I moved into my first post-colligate apartment in November, 2008. I was an independent woman (or at least I thought I was), complete with my very own Brooklyn mailing address, where insurers, bankers and marketers would send packets, bills and brochures, all vying for my attention and my money. Enjoying life as a petite twenty-three year old in New York City, I was too distracted to care about any of it. I shuffled anything resembling official correspondence (not junk mail) into a cardboard box to look at “later.” This was the beginning of the Box of Responsibility.
Seven months later, on June 15, 2008, I recorded the following into my journal:
LIST OF THINGS TO DO
(In no particular order of importance)
1. Apply for passport
2. Eye doctor
3. Absentee ballet
4. Box of Responsibility. Just deal with it already!
5. Take care of S&S and Martha Stewart 401k money
I guess I can proudly say that in 2008, I voted.
In January 2010, the Box and I moved to my second apartment on 2nd Street on the border of the East Village and Alphabet City.
In 2013, I moved to California, bringing my now busting-at-the-seams Box of Responsibility along in tow. How many people can say they actually packed, taped and labeled a box of their problems to bring with them across the country? Once unpacked in my first of six San Diego apartments in two years, I looked at the box with regret. Then, I evaded the problem with a proactive illusion (or rather self-delusion, since no one besides me knew about the ever-accumulating financial mess being stored in secret under my bed. I should have changed its name from Box of Responsibility to Box of Shame). Mustering five years of determination, I managed to sort my responsibilities into categorized folders. As I opened sealed mail and made piles, I was literally “shuffling papers around” in a rouse to no one but myself of “doing something.” The categories included but were not limited to the following:
- Offer letter, insurance information and exit papers from Simon&Schuster, my first job in New York.
I remember arriving outside the office on my first day, wearing a cropped summer suit from Express with knee length clam diggers and half sleeved jacket, both black with subtle white polkadots. I walked from Grand Central Station up six blocks to 48th Street and west two avenues toward 6th through Rockefeller Plaza. As I passed, adoring fans stood outside, hoping to catch the cameras’ lenses directed at the newscasters of the Today Show. Before entering the majestic building of 1230 Avenue of the Americas with its marble lobby and gold-leafed embellishments, I stood across the street moving my eyes back and forth between Simon&Schuster and the Radio City Music Hall. “I’ve made it!” I actually said to myself.
I was only at S&S for a couple months before moving on in my peripheral publishing career.
- Offer letters, insurance information and pay stubs (actual pay stubs!) from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
- Offer letters, insurance information and pay stubs from the two jobs I had in Manhattan between leaving Martha Stewart in 2010 and arriving in California in 2013.
- Paperwork for Ronda the Honda, my newly leased Civic.
- Additional pieces of mail that at the time seemed important.
- Receipts for my 2010 Apple MacBook.
Phew! I was exhausted after all that shuffling. I looked at the now neatly categorized Box. Stifling the anxiety of all that I would have to do seemed easier than to actually do something. So I stifled. I stifled and ignored my Box of Responsibility for the next two years in San Diego and two more after moving to San Francisco in 2015.
Now it is 2017. I am the Digital Content Producer for a thriving skincare company struggling to update and stabilize its digital user experience. I am not just an adult, I am a woman. Or at least I am trying to be. The biological proof is there—sporadic grey hairs, intensified hang overs and the development of more pronounced child-bearing hips, even though I’m not so sure I ever want to bear children. Yet I still feel so juvenile. What’s worse, at thirty-two I still feel confused and stuck by the path my career has taken. But maybe all is not lost! Just like this company, forging through years of technological procrastination to relaunch their systems in order to get to the next level of their capabilities, I too need to make overdue changes to get to the next level of mine.
About a month ago, I was walking down Mission Street on my lunch break. As I crossed from one side of the street to the other to avoid construction zones of the new Sales Force towers that will monopolize an entire city block, I berated myself for not accomplishing anything. (Harsh, I know. But sometimes, you have to be harsh to make an impact. It’s called tough love.) Sure, I’ve established a life with friends and activities in San Francisco, and sure I’ve committed to and grown from my first long-term intimate relationship. But I’m still here, procrastinating on my lunch break, wandering the streets with no where to go.
When I say I haven’t accomplished anything, I am thinking specifically of my book. I want to write a book; a feat I whole heartedly dove into when I first moved to California and remained fairly devoted to for my first two years here. Following the printing of my manuscript’s first draft, however, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the task, namely how much it was distracting me from meeting people in this new state where I knew no one. I was lonely.
So I put my book down and focused on building a life. Now, four years and two Californian cities later, that life seems to be up and running: Full-time job, check. Friends, check. Boyfriend, check. But I am stymied, accomplishing nothing. Something is holding me back from writing my book, a memoir called Let Me Out I’m Stuck.
As if a glass panel had fallen from the erecting Sale Force tower and shattered on my head, at that moment I recognized the problem. My Box of Responsibly, which I now maturely referred to as “my finances” was still my messy not-so-little secret. I had absolutely no concept of my monthly budget (except for the principle knowledge that, for the first time in my life, I made more money than I spent) nor the up to four retirement funds existing in my name which were probably collecting more dust than cash.
The glass now shattered, I began talking to myself as I walked. (This is common practice for me. I figured out some time around high school that I do not have an internal monologue. I am not someone who can keep it inside. I go about my day saying most thoughts that come into my head out loud, reasoning with myself as if I am having a compassionate conversation with an old friend. Hey! Who you calling old? Sometimes, in a store or on public transportation, I’ll get an idea that I want to mull over. I’ll try to think on it, to document the thought as acknowledged and heard. But it’s not good enough. I find myself bubbling over with the words, needing to forcefully contain myself until I am able to exit the situation and return to the anonymity of city street or privacy of my apartment. When I get home to my apartment, the first thing I do is check to make sure my roommate is not home. That way I can talk at normal volume, which for me, Jewish, Eastern-European and New Yorker decent, is a few decibels louder than most.—Last December, when I received my annual peer review at work, several of my nameless colleagues had commented about the volume of my voice. “Often times, Charlotte seems to be yelling….but this will get better with age and maturity.” While I appreciate their noticing that I am on the verge of budding into a powerful, self-expressed woman, their “demure will come with age” reasoning is completely faulty. They should hear my mother! They probably can hear my mother, all the way from New Jersey.—I can’t wait to live alone. To not have to hold back any thoughts at any time. To just talk out loud in my natural voice, to whatever gods or spirits or dust bunnies might be in the mood to listen to me work through some things or laugh at my own jokes.)
So there I was, walking on Mission Street, gabbing away about my financial deficiencies, ignoring everyone around me. (The trick to talking to yourself in public is to be wearing earbuds. I could just as easily be talking on the phone. They don’t know. But the truth is, even if they did know, even if I were wearing a giant red “TTM” on my chest for Talking To Myself, it wouldn’t matter. I’ve got something to say).
Up ahead, I watched the pedestrian crossing sign count down from ten seconds as I approached the corner of Mission and Fremont Street. The sidewalk became more crowded as commuters crossed Mission and herded past me perpendicularly. Some gathered by the bus stop, others paused at the corer, waiting for the light to change so they could continue on Mission in the same direction as me. On this day, I had no particular destination. I just needed a walk to escape the numbing blue and florescent lights that dominate my office job. I slowed my pace, not wanting to have to wait in a idle crowd until the light changed again. Easing passed a street-side florist, and inhaled the fresh-scented bouquets. Taking a long, exaggerated smell of the roses, I told myself harsh truths, “Who am I, trying to write a book telling the stories of how I’ve overcome the progression into adulthood to become a confident, sexy and honest woman? I haven’t even finished the thing I set out to do in chapter 4! How could that story be ready to be told? It’s not. Grow up, Charlotte.”
It was time to take care of business. Still terrified of the task ahead, however, I came to the conclusion that I needed to delegate out the work. Hand over my passwords, account numbers, Box of Responsibility and more recently accumulated piles of mail to a financial professional and have them sort out the mess.
