Monday, September 12

CDP Top 30 Of All-Time ('08-'10) - #19.

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#19 - 'The Greatest Depression Ever.'
(Originally published 11/24/08.)




2,750 Words On Financial Responsibility (With Poop Jokes!)
By: Ryan J. Zeinert

PART I - "Bathtub Moonshine."

Make no mistake about it, our nation is starting straight down the barrel of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of hard-working Americans are losing their jobs. Multi-billion dollar companies are closing their doors. Gasoline is currently $1.80 a gallon. Truly terrifying stuff.

For those of you who weren’t around for the first Great Depression (scoff if you must, but I have an abnormal amount of Nonagenarian fans), allow me to shed a little light on what you can stand to learn from it. My Great-Grandmother was a Depression-era woman, and when she passed away last year, I was asked to root through her house to see if there was anything I’d like to bring home. It was there where the family found age-old collections of bottle caps, newspapers, long-dead appliances and…gahh…Band-Aids. The place was absolutely stacked to the rafters with a lifetime of hoarding and thrifty-ness barely holding everything together. She came from a generation that had no credit, threw nothing away and had to fend for themselves when the Stock Market crumbled around them.

Oh, and she was also a pack-rat that probably would have behaved the same way had the Depression never happened at all, so you may want to bear that in mind. I love her and miss her very much, but yeah, she had a bit of a problem with throwing stuff away. Nonetheless, we can all learn a little something from Great-Grandma Milly: the Government will probably help Wall Street when they fail, but they certainly will not help us, so stock up and prepare for the Apocalypse, ‘cuz it’s a comin’.

Signs of careful spending are everywhere these days. Why just yesterday, instead of buying my usual 10-year Scotch at the liquor store, I had to settle for the inferior 2-year Scotch at the grocery store. Hey, what can you do? Corners need to be cut, and I’ll get drunk just as fast either way. Besides, when alcohol functions as both your dinner and breakfast, you’ll end up saving in the long run.

Since alcohol is recession-proof, however, you can fully expect me to get on board with my own signature brand of bathtub moonshine in the near-future.

PART II - "Coffee + Apples = Instant Enema."

It was this looming fear of going broke, losing my job, losing my house, losing my wife, losing feeling in the tips of my fingers and inevitably losing my ability to remember that I don’t like touching wieners at the bus station for money that led me to a Financial Planning seminar offered last week at one of the many State agencies that could buy and sell my life about a jillion times over without blinking (feel free to take a second; that was an embarrassingly long sentence). I attended because not only did it make me feel responsible and hopefully plant a seed of responsibility and long-term planning in my head, but also because it was a paid afternoon off of work with free coffee and apples.

Oh, and by the way: Coffee + Apples = Instant Enema. You’ve been warned. I swear to God, there wasn’t a single minute of that seminar where someone wasn’t out using the can.

For the first time ever (and for the sake of this essay), I’m going to give you a quick peek into how me and the Missus manage our money. Not surprisingly, it’s based on equal parts Libertarianism and Socialism, if such a thing is even possible. It more or less breaks down like this:

1. Your money is your own. We have separate checking accounts and trust that the other will not become suddenly irresponsible or develop a drug habit of some kind. When you’re out of money, you’re out of money, and can no longer buy stuff. In the six years that we’ve lived together, I can only think of one time where one of us had to pay for something that was normally purchased by the other. Works like a charm.

2. We have one joint Savings account for emergencies, vacations, royalty checks and sweet, sweet Pampered Chef money. This is how we make large, joint purchases; we try to put a certain amount of money into it every month, but this rarely, if ever happens. I honestly think we have 17 dollars in there right now. We blame this mostly on purchasing a house earlier in the year, and also on the fact that we’re allergic to saving.

3. After calculating how much monthly income the two of us bring in, we adjust the bill-paying so that we both have excess spending money that’s relative to the amount of income we bring into the house over the amount spent on bills. Basically, we split things up so we’re both comfy on a month-to-month basis. I’ll pay for this, you pay for that, and we’ll both have about the same cash left over. Spread the wealth, and so forth.

