Weekly Photo Challenge: Dreamy, Or: Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings

This is another bit of dreamy intrigue hidden in Maui’s Sacred Garden.

If I Had A Billion Dollars…

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about winning. Specifically, what you’d do if you won one billion dollars, tax-free. I like that the prompt included that little bit on the end, because that makes things far less complicated in terms of structuring a portfolio. Nobody likes paying taxes, and doing it for a billion dollars would probably physically hurt. So, what do you do with that kind of money? A lot of people would spring for some kind of mansion, cars, an island, etc. Sorry to be boring, but I don’t think I’d go that route. Not immediately, anyway. Having that much cash suddenly dropped on me would certainly solve some of my short-term problems, but it’d potentially cause a ton more without a good amount of foresight and planning.

There’s a pervasive belief that being rich means you can retire. Maybe you’ll get a big coin vault and go swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. Or maybe you'll fight crime. Spending the rest of your life in the lap of luxury sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? And while it’s technically possible to do with a tax-free billion, it would be inherently limiting. The amount of money in your account isn’t as important as how you spend it to maintain your standard of living. Basically, stuff adds up. Read up on Warren Buffett sometime; the dude’s lived in the same house since 1956. His lack of extravagance is something I’d like to emulate. For example: I don’t have a car, so I walk and take public transit. Sure, that makes me a scrub in most people’s eyes. But I’m saving thousands annually on insurance premiums and maintenance. The same goes with the phone; I’ve been using the same ratty old flip phone for the better part of a decade. Its data plan is almost non-existent. It doesn’t have a camera, a music player, or even the Internet. But it can make or take calls, and that’s all I need.

General rule of thumb/common sense: If you want to make a profit, earn more than what you spend.

However, that doesn’t mean I could or want do more. Money is one (and certainly not the only) means by which we get resources and opportunities. I may not need a smart phone, but it’d make managing a business and building relationships much easier. So, if I want more opportunities, I’d have to make more money. I’d get the immediate problems out of the way, like getting the house paid off and health insurance coverage handled. After calculating my standard of living and doubling it in case of unforeseen expenses, the rest would be left for investments. Since this money is tax free, I won’t have to put all of it immediately into my IRA, though a portion of it certainly would. Some of it would go towards at least a few interest bearing accounts or fixed-rate CDs, even though the percentages these days are pathetically low.

Did I mention I was in banking for 12 years?

The investments wouldn’t be just in terms of accounts, either. Technically, everything you own is an investment. They just have varying degrees of necessity and returns. I may be a huge geek, but I know a week’s worth of groceries is always better investment than a TARDIS replica. If you’re in the photography business, you don’t just get the best camera money can buy; you get one that doesn’t break your bank and still suits your needs. If you’re a diplomat en route to Beijing, it’s probably a good idea to invest in learning Mandarin. Everything you pick up along the way are just pieces of the foundation of your financial career.

Mine would likely include investments in real estate development, particularly in China. Renewable energy, psychology, educational, food, transportation, and health care technology developments would also be essential. Communications, preferably with a focus online streaming and messaging, would also be a priority. Privacy, too. The stock market is also plausible, but it’s way riskier. I still have chilling flashbacks of working at a bank when the recession hit. I’d rather have a good, steady burn instead relying on just finicky economic confidence. Once I have a solid return, I’d donate to charities, particularly those involved with world hunger, depression, and education. Maybe start a college.

…And build a personal library. Deep down, I’m still a bookworm.

Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim, Or: Canned Peas – College Education The Old-Fashioned Way

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about perseverance. As in, dealing with a seemingly overwhelming situation on your own. This one hits really close to home, because it’s been such a huge factor in my life. I’ve got several stories to use – that’s the disguised blessing of being a loner and growing up in a broken home as a latchkey kid – and one is even ongoing as I type this. Hint: it’s not fun being unemployed. I’ll get into that story later. But this time, I’ll focus on something a little bit older:

College.

Aside from all the academic aspects, your college years are normally associated with things like partying, socialization, and developing as a person. You’re backed up by your parents, you meet people, and you just might learn a life lesson or two along the way. For most people, this process of changing from a young adult to being ready for the “real world” is typically a slow but steady process.

For me, it was a headlong plunge.