I gave myself a pep talk. “Yes, I think that is the right thing to do. But you have to actually do it, Charlotte. When you get back to the office, start asking around if anyone has a financial advisor they’d recommend. I just want someone to set everything up to easily track and manage. Once all my accounts are organized, I can take it from there…” The light changed again and I entered the flow of pedestrians gliding across Fremont Street. “How much will this cost me? I’m willing to pay…” I think for a second on this arbitrary bid on a service I know little-to-nothing about, “three to four hundred dollars. I can’t imagine it would cost more than that!”
The shaded side of the sidewalk was closed due to Sales Force construction, so I was forced to walk on the sun-drenched side of the street, made even warmer by the pack of pedestrians forced to do the same. Now five city blocks away from my office building, I felt my body temperature rising just below the point when I would start to sweat and took this as a sign that my lunchtime walk should be over. I did an about-face and retraced my steps toward my office, still talking to myself, only this time presenting something more of concluding remarks, “Good job, Charlotte. Just take care of this. You will feel so much better when you do. Financial freedom is one thing. Financial control is where the money’s at.” Thirty-two with no prospects on marriage, a woman is only a woman when she has the financial stability to take care of herself.
Back at the office, I grab my laptop and head to my first meeting of the afternoon, still thinking about my delegation plan. Although my walk had been so productive as to come up with the what, I still did not know the who.
When I first moved to San Francisco, before my boyfriend was my boyfriend, I met a boy (at twenty-eight, he was a boy, though he hated when I called him that) at a Friends-Giving party the week before Thanksgiving. This boy was the only who I could think of; he was the only financial advisor I knew on the west coast. I contemplated reaching out to him. In the now-over-a-year since we had last spent a night together, we’ve exchanged half a dozen text messages. Of the most recent, the first came from me the week of Daylight Savings, my favorite moment of winter. I keep a countdown on my phone with days ticking away until, “The Light.” Meeting during the holiday season the year before, the twenty-eight-year-old and I dated through the darkest part of the winter months throughout which I talked whimsically about The Light. When the countdown finally whittled away to zero days left, I sent him a screenshot in recognition of the moment. He responded almost immediately with the emoji of “two hands raised in celebration.” A few weeks later, he texted me, asking how I was doing. I responded briefly figuring “in love with my boyfriend” wasn’t the answer he was looking for. Another couple of weeks later, he tried again. The “happy man raising one hand” appeared on my phone. Ha! I thought to myself (or rather, I probably said out loud) He thinks an emoji is going to impress me. I had just arrived at a yoga class and didn’t want to give him the benefit of an instant response. When we were dating he would go multiple days before responding to one of my texts. Some hours later I wrote back, “ciao.” That was the end of our correspondence to date.
However, despite his twenty-something boy behavior toward me, he was a nice guy, popular, athletic, a good son and brother and a good friend to his buddies whom I’d met once or twice. If we saw each other again, I know it would be as friends, no romantic or sexual tension remaining between us (not only do I love my boyfriend, but I also know better than to believe that this boy and I were compatible for any longer than the few weeks we dated. We had little in common. And, although it was only a couple years age difference between us, he was a millennial and I was a generation older. The way we communicated was fundamentally different, and neither one of us thought enough of the other to change our ways). Should I text to ask for his financial services? I considered on one hand that this was a practical idea for necessary reasons, I considered on the other that I really didn’t want to talk to him. I needed to find another resource.
In the meeting room, waiting for the other attendees to arrive, I polled the only San Francisco network I have, my coworkers. I highjacked the small talk, changing the conversation from “is anyone doing anything fun this weekend?” to “I’m interested in hiring a financial advisor,” seeing if anyone would take the bait and offer up a name.
An independent contractor, hired to help project manage the chaos ensued from a recent tech failure and setback, lit up. She had a great accountant! As we chatted, my boss entered the room and buoyantly joined the conversation. Her elation grew when she discovered we were talking about personal finances. Five minutes later, twenty minutes after my self-admission that it was time to delegate, I had a financial advisor apt for the job—my boss. Her fee was not three to four hundred dollars as I had previously projected. All she asked was for my participation in her DIY approach. I agreed and put a recurring session on our Outlook calendars, Tuesdays 4:30-5pm.
