workplace violence

If you spend any time working with a small group of people on intense, timeline-driven projects with limited resources you’ve experienced some – or maybe a lot of – tension. You’ve probably also read, with some trepidation, stories of people showing up at the office with an AK-47 dressed all in black.  How likely is it that the person next to you will snap?  Recent events showed us that even mild-mannered professors can snap (although the “mild-mannered” part might have just been a cover for a seething, troubled pysche).  What flips the kill switch?

Anyone who chooses to strap on steel-toed boots, load up an automatic weapon and go shoot at Suzy because she didn’t help him on the March budget presentation would have gone crazy working on a horse farm, too. I’ve never killed anyone, but I’ve wanted to “kill people” in fits of anger.  I never came close to translating that fit of anger into an actual, concrete series of actions to kill that person; for example, going to the gun store, buying ammo and studying schematics of the fourth floor.  Yet office shootings do occur.

I’ve been in arguments in the office over the years. Occasionally profanity-laced and often with raised voices, only twice did they reach the level of actual physical violence.  One was not surprising, the result of a fraud investigation I was leading; the subject threatened me and I had to be escorted by security in the evenings after his termination.  It was all bluster, though, and nothing happened.

The other incident, I’m sad to say, was initiated by me. A fellow manager and I had argued over responsibilities on a shared project, ranging from staffing to budget to the question of “ownership” of the results of the report.  The argument escalated over two days.  On the second day, I was working at a client’s office about an hour by public transportation from my company’s office.  A phone call from the other manager (I’ll call him Jim) came late in the afternoon after a stressful afternoon working on a particularly difficult set of audit items.  In the middle of the Russian winter, I was in the midst of (yet another) semi-cold/semi-bronchitis episode and in no mood for yet another go-around with Jim.  Jim – at least in my opinion – was a bit of a Crip, and I was hanging with the Bloods (you’ll have to read my article on life in the salt mine to fully appreciate that reference).  Jim was everything I disliked about expatriates in Russia; disdainful of the language, the people, contemptuous of their education and unable to stutter out a single word in the language of the country in which he lived.

I’d like to say I remember the real initiator of the afternoon’s meltdown, but I don’t.
I do remember standing in front of my (mostly female) staff in a conference room, doing that cartoonish move where you hold the phone receiver in front of your face, yelling at the top of my lungs while his voice rang out in an echo from the earpiece.  Choice words were exchanged.  After slamming the phone down, I calmly put all of my stuff together in my bag and walked out.  My staff assumed I was going home for the day.

Instead, I walked the mile to the subway station seething. I walked into the station, got a token, caught a train, sat and seethed.  It arrived at my company’s office after 45 minutes.  I walked past security, took off my coat and dropped my bags, and walked down the hall.  I turned into the cubicle area where Jim worked, and saw him over the low walls.  Thunderous yelling between the two of us commenced.  I taunted him in Russian, which he didn’t understand.  He grew louder and more threatening until I picked up an office chair and threw it as hard as I could directly at him.  At his head.  All of this I did calmly, premeditated and without any “fog of rage” type of intention.  I meant to do it, more than an hour in advance of actually doing it.

I’m not a small guy and back then I was not small at all. I had the strength and body mass to throw something as awkward as an office chair with a great deal of velocity, and I didn’t take anything off of it.  I missed, though, and both Jim and I were restrained by several of our colleagues.  The odd part was this:  the principals of our little company never even came out of their offices.  Motivated by fear that I was the guy with the bullet with their name on it?  Or just indifferent?

After that, things were better. Jim and I weren’t asked or expected to work on anything together, or even speak.  We crossed paths again but had the good sense not to engage in a fistfight in an office building where the security guards carried sawed-off shotguns.  Jim drifted back to his home country after a while, forgotten by both the expats and the Russians in my office.  I faded away slowly, burned out by illness and rage, until I left Russia for the relaxed pace of Manhattan.

I’m not sure what might have happened if I had access to a weapon that day.
Probably nothing; I’m not stupid.  In America that would land you in jail, but in Russia I would probably have ended up having a couple of those aforementioned shotguns’ butts applied to my skull – if I wasn’t having my right arm blown off first.  But for a while I had a brief glimpse of the level of rage that could be set on fire by something as trivial as work; started by work, fanned by exhaustion, stress and contempt.

I don’t get as angry anymore. By stages I’ve moved away from that type of work to contracting jobs, which demand little and pay well.  I haven’t been in a fight of any sort in at least ten years, although opportunities have arisen.  Once you’re married and have children, it’s easy to think of the consequences for THEM and to back down; nobody needs daddy in the hoosegow.   But I wonder how many people lurk in these high-stress jobs in cubicles.  How often does someone spend the hour commute home fantasizing about killing their boss and telling themselves that their fantasy is just “blowing off steam?”

The fantasy occurs more often than we’d like, I bet. The short-term mentality promoted by stock markets and corporations,  far-flung “communities” creating longer and longer communities and the pressure to superconsume are constantly testing the stress points of millions of people.  If we’re “lucky”, the most vulnerable have health problems or depression and drop out before they hurt someone else.  The easy availability of firearms doesn’t help (and yes gun-owners, I know it would have helped if someone else is armed and can shoot the shooter; are you REALLY going to feel better if HR issues you – and everyone else –  a handgun at employee orientation)?

I don’t think there’s a solution; there have always been people who kill for their own dark, unbalanced reasons. But at some point as a society we’ll have to look at the way in which fear of unemployment and consumerism and access to firearms will continue to create fearful office environments, leading to more stress and a downward spiral.  It’s not a path anyone wants to stroll down.  I’m sorry I was part of it.  If you think it’s not lurking out there in the dark corners of the office at 3:45 on a grim Wednesday, you’re more optimistic than I am.

