As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

December 2013


Editor’s note: A few times a month, Lance Cothern from Money Life and More will stop by to share some of the best articles from across a variety of publications, including other blogs and mainstream media.

The holiday season is now over which should be a relief for wallets and purses everywhere. I fell victim to the common occurrence of buying gifts for myself this holiday season, but it turns out there are ways to avoid this behavior. Even though the holidays are over, I feel these tips could be applied all year long to make sure you aren’t making unnecessary splurge purchases.

A new year is right around the corner or has just started depending on when you’re reading this. People are revved up and ready to begin making changes to improve their lives. Making blind changes won’t help anyone though. I personally believe you need to reflect on the past before you can make meaningful changes to your future. This works particuarly well when you’re trying to take control of your money!

Part of the end of a year and the beginning of a new year is looking back at big stories from the previous year. You’ll hear of the top 10 moments of 2013 as well as a list of the celebrities we’ve lost during the last year. One celebrity that passed away in 2013 was Paul Walker. I read a piece on why his death should mean something to us all, but the reason why it should mean something wasn’t because he was a celebrity.

When reflecting on your life, you might realize that time is worth more than money to you at some point. This really hit home when I came across a piece that asked a very strange question. Would you become self-employed for less money? The idea is that you could make a similar amount per hour, but you’d have more flexibility to work more or less depending on what was most important to you at the time.

Finally, I ran across a list of 11 questions you should ask yourself about your money to see how you’re doing financially. This is a nice check up for the end of any year.

I hope everyone had a happy holiday season and is looking forward to an amazing 2014. Do you have any goals you’ve set for yourself in the coming year you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!

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The last time I shared my personal goals and plans with Consumerism Commentary readers was at the very beginning of 2011. I went so far to declare that 2011 would be the year that everything changes, a subtle homage to a television program called Torchwood. Anyway, I was right; in 2011, my life changed, but not as dramatically as one might expect with the events that transpired throughout the year.

My goals for that year focused on my business income, net worth, and investments, as well as savings and charity. After all, this is a site where I discuss financial issues, so the goals I shared included that aspect of my life. I also wrote about my health and hobbies, two important parts of my life, as well. I didn’t share information about my personal relationships, as I thought that might have been a little too personal for this site — and that most Consumerism Commentary readers wouldn’t be interested in hearing about that anyway.

For reference, my net worth at the beginning of 2011 was $538,223 plus the undefined value of Consumerism Commentary at the time. By the end of the year I sold this website, and I’ve avoided being specific about my net worth because the company that purchased the website and business wasn’t interested in publicizing the amount of the sale.

It is now three years later. I’m financially independent, though I continue to work, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Except for investments, I’m leaving much of my nest egg alone. I plan to continue to live off income rather than my savings until I get tired of that approach to living. With that in mind, I can share some of my financial plans — and plans for the non-financial aspects of my life — for this coming year.

1. Grow my consultancy business.

I am offering my time as a private consultant to two types of clients. The first type includes other bloggers who are looking to take their websites to the next level. The ideal client of this type is passionate about a topic, is willing to put a lot of work into their projects, and has all the traits of strong leadership. In order to make myself available, I’m only taking a few clients this year, and I’m highly selective about who I choose to work with. And the choice isn’t about money; I’m not looking to maximize my income from other bloggers, I’m just looking to ensure the people I work with have as much as my availability as possible. You can read more about my blog business coaching and mentoring at lukelandes.com.

This coming year, I also plan to work with at least one corporate client on a formal basis, advising on optimizing their relationships with the broader blogging community through content partnerships and social media.

2. Explore forming a non-profit organization.

At a conference last summer, I accidentally announced that the “next act” of my life involved starting a non-profit organization. I felt obligated to explore that idea after thousands of people heard me make that declaration live, but I didn’t lie. I feel strongly about the importance of non-profit organizations, particularly in the financial industry.

Since the summer, I began exploring what it would take to set up a non-profit organization. Creating an organization from out of nothing is surprisingly easy. But to build the organization into something that does everything I want it to do at a high level of achievement, including fundraising without paying a shady company to handle that side of the business and representing the organization publicly, requires a dedication that can consume the rest of my life on a full-time basis.

