents, and have stayed in this home for decades, driving a 20 year old vehicle.

 

How about you?

 

Where do you fit?

More notes on freelance life

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By Caitlin Kelly

It happens to all of us.

This time, it’s The Pool, a popular and terrific five-year-old UK website aimed at women, now “in administration” (i.e. bankrupt) and screwing lots of furious freelancers out of the payment we earned and are owed and rely on.

Here’s a story about what happened.

But here’s the tricky part:

You don’t think to check the records at Companies House in case an outwardly successful, much-loved, well-read website is in fact £760,000 in debt, has an outstanding personal loan of £40,000, borrowed £250,000 against the company’s assets and lost £1.8 million in the previous financial year. As a freelancer, you can’t possibly be aware of office politics, or worrying signs such as the fact that the entire board bar one resigned in August 2018. None of the staff tell you. Why would they? Maybe they don’t know.

Besides, they need your copy. They keep commissioning you, right through the Christmas period and into early January, only stopping — or so it seems — once they are outed first on Facebook and then on Twitter by a mounting number of freelancers who haven’t been paid.

I’m out about $300 — a hit we can afford to take (reluctantly!) because we have savings and a fairly low overhead. But many others relied on The Pool for our due payments — to pay for rent, food and other necessities.

Creditors don’t care why we’re suddenly and unexpectedly short.

They just expect to be paid on time.

 

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I learned young to be wary of others’ glossy appearance or promises of payment.

I’ve been selling my photos and writing as a freelancer since I was 19, when, one summer, I sold my photos on the street in Toronto. I was so flattered when a smooth, well-dressed, charming woman ordered a large color print of my work — and sent me a rubber check. She assumed I was ill-equipped to fight back.

I sent her a lawyer’s letter and got paid in full, quickly.

I see too many people now desperate for emotional or professional validation — “I’m a writer! I got published!” — when some of those commissioning this material are shysters or going broke and no one tells us this — until, suddenly, we’re all screwed.

As soon as I started to fear (and hear rumors of this disaster at The Pool) I might not get paid, I Googled the company and found everything I needed to know; senior editors quitting months ago en masse, financial chaos, huge debts.

No one selling their skills to strangers — basically what we do when we work without a steady, secure salary and benefits –– can afford to be wilfully ignorant about the ethics and financial health of their clients. It’s why finding and using reliable networks of writing peers is crucial — intel!

 

Everyone who wants to freelance needs savings!

 

 

 

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In other recent freelance writing news…

— Was excited to write about a cool new Montreal company last year — it, too, just went bankrupt. I successfully re-pitched as “What happened to this great idea that sucked up $17 million in investments?”

— Was coaching a young writer for about six weeks but that work (and income) abruptly ended when the student ran out of money.

— Picked up a new anchor client (i.e. steady income!), and now scrambling to meet weekly deadlines for them.

—  Made the error of politely disagreeing on Twitter with a highly opinionated science writer who went batshit on me until I blocked her. Later, privately, a writer who knows her (and her shitty temper) reached out to comfort me. Both were strangers.

— Interviewed a fellow journalist/author via Skype about his new book, gobsmacked by the opulence of the room he was sitting in. Was this a luxury hotel? Was that his living room? Good Lord, what am I doing so wrong?!

— Last fall I’d hoped to pitch a great little story perfect for The New York Times’ Metropolitan section, one of the few sections left there I haven’t written, for but my radiation treatment/exhaustion scotched that. I finally traveled to Brooklyn to interview middle school students for it, with Jose as my chauffeur. It’s so comforting to have him help me!

— Finally emailed an editor with whom I feared we’d had a rough ending last fall. He wrote back immediately to say, No, not at all. Whew!

— Have a new book idea. Will have to see if it’s even worth writing a proposal.

— Sent an unsold book idea to a colleague and now await news if her agent is willing to read it or even rep it.

 

The usual hustle!