Note: A good read on this subject is Going Postal, a book written by Mark Ames, a guy whose writing I much admire (much like his partner, Matt Taibbi) for their writing for the eXile, both in Moscow at the same time I was there (where I didn’t know them although I think based on hazy recollections that I met Mark at a party). Mark’s got some terrifying stories in his book, which should serve as an anthem to anti-cubicle life if there ever was one.  Oh, and yes, that’s an affiliate link, if you buy the book through that link I will become minutely wealthier-ish, so please, if you were planning on buying it, do so through that link.  Thanks FCC for the requirement to do that extra disclosure:  the world is safer in your hands.

photo by darkpatator

linklings, plutus award nomination edition

If you had to rank the biggest rewards from blogging, #2 would definitely be the recognition of your peers (#1 is communicating directly with readers – I love getting emails, even if I’m Mr. Procrastination in answering them). But in the #2 category I was surprised to hear from Flexo over at Consumerism Commentary that I’m one of the nominees for “Best Personal Finance Blog for Careers.”

I’m doubly surprised considering the quality of the other nominees:  Bargaineering,Brazen Careerist, The Digerati Life and Squawkfox.  I’ve appeared with Jim (and Lynnae of being frugal – another nominee for “best frugality blog”) on Marketplace Money.  SVB of The Digerati Life is a blogging friend and a fellow member of The Money Writers network, who has a far better employee-to-problogger/webguru story than I do.  Kerry from Squawkfox has a fantastic blog that, like mine, goes all over the place (and has written some great pieces on resumes).

And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time you know how much I like Penelope Trunk‘s writing; she’s amazing.  I also owe her a lot; she and Lazy Man were the first two big-time bloggers to get in touch with me, link to brip blap and – most importantly – encourage me.  Without the two of them I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing this today.

So given all that I’m actually not even going to ask you to vote for me, though feel free to go here and vote.  With all sincerity I can say that it’s just nice to be nominated.  I’m very grateful.

And if you’re interested, #3 is making some money.  #4 is the simple enjoyment of creating something outside yourself.  And here are my Marketplace Money appearances:

Off to the links:

  • Writing a Financial Mission Statement: I have a mission statement for this blog – if you were around for the first 3-4 months of brip blap you saw it. I haven’t had it up in a while, but I may dust it off soon and repackage it as my financial mission statement. To summarize it? You need to have just enough to stop worrying. More is too much, less is not enough.
  • Ten Things Millionaires Won’t Tell You: The only item I take exception to: “I shop at Wal-Mart.” I’m having a bit of Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus thinking about Wal-Mart these days. I have justified buying things there in the name of saving money, but Wal-Mart’s an economic menace: they are on the wrong side of the debate on unions, health care, buying American, supporting local communities and even – in the long term – frugality. Buy products from there, and see how long those crap products made by non-union child labor in Malaysia last you. I’m still going to be a millionaire, but I’m not going to do it shopping at Wal-Mart.
  • Square Foot Gardening: How To Grow Vegetables In Your Own Backyard: Awesome. If you didn’t see it the first time around, check it out. I spent the last weekend prepping the herbs for the garden. Next weekend? Citrus trees. The next? Veggies. Did I mention it’s in the 70s here in Florida?
  • Credit Card and Debit Cards No Longer Have Automatic Overdraft and Over Limit Protection: That’s fine with me. Keep track of your spending.
  • Selling Wine – Almost Like Blogging: I like the concept of limited networks: networks with an optimal size that would suffer from growing. I’m in the network with Lazy Man, of course, so I know what he’s talking about. I was lucky to make it in on one of the last couple of rounds of expansion of the neighborhood, and I’ve enjoyed being in the network immensely – but I’d be slow to add new members, too, considering how well we interact right now.
  • 10 Ways to Save Money on a New Car: I know it’s not popular to buy new, but I’m very much in the “buy-new-and-drive-for-10-years” category of car buyers; I’m simply not comfortable buying used, and I’ve had very good luck buying new so far. Please knock on wood for me.
  • Graduate School Costs & Options: Side note: graduate school is a more cost-effective career investment than undergraduate, but due to the fact that you can’t get the one without the other it’s actually less effective as an investment. Discuss!
  • New Credit Card Laws to Protect Consumers Begin: By and large, good news.
  • Free Online Tax Filing, Tax Preparation Services & More: If the kind souls at TurboTax would accept me into their affiliate program I might promote their software – that I’ve used for about six years – but they don’t, so check out these alternatives 🙂
  • Those Who Don’t A-S-K Don’t G-E-T: Absolutely true.
  • Dear President Obama: We Need Healthcare Reform Right Now.: I restrain myself – again – from political shrieking, but yes, ram it through and be done with it. American health care is broken. I’m not voting for anyone who doesn’t at least TRY to do something.
  • Being Frugal is Foolish: I know Jim’s doing a Devil’s Advocate post, but to a certain extent I agree.
  • Online Tools for Mindful Consumerism: Check out GoodGuide – I was quite surprised about some of my favorite “good” products.
  • Independent Contractor vs. Employee: What’s the Difference?: It’s a distinction that most people don’t get, but if you have someone who works IN your household, they are an employee, not a contractor. How did that come up? Read the next article…
  • How I Made My Peace with Hiring a Housekeeper: I agree. I hate cleaning, and it’s one of the activities I’m willing to outsource to simplify and improve my life – much like I enjoy outsourcing the maintenance and upkeep of my cars.
  • On The Brink by Henry M. Paulson Jr.: I had a few choice comments about Mr. Paulson. I am, to put it mildly, no fan.

photo by hiperia3d

small human regrets

About four years into the business of managing new humans – i.e. raising kids – I’ve realized I have some regrets, unsurprisingly. You might not think four years with two kids (Little Buddy, almost 4, Pumpkin, almost 2) is long enough to develop a list of regrets, but it is. My feeling is that the time-frame for regret is compressed more and more as your children get older. The end result of teaching your children to eat right might not be apparent when you are forcing them to eat vegetables when they are two, compared to denying your 16-year old the right to drive by himself. The types of regret become more significant, as well: not teaching them to stay away from drugs is on a different level than not using cloth diapers, for example.

Focusing on the negative is never a good way to produce positive change, so before I catalog on the regrets I can toss out a few things that have made me proud of Bubelah and myself: our children have a fluent understanding of a second language, able to understand both English and Russian. We have instilled a love of reading in Little Buddy (uh oh, foreshadowing a regret here). They are healthy, verbal and happy, other than the usual little toddler outbursts. They are adorable kids (don’t worry, I’m being neutral, they are definitely the cutest, sweetest, smartest kids on the planet).

I won’t focus, either, on meta-regrets or things that are still in process. A good example? The kids have not yet been exposed to even 10 seconds of volunteerism or community work. That’s bad. On the other hand, I think there will be opportunities to do so. I also don’t focus on regrets that I call “meta-regrets” like circumcision – who knows whether I should regret that or not.

As a general bit of advice to new parents, in other words, here are a few fairly simple little regrets that I’ll just pass on, even though I know new parents – like we were – hear so much advice in the middle of sleep-deprived conversations that much of it becomes a big, fuzzy blur.

Toys with batteries

Since we send our son (and soon our daughter) to a Waldorf school, we’ve been exposed to the Waldorf philosophy regarding toys: all toys have to be natural materials and non-branded (i.e. no Dora or Batman). Battery-powered toys are forbidden (so no cute wooden trains), as are violent toys: no wooden guns. All of that is fine, but at home our kids have a vast area of beeping and booping Dora, Handy Manny, Sesame Street and LeapFrog devices. Cars honk. Alvin, Simon and Theodore chirp away. Dora blares out Spanglish. I don’t mind plastic toys so much; my brother and I spent countless hours playing with plastic cars and planes and bears and dinosaurs. I do, on the other hand, regret SOME of the branded toys and ALL of the battery powered toys.

Battery powered toys are horrible. I regret not placing a ban on them as gifts, buying them myself or allowing even “educational” ones like LeapFrog into the house. They have an unintended side effect: I have more than once snatched away a toy from my kids after one too many electronic shrieks of “GO! DIEGO! GO!” The noises make me grumpy. Plus, after a few years, the real problem is obvious: battery-powered toys crush imagination. My son or daughter can take a handful of toys like Smurfs, dinosaurs, even little action figures, a couple of little houses or castles and play fascinating, original little games. They can build cities, make up “families” from a bear, a duck and a smurf, and so on. But once a battery-powered toy is introduced, a bit of a rat-getting-cheese-by-pressing-a-lever takes over. Battery-powered toys are TV on a small scale.

Television

Now this one is funny. I hate children’s TV. It serves no purpose for children. I am as convinced today as I was four years ago that a child would be infinitely better off if he or she didn’t see a television program until their fifth birthday. All of the so-called “educational” programs are, largely, garbage intended primarily as branding tools for a line of merchandise. TV is garbage.

BUT – there’s a big but – TV serves a purpose that has nothing to do with the kids. It does serve as a babysitter. I am going to out myself as a bad parent, but you know what? When it’s 6:30 am on a Saturday, both kids are up and bouncing around ready to go, and Papa hasn’t had his coffee, Dora can turn them into the quiet little couch monkeys that give Papa 30 minutes to make breakfast and drink coffee. So it helps.

So the regret is not TV so much, but failure to take much more aggressive action to control the medium in this way: absolute avoidance of just turning the TV on at random. I wish I had recorded 100s of hours of Sesame Street videos. I wish I had recorded things like “Go Go Riki” – but edited out all of the commercials. And I wish we had purchased a Roku sooner, which has a nice little collection of things like Caillou. The TV experience then could have been limited to complete shows, commercial-free and consistent. Instead, far too often we’ve just flipped on the TV and said “hey kids, what do you want? Handy Manny or Curious George?” The kids then watch the last 10 minutes of a Curious George episode and 15 minutes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, mixed in with commercials (and believe me, PBS and Disney Playhouse can blather on all they want to about being advertising-free, but I still see Chuck E. Cheese popping up a lot between shows).

Reading

As I mentioned above, this is one of my few “split” regrets. I read to Little Buddy in the womb. I propped his wobbly little noggin up and read “Oh, the Places You Will Go” and “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” to him endless times. We read Mercer Mayer books, Richard Scarry, Russian classics, English classics nonstop. And then we had a second child and reading to Little Buddy became much more infrequent. That was fine – he had already developed enough of a love of books to keep him going. A few books a day hold him, and he can pick up a book and leaf through it, identifying letters he knows and even reciting stories from memory. That’s fine.

