A very predictable thing happens at the end of each year: we have the time and the inclination to contemplate. Often we look back on the last 11 3/4 months. We wince with regret or sigh with satisfaction at our choices or our experiences. Sometimes our minds wander farther afield. We pour through thicker volumes in our mental archives, lifting heavier subjects, dusting off the long-forgotten, and thumbing through a yellowed page or two.
What we think about is often random, but sometimes very relevant. It can amount to nothing more than nostalgia. It can, however, lead to transformation.
So, if we have a moment or two between Christmas (or whatever you celebrate) and January 1st, there are questions we can ask ourselves. These may help us understand ourselves. These may help us improve our lives.
These involve what we might call our ‘issues’: those attitudes and behaviors that we possess that we may not be aware of, that negatively impact our lives, that we need to manage better, and that we would do well to better manage or get rid of altogether.
First, I’ll offer up the questions to ask. Then I’ll offer up a personal ‘issue’ (or two) of mine and how I’ve managed (or rationalized) it, depending upon your perspective, as examples. (I’ve never pretended to be the Old Money God On High who has everything all figured out, and I’m not going to start at this late stage.)
The questions we can ask ourselves are as follows: When I feel I ‘need’ a material possession or that I need to ‘consume’ something that is not a necessity, is there an underlying emotional issue am I trying to fill or paint over? Does this emotional or psychological deficiency compel me to purchase something that I don’t really ‘need’ or can’t really afford? Is this impacting my ability to become more financially independent? Is this impacting my personal relationships? How is it doing this?
Sometimes these questions are easy to answer. We can just look at our credit card or debit card statement at the end of the month: if we’re constantly shopping online, we could be bored or lonely. If we’re constantly at the local bar paying retail for alcoholic beverages, we could be lonely or in pain. If we’re at the shopping mall wondering around like a zombie looking for something to buy, we could be the victim of advertising or not be getting all the nourishment we need from friends and family.
Everybody’s situation is different. Ergo, everybody’s solution is different. Yes, Old Money Guys and Gals are less prone to these types of ‘issues’, but very few of us are in perfect health.
My personal examples may shine a candid, perhaps familiar light on this common problem. The first involves restaurants. (You’ll notice I did not put the verb ‘to involve’ in the past tense. I still deal with this issue.) Throughout my life, I’ve eaten out frequently. I’m not a cook. I’m an only child. I’m willing to pay for convenience. I like luxury. All these things add up to someone who is prone to go find food that other people cook in a comfortable environment filled with, yes, other people. And these ‘other people’ will also take away the dirty dishes so I don’t have to be bothered with those.
So, all in all, that’s what I thought my ‘issue’ was. I liked to eat out a lot. But once I was married, the idea of racking up $2000.00 a month in restaurant bills quickly became an ‘issue’ for my wife. And rightly so. This, however, was a blessing: it forced me to confront the issue. And when I really sat down and thought about it, I discovered that restaurants held a deeper emotional meaning for me. They were the places my family met in order to catch up, socialize, and bond.
My mother and father both worked long hours when I was growing up and continued to do so as I became a young adult. So at 7 or 8 o’clock at night, my mother wasn’t likely to roll into the kitchen and prepare a meal. This meant that my parents and I–as well as grandparents and aunts and uncles–would often rendezvous at a local restaurant for dinner. It was a time to converse, to laugh, to plan, to regroup, to bond. Not every night. But frequently.
So my desire to ‘eat out’, I discovered, was really a desire to ‘connect’ with those I cared about. Restaurants weren’t eating establishments. They were the context in which I often felt loved.
When I got down to that, I realized that I could get together with loved ones anywhere (even in our dining room at home) and connect, share, and feel good. This realization has saved me a lot of frustration…and a lot of money. I am aware. Therefore, I can manage. But I live in Paris now. So I still have to be vigilant. (Wink, nod.)
The other personal issue I have relates to dress shirts. The problem might be considered ‘hard-wired’ or ‘systemic’. It started young and for no apparent reason. When I was old enough to hold a job, my father detected in me a dreamy disposition and an ambivalent attitude toward work. He also wanted to instill in me a keen awareness of the importance of education.