Money, money, money

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Storms can descend any time — without warning

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

There’s an American expression I’d never heard before I moved to the U.S., a “come to Jesus” meeting, defined by one online dictionary as:

 

Any meeting in which a frank, often unpleasant, conversation is held so as to bring to light and/or resolve some issue at hand

 

Few subjects are as fraught with emotion, for many of us anyway, as money.

Here’s a great/long/helpful New York Times column on when, how and why to discuss money effectively.

My husband and I recently had yet another CTJ meeting about our finances, our budget and how — again — we might try to trim our expenses and boost our earnings. We both work full-time freelance, I as a journalist, writing coach and editor, and he as a photographer and photo editor.

And we’re both at an age when no one is likely to offer us a well-paid, full-time job in our industry and we do apply.

Survival is wholly on us.

 

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I love living on the Hudson River

 

Money is a proxy for power, influence, access, status.

It’s how many people — especially in the United States — measure success. If you aren’t flaunting your wealth, you must not have any. Loser!

It also buys food and gas and housing and medical care and clothes and shoes and school tuition and books and music and beer and trips to visit people we love.

We live (in a one bedroom apartment) in a very wealthy area, wealth-adjacent as it were — one man in our small church wrote a personal check for $250,000 to buy the new organ. The women here who stay at home full-time focusing all their Ivy educated energy on their children chirp at me: “Are you still writing?” as if my life’s work, albeit in a poorly-paid creative field, were a hobby, like macrame or raising chickens.

I grew up in a family that had a lot of money, at times. My father and his second wife worked in film and TV, the household income dictated by the whims of whoever they were trying to sell their talents to. We had, as I’ve blogged here before, cotton years and cashmere years.

My maternal grandmother, whose father was a Chicago real estate developer and investor, inherited a massive sum in the 1960s — and spent it as if it were something radioactive to be gotten rid of as fast as possible. Hence, I witnessed, with a mixture of awe and envy, an extraordinary solo life of gold-topped canes, lush furs, raw silk custom-made muumuus with matching turbans, enormous jewels and limousines everywhere. When she died, in 1975, my mother had to sell everything to pay off death duties to the Ontario government and decades of unpaid income tax to the Canadian and U.S. government.

I own only two objects that were Granny’s — a 60’s-era gold ring and an antique pocket watch. Interestingly, Jose’s only family object is also a pocket watch, and a small black native American piece of pottery.

Jose grew up the son of a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, NM, in church housing, and attended four years of state university on a church-supplied scholarship.

I was lucky enough to have a monthly income at 18, thanks to that grandmother, just enough to live alone and pay my own way through four years of university, (plus a lot of freelance work.) I’ve had decades thinking/worrying about money every day and how best to manage it.

I’ve had staff jobs, two of them well-paid,  but knew they would never last. They just don’t, in our industry, especially if you don’t schmooze or flatter those in power.

 

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A cafe table in Montreal, one of our many pleasures…

 

For me, money is a tool: when there’s enough left over, you travel and renovate and buy a decent used car for cash and buy the best clothes and shoes and household goods possible because it can, and will, disappear overnight, and often without warning.

 

So you also save and save and save and save and save!

 

I lost income in 2018 producing two (unsold) non-fiction book proposals, then six months’ dealing with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

We do have decent savings, some of which — again — we’re going to have to access to survive 2019.

Our single greatest cost?

No surprise here for any American reader: $1,700 a month for our health insurance plus another $2,000 in co-pays (out of pocket payments) for specific medical visits.

It is more than our monthly mortgage payment —- and is non-negotiable. Even if we lived in a hut in the woods, we’d still need it.

 

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Both my parents grew up rich, and each promised to eventually leave me some of their money but one lied for decades and spent every dime on herself.

 

How does money — or the lack of it — play out in your life?

 

 

 

Why we’re all so weird about money

By Caitlin Kelly

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Few issues are as fraught with emotion as how we get, spend, save or give away our money.

If you don’t have enough to survive, every day becomes an emotionally and physically exhausting battle.

And when you live in a country devoted to bare-knuckled capitalism like the United States, if you don’t have enough, the social safety net is weak and thin.