I’ve always been a great student. With my grades, I could’ve gone straight into places like Berkeley or Stanford. But I didn’t have the money for it; I didn’t have a college fund growing up. When I applied for financial aid, I was turned down because my parents’ salaries at the time exceeded the application’s quota; there was the underlying assumption that they would help me. But they didn’t; since I already had saved up money from working part-time as a high schooler, I was expected to foot the bill myself. My mother even lost her job shortly after the application filing period ended. I could’ve applied for student loans, but even back then I was savvy enough to know that would come back to haunt me. Same with credit cards. Considering the current debt and student loan financial crises, I’m glad to know I made the right decision. Thus I did things the old-fashioned way: I just took on part-time jobs, saved up, and focused on my schooling. Let me repeat that more simply: I paid for my college tuition myself. Let that sink in for a minute.

For those of you that have parents that pay for your education, thank them. Profusely.

Do you have any inkling of how hard it holding down a full course-load and working enough part-time jobs to make ends meet? It’s excruciating. But it is doable. I discarded my goal of going straight to a university and took all my lower division coursework at a community college. It wasn’t prestigious, but it saved me thousands. I couldn’t afford a car, so I simply walked and took public transit. I had to throw myself into my studies and make it count, because I literally couldn’t afford to fail. I didn’t sleep much during those years; I’d stay up late putting finishing touches on papers, only to wake up four hours later to get ready for my morning commute. I learned how to study and work in trains and buses instead of libraries. You’d be surprised how comfortable a pillow a hard plastic seat can be. It didn’t matter. All I cared about was the next assignment, the next class, the next objective. The requirements for a university transfer were spelled out in plain black and white; all I had to do was finish everything.

It took me a bit longer than most kids, but I got it done. My transfer was finished, and I was finally off to the university to tackle my upper division coursework. My first few weeks on the new campus, I felt like some of kind of impersonator. I was surrounded by people with backgrounds far better off than mine. A good portion of them (and instructors, for that matter) already knew each other from previous classes. I had to dig in and get adjust to the new setting. Some of those early lectures – particularly Renaissance Lit and Shakespeare – were the most technically demanding courses I ever took. They were the most rewarding, too; I was always a huge bookworm, but my literary and philosophical repertoire skyrocketed. I devoured information as if I were starving. My writings and eagerness to learn made me become the professors’ favorite within weeks. It’s not because I curried favor, but because I tackled the work with a no-nonsense but laid-back attitude. I did extremely well in this environment, and it seemed that finally, finally I would be able to make it through okay.

But I wasn’t. Not yet.

After some time, I had a consultation with one of my professors. She was actually spearheading most of her department’s graduate program, and offered advice to anyone who asked. She took one glance at my transcript and said, very plainly, that I might not graduate on time. Not because of the grades – I was acing every class – but because I didn’t have nearly enough coursework done. The revelation was utterly gut-wrenching. Due to the way the university’s scheduling worked, I might’ve missed out on vital courses and had to wait a whole year to take them. She explained that I could still pull it off, but I’d have to really step up my game.

So I did.

I walked out of that office with the determination that I would graduate on time. Looking back, it was probably one of the defining moments of my adult life. I realized that I had let myself become complacent after I had transferred; I had gotten too comfortable in my element, and it was catching up with me. I cast away all distractions. What little time I spent with my hobbies was used to study. There were no relationships, no parties, nothing else. When it came time for the quarterly registration, I doubled my course-load without a second thought. As a result, I had to reduce my working time to only a single day a week. Can you imagine doing that? Just scraping by with tiny paycheck every too weeks? Carefully budgeting out every last cent? Eating out of cans for months because you can’t afford anything else? Paying tuition was like cutting off a limb. I watched my savings crumble like an old wall with each passing quarter. But I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had come too far. I needed to finish.

And I did.

Obtaining that degree was one of the most exhausting and fulfilling challenges in my entire life. Not from an academic standpoint, but from a logistical one. When I triumphantly walked across that stage in my cap and gown, my account was nearly empty. I had almost nothing left. But I didn’t have a single cent of debt to my name. I may have been broke, but I now know that I’m in a better financial situation than the millions of others mired in loans. It taught me the value of focusing on the important things, responsibility, and the understanding that your essential, practical needs will always trump desire. You’d be surprised how much you can learn to love canned peas and bread when it’s the only thing affordable. I’ve also come to realize that it broke me emotionally; I didn’t have a single relationship – romantic or otherwise – in those years. Compared to most people my age, I’m terribly maladjusted. I still feel ashamed and guilty whenever I want to buy something for myself. And that sense of responsibility can be crushing. I need to work on those.

But whenever I feel weak, I look back and realize how determined and capable I can be.