Category Archives: Life lessons

One Bite at a Time

The halls are eerily quiet.  Nearly everyone is wearing exercise clothing.  Coffee is being taken in intravenously.  The law school reeks of exam time.

Take a deep breath.  Have the extra piece of chocolate.  Stop by the shelter and pet some dogs and cats.  It’s ok to eat pizza for breakfast and potato chips for dinner.  This too shall pass.

As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.”  And while I don’t condone the consumption of pachyderms, I love the sentiment.  If it seems impossible, break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Hang in there.  You’ve got this.  One bite at a time.

Sometimes You Need to Reboot

Sometimes you just need to reboot.  We’ve all had it happen with our phones and computers.  The system just gets so overwhelmed that the only way to fix it is to turn it off and turn it back on again, giving it a fresh, clean start.

I was away from the office last Friday because I needed to reboot myself.  Spring is a pretty overwhelming time of year in the Financial Aid Office, and my work and personal worlds both had me feeling a bit out of control.  So I took a long weekend to go to a small music festival (one of my favorite things to do) and disconnect from normal life.  Today I’m back in the office with the same mounds of undone work surrounding me…but I feel better than I did last week.  Because I’ve had a reboot.

Sometimes your finances will feel overwhelming and you won’t be sure how you’ll ever be able to dig out.  At those times you may need to reboot your financial plans.  Maybe you have a credit card balance that you could save money on by transferring to a different card.  Maybe your student loan payment is uncomfortably high, but you can make life more manageable with a different payment plan.  Maybe your housing cost is too high and you have to make the difficult choice to move to a less expensive situation.  If your money has you feeling like you are sinking rather than swimming, you may need to look at things from a different angle and reboot your plan.  You will experience this many times throughout your life.  But nothing is hopeless.  You just need to reboot.

Secure Your Own Mask First

When you fly on an airplane there is always a safety speech before takeoff.  And the thing that has been ringing in my head since my last flight is, “Please secure your own mask before assisting others.”

That one sentence pretty much sums up this semester for me.  Spring semester always seems a bit harried, and this semester is no exception.  I’m not getting things done in as timely a fashion as I would like.  I’m a little overextended and feel like I’m focused a lot more on caring for others than making sure I’m ok myself.  But a conversation with a student last week made me revisit a tip on this theme that I wrote a couple of years ago.  I need to stop and secure my own mask before I can assist others.  You simply can’t effectively help others if you are in risk of not keeping yourself going.

The “secure your own mask” bit also hits close to home in a different way when it comes to charitable giving.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hears the phone ring, sees the number of their alma mater, and lets it go to voice mail.  I know they are looking for a donation.  Sometimes it seems like every charity I’ve ever donated to is reaching out for a contribution at the same time.  And I want to assist others.  But my husband and I have some medical issues that are challenging financially.  So rather than stretching myself to assist others as much as I would like, I smile, politely said no (or agree to only a tiny amount) and proceed with securing my own financial mask.  It won’t be this way every year.  And it’s ok to say no to charities if you’re not feeling particularly financially secure yourself.  It comes back around when things are steadier financially.

I am hopeful that summer will unfold differently for me.  But it’s only because I’m taking steps to secure my own mask first.  Then I can proceed with assisting others.

 

Good Enough Is Good Enough

Sometimes “good enough” really is good enough.  This is a lesson that law students often struggle with.  Having always strived for (and often attained) perfection, it’s difficult for law students to retrain the brain to accept that “good enough” is very often quite acceptable.

I’ve talked before about how I am taking classes toward a Certified Financial Planner certificate.  This weekend I had a very full agenda.  And I had a quiz I needed to take.  Through the magic of online education, I have three attempts to complete and submit my quizzes.  On the first attempt I struggled and earned a 7 out of 10.  I thought about retaking it, but I was pressed for time.  I decided to wait and see what Sunday brought to decide if I would retake.  When I got to Sunday evening, I decided to take my 7 points and move on with life.  Reality is that the three points I lost will likely not affect my grade.  I’ll probably get a B in the class no matter how hard I try.  And that is good enough.