His solution was to provide me with a summer job…actually, the worst job he could think of. This would exhaust me physically, toughen me mentally, teach me the importance of hard work and the value of a dollar, and insure that I would know what lay before me if I didn’t eventually apply myself academically and vocationally. (It was well-intentioned but only moderately effective, as you’ll soon learn.)
He put me to work as a laborer with one of the construction crews in the oil refinery which he oversaw. In Houston. In the summer. I donned a hard hat. I dug ditches. I developed blisters. I took orders from, lunched, and socialized with rough, straight-talking, sometimes uneducated but often honorable men. I mowed and hacked my way through waist-high grass and weeds. I hammered lug nuts tight on a leaking pipeline valve, knee deep in gasoline and mud in ten foot deep hole. One spark and I would have been blown halfway to heaven.
I shoveled coke, not the illegal drug, but a black powder that is the byproduct of the oil refining process. Mountains of it fell from a silo. Someone had to clear it away so more of it could fall to the ground. That someone was me.
It was back-breaking and mind-numbing work in 100 degree heat, on a good day. Upon receiving a relatively measly paycheck after the first two weeks of this legal torture, one would think that I would have taken my precious earnings and socked them away judiciously. One would be wrong.
I cashed my check at the local bank. I folded up the wad of 20 and 50 dollar bills and shoved them giddily into my jeans pocket. And I pointed the family sedan towards the nearest Saks Fifth Avenue. I arrived, alighted from said vehicle, entered the store, and promptly requested three of the most luxurious dress shirts on offer.
The transaction consumed, in one fell swoop, most of my earnings. A posh restaurant conveniently adjacent happily fed me and took the remainder. (See previous ‘issue.’) I returned home well shirted, well fed, slightly intoxicated from the whole experience, and broke. But I was in luck: there were six more paychecks in my future before school resumed.
Since that initiation, I have owned a lot of shirts. Off the rack, made to measure, bespoke, from brands like Brooks Bros and Ralph Lauren to artisan vendors in Houston, Los Angeles, Rome, and Paris. Luckily, I don’t have the same obsession for suits or shoes. I am perfectly content to snatch a blue blazer or tweed jacket from wherever, a pair of grey wool slacks from whomever, and a pair of Allen Edmonds from, well, Allen Edmonds.
But for some reason, I am obsessive about the fabric, fit, construction, color, collar, and cuffs of my dress shirts. I’m not interesting in impressing others. Most people don’t notice the shirts I wear, but some fellow connoisseurs do. Usually, they are duly impressed, as am I with their shirt choice. We nod knowingly, silently communicating a clandestine, mutual appreciation and understanding, and leave it at that.
Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about this issue. And I don’t have a clue in hell as to why I am so inclined. What I do know is that this problem, if it is that, does not impact my financial well being. It does not impact my personal relationships. It probably consumes more of my time than it should, but I will shrug and put that down to ‘passion’.
It may appear shallow and inconsequential to others, but it is endlessly fascinating and supremely fulfilling to me. I derive enormous satisfaction when I slip into a shirt that was made for me alone. I remember the cotton jungle, a veritable safari that was finding and selecting just the right fabric, then discussing details with the equally obsessive staff, appreciating their good taste and judgment.
I revel in the craftsmanship, the sumptuous feel of the fabric, the thoughtfulness of having one shirt cuff slightly more generous in size than the other so that my wristwatch slides underneath it without hesitation. I smile whenever I come across the small tag that denotes the year in which the shirt was made and the small monogram, both at the bottom of the extra long shirttail, footnotes of the experience, reminders of the attention to detail.
No one else is likely to see these, but I know they’re there.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to review your choices. Identify your issues. And ask yourself the questions I’ve noted above. Only you can discover the answers. Only you can construct the solutions. (Okay, I’m here to help if you need to reach out.) It’s on your desk. It’s your quality of life. What’s the issue? Is it hurting me? How can I manage it?
The answers probably won’t be as monumental or complex as we imagine. And the rewards may be more than we ever expected.
Have a safe holiday. Happy New Year. I’ll speak to you all again in 2022.