Pumpkin’s another matter. In the chaos of dealing with two small kids, too often she was left to play and entertain herself while we chased Little Buddy around. Reading to her was the exception, rather than the rule. That sounds terrible, and it’s not as bad as that: Little Buddy was probably read to far more than was necessary, and Pumpkin’s still had her fair share of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. But already the difference in the two of them is obvious; Pumpkin’s far more likely to squirm away from a book than Little Buddy was at her age. She enjoys a few favorite books but gets bored by new ones. I know we still have years to correct that, but I wish we had approached it differently.  I regret our approach more with one of our children than with the other.

Food

I am sure many parents could write “War and Peas” about their children’s eating habits. Again, I won’t go into meta-regrets about, say, vegetarianism or 100% avoidance of fast food or anything like that. I might wish that foods like chicken nuggets had never been introduced, but that genie is out of the bottle.

But what I do regret, and still hope to change, is the eating schedule and atmosphere. I insisted – and still do – that the TV be off while we eat. But what I should have paid more attention to is the idea that meals are meant to be shared. It’s very easy when you have four people in a family who are not only on different schedules but have different metabolisms to slip into an “eat-when-convenient” mindset. I rise earlier than everyone else. Little Buddy goes to school. I go to work. Pumpkin takes three hour naps covering lunchtime. I get home at 6 most days but the kids are hungry at 5. The result has been that we almost never eat together. We still have time to fix it, but it’s a regret because I wonder if the mental building blocks (“grab food and run”) have already been laid.

Regrets – I’ve had a few

That’s a long enough list of regrets for me to bear for today. The unifying factor of all of these regrets is that we worried about one thing but ended up regretting the unintended side effects, or something unanticipated For example, we worried about diet, but the problem hasn’t been diet (they eat fairly normal and non-junky diets) but the structure of mealtime. This is true of so many things in life; young people worry about where to go to college more than they do about what to study once they are there, even though that makes a far, far greater difference in the direction of one’s life.

Regrets are not productive. My dad sent me a birthday card years ago when I was in a bit of a down period that had a little guy standing at a fork in the road. In the forward direction a sign pointed with the inscription “the future.” The sign pointing in the direction headed back said “not an option.” The past is over and immutable. The future is the only thing that can be changed, and the only purpose of a regret is to help you improve in the future. Even if your regrets impact others, you can’t make the past any worse; you can only make the future better.

photo by broma

embrace life

From time to time I like to put a video up briefly; this one is touching. I’m a bit behind the curve – CNN’s already featured this video – but it seems worth sharing. Call me a sucker for sentimental safety reminders, but I imagine that the number one health tip – in terms of extending your life – is probably “always wear a seat belt.”

linklings, informal survey edition

I’ve struggled recently with topics. I started brip blap writing about many “typical” personal finance issues:  money management, frugality, economic issues, and so on.  I’ve also written about health, careers, productivity and family.

So here’s the survey, and I would sincerely appreciate any input: would it help or hurt brip blap to add additional writers (I’d stil post as much, but add a post or two from another writer each week)?  And would it help or hurt to focus in on a narrower range of subjects, or do you just enjoy my random outbursts?

If you don’t want to comment, email me at bripblap@gmail.com or catch me on twitter @bripblap – or even call me if you want:

If you’re an RSS reader, launch up the site.  I’ve got a new theme.  Love it?  Hate it?  You love it, because I worked on it and don’t plan to change it back, OK?  I’m not Chad Ochocinco, promising to change my name if I get locked down on Revis Island (and he DID get locked down, and he’s not changing his name back to Johnson).

Sorry for the NFL reference that will elude a lot of you… on to the links…

Michael Lewis: Wall St. Is Done:  No, it’s not.  It’ll be right back.
Want to Work for Free? Start a Business:  I started off slow, earning money with this blog (and others) and haven’t advanced my earnings to the level of the “big” bloggers; but I do try to remind myself that I’m doing fairly well compared to 90% of the other bloggers and online “webpreneurs” out there.
Pros and cons of being wealthy: I really enjoyed Felix Dennis’ book, and it should be a must-read for anyone who dreams of being “superwealthy” as opposed to merely rich.
How To Create A Blog For Fun Or Profit:  I recommend “for fun.”  You won’t profit for a while, and if you don’t enjoy the subject you’ll have trouble with keeping it up.  I’m bored with personal finance, for example, so writing about it is a struggle.  Frugality is even harder to write about.  Career and life issues are a lot more important to me these days, hence the question above.

…oh wait, a few more…

photo by Eleaf

how to rise from poverty

I was rich as a child. Not really. I wasn’t. I lived in fairly plain conditions in subsidized housing. My family was poor enough that we used the residual heat from cooking to heat our home. I had to share a room with my brother. I didn’t get a puppy. We only had one car, and it didn’t even have air conditioning! And worst of all, I didn’t have a Wii.  Or high-speed internet, although it hadn’t been invented yet.

Now granted the subsidized housing was married student housing since my dad was still in PhD school when I was born. It was a cheerful, happy community with dozens of kids my own age. We did use heat from cooking to heat the house, but so what, why not? I never minded sharing a room with my brother – I assumed that’s how brothers were supposed to live! I didn’t get a puppy because I never really wanted one. We only needed one car because everything was close by, and most cars didn’t have air conditioning back then. And although I didn’t get a Wii, I did get a computer when I was 10 – a Tandy Color Computer – because my parents thought learning some computer skills could be useful if it ever managed to evolve into a useful device. Too bad computers never really took off, eh?

