The first hint was last June. I noticed, at my 40th college reunion, that all my classmates were old men. The truly telling moment was in August. My Annual Statement arrived from the Social Security Administration. It told me I would be eligible to start collecting retirement benefits of $1,314 a month when I reached the age of 62.
That was yesterday.
It seems only yesterday that my main goal, at 17, was to die tragically misunderstood after a short but brilliant life of ravenous excess.
Today, at 62, I smile at a newspaper clipping of my paternal great grandfather. A violinist and professional photographer in Edinburgh Scotland, the headline over his obituary picture says, "Nonagenarian Succumbs." Today I hope to last that long--- and to be well understood.
What happens in 45 years? Allow me to introduce The Five Great Moments of Personal Finance.
• Discovering Credit. If we can fog a mirror and have a record of work--- however reluctant it may have been--- the great lenders of America are waiting to lend us money. This is a truly great moment. The scent of megalomania is in the air. Want a house? It is yours. Want a car? Sign here. Need a vacation? Take this plastic. Need anything else, anywhere? Open your mailbox. Sign the offer. Getting stoned on credit is the Great American High. There are only two things you can't buy on credit in America: discipline and common sense. Credit is wonderful. But discipline and common sense are more valuable.
• Learning Life Is Always More Expensive. In my late twenties I thought life would be easy once the kids were beyond diaper service. I was wrong. Decades later, I am still waiting for life to become less expensive. The price of breakfast at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan is as intimidating today as it was in 1965. Whatever you earn, prices and taxes will rise to the occasion. This is not a complaint. It is the way things are. All of us need to get over it. Breakfast costs less around the corner.
• Learning You Must Pay It Back. There is a day when all money must be returned. It can be deferred. It can be put off. But it will come. We tend to forget this, often at the urging of our credit card company(s), home equity credit line provider, etc. The party that follows the discovery of credit is always followed by the hangover of paying it back. This is not moralizing. It is a reminder about avoiding hangovers.
• Learning The Law of Unexpected Consequences. Planning is one thing. Actual living is another. Want to empty a room quickly? Ask those who have never been surprised to stay. Ask others to leave. This doesn't mean we shouldn't plan. It just means the unexpected is inevitable. When Congress voted to allow everyone up to $500,000 of tax-free capital gains in their primary home they thought they were simplifying taxes for homeowners. In fact, they accidentally reinforced the best investment most Americans ever make, created a bubble, and provided the wealth to offset much of a major recession. Other changes--- like the special accounting Congress allowed thrifts that led to the S&L crisis or Congressional capping of executive compensation that led to the options boom and related disasters weren't so beneficial. Murphy rules!
• Learning Real Problems Aren't Money Problems. Our easy problems involve money. They may be terrifying but there is always a solution. Our big problems are the ones that can't be solved with money. They are the ones that make us cry in the night and pray for relief. The marriage that doesn't work. The illness that can't be cured. The child who is afflicted. The friend who won't be helped. If you are an adult and still think money problems are real problems, you have led a charmed life. Be grateful.
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