Lena just bought the latest iPhone 5 last week and had eleven more gifts to unwrap. She luckily was up to date on her mortgage payment but her husband Samuel was just laid off from his job and they had a big private school bill payment due in two weeks.
Putting pen to paper she calculated her mortgage, Pepco bill for electricity, Comcast internet and cable, three trips to Safeway for monthly groceries, life insurance, two cell phones, two payments on leased cars, water bill, gas bill, you get the picture... Lena was out of cash from her bi-weekly pay stub before she even got to the private school bill, date nights and paying the housekeeper.
"I saved a fair amount of money in my 401(k) plan, but that is suppose to be for retirement," she told me, tears falling on the wooden breakfast table. "And besides, if I withdraw any amount before the age of 59, I will be taxed around 20 percent or more. That's too expensive. I can't do this by myself," she said.
I could relate to Lena, I had been in a similar situation years before where I was living paycheck to paycheck and not saving enough for a rainy day. Today was Lena and Samuel's rainy day and they were both feeling naturally upset. "Samuel is looking for a job and asking his parents for a loan. I am confident he will get a good job but it could take a few months in this job market," said Lena. We both lamented that we chose shopping and professional optimism over creating a three month reserve for these tough moments in life. I vowed at that moment to keep enjoying my iPhone 4 and not upgrade to the coveted "5" as Lena had until I built another two month reserve.
I had just returned the night before from seeing my father overseas (in Hawaii) and my talk with Lena really made me reflect on how my parents have managed their resources and retired well in a time that so many people are financially challenged.
My father escaped to America in 1956 from Hungary and he came here with no money but a big desire to be free and make a life for himself and the family he would eventually have. His childhood was filled with real-life nightmares and survival, but he has persevered and has become one of my great heroes and mentors. To me he exemplifies the American Dream.
Walking through his home in upcountry Maui I was overcome with memories every turn I made and every cabinet I opened. "That was the blue mug Dad made espresso in when I was in elementary school"; "This is the paper mache candy chicken Dad brought home from a business trip in Peru. We would walk down Wisconsin Avenue and fill it with carefully selected candy from the Coffee, Tea and Spice shop in Georgetown," I shared with my husband Marc.
I walked my 10-year-old daughter through the house and we pulled out holiday decorations that had seen better years, but were carefully preserved since the '70s. My dad put some Mozart on and I had to pull out my camera to take a picture of him showing our daughter what a record actually looks like. It was the first record that she has ever seen and I recognize the record player and stereo equipment from at least 1980.
My dad no longer lives in Virginia but the furniture, the paintings, the dishes all take me back to that period in time when he was working and thoughtful with his investments. I only get to see my dad once a year as he lives so far away and I am a bit obsessed with a start-up in D.C. I co-founded: Barrel of Jobs.
Friends tease me that I have parents who have great, amazing real estate overseas but little do they know I don't take advantage of it nearly as much as I would like. This trip we talked a lot about managing money and the steps he took to retired to a dream life in Maui. He doesn't shop a lot and when he does, its usually for high-quality food at Costco, travel to Europe, or a new tech gadget that he will keep for years. He proudly bought the iPhone 5 with a two-year plan but then proactively sold the "4" on Craigslist in an impressive break-even deal. My stepmother is amazing at recycling and re-purposing everything. We delighted every day in eating guava, mango and passion fruit jams she made from her own garden.
I used to wonder why Dad would wear the same Lacoste shirt for a decade or two when he was in a position to buy four new ones, but now I know. He buys high quality and does not look at purchases as disposable like Lena and I do. For the first time it really dawned on me that my dad's sensibilities and plan works and that if I put away money and stopped coming home with C-Wonder, Apple and Chicos' Bags, maybe I could retire someday well too.
I wanted to share all this with Lena but decided it best to wait until things got better. Maybe not buying the latest Samsung 50-inch flat screen is the answer. Maybe ongoing retail therapy is really a recipe for working hard until you're 82.
I sent Samuel three job listings from our site with some great tech companies in the DC area that I admire, WeddingWire, Venga and Clarabridge to see if they might perk his interest. I also sent him good ones at SmartCEO magazine and the DC Chamber of Commerce.
That night I kissed Justine goodnight and noticed in her arms she was snuggling with a well-worn Putsy, a Siberian husky dog that my father bought me when I was nine years old at FAO Schwartz in New York City. I begged for an hour and finally my Dad gave in. Putsy was one of three stuffed animals at my dad's home and by far my favorite. He gave it to Justine when we visited and I noticed that over the past few days all her other four dozen animals have been relegated to her bookshelves: 34-year-old Putsy won the coveted spot as 'first animal' with his head next to hers on her Scooby-Doo pillowcase.
Julie Kantor blogs weekly for The Huffington Post. Her full author archives can be found at www.huffingtonpost.com/julie-kantor.