FREE NEWSLETTER

Free to Give

Mike Finley

I WAS RAISED IN a small town in Iowa. My mother died of breast cancer when I was two years old. My father struggled to cope with her death, but he paid the bills and made sure my basic needs were met. Indeed, when I look back, my upbringing seems pretty normal.

I survived high school, but had no clue what I was going to do with my life. One day, my father decided to give me a nudge. He said, “You’re going to have to find another place to live before the year is out.” My jaw dropped and panic set in. Within a month, I signed up for the U.S. Army.

It was my chance to fly, but it was also my chance to stumble and quite possibly fall on my face. I was scared, plain and simple. I was entering a world where money was earned, spent and sometimes saved by people who looked a lot like me. Except there was a problem: I knew nothing about money and how to manage it.

My journey was just getting started, but I was winging it. Because of my lack of financial education, I made many mistakes. My intentions were good, but the results were bad. That continued for many years.

After completing my army training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, I was sent to my first duty station, serving as a military policeman. This was my first opportunity to handle money. I spent plenty, saved what was left, and basically just did what most of my buddies were doing, so it all felt very normal. The money decisions I was making were being influenced by marketing, comparison, materialism and some good old-fashioned ignorance.

Then one day, a supervisor told me I should consider investing my money. I agreed and off we went to a “free” dinner. She introduced me to a sharp-looking fellow, and he said he would “help” me. Within no time, I was an investor in a high-cost mutual fund. Then, I was ushered over to another gentleman. This insurance agent quickly signed me up for a whole-life policy.

By spring 1986, my paycheck had gotten bigger, and that meant it was time to buy a better car. That’s the American way, right? As I stepped onto the new car lot, the salesman flew over to greet me. He asked me what I could afford on a monthly basis. Soon, I was the owner of a brand-new car.

The Army decided to send me to Germany in 1989. What does a young man do when he has free time on his hands? I could have spent my time at the local bars, chasing pretty girls and enjoying German beer, but I chose a different option. I chose to read. This was a decision that truly changed my life.

One day, one of my buddies stopped me and asked if I was investing in the stock market. I stuck my chest out and said “yes.” He asked if I could teach him how to do this investing “stuff.” I agreed to his request. The evening came, and my friend was full of questions. Sadly, I had no answers. I was still financially dumb.

Getting educated. The next day, I headed to the local bookstore. What was I looking for? I didn’t know, but I had to start somewhere. I found a book, Wealth Without Risk by Charles Givens. I picked it up, ruffled through it, said “what the hell” and paid the lady at the counter $20. This was the beginning that would change my life.

I took that book home and read it. What did I learn? Givens, it turns out, would be the target of dozens of lawsuits. Still, his book taught me that I could be my own financial advisor. Yes, little old me, the kid from Iowa without much of an education. If my financial life was to improve, then I had to improve and that meant educating myself.

After finishing that book, I picked up another one, and then another and then another. Slowly, I was starting to connect the dots. After a few months, it was time to take action. I began by putting together a net worth statement.

I’d never heard of a net worth statement before I started reading about finance, but I now knew I needed one. What did I find out when I completed it? I was 25 years old and broke. Financial illiteracy got me here and, if I was ever going to get out of this situation, I had to change my ways. I did.

My next big decision dealt with my broker, who had sold me the expensive mutual fund. I walked into his office and politely told him to redeem my shares in the fund that made him more money than me. The life insurance agent was next. I told him to cancel the whole-life policy that I didn’t need.

After that was debt. I cut out unnecessary spending, and paid off my car loan and credit card debt. This was a big moment in my life, not just my finances. My mindset was changing quickly. As best I could, I tried to do what was smart. I ramped up my savings rate and focused on stock index funds. There were times I was saving more than 30% of my paycheck and in some years 50%.

Financial freedom. Fast forward to age 45. That was the year I left one world and entered another. I had reached financial freedom, thanks to years of diligent saving coupled with the pension I earned after 26 years in the Army. Financial literacy, followed by action, took me to a place where I no longer needed to work. This became a turning point in my life.

