Father’s Day 2017: reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons

Last month I wrote a piece in celebration of Mother’s Day, so it’s only fitting that I write something in celebration of Father’s Day as well.  The Mother’s Day post was about a specific piece of advice my mother gave me about my engagement and looming marriage a couple of years ago.  As jokingly stated in that post, Dad didn’t give me much advice in that particular instance.  He did give me lots of guidance throughout my life though.  Over on my “Heroes and Quotes” page, his is the first quote which was some advice he gave me at a young age about how to succeed academically.

There was much more though, particularly in way of advice about money, women and other things – lots about money and women.  He sometimes consciously taught me things, and some things I learned simply from observation.  With two of the key principles of my blog being “Creating Ecosystems of Success”, and “Empowering Others”, I’m going to reflect on some of his money lessons and some of their deeper and associated life meanings/significances – some of which I had to question.  As in most cases, I didn’t understand everything that was being said then as I do now.

As I go through some of this stuff, keep in mind that fathers are important – biological, step-, or mentors of all sorts.  According to data from Kid’s Count in 2015, 66% of African American kids were raised by a single-parent while the national average was 35%.  My parents divorced when I was three-years old and I thus grew up in a single-parent household for the majority of my childhood.  While I’ve sometimes looked back and wondered what it would’ve been like to have my father in the house, the blessing was that while he wasn’t physically there, it was important for him to be as visible and accessible as possible.

“Always make sure your children know who you are.”  He tried hard to keep up with the words of his own father who died during his teens.  It sounds like a simple thing, but as I grew into adulthood myself, went through college and even started dating, I realized that not every father did this, especially in the black community.  The results often times were catastrophic with long lasting ramifications, especially in dating or ‘pair-bonding’ – a separate topic all in itself.

*  *  *

“You just did something I don’t like.  You didn’t count your change.  How do you know that the cashier gave you the correct change?”  I was an early teen when this discussion took place.  I had just paid for something, took the change the cashier gave me and immediately stuffed it into my pocket.  A stern man, his words, “You just did something I don’t like,” stopped me dead in my tracks.  I didn’t think he was paying attention, but sure enough he was – in general Dad was always paying attention to the most minute details even when you thought he wasn’t.  He also remembered things long after you forgot them and would bring them back up when you least expected it.

When I discovered what he was unhappy about, it made sense to me and I started counting my change.  I even started calculating in my mind the change I was supposed to get back from cashiers before they gave it to me.  The lesson here was to be careful with my money, and to trust no one.  Years later he observed that I was in fact careful with my money.  I told him that I had gotten the behavior from him.  He replied saying something very profound, “Well son, when you have to make child support payments, you have to be very careful with your money.”

“You always keep your receipt because you never know when you’re going to have to return something.”  I don’t know which came first, this lesson or the change counting lesson, but they weren’t far apart.  His father had gotten on him about this when he was younger.  He had allegedly gone into lower Manhattan to buy some underwear and returned home without the receipt resulting in his getting scolded.

“When you get paid, you want to account for all of your expenses.”  This was an early lesson about budgeting.  We didn’t sit down and do one right then and there, and I wouldn’t master it until at least ten years later, but I always remembered the discussion.

“You always pay yourself first.”  This lesson came shortly after I started working, though again as a teen, I didn’t grasp the power of this advice until later.  It had tremendous implications in one’s prime earning years where diligent individuals save for both emergencies and investments and build wealth while others spend all of their income.

“You don’t quit your job unless you have another one to go to.”  Dad gave me this sage wisdom between my junior and senior years of high school after quitting my very first job at the Denny’s Restaurant, near the Buffalo airport.  I lasted three months at that job which consisted of washing dishes, cleaning up the restaurant, and taking out the garbage.  I didn’t last long enough to have to shovel snow in the winter.  The place where I really wanted to work for my first job was McDonald’s.  At the time it looked fun to me.  I was happy to have an income, but after a while I grew tired of working at Denny’s – coming home sweaty, greasy, and exhausted.  Without talking to anyone, I quit that job right there on the spot with no other job to go to.  It was then that I came to the understanding that I had no more cash flow – a sign of immaturity.  The only positive thing about that situation was that I was still in high school and wasn’t required to contribute to any of my mother’s household bills.  Some adults quit their job without having a replacement and put themselves in a pickle; often burdening those around them.