The Missus covers groceries, the mortgage and her car payment, and I pretty much pay for everything else. This means that if she wants to divorce me, she could afford the house and food, but she wouldn’t be able to keep the lights and water on. I, on the other hand, would be homeless, but I’d have a nice cell phone and cable TV service, if I had a television, which I would not. It forces us into mutual dependence while still remaining independent spenders.

4. Other things, such as investments, retirement, Deferred Comp and whatnot, have been set into motion years ago through our employers and don’t factor into our day-to-day. Also, considering the current state of the economy, we don’t even look at these statements when they’re mailed to us. They are immediately lit on fire and thrown into the garbage disposal, unless we’re looking for a reason to cry for five to six straight hours. We have a good retirement program, conservative, diverse investments and a few other things that put money away for us because we’re too irresponsible to do it ourselves. If anything, it’s an excuse to watch MSNBC and pretend I know what everyone’s talking about.

5. …that’s it. We’ve been running with this plan for over six years now, and it’s been absolutely rad and headache-free. No late payments, nothing past due, no arguments, nothing.

But, as I’m sure most of you can surmise from this (well, those of you who are smarter and wealthier than I), this doesn’t work for crap when it comes to anything long-term. Sure, we have the monthly formula down to a science, but when it comes to a five-year plan, sudden emergencies, paying off debt in a shorter amount of time or accumulating a savings, it’s complete junk. We’re living too well, too soon, and nothing is carrying over. It’s stagnant, and unless we both start making more money or serious financial changes, we’ll be treading water for eternity. No finished basement with a pool table, no new cars, no mewling babies with poopy pants, nothing.

Let’s face it. Socialism and Libertarianism doesn’t work, even in tandem.

PART III - "Asses & Assets."

Of course, most of us would take ‘treading water’ over ‘bankrupt’ in a heartbeat, but when I look at our monthly income, I know we can do better to protect our asses and assets for the oncoming trainwreck of an economic collapse, and I had hoped that this semin-izar would siz-et me striz-aight. All I really wanted was someone to hypnotize the love of sub sandwiches, bagels and Pay-Per-View violence out of me, and I’d probably pocket an extra $400 a month from that alone. I don’t know about you, but it makes me sick to think that there’s enough cash for a 2009 Mercedes-Benz tucked in my wallet, but it’s being pissed away in the form of potato salad and honey-almond cream cheese. Completely unacceptable. And fattening.

Instead of tips and tricks for better saving, this seminar put the fear of God and guilt into me in a way that not even 16 years of Catholic church had ever done; a remarkable feat, to say the least, and they didn’t even have to touch my Swimsuit Area to get their point across. By the end of this seminar, I was convinced that not only was I going to go broke at the hands of some tragic and unavoidable accident that would surely leave me paralyzed and inhaling puree'd ‘Hungry Man’ TV dinners through a straw, but that I deserved it because I didn’t plan ahead. Now I’m dead and char-broiled in hell, and my wife and cats will soon be joining me because we didn’t repent before it was too late. It was like watching a Chick Tract unfurl before my very eyes. However, unlike Religion and God’s love, this wasn’t a figment of my imagination; this was serious business, and I needed to change in a hurry.

Rapture!

I’ve seen the light! I’ve seen the error of my ways! I’m ready to embrace the love of savings and reasonable budgeting! I hope it’s not too late to turn things around! Praise the Wisconsin Investment & Risk Management Firm! They have truly saved me and my family! Praise the Excel spreadsheet! Praise the amateur-quality PowerPoint presentation!

After my fiscal awakening, I couldn’t wait to come home and share the Good News with the Missus. Tell her about all the wonderful things that had happened to me, and all the wonderful things that were about to befall us if we just obeyed the Gospel of the Semi-Balding Accountant. I had full-color pamphlets and literature, too; just to drive the point home.

I snapped out of my good mood quickly, however, when I realized that I was about to explain to my wife that we could never spend any money on anything that made us happy ever again for any reason, forever and ever, until the end of time, Amen. Even though I was on a high, I still didn’t think that she was going to go for this. Our spending habits were about to change. Nay, our lives were about to change in the name of Spending. We were about to argue over Money; something we’ve successfully avoided for years now. We were going to live our lives for the future instead of paying for the past, and it wasn’t going to be comfortable.

