“So, when would you like me to kill you off?” A high school cross country rival sits opposite me, cloaked in a gray suit and puckered tie, smiling slightly, waiting for an answer.
A few weeks earlier while fleeting White Rabbit-like to a very important meet at Calvin’s cross country course, I breezed by this particular rival in the Church of the Servant parking lot and huffed a brief “hello.” As someone who has always cherished rivalry for the sake of rivalry, I was quite comfortable with my Slytherin-esque recollection of this competitor and his cohort and had no desire to alter it. (They even wore deep green uniforms, and I swear one of them elbowed me and muttered something in Parseltongue once.)
Thus, I was a bit wary when a friend request from my Malfoy popped up on my Facebook page a couple days later. A friend request led to a Facebook message, a Facebook message to a phone call, a phone call to an invitation I was too polite to refuse, and before I knew what I’d gotten myself into, I was sitting in his office for an appointment to discuss my Gringotts vault. It turns out that my rival is not a Draco at all, but a Mike who is a financial representative.
As we begin what I believe to be our first actual conversation, I begrudgingly accept the fact that I’ll have to let drift the quaint disdain I’ve harbored so fondly for so many years. Mike kindly asks me how my fall was and how my cross country team performed at the state meet, questions I answer beautifully.
Then he asks me a question I can’t answer: “What are you hoping to get from this meeting?”
I am a clever person. I have the college transcripts, research papers, and uniquely annoyed younger sisters to prove it. However, when it comes to finance and economics, I make Gollum look like a wealth management guru. I do not know what a 401k is. I literally learned two days ago that checks can be deposited via ATMs. I lost my credit card twice this past summer. My crowning financial achievement of the past year has been consistently remembering my online banking password.
So, when Mike asks me what I want from the meeting I answer honestly: “I guess I want to know what I would even use a financial representative for.”
Mike smiles mercifully and runs through some basics of personal finance, re-explaining concepts until I claim to understand them and concluding that he’d like to make a projection of my financial future.
“Do you think you can answer a few questions for me?” he inquires.
Realizing I have no dignity to salvage by this point, I reply, “Of course!”
“So, how old are you?”
“Twenty-six.” Nailed it.
“And how long have you been teaching for?”
“This is my third year.”
“And when do you plan on retiring?”
“I know. It’s weird to think about, but just give me an estimate for the sake of the projection.”
I think briefly of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg photo I framed and put on my desk last year. “I mean, ideally, I’d be working a job that I really love and wouldn’t want to retire until I had to, but sixty-five, maybe?”
“And what would you like your quality of living to be when you retire?”
“Um, good?” I’m not really sure what to add here. “I mean, I don’t want to live in a slum, but I also have no desire to live in a mansion.”
“Great. So, when would you like me to kill you off?” His tie puckers, and he smiles slightly.
“Just for the sake of the simulation. I need to enter an end point. How long do you plan on living? I mean, how long do your family members typically live?”
“Well, I guess I have two grandparents in their seventies and two in their eighties. So, I’ll just say ninety, and then I’ll start going on a lot of dangerous adventures.”
“Perfect. Well, I’ll use that information to generate a personalized plan for you. In the meantime, how about we run a simple budget to track your current expenses?”
I brace myself for further embarrassment, but do not brace nearly enough. In fact, I imagine Mike’s notes to look somewhat like this:
Gabe’s Simple Budget
Rent: $0 (Lives at home.)
College Loans: $0 (Father works at alma mater.)
Groceries: $0 (Client seems to be realizing just how dependent he really is.)
Car: $0 (Bought for $1 from father. I’m sensing a trend.)
Car Insurance: ??? (Unknown amount taken from account monthly by father. The client is just tentatively guessing amounts and gauging my reaction to see if they’re plausible. I think I’ve made a mistake.)
Health Insurance: Something! (Client appears oddly relieved that he’ll actually start paying for something on the first of January.)
Cell Phone: ??? (Somewhere in the world right now Suze Orman is judging him.)
Gas: 20 x however-much-a-gallon-of-gas-costs
Other expenses: Existent but hard to specify beyond that. (Have mercy on him, Suze.)
At this point, Mike has stopped trying to convince me that I know more than I give myself credit for and tactfully taps into a new vein of optimism: “Well, you’re certainly living within your means. That’s good!” Here, he is correct.
Until this point in life, my basic financial plan has been this: I know I don’t spend more than I make, and anything I’m going to spend money on is so important to me that I don’t care how much it costs. This is why I pay no attention to gas prices. I already drive as seldom as possible anyway. This is how I went on a three-month tour of Europe without checking my bank account once. I knew I had enough money and knew I wouldn’t fritter my euros away on frivolities. This is how I continue to accrue cash while caring precious little about it.
In the past, this lack of investment in wealth is something I’ve always seen as a virtue of mine. I’m not a miser tilling my gold with my fingers, beholden to a bank account. However, as Mike continues to helm our meeting, he begins to ask some questions I can answer—“What are your goals for the next five or ten years? What do you want to accomplish? What are you going to need your money for?”—and I begin to realize that my ignorance is a vice and has a root.
For me, financial prowess has always been a hallmark of adulthood, and adulthood has always been something to avoid at all costs, quite literally. To learn to invest my money and allocate it wisely, I will need to assess my priorities, envision my old age, take risks, and make decisions that will shape my future rather than beat me ceaselessly back into the comforts of the past.
“This column right here shows how much you are worth to yourself with each year that you work,” Mike muses, pointing to a diagram during our second meeting and betraying no incredulity at the words he just uttered. I do not like to measure my worth in my salary or my bank account or any numbers for that matter. However, I’m learning that money is not about the digits on my online banking page or about seeking a meaningless life of cigars and sports cards and empty mansions. Instead, it is about potential and the power to achieve it. It is about investing your work into your hopes and goals and dreams.
This investment terrifies me more than the stock market-y kind. I’d rather stay put, comfortably accruing wealth and age with no plan to take risks with either. But I keep thinking of a quote that I found on the ground in the high school hallways this fall and placed on the desk in my classroom—“Always have a plan, and believe in it. Nothing good happens by accident.”—and I think that I’m tired of waiting for happy accidents. I want a plan.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.