The bar exam is often the first testing hurdle you will face where the goal is not to get the best grade in the batch.  The goal is to pass.  Whether you have the highest passing score or the lowest passing score does not matter.  At the end of it all, if you have any passing score you become a lawyer.  If you waste your energy focusing on perfection, you are actually less likely to pass.  This is a case where good enough really is good enough.

It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be perfect with your finances.  You will someday pay a bill a few days late (or miss a month altogether when you have misplaced the mail).  You may experience a month when you are unable to pay your credit card in full.  You might buy a stock that tanks.  You may discover that your bank has been charging you fees you could have avoided.  There is always room for mistakes and room for improvement.  But the reality is that this is another area where good enough is good enough.  You may have temporary setbacks.  But if you continue striving to do all the right things, it will likely be good enough.

Perfection is difficult to attain and attempting to do so can wreck your mental health.  It’s ok to ease up on yourself.  Because in so many cases good enough is good enough.

Pivot!

Sometimes in life you just need to pivot.  You are headed on a certain path and it becomes clear that it is not possible to continue on that path.  You have to pivot…you make a sharp left turn, quickly adjust the plan, and continue on in your new direction.

The whole “pivot” idea hit me full-force when I was traveling this past week.  I was in Arizona for a conference the early part of last week. (I promise—I learned a lot of great things that I’ll be utilizing with you!)  The conference ended Wednesday afternoon, and I was on a red-eye flight home at midnight Wednesday night.  (The red-eye—a great way to get an extra day at your location without paying for an extra night in a hotel!)  That first flight was not a problem.  I got some sleep, watched some Netflix (previously downloaded to my Kindle), and arrived in Detroit shortly before 6 AM.  On Thursday.  The day of the big storm.  The big storm that shut down Penn State for the better part of two days.

I had been watching the weather forecast.  I knew there was a decent chance I wouldn’t make it home on Thursday as planned.  Before I left Arizona I cozied up in the hotel lobby (because I had been checked out of my room for several hours by then) and did some unpacking and repacking.  I needed to make sure that everything I needed for an extra night in who-knows-where was in my carry-on bags.  I was anticipating the need to pivot.

As I sat through my breakfast layover in Detroit, I watched in anticipation as the flight cancellations started coming in.  Much to my surprise, my flight boarded pretty close to on-time.  And then the real adventure began.  As the snow was flying in Detroit, my plane waited in line for de-icing.  Then we waited for a runway to become available, as we were running behind.  All the while I was thinking about the snow that was about to pummel Pennsylvania.  But we got into the air about 45 minutes after scheduled.  Not bad considering the weather.  The flight to State College was a bit turbulent, but I breathed a sigh of relief as we descended and I saw Happy Valley below us.  And then we started climbing again.  Visibility was too poor to land.  So we started circling above State College, hoping for conditions to improve.  After twenty minutes or so, we descended again.  The visibility was better.  But the runway was too snowed in to land.  Back to circling.  The pilot announced that we had enough fuel for one more landing attempt, and if that failed we would have to divert to a different airport.  We continued to circle the skies as the crews attempted to plow the runway.  After about a half-hour we came in for landing attempt number three.  And we were able to reach the ground.  The passengers immediately broke into applause for the pilot and crew.

But the adventure didn’t stop there.  There is nothing quite like an airport in bad weather to bring out either the very best or the very worst in people.  The roads in State College were a mess and getting worse quickly.  The University had already dismissed for the day.  The taxis had stopped operating.  And the airport was full of people who were trying to get to anywhere other than the airport.  Some of us were my flight that miraculously arrived from Detroit.  But most of the folks in the airport were people whose outgoing flights had been canceled and they were trying to get back to wherever they came from.  The only real options to escape the airport (for those who hadn’t left a car there) were Uber, Lyft, and friends and family.  And, of course, there was an accident blocking the major path to and from the airport.  But that’s when the magic started happening.  People pivoted.  Cars arrived and picked up not just their stranded friends, but other stranded travelers heading similar directions.  Strangers were sharing Uber rides.  People in the parking lots were sharing snow brushes.  One of my fellow Detroit travelers and I taught a man how to use the Uber app.  That same fellow traveler caught a ride with me when my husband (after a long detour due to the accident) showed up with our Subaru.  Kindness was everywhere that snowy afternoon.

