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A Man, a Can, and a Plan

It was the spring of 2010; I was just getting accustomed to life in Walla Walla after moving from my hometown of San Diego, CA. I had lived in San Diego for my entire life and I had grown accustomed to certain things. Perfect weather for close to 350 days a year, the Pacific Ocean, easy access to professional sports, etc. were all things that I was giving up for the pleasures of living a in small town. However, there was one thing that I definitely did not expect to give up: recycling.

As kids, my sister and I would save our soda cans, even soliciting our relatives for their empties. Once a year, usually before a family trip somewhere, we would spend hours in our garage stomping those cans to fit as many as we could in garbage bags. My dad would drive us to the recycling center where the bags were weighed and we would be paid out in cash. It was usually a good haul for a 10 year old. I would guess that I averaged around $100 each trip.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2010 and you can understand my consternation that not only was there no place to recycle cans for profit in Walla Walla, I actually had to drive somewhere to recycle them! I did a little research and found that there was a recycling center in Milton-Freewater where you could redeem cans and bottles. I made a mental note that the next time I had a reason to go to Milton-Freewater I was going to take my garbage bag of crunched cans to the Safeway and collect my bounty.

A few weeks later, after a late afternoon meeting with the branch manager of Baker Boyer’s Milton-Freewater branch, I drove across the street to the Safeway and realized I had a big problem. I had not looked into the exact method that the recycling center used to count the cans. The machine required that each individual can’s barcode be scanned, one by one. Well, I do not know if you have tried to “uncrunch” aluminum cans before, but it is not particularly easy. About 5 minutes into it a recycling center regular asked, “Hey man, who’s the fool that crushed all of your cans?!” He smirked when he heard my answer.

I cannot remember the exact number of cans at which that the machine stopped me and limited my redemption, but at this point, I was frustrated. I offered them to the man sitting next to the machine and he begrudgingly accepted the task of “uncrunching” the remaining two hundred or so cans. As I turned to leave he said, “I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve been sitting out here for 15 years and I have never seen anyone in a suit trying to recycle this many cans!”

“I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve been sitting out here for 15 years and I have never seen anyone in a suit trying to recycle this many cans!”

Funny story, but what is the point? I attended a conference recently where the speaker asked a question and requested that audience members shout back the first thing that popped into their mind. The question was, “How do rich people become rich?” Some of the responses from the audience were “hard-work”, “luck”, “focus” and “instinct”. He then asked, “What causes poor people to become poor?” Those responses ranged from “laziness” and “lack of focus” to “bad luck” and “lack of opportunity”. The speaker was not trying to determine which statement was correct. He was demonstrating that we all carry around stories that we tell ourselves about money and those stories have a profound influence on how we behave. The speaker made the case that by the time we are ten years old, these scripts are already firmly rooted in who we are. Clearly, my experience with my father and sister of recycling cans created a story in my head.

We all carry thoughts and feelings about money in our heads. They manifest themselves in all sorts of different ways. Many who have experienced financial insecurity as a result of job loss or periods like the Great Depression maintain their frugality long after they have achieved a level of financial security that would allow them to responsibly spend more. Many have inherited money that was a great blessing and have every intention of passing that blessing to the next generation. Still others have seen money create family problems and have a distrustful, uneasy relationship with wealth. The stories themselves are neither good nor bad, they just are.

“We all carry thoughts and feelings about money in our heads.”

In my role as Financial Planning Manager, I help clients construct financial plans that fit their unique circumstances. Underlying every plan I design is a client’s money story. It is impossible to design a financial plan that a client will stick with if I do not understand their personal money story. Personal money stories affect behavior and tendencies. A financial plan that acknowledges those behaviors and tendencies is useful and very valuable.

As Peter mentions in another of the articles in this Update, the only way to get a better understanding of your story is to start having a conversation around the taboo subject of money. If you aren’t already talking about money with those impacted by your financial plan, I encourage you to start. Like recycling cans in a suit, there is some vulnerability required for it to be valuable and it might be somewhat embarrassing, but it will surely yield a better return.

About the Author

Brian K Bruggeman, CFP®, CTFA

Brian K Bruggeman, CFP®, CTFA
Executive Vice President
Chief Innovation Officer
Director of Financial Planning

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