Thursday, June 30, 2011

Finding a Spouse

Getting Married is the biggest decision of your life.  Most people put more thought into choosing their next car than they do into choosing a spouse.   And you do choose!  And it is probably the most fundamental economic decision you make in life.

Finding a soul mate.   It is one of the most talked-about topics.  And legions of online websites and classified ad pages promise to "hook you up" with the "perfect match."   And yet, our high divorce rate attests to the fact that many of these matches are less than perfect.

A marriage is a great way to save money and enjoy life more.  A relationship where two people work together toward common goals is far more effective than living alone, or worse, working against each other.   So many marriages, as I have noted in the past, end up a race to the bottom where each spouse tries to outspend the other to "get the most they can" out of the relationship while they can.  And such relationships rarely last long, and they can be economically devastating.

But for many folks, finding the perfect mate is deemed difficult, if not impossible.

But I think this is because people look for the wrong mate and they look in the wrong places and they have unrealistic expectations driven by the poor normative cues provided by television and the movies.

And some of us may never find a perfect mate, either.   Some folks prefer to live alone, and I know of many such folks.   And there is nothing wrong with that!  Society pressures young people to get married and touts marriage as the greatest thing since sliced bread.  But for many folks, living alone ends up a better option than being in a toxic relationship.

But assuming that you are not one of those people destined to be (and happier being) single, how do you find the right mate?  And what should you look for?

Well, here's my thinking.

1.  Look for someone not entirely like yourself.   Online dating services and computerized dating services promise to find you "the perfect match" in terms of someone with all the same interests as you.  In my mind, these are the worst matches possible.  Why?  Because the relationship becomes more of a competition than a partnership.

If you both like running marathons, you will end up just comparing your relative times with each other to see who is the "winner".  If you are both in the same profession, you will be constantly comparing yourself to your spouse, in terms of income and performance.

Moreover, since you both like the same things, you likely won't be exposing each other to new things - which keeps a relationship interesting.

Everyone has their blind spots in life.   Maybe you are more artistic, but you can't change a light bulb.  Wouldn't it be handy to have a spouse who could?  If you fill in each others' blank areas, you come out ahead in life - and end up complimenting, not competing, with each other.

It is tempting to say you want a spouse who likes all the same movies as you do, so you always agree on what to go see.  But if you like action-adventure movies, and maybe your spouse likes the great auteurs and art films, then you each have something to learn from each other - and expand your horizons, rather than narrow them.

Similarly, having different (but not radically different) political views can be refreshing.  People who just listen to other people with the same views (like the nutjobs on the far left and far right) just end up reinforcing their own views - and perhaps making them more extreme.

Of course, there is a limit to this, as we shall see.  If someone is so different than you, it probably won't work either.  You don't want to marry your clone, but then again, don't marry an alien.

2.  Look for someone not too dissimilar from yourself.  This may sound like contradictory advice from #1 above, but it isn't.  If you marry someone with whom you have nothing in common, you may be headed for trouble - perhaps moreso than by marrying a clone.

For example, a friend of mine came from a middle-class family, went to boarding school, finishing school, and was groomed to be a young executive's wife.  She had a background in Liberal Arts, and her politics were left-leaning.  She enjoyed going to the theater, wine tastings, and cooking gourmet food.

While she dated a number of young men who shared many of her interests, she ended up marrying a Cowboy from the midwest, who was a high-school dropout, right-wing Republican, and an alcoholic.  Why she did this is puzzling - and perhaps my previous post explains why - she felt sorry for him, and being raised in a family of alcoholics, this sort of bizarre relationship felt "normal" to her.

But as a marriage, it was a fiasco.  Accustomed to a certain standard of living, she was always unhappy with the income her husband provided - and the fact that he cashed his paychecks in bars.  No more theater and wine-tastings.  She would be lucky to have a half a six-pack he brought home.

And in short order, she started to feel that she was cheated in life - cheated out of a better spouse, standard of living, and happiness.  And of course she was cheated, but she cheated herself by making such a bizarre choice in spouse.

Marrying a clone is bad, marrying an alien is worse.

3.  Run away from Alcoholism and Drug Use:  If your potential spouse has a drinking or drug problem, walk away.  You are far better off living alone.  Drug use or Alcoholism doesn't "get better" with time, but usually worse.

Never assume that you can cure your spouse of these problems, or that they will "grow out" of them.  In fact, never take on a spouse as a "fixer upper" like a home improvement project.  You can't "fix" people like they are cars.

People do change over time, but radical changes like that take willpower from within, not without - in fact the drug addict or alcoholic will dig in his/her heels the harder you try to change them.

So just move on.  You are better off living alone!

4.  Run away from Mental Illness:  Mental Illness is a tragedy to be sure, but most of us are not equipped to deal with it - even if we are professional therapists.  And the signs of mental illness are usually there, at the get-go, as most of these things manifest themselves around age 15-25.

A weepy, depressed person who makes dramatic suicide attempts is not going to be a fun spouse to be around.  It is sad they are that way, but again, you can't fix them, and it is not your job.  And such folks may latch onto you like a remora to a shark.

Similarly, if your potential spouse has more prescription bottles on their nightstand than a pharmacy, back slowly away.

5.  Don't feel sorry for someone!  In this vein, a healthy relationship is never based on feeling sorry for someone.   You meet someone who is needy, clingy, and says they "need you" - and it makes you feel like you are important.  It is nice to be needed and wanted, right?

But the downside to such relationships, is that the need flows one way only - they need you, but are not there for you.  You feel sorry for them, but that is not a healthy relationship basis.

6.  Run away from someone who hits you:  It is normal to get into arguments in a relationship.  But when these routinely resort to fisticuffs or physical abuse, it is time to move on.

7.  Walk away from compulsive gamblers, spenders:  Does your potential spouse get uncomfortable talking about money?   Do they think going to a Casino every weekend is "fun"?  Or do they count shopping as a "hobby?"  Are they heavily in debt and spend most of their income on status items and have little or nothing saved?  This is a tough one, as most young people are this way - but can evolve over time.

A good idea - and the sooner you do it the better - is to be able to sit down and think about your joint financial goals, establishing a budget, and working together toward those goals.  That is sort of the "fun" part of a relationship, as you feel you are both working together to build something, and over time, something is created - your own family, your own wealth, your own estate.

Most marital arguments are about money, and I suspect that money is one of the major reasons many couples break up (behind sex, of course).   If you can figure that out ahead of time, it will save you a lot of grief.

* * *
So how do you find a spouse?  All the eligible men are either married or Gay, right?  And the women either all have weird issues with their mothers, or are borderline stalkers.

It is a conundrum, and there are no easy answers.   And there is no "perfect" mate out there with your name on it - no cosmic lover, preassigned.

And yet many people believe in this - that there is a "perfect mate" out there for them, and when they meet him/her the clouds will open up, rays of light will shine down from heaven, and Karen Carpenter will sing, "Why do birds, suddenly appear?"

It don't work that way in real life.  Your perfect mate doesn't exist, mostly because you are not perfect yourself.   We all have our shortfalls and failings, and expecting our partner to be perfect in every way is just not realistic. A real relationship can be continuous joy, but there will be hard parts as well - difficult times with each other, and due to external circumstances. Unfortunately, a lot of people, trained by the TeeVee to think that Love is eternal bliss, cut and run the first time their spouse leaves the seat up.

And one problem for many young people is that they look for partners in very bad places.  Your typical 20-something may try to find a mate in bars (awful places to go, too loud, too much smoke, too much drink, too much posturing) and the people they find there are usually only interested in sex.

The second worst choice is dating people from work - where you spend the most time and are most likely to meet folks.  If it doesn't work out, it gets, well, awkward, real fast.  And let's face it, the drones you work with are ugly and smell funny.

