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Naked With Cash is an ongoing series at Consumerism Commentary in which readers share their households’ finances with other readers. These participants benefit from the accountability that comes from tracking their finances publicly and the feedback of the four expert Certified Financial Planners (CFPs).

For more information, read this introduction.

This year, we have four participants who will share their financial reports, exposing the results of their financial choices. Each participant is paired with one of our Certified Financial Planners. The experts will provide insight and guidance that will help our participants take their finances to the next level by the end of 2014. Learn about this year’s participants and experts.

Brian and his wife have two young children. Not too long ago, Brian’s wife began staying home with the kids. They have very little credit card debt, since they usually pay off their credit card balances every month. They have student loans and a mortgage. Brian and his wife want to help their children pay for college, but they know that building up retirement has to come first. (Read Brian’s update from last month.)

After reading Brian’s comments, you can see video commentary from Jeff Rose, CFP. Jeff Rose appears courtesy of Good Financial Cents and Life Insurance By Jeff.

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Naked With Cash is an ongoing series at Consumerism Commentary in which readers share their households’ finances with other readers. These participants benefit from the accountability that comes from tracking their finances publicly and the feedback of the four expert Certified Financial Planners (CFPs).

For more information, read this introduction.

This year, we have four participants who will share their financial reports, exposing the results of their financial choices. Each participant is paired with one of our Certified Financial Planners. The experts will provide insight and guidance that will help our participants take their finances to the next level by the end of 2014. Learn about this year’s participants and experts.

Jake and Allie are animal lovers who enjoy their pets and have no plans for children. Both are committed to early retirement. While they plan to live entirely off their nest egg, Jake and Allie are both interested in owning side businesses. The couple enjoys travel and make it a priority to take trips throughout the year, using part of their combined $140,000 income to enjoy life now. (Read their update from last month.)

After reading Jake and Allie’s comments, you can watch a Google Hangout they participated in with Financial Planner Neal Frankle. Neal Frankle appears courtesy of Wealth Pilgrim and MCMHA.org. This month’s Naked With Cash focus is on planning for income disruptions.

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I’m in the middle, well probably the beginning, of a long-term organization project. I’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years, particularly since moving into a larger apartment seven years ago. If I want to live a more mobile life, I need to downsize somewhat. In this process, I came across a plaque I received from my former corporate job, including a note from the company’s CEO thanking me for five years of service.

(I never made it to ten; I quit that job to focus on my own business full-time.)

Do plaques and service awards help employees feel wanted and needed within a large company? Or is competitive compensation enough to keep workers satisfied? You can have one without the other — does recognition matter if you’re underpaid, or if you are meeting your income goals, do you need non-monetary tokens of appreciation? Do any of these things show that a company cares about you?

Does a company have the capability to care? And for that matter, does a company have the capability to do anything? I guess that all depends on what it means to be a “company.” Here in the United States, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that a corporation is lawfully a person, and in this way, protects people who act in groups from being denied rights afforded to people who act alone. A company does not feel, think, or act, but the people who comprise that company do. A company or corporation is nothing more than a group of people feeling, thinking, or acting mostly together.

You can look at a state the same way. A state is a conglomeration of the towns, cities, and other arrangements of people who live within the borders of that state. You can give attributes to that state as a shorthand for the people who live within. For example, New Jersey is a “blue state,” meaning the citizens within tend to vote in favor of the Democratic Party in national politics. But New Jersey is not a person and has no vote in itself. It’s ephemeral, an idea, a non-entity. It’s an arbitrary construct.

And it’s the same with a company. A corporation doesn’t often pay taxes. Its owners or shareholders have that burden. Bank accounts can be titled with the name of a corporation, corporations can own things, but only on paper. Everything traces back to an individual or a group of individuals.

When you say that you feel that your corporate employer cares about you, what you’re really saying is that the management enacts policies that meet the emotional needs of the employees or promotes a culture of empathy among its employees. When the opposite is true, when you feel neglected or ignored by your employer, you may feel like the corporation doesn’t care or is a bad place to work.

Executive management often finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Executives answer to shareholders or owners. They are the people who stand to benefit from the company’s performance, and are thus interested in maximizing profit and reducing expenses. Executives feel that pressure, while still having to deal with what can be a company’s biggest expense on paper, its employees. It’s those executives, not the shareholders, who set the tone for company culture, though.

This is illustrated in small groups best. It’s no surprise to readers that I’ve been involved in marching bands in high school and college, and studied music education, and have worked with a variety of musical groups. The group culture, the tone for behavior and performance, is set at once by the people in charge. In this example, the band director treats everyone a certain way, including other staff members down to the newest freshman. Other staff members pick up this culture of behavior and mimic it, and the members mimic the staff members.

