Money Matters

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I listen to a lot of podcasts. A few weeks ago, I discovered a new one: small change—Money Stories from the Neighborhood.

Hosted by entrepreneur Twila Dang and Minnesota Public Radio economics reporter Chris Farrell, the podcast disrupts the notion that people with low or unstable incomes don’t know how to manage money. To the contrary, they are often the most creative and collaborative when it comes to doing so.

I’ve listened to all seven episodes that have been released so far, but one in particular got me thinking about the smart money lessons I learned from my parents, both of whom were born into the Great Depression and grew up on modest family farms, my dad in western Minnesota and my mom near St. Cloud.

My parents, Vi and Jim Bachel

Their philosophy was “live off what you have.” This, combined with the fact that my dad supported our family of seven on not much more than $20,000 a year, led me to learn important money lessons that have made a huge difference in my financial wellbeing. Here are a few:

Lesson No. 1: If you don’t have the money, don’t buy it. I never saw my parents use a credit card. Other than the utility bills my dad paid by check every month, my parents paid cash for everything from groceries to Catholic school tuition to an occasional new car. They kept meticulous track of how much money they had via their Midwest Federal Savings Passbook.

Lesson No. 2: If you want more money, ask for it. I learned and was reminded of this lesson just about every week when my stay-at-home mom asked my dad for money for groceries. No matter how much he gave her, she always asked—and often lobbied vigorously—for more. Sometimes she got it, sometimes she didn’t. So, midcareer, when I was offered a job with a consulting firm, I took a deep breath and asked for—and eventually received—a pay increase, a signing bonus and an additional week of vacation.

Lesson No. 3: Don’t be afraid to haggle. I can’t recall the exact amount the seller of my house was asking, but I was do know I was prepared to pay that amount. That is, until I talked to my dad. He advised me to offer considerably less, so I did. The realtor told me the buyer would be insulted by such a low offer. He was. But he eventually agreed to sell me the house for considerably less than his original asking price and only $3,000 more than my original offer.  

Lesson No. 4: Always get three estimates. Now that the pandemic has me hunkered down at home, I’ve been getting estimates for long overdue home chores, including painting the exterior of my home as well as the upstairs. In soliciting the estimates, I’m doing just what my parents taught me to do: calling three contractors. Their estimates range from roughly $5,000 to $20,000+, reminding me once again of the value of my parents’ advice.

Lesson No. 5: Save for retirement. Thanks to my parents’ urging, I started saving for retirement in my early 20s, when I got my first full-time job. It was at Honeywell. While I’m unsure how much I saved in the two years I worked there, I still have a 1984 Retirement Savings Plan statement showing that I contributed $55.94 in the fourth quarter of that year and had a yearend balance of $233.48. While that doesn’t seem like much to me now, I’m certain it did at the time.

I’m also certain that these and other money lessons I learned—from my parents, as well as friends, colleagues and podcasts such as small change—have made a huge difference in my financial wellbeing.

How about you? What money lessons did you learn…and from whom? And how have those lessons impacted your own financial wellbeing?

Holiday Wishes

This year’s Thanksgiving turkey is in the freezer. Ten pounds will be too much for two of us, but that’s no big deal. The big deal is that the United States is approaching a quarter of a million COVID deaths. Three friends move into the holiday season without their fathers who died of COVID. The world keeps spinning and for every family in mourning, there are others marking other happy events. Both those grieving and those celebrating share this very different international holiday season. 

Letting go of every tradition helped our family clearly think about Thanksgiving. Tentatively we’ll celebrate by putting up outdoor Christmas decorations together. Masked and socially distant, the hour we spend hanging lights and garland will make the day special. And we’ll prepare Thanksgiving favorite foods to send home for our meals shared later on Zoom. Notice the word tentatively– the weather could make being outside horrible or the pandemic could become more dangerous. This is 2020. Many surprises are not happy. We’re not talking about Christmas yet. One week at a time feels like the safest planning cycle.

Our parents and grandparents spent holiday seasons physically separated by war. Somewhere family members passed the holiday in danger. Military families today may face the same emotions plus deal with COVID’s impact. Working on 40 Thieves on Saipan made that separation more real to me than stories I heard as a child. For the majority of us, accepting the pandemic as an international public health war equals distance holidays for 2020..

One in three Americans say they will pass on this year’s holidays. But for those who do plan to do something special, now is the time to start thinking about how. Turkeys should be in grocery stores soon although small birds could be scarce. Good news is that butter is less expensive. There’s time to bake, send treats, and to remember those who may be struggling.

Here’s hoping the 2020 holiday wishes you hold come true. But mostly, here’s hoping you and yours stay healthy and safe. Whether your special people are around a common table or visible on a screen, those of us fortunate to be within the sound of their voices are thankful. 