“You always keep money in the bank because you never know when an emergency is going to arise.”  There’s a very funny story behind this lesson and it involves a woman – something very dramatic and stressful according to Dad.  For my own safety, I’ll just stick to the lesson.  At an early age, Dad stressed the importance of having money in the bank due to unforeseen emergencies which inevitably happen to you, or to someone around you.  In this particular quagmire he had gotten into, having some money in the bank helped him get out of it.  He also regretted once not having $5,000 available for a mortgage down payment on a house he was renting.

“You can keep dating her if you want to.  You might have to miss your electric bill.”  This sobering advice came during my first year in graduate school in my mid-twenties.  It was one of my first experiences learning something that Dad had talked about for most of my childhood – women and money.  At least most of the ones we knew came with a price tag, and wanted to be wined and dined.

I had, unfortunately, taken a liking to someone whom I dated for one to two months who openly admitted she was needy, which I didn’t understand at the time as she had already started her own career.  Inexperienced at dating, she grew frustrated with my meager finances and my lack of understanding of what was expected of me.  Dad’s advice here, which came in a hurtful and mocking tone, was simply communicating that I needed to determine whether or not I could afford this particular female.  I decided that I couldn’t.

It’s an important set of questions for all men to ask themselves when meeting a potential partner.  Can I afford her?  Does she line up with my priorities?  Will she tank my finances?  This was also one of the first times I could personally feel the pain, the scars, and the poor fortune my father experienced in the dating jungle after he and my mother split – as there was lots of despair, and little hope or encouragement in his words.

“When you have to make child support payments, it forces you to be very careful with your money.”  I have to be very careful here as this is a sensitive topic, and my mother generally proof-reads my articles.  Throughout my childhood, Dad sometimes lamented about making child support payments – not because he didn’t want to support his children, but because I think he had a hard time making ends meet on his own end.  During my childhood, he eventually took a second job in the military to pay the bills.  It’s a sensitive topic because while he felt maxed out, my mother felt as though he wasn’t doing enough.  And I’ll stop there, but suffice it to say that in many instances men and women see money (and life) differently.  In some instances, as the ones being asked to provide, it can seem like your best is never enough – a hard pill to swallow.  He and I talked about this a lot as I got older and I started experiencing my own scrapes and bruises with the opposite sex.

“The bank is going to want to look at all of your bank statements when you apply for a mortgage, and $2,000 isn’t any money,” Dad scoffed at me, making me feel five feet tall.  I was still living with the big guy during my Postdoctoral fellowship.  I had started reading Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad series and had joined my local Real Estate Investment Club.  I wanted to make an ambitious move and get my first investment property – a duplex which I would live in and eventually rent out for “Passive” income.  I needed some help with the closing costs and associated expenses, so I asked him for a loan.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.

Instead of a nice teachable discussion about the ups, the downs, and the ins, and outs of trying such a thing – it turned into him putting me in a proverbial headlock.  It dragged on for days and days as he mulled over it, and asked me random pointed questions about it – his analysis and communication styles.  After a while I just wanted to drop the whole thing, and I concluded that I never wanted to be in a position to ask his help for anything money-related, though I did once more, and returned to the same conclusion.

In hindsight while it was smart to want to create a passive income stream, it wasn’t a good idea in that particular instance.  I wasn’t going to stay in that area long-term, and I wasn’t experienced enough, and didn’t have enough money to manage a property from a long-distance.  What was funny was that many people don’t even have $2,000 in the bank they can access quickly.  That said, he was right in that it wasn’t a substantial amount of money.  He was also right in that prior to qualifying you for a mortgage, the banks do want to know everything about your financial history.