The federal minimum wage is still an absurd $7.25 an hour — I’ve never paid any of my part-time assistants less than $12 an hour, even 15 years ago.

American unions now have the lowest membership in a century, even as one third of American workers lurch into what’s now widely and risibly called the “gig economy”, a jaunty and inaccurate euphemism for fiscal insecurity.

This week Richard Thaler just won the Nobel Prize for Economics.

From The New York Times:

 

Professor Thaler’s academic work can be summarized as a long series of demonstrations that standard economic theories do not describe actual human behavior.

For example, he showed that people do not regard all money as created equal. When gas prices decline, standard economic theory predicts that people will use the savings for whatever they need most, which is probably not additional gasoline. In reality, people still spend much of the money on gas. They buy premium gas even if it is bad for their car. In other words: They treat a certain slice of their budget as gas money.

He also showed that people place a higher value on their own possessions. In a famous experiment, he and two co-authors distributed coffee mugs to half of the students in a classroom, and then opened a market in mugs. Students randomly given a mug regarded it as twice as valuable as did the students who were not given a mug.

This “endowment effect” has since been demonstrated in a wide range of situations. It helps to explain why real markets do not work as well as chalkboard models.

Money is so often a proxy for other, often deeper, darker issues: power, control, status, humiliation, (why Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein could be a sexual predator and so many people who relied on his goodwill to help them get or stay rich remained silent for so long.)

I’ve been fairly obsessed with money for a long time.

It’s caused no end of drama within my family and I’ve been handling my finances alone since I was 19 and moved out of my father’s home to live alone in a large city and pay for university from my earnings as a writer and photographer, with a small monthly income from a grandmother.

It taught me very early to know my worth and to bargain hard for it. I still remember the joy of earning 18 percent on a Canada Savings Bond, whose value quickly doubled.

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One place I do spend money freely — travel

 

I also remember vividly being so strapped then that it took me months to save the $30 I needed to buy tights and slippers so I could attend a free ballet class.

My living expenses were phone/rent/tuition/books/clothes/groceries/answering machine.

No car. No TV. No cable.

My family has plenty of dough, but made clear to me to never ask for a penny of it, nor ever expect to run home for help. I inherited some money from my grandmother in my mid-20s, which helped me to to buy an apartment, a security for which I’m very grateful as I’ve bounced in and out of the job market, survived three recessions and work as a full-time freelance journalist — an industry now in complete chaos.

I break into a sweat when spending money on more than the basics; (except for making our home lovely and travel.)

My cellphone and computer are probably four or five years old, (no big deal.)

But our Subaru has 180,000 miles on it, is 16 years old and cost us $1,800 in repairs in recent months — so we’re finally about to lease a gorgeous luxury vehicle.

The thought of committing to anything beyond our monthly health insurance and mortgage payments is scary even though we have the cash, (money we’ve saved for years), and emergency savings, so this is not — as Thaler would nod knowingly — 100 percent rational thinking.

 

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Airfares? I’ll splurge on those…

 

Some of the financial challenges I see so many women struggling with:

1) being scared to ask for more (i.e. raises, bonuses, negotiating a higher salary or fees)

2) giving money and gifts to children and grand-children to their own financial detriment

3) under-earning because of sexism, racism or other institutional barriers

4) under-earning while taking time away from paid work to care for children and/or others

5) failing to understand the devastating financial impact of divorce and planning for that. I had a prenuptial agreement in my first marriage and could have ended up in very dire straits without it.

 

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Does handling and managing your money cause you anxiety?


 

Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

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“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”

— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)

Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.

If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.

If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.

If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.

If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.

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There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”

Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.

I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”

Yes, a hugely lucky break.

But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.

The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.

That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.

I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.

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My second book, published in 2011

So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.

I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.

Bullshit!

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If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:

Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.

You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.

You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)

You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)

You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..

You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.

You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.

You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.

You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content. 

You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.

You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste  time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Money: getting/spending/saving it

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my pleasures is enjoying culture — and yes, it costs money!