No seriously, they are probably too much like yourself to be good mate choices.

So around age 28-35, people get desperate and start going online or using computerized dating services.  Here you find stalkers, psychos, and the desperate.   And you do find men who cruise these sites and use these services to find the one-night-stand "pump and dump" partner.  And as I noted before, most of these sites tend to steer people toward someone just like themselves - which often is not an optimal match, but a competitive nightmare.

So how do you find a mate?  I wish I had an easy answer.  People find each other in the weirdest ways, and oftentimes it is when you least expect it that you run into someone.  Cultural events are one good venue, and by this I don't necessarily mean the Opera (although if you are into that, it could be).  If you are a NASCAR fan, maybe that venue is a good place to meet someone with similar (but not identical) interests.  If you like to go hiking, join a hiking club or outdoor group.  If you like the symphony or art, maybe an art gallery or night at the symphony is a place to meet someone.  If you are religious, maybe church is the place.   The key, I think, is not to set out to meet someone, but to just keep an open mind and when you meet someone, to be polite, friendly, and interested, without appearing desperate.

Too often, people shut down when they meet a stranger - someone talks to them, and they think, "who is this weirdo, and why is he talking to me?" and they are rude in reply.   Only later on, do they post a message on Craigslist, under "missed connections" and say, "Sorry I was so rude!  Let's get together!"

Dating is such a difficult time for people, and I'm glad I will never have to go through that again.   And it can be dangerous as well.  My former dental hygienist lost her daughter to a stalker.  She was introduced to this young man on a blind date, and felt he was a bit odd. So she declined a second date.  Not one to take "No" for an answer, this weirdo started following her around and eventually ambushed her outside her apartment, walking right through that restraining order and shooting her.  I wish I had an answer as to how to deal with Stalkers, other than to arm yourself and shoot first. They are the ultimate cowards, in my book.

But it illustrates the dangers in the dating scene.  Choose wisely, or you could be in trouble right away, or in for a lifetime of woe and misery.  Spending the rest of your life in constant shouting matches and alcoholic knock-down drag-outs, knife attacks, dramatic suicide attempts, and the like is no fun at all.   And no fun for your kids, either!  And ask me how I know about the latter.

I am very, very fortunate to find someone who has enough common interests with me, but not so like me that we compete with one another.  Rather, we complete each other.  And that makes a relationship work, I think.

Inheritance Scenarios - Why You Should Never Count on One!

Waiting Around to Inherit is Problematic.   Here are some Real-World Examples of Why.

As I noted in a previous posting, inheritances are problematic for everyone involved.   They can create a lot of ill-will among family members - between siblings, as well as parents and children.  Some children feel "entitled" to an inheritance, and others feel "entitled" to ALL of their parent's money - to the exclusion of others.

Other parents use inheritances to play favorites or play one child off against the other.  While still others claim to want to be "Even-Steven" while blatantly favoring one child over another.  And these issues fester like an ingrown hair until they erupt, over time, when the parent dies.  And even then, it is not all over, as a wily executor can loot an estate and leave his siblings with nothing.

Let's look at some examples I know of, and how an inheritance caused nothing but grief for everyone involved:

1.  Joe was an alcoholic and divorced.  He was able to support himself through odd jobs, but had little money and was having trouble making child support payments.  He was hoping that when his Father died, he would come into a little money - enough to support himself in retirement.

Joe's Father ran the Old Stone Mill restaurant which was a successful restaurant and even had two satellite operations in the city.    Before he died, he retired and sold the restaurant.  He left an estate of about $500,000 in investments and the family home, which was filled with antique furniture and other possessions, as well as his 1987 Cadillac and his 1992 Oldsmobile (This was in 1993).

Joe had a brother, Sam, who was a successful executive in a small electronics company in the city.  Joe's Father, realizing that Joe was an alcoholic, made Sam the executor of the Estate, on the premise that Sam was the more responsible of the two.

After the funeral, Joe approached Sam and asked him about the proceeds of the Estate and the reading of the will.  Sam indicated that it would take time to inventory all the contents of the house and tally up all the stocks and bonds and figure out what the Estate was worth.  But the will left everything equally to Joe and Sam and Joe would get his share.

When leaving funeral, Joe noticed that Sam was driving his Father's Cadillac, and thought that was odd.

Months went by and still no word from Sam.  Joe would call on occasion, and Sam would say that the Estate was "being probated".  Joe indicated he needed some money, and on occasion, Sam would send him small checks for trivial amounts, which he said would be deducted from the Estate, once it was settled.

One day, Joe decided to go out to the old family home.  When he got there, he was shocked.   The house was empty - no furniture, no possessions, no nothing.  The house was stripped bare, down to the carpets.  In the garage, both cars were missing.  a "For Sale" sign was out front.  Joe was furious.  He called Sam.

"What happened to all of Mom and Dad's stuff?" Joe demanded.

"We've been selling it off, piece by piece," Sam replied, putting his legs up on his Father's antique desk, which was now safely in his house.  "I'll give you a complete accounting of all of it, in due course, once we probate the Estate!" Sam said.

They argued on the phone and eventually, Joe backed down, particularly after Sam promised him another small check - enough to keep Joe in cheap booze for another month.

And so, the process continued, for month after month, until a year went by.  Sam drove his Father's cars as his own personal vehicles, on the grounds that "they needed to be kept running".  He kept much of the good furniture in his own house "to protect it from damage in storage, until it could be sold".  And he sold a lot of things in the house, such as the antique coin collection, without ever telling Joe about it, and pocketed the cash.

The way Sam figured it, if he gave all that money to Joe, it would be blown on booze and gambling in a heartbeat.  So Sam was doing his brother a "favor".  And so long as he could keep the Estate tied up, he could make use of the proceeds of the Estate for his personal uses - legally and illegally - and benefit.  The properties were de facto his to play with, but he didn't have to re-title them to his name - just yet.

His Father left them both the vacation home as well.  Sam didn't strip that of furnishings.  Rather, he and his family used the vacation home several weeks of the year.  And when they weren't using it, they rented it out, for cash of course, and kept the proceeds.

Being an Executor is a good gig - and can be a license to steal, if you have no morals whatsoever.

By now, Joe was depressed and drinking even more.  How could his own brother do this to him?  (Answer:  Quite easily, when there is money involved).  Joe became the "Friend with the Perpetual Problem" as he whined and moaned about what a lousy deal he got in life.  His friends said, "See a Lawyer!  Sue your Brother!"   But Joe always said he never wanted to do that.

Joe finally went to see a Lawyer, almost two years later.  The Lawyer listened to Joe's tale of woe and then gave him the bad news.  First, he would need a retainer of $10,000 to begin work.   They would have to sue Sam in court to force him to settle the Estate and to provide an accounting of the Estate.  It could take years to settle the case, and legal fees could eat up a lot of Estate.  Sam could hire a lawyer of his own - and have the Estate pay for it - which would further decline the value of any proceeds to Joe.

Worse yet, since Joe had no independent accounting of the Estate (or even a copy of the Will!) he would have a hard time challenging his Brother's inventory of assets and how they were disposed.  And moreover, many of the apparently egregious actions of his Brother could be excused as "expenses" of probating the Estate.  In other words, it would be a hard case to prove.

Of course, the point was moot.  Joe did not have $10,000 to give the Lawyer, and the prospect of spending years in litigation did not appeal to him.   Maybe he could talk to Sam and get him to pay up at least a portion of the share he was due?

