The economic well-being of average Americans
Last month, the Federal Reserve released a new report: Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021 [PDF]. This annual survey gauges American financial health and attitudes. The 2021 edition was conducted last November.
Here are some highlights from the report:
- Seventy-eight percent of adults were either doing okay or living comfortably financially, the highest share with this level of financial well-being since the survey began in 2013.
- Fifteen percent of adults with income less than $50,000 struggled to pay their bills because of varying monthly income.
- Fifteen percent of workers said they were in a different job than twelve months earlier. Just over six in ten people who changed jobs said their new job was better overall, compared with one in ten who said that it was worse.
- Sixty-eight percent of adults said they would cover a $400 emergency expense exclusively using cash or its equivalent, up from 50 percent who would pay this way when the survey began in 2013. (Note that this survey is the original source of this oft-quoted statistic.)
- Six percent of adults did not have a bank account. Eleven percent of adults with a bank account paid an overdraft fee in the previous twelve months.
These little nuggets of info are interesting, sure, but what I find even more interesting are the charts and graphs documenting long-term trends.
Scambaiters: Meet the modern-day heroes who scam scammers
Both my ex-wife (Kris) and my current girlfriend (Kim) tell me I get too worked up about things sometimes. "You over-react," they both tell me. Maybe so. I prefer to think of myself as passionate.
One of the things I'm passionate about is scammers. I hate them. Scammers are evil, evil people who prey on the most vulnerable members of society. They take advantage of social constructs in order to manipulate people into parting with their hard-earned money.
No surprise then that one of my favorite sub-genres of YouTube videos is "scammers getting scammed". Scambaiters are modern-day heroes. As much as I despise scammers, I think scambatiers deserve high praise.
I lost money in crypto so that you don’t have to!
One morning just over ten years ago, I had an interesting conversation at the Crossfit gym. I was "rolling out" — using a foam roller to break up tissue — with the usual group of guys, when one of my buddies brought up this new thing called Bitcoin.
"Bitcoin is digital money," he said. "But it's completely private and not tied to a government."
"How does that work?" I asked. From the very first moment I heard about cryptocurrency, it didn't seem to make any sense. My friend tried to explain. We all chatted about it for a few minutes, and then we lifted heavy weights and/or sweated extensively and/or both of the above.
When I got home, I googled Bitcoin. Nothing I read made any sense to me. I checked the price. My memory is that Bitcoin was selling for $7 or $8 at the time.
Over the past decade, I've been bombarded with info about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. I've made an effort to self-educate, to learn why people consider crypto valuable and why they think it's the future of money. To this day, I still haven't found an explainer that has actually explained things well enough for me to truly understand.
This 21-minute video from Slidebean has been most effective at helping me grasp the basics of the blockchain and cryptocurrency, but it still didn't convince me that this stuff was valuable.
Despite all of this, I've found myself gradually being worn down over time. So many people endorse cryptocurrency, including people who seem to be savvy and smart. Kim's brother, for instance, is a huge advocate of cryptocurrency. He and his wife have netted tens of thousands of dollars by dabbling in cryptocurrency. (They bought a new SUV with profits from one transaction.)
So, last fall, I succumbed to the mania.
One thing leads to another
Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and well wishes during the past two weeks. I appreciate them. We've been tying up loose ends related to Duane's life and death, and we're nearly finished with everything.
- Duane's memorial service is this Sunday. I've been collecting photos from family members, and have put together a slide show of memories. After the memorial service is over, the final loose end will be his financial accounts. We're prepped to handle those, however, and are just waiting on the death certificate.
- One of my rooms downstairs is filled with Duane's collections of ancient coins and Magic: The Gathering cards. The coins are a mystery to me. I watched as he collected them over the years, but I never bothered to learn anything about them. Why would I? Now, I wish I'd paid attention. The cards, on the other hand, I can handle. There are many of them — my guess is a minimum of 168,000 cards and perhaps twice that number — and they're largely unorganized, which means I have months of work ahead of me in order to sell them. But I understand the game and I understand collectibles, so this is all within my ken. It's just a lot of work.
- Kim and I have decided not to adopt any more of Duane's fish. This was a difficult decision. Duane very much wanted me to take his fish, especially the nineteen Mbuna cichlids. And there's a part of me that wants to have them. They'd be fun. It would honor his memory. But I also know that the fish would be a hassle, that they don't fit with our long-term plans. So, if nobody else in the family wants them we'll donate the fish to a pet store, then sell or donate the fish equipment.
Things have been complicated slightly because I got sick. Duane's extended family was passing around a nasty cold for much of April, and I managed to catch it the day after he died. It laid me low for several days. (And now, at this very moment, Kim is home sick from work with the same cold.) Fortunately, it's not COVID.
Things have also been complicated because my mother's health issues have recently reached a sort of crisis.
As good as it gets
It's December 1972. I am three years old. My parents have to be away for the night. They drive me to stay with Dad's brother and his family. It's cold and it's raining. We stand on a covered porch and knock. A big lady with a big smile opens the door to greet us.
"This is your Aunt Janice," Mom tells me. "And this is your cousin Nicky."
You are standing behind your mother. You are eight years old. This is the first time we meet. You're not interested in a little kid like me, and I'm too timid to pay much attention to you.
Mom and Dad leave. Your mother reads to me: The Little Engine that Could, Curious George, Doctor Seuss. You sit nearby and listen. Before bed, I learn that you wear plastic pants like I do. You're a big boy but you still wet the bed.
It's a Sunday in autumn 1978. You are fourteen; I am nine. My family is visiting yours after church. You are curled up in a chair watching football on a black-and-white television. You have a magazine in your lap. I am watching you watching football. We don't have a TV, and I don't know anything about football.