A friend recently saw an ATM receipt that left her gobsmacked — $139,000 — in the hands of a young woman, maybe in her 20s.

My friend is a single mother who works in a creative field, frustrated that she has yet to hit the level of income she craves, deeply envious of the stranger with so much more than she.

I get it — when I found out that a friend of ours, someone our age, earns $500,000 a year, I was stunned.

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

My husband and I are both working full-time freelance, with a mortgage that won’t be finished for another five years unless, somehow, we make a lot more money and can pay it off sooner.

What’s currently killing our ability to save — or enjoy much beyond basics — is $1,800 month in health insurance costs; his, heavily subsidized by his former employer as a retiree while they soak me the full price.

Yes, there is cheaper insurance, but it all comes with huge deductibles and co-pays.

The getting and spending, (and saving and investing, ideally), of money is often a lifelong challenge for all but the very wealthy.

But it comes down to basic economics: if you’re always broke, you’re under-earning or living beyond your means.

If you’re mired in poverty — with little education and/or weak job skills, multiple dependents and/or health issues — it can feel, and be, almost impossible to climb out.

And I know far too many women, of any age, who remain somehow terrified of money — especially when asking for it or more of it, (i.e. negotiating an initial salary, asking for raises/bonuses/commissions/better freelance rates), and handling their finances confidently and intelligently.

As if, for some reason, we don’t deserve it.

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It does mean taking charge.

It does (gulp) carry consequences, no matter how much action (or inaction) you choose.

I once attended an information session at the U.S. firm where I keep my retirement money.

It was laughable.

As in laughably bad, full of jargon and weird, arcane advice possibly of value to people with millions to manage — or waste.

Not me!

Selfishly, as a journalist, I get paid to learn, and, in writing about personal finance for the Times and Reuters and others, have learned (and taught readers!) a lot about handling money.

I also read the financial pages of two newspapers daily and read several business magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the domestic and global economy.

If you don’t know the word fiduciary, learn it and make sure anyone going near your money professionally is one.

One of my favorite people, and bloggers, is writing candidly about getting smarter about money. I admire her for being forthright and questioning her decisions publicly.

People rarely do.

I urge anyone thinking about how to better handle their finances to read this fantastic book, (which I reviewed in The New York Times, and am now friends with its author), Pound Foolish. It’s not a how-to, but a smart and insightful overview of the personal finance world.

She also writes a smart and helpful advice column for Slate.

My other favorite money columnist is Michelle Singletary, with the Washington Post.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona — travel has always been a priority for me

Jose and I were were lucky to both have attended and graduated from college debt-free; he on full-ride scholarships, I attending Canada’s best university for $660 a year. (No, there’s no missing zero.) Neither of us attended (or needed) graduate or professional school.

Nor did we have children, saving us an estimated $200,000+ per child to raise.

Nor do we have dependent relatives.

My priorities have been travel and retirement.

But I admit it — it really did feel useless and annoying to keep putting money away year after year after year for what I hoped would one day help fund a retirement, denying myself so many purchases, (newer car, nicer clothes) and pleasures in order to do so — until that sum finally grew to six figures and I thought, with relief and pride: I did that!

And, yes, for many reasons, saving money is difficult for some people, and impossible for those who don’t earn enough to get past subsistence.

But it’s also urgent (and tedious!) to distinguish between wants and needs, between what everyone around you may boastfully own, often on credit, (new phone, new car, huge and lavish wedding, bigger house, etc.), and what fits your financial priorities.

Peer pressure to keep up — i.e. spending! — will kill you and your financial future.

It’s one reason I constantly urge women, especially, who earn less and live longer, to always, always ask for more — and to read this book that tells them how to do it.

Do you find handling money frightening or intimidating?

Any great tips to share?

How to be an everyday philanthropist — Jennifer Iacovelli’s new book

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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The word “philanthropist”, for me anyway, conjures up an image of someone with huge wealth, multiple mansions, a private jet. Someone who has so much money they don’t know what to do with it all.