And this went on for quite some time - with Sam handing Joe pittances of money now and again, until even Sam tired of this game (and had squirreled away what he could from the Estate).  Sam settled the Estate and offered Joe a nominal amount of money as his "share" of the Estate.  It was far less than Joe expected, but as Sam explained it, all those little checks he had sent Joe over the years were deducted from the total.   Joe took the money without complaint.

What do we learn here?  Well, First, don't be an alcoholic, for starters.  Second, never count on an inheritance as a means of survival - if you don't get it, you are screwed.   Third, the executor can loot an estate, plain and simple, and all you have is a "cause of action" to sue them.

2.  Wilma was an elderly widow living in a retirement home.  A bitter, angry, and racist old woman, she did not endear herself to others, including her children, Fred and Ethel.  And her children didn't like each other much, either.

Ethel married well and had a modest sum set aside for retirement.   Enough to get by, but hardly comfortably.  Fred drank even more than Ethel, and had little saved for his early retirement.  While Fred lived nearby the retirement home where Wilma was parked, Ethel lived a thousand miles away and rarely saw her Mother.

Fred got a clever idea one day - he went to visit Wilma with a proposition.   Wilma didn't like her kids much, but she favored Fred over Ethel.  "Mom", Fred said, "I have a new Will for you to sign."

"What's wrong with my old Will?" Wilma asked.  "Well, you know," Fred replied, "Ethel is such a spendthrift - you remember how she squandered money as a teenager.  And she is so unstable.  I thought it would be a good idea if put her inheritance in a Trust for her, with me as the administrator.  That way, I could make sure she didn't spend it all at once!  If she needed money, she could come to me, and I could determine whether she really needed it or not, and then write her a check!"

Wilma thought this over, and in her clouded 89-year-old mind, this sounded like a swell idea.  And this scenario illustrates another problem with inheritances - the people making the major decisions in these cases are often on the fringes of dementia, if not in the full-blown kind.  So often, irrational decisions are made and very odd Wills and other documents drawn up.

Now, you might argue that the new Will was fair to both Fred and Ethel.   After all, they both got half the Estate, and Fred will do a good job of managing his Sister's Trust!

But the problem is, the administrator of a Trust is about the same as an Executor of an Estate.   If they choose to, they can loot a trust in no time, and leave the Trustee nothing.  The Trustee can sue, but it takes years, costs money, and the Trustee can defend themselves with the money from the Trust.  And that was probably Fred's plan all along.

And since the amount of money in the Trust wasn't too large, it made it hard to sue - without squandering a lot of money in the process.

Moral:  Never count on an inheritance for your retirement, never count on your siblings to "play fair" if there is more than 50 cents on the table, never count on your senile parents to do the right thing - if they do anything at all.   Welcome to the fabulous world of elder law!

Trusts are tricky, and for middle-class people, stupid, as we shall see in the next example.

3.  Susan predeceases her husband, but leaves her money in a Trust for her children.   Susan came from a moneyed family and received a modest (half-million dollar) Estate from her Father.  She was reluctant to leave it to her Husband, as he had a track record of extra-marital affairs and was prone to being seduced by younger women who then tried to blackmail him for money.

"I don't want your Father squandering all his money on young girls!" She said, before she died, "I want to leave some of this money to you kids!"

So she had a lawyer draw up a Trust document, where her husband would be the Trustee and her children the "remaindermen" of the Trust.   Her husband would have use of the income of the Trust for life, with the money then going to the children, when her husband died.  Like most Trusts, it had a vague clause that allowed her husband to dip into the "corpus" of the Trust, if needs dictated.  In theory, this should carry out her wishes.  In reality, Trusts are only as good as the Lawyer you hire to enforce them - or break them.

Under the terms of the Trust, Susan's husband was the administrator, which is akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.  At first, Susan's husband lived off the interest of the money, but over time, started finding little "emergencies" which required that he dip into the trust.   Within a few years, he abandoned all pretense of administering the Trust and just used it as his personal checking account.  By the time Susan's husband died, the Trust was pretty well sacked.  Her kids were left with nothing.

This example illustrates the folly of Trusts for people with less than a million dollars.  Enforcing the terms of a Trust are difficult, if not impossible.  The legal expenses involved are huge - compared to the balance of the Trust - and most Trust documents are drafted so vaguely that they mean little, if anything.  Susan would have been just as well off leaving the money directly to her husband and saving the $2000 she paid the lawyer to draft the Trust agreement- or giving it to her kids and cutting off her husband.

Trust agreements have their uses, but too often, people with modest means waste their time with them.

4.  Betty didn't want an inheritance to be the cause of family disharmony.  She saw firsthand how it can cause siblings to become bitter enemies over time.  When her Father died, he left a will that favored some children over others, and the net result is, no one in the family talked to one another anymore.

So Betty told her kids, "This won't happen to you!  I've written a Will that leaves everything to each of you, Even-Steven!  Regardless of what happens, it will all be divided equally!  And to prevent any disagreement over the settlement of the Estate, I have made you all co-executors of the Estate!"

Now, Betty may have had the best intentions, but the only way to insure that your kids won't fight over your money is to just spend it all and leave them nothing.  They may hate you as a result, but they won't fight with each other.

The problems with Betty's scheme were apparent from the get-go. While her Will left everything "Even-Steven," Betty was in the habit of writing checks to some, but not all, of her children, when they came to her with sob stories of needing money - often to pay off credit card bills, buy brand new cars, or pay off the cable bill.  These are called Inter-Vivos Transfers of wealth, and are subject to the Gifts and Estate Tax (the so-called "death tax") just as an inheritance is - because the law treats them as the same thing.  There is, however an exclusion (e.g., $20,000 per year, consult your tax adviser for the latest numbers).  So if you want to transfer wealth to your children, you can do so, tax-free, a little bit every year - and wealthy people do this, every year.

But Betty was hardly wealthy, and the $500 checks she sent to her kids here and there, added up over time, to the point where by the time she died, her Estate was half of what it once was.

But the fun was just beginning.  As co-executors, all the children would have to sign off on the probate of the Estate.   One hold-out would be all it would take to hold up matters forever.  And oddly enough, the one child who received the bulk of the Inter-Vivos Transfers was the one who held things up the longest.  As you might imagine, this was also the child who lived closest (geographically) to Betty and thus took advantage of her location to loot the Estate of small valuables and generally tie things up for as long as possible, living in the family home, driving her Mother's car, and the like.

Sometimes, it is just better to play favorites and be done with it.  Pretending to treat your children equally while blatantly favoring one over the other just compounds the problem by throwing in the hypocrisy factor.

5.  Eileen had two daughters, one a spendthrift, and the other thrifty.  During her life, the spendthrift daughter would constantly harangue Eileen for money, often to pay off debts or buy new furniture, or to pay for a new car.  And Eileen gave her spendthrift daughter money - time and again - during her life.

As Eileen got older, she became infirm.  Her thrifty daughter lived nearby and took care of her Mother.  Eileen decided to put the house in Joint Tenancy With Right of Survivorship with her thrifty daughter and also open a joint checking account, so her thrifty daughter could take care of her affairs.  "I realize I've given thousands and thousands of dollars to your sister over the years," she said, "And I never gave you anything and you never asked for anything.  I want you to have this house when I die."

And when Eileen died, the house transferred to the thrifty sister's name, as it was in Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship.  Of course, the thrifty sister was chagrined to discover that since it was not an inheritance, she did not get the "Stepped up" basis at the time of death, and if she sold the house, she would have to pay a pretty steep capital gains tax.   So she moved in and made it her personal residence, for at least two years, to take advantage of the personal residence capital gains exclusion.

Meanwhile, the spendthrift sister was furious.  Still heavily in debt from her spending, she assumed that Mom would leave her a ton of money as an inheritance, and was mad at her Sister that she got the house, free and clear.

