HOW MANY OF OUR adult financial habits are shaped by childhood experiences? My parents, who grew up during the Great Depression, weren’t fans of providing allowances for my sisters and me. My oldest sister, Gail, got no pocket money but remembers being offered a quarter to fill a grocery bag with dandelions pulled from the yard. Lynn, 10 years older than me, received a quarter a week for a short period.
My first allowance was also a quarter a week,
AFTER MY COLLEGE freshman year in engineering, I was hired for a part-time summer job by a civil engineering firm in my home town. The office was in an upscale building where a lot of respectable businesses were headquartered. The company had an impressive name. But after starting, I discovered it was just a one-man show. Mr. Jones was the owner. I became his sole employee.
Jones was probably in his mid-70s. He’d headed up his own company for decades.
LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE, I’ve made both bad and good decisions during my financial journey, and those have affected the financial well-being of my now-older self. Here’s what I consider my five worst financial decisions, followed by my five best:
1. Contributing too little to my 401(k) early on. I’ve confessed to this in a prior article. I missed out on a lot of potential growth by making only token contributions to my 401(k) during my 20s.
THE MOST FRUGAL person I’ve ever known was my Great Aunt Beatrice. To all the family, she was just Aunt Bea. Never married, she was the sister of my paternal grandfather, a man who passed away 14 years before I was born. She was a dignified lady, proper and pleasant, and not given to bursts of laughter. Still, I felt closer to her than to any of my living grandparents or other relatives from that generation.
I USED TO GET PARADE magazine with the Sunday newspaper. On Sept. 28, 1997, it published an article by Andrew Tobias entitled, “Want to Amass a Fortune? No Problem!” I tore out the article and filed it away with others I’ve kept, because I thought Tobias made some points that would be worth periodically revisiting.
Early in the article, Tobias—who’s perhaps best known as the author of The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need—addresses the question in the title.
WHEN I WAS NINE years old, I managed a diversified portfolio—and yet I knew nothing of stocks and bonds. My primary asset classes matched those of my peers: coins, baseball cards and stamps.
Rather than a brokerage firm, we had the Koin Korner, a fairly large store in our nearby shopping mall that sold coins, stamps and a few other collectibles. And instead of following the gyrations of the stock market in The Wall Street Journal,
WORK ON A HOUSING development began in early 2000 about a mile from where we lived. This was right around the time that my wife Lisa and I were starting to feel like we wanted some more room for our family. In addition, we were concerned about our current backyard. There was a swale—a shallow ditch—that ran the length of the yard, parallel to the house.
When we bought the house, there was grass in the base of the swale and nothing looked unusual.
WHEN I TOOK OVER responsibility for my developmentally disabled uncle’s finances, following my father’s death in 2001, I inherited the stock broker that my dad was using. The broker was associated with a well-known financial company. I’d never used a broker before. Any investments I personally owned were held in my employer’s 401(k) plan.
The first time I met the broker, whose name was Jim, I took notice of the large and finely appointed office he had.
AFTER MY FIRST TWO years of studying electrical engineering at Virginia Tech, I got an internship at Frito-Lay working at its research headquarters in Irving, Texas, far from my New Jersey home. I was paid handsomely, treated well, had access to state-of-the-art computer equipment—and was miserable.
Some of that stemmed from spending the summer away from friends and family. But I was also having a career crisis even before my career began.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to work as an engineer for the next 40 years.
I FIGURED IT MUST have been the spaghetti from dinner at the dining hall. What else could have given me such sharp abdominal pains? Perhaps I had food poisoning that would eventually pass. That night back in the apartment, I couldn’t sleep due to the pain. I got up every half hour or so and headed to the bathroom. Strangely, I was unable to relieve myself. In addition to severe pain, I felt constipated.
THE SUMMER AFTER MY sophomore year at Virginia Tech, I had an internship with Frito-Lay, working in its computer applications department at the company’s research headquarters in Irving, Texas. One of the programs I had to learn was VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for personal computers. This was my introduction to spreadsheets, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Sometimes, I joke with my family that I live the data-driven life—not to be confused with Rick Warren’s purpose-driven life.
ONE OF THE CLEARER mandates for a Christian such as myself is to help the poor. Jesus said the poor “will always be with you.” It doesn’t take amazing powers of observation to see that he was correct. There are lots of ways to help the poor, with churches and thousands of worthy charitable institutions working to address the causes and effects of poverty.
Many years ago, I became acquainted with a large Christian organization called Compassion International.
MY FATHER WAS president of J.S. Collins and Son, a local hardware and lumber chain in southern New Jersey. Occasionally, he’d take me to the flagship location in Moorestown after hours. While he was back in his office doing important business, I wandered around the empty store and general office areas. At 10 years old, it was easy to get bored.
One day, I got the idea to pull out an empty drawer from one of the office desks.
MY FATHER HAD FOUR brothers: Bob, Jack, Don and Dick. Born in 1918, Dad was the oldest. Bob was next, born the following year. Jack came along in 1922 and Don in 1926. Dick, born in 1931, brought up the rear.
I never met my Uncle Bob. By the time I was born, he and his wife lived more than 1,000 miles away, and my parents were never close to them. Uncle Don was my favorite.
I BEGAN MY FIRST JOB out of college 38 years ago. A newly minted electrical engineer, I was assigned by Philadelphia Electric Company to work at its Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in Delta, Pennsylvania. As a young child, I had visited the Peach Bottom Unit 1 Visitor Center, never anticipating that I’d someday return to the site as an employee.
My concentration in college was power engineering, so I fully expected to be working in the transmission and distribution side of the electric power business.