The sort of people whose names cross PBS’ screen when they highlight the network’s biggest donors.

Certainly not most of us, right?

A new book, Simple Giving, Easy Ways to Give Every Day, written by Jennifer Iacovelli, a mother of two in Brunswick, Maine, working in the non-profit world for years — and a longtime devoted philanthropist — offers a new and different perspective.

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family
Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family

I met her for the first time, in March 2014, in the Atlanta airport, when we joined a multi-national, intergenerational, multi-media team heading to rural Nicaragua, to the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. We were going there to help tell stories about their work for WaterAid, a global charity whose sole North American project is in Nicaragua.

Neither of us had ever been there or worked together.

We hit it off immediately, which was lucky, since we spent 12-hour days for the next week working in 95-degree heat and traveling in a cramped van we often had to start with a good hard shove.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

She was fun, down-to-earth and someone whose passion for giving back really inspired me, and still does.

As she writes: “A small contribution can make a big difference in someone’s life.”

I read her book carefully and dog-eared dozens of pages in it. It offers six different “giving models”, from everyday acts of kindness, taking action on your passion to giving as a business model. “People often don’t know where or how to give.”

Yes, we all know the big charities, the ones with big advertising budgets…but where does our money go?

Is it being used in ways we respect?

Jen urges you to consider getting the most our of your giving by considering choice, connection and impact. (Do you all know about Guidestar? It is an extensive online database with every possible bit of information about a charity you might be giving to. Check it out first!)

Here’s my Q and A with her:

What’s your goal with this book?

My main goal with the book is to inspire people to think about giving in a different way. I hope it empowers people to recognize their own meaningful ways to give on a regular basis.

 Tell us a bit about your past:

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I went to college at Syracuse University and graduated with a dual degree in Advertising and Psychology. Those majors blended my love for writing, creativity and fascination of human behavior.

I lived in Denver for a short period after graduating college and driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer. Made my way to Maine in 2000 and haven’t had the desire to live anywhere else since! (though I do love to travel!)
Was there any emphasis in your family of origin on giving?

Not necessarily. I saw my parents donate money to nonprofits here and there, but there wasn’t a big emphasis on giving or volunteering. I did volunteer a lot while in school. I was always helping out with class events, the yearbook, etc. My parents encouraged me to get involved.

 


 

“There are so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail”


 

What prompted you to start giving…was there a precipitating event?

I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2005 because I was looking for more meaning in my work. I guess you could say I’ve always had the pull to give more but didn’t know what to do with it. That’s where I realized that there were so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail. I also saw that many people didn’t quite know how to give in the most meaningful way. I would (and still do in my current position) re-direct people and educate them on how they could best help our mission.
What sort of reaction did you get when you told people you were making a public commitment on your blog about giving?

People were supportive, of course. But most encouraged me and didn’t necessarily join me. I did it, of course, to show my process and share what I learned. Hopefully it inspired others along the way. It was a great experience

Do your friends and family have the same passion for this as you?

Yes and no. I do have some very inspiring and giving friends who are featured in the book or on my blog. Others are simply soaking it in, which is great too. I’ve met so many passionate people through writing this book. It’s been amazing!

 


“It’s often those who have the least that give the biggest percentage of their income”


 

In your experience, has the recession affected Americans’ willingness or ability to give — either time or money?

I believe giving has gone down a bit, as has funding for nonprofits. People still give though. And it’s often those who has the least that give the biggest percentage of their income.

What was the most difficult/challenging part of writing the book?

Finding the time to put it all together! I had so many thoughts, ideas, interviews, stories, research, etc to weave together while going on with regular life as a mom, writer and entrepreneur. I also went through a divorce during the process. I would just find ways to disappear for a few days to concentrate only on the book. It’s was a challenging process but I can’t wait to do it again.
The most fun?

Seeing the final product! It honestly didn’t seem real until I could hold the book in my hands. What an amazing feeling.

How does it feel to become an author?