This is how a corporate culture is transmitted. So even though the shareholders have the largest stake in the culture of a company, it’s the day-to-day management that transmits a model for attitudes and generates a company’s culture. Where culture is transmitted well, and that culture is seen as favorable by employees, those employees are ready to believe their company is a great place to work. Where there is no well-defined culture or a culture that isn’t respectful of employees, they take to online forums to denigrate their employer publicly (and presumably anonymously).

Most business owners I know have smaller businesses. They are not managing century-old corporations like the one where I worked previously. Most understand how to transmit a positive culture among people who work for them. But something happens, usually, as those organizations grow. More people are brought into management, more people to lead others. And it’s at that point that a positive culture can break or be diluted. When a successful start-up expands, and the founder realizes he or she doesn’t have the skills to manage a quickly-growing company, the owners often decide to bring in a more experienced executive, someone with the experience of taking small companies to the next level.

But if there isn’t a good cultural match between the founder and the new CEO, the fabric of the company can break.

And as that company grows, more employees come on board with different expectations. A start-up business with fewer than ten people at the core of operations can create a culture that calls for excellence at all times, no need for work/life balance, and personal dedication to the mission. But as the company grows with more employees, different expectations arise, like vacation time, health insurance benefits, and competitive compensation. This can be a gradual transition, or it can be quick, but it can be difficult for management to navigate this while maintaining the same corporate culture.

People want different things from their employer to demonstrate they and their work are appreciated. And as a company grows, it’s harder to keep track of what each employee needs. Thus, I can understand when a large corporation can’t quite figure out how to keep all its people happy. There are some pretty simple, but not always easy, solutions to this problem, but the bigger problem is that for most corporations, paying attention to culture isn’t as urgent as paying attention to the bottom line. Especially for publicly-traded companies, whose management has been trained to care more about their quarterly results than just about anything else, particularly anything long-term.

Keep in mind a “company” doesn’t care, but it’s the executives, those who manage and lead the business, who set the cultural tone. That’s who you need to communicate with if you want to improve the way you are treated as an employee. Of course, it starts with you. You can’t control anyone else, but you can, to a certain extent, control how you react to your situation.

It’s common for leaders, if they aren’t very good, to be unaware of how their employees feel, so resolving a toxic culture starts with communication with those who have the ability to make cultural changes. While a shift can come from bottom of the corporate ladder, it will find resistance along the way. Change must come from the top downward, because people are inclined to take on the attributes of those they would like to most resemble.

What would it take for you to feel appreciated by your company or by your corporate executives? Have you ever felt that corporate appreciate was just a show? Something for making a good impression on the outside while missing substance?

I’m probably going to throw out that plaque. Working for more than five years for that corporation means nothing to me except the one or two friends I’ve continued to have since working there, some experience gained working well in a corporate environment, and my opportunity to earn a master’s degree on someone else’s dime. Some of the top executives knew who I was, but I’m sure I’ve made no lasting difference in their lives. If I had run into the CEO in the office’s elevator, I’m sure he wouldn’t recognize me or know who I was, even I had received that plaque the same day. But at the same time, the company offered decent but declining benefits, a competitive salary, and well, a job when I needed one.

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I grew up in competition. It was a part of my life, all over the place. And sometimes competition moved me to push my self far, motivating me to be excellent, and in other cases, competition broke down my will to excel. An individual reacts to competition different depending on the psychological factors, the situation, and how past competitions have played out. Because competition is everywhere in the world, particularly in a career or a quest for financial independence — not to mention just meeting personal goals one might set for oneself — look for ways to make competition work towards a positive outcome.

I wrote recently about one particular competitive experience. When I first began learning to play a musical instrument in school, we were seated by our perceived abilities. I was last in the row, worst clarinetist in the class. And I didn’t enjoy playing music for school, even though I had been musical at home. The following year, my family moved to a new location and a new school, and at this new school, I had a head start because my classmates were just beginning to pick up their instruments. Suddenly I was at the head of the class. And just as suddenly, I loved playing music again.

Year after year through high school, I continued playing, and continued working hard to stay the best. I was the “first chair,” and constantly faced challenges from friends who wanted to take my seat. To keep my position, I had to practice hard and stay focused on being the best. I eventually decided to study music education in college. Had I stayed in my first elementary school, it’s unlikely I’d ever pursue music as a career.

Competition was a main theme for me in high school. Another example happens to be related to music as well; our marching band competed with other similar marching bands from other schools throughout the northeast. Not every teacher agrees that competition of this type is useful in an educational setting. But competition exists in the real world, and learning how to deal with competition as a teenager might be a good way to prepare. We compete for jobs, we compete for money, we compete for recognition, and as is coming more clear to me with social media like Facebook, we compete to have admirable lives among our friends.

In the marching band world, competition was tightly controlled. One group competed against another only if they were similar in terms of size. Today, there are even more guidelines for appropriate competition — not only is size a factor, but so is funding, so a hundred-member band with twenty staff members available to focus on separate aspects of the performance doesn’t compete directly with a hundred-member band making do with only two teachers who have to do everything on their own.

