Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Secrets of My . . . Success?

Recently, I had lunch with a former coworker, Mark. Although our areas of responsibility were mostly unconnected when we worked together and our former employer is located in another state, Mark and I ironically only live a few miles from one another, have mutual friends, and occasionally see one another at a store or at some activity that involve our kids. After he asked about it, I told him in more detail about my life including my late wife, Lori’s, cancer and being single dad. Then, he rather incredulously asked, “How did you do it?”

He wasn’t the first.

Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty flippin’ far from being the perfect parent, single or otherwise. Still, considering making financial and emotional ends meet isn’t always easy for anyone, I’ve been able to get by for more than a dozen years as the full-time father of three beautiful, independent, incredible children.
Three? Not a crowd

I didn’t give Mark the full answer to his question. I rarely give anyone the full answer. If I was to fully disclose the secrets of my “success,” (ahem), they’d probably include these:

Proactively Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst – Life Insurance vs. Education: Of course, long before we learned Lori was sick, she and I talked about “what if’s.” We considered whole life insurance and graduate school, both of which are costly. Frankly, we believed we could afford one or the other. We chose the latter believing education would benefit us and our children in any case. If the two of us lived long lives, M.B.A.’s would increase our earning power both in the short term and the long term. If something happened to one of us, then that degree would help to make either one of us more employable and give us a better chance to make sound business decisions as a partnerless parent. Of course, hindsight being what it is, it would have been nice to have had a large whole life policy, but the master’s degree has been invaluable.

Bobby’s Rule: Lori’s wake was held at Baue Funeral Home at St. Charles Memorial Gardens in St. Charles, Missouri. My dad’s older first cousin, Bobby Wade arrived to pay his respect. Bobby was in poor health and physically unable to actually wait in the greeting line. So, when I had a minute, I went out to see Bobby in the foyer. Bobby understood I only had a few moments, so he got right down to it. He said, “You’re not the first man to lose his wife. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. You will be overwhelmed. There will be dozens of things that need to get done on any given day. Do what you can and don’t feel bad about what you can’t.”

Whitey’s Rule: This isn’t the first time I’ve referred to my friend and Fraternity brother, Steve White, who had lost his wife suddenly a couple of years before my children lost their mother. “Whitey” said to me, “Most folks will have your best interest at heart, not many people understand what you’re dealing with. Few will be able to provide perspective or practical help. Remember this, there is no wrong way to grieve.”

Buy a Multi-Family Home: For all intents and purposes, a single-family home is an expense and a drain on the family finances. Renting an apartment or house provides no chance at building equity. A multi-family investment property, however, is likely to increase in value and provide some passive income. You and your children have to live somewhere, right? It is a lifestyle choice, but if possible, invest in a multi-family property, move in, and rent the other space(s) to defray the mortgage, taxes, and insurance. Maybe, you can even live for free if the rental income from the other unit(s) is good enough.

Start a Small Business: Whether construction contracting, independent sales, tutoring, selling Avon, or even making chocolate bars, start a small business. Obtain a DBA, incorporate, or form a limited liability corporation. Keep a record of your sales and expenses. In just about all cases, owning and operating a small business can be done simultaneously to a full-time job. Not only can a small business both provide an income and have an intrinsic value, but it will also allow you to dictate your hours, keep you close to home and to your children, and provide you with the ability to consider some of your car mileage, telephone, internet, and other items as business expense.

Smokey says, "You better shop around."
When It Comes to New Romance, Measure Twice, Cut Once: I don’t think it’s anyone’s dream to fall in love, marry, have children, and then, whether through divorce or loss, become a single parent. Lori and I planned to build a life and raise our kids. Then, we hoped to enjoy one another, our children, and our grandchildren happily ever after. Plans change. Single parents have some life experience and perspective. Commitments are, by definition, not supposed to be broken. Still, they often are broken. When it comes to making another commitment, take Smokey Robinson’s advice. Shop around.

Don’t Buy a “Prestige” Car Until College is Paid: Cars are funny things for a lot of people. I get it. For me, though, it hasn't made sense to buy a Mercedes, BMW, or Cadillac for $75,000 when I didn’t have my children’s college savings fully funded. My personal definition of “fully funded college savings” is $200,000 per child, or $50,000 per child per year. That level of college saving would pretty much guarantee my children could attend almost any college, private or public, that they wanted to. Obviously, that level of college savings is a pretty tall order for most of us; in practice, that means don't buy that expensive car right now.

Don’t Buy a “Prestige” Car Even When College is Paid: In almost every case, an automobile is an expense. Technically, it’s an asset that depreciates in value over time and it costs money to operate. If you’re fortunate enough to have $75,000 or an ability to borrow $75,000, why not use those resources to buy an asset like real estate? In a lot of places, $250,000, assuming a 30% down-payment of that same $75,000, will buy a lot of real property. Hopefully, you’ll have researched the rental market for income, and costs. Assuming the rental income is greater than expenses, you’ll be able to put a few dollars in your pocket. Considering “home prices have appreciated nationally at an average annual rate between 3 and 5 percent,[i]” your investment would likely double in value in about 18 years.

Take Some (Guilt-Free) Time for Yourself: When I take the time to relax or have fun or cut loose or whatever, I’m a better person for me and for my children. Considering both Bobby’s Rule and Whitey’s Rule and considering the life of a single parent is often terrifically stressful particularly for parents who have sole custody, take the time you need for yourself. If you’re not feeling well, allow yourself to sleep a little later or take a nap. A day of rest may prevent a week in bed with a cold or worse. If you need to get away for a night or a weekend alone or with a friend, then get a sitter and get away. Heck, you might even get yourself a “toy” for recreation. If you like to hunt, buy yourself a nice rifle or shotgun. If you like to fish, perhaps a fishing boat and trolling motor might be just be the ticket.

Look, I won’t tell you that the application of a few of my secrets will make life all marshmallows and lollipops. Single parenting is tough. It’s exhausting. More often than not, it’s thankless. There is more to it, but creating a safe, consistent environment is absolutely an important part to your children’s success. A reliable income and your emotional health are prerequisites for making that happen.

1974 MGB - The Perfect Family Car
For the record, I haven’t yet bought a Mercedes, BMW, or Cadillac. I haven’t leased one either. I have a daughter who’s in her second year of college and another who’ll be a freshman in August. After the kids have their education and I have created the passive income I’ll need to enjoy my grandchildren, I’ll finally get my car. It will likely be an onyx black Volvo S90 with the amber perforated leather interior.

In the meantime, I did buy a toy for me. It’s a cherry red 1974 MGB convertible roadster, which I enjoy on the many two-lane, Hudson Valley country highways. I paid $6,000 for it and it’s the perfect family car.

[i] “What does ‘normal’ home value appreciation look like?” Meredith Miller. Zillow.com. August 12, 2013. (Accessed March 24, 2017.)