Dad was also jaded in terms of being a landlord from a prior experience, as he once had a tenant in his lower unit – an older woman.  According to him, he went downstairs to collect the rent one day, and the woman transformed into a malevolent, ominous, and demon-possessed state.  It scared him at the time and forever soured him on being a landlord.

“I wouldn’t invest in the Stock Market if I were you.”  This bit of advice was given to me in my 30s when I expressed that I wanted to buy some stock by the end of that particular year.  Because of his own life experiences, Dad was averse to losing money.  Coincidentally, one of our closest cousins recommended I get in the game and buy stock, and even today experts like Dr. Boyce Watkins, strongly advocate blacks getting into the Stock Market.  So who was right in this case?  Who was to be believed and trusted?

This gets back to one of the points I made in my 2017 Mother’s Day post.  As we grow into adulthood, I think we all get to a point where everything our parents tell us can’t be taken as the gospel and in some instances must be questioned and or pondered critically.  In this particular instance, yes investing in stocks does involve potential loss.  An important consideration going in though is whether or not you understand that there is a potential for the loss, and whether or not you can absorb the loss.  In other words, do you have emergency money in the bank, and is the amount to be invested allocated for that reason?  Can it be easily replaced for another round?  This is a much different thought process than simply stating, “You’re going to lose your money if you do that.”

*  *  *

If the tone of this blog post was in part melancholy and mixed, then it reflects our father-son relationship which has been full of contradictions and mystery.  When I look back at my youth many of my childhood experiences were marked by concerns over money.  I’m not saying that I grew up in poverty because I didn’t by any means.  I don’t really remember my mother, whom I spent the majority of my childhood with, talking about money a lot, but I think she shielded my brother and me from some things – sheltering us, as one of my aunts often said.  I did look around at peers, such as my best friend and realized that I didn’t have Air Jordans, Starter Jackets, Karl Kani, or any of the trendiest apparel of our cohort.

Most of the money-related talks as I grew up actually came from my father and as you might have gathered from this post, many of them had some sort of pain associated with them.  As I’ve gotten older, I understand things much better now.  As we get older we start to see that our parents are people who make mistakes themselves, and are not perfect though at one point we may have thought they were.  In some instances we start to understand their pains and struggles.

Over the years our father-son relationship has gone through a lot of changes – some good and some bad with multiple ups and downs.  Overall I’m grateful for everything my father has done for me, and I tell him that every time I see him now (my mother too).  That said, as I think President Obama said years ago, for children whose biological fathers are missing, there can be other fathers too.  And even if a child’s father isn’t a good one, or can’t supply everything needed, there can again be other fathers to fill in those gaps.  I certainly have many.

There are a lot of podcasts and men’s stations on places like YouTube these days – many talking about the importance of fathers.  My favorite in this current station of my life is Paul Elam’sA Voice for Men” – content I would recommend for any man still figuring things out in our society – personal values, dating and marriage, and finally gender/societal roles.  Fathers are very important if for no other reason than to lend a balanced perspective on the world.  This is true for both boys and girls who themselves will eventually both grow into men and women.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Mother’s Day 2017: one of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff

A couple of years ago when still writing for the Examiner, I wrote a sentimental tribute piece about my mother for Mother’s Day discussing everything she did for my brother and me.  In short she put being a mother first above all else.  Looking back at my youth I don’t remember her really partying aside from holiday celebrations at her places of employment.  There were always lots of home cooked meals, togetherness, and church on Sundays, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.  There was also a lot of love and positive affirmation in our home.

Her motherly guidance continued well into my adulthood.  One of her greatest gifts was given to me a couple of years ago, and I can guarantee that it isn’t a gift that you the reader would expect.  It was a lifesaving gift – one that impacted our immediate family, and that helped stop me from going over my own personal “Fiscal Cliff” and falling to my demise.  I’m sharing this story because I think about it often, but also so that it might help save someone else.  This post will probably likewise touch someone, and maybe draw a laugh or two, or three, or four.

