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The Most Valuable Asset is Yourself

Carl RichardsYears ago, my colleagues and I conducted a fairly large-scale research project. We interviewed a bunch of high-income professionals who provided professional services. This group included doctors, dentists and lawyers, and like most of us, they earned money only when they were working. In essence, they traded their time for dollars.

Our finding was this: Homes and retirements accounts aside, the most valuable asset they owned was the person staring back at them in the mirror each morning. Chances are, the most valuable investment you own is the investment called you.

A more technical way to think about it is that the most valuable asset you own is the present value of your future earnings. But here’s the problem: Despite what your spouse may tell you, the investment called you is getting less valuable with every year that passes.

It’s nothing personal. I’m sure you’re great. But this is simple math. Every year that goes by means you have one fewer year to earn money. If I were to sketch this for you, it would look like this.

Traditional financial planning spends almost no time on this issue. Instead, the traditional financial services industry focuses on getting you to take as much money as you can and put it into other investments, like mutual funds, stocks and hedge funds. That’s all fine and, to be clear, a very important part of your overall plan. But far more needs to be said about the investment called you.

One person doing some fascinating work on this topic is Joshua Sheats at his site, Radical Personal Finance. If you’re interested in this subject (hint: you should be), you might want to check out his more technical treatment.

But for this column, I want to focus three ways you can think about this.

The Beginning

Make your starting salary as high as possible. Remember that friend from high school who had a great summer job? At the time, he made what seemed like a lot of money. Everyone was jealous. Then when you headed to college in the fall, your friend’s summer job turned into a full-time job. Why would he quit making money to go to college? But you put in the time and graduated a few years later.

Now your friend is a supervisor, but you’re a doctor. By investing in education and training, you increased your starting point and initial value. Obviously, not all us of really want to become doctors, but you get the idea. In the beginning, don’t let short-term rewards get in the way of increasing your long-term value.

The Middle

Make more money each year. Yes, I know this advice is obvious. But rather than being satisfied with just the annual cost-of-living adjustment, look for ways to increase your value where you work. Pick up new skills. Take extra classes and projects that no one wants. Don’t settle for doing just enough. To borrow a phrase from the author Cal Newport, make yourself so valuable they can’t ignore you.

Outside of your 9-to-5 job, find a side gig if you can make time. What could you do to earn an extra $1,000 each month? What happens if you start earning enough to cover your mortgage? What happens if you build a business that earns more than your regular job? This phase reminds me of Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper. Do a little more today and avoid being the grasshopper.

The End

Make your working window longer. Look, I know most of us really like the idea of retiring, but it’s a myth. Most people don’t simply work their guts out until 60, then suddenly pull that plug and put on the golf shoes. People are living longer, and you might be facing a very boring 20 or 25 years without work.

You can only golf so much.

Instead, most people find they still want to be doing something. Contributing value to the world. Working. So plan on it (and invest in your health too, so you’ll still be physically capable of working).

But think of this side hustle as an opportunity to do something you love to do. Maybe it looks a bit more like this: You work at your day job until 55 and then slow down a bit. You do more of the work you love. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a teacher, or perhaps you’d really love to become a guide at your local botanical garden. Whatever the work, it lengthens your overall line.

You may love the job you’re doing now, but your employer might have a set retirement age. Could your value be so great that they might consider working with you as a consultant for a few more years? Adding a little time at the end will give your line another upward bump.

These are just a few of the ways we can invest in ourselves. And by now, you’ve probably thought of a dozen things you can do that are unique to your own life. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear your ideas. You can find me on Twitter @behaviorgap or send me an email, carl@behaviorgap.com. Just don’t ever forget that more we invest in ourselves today, the more valuable we become over time and the less we need to worry about that line on the chart.

This commentary originally appeared December 14 on NYTimes.com

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The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2015, The BAM ALLIANCE

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Avoid Caregiver Burnout During the Holidays

By Sylvia Nissenboim

Both caregiving for an elderly loved one and preparing for the holidays can come with a lot of joy, but also some unintended stress. As such, it’s vital that caregivers don’t overload themselves as they balance the day-to-day demands of caring for an older family member with the additional commitments that pop up around the holiday season. So what’s the best way to take care of yourself so you don’t burn out?

First a little background. Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude, specifically from positive and caring to negative and detached. Sometimes we don’t even notice we are getting burned out until others tell us they see the symptoms. The most common symptoms of burnout are increased fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression. Taking care of an older family member can already deplete our stores of energy, and when the holidays come around, there’s sometimes nothing left to draw upon. Things that once brought pleasure (baking with the grandkids or decorating the table, for instance) now seem like chores.

Consider these tips to help minimize unnecessary stressors around both caregiving and the holidays:

First, recognize the signs of increased stress. Has your mood changed? Are you often down, irritated and angry? Are your sleep, attention and energy levels disrupted? Remember that stress is a supply and demand problem. It’s the result of too many requests and not enough resources (such as time, energy and attention) to meet them.

Second, try shifting your focus to what you can control. We can choose our attitude, and we can choose when we say “yes” or “no.” (Every “yes” is a “no” to something else when you are already loaded with responsibilities.) We have learned from scientific studies on the brain that a positive perspective increases energy, productivity and mood, so it’s important to focus on what’s appreciated and what we are grateful for. In addition, what you agree to do, or not do, can give you a sense of control in situations you often can’t direct. You can’t control, for example, the course of a family member’s condition, but you can control the commitments you make to others and ensure you are not overtaxing yourself. The holidays may be the perfect time to say “yes” to offers of assistance. A friend asking how they can help you out should be thanked and given a job, like picking up medicine or food the next time they go to the store.

And third, try honing the five resiliency skills taught by Al Siebert:

Prioritize safety and self-care. You can’t take care of others if you don’t first ensure that you are in good shape. Go to the doctor, go for a walk or get out with friends. Each of these things can be important to help sustain your own health and well-being.

Learn breathing and relaxation techniques. Relaxation breathing is a way to calm yourself when you feel particularly stressed or overwhelmed. Inhale through your nose for a count of three, and then exhale for a count of four (as if you were blowing out a candle). Complete four or five of these deep-breathing sequences, and you will be on your way to becoming calm enough to handle the task in front of you.

Communication is key. Talk with friends, family members, a counselor or a spiritual leader. Don’t hold everything in. You have more power when you let others carry some of the emotional burden.

Connect with different groups. Different networks of friends and acquaintances, whether they’re from the neighborhood, your book club or church group, refresh and renew us. Reach out.

Concentrate on optimism. Look for the good in the world. We feel what we focus on, so why not choose to see the positive qualities in the people around us? It’s easy to become inundated with bad news, so we have to work to keep optimistic, positive and grateful for what we have. This state of mind can help re-energize you and improve your attitude immeasurably.

The bottom line is that, to care for a loved one and make it through the joyous but sometimes stressful holiday period, we have to take care of ourselves. In doing so, we are making ourselves more emotionally available to the ones we love and care about.

Now, pass the pumpkin pie, please!

Sylvia Nissenboim, LCSW, is a licensed counselor and certified coach with more than 30 years of experience helping families care for aging parents through coaching, counseling and consultation services.

By clicking on any of the links above, you acknowledge that they are solely for your convenience, and do not necessarily imply any affiliations, sponsorships, endorsements or representations whatsoever by us regarding third-party Web sites. We are not responsible for the content, availability or privacy policies of these sites, and shall not be responsible or liable for any information, opinions, advice, products or services available on or through them.