A couple of months back I was walking the dog on a beautiful Fall afternoon. As I sat on a bench enjoying the sun it occurred to me it had been a very long time since I had spoken with my pal Tom.
As I dialed, I really didn’t expect to reach him. Seems while we all have phones with us every moment of every day we never actually answer them. At least I am hard pressed to recall the last time I didn’t wind up in voice mail.
But answer Tom did, barking his last name into the phone by way of greeting and sounding every bit the crusty Marine he once (and by Marine standards still) is. I had forgotten this answering style of his and, were I not as manly as I am, I might have dropped the phone in terror.
Tom’s an interesting fellow. A hard living gun collecting Catholic life long liberal Democrat Marine. A man of faith. He’s a tough guy in the best sense of the term, relentlessly cheerful and there’s not a complainypants bone in his body, as you’ll see. He was a former customer of mine back in the mid-1990s and we’ve been friends ever since. I like my friends eclectic.
Now in his mid-sixties Tom’s had a robust life, filled to the brim with experiences. He’s the kind of guy who, like me, sometimes feels the need to tell people in power to go f-themselves. Unlike me, Tom’s willing to do it without having F-you Money. Working without a net you might say.
Catching up together he told me he had just lost his house to foreclosure, gone thru bankruptcy and almost lost his treasured antique gun collection to the court before scraping together the cash to buy it back. He was laughing while he told me all this. That’s Tom. But the fact that he was also in the process of moving in with his gorgeous Swedish girl friend probably didn’t hurt.
As we talked about all this, I decided his was a story worth sharing. Gracious as always, he agreed and here it is unedited except for adding some illustrations, a bit of name disguising and formatting.
Even a Marine can get thrown…
1947 to 1969 -
Lived at home with my brother; children of two, strict Catholic, children of the Depression – to say we were repressed is probably an understatement.
We were both taught to save … I started to work at 13, in a retreat house refectory. I saved every dime in a local savings and loan … it was cool to watch the deposits build up little by little.
I went to a Catholic grade school and an all boys Catholic high school. Both cost money.
In 1965 I started at Wayne State University. I had some help from my folks, but paid for books, transportation, lunches, etc myself. I lived at home and commuted.
I worked every summer as well stashing money away for the next school year. I dated, hung with friends and had an active fun college experience even though it wasn’t at the ivy covered walls of a major university away from home. I thought it, at the time, to be, well, normal.
In 1968 I bought my dad’s used 1965 VW for $500. I finally had “wheels.” When I graduated, I had $2000 in that savings and loan.
In June, I graduated, In August I got married to my little Irish lass, MA. In September I reported to active duty at the Basic School, USMC Training Center in Quantico, VA. Life was good and I was finally on my own.
1969 to 1992 – The “MA” years -
After living that restrictive, home all the time, life with my parents, I was free at last and MA was pregnant. I was going to be a father.
I started to want things my parents would never let me have. A brand new Pioneer sound center complete with amp, turn-table, reel-to-reel, cassette player, top-of-the-line speakers, etc. Found an old oak roll-top desk I liked for $300. etc.
The two grand melted away; but I was an officer in the Marine Corps. I had a regular paycheck of $5,000/year. Saving some how didn’t seem too critical, retirement was 20, 30, 40 years away. I may not live that long.
Pretty soon we had two daughters and we were living paycheck to paycheck. Credit was easy to get and easier to use. We started to build up a little debt, not much, but a grand or two. didn’t seem like any big deal.
Got out of the Corps in 1973, got a great job with M-corp for $12,000/yr. Two grand more than I made as a 1st Lt in 1972 (oh, in 1972 B was born too – I now had two wonderful daughters). Wow, I had this great job back home and I bought a house in Detroit for $20,000.
Did a fine job at work and in 1976 got promoted to Field Development Manager. (wasn’t sure about leaving our friends, family, etc. Went to Chicago, went to mass at the Cathedral one Sunday and prayed to the Lord to ask if this was right for my young family. The usher interrupted my prayer and tapped me on the shoulder and asked if my wife and I would take the offering up at the Offertory. I took that as a sign, as a “Yes.”
Took the promotion and moved to Chicago … still had a little debt … couldn’t seem to pay those damn cards off completely every month. Sold the house in Detroit for $18,000 (learned to buy high and sell low).
Did sign up for payroll savings. Our new old house in Naperville, IL cost twice as much a month as our house in Detroit, $40,000. Mortgage payment was twice as much, and obviously I wasn’t earning twice as much … had to commute into the loop every day. Still, it was a great community, right in the old part of town.
Still, costs were increasing while income wasn’t keep pace. Had kids to raise, had to “keep up” after work, in the neighborhood, etc. Think my payroll savings were about 5% of my income, maybe 6%. Wife decides to go back to school. Had my first college education to pay for.
1979 or 80, I left M-corp to work for V-corp (as Office Manager), visual techniques, a slide presentation house in Chicago with customers like McDonalds, etc., for like $35,000, more than $10,000 more than I was making at M-corp. Sounded like a good deal … I took it; except it only lasted for a year … my first set back.
Conflict with the two owners, they didn’t like the direction I was taking the office. I scrambled and M-corp took me back. They were more faithful to me than I was to them. Still, they knew I was talented and hard-working. I was now the Advertising/Sales Promotion Manager at $27,500. They even bridged my time so I didn’t lose my ability for vesting.
In 1983, a couple of months short of my 10th anniversary at M-corp (and vesting), I was pursued and wooed by R-corp in Bridgeport, CT. They treated me like a king, MA and I loved the area, the job was a new challenge, seemed like the right thing to do.
I even had another sign from God that it was the right move. A rainbow this time.
Courtesy of http: hdwallpaperia.com
Sold the house in Naperville for $60,000. Off to New England in 1982. Bought a house for $85,000 in Newtown, CT, used the $20 grand as the down payment. Loved it.
Job lasted two & 1/2 years, R-corp went bankrupt due to asbestos litigation. Bummer. Still, that year (1984) I got a call from a friend who worked at RR-corp. He wanted to know if I’d like to talk to a recruiter in New York about an opening as a VP at RR working on the C-corp business. I said sure. In 1984 we headed back to Detroit.
Bought a home in upscale Birmingham, MI for $120,000. Wife now had a job at DT-corp as an auditor. RR helped get her transferred to Detroit as well. We were on our way.
Two jobs, nearly $90,000/yr. Wow! Things went well, girls graduated high school, went on to MSU, now had two college educations to pay for, work was hard, wife and I hardly saw each other, etc. In 1987, my dad died; in 1989, my mom died.
In 1990 MA asks for a divorce. What? She said I was mad all the time (maybe I was just sad). Didn’t know what I was I guess, except i didn’t want the divorce, like a man has any say in that. Anyway, after the dust cleared I still had a job, had to sell the house, didn’t get much more than we paid for it (those were recessive years), and I walked away with about $24,000 left in my personal nest egg after she took her half, we paid the lawyers, etc..
I put the money left in 4 diverse money market funds and let ‘em alone. In 1990 I met A at work. 23 years my junior. She loved me, I rented a house in B’ham and she moved in. We had a ball. Life was good again.
In 1990, RR took me off C-corp (where I was happy) and put me on new business because I was “so good at it.” I hated it. In 1991 I asked for some time off, I was burned out and I wanted back on C-corp. They said “no,” I said I quit. A and I loaded up a ’89 Jeep Cherokee and set off to see the back roads of America. We traveled all of 1992, camping and back-packing. I do it all again.
1992 to 2006 – The “A” years -
a new young lady, a mate for the rest of my life. That’s what I thought. The year off taught us a lot about each other, we loved each other, we knew we’d make it. No job, but who cared, we’d find something, and finally in 1993, we did.
By then A was pregnant with our first son, A, I found a job with an old buddy rep-ing auto parts and pickup truck bed-liners in Baltimore. We bought an end row townhouse in Towson, MD, and settled in. G was born and all seemed well, until my boss said he couldn’t afford me and my $30,000/yr salary anymore.
No problem, I found a new job at a little ad agency in Winchester, VA. Sold the house in MD and rented one in VA. Good move, because that $40,000/yr job only lasted a year.
Did I mention, I had to cash in my money market funds one at a time between 1992 and 1996 to survive, for down payments, etc.?
It’s now, 1995, I find a great new job in Ohio at U-corp calling on an old RR client, FM-corp. I knew this was going to last, so I bought a nice house in Cuyahoga Falls. And, oh yes, Z, my second son was born there. happy we were … until 1997 (P.S. I’m 50 now and starting to worry about retirement;-).
I couldn’t stand my boss and the owner of U-corp anymore. I started looking again. Thank the Lord, I earned a $20,000 bonus in 1996. Money in the bank … paid off credit cards, etc.
Guess who wanted me back in Detroit. Good old RR. Off we go, one more time. Motown here we come. Back on C-corp, back with our friends (A’s and mine), happy we are … we buy a house in 1998 in Milford! Wow, my home from 1998 until 2013. Longest place I ever lived continuously. Used what was left of the U-corp bonus as the down payment.
Everybody was making money and life was good. I got back to the ad agency grind and A stayed at home and raised the boys … until 2002 or so when she starts back to college at Eastern … another college education … no problem, we’ll just refinance, the house is appreciating.
A buddy of mine from BB-corp becomes President at YR-corp and he wants me to join his team as a VP … an honor and more money. Off I go to YR, well that lasts two years until he gets canned and of course all “his people” get the ax too. Out of work in 2001. Takes me almost a year to find a new job.
When I left BB and went over to YR, following my buddy M who became CEO of the Detroit office, I took around $40,000 in 401K money. In 2 years or so I managed to add another $50 or $60K. On M’s advise, I invested that $$$ with a money manager for one of the big investment companies. In a couple of years he lost about $80,000 of my money. That hurt. He kept telling me it was just a blip in the market, it would come back (e-boom and bust time period). Anyway, easy come, easy go;-) (jlcollinsnh: another reason I don’t like money managers)
80Gs down the drain. Thanks for the professional advice.
Spent money I had set away for retirement. Now 55 with a young wife, two sons and no nest egg. Guess where my new position is? back at BB, but this time as a lowly Account Supervisor. I am being punished.
They put me on the C-corp business. I work hard and help build the business. They finally promote me to VP again in 2003. Making $80,000/year, $1,400/year mortgage, helping A through school. She graduates in 2006 and guess what … she files for divorce. takes half of what I have in my 401K, I think the house is appreciating, I keep that, buy her out of her half. Pay lawyers, etc. Child support … life gets kinda sucky.
To make things worse, in 2008, the bubble bursts, I’m screwed, C-corp goes bankrupt, fires all their vendors, sticks everybody with debt and now I’m 61 and no one wants or needs a 61-year-old account man. I’m saddled with debt, get deeper in debt, house depreciates, can’t sell it.
I hang in with part-time jobs, Michigan State Unemployment Insurance until 2012 when the answer hits the proud old Marine officer … I have to file for Chapter 7.
I take my SS at 62, since I can’t wait until 65. I collect a small VA benefit of $132/month for hearing loss during my USMC years. I also have a $400/month pension from RR.
The C years -
I find the Swede, fall in love again, find a part-time job at a museum and historical farm as a historical presenter working on the farm and life is good again. Since I don’t have $$$, I have learned not to worry about it.
I have my health (and VA Health Benefits), great friends and relatives, wonderful kids and grandkids, a job I love that gets me outside and provides plenty of exercise, a roof over my head and a woman who loves me. What else do I need?
I make about $2,500/month with my PT job, my VA benefit, my RR pension and my Social Security. I’m a lucky guy.
Here are the numbers:
Pension - $ 400
Social Security – $1500
VA Compensation – $ 132
Part Time Job – $ 500 + or – (some months $750 or more/some months [winter] $300 or less)
Total $2500 or $2600 – average
What we have here is a talented guy with solid contacts and strong career performance who found himself without a chair when the music stopped and he was past the age employers prefer. Add in a couple of expensive divorces, multiple kids, a disastrous run with a money manager, the implosion of 2008 and growing debt and you have a guy reaching the finish line just as his financial world collapses around him. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.
Where in many such a run would trigger an intense wallow in the complainypants mud pit, in Tom it simply rolls off his shoulders as he cheerfully moves on. Tom knows he has what is truly important in life: “…my health, great friends and relatives, wonderful kids and grandkids, a job I love that gets me outside and provides plenty of exercise, a roof over my head and a woman who loves me.”
My guess is he has all those things because of his attitude. Tom’s a guy you want around. As a friend, as an employee and, at least in the case of the beautiful Swede, as a lover.
He’s had a full and varied life. A life that accumulated a little pension, a bit of VA comp and SS. Along the way, he’s learned that stuff just ain’t that important. And once you no longer value stuff, the good life just ain’t that pricy.
Something to think about the next time you are worried about the 4% rule working out or having gotten a late start on retirement planning. By all means plan, save and invest for your future. But keep in mind mental toughness, the ability to roll with the punches and lifestyle flexibility are where true security lies.
While I didn’t think about it as I prepared this post, several readers commented below how financially damaging home ownership proved to be in this story. A real life illustration as to Why your House is a Terrible Investment.
How to live like a king for very little
Addendum 3: From the comments below…
Great story and some very worthwhile advice from all involved. I love the points about living with less and focusing on relationships over “stuff”. I’m also amazed by Tom’s ability to live such a mobile life with a family in tow. Hard to do that with lots of unnecessary possessions on hand. Reminds me of the wisdom in one of David Cain’s recent posts on raptitude.com (“Everything In It ‘s Place, Now and Forever.” )
So as not to armchair quarterback Tom’s decisions in an effort to apply lessons to my own life, I’d love to hear what advice he has based on his story. Above and beyond his very wise comment about the value of relationships over material desires, that is. With all the forks in the road that he faced, I’m sure he developed at least an unconscious list of rules to live by that have helped him maintain such a positive outlook and ability to attract quality people in his life. I say this based on both his successes and his failures, as lessons obviously can be learned from both.
Hey, Tom here. In response to Deacon’s request, I have a few rules I live by …
#1. Seek the truth; there is a lot of deception in the world. Learn to find out what is true and what is false. It takes some effort, but it’s worth it.
#2. Get outside everyday and breathe fresh air, get some exercise, even if it’s just a nice long walk.
#3. Look everyone in the eyes when you talk to them; it will instill trust in both parties and you will learn to read others’ responses.
#4. Tell the ones you love (family and partner) that you love them.
#5. Simplify, simplify … Thoreau was right. We sure can’t take all this stuff with us.
#6. Work at a job you love and put your all into your work. That being said, don’t take your work home with you. Take time to unwind.
#7. Eat healthy, have a drink daily, but don’t overdo either.
#8. Be thankful for the things money can’t buy.
#9. If you have kids, take them fishing, camping, whatever. Show them there is another world out there that has nothing to do with electronics or stuff.
#10. Take the back roads in life, stay off the freeways.
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