Many of you remember the term “Fiscal Cliff” from one of President Barrack Obama’s earliest showdowns with Republicans regarding the financial future of the United States – at the time a potential massive increase in taxes and broad spending cuts.  There are also be personal fiscal cliffs – situations in which a particular set of financial factors causes or threatens sudden and severe economic decline.  While the sizes and scales are different, they both involve needs, wants, how items in question are going to get paid for, and the after effects.

Only those really close to me know that I was engaged to be married two or three years ago.  Not being one to post my personal business all over Facebook, I initially told only a trusted few.  My former fiancée will remain anonymous, and my challenge likewise will be to tell this story in the fairest way possible, without demonizing and piling on her, as it would show very little class, so wish me luck.  Instead, I will focus on something my mother shared with me, and how it stayed with me as my brief engagement unfolded.  There were actually a couple of quotes that stuck with me but hers was special.

*  *  *

“You know it’s the custom for the bride’s father and/or family to pay for the wedding,” my mother told me shortly after my fiancée accepted my proposal (which I botched by not doing the getting on one knee ritual).  I didn’t know the first thing about weddings and in the previous year had to learn quickly about the “Four Cs” for picking out engagement rings: Cut, Clarity, Carat size, and Color.  Depending on the woman, rings can be a really, really big deal – perhaps too big a deal in the grand scheme of things.  That’s a separate discussion.

Living in two different cities, there were a lot of details my fiancée and I had to work out besides the wedding itself.  We loosely mutually agreed that the ceremony should be held out in the city she was from on the Pacific coast.  I think it was around that time a ballpark number for how much we would spend on the wedding emerged; $18,000 which quickly got rounded up to $20,000.  The funny thing is I think I threw the number out there – not because I had dreamt of spending that amount, but because I had heard two friends say that they had spent that amount on their wedding with some help from their folks I believe.

After she accepted the proposal, things went fast.  Within a week, a close friend sent her a “How to Get Married” book with all of the planning and steps.  There were also plans to go dress shopping in New York City just like the show Say Yes to the Dress.  There is a lot I could say about what all happened next, but for the sake of keeping this focused, I’ll just say that there was a lot of deliberation over the amount to be spent.  While I wanted to keep it at $20,000 or below, my fiancée lobbied to push the number upwards.

“You’re probably going to end up spending a little bit over what you set the budget at,” my mother said, which didn’t make me feel any better.

“How many people are you all inviting?  The dollar amount is going to grow exponentially with the number of guests you’re inviting because you’re going to be feeding all of those people,” a close friend and fellow University of Michigan alumnus said, who had gotten married while we were all still in school.  He and his wife spent a little over $10,000 of their graduate school stipends – a tremendous feat.

It’s the custom for the bride’s father or family to pay for the wedding, my mother’s words continued to roll around in my head.  But whose custom was this?  And what if the bride’s father or family didn’t have any money?  Then what?

Eventually I started to ponder the enormity of spending $20,000 on our big day.  I started thinking that it wasn’t a smart idea even though I was a federal employee with a, “good government job.”  I had only recently gotten rid of my revolving consumer debt and didn’t have a substantial emergency fund in the bank, and neither did she.  I had also only recently started getting the 5% matching contribution on my government Thrift Savings Plan retirement account.  Furthermore, I had my eyes on buying stock, and moving into the wealthy class.

It’s the custom for the bride’s father or family to pay for the wedding.  What can one do with $20,000?  One can use it as a down payment on a home (depending on the market).  One can purchase a brand new car.  One can invest that money and grow it.  One can donate to charities and scholarship funds for needy kids.  It can also simply be put away for an emergency fund for life’s inevitable calamities.  It can be used to start a business of some sort.  In this case it could also be spent on a one-day bonanza for friends and family who would go back to their lives afterwards.

