The Holy Coffee Can

There is a popular character trope--perhaps more appropriately called a popular American character trope--of the immigrant with small means. Arriving in America with almost nothing, the immigrant resolves to pursue the American dream. They find work, earn what they can, and somehow manage to save a little. Over the years their dutiful, disciplined savings goes into a coffee can or small box. Eventually they buy something meaningful, like a gift to their children or the chance to finally get ahead. It is a beautiful sentiment that resonates with those who believe America is a place of opportunity.

That said, it drives the financial planner in me absolutely nuts.

10 Years: The Story of How We Got Here

Conestoga Wealth Partners just celebrated a decade helping clients succeed. Rather than my typical moralizing financial post, perhaps it is timely to share the story of how and why Conestoga came to be. Some might say it was a story of David beating Goliath. Others say it resembled the flight to freedom of settlers in America. Some would even knock us down a few pegs and compare it to Johnny Paycheck’s opening lines: “Take this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more.” 

Nudge versus Sludge

Enter Richard Thayler, a behavioral economist, and a legal scholar named Cass Sunstein. Candidly, a behavioral economist and legal scholar do not set the stage for a book laypeople sprint to the store to read. Yet in 2008, that is exactly what happened. Their book Nudge sold millions of copies, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Its message resonated with governments, corporations, and families alike.

Their book focused on how we make choices, and how we can inspire ourselves to make better choices. Instead of mandating changes or forcing ourselves to do something differently, they advocated for other ways to create meaningful change, whether it be for a young child or an entire country’s healthcare system.

They argued that the key to many outcomes we want lies less with heroic efforts of will, and more with making things easier, more convenient, or simpler. Of course, willpower is still indispensable for many difficult things in life, but relying on it alone can be…precarious. Willpower takes us only so far.

Your Mind on Money

Imagine being hungry. It is difficult to think as clearly, we get irritable, and certain foods seem like a really good idea. It does not take a study to tell us that hunger makes us think about food! Nonetheless, a few researchers decided to study this. They took people who were hungry and those who weren’t and had them hunt for words. Participants had to find the word “cookie” first, and then a non-food word (“tent”). The goal was to measure how long it took for them to find the word “tent”.
Unsurprisingly, hungry people took a lot longer. It took so long, in fact, that it translated into an average reduction in IQ by 10 points versus the non-hungry word searchers. Being hungry makes a big difference. 
You might be saying to yourself, this is a blog about money and finance, right? 
Yes, it is.

The Saver's Paradox

Early in our marriage, my wife Brooke came home from work in an uproar. She was just embarking on her journey as a teacher and submitting all the paperwork that comes with a new career. Among this paperwork were Brooke’s retirement benefits, where she was supposed to decide how much to save for retirement. Having financial advisors for a father and a husband, she was determined to aggressively save. She filled everything out, in her classic perfect penmanship, and proudly walked into an HR meeting where someone would review her paperwork.

She did not anticipate a struggle. The well-intentioned HR employee walked through Brooke’s paperwork, pausing at her retirement benefits.

“You are saving too much,” she said. “You should consider saving less.”

Have Your Dollar and Eat it Too

As a 7-year-old, I remember my parents decided it was time for a change. Determined to lose weight and improve their health, they latched onto Body for Life, a nutrition and exercise program. It was fun to watch the old videos of people following the program, changing their bodies, and becoming better versions of themselves. The books and videos featured people young and old, with before and after pictures and essays that were frankly inspiring. Of course, the program touted their own proprietary supplements to monetize the motivation, but the basic tenets of the program were fairly reasonable. My parents embarked on their fitness journey, and my dad went on to win a prize from one of their competitions--a trip to Cancun with my mom.

Watching my parents get up early to go to the gym before work and eating healthy, it made me want to do the same thing. My dad would humor me: he would make a little extra of his healthy breakfast and leave it for me in the morning, and he gave me a light dumbbell to do exercises when I insisted on lifting weights. Little did they know the monster they would create; 


A Tale of Two Trajectories

A couple walks into my office. The husband is a large business owner, and the wife is a doctor.

This sounds like the beginning of a financial planner-style bar joke.

They are in their late forties and want to retire at age fifty. We launch into their plans and financial situation. They have four million dollars in various investment accounts, income from the business, a large vacation home, and all the trappings of a high-income lifestyle. They love fine dining, cruises, and international travel.

A second couple walks into my office the same week. The wife is an elementary school teacher, and the husband is a cook. They are in their mid-sixties, want to retire next year, and lead a modest lifestyle. They have 350,000 dollars in the state retirement system, a small pension, a two-bedroom condo, and enjoy gardening and hiking.

Giving Money to the Kids

Many readers know Brooke and I are expecting. The idea of a little one’s arrival is thrilling, joyous, and still a little difficult to process. Of course, we want the best for our child in all the ways one might expect. We continually ask each other, how can we create an environment where children can grow into kind, resilient, empowered people? So often I hear people say they simply want their children to be happy. While I too wish happiness on my children, I have always felt that happiness is a byproduct of other things.

The Sting

Have you ever had something taken from you? It tends to hurt more than not having the item in the first place. The sense of “mine” is powerful, and that feeling of ownership sets in quickly. It makes for a particularly painful experience when we lose what we have.

In the world of finance, you hear this expressed in the form of little rules of thumb or idioms.

-“I haven’t lost money until I sell.”

-“The stock was up before—it will get there again.”

The Quiet Losers

I had just driven home from the office. As I stepped out of the car, my neighbor happened to be outside and said hello. 

“Hey, you work with investments and finance, right?” he inquired.

I do.

“Have you heard all this business about Gamestop?”

Yes, I have. 

“Man, I’ve been watching Youtube videos about it all day. Spot prices and call options and technical analysis and...!”

As I politely listened to his foray down the rabbit holes of the financial world, my wife could see me through the window. Her face said that my ear was being bent, but I did not mind.