Indescribable. I accomplished a major life goal when I signed my book contract. I am proud to have a published book before I turn 40. It’s about the only thing that has left me speechless!

 

 

 

Would you rather buy more stuff — or have more fun?

By Caitlin Kelly

This piece in The New York Times piqued my interest:

American consumers are putting what little extra money they do have to spend each month into eating out, upgrading their cars or fixing up their homes, as well as spending on sports gear, health and beauty. Spending at restaurants and bars has jumped more than 9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, and on autos by more than 7 percent, according to the agency.

Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.

Millennials — the 20- and 30-something consumers whom marketers covet — would rather spend their hard-won cash on out-of-town vacations, meals with friends, gym memberships and, of course, their smartphones, many surveys suggest.

More stuff!
More stuff!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we’re finally, gratefully, at a point in our lives we need very little additional stuff. We’ve renovated two rooms of our apartment and own an array of sports gear, art supplies, camera equipment, the things we use for pleasure and for work. (We do need to replace our old car.)

It’s a huge relief.

I’ve never been a mall rat, the sort of person whose favorite activity is shopping. I enjoy it and sometimes take an entire day to do it, but rarely come home with more than one or two things, and usually nothing huge or expensive.

Like everyone, I have specific weaknesses — anything seriously antique, jewelry and lovely things for setting a pretty table.

One of the most fun things you can possibly do -- dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC
One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

We’ve also saved really hard for years for our retirement, so can now release a bit more of our income for pleasure; saving 15 per cent a year is no fun, but — yes, really — it adds up.

I’m more eager now to spend what extra money we earn on travel, dining out, enjoying the many plays, concerts, dance performances and conferences available to us in and near New York City. We do not have children or grandchildren, nor, as many of our younger friends do, huge student debts to discharge. Frankly, we feel like outliers — we are very far from 1%ers but we’re not panicked about money the way many people are; the average American has saved stunningly little for retirement.

A ticket to the theater is a joy --- and privilege
A ticket to the theater is a joy — and privilege

In the next few months, we’ll attend a weekend workshop (for business purposes); travel back to Canada (by car), attend a few shows and concerts. We hope to be back in Europe after Christmas for several weeks.

My Dad heads off soon for a month sailing with a friend in Greece; at 86, with a new hip, he’s lucky enough to have the good health, strength and finances to keep enjoying his life. In this regard, he’s very much a role model.

How many things do you want to own? How many experiences would you like to enjoy?

Unless you’re wealthy, every expenditure of money means making a choice — the time needed to invest in earning the taxable income to buy the stuff, store the stuff, clean and polish and upgrade the stuff — or an amazing afternoon/evening/week/month/year creating indelible memories.

photo(49)

We spent a recent Sunday in Manhattan (a 40 minute trip into the city from our home) seeing a show, On The Town, on Broadway, and splurged on box seats, at $101 each. I felt like royalty — they offered amazing sightlines and no squished knees; we sat in comfortable elegant Louis XIV-style armchairs. Before the show, we stopped in at Sardi’s, the classic, old-school bar and restaurant, for a Bloody Mary and a snack.

What a lovely, lovely day, creating memories we’ll cherish for years to come.

I’ve never once regretted any of the money I’ve spent on travel or meals or a day of skiing or a game of golf. But I’ve deeply regretted the money I’ve wasted on a pair of too-high heels (worn once!), clothing that just looked like hell or a really boring book that was, after all, a best-seller.

Sunrise from our friend's bedroom window in Maine
Sunrise from our friend’s bedroom window in Maine

Nothing that arrives in a box or bag is ever as pleasurable and satisfying to me as walking down a Paris street or having tea with a friend in London or catching up face to face with my sister-in-law in Toronto over a very long lunch.

How about you?

What makes you happier — stuff or experiences?

Any good ones you can share?

A small, happy life

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20140927_181158070_HDR

From The New York Times:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Columnist David Brooks describes this idea in his recent column, expressing a Timesian surprise at one man’s joy in his garden:

This scale of purpose is not for everyone.

What makes people happy?