“What you all need to do is live off of one of your incomes for a year and save the other one,” one of my mentors said when I told him that I was thinking about making the big plunge months earlier.  He was an experienced entrepreneur several years my senior and had seen a lot in his life’s journey.  “You all need to save $50,000 in the bank – actually black people need to have $100,000 in the bank,” he continued.  “Whenever we’re jobless it takes us longer to get hired.”

We need to save $50,000 in the bank?  We need to save $100,000 in the bank?  In addition to my mother’s words about the bride’s family paying for the wedding, my mentor’s words also bounced around in my head.  Was such a thing even possible?  With proper planning and prioritization, and agreeing in a relationship context, absolutely it was possible.  While I could see the power in doing such a thing however, I wondered how realistic it was for the particular set of circumstances I was in.  My fiancée and I didn’t reside on the same planet money-wise, and in several other key ways, which gets to the being ‘equally yoked’ principal that’s often discussed when long-term relationships come up.  This living off of one income for the first year advice actually wasn’t new.  It was just my first time hearing it.

I found out something else highly relevant to this discussion by chance in the Washington PostIt was shared by Michelle Singletary to whom I have to give the credit for citing it in her “Color of Money” column.  In an article discussing finance-related topics couples should discuss before getting serious (credit scores/history for example), she cited a study by Emory Professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon titled A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration.  They found that couples who spent greater than $20,000 on a wedding and associated costs are 3.5 times more likely to get divorced than couples who spent $5,000 and $10,000.  CNN and PBS covered this as well.

“You know Anwar, $20,000 is actually the low end for the amount spent on a wedding,” another close friend and Michigan alumnus said in the aftermath of the whole thing.  That may have been true, but the question in my mind once again centered around whose role it was to pay for all of it.  Was it the couple or the bride’s family?  Both families?  And what were the long-term consequences?  Furthermore, was it sane for a couple with no inheritances, and collectively no assets, to invest that type of money in something like that?

My gut told me no, but there is something sentimental, warm and fuzzy when it comes to women, engagements, weddings and shows like Say Yes to the Dress – something that defies all logic and reason.  As a man, you can easily get swept up in it all because well – it’s what many women like and what many women want to do.  Many have dreamt about their ‘Big Day’ since they were little.

As alluded to earlier, it wasn’t exactly a stable partnership and life’s many circumstances caused the whole thing to implode.  It was actually biblical in magnitude – something made for TV.  I thus didn’t have to proceed down the path that was unfolding in front of me which I saw leading me over the edge of my own personal fiscal cliff onto the rocks below.  No, I never got the ring back.  I got that question a lot – mostly from females I shared the story with, and from one guy – a cunning salesman who was trying to get me to purchase one of his insurance products in a coffee shop one morning.  I gladly told everyone no, as it paled in comparison to the money that I would’ve spent had the whole thing gone forward.

About a year after my engagement imploded, a close friend got married – a Pakistani woman.  I was blessed to be invited to one of the three days of their weekend long wedding celebration/ceremony.  That’s right, it was three days in accordance with Pakistani culture – they do it big.  The ceremony I attended was at a beautiful hall and had all the trimmings.  My coworker and her husband, who was also Pakistani, were both dressed in the most immaculate costumes in accordance with their culture.  He actually rode in on a pony.  I looked around in amazement as all of us guests were treated like royalty.

She shared with me that her parents and the groom’s parents paid in the ballpark of $30,000 for the whole thing – that’s right $30,000.  Coming from the eastside of Buffalo, that’s a lot of money, and afterwards I pondered over and over again that their parents paid for it.  It was their culture and the norm in their community.  They also had an abundance of stable families where their parents actually had the funds to put into that type of thing – perhaps a demonstration of Pakistani privilege.

I continued to ponder their wedding weekend.  Because their parents footed the bill, they as a young couple didn’t take a huge financial hit.  They were able to just continue on with their lives and build – saving into their retirement accounts, planning vacations, pondering purchasing a home, etc.  They were able to start in a good place.  The same was true for another friend.  She and her spouse came from two stable families and themselves didn’t personally make huge investments on their big day.  The bride’s diamond ring was not purchased at some extravagant store like on TV, but instead, it was passed down through the generations in the groom’s family – again a benefit of coming from a stable family.