I’m not sure I even understood what the term financial freedom meant. I just kind of realized that I could let go of the urge to make more money and begin doing other things with my time. This is when I started focusing more on something bigger.

I read Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I started to realize there was more to this issue than just money and spreadsheets. The book taught me about the importance of enough and the fulfillment curve, and how it all worked. It also taught me the importance of giving.

About five years prior, I had found $100 on the ground and, instead of banking it as I usually did, I gave it to a woman who had her house broken into. The thief had stolen Christmas presents from under her tree. It was sad, so I dropped by and gave her the $100. She cried and so did I. That changed me.

That moment came rushing back to me as I read Your Money or Your Life. I had found the missing piece of this journey. It was in giving back that I found my soul, and the meaning and purpose in my life. It was time to pay it forward.

A few years later, I would learn about Joseph Campbell and “the hero’s journey.” I found it fascinating how we could lead a well-lived life by following our bliss. I committed to following my bliss as I circled back to help others, so they too could be the hero of their own journey.

Financial happiness. I went back to school and picked up a bachelor’s degree from the University of Northern Iowa, focusing on understanding people and their emotions around this thing called money. While I was there, I decided to start helping young people with their finances.

I wrote four books, attempting to help people better understand the connection between their finances and a purpose-driven life. These books were my way of helping others see a world that I didn’t know existed prior to my true beginning. In the process, I became “the crazy man in the pink wig.”

Where did that come from? One day, I put on my three-year-old great niece’s pink wig to make her laugh. It worked. Her mom took my picture and I made it my Facebook profile page. Soon, people were calling me that crazy guy in the pink wig. The proverbial light bulb went on: It was my future identity.

I had been leading a “crazy” life for a long time—rejecting materialism, and the debt and stress that goes with it, saving a good chunk of my money, investing in index funds and basically charting my own course. To many people, I appeared crazy. To me, I was the least crazy person in the room.

I now had a visual image that folks couldn’t forget. I encourage people to be as crazy as I am. To wear the pink wig—metaphorically or literally—is to be willing to be your own person, think for yourself and, ultimately, live the life you were meant to live instead of one that others have selected for you.

All the while, I began consuming books at an accelerated rate. I starting learning from the right teachers: Warren Buffett, John Bogle, Burton Malkiel, Charles Ellis, William Bernstein, Jane Bryant Quinn, Rick Ferri, David Swensen, Daniel Solin and a guy by the name of Jonathan Clements.

Through some self-reflection, I realized I had learned something that went far beyond finances. I learned about how to find meaning in my life, and that involved giving. I designed my future life around helping others with the talents I’d acquired, and that was made possible by the financial freedom I’d achieved.

I’m now approaching 60 and have spent the past 14 years helping individuals and organizations improve their financial situation. I do it for free because I can and because it feels so very good to help others. My next venture: I’ve decided to start The Giving Solution, so I can further spread this message of helping others.

The Giving Solution is an opportunity to help folks who have little to no money, those who are relegated to the end of the line when receiving financial help. We’ll have a list of “givers,” including dieticians, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, disability experts, therapists, dentists, teachers and clergy, who are ready and willing to help others for free. The organization officially kicks off in January 2024. Crazy? I don’t think so. TheGivingSolution.org website is currently being built, so stay tuned.

Mike Finley is the author of four books: Financial Happine$$, What Color Is the Sky, Graduation! and Now What? You can learn more at CrazyManPinkWig.com. Mike provides free financial classes, presentations and one-on-one counseling to individuals and organizations throughout the world. Follow him on Twitter @CrazyManPinkWig.

Do you enjoy HumbleDollar? Please support our work with a donation. Want to receive daily email alerts about new articles? Click here. How about getting our twice-weekly newsletter? Sign up now.

Browse Articles

Subscribe
Notify of
17 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Free Newsletter

SHARE