There's a simple pleasure!
There’s a simple pleasure!

Not just having the newest-shiniest-costliest thing.

Nor the most well-paid powerful job.

Nor a private jet or three nannies and a $50 m apartment — which, believe me, when you live anywhere near New York City starts to seem somehow normal.

When I see an ad for a home, a house or an apartment, costing less than $1 million, and think “Yeah, that’s a decent price” I know it’s time for a reality check.

If you grow up, as I and my half-siblings did, in a family who highly values achievement and professional success — as many do — it’s tough to celebrate smaller, quieter, less-public moments.

Our view
Our view

And social media, with its non-stop parade of others’ effortless and luxurious fabulousness, offers a terrifying hall of mirrors for the chronically insecure, like one writer I know who makes the vaunted six-figures and has two Ivy League degrees, which she easily dismisses. She still wrings her hands constantly about her value.

If you persist in clinging exclusively or primarily to the ladder of professional status, ever seeking more income, status, achievement and admiration, you’re doomed.

There’s never enough.

Nor does the larger culture of the United States, a place addicted to ever-more-feverish productivity, wealth and status, offer much encouragement to those of us who actually prefer a slower pace, the lower costs of a smaller home, an older vehicle, (only one! OMG), or none.

From a story about young women’s rising levels of anxiety in Glamour:

Are our modern lives really that much more stressful? “The answer appears to be yes,” says anxiety researcher Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. “Anxiety rates have risen steadily over the past seven decades, during good economic times and bad.”

She believes the rise is related to a cultural shift, over the last 70 years, away from “intrinsic” values—appreciating things like close relationships and having a real love for your work—toward more “extrinsic” ones, like money and status. In fact, her research found that anxiety rates rose at the same pace with this change in mind-set. “Recent generations have been told over and over again, ‘You can be anything you want to be. You can have the big job title. You can have the big bank account.’ And in the case of women, ‘You can have this perfect body.’

That puts a lot on a person’s shoulders—and it’s also not really true. These are things that aren’t always under your control, but that disconnect creates a lot of anxiety about how hard you need to work to achieve them—and a deep fear of failure,” she explains. “And although these extrinsic values—the latest iPad, the cutest shoes—seem important, all the evidence shows that at the end of the day they don’t leave us very happy or satisfied.”

When more is never enough...
When more is never enough…

Anyone who reads this blog, or visits my website, can see that I’m a fairly ambitious, driven and productive writer — two non-fiction books, a Canadian National Magazine Award, 100+ freelance stories in The New York Times.

I’ve ticked enough boxes.

I know a woman who’s produced four children and four books in the space of a decade. And she has yet to hit 40. What on earth will she do to fill the next four decades of her frenetic life?

She’s obsessed with being productive. I admire her financial success and her love of parenting but I don’t wish to emulate her life or its choices.

I see the insane stress so many people feel — not surprising in an era of stagnant wages, record student debt and a shaky economy in many sectors. How much work is too much? How much is enough?

It is one of the few benefits of being decades into a career and having lived frugally; we don’t face the same pressures as some people I know, certainly those in their 20s, 30s and 40s juggling work/commute/kids/aging parents.

Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it...
Fresh mint tea. And the time to enjoy it…

I’m writing this while sitting on our top-floor balcony, the only sounds that of birds and the wind in the leaves. We have stunning Hudson River views and sunsets that vary every day in their beauty.

I value taking time off, whenever possible.

I enjoy naps, whenever necessary.

I make time to meet friends face to face over a long, delicious meal or a walk instead of chasing yet another client.

I value our strong marriage.

I value our good health.

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day
I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day

I value our dear friends, people who welcome us into their homes in Dublin, Paris, Toronto, London, Maine, Arizona.

What we may lack in prestige/power and visible tokens of fiscal wealth we enjoy in abundance in other forms.

Sure I’d like to write a best-seller or win a fancy fellowship.

But my boxes are mostly ticked and, for now, I’m focusing on small(er) wins and pleasures.

For which I’m grateful.

How do you feel these days about your life?