*  *  *

“Weddings are a big waste of money,” said a professor on my thesis committee at the University of Michigan with a look of disgust on his face.  He was kind of conservative, and had homes in both Ann Arbor and Jackson Hole, Wyo.  He had been around a while and had seen a lot of stuff.  I didn’t understand any of it at the time so I thought he might’ve just been being an old curmudgeon.  He was probably thinking that there were better things that could be done with the tens of thousands of dollars spent on weddings.

Are weddings, engagement rings, and all of the associated costs a waste of money?  As with most things it depends on your point of view.  That said, as a couple, before dumping tens of thousands of dollars into something like that, I think it’s important that both agree on it and ask each other several key questions.  Are you going into debt for it?  Have you already started building wealth individually?  Can your relatives afford to kick in?  Where will you two be after the festivities once everyone else has gone home?  Is spending an astronomical amount of money a need or a want?

“It’s the custom for the bride’s father and or family to pay for the wedding.”  I don’t know that my mother knew that her words would stay in my mind as they did.  The words made more and more sense to me as I thought about them.  From a logical standpoint, if I as a man have just saved for an engagement ring – a month’s salary or more, does it now make sense to dump more money into a one-day extravaganza leaving us financially exposed?  For me at the time, no, it didn’t make any sense.  By the way, this wasn’t the only advice my mother gave me.  As a spiritual woman, there was much more.  My father?  He didn’t give me much of anything advice-wise.  His greatest anxiety/concern was having to fly out to the west coast to attend the ceremony.

Everyone has to decide for themselves what’s right as families and cultures are different.  As mentioned earlier, after a life of making financial mistakes out of ignorance, and only recently discovering some of the key secrets to wealth building such as knowing what a Net Worth was, my focus was more on savings and investments.  Furthermore, having been bailed out of a couple of jams by one of my uncles for example, asking him for more money at that time felt unacceptable.  The same was true for my father of whom I also decided it was unacceptable to ask for financial support of any kind at my current station in life.

For any men reading this and thinking about taking the plunge, this stuff is a big deal.  Many of the ladies (not all) dream about their wedding and will even critique and mock each other over them, as I witnessed a couple of high income-professional ladies do about a peer who paid for her wedding expenses out of pocket.  To cut costs, she and her fiancé wisely did things like cater their reception.  He was a master chef and put in some sweat equity of his own on the food.  I think they spent ~ $10,000 on the wedding, maybe a little less.  Also, some ladies think a spectacular ring is owed them, and will make them feel better during those inevitable rough marital patches.  Some will concede the wedding for a $20,000 or ring.

Think about your life, your goals and the long-term ramifications if you’re paying out of pocket.   Be real with yourself and your partner.  Determine whether or not you’re dealing in needs or wants and where you’ll be on the back end of the wedding.  If the two of you can’t agree there then that should, ‘give you pause,’ as my mother would say.  Interestingly my father’s second wife felt that past a certain age, there shouldn’t be any expectations for families to help pay for anything, and that’s assuming again that you had parents and families who had the means to begin with.

“My friend’s father told her that he would give her a $10,000 gift if she and her fiancé eloped,” a woman in my former lab said at a recent science conference.  Her friend’s father had clearly done the math in his head and projected what a wedding would cost him, and determined that $10,000 would be a fraction of that cost.

While the majority of this story was about me I’m going to close out by going back to my mother as this post is in celebration of Mother’s Day.  It was her words that stayed with me throughout this whole experience.  That being said, one of the challenges to growing up is having the discernment to reconcile your parent’s experiences/beliefs and words of wisdom with your own situation as the two don’t always go together.  Sometimes you do inevitably deviate from what they recommend for any number of reasons – sometimes disappointing them and even going through the hardship they tried to protect you from, and sometimes not.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment.  To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site.  While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.