What I need to determine this coming year is if the time I have to dedicate to this endeavor is better spent creating a new organization that tackles the issue of financial literacy in a manner not explored by other organization in a search for effectiveness. The other option is to join the board of directors of another organization, keeping me involved in decisions on a different level. I also don’t want to leave behind my passion for the arts, and it would be great to be involved with an arts organization at a deeper level.

3. Determine the best use of my donation to my undergraduate university.

I set aside some money this year that I will contribute to my alma mater. I’ve written about this issue, most recently asking whether colleges and universities are worthwhile charity recipients in the first place. I want to be very careful about how the money I donate is used, particularly because I feel the money should be used to create opportunities for students who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to have them.

A representative from the development department of the university has been in touch with me, and among the two of us and the head of the academic department I’m targeting, we’re going to come up with a plan that makes sense for everyone.

4. Take advantage of investment and business opportunities.

A friend of mine has approached me with an investment opportunity in a spin-off of his current business. The prospects are exciting. It’s not exactly a business I’m passionate about, but it could prove to be a good opportunity, with major shared profits down the road, if the business plan comes to fruition. If the business does not begin picking up speed quickly though, I could lose most of my investment. There’s a lot of risk, but an almost unlimited upside after a few years.

I thankfully have advisers I can turn to when I have opportunities like these. They can help me analyze the business plan and work out the details. Because this is a friend, I’m also concerned about the emotional repercussions of business disagreements. But he and I both have a similar experience when it comes to relationships. Our best working relationships have always been with people who have been friends first, business partners later. Still, I wouldn’t do anything without considering opinions of experts without an emotional attachment.

I’m also working closely with several other bloggers who have been through the same sales process I’ve been through, and we’re planning some new projects for this year. I’m excited about these plans and I’m looking forward to sharing the details with readers and other colleagues once there’s something concrete in place.

5. Continue my personal training and improve my nutrition.

I’ve now had a personal trainer for more than six months. But with a lot of travel and personnel changes at the gym, I often didn’t have the three sessions a week I was looking for. The last few months, my schedule has been more-or-less locked in with a new trainer, and it’s going well. I’m not sure I’ve seen the progress I’d like to see, although I am in much better shape than I was when I started.

One missing piece right now is my nutrition. I still don’t like cooking, much less cooking for just myself. More and more, I want to be as healthy as possible, so I have a strong personal incentive to work on this piece of my health puzzle.

6. Build my personal relationships.

I haven’t written much about my personal relationships on Consumerism Commentary. While I’ve always been forthcoming with my financial details, at least until this website became a major part of my financial situation, I’ve been reluctant to share much about my romantic relationships — well, relationship. Not long ago, I ended a long-term, long-distance relationship, that spanned nearly the entire history of Consumerism Commentary.

And except for four or so months during the darkest period of my life almost twelve years ago, I’ve never been single as an adult. I seem to have maintained only long-term relationships. And having been single for about six weeks, it’s not a situation that particularly suits me.

I have the flexibility to travel and see friends living across the country. One of my plans for the new year involve taking advantage of that flexibility. It’s hard to make a plan that involves building relationships because it depends on the involvement of other people, but I’ll at least be open to new experiences.

7. Continue working with photography.

Over the last few years, I’ve derived a lot of pleasure from taking photography classes and working with a photography teacher on a one-on-one basis. Portraiture seems to be my favorite type of photography. I enjoy working with the subjects, models or otherwise, and developing and printing in the darkroom is very satisfying. I plan to continue portraiture photography in the new year.

I’m not limiting myself to portraiture, though. I am planning to develop a series of photographs for a gallery, but I have a long way to go. I’m slowly building confidence in my photographic skills. I recognize that this will never be a profitable endeavor for me. Everyone with a smartphone is a photographer these days, and it makes it harder for professional photographers to justify their existence.

Like usual for me, this is a lot to contemplate for the year. I’m still young, at least in my opinion, and there’s a lot I want to do with my life. You’ll notice that nowhere above are there any “S.M.A.R.T. goals.” I am frequently examining my life, but I have no interest in turning my passions into a series of metrics. These are guidelines for traveling on the path of my life, designed to keep me moving in the right direction.

