Gray Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce

Control What You Can, But Stay 6 Feet Apart

by Amy Lawson, MBA, CDFA®

Life can change from one breath to the next. Nothing in our nation’s history since World War II brings this point to life more than COVID-19.

Two weeks ago, we joked about having a bad week because of the time change, full moon and Friday the 13th. We didn’t have a clue, did we?

We could not have imagined that a virus named after a beer you can buy at Walmart would run roughshod on the world’s most robust economy, which in turn threatens to cripple the world’s economy. Proof positive that when the powerhouse stumbles, the rest of the world easily falls.

Our World Has Changed

Within a few days, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off, losing their source of income, with millions predicted to lose their jobs before this virus runs its course.

Schools across the country are now closed, leaving parents scrambling for childcare with many parents now trying to juggle working from home with home schooling.

Colleges and universities are either canceling classes or going totally online; with some canceling May’s graduation ceremonies.

While some people are fortunate enough to work from home, others are not. Doctors, nurses, healthcare workers in general, emergency medical personnel, police officers, firefighters, truck drivers, even pilots and flight attendants don’t have the luxury to work from home; our infrastructure depends on their physical presence. A commercial airliner can’t even take off without at least 2 pilots and 3 flight attendants prepared to risk their health to get your loved-ones safely home.

While some workers have paid sick leave to lean on, others have little or no safety net to break their financial fall.

To add fuel to the fear of the unknown, we are all told to distance ourselves socially if we have no symptoms and to self-quarantined if we do, or, if have been exposed to someone who is symptomatic.

To add insult to our collective financial injury, we’re watching our 401(k)s and other investment accounts fall and fall fast. To make things worse, some financial experts tell you to “just ride it out” assuming because they have the risk tolerance to watch their portfolios fall 30% in 30 days without losing sleep that you should be able to do the same, implying that if you can’t, you’re weak or your thinking is flawed. These “experts” totally ignore the fact that there is no right or wrong risk tolerance; your risk tolerance is just what it is.

A popular financial “coach,” who also works in the airline industry, chided one of his followers last week, claiming that because he (the coach) wasn’t panicking with his holdings falling as much as the price of a 3-bedroom house in the state of Maryland that this particular follower shouldn’t be concerned because his (the follower’s) 401(k) was down by $7,000. Wow, way to step into someone else’s shoes, Mr. Financial Coach. Any financial “professional,” and I use that term loosely, who expects you to step into his/her shoes as opposed to them to stepping into yours, particularly in a time of crisis, is not only UN.PROFESSIONAL, but out of touch. Not to mention, unschooled in the field of financial planning.

With so many of life’s big things in freefall, it’s human to feel out of control. So, what do we do, as humans, when we feel out of control?

You can do the following two things: First, ask yourself WHAT you can TRULY control. Then, work on controlling those things.

Below are 4 things you can truly control right now.

1. Consciously Take Deep Breaths

When things feel out of control, it’s easy to project our fears into the future; it’s easy to catastrophize. When we fear we’ll face a catastrophe, we hold our breath, we forget to breathe.

Our brain is a wondrous organ in that it controls the entirety of our bodily functions, but in the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, it can fool us into believing our fears are real. Our limbic brain, the most primitive part of our gray matter (I refer to it as our “alligator brain”) is not the high functioning part of our brain, but instead is responsible for our fight or flight reactions. When we’re scared, our alligator brain kicks into survival mode. Our ability to reason is severely limited and we can’t think clearly, which means we can’t make good decisions. (Hording toilet paper and hand sanitizer doesn’t qualify as survival mode behavior – that’s just pure greed.)

When someone is scared or upset, telling them to calm down doesn’t make them less scared or upset. BUT, encouraging someone to breath does. Try it. Now.

Breathe. Breathe deeper this time and hold it for a few seconds. Now, breathe even deeper. Hold that breath for a few seconds. Do this 5 times. Then 10 times. Then for a minute, then for 3 minutes. (By now your kids are probably bugging you for their 10th snack before lunch, so go give them a snack and a snuggle, then breathe again.)

Breathe deeply between the snacks… and the emails… and the conference calls… and changing over the laundry. Keep breathing deeply between everything that demands your attention, right up until the time you can lay down your weary head. You can do this, my dear friend.

2. You Can Control How You Wash Your Hands

Wash them often, wash them long, wash them to a peppy song. Forget singing Happy Birthday to yourself though, who wants to be reminded of getting older in the middle of a global pandemic? You need a song of empowerment, one that draws a line in the proverbial viral sand. Turn on the hot water, grab a bar of soap, channel the Queen of Soul herself, Miss Aretha Franklin and sing “Think” at the top of your lungs:

You better think (think)
Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me
Think (think-think) let your mind go
Let yourself be free

Let’s go back, let’s go back
A let’s go way on to way back when
I didn’t even know you

You couldn’t a been too much more than ten (just a child)
I ain’t no psychiatrist
I ain’t no doctor with degrees
But it don’t take too much I.Q.
To see what you’re doing to me

You better think (think)
Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me
Yeah, think (think-think)
Think (think-think) let your mind go
Let yourself be free

By the time you get though the chorus you will feel like the badass you are AND your hands will be more than clean.

3. You Can Control How Much You Pray

Regardless of how you address your higher power, you can control how often you seek guidance from whatever source whose guidance you seek. If you can’t find a moment to formally pray, then consider the belief that every thought is a prayer, then think a thought that brings you peace… or one that gives you strength… or one that reminds you that you are loved and not alone and that everything is going to be OK.

4. You Can Control How You Allocate Your 401(k) and Other Investments

The current volatility of the stock market is causing a lot of anxiety right now. As someone who is fully licensed to give investment advice – I’ve been a fee-only advisor (a fiduciary) since 2001 – not everyone has the same tolerance for the short-term volatility of the stock market. One’s tolerance to volatility is neither right nor wrong, it just IS.

If you are losing sleep over the current market situation, it is wise to reallocate until this situation passes. Sure, it’s a trade off, but if you’re losing sleep and you’re willing to accept that trade off, then reallocate. Stress-related illnesses will kill you: Cancer, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems… all are linked to stress. I’m guessing your loved ones would rather have you around with a smaller 401(k) than dead with a fat one.

Blanket financial advice is reckless with one exception: payoff your debt ASAP. The less money you owe, the less money you need. Otherwise, everyone is different and everyone deserves a financial plan that is customized to their situation; a plan that incorporates their current financial big picture and projects their future cash flows, showing the probability of successfully reaching their goal in more than one scenario.

The road to retirement doesn’t have to be a white knuckled ride, dear friend, you just need the right plan. When you’re looking for a financial advisor (assuming you don’t call me), here’s the question you ask: What securities license do you have? The only acceptable answer is “I only have a Series 65.” It’s the only securities license that removes the bias from the advice you get because it means the advisor cannot, by law, receive commissions on the securities they recommend. Remove the commissions, remove the bias.

The world feels out of control right now, but trust that this too shall pass. While I can’t wash your hands for you, I can encourage you to focus on the power of your breath, I can lift you up in prayer and I can help you with your 401(k), or any other investments you have.

I’m here to help.

Wishing you peace & plenty!

Your gray girlfriend,

Signiture

About the Author

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Amy Lawson, MBA, CDFA®

As a divorced baby boomer, Amy, an independent investment advisor since 2001, formally expanded her services in 2016 to help older women navigate the daunting financial minefield of divorce after meeting numerous smart, well-educated, divorced women who lacked the funds to secure their financial futures.  She understands that for older women facing divorce, achieving an equitable divorce settlement is the first step.

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