"You should sell that house and give half to me!" Spendthrift Sister screamed into the phone.  But of course, if Thrifty Sister did that, she would have to pay capital gains tax on the sale.  Needless to say, once again, money comes between siblings and another family is turned from harmony and goodwill to bad feelings and animosity.

The moral here is multi-fold.   If you give out money to someone during their lifetime, they learn only to depend on handouts and never learn to fend for themselves.  You think they "need" the money, and so you give it to them, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy - they need more and more.

Second, trying to make things "even up" by giving the house to the other sibling is nice, but don't expect the first sibling to be happy about that.

Third, while you get a "Stepped Up Basis" in an inheritance (so you can sell it, with no Capital Gains Tax problems) when you sign over a house to a child during your lifetime, their basis may be less than that.  Again, consult a tax adviser for more details.

6.  Linda is a pretty girl who came from a good family.   Her Dad was a successful attorney, and her Mother (now deceased) was from an "old-line" moneyed New England family.

When Linda's Mother died, most of her estate was left to her Dad.   The problem is, Dad's drinking problem went from bad to worse, and in no time, he was a full-blown alcoholic, and not a functional one, either.   He started hanging out in strip clubs and dating young floozies - white-trash trailer-park girls who were often younger than Linda!

Linda had a good job and a career, and her maternal Grandmother really supporter her emotionally, after her Mother died.  Grandma was also shocked by the antics of her son-in-law.

Dad's liver finally gave out, and Linda flew back to Florida to attend the funeral.  She was appalled at what happened.  "Tiffany" - her Dad's new stripper-girlfriend-turned-wife was at the funeral with all her trashy friends.  After the funeral, Tiffany had a "party" at the family home, to celebrate her new-found wealth.   You see, Dad left everything to Tiffany - or simply forgot to write a will, leaving it all to her by default.

Tiffany and her friends got drunk and belligerent.  They insulted Linda to her face.  "This is all MINE bitch!  You can get out of here!"  Tiffany's friends laughed.  Linda cried. As Linda left, Tiffany appeared at the door and tossed boxes of family photo albums and keepsakes onto the lawn.  "You can take this SHIT with you, bitch!" and Tiffany's friends all had a good laugh at that.

Crying, Linda gathered up the scatted photos and keepsakes - all that was left of her childhood and family, other than her Grandma.

Linda is doing OK.  Like I said, she has a career and has met a nice young man.  Her Grandmother has a little money and Linda might get a small inheritance from her - but she isn't counting on it.

The moral here is that you should never count on an inheritance.  It's isn't your money to begin with - it belongs to your parents.   And they might decide to do something really stupid with it, like give it all to a stripper.  Or donate it to the ASPCA.  Or just spend it all on themselves.

After all, it is their money.  Right?

* * * 

There are, of course, many other scenarios.  These are just ones I am personally familiar with, having seen them happen to friends and family.   And yes, some of the actions in the scenarios above were blatantly illegal.   But in order to challenge such actions, you often have to bring suit, which is difficult and messy.  Moreover, many illegal things are difficult to prove in court.  It is hard to prove that the purloined coin collection ever existed, particularly when it was a family legend and no one ever saw it (yes, I have seen this firsthand as well).

As you can see, inheritances can be evil, and inherited money - even a little bit - can cause all sorts of disharmony and grief among a family.

One way to avoid this is to just leave your kids nothing.  That may sound cruel, but look at it this way - if you were poor or broke, that is what you would leave them, anyway.  So why not just pretend you are destitute?  Give it all to the humane society or whatever, and then leave the kids $50 each.

But of course, that doesn't take into account the sometimes evil things older people do with money.   You see, once you are beyond a working age, you cannot provide for yourself.   You have to live off your savings and income from your savings.   And you may find yourself lonely and isolated.  Your children have moved far off and have lives of their own.

A needy or dependent child that calls occasionally for money is sometimes an older parent's only lifeline or hobby.  So they say, "Sure, son, I can 'loan' you $500, why not come down and we'll have lunch?"

And of course, these continual 'loans' allow the parent to insinuate themselves into their adult children's lives - and be a parent a little bit longer - and criticize their child's choices in career, spouse, and child-rearing.

And the needy child, having no money of their own (or making the Faustian bargain of dancing in this sick little dance in return for money) will put up with it all, but not before they bitch, bitch, bitch to all their friends how Mom or Dad is a "real asshole" all the time - but all the time taking those $500 checks and cashing them.

And kids like that are icky. Children whose only ambition in life is to inherit are really disgusting on on a number of levels.  Avoid such folks at all costs.

The best thing you can do, if you can do it, is walk away from all that and have your own estate.  And I realize that some of you can't do that - particularly if you are already 60 and have nothing saved.  And I feel for you.  But your situation is one reason I decided to stop smoking pot and go to Law School - so I would not have to dance to someone else's tune all the time.

And parents can be very emotionally sick in this regard.  Oftentimes your reward for being successful and independent is not accolades and approbation.  Rather, the needy children are valued higher, as they are needier and come back to the parental teat, time and time again.

So if you want to be truly independent, you have to do it for its own reward, not for parental acceptance.  If you can afford to do it, walk away from inheritances and all the bullshit strings attached.  It simply isn't worth it!

And if you do get an inheritance, don't be surprised if there is trouble, bad feelings, or other issues.  From what I can see, this is the norm, not the exception.

UPDATED April 18, 2015.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Never Take a Used Car to a Dealer for Repair!

Once your car is out of warranty, NEVER take your car to a dealer for service!

As noted in this video link on CNN, many new car dealers are quite frank about their latest practice - "converting" existing service customers into new car customers by making a "value proposition" to them when they bring their car in for service.

What does this mean?  Well, like Mafia enforcers, they "make you an offer you can't refuse." You bring in the car for inspection or routine maintenance, and you are told, that, horror of horrors, that old clunker will need thousands of dollars in repairs to make it "safe to drive." Why not bail out now and buy a brand new car?

The problem with this scenario is the blatant conflict of interest - the car dealer wants to sell you a new car, so they have every incentive to pad the repair estimate and to make the car sound unsafe and worn out.  After all, they want you out of that clunker!

An independent mechanic, on the other hand, has no such hidden agenda - and his labor rate is often half that of the dealer, and often his parts costs are far less.

What do I mean by this?  Let me give you two examples, involving friends cars.

1.  Steve and Edie have a 1998 BMW 323iC in Boston Green.  Steve comes to me after taking the car to the dealer.  I have a nearly identical 1997 328iC in Boston Green (above), and having four BMWs, I know how the cars are put together, as I do all my own maintenance on them.

In New York, cars have to pass a safety and emissions inspection, and the local BMW dealer says that Steve and Edie's car won't pass unless it has over $3000 in work done.  This is a lot of money for a car with a book value of $6000 on a good day.

What are the items that need to be repaired?

1.  Oxygen sensors
2.  Camshaft Position Sensor
3.  Rear View Mirrors (alleged to be "cloudy")
4.  Stiff Steering - new rack and pinion

I look at the car.  The oxygen sensors are fine, but if the mechanic had bothered to open the hood (as opposed to using the code reader on the OBD II data port) he would have noticed that a torn intake elbow (Parts cost:  $15, labor, 15 minutes) was what was generating the oxygen sensor message.

The camshaft sensor is about an hour's work and the part is about $100.  The rear view mirrors was a joke.  We simply took it to another inspector who looked at them and said they were fine - the dealer wanted over $500 to replace the mirror glass.

And the stiff steering? a corroded flex joint in the steering shaft that loosened up with some WD-40.

So the car passed both emission and safety inspection with flying colors - after about $300 in parts and a few hours labor - which an independent mechanic would have charged maybe $300 for.