What are your plans for the coming year? Do you have any resolutions or goals?

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As one year comes to a close, many people like to take a few moments and think about the year ahead. The setting of New Year’s resolutions is a time-honored tradition and a recurring theme at the end of each year. The new year has always been a chance, although somewhat arbitrary, to give yourself a fresh start. It’s a second chance. It’s an opportunity to recommit yourself to the things that are important to you.

Discussions of New Year’s resolutions are almost always followed by statistics showing how people generally fail at keeping the promises they make. News reporters and authors cite the spike in new gym memberships after the new year and the quick fall-off of gym participation as one example of how people with good intentions don’t stick to their plans. Studies show how financial New Year’s resolutions fail.

The backlash against the process of setting New Year’s resolutions is taken over by management experts who say the problem is that resolutions do not take the form of goals. If people stated their resolutions in a format enjoyed by corporate project management gurus, the SMART goal system for instance, people would have a better chance of sticking to their resolutions.

SMART is an acronym that most Consumerism Commentary readers are familiar with. These SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. It’s not a bad system for evaluating employee performance, and the SMART concept can be extended into other areas of your life, like planning the activities you want to undertake in the new year.

Guess what? Whether you define your plans for the new year as broad resolutions or specific SMART goals, you’re just as likely to fail. People don’t want to stick to specific goals in the personal lives when they already have pressure from work-related goals, assigned by their employers, their clients, or themselves as business owners. The probability of people making charts to track progress on personal goals and sticking with it for more than a month is the same as the probability of sticking with a resolution.

SMART goals might make you feel better about your plans if you like treating your life as a business, but in the end it’s no more effective than setting resolutions. You can’t take someone who wasn’t going to keep his resolution, teach him about SMART goals, and expect that he will turn into a productive individual in his personal life. Now, treating your life as a business can be a good idea — after all, you are not only the Chief Financial Officer of your own life, you’re also the CEO. And if you are in the habit of looking at your life from that approach, you’re all ready more likely to keep your promises to yourself, whether they be resolutions or SMART goals.

Because of this backlash against New Year’s resolutions, people have yet another reason for not keeping their promises. When it’s a widely accepted fact that people do not, in general, maintain their resolutions more than a month or so into the new year, people don’t feel much pressure to continue. Well, the internal monologue goes, people don’t really keep these resolutions, so it’s no big deal if I don’t keep them either. The culture of mediocrity makes it easier for people to give up.

Setting New Year’s resolutions are beneficial, even if you don’t keep them. That’s because reflection and self-analysis are important pieces of living your life. If you take the time to make resolutions beyond “losing weight” and “saving money,” you’re asking yourself questions that get to the core of your identity. Having a good understanding of where you are and where you’d like to be provides more direction for your life.

The New Year is a time for renewal. It’s arbitrary, but so what? January 1 is as good a date as any to examine yourself and rededicate yourself not just to your goals, but to who you want to be as a person. This starts with a mission statement.

1. Define your personal mission statement.

Non-profit organizations have mission statements that define the purpose for which they exist. For example, this is the mission statement for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America:

… [t]o enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.

Some organizations have mission statements that fit within one sentence, like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Some are several paragraphs long and go into great detail. I created a mission statement for Consumerism Commentary, even though it’s not a non-profit organization, because I feel every organization should have a mission. The mission of Consumerism Commentary is to develop financially literate, capable, and successful human beings by sharing educational, entertaining, and engaging writing. (I also developed a separate vision statement and purposes, including a hidden purpose for the website and business, which you can find out about here.)

A mission statement gets to the core of your identity and your values. Your mission statement could cover an area of interest you’re passionate about, it could pertain mainly to your role within your family, or it can even be based on values from your religion. I’ll write more about my personal mission statement in an upcoming article.

Once you have a mission statement, you can evaluate your goals and activities based on how closely they relate to your mission. When a non-profit I worked for received a project proposal, if it didn’t fit into the organization’s mission, management would not consider the proposal. At the same time, a mission statement is a living document, which means it can be reevaluated, updated, and changed over time, to fit changing demands of the world, the organization, or life.