PART IV - "Phantom Smells."

Now, telling your wife that you want to be 100% in control of her money is a…how shall I put it…born-with-half-a-brainstem retarded argument to start for no good reason. Especially when your wife makes significantly more than you do annually and could probably take you in a fight if push really came to shove. However, telling your wife that you want to be 100% in control of her money because you fear she’s not handling it responsibly is almost certain death, and instantly on the Top 10 List of the Craziest Things I’ve Ever Done and Expected My Wife To Be Cool With, somewhere in between passing out in the driveway on Halloween and drunkenly grabbing my co-worker’s ass at a wedding reception. For this current outburst, I wouldn’t even have the excuse of inebriation working for me, for crying out loud.

After days of charting, projecting and calculating, I was about to pitch the idea of a joint-checking, joint-savings household to the Missus, with me calling the shots, budgeting out cash, determining purchases and accumulating a savings. There’s wasn’t a Pie Graph or Hi-Lighter in the world that was going to make this work in my favor, so imagine my extreme shock and incredulousness when she not only didn’t murder me, but totally agreed with me.

Holy sweet Goddamn. How did I pull it off? I wasn’t prepared, sprung it on her at a bad time and failed to have any of my note cards on me. I must have really had the charm working overtime that night, which led me to believe that either I was being double-crossed, or the Missus had developed an inoperable brain tumor that she wasn’t being entirely honest with me about. I asked her if she was experiencing any ‘phantom smells’ before I continued on with my argument. But the truth of the matter was this: she admitted that she wasn’t handling her money as well as she should be (me too, of course), and something needed to be done to develop some sort of long-term plan for the future. Now, you don’t know my wife as well as I do, but she must have sincerely hated balancing her checkbook to turn such a responsibility over to me so flippantly, even more so than I ever knew. Expecting more of a backlash and subsequent stabbings, the realization that I was now in charge of our financial future was a feeling of equal parts maturity, nobility and full-blown pantal urination.

Inspired by President-Elect Obama, I drew up a battle plan and instantly went to work. I had earned this unenviable household task, and I wasn’t about to let down those who helped me to get there. Excel spreadsheets were created, budgets were handed out and toilet paper was purchased in bulk. A plan was put into play to cut our credit card bills in half within a certain amount of time, cut excess monthly costs, and create a long-awaited emergency fund for when I shatter my pelvis installing the new garage door. It was finally going to happen; we were finally going to get ahead.

I was forgetting one tiny little detail, however.

I never get ahead.

At all.

Ever.

PART V - "Tinker, Monkey, And/Or Fiddle."

If you recall from this hilarious and brilliantly-penned essay, I am the living representation of Even Steven. This assurance of breaking even comes in handy when faced with hard and troubling times, but leaves me powerless to accrue any sort of insurance for the future. Surely, something was going to happen that would stomp my well-researched plan into the dirt. Would it be a gardening accident, perhaps? An illness? Pink slip? Unexpected pregnancy? Unexpected divorce followed by an unexpected pregnancy caused by a gardening accident? Answer me, damn it!

My main fear lies in not the potential for arguments or figuring out a new system for day-to-day survival, but of the sheer unknown of it. We’re about to tinker, monkey and/or fiddle with something that maybe didn’t deserve to be tinkered, monkeyed and/or fiddled with in the first place. What if it’s a disaster? What if me and the Missus become passive, vindictive people to each other because of our newfound budgeting and the inevitable power struggle that accompanies it? Then again, what if it’s a complete success, allowing us to move onward and upward in the constantly-rigged game of Life? Honestly, that outcome might be a fate more frightening than failure, for a number of reasons only a lifelong pessimist could possibly rationalize.

This pretty much brings us up to speed. The Great Experiment is a few weeks away from its estimated launch date, and despite my former optimism and life-changing fiscal awakening, I’m left nervous and trembling by the looming, greedy hand of Fate. What will come of this? Will everything work perfectly, allowing us to save money and yet remain happy in our luxuries? Will tension, arguments and poor planning slip us into a debt larger than ever before? Or will Fate step in and give me cancer of the balls?

Only time will tell, my friends. Only time will tell.

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