So where does the dealer get a $3000 repair bill?  They pulled it out of their ass, is where.

And of course, when this $3000 estimate was presented, the service manager brought in a salesman who helpfully suggested that they could lease or buy a new BMW for low, low monthly payments.  In fact, the $3000 would go a long way to paying the first year's lease payments!  And they would take their "old clunker" in trade for $3000 to cover the document fees and lease down payment.

Needless to say, Steve and Edie didn't fall for this gag.  They didn't have that kind of money anyway.

But lesson learned - new car dealers are great for warranty work, but they suck and older car repair.  Their cost structure is too high and they have a blatant conflict of interest in that they want to sell you a new car.

2.  Frank and Claire have a 2002 Mercedes S-class with 110,000 miles on it.   For an S-class Mercedes, this is not a lot of mileage.  They take it to the dealer for "regular service" and are handed a 15-page $5000 repair estimate on everything from the windshield washer ($750) to a new rear-view mirror assembly ($800) to ball joints ($1500) and a serpentine belt and tensioner ($700) to repairing the glovebox door ($250), to new motor and transmission mounts ($1000) to valve cover gaskets ($1000)

The car runs fine, and while it may need some of these issues addressed, the prices quoted are whack.  The dealer quotes $250 just for a windshield washer pump!  This is ludicrous.

And the pitch is the same.  Sell the old clunker before it bankrupts you!  $5000 in repairs goes a long way toward lease payments on a new C-class!  And out of the goodness of their heart, the dealer will give them $5000 - half the book value - on the S-class in trade.

Frank and Claire are no fools, and they walk away.  But many other people don't - and cite fears of "high repair bills" as a reason to lease one new car after another.

Yes, you might have "high repair bills" if you take a used car to a new car dealer for repairs.  But that is only because their repair cost structure is insane and they pad the snot out of the bills to make it seem like buying a new car is a "sound" proposition.

So, how do you avoid this mess?  Simple.   Find a good local independent mechanic who can repair your car.  A good mechanic is not cheap, but he will likely be nearly half the cost of the insane prices that dealers quote.

Once a car is out of warranty, there is no really good reason to take it back to the dealer, other than for a recall.  Even a "legitimate" dealer who isn't trying to snooker you into buying a new car is going to have a labor and cost structure that is double the independent shop down the street.  So going to a dealer will be staggeringly expensive.

Cultivate a relationship with a good local independent mechanic.  And don't be afraid to get a second opinion, when it comes to repair work. 

And never, ever take a used car to a new car dealer for repair!

Thinking Versus Knowledge

Thinking and Memorization are two different skills.  The ability to reason and the ability to accumulate knowledge are not necessarily related.

Thinking Versus Knowledge:  There are two aspects to intelligence, and oftentimes people get them confused.  The ability to think versus raw knowledge are two entirely different things.  And many folks assume, wrongly, that the latter is more important than the former.

As I noted in another posting, in Engineering School, we were told that they wanted to teach us to "Think like Engineers" - as while you can acquire a lot of knowledge in Engineering School, it is the ability to think and solve problems that is what an Engineer really does.  If the answers to problems were all laid out in books, there would be no need for Engineers - no need to innovate.   You'd just look up the answer and be done with it.

Similarly, in Law School, they told us they wanted to teach us to "Think like Lawyers" - how to solve legal problems.   It would be impossible to teach every Law Student every possible legal situation they could get themselves into over their career - and their specialty.  Rather, if you teach them how to solve legal issues methodically - and how to research and argue them - a Lawyer can tackle nearly any legal issue later on, having the problem-solving skills - not the answers from a book.

And in both professions, the answers change over time, so you can't teach "knowledge" - or you could, but it would be quickly obsolete.  Rather, you teach thinking skills, which serve the student far better over their career.

Unfortunately, the great unwashed masses of Americans either fail to grasp this difference, or they assume that knowledge is more important than thinking.  And people are quick to pick on a spelling error, a factual error, or some other error of knowledge as "proof" the speaker is wrong, without bothering to address the underlying thinking - which is more important.

For example, one of my least favorite human beings on the planet is Michelle Bachman.  She and I would disagree about just about everything.   And I think her thinking skills are weak.   But the mainstream media is busy attacking her knowledge base, much as they did with Sarah Palin, as evidence of her unsuitability to office.

So the media is having a field day with her, claiming she picked the wrong town as John Wayne's birthplace (which is so, so important in Presidential debates, because.....why again?).  Moreover, the media is compounding the error by saying the birthplace she chose was that of John Wayne Gacy, the famous serial killer.

The real deal is, of course, that John Wayne's parents did live in Waterloo, and John Wayne Gacy briefly lived there as well (but was not born there, as comedians, such as Conan O'Brien joke).  And media outlets like the Washington Post gleefully report that Bachman is "comparing herself to John Wayne Gacy"  and call this a "Gaffe".

Gaffe is the word of the hour these days - usually attached to Joe Biden, and usually done so by Fox News.  The News Media seems more concerned with punctuation and spelling errors (as in the press cards for one candidate) or obscure birthplace information, than in the overall politics of the person.

And this distracts from the real debate.  You may dislike Michelle Bachman's politics, as I do, but to criticize her for her knowledge of movie star birthplaces - or to suggest she fails to understand the difference between John Wayne and the similarly named serial killer is just, well, stupid.  It is Idiot Media at its worst.   And the only thing people come away from in these sort of "debates" is that they have no idea who this lady is or what her politics are, but that she doesn't fact-check well.

And that is sad, as the media has a duty to inform us, and it is falling down here, big time.  There are a number of Republican Presidential candidates out there.  Can you name them?  Can you articulate in a few words what their political views are and how they differ?  Or do you know nothing more about them other than a slogan, a sound bite, and a collection of  "gaffes" they made?

Putting knowledge above thinking puts the dictionary and encyclopedia ahead of the brain.  Any idiot can memorize (or make up) facts and figures.  Being a walking talking encyclopedia doesn't make you smart - it just means your head is filled up with facts and figures.   Many autistic people can memorize volumes of information that way - but they cannot articulate any kind of thought or reasoning - just as in "Rain Man", Raymond has the Abbot and Costello "Who's on First?" routine memorized but has no idea what it means.

Analytical thinking is far more important than rote memorization.  And yet, the powers-that-be are promoting the latter at the expense of the former.   Memorizing the arithmetic tables is touted (by stupid people) as "learning math".  But memorization does not help in the understanding of Number Theory or Calculus.  Similarly, the time-honored technique of memorizing dates and names as "learning history" is not really very instructive in terms of helping us understand how history played out.

This is not to say that knowledge is bunk.  Far from it.  A computer needs a database from which to operate, and your brain needs facts and information to process, of course.  But it is silly and trivial (and a cheap game) to nitpick someone's arguments on the premise that they spelled a word wrong or put the period in the wrong place or made a typo.

And if you have memorized a lot of facts, but can't reason very well, you aren't very smart.  And increasingly, people's ability to reason seems to be falling by the wayside in favor of facts and data.  And the Television and Internet are bombarding us with data, but not really promoting reasoning or thinking.   And this is, perhaps by design, not accident.   After all, if you reason out most of the bargains that are heavily advertised on TeeVee, you may figure out they are bad bargains.

But knowledge is more fun than reasoning - thinking is indeed hard to do, and it certainly doesn't make for compelling television.  So on "Jeopardy!" or "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!" or even the old-school game shows like "21", they tested contestants on raw rote memorization.  The more factoids you have stuffed up in your brain, the "smarter" you were supposed to be.

But does having memorized all the names of a character in a soap opera make you smart?  I would think not.  But that may provide you with the "right answer" on a game show.  Does memorizing the batting averages of all the major league players make you more intelligent?  It isn't like that means you would beat any of them in chess, does it?

