Saturday, April 24, 2010

It's All in the Perspective

When Randy lost his job and career as an air traffic controller 16 years ago, we were suddenly thrust into a new world. Where we once had enough money, not only for the basics, but for extras, too, we now found ourselves in a position we hadn't known in a long time:  how to get along on very little.

I look back and cringe when I see the many mistakes we made with managing our money. Until Randy found  another job, we lived on his retirement savings. Fear of the financial unknown dictated some poor choices. We attended a job fair and fell for a smooth-talking entrepreneur's pitch that investing in pay telephones was certain to be lucrative. How could we have known that cell phones were already making pay phones nearly obsolete? It all sounded so good. Once you paid for the phones (a mere $10,000--gulp!), you had to place them in strategic locations. Then all the money plugged into them was gravy. What could be easier?

Now I look back with 20/20 hindsight, barely able to believe we fell for that scam. The business was legitimate, but what they neglected to tell us was how difficult it would be to find places that wanted payphones-- and how expensive the monthly phone bills to support 8-10 phones would be! A friend and financial adviser helped us make the decision a few months into this venture, to bite the bullet, get out and never look back. We finally managed to recoup about $1,000 when we found a buyer for the phones. Ouch! 

I wish I could say this was our only bad financial decision. Again, fear played a part in investing our dwindling "nest egg" in a company that had rave reviews for its high returns. I should have listened to my dad who wisely said, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." We had our savings in a traditional investment that wasn't performing as well as this other company. The carrot dangled in front of us--and we bit into it, swallowing the whole thing.

At first, all the numbers looked great, monthly reports impressive. Randy and I often sat with a calculator crunching numbers. Wow! This is amazing, we'd tell ourselves, a little too smugly. After several years, we convinced Randy's dad who was a savvy investor, and a good friend of mine to invest her 401K savings in this fund.

Then one day our friend who had referred us to this company called in shock. "It's all a scam," he said evenly. "The largest Ponzi scheme in history." At least we had that distinction until Bernie Madoff came along.

How could we be so stupid? We kicked ourselves for a long time--and felt terrible that we had influenced others to join and lose their hard-earned savings as well. 

We have learned from these painful lessons, situations we wouldn't have knowingly signed on for. Yet what we have gained is valuable. We've been forced to face the difficult reality of how we have handled money.

When Randy had a generous income, we spent most of it. There was always something new we wanted. And when we got that item, something else appeared on the list of "must-haves." I perused catalogs for the latest home decor or new clothes. We ate out at restaurants frequently and didn't think anything of taking weekend jaunts and charging everything on our credit cards, which frequently crept toward the maximum allowed. 

We were always looking for something to fill the gaps, to make us content. Who would think it would take losing almost everything for us to learn what real contentment is about?

In this most simple way of living, when you only have enough for your needs, (not your "greeds" as one wise author once said), we have discovered freedom. Now I wonder why I thought I needed all the stuff that eventually makes its way into the rummage pile?

In God's economy, He uses the exact circumstances we need for us to grow to be more like Him; wiser stewards of what He has given us, and more compassionate in caring for others less fortunate. Without these financial setbacks, I might not have acquired a change in perspective. I have learned that God is our provider, all that we have ultimately belongs to Him. Our security isn't found in jobs or bank accounts, that are tenuous at best. A timely truth with the uncertain  financial climate we face in 2010.

Today Randy and I can offer each other grace for the mistakes we've made and gratitude for the richest blessings in life that money can't buy.   

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