When I read the Science of Getting Rich, there was a passage that Bubelah pointed out to me that really struck me:

“Do not tell of the poverty of your parents or the hardships of your early life. To do any of these things is to mentally class yourself with the poor for the time being, and it will certainly check the movement of things in your direction. Put poverty and all things that pertain to poverty completely behind you. “

One of the memes of my financial life has been to proudly point out how my parents rose above their parents financially, and how I was rising above them (at least in terms of income – in terms of real long-term wealth they are still way ahead of me). This meme was always painted a massive struggle against near-impossible odds – primarily due to my big brain. I have been fond of telling people how I didn’t always have the big house and the big cars and the bling bling (does anyone still say that with a straight face)? I made it on my own! I never had STUFF! We lived in a SMALL PLACE! We struggled! We succeeded in the face of a harsh, cold world!

I got carried away. It’s true that I didn’t have a lot of stuff growing up. Having a small apartment for four people restricts storage space. We never really lacked for much. I don’t think I ever saw a book in a bookstore when I was a kid that my parents wouldn’t buy for me if I asked. A toy? That they might deny. But I really can’t remember anything in retrospect that I felt I lacked. Maybe at the time I wished I had the Schwinn X22 bike instead of the X21, but I can’t recall it now.

A few points:

  1. Recalling your “poverty,” even for the sake of telling someone an inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps story, is putting a negative spin on your memories and a cloud over your future. Don’t remember your “lacks.” If you grew up in America, chances are good (although not 100%) that your “poverty” as a child was a lack of the coolest new bellbottoms.
  2. Think forward, not backwards. Your childhood was a launchpad for who you are today. Are you improving your health, your wealth, your finances and your well-being? If so, your childhood was rich, because it gave you the tools to improve yourself now.
  3. Talking about poverty will not make you rich, ever. If you spend time telling people about what you lack, you’ll continue to lack. If you don’t want to keep lacking stuff, go out and do something about it. Don’t whine about the poverty of your youth.
  4. When you are 20 years older today, do you plan on telling people those were the lean years? I bet if you read this blog or any of the blogs in my blogroll you don’t plan on that. You PLAN on telling people that these were the years you brought the booyah. The early 2000s were when I got my shiznit together! Think about 20 years ago the same way. Even if it’s not 100% true, doesn’t it make you feel better to think that way?
  5. Listen to rich people talk about their youth. Does Sergey Brin sit around complaining about being a Jew in Russia as a child, and having to emigrate when he was 6 years old?
  6. Two out of every three billionaires made their fortunes from scratch. Being rich as a kid means you are LESS likely to be a billionaire. That’s an amazing thought.

I try as much as I can these days to think of what I had, not what I lacked. Concentrating on the things you didn’t have then, or don’t have now, is a sure way to be miserable.

Creative Commons License photo credit: billy verdin

What Are Annuity Accounts?

An annuity account will help you get money when retirement comes. An annuity may involve many different parties and come in different kinds. They have plenty of pros and cons.

An annuity helps you save for retirement. It is very important, though, that you learn more about annuities to better understand the product and to help you make better decisions. Here are certain basic details that you should know about annuities:

Knowing an annuity account

An annuity account is an investment contract between you and the investment company, generally it is an insurance company, wherein the latter periodically pays the annuitant a specific sum of money beginning at a particular period in time and for a specified span of time. Agents usually reach you through Annuity Leads. When it comes to this type of investment, your funds are placed with the investment organization, in a lump sum or in installments, as soon as your contract is signed. On the stated date, you will begin receiving benefits. An annuity count will likely be an integral part of your retirement plans.

The concerned parties

The parties involved in an annuity contract include the insurance company, the payor and owner of the contract, the annuitant, and the beneficiary. The insurance company is the one responsible for contracting the agreement and paying returns to the annuitant. The owner-payor provides all the funds that is to be invested with the insurance company. In case the annuitant passes away during the course of the contract or depending on the stipulation of the contract the beneficiary receives the return, otherwise the annuitant is the recipient of the returns. Generally, the owner-payer is also the annuitant.

Annuities and their types

There are various kinds of annuities. There are immediate and deferred annuities, fixed and variable annuities, fixed period and lifetime annuities, and two-life annuities.

  • It can be deferred or it can be immediate. Annuities may be classified according to when the payouts are given. With immediate annuities, you pay the investment amount in a lump sum and start receiving returns the year after. The investment may be paid in a lump sum or installment, and the returns may come after a stated number of years with a deferred annuity. The accumulation period is the time period spanning the payment and the return time.
  • Fixed and variable. Variable and fixed are the two types of annuity. You receive fixed amount of returns every year during the stipulated period in the case of fixed annuities. Variable annuities will have fluctuating returns.
  • It can be for a fixed period or for life time. Your annuity account can be for a fixed period or a lifetime as well. With a fixed period annuity, you will receive your returns within a stipulated number of years. For example, you may prefer an annuity account that lets you receive a certain amount of money every year starting at age 60 and continuing through age 80. The 20-year fixed contract means that payments are fixed for that period of time. If you happen to pass before the end of the term, your beneficiaries will receive the payments until the end of the contract. A lifetime annuity allows you to receive perpetual returns on your investment. If your life ends during the repayment period, your beneficiaries will find themselves unable to attain the specified amount.
  • Two-life annuity. A two life annuity allows a spouse to continue receiving the designated amount after the initial annuitant passes. Payments will continue until the spouse also dies.

Advantages of Annuities

Something great about an annuity is that it brings a constant salary for people who intend to retire and for people with medium to long term plans. Annuities can allow you to defer taxes. You don’t pay taxes until you are getting returns. Due to the combination of savings and insurance, annuities can be very wise investments for you to make. You get to save money for future use while also being insured in case of death.