A Great Day for a Bike Ride

I’m one of those people. I did a Simon Cowell. I purchased an electric bike.

Did I use to look at those people with scorn? Wonder if they were cheating? Deem that I was getting better-quality exercise with every pedal. Could those E-bikers even call what they were doing biking?

At the beginning of this biking season I was going strong. Biking 11 or 14 miles with Jody. We have a great route from our house to around Lake Harriet and a longer route to Lake Nokomis.

Though I was doing well biking, I was also uncomfortable. With two knee replacements, I lost the get up and go from a dead stop. This is a problem when you are trying to move through an intersection. I also felt unsafe. I couldn’t smoothly slide my feet from the cage pedals. I had to think every stop, or I’d tip over. I replaced the pedals with platform pedals. I also wanted to sit straighter so I jimmied some handles that would allow me to do that. Nothing is pretty when I jimmy.

Biking became not fun. I learned that two knees replacements aren’t equal. My left knee stayed on the pedal rock solid. My right knee wanted to complain about the position of my foot on the pedal. It did not have the same range of motion as the left.

I would only go biking with Jody if it was sunny and no wind. Not even a breeze.   

My preferred method of exercise became walking, hiking, and climbing the hills at the ski hill. I wasn’t a slouch. I often got compliments. Especially, when the telltale signs of my knee replacement scars were visible.  

I missed biking.  Jody is a strong runner and biker. We didn’t run together. We just rode in the same car to the same spot and then had an agreed upon time to meet up. When biking, she’d bike right behind me. She would insist that my pace was fine. I was certain that I was hindering her athletic prowess.

Since COVID, Jody and I have done a lot of walking together. She calls it her bonus steps since she has already worked out for the day. I call it my one and out.

Do you see what this is all leading to? My birthday gift. 

I did read Simon Cowell’s article before buying my E bike. I did read the manual. I have not fallen off my bike. I have also not done any wheelies.

My first ride with Jody was around Lake Nokomis from our house on a very windy day. My first impression was happiness. I was five years old, it was my birthday, and my mother had just handed me a Winchester lever rife that shot plastic bullets. 57 years later, I have that same joy riding my E bike.

At first Jody wanted me to bike in front of her like old times. That wasn’t going to work. I can bike whatever pace she is biking.

The next day we rode 20 miles on the Cannon Falls Trail. The only tense time was when I was in front of Jody and I was waiting for her to catch up. “This is a lot of work, you know”, she said a little testily. I learned to adjust my gears after that and not assume she could go any faster.

Since having the bike it has become my preferred exercise. There is work to an E bike. I pedal. My calf and thigh muscles work. Biking has improved my range of motion in my right knee. I can also feel more strength when climbing steps. Jody says that she gets a better workout.

I’m now one of those people. Don’t be judgy. If you ask me, I’ll tell you, it’s like having my birthday every day.  

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy is written on my desk calendar, on a piece of scrap paper in my bag, at the bottom of our grocery list. My husband’s favorite order from a small Vietnamese restaurant we like. Okay, a place where we ate so often that the servers know us. 

It is a neighborhood eatery where we could relax after a busy day or before running errands. Carry out orders flew from the kitchen. Tables were filled with college students, young families, parents with grouchy high school kids, retirees. Large fish tanks amuse young diners. Food came fast. On rainy or winter nights the crowded room felt cozy. 

When curbside carry out became available, we called our place. The first night, part of our order was missing when we got home. Two weeks later my stir fry had little flavor and the rice needed warming. We noted the slip-ups, but didn’t dream about trying another place or dropping Vietnamese from our carry out rotation. They know who we are when we walk in. I know the person who says it is good to see me. They prefer cash and I understand how credit card fees eat into small business sales. 

The food is good, but not great. It is truly all about the people and setting. And we want to keep their kitchen busy and their staff working until that atmosphere can be restored and there is time to talk about the world as water glasses are filled. We have a connection. In cities that builds neighborhood.

Storefronts and restaurants have already closed on their block because of seven months without stable sales and the whammy of riot damage. Social distancing outside the watch repair place, there are no lines next to me at the theater where a new release is showing. No patrons sit around tables at the tea shop. Inventory looks low at the corner gift store. What will the holidays look like for these small merchants? How will a tenuous consumer economy support neighborhood places? 

So much is unknown because most of us haven’t experienced circumstances so forbidding. This has been described as the worst economy since the Big Depression. Hopefully there will be enough folks in the neighborhood, with resources, ordering Gung Pao Chicken to keep owners and employees of small businesses intact. In the meantime, let’s keep safe and watch out for each other.

In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan