Silver Lining

Joe Kesler

“IT WAS THE MOST stressful time of my career, but also the most rewarding.” I heard that comment, as well as variations on it, from many bankers over the past few months as they talked about PPP, or Paycheck Protection Program, the federal loan program launched to help ease the financial distress caused by the pandemic.

PPP has been criticized because not all the money has ended up with companies it was intended to help. Still, it saved millions of small businesses from going under.

One young lender told me that, while dealing with PPP loan applications, she worked past midnight for weeks, had to juggle childcare and struggled to understand the program because of a lack of clear guidance, all while trying to reassure desperate small business owners that she’d secure the funding they needed to save their livelihood. And yet, despite the pressure, she wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything, because she knew she made a huge difference to her community.

Bankers are like many professionals. They can grow disillusioned. We enter a profession with noble goals to provide affordable housing or bring new jobs to our community, but our idealistic thinking gets muddied by the paperwork, the sales goals and the office politics, and eventually we burn out. The FIRE—financial independence, retire early—movement, which encourages saving voraciously so we can retire as early as possible, at least partly reflects this disillusionment.

But from what I’ve observed, the COVID-19 pandemic and PPP rollout has cut through the banking world’s frequent frustrations to remind even veterans like me of how important we are to our community. To be sure, not everybody has found the past year professionally rewarding. I know a doctor who actively discourages aspiring medical students from joining the profession, because he hates the red tape and the constant haggling with insurance companies.

Struggling to see the silver lining in the difficulties of the past year? Here are five suggestions to leverage 2020 into something good:

  1. My daughter put my wife and me through an exercise recently. “What do you want?” she asked us. After I answered, she said, “What do you want, Dad?” After I answered again, she asked me the same question eight more times. Eventually, I began to catch on, realizing that this was an exercise designed to get me to think deeply about what was buried in my psyche. As I ponder goals for 2021, I’m going to be asking myself and my wife that simple question.
  2. Talk to your financial advisor about what you want and evaluate whether your current finances will get you there. While travel may not be the most noble pursuit or life purpose, it’s high on my list of goals for 2021. Now is a great time to examine your investment buckets to make sure you have sufficient funds and you’re planning appropriately, so you can achieve what you want.
  3. Get your affairs in order. There’s nothing like a pandemic to remind us of our mortality. My to-do list for 2021 includes contacting my lawyer to make a few changes to our estate plan. I also want to make a list of where we keep important documents and give it to one of our children. We can’t control our money from the grave—at least not for long—but we can make intelligent choices while we’re alive, so where our money goes is aligned with our goals and values.
  4. Reevaluate charitable giving. COVID-19 has clearly had an uneven impact around the world. Other than staying at home, many of us haven’t suffered. But lower-income service workers in the U.S. have suffered greatly, as have workers in developing countries around the world. I’m reevaluating our giving to see if our charitable dollars could have greater impact in 2021.
  5. Find ways to thank the essential workers in your life for what they’ve done. Gratitude is a great exercise. I sat down at Thanksgiving and wrote numerous notes of appreciation to folks who have shown great leadership or served others. It’s a good exercise for all of us—and it could prompt you not just to change your charitable donations, but also to rethink how you use your money more generally.

Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and the founder of a website with the same name, which is where a version of this article first appeared. He spent 40 years in community banking, assisting small businesses and consumers. Joe served as chief executive of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, spending his time writing on personal finance, serving on two bank boards and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Joe’s previous articles include About TomorrowPrepare for Pain and Doing Good.

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