Annuities have disadvantages

The are pros and cons to annuities. Annuities don’t give you a very good return on investment. Unlike other investment vehicles, annuities offer fixed or limited returns, unless you opt for variable annuities. Annuities are also inflexible since you cannot obtain the money anytime you want. Should you decide to terminate the contract early, the amount you get could possibly be lower than what you invested and there are penalties, as well as taxes, to pay.

There are pros and cons to any investment. The wisest way to choose an investment is to look at your needs and understand the risks that are present. An annuity account may be the best for you if you think of long term needs and want sure returns.

all about rewards credit cards (guest post)

Are rewards cards really that great? Should you shell out an annual fee to carry one in your wallet? Will they give your credit score super powers? Here’s an overview of all things rewards-card related, so you can decide their true worth for yourself.

Rewards cards rack up perks, but…

Okay, your rewards card may earn you enough miles to get to Hawaii once a year, but what are you really paying for that trip? Do you make credit card purchases simply for the rewards points? If so, those points are costing you debt you wouldn’t normally take on. Not very smart. But, if you were going to buy something anyway, and it happens to earn you some rewards points on your credit card, great!

The ratio of dollar spent to reward point earned will always tip in the credit card company’s favor. A good rule of thumb is to only charge what you would have charged otherwise, rewards or no.

Beware annual fees

Another way rewards cards can cost you is if the credit card company charges an annual fee on the account. I personally loathe credit cards that come with annual fees because the rewards are not usually worth it. Some people view elite rewards cards that carry hefty annual fees as a status symbol. I say let them have their prestige, and I’ll hold onto my cash, thank you very much. There are plenty of rewards cards out there that don’t charge annual fees.

If you don’t qualify…

If you can’t qualify for a rewards card without annual fees, focus on improving your credit score and stick to a debit or a secured card in the meantime.

Note that some people with lower credit scores may be able to obtain a rewards card, but they may have to settle for a higher interest rate. You’ll have to decide if the rewards are worth this higher interest rate (in most cases, the answer should be no). However, if you’re one of those responsible people who pay off the entire balance each month, then the interest rate is a non-issue.

Use a rewards card to boost your credit score

Like other credit cards, rewards cards can either bolster or destroy your credit score. Using them responsibly will earn you credit score points plus land you the cool perks. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your rewards card:

  1. Read the fine print. Know the card’s APR, annual fee (if any), and the length of the card’s grace period before applying so you don’t get into trouble later on.
  2. Don’t apply for multiple credit cards at once. Only apply for a new rewards cards if you really need it or if you are unsatisfied with your current cards. Multiple credit applications in a short time period can hurt your score.
  3. Don’t charge stuff just to get the rewards points. This will land you in more debt than you can pay back.
  4. Don’t pay an annual fee for a rewards card. They’re not worth it, and don’t have any extra benefit to your credit score.
  5. Don’t max out your card. A high utilization rate will hurt your credit score.
  6. Pay your bill on time each month. This is the single most important thing you can do with any credit card to help your score.

Choose the right card for you

When you’re ready to apply for a rewards card, make sure you choose one that has benefits you’ll actually use. Here are the main rewards card options:

Cash back credit cards: Some of these offer annual cash rebates that equal some percentage of the previous year’s purchases. Others not only offer cash back, but airline miles, gas rewards, and other perks.

Reward points credit cards: These are similar to cash back cards except you’ll receive “points” instead of dollars. Some cards offer points on every purchase you make; the more you spend, the more you earn. Gas companies and retailers often offer rewards points cards.

Airline credit cards: These are only useful if you do a lot of traveling. Airline cards are not good for those who carry a balance from month to month, as the interest rates tend to be high. These cards offer a form of points or air miles that add up to free flights for card holders. Beware of blackout dates and other restrictions when you go to redeem your miles, though.

What’s in it for the creditor?

As an aside, you may be wondering how credit card companies afford to give you these perks? If there is no annual fee for the card, and you’re one of those customers who pays down their balance in full each month, isn’t the credit card company losing money on you? No, actually.

Credit card companies make money several different ways; interest and annual fees are only two of their revenue streams. Credit card companies also charge a percentage of each transaction to the merchant selling you the service or product. So even if you pay off your balance each month, your creditor is still getting money from these merchant transaction fees.

A final note

Before you get too excited about a rewards card, keep in mind that you might see more “rewards” by not using a credit card at all. Studies have shown that using cash instead of credit is likely to result in at least a 12% savings. For whatever reason, we are more hesitant to part with our cash than to whip out a credit card. So while a rewards card that offers 1% cash back has its place for online purchasing and to help us build a good credit history, using old-fashioned paper money is probably better for your bottom line.

Carrie Davis is a personal finance blogger at SpendOnLife.com, a site dedicated to giving readers true and accurate information about credit, debt, and identity theft. She is FCRA-certified and has a passion for educating others on how to achieve financial independence. Follow Carrie through the SpendOnLife RSS feed or on Twitter @SpendOnLife.

raise the estate tax to 100%

The estate tax – or the ‘death tax’ as it’s so cleverly nicknamed – has been a cause celebre for anti-tax proponents since it was enacted. What is it?  Read more here.  I’m not a tax expert, but as someone frustrated by taxes I feel free to opine on such things.  I would hope anyone who accumulated that much wealth in their lifetime would have the good sense to do one of a few things:

  1. Plow that money back into their business in the form of capital expenditures, hiring good managers, etc. in order to leave a good income source to their children;
  2. Donate to a local charity to leave their community better; or
  3. Find a top-notch tax lawyer to protect as much of that money as possible in trusts…and failing all that,
  4. Blow it all on electronics and cars.

