WE OFTEN WRITE at HumbleDollar that saving and investing aren’t everything. Spending money on the right things—such as fulfilling experiences—can also be a great investment, especially if the dollars bring ample happiness.
Nearly seven years ago, I thought I’d wasted $4,000 on a foreign trip. But the law of unintended consequences has since worked in my favor.
The 2015 trip was supposed to be an investment in my career. I thought I could make a difference in the world and become a freelance foreign correspondent. I failed. I couldn’t interest any major publication in a story. At least The Christian Science Monitor gave me the courtesy of a polite response.
What was meant to be an investment became an expenditure that I never would have made at that time in my life, just for the sake of traveling. Yet I now properly view the money “spent” as an investment that will pay dividends to my son and me for the rest of our lives.
We didn’t travel to a touristy locale. We went to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, a post-Soviet republic where reformed-minded citizens had risen up successfully against an extravagantly corrupt pro-Russia leader in 2014.
Our hotel overlooked the main site of the uprising. Ukraine was then—and still is—under siege by a jealous neighbor. All the talk now is of a potential large-scale Russian invasion. But the fact is, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine immediately after the uprising, seizing Crimea and slipping troops and heavy equipment into parts of eastern Ukraine, ostensibly to support pro-Russia separatists.
I have no family ties to that part of the world. But I was grandiose enough to think I could help rally public support for a free and independent Ukraine. I didn’t pretend to be a war correspondent, and have never been a foreign correspondent. But I felt that, far from the frontlines, I could write compelling stories about victims of the war. I’ve been a journalist most of my working life, with personal profiles and emotive writing among my strengths.
I took my then 16-year-old son with me. I wanted to get his mind out of Harry Potter books and ground him in reality. It doesn’t get much more real than interviewing horribly wounded soldiers, with the help of a translator, in Kyiv’s woefully underequipped Central Military Hospital.
In that, I succeeded. My son has always been fascinated by exotic languages. He later furthered his interest in Eastern Europe and took many Russian courses while majoring in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Recently, he received a conditional offer for an important job in which his Russian skills will be crucial.
My son wowed my friend Nadiya and her husband Yevgeniy last year with his Russian conversation skills. They turned to me and began speaking in Russian. I said, “Don’t look at me, he’s the genius.” Both Ukrainian and Russian are widely spoken in Ukraine.
What about me? I’ve formed relationships with many of the Ukrainian-American activists in the Washington, D.C., area. They met and formed charitable organizations while protesting Russia’s actions. They’ve raised money to help war victims and advocated that U.S. arms, particularly antitank missiles, be provided to Ukraine. The Trump administration did so in 2018.
I’ve written online articles stemming from the trip, for which I received no pay. I also donate modestly to two charities that help war victims, and I do a little pro-bono PR work for one of them. I frequent Ukrainian festivals, where I am greeted warmly and buy items—like a traditional shirt with vyshyvanka embroidery for my son—to support Ukrainian causes.
As often happens when personal ties are formed, business relationships are forged as well. I’ve rented my family’s beach condo to two of the friends I’ve made. And I frequent Nadiya’s jewelry business, much to my daughter’s delight.
Have I swayed public opinion on Ukraine’s behalf? Have I become a globe-trotting author? No. I have seen the faces of the wounded veterans, war widows and orphans, however, who have been helped by my online articles, donations and PR work.
I have made a small difference in their lives, and a big one in my own. And I may have helped my son launch his career and a lifelong passion. That’s one heck of a father-son trip.
William Ehart is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. In his spare time, he enjoys writing for beginning and intermediate investors on why they should invest and how simple it can be, despite all the financial noise. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillEhart and check out his earlier articles.