Competition presents some challenges, in work and in life.

But when we compare ourselves to other people, we are often unaware of advantages, whether they are our own or of others. I can’t think of a time when I competed directly with a coworker for a promotion, but this happens all the time. And when faced with competition like this, some people shut down and give up, others rise to the occasion. If you tend to get motivated by competition in work situations, are you also using competition in social situations to motivate you?

Facebook recently conducted a social experiment on its users (without their knowledge but with the consent that comes in the form of agreeing to a contract when you sign up for an account). The news feed showed mostly positive status updates to some users and mostly negative updates to some users, and saw that users’ own moods (as measured by additional status updates) were affected by the tone of the updates they saw. On top of this, Facebook is a chance for people to market themselves to their friends and to feel good about themselves. Thus, people tend to share personal good news more often than bad news. People are more likely to use Facebook to tell the world “I got the promotion!” or “I got engaged!” when appropriate, but when a situation would call for announcing “She turned me down for a date!” or “I failed the bar!” chances are you won’t see it.

All of this makes it difficult to live up to the implied social competition. Even without Facebook, it looks like everyone’s life is better than yours. That’s only because you primarily about the good things that happens in someone’s life, while you still experience bad things even if you don’t share them with your extended group of friends.

Make competition work for you in your career.

You compete for a new job, you compete for recognition with your work, and you compete when you own a business. Without good experiences with competition in the past, there is a good chance that taking the easy way out is safer emotionally.

Steal a technique from video games. When you play a video game that’s based on progressing through a series of levels, you start out easy. You’re able to overcome initial obstacles, and as your abilities improve, you are able to face tougher challenges. The game takes you through a series of levels, training as you go to handle difficulties. You don’t get thrown to the wolves on your initial attempt.

In real life, you may not be able to choose your competition. But you can set your expectations so they match your abilities. I wouldn’t think I’d be able to compete for a first-chair position at the New York Philharmonic without first being the best clarinetist at my university (and I wasn’t). I wouldn’t think I’d be able to compete for a job in charge of a non-profit with someone who has been leading non-profits for thirty years — but I could take a different approach and start my own.

It also helps to keep a larger goal — or a mission — in mind. You may not always be recognized for your hard work, whether the recognition comes in the form of a promotion, a salary increase, an award, or even just getting a job. But if you’re doing what you need to be doing, you’re improving yourself whether other people see it or not. It can be demotivating when you constantly perform competitively and others seem to refuse to recognize how well you are doing. There are many reasons why people are rewarded for their actions, and sometimes it has nothing to do with your particular performance.

Don’t take other people’s achievements personally.

The competition to have the best life is one you can never win. If you’re feeling pressure from other people’s successes you read about on Facebook, and it’s affecting your emotions negatively, either stop reading Facebook or keep in mind that everyone who shares anything personal is automatically biased. Everyone wants to project a favorable appearance.

Not everything has to be a competition. You don’t have to be the first person among your friends to reach an important life milestone. You don’t have to show off everything that you’re happy about. People live their lives at different speeds and have different goals. You shouldn’t live your life based on anyone else’s personal achievements.

Stop comparing yourself and your life to others, and I guarantee you’ll be happier and better able to focus on achieving your own goals, whether in your career or in your life. If you’re focusing more on yourself, you’ll be able to see competition for what it is: something healthy that can spur you to move forward.

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Microsoft to Lay Off 18,000 Employees: How an Acquisition Affects Your Job

by Luke Landes
Microsoft

Over the next year, Microsoft’s executive management plans to lay off 18,000 employees, including factory workers and those in professional positions. Redundancy. As Microsoft acquired new companies, at least according to the news reports that tend to take a company’s press release and spokesperson responses at face value, they have the potential to take advantage ... Continue reading this article…

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Wealthy Shanghai Teens Are More Financially Savvy Than Average Americans

by Luke Landes
OECD Chart

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently conducted a study, presenting a financial literacy test to fifteen-year-olds around the world, and has now published the group’s findings. The sample included 29,000 teens from eighteen countries (or, in the case of Belgium and China, two communities, Flemish and Shanghai). The test is designed to ... Continue reading this article…

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If All Investments Are Expensive, Where Can You Invest?

by Luke Landes
Dinosaurs

Neil Irwin at the New York Times points out that all asset classes around the world are expensive compared to their historical prices. If that’s the case, is there any investment class available that has the potential to provide great returns over the long-term? Stocks and bonds; emerging markets and advanced economies; urban office towers ... Continue reading this article…

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If You Don’t Like Your Job, Get Another One

by Luke Landes
Fluffy Clouds

This “duh” advice is handed out frequently, but it may not be applicable to everyone who hears it.

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