"What are you doing?" I ask.
"I'm watching the Pittsburgh Steelers," you say. "They're my favorite team." You show me the magazine — an entire magazine only about football. It lists the teams and the players and the schedules for the entire season. You show me how you take notes in the magazine, writing down the scores of each game, writing notes about your favorite players.
I tell you that I like comic books. When the game is over, you take me upstairs to show me your comics. You don't have many, and none of them are about superheroes, but when you offer me a Richie Rich, I take it home with me.
This is our first real interaction not as cousins, but as friends.
Both at the same time
Howdy, folks. I don't have any personal-finance news for you today because my life continues to be in one of two states.
- I spend three or four nights at Duane's house, helping to care for him. I buy him food. I prepare him food. I help him walk from room to room (because he cannot reliably do this himself anymore). I administer his drugs. I feed his fish. I take him on "field trips". We watch the Aquarium Co-Op channel on YouTube. Or...
- I spend three or four nights at my house, mostly sleeping but also rushing to get as many household chores and errands done as possible. I buy groceries. I (slowly) work to build a fence. I water plants. I walk the dog.
This has been my life for the past six weeks, and will continue to be my life until the inevitable conclusion of this adventure. While I'm not looking forward to The End, I will say that I've learned a ton from this process. I've grown even closer to Duane (at least when he's not in a narcotics-induced fog) and I've surprised myself with my ability to provide hospice care. Who knew?
So, that's the life update.
Monday, I drove north to help my cousin, Duane. We moved him out of his apartment last weekend and into a smaller place close to family. As a result, everything is in chaos. He's living out of boxes. At this late stage, his cancer affects every aspect of his life, and that includes his ability to sustain prolonged physical activity — such as setting up a new home.
I spent Monday afternoon unpacking his kitchen, buying groceries, installing his internet and television, and so on. In the evening, Bob and Audrey came over (Duane's brother and his sister-in-law). The four of us sat in the kitchen and sorted the boxes of food into three piles: Duane's pantry, going home with Bob/Audrey, going home with J.D.
When we were done, Duane insisted that we enjoy some birthday cake. He turned 58 on Sunday, and some friends had brought him a fancy carrot cake from a 100-year-old Portland bakery. Duane couldn't eat any cake himself (he can't eat or drink much of anything anymore), but he wanted us to taste it.
After his brother left, Duane and I began preparing for bed. "Tomorrow," I said, "we'll replace the water in your fish tanks and get the last of the stuff from your apartment. Plus, anything else you want to do."
Duane was sitting on the edge of his bed, half undressed. I could see that he was still in pain.
The seven habits of highly effective people
Because I've been driving back and forth from Corvallis to Portland so much lately to attend to my mother and cousin, I've had ample to time to listen to audiobooks. I find that I'm actually grateful for the opportunity to "read" in this fashion. (Like many folks, the past decade has destroyed my attention span and ability to read for long periods.)
I'm currently reading Stephen R. Covey's classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (Five stars on Amazon in 5672 reviews!) I read the book once long, long ago — sometime during the mid-1990s. I've referred to it now and then as the years have gone by, but mostly I've forgotten its lessons.
Or so I thought.
In reality, it turns out that much of my personal philosophy is similar to the precepts Covey covers. It's shocking, in fact, just how much of my personal and financial philosophies align with those presented in Seven Habits. I haven't consciously or deliberately emulated his teachings, but I've wound up in the same place nonetheless.
Ask the Readers: Resources for Writing a Will?
Last Friday, I drove from Corvallis to Portland to help my cousin, Duane. Duane has been living with throat cancer for several years now, but in recent months things have grown worse. It feels like he's preparing for the end. And that means he's packing up his apartment (where he's lived for 21 years!) to move someplace smaller.
We spent all of Friday afternoon sorting through his office. This was a challenge because (like most Roths) Duane is messy (and a self-proclaimed hoarder). Duane and I packed boxes and boxes of collectible card games, ancient coins, books on Greek and Roman history, and outdated computer games.
While we packed, we talked. Duane is my cousin, yes, but he's also my best friend. Because we're family and friends, I feel like we share a deep connection. We can call out each other's bullshit without hurting feelings. We can sing each other's praises without becoming obsequious. Most of all, we can talk about nerdy stuff like Magic: The Gathering, The Great British Baking Show, the ignorance of history in supposedly "historical" television dramas, and so on.
At one point, I found a piece of paper buried on a bookshelf. "Can I have this?" I asked. "I want to publish it on Get Rich Slowly."
"What is it?" Duane asked.
"It's your net worth from 1993," I said.
Duane laughed. "Go ahead," he said, and I gleefully tucked the page in my pocket. I love it.
Using buy-in to create motivation
Life has been lumpy lately. I've been dealing with some heavy stuff in my personal life — Mom, my cousin Duane, etc. — and that's left me feeling low. Combine that with my natural inclination toward depression, and you've got a recipe for a gloomy guy.
That said, I woke up feeling great today. And that energy carried through as I had my regular Zoom call with Diania Merriam, the organizer of the EconoMe Conference.
Diania and I started these calls for professional reasons, but after nearly two years they've evolved into something else. Now they're mostly a chance for us to help each other with our respective mental health struggles. During today's conversation, we had an interesting digression about personal finance.
We were talking about how I need to get out of the house more. Because I work from home, I spend most of my time alone. It's not good. Humans are social creatures, and that goes double for me. No wonder I feel shitty when I never leave the house!
Anyhow, Diania mentioned that she gets a lot of benefit from attending yoga regularly. And then she said something interesting.