2. Evaluate the last twelve months.

There have most likely been a few moments of pride in the course of the last year. You probably also had some disappointments in your life. The key is determining which aspects of your life in the past year were within your control and which were outside of your control. When you begin to look closely, you may see that more things are within your control than you might first believe.

How much time and effort you spend evaluating the past and present is up to you. You can’t dwell on mistakes you made in the past, but you can try to learn from them, and help your past determine the best strategies for improving your future. The bottom line is to determine whether you are closer to your mission today than you were a year ago. Your mission is an ideal, a wish that can never be completely fulfilled. It’s a non-SMART goal. It provides the path so you are always moving in the right direction — a journey, not a destination.

3. Where do you want to be twelve months from now?

With your present in mind, you can set your targets for the next year. This is where your mission and resolutions come into existence. Your mission helps you determine your resolutions — any resolution you pick must be somehow related to your mission. Whether you want to set SMART goals or operate at a higher level is up to you; the process of consciously contemplating these issues and making informed decisions is what will set you apart from people who blindly decide to “lose weight” and “save money” in the new year.

You may not end up exactly where you want to be twelve months from now, but if you live your life with a purpose and you strive to make informed decisions and best choices, you’ll move in the right direction.

4. Quantify yourself.

We’ve become obsessed with quantification in a number of areas of our lives, and it may have started in personal finance. We have software like Quicken to thank for that. Now it’s even easier, with mobile applications that provide us a way of tracking personal data on a minute by minute basis. Thanks to mobile apps, we know at any time how much money we’ve saved. We know how our investments are performing with real-time stock quotes. We know how many steps we’ve taken each day. We check our heart rate after each time we exercise. We know how many miles we’ve run over the past month. We know how much weight we’ve lifted and track when we beat our own personal records.

It’s easy to get lost in all these numbers, and there are privacy concerns about sharing these numbers with applications who may use the information to profit. But if there’s something numerical that can be tracked, there’s a good chance there’s an application that will allow us to do just that. And where there was a time that we’d have to track results manually and build our own charts, now that this is mostly automated, we can get the benefit of data visualization much easier.

Data visualization, in turn, provides great feedback when it comes to progressing towards measurable goals. That’s one of the primary purposes of Naked With Cash here at Consumerism Commentary. If you are interested in the typical New Year’s resolutions of saving money and losing weight, don’t just wish broadly, don’t just make SMART goals, but use these tools to motivate you.

5. Get an accountability partner.

Self-motivation is difficult, and there’s no reason to torture yourself for not sticking to your goals. The solution to waning intrinsic motivation is to team up. For years, I was looking for someone to be my accountability partner in terms of my health and fitness. I kept hoping my girlfriend would be interested in taking this journey with me, but despite my efforts, we did not share this interest. I joined a gym, and for some time, the monthly payments motivated me to seriously begin moving forward. That lasted about six months before I lost my motivation.

It wasn’t until I hired a personal trainer that things started to move in the right direction. My trainer is an accountability partner. I have regularly scheduled appointments that I know I can’t miss. I know I’m moving in a much better direction now.

Your spouse can be your accountability partner if they are just as passionate about your mission as you are. But if not, or if you don’t have a spouse, you may need to look to someone else. With a friend, mutual motivation is a strong bonding agent; but if you don’t have someone to support and motivate you, hiring a professional is not a bad idea if you can afford it.

It doesn’t matter whether you choose to make high-level resolutions or SMART goals when the new year comes around. The process of self-examination is what’s important. The reminder of your mission and your motivation to stay on a positive path is what brings you success year after year. Most people forget their resolutions and SMART goals after a month or two, but if you get in the habit of evaluating your choices and your progress, it doesn’t matter whether you reach your goal of losing 50 pounds or paying off $50,000 in debt by June. Continuous analysis guarantees you’ll be moving in the right direction, aligned with your values and your mission.

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In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. Read this introduction to learn more about the series.