When faced with a situation that steers you in a different direction than you expected, you don’t really have much choice other than to go in that new direction.  This could something small, like a used textbook you planned to buy wasn’t available so you had to buy new.  Maybe you have to drink Pepsi products instead of Coke (or change your plan to something different).  Or it could be something bigger, like a major car repair, or an unexpected vacation in Detroit (which in retrospect I wish I’d had).  The important thing is that you pivot.  Pivot with grace, and keep moving on.

Lottery Fever

Just a week ago the whole country was going a little nutty for the Mega Millions lottery drawing.  The idea of winning $1.6 billion overnight can definitely pique a person’s interest.  I admit it.  I bought $20 worth of tickets myself.  I spent $20 for the privilege of dreaming of what I would do with my millions in the off-chance that the numbers fell in my favor.

I didn’t win.  I didn’t expect to win.  I’ve run the numbers myself enough times to fully understand what my father always told me:  “The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.”  If you play with regularity…yes….you might win a little bit from time to time.  But usually you don’t.  And if you were to put that money into a savings or investment plan rather than spending it on the lottery you would come out much further ahead.

Yet I played.  I knew I wouldn’t win and still I played.  I didn’t pay my money expecting to win.  I paid my money for a couple of nights of dreaming that maybe I could win.  I didn’t mortgage my house to buy thousands of tickets.  I bought what I was comfortable with losing.  And that’s what makes it ok.  It was $20 worth of entertainment.  I knew it wasn’t an investment in my future.  It was just fun to be a part of it and dream a bit.  That’s the way gambling is supposed to work.  Never bet more than you can afford to lose.  And don’t continue to play after you lose that amount.

And my fun isn’t totally over yet.  In my wallet I have a raffle ticket that I bought for $25.  Tonight I’ll find out if I win a brand new Subaru Forester (or $20,000 cash—my choice), or if I’ve just donated $25 to a local animal shelter that I probably would have donated to within the next few months anyway.  You can’t win if you don’t play.  But you should only play with money you are prepared to lose.

Can I Get a Second Opinion?

Sometimes you really should get a second opinion.  You think about it with medical issues.  One doctor says you are going to die of random disease X, so you seek a different doctor who may offer you different news.  But you should really think about it in terms of other things that cost a lot of money.  Car repairs immediately come to mind.

There have been a couple of times that I took my old Subaru Forester to a local repair shop and was stunned by the quotes.  When I called my father in tears, wondering how in the world I would pay for $1000 in repairs on my 2004 Subie, he advised me to get a second opinion.  My dad is a wise man.  I made an appointment at one of the places that he takes his car.  It was a two hour drive, but I got to spend some time with my parents so I didn’t mind.  In the end, I got that repair done for half of what I was quoted in State College.  That second opinion saved me $500.  Some of the work recommended at the State College garage wasn’t even deemed necessary.  The work that was required was done at a much less expensive price.  I felt like I won the lottery.

Owning a car is definitely a double edged sword.  If you don’t have one, you are slave to the bus schedule.  If you have a new car, you likely have to deal with monthly car payments.  If you have an old car, you are likely waiting for the other shoe to drop with the next major repair.  Any path you choose will at some point seem like the wrong one.  But never be afraid to second guess the “experts.”  It’s always ok to get a second opinion.

 

Things We Have No Control Over

Sometimes you have to deal with things that you have no control over. This has been more than clear this week to anyone living in the Carolinas. And it really hit home for me yesterday.

Anyone who has visited me in my office this semester had a chance to see the wrist brace that I’ve been wearing all summer.  And yesterday I finally had surgery to repair that injury.  The surgery went well and now I’m recovering at home for a couple of days. And while I’ve dealt with the aftermath of anesthesia before, this was my first experience with a nerve blocker.  The up side of the nerve block was that I had no pain for 20 hours after my surgery.  The down side was that my left arm was completely numb for that same time.  I had no control whatsoever over its movement.  It was actually fascinating to me.  My left arm was just dead weight (which was MUCH heavier than I would have expected!).  I wore a sling to support it and just had to live without my left arm for the day.  (Teeth and feet become very useful tools when you only have one arm).  I just had to find ways to work around the thing I had no control over.