Memorization can, in fact, be the enemy of reason.  One reason they say that older people have better reasoning skills is that they memorize less.  As a result, their brain filters more data out, and concentrates on relevant data.   And I have seen this effect in young people - they can absorb so much data, but have no idea what to do with it - how to triage data into more relevant and less relevant parts.  And as a result, they struggle to think logically - to reason.   They may be able to memorize the answers to the test, but they can't deduce them on their own.

The good news is, reasoning is, to some extent, independent of your ability to memorize.  If you hone your reasoning skills, you can figure a lot of things out, even if you haven't memorized a lot.  But it takes the ability to think and think clearly.  And oftentimes all this means is turning off the noise in your life - the constant stream of data that drowns out reasoning - the television, the cell phone, the instant message, the tweet, the media, and the like.  Quiet, contemplative time is essential, I think, to reasoning out things in your life.

Are You a Doormat? Don't Be!

Letting people walk all over you is not being nice or indeed even helping the people who are abusing you.

You may come away from this blog with the impression that I don't suffer fools gladly - and I don't.  And you may come away from this blog with the impression that I am unsympathetic - but that is not true.  I genuinely ache when I see people put themselves in peril.  However, I learned long ago that putting myself in peril trying to "help" people, often isn't the answer.

If you swim out to help a drowning person, and you both drown, that is not helping anyone.   And if you throw a drowning person a life-ring, and they refuse it because it is not their favorite color, then it is time to move on.  Or worse, if you drop everything to help a drowning victim, and then discover they are standing in three feet of water, you are not being a hero, but just a fool.

Simply stated, there are people out there who will latch onto you, if you appear to be even remotely successful or self-assured.  And these people will approach you and say they are victims and need your help.  And they will play upon your natural instinct - a good instinct - to be helpful and kind.  And then they will use you - play you - for all you are worth.

This is not to say that you should not be kind and generous and helpful - far from it.   Our society is a better place when people volunteer, help friends in need, and are generally kind and generous.  But you have to be careful, as your instincts to be "helpful" can be exploited and used against you.

Many of the folks who would like to abuse you do so without conscious intent - their neediness and ability to latch onto you is like what a remora does to a shark.  They are the Zelda to your F. Scott, so to speak.  Hangers-on who sense you are kind, generous, and moreover seem to have half a clue as to what you are doing.  They find comfort in your strength, your emotional support, and sometimes your financial support as well.  And they can be Emotional Vampires, as I have written about before.

But others are more conscious as to what they are doing.   Panhandlers, con-artists, and other flim-flam people can spot an empath a mile away.  The guy with the gas-can prop approaches you in the parking lot, "Excuse me sir, but I'm trying to work my way through Bible school, and I seem to have run out of gas!"  He can sense from 20 feet away that you are the kind of person who likes to help out - the first to volunteer, the one that gives a jump-start to the guy with the dead battery.  And before you know it, you are giving this guy $5 to get back to Bible School.  But an hour later, you drive by, and you see him still there, approaching another person with the same spiel.   And you realize you've been had.

So you hit the accelerator, jump the sidewalk, and run him down - and than back over him again to make sure he is good and dead.  OK, that last part is just a revenge fantasy.  But there is something particularly evil about people who intentionally play upon the good will of others, don't you think?  And flim-flam artists have evoked the ire of the citizenry for ages - often being tarred and feathered, run out of town on a rail, or lynched outright.  And their sense of outrage is understandable.  It is one thing to play upon your greed, but to play upon your good will is just sick.

How do they do it?  How does a con-man spot his "Mark" a mile away and give him the spiel, and within a matter of minutes, pocket some money?  Granted, some just approach everyone, and then quickly figure out whether the "pitch" is working or not.  And since most of us are kindhearted and generous, there is a pretty good chance they will succeed.

But they also pick up on very subtle cues - body language, eye contact, things of that nature.   And that is why, in the New York subway, you rarely saw people make eye contact, particularly in the old days, when panhandlers and crazy people would wander the cars.   You even so much as looked at them, and they zeroed in on you like a guided missile.  Because only a tourist or a chump would make eye contact.

And in a similar way, the people in your life who take advantage of you - friends, family members, acquaintances - also sense vulnerability and take advantage of your good nature.  For example a friend of mine has an emotionally disturbed friend.  Now, mental illness is tragic and all, but most of us are not equipped to deal with this sort of thing.  The emotionally disturbed friend is a very real burden to my friend, and he says things like, "I need to be around you, you make me feel better and normal!"

Now that is all very fine and all for the emotionally disturbed friend, but what does my friend get out of this arrangement?  Well, he gets the emotional energy sucked right out of him, is what he gets.  It is a relationship where it is all give and no take, where one side benefits and the other loses.  And the net result for my friend is, well, it reduces the quality of his life.

And when I was a youth, I found myself in this position, over and over again.  Perhaps it was because of my upbringing - used as an emotional punching-bag by a mentally disturbed Mother - that I ended up being an attractant for such people.  Perhaps there are just a lot of crazy people in the world, or perhaps somehow I was making myself a "Mark" for them - making eye contact when I should have looked away.  But in my early life, I ended up squandering a lot of my emotional energy by pandering to the needs of emotionally needy people.

My roommate in prep school, a roommate in college, a girlfriend, then another girlfriend, a boyfriend, family members - you name it.  People with more prescription bottles than a pharmacy on their nightstand, who will regale you about "their problems" and how important they are, for hours, without giving a rat's ass about you at all.  You are just wallpaper to them - some object to be latched onto and be abused.

It took a long time for me to break that pattern of behavior - to stop feeling sorry for people and to learn to take care of myself, first and realize that taking care of yourself is not being selfish, but instead your primary duty to society.

You see, you can't "help" people with serious emotional problems.  You can help out a friend going through a rough patch, just as you can offer to help jump start a person's car in the parking lot.   But if their engine is seized, they need help beyond what your jumper cables can provide.  And at that point, the best you can do is point them to a real professional who can help.

When I was in college, I went to a free "relationship counseling" session in the Psychology department, where young Pscyhe majors were learning their trade.  We sat down and discussed our problems and then they talked to each of us individually.  Afterwords, the professor approached me and gave the most unconventional relationship counseling I have ever heard of.  "Get out of this relationship, now" he said, "it is toxic."

And he explained to me that forming a relationship with someone who is mentally ill is never a good idea.   Such folks need professional help, and that is help beyond what you can provide.  Moreover, oftentimes trying to have a relationship with such a person is more injurious to the mentally ill person.  And such relationships - like Zelda and poor F. Scott - can end up as a lifelong nightmare.

But being raised in family marked by mental illness, I thought that such relationships were "normal" and that feeling sorry for someone - trying to protect them - was a normal thing.  Breaking out of that behavior pattern was essential.  And finding someone who wasn't needy and clingy all the time (we all are needy on occasion!) was the key to future happiness.

Now some folks would read this and say, "Well, that is just mean-spirited and cold-hearted!"  But taking care of yourself is never being mean-spirited.   After all, the people who walk all over you certainly take care of themselves, why aren't you entitled to do the same?

And of course, this does not mean you should use others as a doormat, either.  Looking out for your own self-interest doesn't mean taking advantage of others.

And it is a fine line, of course.  And like managing your finances or trying to control your weight, it is an ongoing struggle - day to day, one day at a time.  It is a balancing act, to be sure.  But you can be generous and kind and nice and helpful to others without being or feeling exploited or used.