And so on.  Failing to dispose of that money should result in a 100% “greedy” tax. Spend it on your kids before you die.  Buy them a house.  Buy them a college education.  Give away the money.  Hell, spend it on yourself. Don’t expect to pass it off in a lump sum to your offspring.  Whether or not that should be allowed is not the point – a democratic, egalitarian society generally doesn’t look favorably on the intragenerational transfer of wealth.

I know everyone hates taxes. I do.  I hate being called rich, when I live a middle class lifestyle.  I hated taxes even more when I lived in New Jersey and paid 10% of my income in property taxes and got horrendous failing public schools, horrible roads and shoddy public services in return.  Thankfully that changed when I moved to Florida.  But I also hate the horrendous imbalances of the progressive tax system (which fails to tax 50% of the citizenry who use the same publicly financed schools, roads and libraries as I do) and the horrendous unfairness of the (hidden) regressive taxes we all pay (think license plate fees, for example – Donald Trump pays the same for his Rolls as I pay for my 10-year old beater).  I don’t think poor people should be taxed at the same rate as the rich, but anyone who doesn’t pay income taxes won’t have a sense of ownership of their public institutions, so I think poor people should be taxed.  I don’t think Trump should have to pay more for his license plate than I should, but at the same time I don’t see why that tax isn’t treated the same as income tax.  Imbalances are rife thoughout the system.  Almost any tax will be greeted with the howls of those taxed, so…

…let’s make the estate tax 100%.  Let’s force everyone to utilize their money while they are still alive.  And let me know if you think I’m serious or not.

photo by Alejandra Mavroski

linklings, who dat edition

The ominous signs of frozen demons emerging from a frosty Hell haven’t occurred yet, although the Saints DID win the Super Bowl.  Who’s next?  The Browns?  Are the Cubs gearing up for a run at the World Series?

Do Kids Inherit Frugality?:  Yes, they do.  I inherited my ideas about money and most importantly my abhorrence for debt from my parents and grandparents.  I didn’t learn it through sad experience, like so many personal finance bloggers.  I never had debt, never touched it, never thought about it.  That wasn’t through my own experience, but through the lessons I learned from the elders of clan Blap.

Underachieve Your Way to Retirement:  An interesting thought that compliments what I wrote about the salt mine.  The highest achievers may not be the first to retire, in my opinion, because they are high achievers who don’t WANT to let off the accelerator.

Credit Terrorist or Twisted Genius?:  I hate anyone who doesn’t pay unsecured debt.  If you run up credit card debt, pay it.  I don’t have as much of a problem with secured debt; if your house is underwater, give up the debt and return the house to its “owner”, the bank.  Technically, they owned it all along and you’re just returning their asset to them.  Credit card debt’s different.  Unless you plan to give Megabank back that dinner at Outback and the Wii, you ought to pay them, or you are a bad person.  Period.

in the salt mine

Modern corporate life has warped some of my perspectives on careers, the nature of work and even the way people relate to each other. No experience did more damage to my sweetly naive belief in the goodness of humans and the purity of the capitalist model than my time with a company I’ll call The Salt Mine. One lesson in particular stands out:  the importance of visibility (or lack thereof) versus the importance of output.

At The Salt Mine, we did large projects for clients.
We estimated the number of hours we would need to finish a job, then take the “official” rates of each of the people assigned to the job and come up with a rough estimate of the total cost to complete the project.  We’d make sure to shoehorn in plenty of hours for the highest paid consultants, and despite long, stern lectures on the necessity to report all hours worked we’d see staff, again and again, pressured to report working 10 hours when they were clocking in at 8 am and leaving at 11 pm.

To make the whole thing just a little more unpleasant, the managers (an intermediate role between the staff and the executives) were required to bill so many chargeable hours per week. As a manager, you had an odd choice to make – under-report your time and risk looking like you couldn’t keep up with your peers, or overreport your hours and risk making the projects you were shepherding less profitable (and it would be illegal, a la Tom Cruise in The Firm, but that’s just a minor detail).

For a while that practice created an uneasy balance between insane working hours and a reasonable, measured approach to working effectively until you were tired, then giving up for the day. Deadlines had to be met, too, and many of the staff were junior, inexperienced people, requiring mentoring and training.  Time spent training was not billable, though.  So we muddled along, trying to keep projects profitable while making sure we billed enough hours to justify our jobs.

Fade to six months later.

The executives had a wonderful idea. Business was good, but hiring good people to execute projects cost money.  Managers were getting the work done, and for the most part everyone left work at a reasonable hour by Salt Mine standards (7 or 8).  So let’s take this environment, and start publicly shaming managers by posting their billable hours by week on a big scoreboard visible to the whole office.

Keep in mind these were billable hours, not just hours worked. If a manager spent a day in training either for himself or training others, it wasn’t billable.  Billable meant you did work on a specific project for a specific client.  Billable time suddenly became very important.  The rumor went around that top billers would be promoted, and bottom billers wouldn’t.  The rumor was soon converted to policy, and the mayhem commenced.