Sometimes you’ll face financial challenges that you can’t control.  The unexpected auto repair.  The annual tuition increase. The rising price of gasoline.  A medical situation.  The cost of the bar exam.  Air travel for a family emergency.  Financial stress can come in any number of forms that you can’t control.  But what you can control is how you prepare for and react to these things.  A budget.  An emergency fund in savings.  Insurance.  These are all preventative measures to deal with the things you can’t control.  Loans. Credit cards. Side jobs. Selling things you don’t need.  These are all reactive measures you can take to relieve your financial stress.

We will all face things that we have no control over.  But we all have control of how we prepare for and react to these things.

Is Bigger Better?

With all due respect to the state of Texas, bigger isn’t always better.  I was at a music festival this past weekend and couldn’t help but think about it.  I go to a LOT of music festivals of assorted sizes.  The biggest one I attended this year cost me the most money and was absolutely the least fun.  This weekend’s fest was one of the smallest and one of my best experiences of the summer.  Sure….big has its advantages.  In the case of a music festival it brings you a killer lineup of nationally known artists.  But it also brings you a giant venue to hike around, high ticket prices, high vending prices, and difficult security.  A big fest is a lot of work (and money) to have a good time.  The small fest I just attended, however, was very peaceful.  The bands were mostly from Pennsylvania, but very talented.  My camp was only about 150 yards from the stage, so it was quick and easy to go back for food and beverage supplies.  And many of the performers spent the weekend hanging out in the crowd, listening to the music with the rest of us.  It was just really fun.  Bigger isn’t always better.

The bigger isn’t always better theory applies to so many things in life.  A warehouse club container of fresh veggies doesn’t do you any good if they spoil before you can eat them.  The 36-pack of toilet paper may cost less per roll, but what good is that if you have no place to store it?  A gallon of milk isn’t a bargain if you only consume a quart a week.  A giant pickup truck may seem like a good choice…until you have to fill the gas tank.  A huge house with vaulted ceilings seems lovely…until you have to pay the bill to heat it in January (or cool it in July).  A forty pound bag of dog food might come with a great price, but doesn’t help you if you are not able to lift it without help.

Many times we are conditioned to think that bigger is better.  But it is important to think about your own reality to decide whether that is actually the case.

A Moneywise Twofer–Protect Yourself

Sometimes it’s just way too hard to choose only one topic for my weekly writing adventure.  This week there are two things that both seem to need urgent attention, so the Moneywise Tip is going to be a twofer.

First up, September 4 is the last day for students to purchase the Penn State Student Health Insurance Policy (SHIP) for fall semester.  And while you are young and healthy it’s easy to think you can get away with not having insurance.  But you really shouldn’t.  One broken bone.  One bad case of the flu.  One inflamed appendix.  Any one of these can happen at any time, and without health insurance it can easily set you on the path to a lifetime of medical debt. You can read more about that here.  But know that the choice to skip insurance is a game of Russian roulette you really shouldn’t play.

And for the second topic of the day, a student came to me last week to discuss something that scared both of us.  She came in to say, “I came to give you the information you called me about this morning.”  She went on to tell me that she had received a phone call from me asking for her birthdate and Social Security number for a student job she was applying for.  One big problem:  I hadn’t called her.  The caller had used my name, but I didn’t place the call.  It was a scammer. The reality is, anyone with access to the internet would be able to figure out that she is a student at Penn State Law, and I am the Financial Aid Director at Penn State Law.  I’m actually kind of stunned that someone would do this level of research to try to run a phone phishing scam.  But it happened.  So how do you protect yourself against this kind of thing?  My rule of thumb is that I never give out personal information on a phone call that I did not initiate.  No date of birth.  No Social Security numbers.  No credit card numbers.  If I didn’t place the call, no one is getting that kind of info out of me over the phone. Period.  And thankfully, this student was smart and didn’t share that info on the phone, even though she thought it was me on the other end of the phone.  WHEW!  (Just so you know—I would never ask for that kind of info on the phone.  I would always ask for you to bring physical documentation of these things.) Scammers are still everywhere, so make sure to protect yourself!