And as I noted at the beginning of this piece, being a doormat is often unkind to the person who is stepping on your face.  If you act as a crutch for another person, they will never learn how to walk.  Rescuing people from their own folly only serves to train them to be passive-aggressive - to place themselves in a position of peril and await rescue, rather than be proactive about their lives and their livelihoods.  Once you enable their behavior, they see no need to discontinue it.

I wrote before, for example, about a friend who spend their money wildly over the years - buying a luxury motor coach, leasing new a Cadillac every three years, donating wild sums to evangelical churches, and the like.  By retirement, they were destitute, not by circumstance, but by choice.  And some of their friends "felt sorry" for them, and started paying their bills for them - the light bill, the cable bill, the credit card bill.  (And you see this story repeated in families, where a Husband sends money to his Brother or Sister every month to help pay off their credit card debt).

The problem is, the people giving the money later found out they needed it - that they were not as well-off as they thought they were.  And moreover, their spendthrift friends kept getting further and further into peril, no matter how much money was given to them.  It is like welfare - you can't cure poverty simply by throwing money at people.  If they have underlying spending problems, chances are, they will just squander the money.

And of course, giving money away is unfair to those of us to learn to live without and do without and scrimp and save.  The spendthrift friend tried to ask me for money - to help pay off a credit card bill.   But I wasn't about to give money to someone so they could have 500 channels of cable TV when I didn't even own a television.  I wasn't going to pay off their debts incurred by their serial leasing of cars, while I was driving a 10-year-old car with over 100,000 miles on the clock.  In short, I wasn't going to "feel sorry" for someone who was, in essence, wealthier than I was in terms of standard of living, if not in bank account balance.

But others are not so astute.  And they listen to the "woe is me" story and whip out their checkbooks.   And sometimes, the person being walked-on gets some sort of sick pleasure out of the deal - being able to feel powerful and responsible, like a big brother or sister, by doling out money.  It is an ego trip, to be sure.   And it gives them something to bitch about, too.

But it is a sick dance, and in the end, neither party is happy.

Look for and forge relationships that are peer-to-peer, not parasite-and-host.  In the long-run you will be far better off.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Life as an Underground Cartoon....

My former Draftsman turned me into a character in an underground cartoon... 
Click on image to enlarge.

Move over Fritz the Cat and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I've been turned into an underground cartoon.   My former Draftsman, Richard McMurry, who retired from the Patent Drawing business, found my life an endless source of amusement.  And he created a couple of cartoons featuring me as a character.  I am not sure to be flattered or what.

The cartoon above has a story behind it - and a moral!  If you ever carry anything in the back of your truck, particularly a mattress, make sure it is cinched down tightly.  Here is the story:

True (horror) Story (illustrated)

If you ever carry anything in the back of your Pickup truck, STRAP IT DOWN.  Stuff flies out very easily, and can injure or kill someone.  Mattresses, especially, seem to have wings.

A few years back, we were getting rid of our old bed.  Our friend Jill and her boyfriend were complaining about how bad their old mattress was.  So Mark suggested that they take our old bed.

We put the mattress and box spring in the back of our old Toyota pickup truck.  It was pretty heavy, and I lashed it in with one strap across the middle.  I figured that should keep it snug.

We took off down the George Washington Parkway toward Old Town during rush hour.  There was little traffic going our way, but plenty going the other!  It was late in the year, so it got dark early.

Of course, we were chatting and not paying attention, when suddenly Mark says "hey, where's the mattress?".  I look in the rear view mirror, and to my horror, there is nothing in the back of the pickup truck.

Well, turning around on the GW parkway during rush hour is no picnic.  We had to drive halfway to Old Town to turn around.  It was solid traffic and people were honking at us for being in the
left lane and going slowly.  But we had to slow down to see where the mattress went!

"Maybe it fell off before we got on the Parkway", Mark said, "or maybe it is sitting on the side of the road."

Just then we came upon it.  There was the mattress, looking a little lumpy on the opposite side of the road, in the right lane, with a tire track across it.  The  box spring lay in the left lane
and, by some miracle, was intact!  Mark said, "Hey, it doesn't look so bad".  But not for long.  A full-size Chevy Blazer with monster tires hit it just then.

BAM!  The box spring just exploded.  Small pieces of wood and springs and cloth went everywhere.  "Well, maybe we can save the mattress", Mark said.

"Not likely", I replied, "Did you see the tire track across it?"

We took the next right and turned around at the Alexandria Avenue bridge.  "What should we do?" Mark asked, "We can't just leave it there, someone might get hurt".  "On the other hand", I replied, "do we want to own up to this?"

We went back to the scene of the devastation and pulled over with our flashers on and started tossing pieces of box spring into the back of the truck and off to the side of the road.  Almost immediately, two other helpful samaritans stopped as well.

"What happened here?" the first one asked.  "Someone lost a mattress off their truck and we stopped to get it off the road", I replied.  "Well, let me give you a hand" he said, and together the four of us started cleaning box spring bits off the road.

We didn't have time to move the mattress when an elderly lady in a large Cadillac zoomed around our parked cars and ran square into the mattress.  The low-slung undercarriage of the Caddy caught the
mattress which started to roll up like a dinner roll under her car.

She sensed the resistance and gunned the engine, causing the mattress to roll up even more.  At this point, here front wheels were off the ground, and her rear tires were leaving smokey burnout patches on the pavement.

I ran over and banged on her window.  With a look of sheer horror, she opened it up and said "Did I run someone over?".  "No", I replied, "You just hit a mattress".  She gunned the engine more.

"No! NO!" I cried, "back up!, it's caught!".  She put the Caddy in reverse and the mattress nearly unrolled itself on the pavement.

The four of us dragged it to the side of the road while the Caddy tore off.  It was a mess.  Criss-crossed with tire tracks, full of lumps, and a neat oil stain from the undercarriage of the Caddy.  No one was going to sleep on this mattress any time soon.

Mar said "We should get the heck out of here!".  I concurred and we all jumped in our cars and left.

When we arrived at Jill's apartment, we figured we'd have a humorous story to tell and that would be it.  
When we arrived, they greeted us at the door.  "We're so glad you're here!  We can't wait for the new mattress!" they said.

"Well, about the mattress..." I started.

"Yes, the mattress!" Jill replied.  "I can't WAIT!  We threw out our old one two days ago and have been sleeping on the floor ever since!".

True story.  Poor kids slept on the floor for another month.  They eventually broke up.  I only hope that the mattress fiasco was not the cause!


Most People Want to See You Succeed

Most People Want to See You Succeed!

In reading this blog, you may come away with the impression that the world is full of Con Artists and Crooked Bankers and basic Criminals, all wanting to rip you off and take away your hard-earned dollars.  And to some extent, this is true - there are a lot of bad people out there, or just bad bargains and companies without your best interests at heart.

But the good news is, you can choose to walk away from such bad deals and succeed in life.

And the better news is that there are a lot of folks out there - most folks, in my opinion - who want to see you succeed in life.  After all, if you fail, we all have to support you with our tax dollars, right?

But beyond that, we all want to help others and see young people get ahead.  No, really.  And in my own life, I've gotten ahead because people provided me with opportunities - because they wanted to see me get ahead.

We just returned from a trip to NYC and stopped at the Carnegie Deli, which is sort of a tourist trap and rumors are, it is going to close.  You can't eat a one-pound pastrami sandwich on a regular basis - it is a bit of a come-on.  But it was fun to see this New York landmark, and the pastrami was good.

We sat next to some young folks, and one, in his mid-20's had just graduated from the Cordon Bleu in L.A. and was moving to New York to get some experience in the restaurant business - and New York is a good place to get that.  He was going to have to share an apartment with friends and live frugally.  I told him he would do well.

Why is this?  Well, since he is young, he can afford to work for cheap - to get the experience.  And people will want to see him succeed - if he works hard and has some talent.  No one takes pleasure in pissing on someone else's dreams.