You might think that ruining the profitability of the projects would bother the executives, but the simple truth was that revenue from the clients was based on a fixed fee. The profitability was merely an internal measuring stick, but since all of the consultants were on salary, 8 hours worked cost the firm exactly the same as 14.  Managers, though, were faced with the prospect of eating their own hours to make the project appear more profitable – but then looking shabby on what we called “the leader board” – or overbilling, making their billable hours look good but having horrible profit margins on their projects.

a separate piece of crap

The managers quickly separated into two groups. One engaged in mutually assured destruction.  The idea for this group was to work 120 billable hours per week, and to hell with profitability.  Face time, especially in front of the client, became the single goal of this group.  We’ll call these The Bloods, for the colors of their eyes.  The second group collapsed, effectively.  They knew they couldn’t keep up the manic pace and decided to work like they’d always worked – work 6 hours when 6 hours were necessary, get training, go out for lunch, and so on.  We’ll call this group the Crips, for the crippling of their spirits as they watched the leaderboard publicly declaring that they weren’t carrying their part of the load.

Stop and consider what you would have done. I’d argue almost everyone in corporate America thinks of themselves as Bloods.  They’d like to think they could just “do their job” but too often face time becomes critical for middle management.  I thought I could laugh off the pressure.  I was a mercenary, and had never considered even for a second making a long-term career out of The Salt Mine; it was a stop on the journey there and back again.  But that leaderboard changed things for me.  I had one of The Salt Mine’s largest clients to manage.  With tens of thousands of billable hours budgeted, I had the ability to create vast amounts of work for myself (necessary or not) and proceeded to do so.

So as time went on, the leaderboard settled into a bit of a pattern. I managed to hang on near the top – never the most hours, but never down in dreaded less-than-60-hours-per-week time.  My health suffered; my relationship with my girlfriend at the time wound down; and the patient mentoring I had done with my staff turned into barks of “just give it to me I’ll do it hell’s bells am I the only one who can get crap done around here give me that bottle of Tums yes you make yourself useful.”  I was Madonna, in other words.

I’d like to say the story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t. My stress level went through the roof.  After a serious illness my doctor told me, without humor, that I was killing myself.  Despite hovering towards the top of billable hours and winning new business right and left, I was given a backhanded promotion (promoted in grade but not allowed to refer to myself by the new title for another year for headcount reasons).  Colleagues who had coasted along at the bottom of the leaderboard weren’t fired, or held accountable, or given last pick of clients for the next year, or stripped of staff:  nothing happened to them except that they went home at 6 like normal people.  After one or two near-physical altercations in the office and one more health scare, I jumped ship after my demand that my salary be doubled was laughed off.

It’s a funny story – not a funny ha-hah story but a funny stepping-on-a-rake-and-putting-out-an-eye story. I like to think of myself as an intelligent person, but I look back on those times and wonder.  It’s not a great mystery, if I’m honest with myself.  I lost sight of the forest for the trees, too immersed in day-to-day details to step back and wonder why I was submitting to this treatment like I was some kind of corporate Andy Dufresne (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_dufresne) – except I was tunneling for freedom.  That period of time might have been one of the best times in my life to talk to a career coach, or read 48 Days to the Work You Love, or even read The Four Hour Workweek.  But I didn’t – but because I didn’t, I’m able to share a cautionary tale with you.  If you’re in that same situation, let me know and I can point you to a resource that can help you get out of that mess.  Like a soldier in a dated war movie, I can gasp out “go on, save yerself!  I’m done for, but you can still save yourself!”  I hope you do.

And maybe it does have a happy ending; I learned my lesson and got out.

(photo by kevindooley)

our debt to the future and past

What do you owe to the future and the past – if anything? Do you owe anything to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and other people from the generations babyshoebefore you? What, if anything, do you owe to your children? Many people are in the habit of speaking of debts and dues in regards to the future and past generations of their family, but what do you really, truly owe?

I want to take a simple example. If your parents paid for your college education, do you have an obligation to pay for your children’s college education, or does the “college education obligation” reset at zero each generation? One line of thinking would be that it is a gift, given by your parents to you. You have no obligation to pass on the gift. Another line of thinking would be that you are selfishly failing to repay the assistance you received.

To complicate it even further, what if you think it’s a mistake? What if your grandparents put themselves through college, paid for your parents, who then didn’t pay for you because they thought their grandparents came out better for working their way through college? I know that may be a bit of a stretch, but it’s possible. But by increasing the “generational obligation” are you increasing expectations unreasonably?

A college education is one thing, but take material items. I was given a brand-new car as a high school graduation present. Does that mean I owe my children new cars? Should I only give it to them, if, like I did, they receive full scholarships to college (and therefore didn’t need any of the money that my grandparents and parents had thought I might for school)?

I don’t plan to buy my kids ‘fancy’ cars or send them to school. Plans change, of course, as do circumstances. But the concept of a generational contract – something that is owed – is odd when you think of it, because in a sense you have no choice in it, and due to your own circumstances you may not have the ability to live up to your obligation. Even if my parents had paid for me to go to a private college (say, $10,000 per year at the time) I am not sure I would be able to do the same for my children – if in 18 years the same school would cost $40,000 per year. Or more.

In the best circumstances, people love their families and will do anything for them. But does that mean giving up career choices? A choice of a place to live? If you have ailing parents in the future and they refused to move, would you give up following your career or even just living in a place of your choosing to stay near to them? If your parents raised you in a particular religion or ethnic culture, do you have an obligation to at least introduce it to your children?

I can imagine that some people look at the level of obligation implied by children and get a little queasy thinking about everything they will owe to them. It’s not the first thing you think about in regards to children, but it is one of the things to consider. And your parents (and other older relatives) will rely on you when they are older for support and care and even “continuing the family traditions.” In some senses, one of the hardest things may be to break these expectations – to not raise the kids Catholic, or tell your parents you are moving to California when they don’t want to leave their home in Chicago. Knowing what your choice will be in these types of situations, before you have to make it, is probably worth considering.

1 2