JW is thirty-one years old and a father of two. He works in retail and is underemployed, and his wife and kids are on state medical plans. Their household income is supplemented by SNAP (food stamps). Read his bio for more information about his family’s situation.

His goal is to be able to provide for his family while still tithing 10% of his income to his church. JW is on Team Neal, with Certified Financial Planner Neal Frankle. Get up-to-date on JW’s progress by reviewing his update from last month. This month, there is a special focus on debt.

JW’s own analysis and comments are followed by feedback from Neal Frankle.

Neal Frankle, CFP appears courtesy of Wealth Pilgrim and Wealth Resources Group.

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Calvin, November 2013 Net Worth

by Luke Landes
Calvin's Net Worth November 2013

In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. ... Continue reading this article…

7 comments Read the full article →

SteveDH, November 2013 Net Worth

by Luke Landes
SteveDH Net Worth - Naked With Cash

In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. ... Continue reading this article…

2 comments Read the full article →

Anonymous S, November 2013 Net Worth

by Luke Landes
Anonymous S Naked With Cash

In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. ... Continue reading this article…

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Kathleen, November 2013 Net Worth

by Luke Landes
Kathleen Net Worth for Naked With Cash

In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. ... Continue reading this article…

4 comments Read the full article →

LastDollar, November 2013 Net Worth

by Luke Landes
LastDollar's Net Woth - November 2013

In Naked With Cash, seven anonymous Consumerism Commentary readers publicly track and analyze their finances on a monthly basis. For almost a decade, I tracked my own finances on Consumerism Commentary; now I’m sharing the benefits of public accountability with the participants. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. ... Continue reading this article…

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Anne and Matt Net Worth, November 2013

by Luke Landes
Anne and Matt Net Wotrh 2013

In the series Naked With Cash, seven Consumerism Commentary readers share their financial progress on a monthly basis. They are joined by Certified Financial Planners who provide feedback on their journey. Read this introduction to learn more about the series. Anne and Matt are twenty-seven years old, living in the Midwest, with two children. Read ... Continue reading this article…

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Why Some People Can’t Save: A Matter of Urgency

by Luke Landes
Urgency and importance matrix

When I worked for a large corporation, I was around people who liked to operate their business responsibilities with a sense of urgency. Every little task was important, and they ran around the office like the company’s stock price depended on the speed at which they completed their tasks. It’s not a terrible way to ... Continue reading this article…

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Is Your Alma Mater a Worthwhile Charity?

by Luke Landes
University

I attended two colleges. My undergraduate degree was earned at a university that is considered both private and public; it has a private charter and obtains a good portion of its funding from the private sector, but it does receive some state assistance and was a land-grant university. Years after completing my bachelor’s degree, I ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Balance The Future With the Present

by Luke Landes
Money

Financial self-help gurus, professional financial advisers, and bloggers who write about personal finance as a hobby or a job all tend to agree on a few basic tenets. One of these is that saving today can generate more financial freedom in the future. Financial freedom is important because it allows you to pursue activities you’d ... Continue reading this article…

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Should You Work for a Non-Profit Organization?

by Luke Landes
Non-Profit

As I’ve mentioned often on Consumerism Commentary, after a a false start or two with jobs following my undergraduate studies, I started my career working for a non-profit organization involved in the arts. I followed one of my passions without considering my financial needs. I want to be able to look back and see that ... Continue reading this article…

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401(k) Contribution Limits for 2014

by Luke Landes
401k

After two years of increases, the IRS is not adjusting the retirement savings opportunities for American taxpayers this coming year. From 2009 through 2011, the maximum contribution to retirement accounts — 401(k) accounts, 403(b) accounts, most 457 plans, and Thrift Savings Plans, was $16,500. In 2012, this amount increased to $17,000. After considering inflation and ... Continue reading this article…

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Don’t Let Cyberbegging Affect Your Charitable Plan

by Luke Landes
Cyberbegging

I’m a sympathetic person. I really am, and sometimes my sympathy has aided me in making bad choices. But I have no patience for people who pretend to be in some kind of destitute condition, a performance entirely possible through the anonymity on the internet, and beg for money. It’s a strategy — a scam ... Continue reading this article…

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