The first session was stressful. My humiliation saved only by the fact that I had previously warned my boss of my financial delinquency so she wouldn’t say something diminishing or un-motivating out to shock.
Trish Chan, Amateur Financial Advisor, Step-by-Step Financial Planning 101:
Step 1: Log in to your accounts. If you don’t have the credentials, call the financial institutions.
This step took several weeks before I successfully ascertained the username and password for each of my 401k’s that I had accumulated over my thus far nine-year career. Nothing was as simple as just logging in. Over the years, companies had changed names and benefit providers, and I had changed zip codes (one of the more popular security questions to unlock your account) more than seven times since I held my first job at Simon&Schuster.
“I guess let’s start at the beginning,” I said, holding the now-graying paperwork with Simon&Shuster’s parent company, CBS Corporation, letterhead at the top. I skimmed through the information. “It looks like when I stopped working there, they started charging me to keep my account! When I left, I had eleven hundred dollars in my 401k (I was only at the job for half a year, so this was not a completely disappointing sum), but now it’s down to $600.” The Box of Responsibility did not disappoint in the totality in which it preserved my documentation. As if reading a thriller novel, I flipped to the next piece of correspondence. “Terminating my account?! So this is saying that they emptied my account. But there was still $592 in there, where…” As I spoke, I uncovered the next piece of snail mail. At the bottom of the page was a perforated check still attached, virtually unnoticed for the past eight years, made out to me for the cash amount of $592. I called CBS who directed my call to the financial institution, who redirected my call to their 401k department, who, after confirming my birthday and social security number, updated their records with my new address and issued a new check for my entitled amount.
While S&S was the only account that was terminated, each of my remaining accounts were just as difficult to access. Each one required calling the financial institution and proving my identity.
Step 2: Save all login credentials in one secure place: Lastpass.com, an encrypted password vault.
Step 3: Begin tracking monthly spending and bills using Mint.com.
Step 4: Apply for a credit card.
Adults have credit cards. Moreover, women have credit cards. If I want to be an adult woman, I need a credit card.
“Don’t worry,” my financial advisor assured me. “You can set up an automatic billing cycle in Mint. Always pay off the entire thing so you don’t have a balance at the end of the month.”
It took two weeks for my credit card to be approved. It will take another two for it to be mailed to my apartment.
Step 5: Once all accounts are accessed and credentials saved, review 401k investments and rates of return. Sign up for Betterment.com, the investing platform, and Blooom.com, the algorithm that plugs into your 401k account to optimize it.
Now the fun begins! Or at least that’s why my financial advisor would have you think. She gets giddy at this part of the process like it’s a game against infinite options with the goal of discovering the best combination of investments and investors to yield the most cash.
When starting to write Step 5 just now, I texted her to explain the difference between Betterment and Blooom. She responded with those definitions: “Betterment is an investing platform. And Blooom is algorithm that plugs into your 401k account to optimize it.” After a few more questions, I finally caught on:
So right now, my X account is still with X investors, but attached to Blooom so it performs at its best and attached to Betterment so I can see X’s performance in comparison to my Y account.
She responded immediately with a “Yes” followed by the “thumbs up” emoji.
My take away here is that while I may understand Step 5 enough to paraphrase it in a text message, I would be helpless to complete this Step alone.
Step 6: Monitor accounts on various platforms to assess the best rollover option.
At this time, my options are twofold: A) Rollover my previously existing 401k’s into my current company’s 401k, yielding one active account or B) roll them into a new Betterment account keeping them independent from my current 401k, yielding two accounts to watch.
I know. I’m dizzy too.
Step 7: Rollover accounts as desired from assessment in Step 6.
I’m not sure what Step 8 is. I am still on Step 6. But that is six steps ahead of where I was a couple months ago, or eight years ago for that matter. And that is the point of this post.