And perhaps I was a bit jealous, too.  While my life is settled and secure, he was about to start out on a great adventure - living as a young person in the Big Apple, on the ground floor of the restaurant world.  It would be a heady time for him.  I wished him luck.

People want to see you succeed - if you show that you are trying.   Of course, we all have to run our businesses, and we have to make a profit, or go under.  So yes, you may find your boss to be "harsh" if you show up late, call in sick, and steal from the company.  But in that situation, you are just dragging him down with your own depression, and making his life difficult as well.  Employees like that cause no end of anxiety for employers - and no one "enjoys" firing people, despite what you may think.  In some employers, it induces panic attacks.

But if you have a skill, some training, some talent, and are willing to work hard (which means just showing up on time, not calling in sick, and just doing your job) you will succeed.  And I know this because there is a very big shortage of people willing to do that, in this country.  The slackers of the world do serve one useful purpose - they make the rest of us look better in comparison.

Good Luck!

Checking Your Balance - Every Day

With the advent of online banking, there is no reason you should ever, ever bounce a check.

In response to my $750 Pizza?  Not Quite posting, some wishy-washy weak thinker sent me a long diatribe about how the people who run the pizza place are bad - which somehow makes it OK to commit check fraud.

Their one comment was, "Well, I suppose YOU never bounce a check!"

Well, when I was young and dumb and on drugs and drunk most of the time, yes.  And I never balanced my checkbook, I cashed my paycheck in bars, and I did a lot of stupid things like ordering pizzas when all I had to my name was $20 or less.

And that was stupid behavior, which was nobody's fault but my own.  And that was the point of my post.  If you want to get ahead in life, you have to stop doing stupid things.   If you are down to your last $20, ordering a delivery pizza is not the best use of your money - a bag of rice would be a better choice - something that would make more than one meal.

But that's just me being rational.

The other comment the commie-hippie winner-hater had was, "Well, I suppose we're all supposed to check our math two or three times before writing a check!"

Check your math?  Please don't tell me you try to balance your checkbook using a paper register.  This is 2011.

Today, every bank - even tiny home-town banks and credit unions - have online banking.  You can log in every day - or several times a day - and check your balance, check to see what checks have cleared, and rationalize your account.

And almost every computer comes with a free copy of Quicken, or some other basic financial software that allows you to enter your checks, balance your checkbook, and rationalize your accounts.  And many bank websites can export the account data to Quicken, if you don't feel like typing it all in.

But wait, there is more.   You can access the bank website through your smart phone - or through a regular phone by 1-800 number.  In short, there is no way you could ever be in a situation where you cannot access your bank balance and see what checks have cleared and calculate, down to the penny, what your available balance is.

If that isn't enough, many banks will send you daily alerts as to your balance and also warnings as to when your minimum balance is reached.  I get a message daily from BoA as to my balance.

And if you set up a savings account to roll-over to your checking account, it will automatically deposit money to prevent overdrafts, on the odd chance they should occur.  How hard is that?

And of course, there is the debit card, which can be used as a credit card, and will be declined if the balance is too low - saving you a lot of hassle.

So today, no, I never bounce a check and the odds of it happening are slim to none.  But it does take financial discipline of course, and with modern computers, this is far easier than back in 1980.

Back then, we had to wait for monthly statements, and then try to balance your accounts after 30 days.  Needless to say, it wasn't easy.

But, even with all that, back in the day, when I was a reckless and feckless youth, I realized that if I did bounce a check, that it was a serious business, and that I had to make restitution right away.  Bounce enough checks, and you've got Johnny Law knocking on your door, and you're doing the perp walk.  It is a crime.

So even as irresponsible as I was back then, when I bounced a check, I made sure I went to the merchant in question and paid them in cash - as well as any bounce fees in cash.  Usually they were holding the check and would give it to me as a receipt.  You don't let that slide for a week, or a month.

In the $750 pizza story, which takes place in the brave new world of 2011, for some reason the fellow couldn't determine that he had less than $20 in his checking account.   He writes a bad check with the wrong address on it (putting your current address on a check is important!) and when it bounces, he waits for a letter from the store, which, not surprisingly, goes to his old address.   A month goes by and suddenly he is surprised to discover that Civil action has been filed against him.

Sorry, no sympathy.  You bounce a check, you make it good - and that may mean a "hassle" of writing to the corporate office, calling someone, or maybe even asking your ex-girlfriend if she got a letter addressed to you.

But bouncing a check is really unnecessary in this day and age.  But moreover, you should never spend when there is that little money in your account.  Why?  Because even a debit card can screw you up.

As I noted in another posting, during the early days of debit cards (20 years ago) I ran into this problem:

For example, when I was younger, I wrote a check from my account to pay the rent. There was $50 left over in the account (I was poor), so I went out for Chinese food that night. The clerk kept swiping the card several times and for some reason the charge did not go through. After his fourth attempt, the charge went through and I though everything was OK.

The next day, I checked the balance on my account (I was anal-retentive even then) and was horrified to discover FOUR charges for Chinese food on my account. What's more, my landlord had tried to cash my rent check - and because of the erroneous Chinese food charges, it BOUNCED.

Ouch. What happens when Merchants "authorize and settle" a credit or debit card is that often a hold is first placed on the card ("authorize") and then when the transaction is completed, the amount is settled. Once the Chinese restaurant ran a settlement later the next day, the erroneous charges came off my account. But the fact remained that the three erroneous "holds" on the account meant my balance was too low to clear the rent check.

The moral is to never spend your account down that low - with a DEBIT card. If you have to squeak the last penny out of your bank account, write a check (which the Chinese place would have taken) or pay cash.

Granted, the Chinese take-out place was to blame - but the owner was a friend of mine, was I going to go after her?  The bank fortunately allowed the check to be re-presented (they did that back then) and waived the charge, as they saw from the transaction ledger that I had not really overdrawn my account, but that the "hold" on my debit card had forced the issue.   But I learned a valuable lesson - or lessons:

1.  If your available bank account balance is under $100 or so, stop spending.  You are running out of money, and if you run the pump dry, the bounce fees will be staggering - at a time when you can least afford to pay them.

2.  If you have less than $100 in your bank account, buying take-out food is not a good idea.  While General Tso's chicken may be tasty and all, if you are that low on money, you need to be spending more wisely, not "treating yourself" to take-out food.

Like I said, I was irresponsible back then.  And when you are irresponsible, bad things happen.  Left-leaning hippie chick thinks that we should be rewarded for being irresponsible, instead of taking our lumps.  While discipline is never fun - unless you are kinky that way - it is instructive and useful to you personally.

Because of incidents like the Chinese-take-out disaster, I changed my financial habits - it was a wake-up call to me that I needed to get my financial shit together.  And I hope the guy with the $750 pizza has similar revelation - or his life will be one $750 pizza after another, and he will sit there wondering why life sucks.

And it doesn't have to, either.  If you just make different choices - get up off the couch, go to the store, spend $15 on food (that may last several meals) instead of watching TeeVee and getting a $20 pizza and having a check bounce.  Yes, that is effort, but almost everything in life that is good involves effort.  You have to try, man!

And that effort includes monitoring your finances - down to the exact penny!  The money in your life is important - not as an end in and of itself, but as a means to an end.   When you squander money, you squander your life - your hard work, your savings, your future.  Many, if not most of us never realize this - ever - in life.  Some of us figure it out towards the end, when we try to retire.  But most young people are clueless in this regard - or at last I was - and just wrote checks until they started to bounce.

That was a miserable way to go through life - and it was a miserable existence.   And it was a choice not a circumstance.

Choose wisely!