When tomorrow comes today

I’m the world’s best procrastinator. I can find all sorts of justifiable reasons for not doing something and seem to have a never-ending list of excuses to legitimise my decisions. But some things cannot be put off any longer.

Back in 2001, a co-worker in the States (much younger than me) asked me about my pension plan. I laughed. Pension plan? My motto was to live for today and let tomorrow take care of itself. Anything could happen tomorrow – I could be run over by a bus and never live to spend a penny and in the meantime I’d have scrimped and saved for a retirement that would never be.

Later that year, another co-worker told me that from the day she first started work, she’d put away very other pay check. We were the same age. We had similar jobs. We even had the same first name. But she had a new car that she’d paid cash for, a house with no mortgage, and a pension plan that would allow her retire very comfortably at 45. She also had a 20-year head start on me. I spiralled into a major depression just thinking about my penniless future and how stupid I’d been. Action was called for.

Nerded out

I met with the company’s investment advisor, a nerdy-looking type with an alphabet after his name. He took pains to tell me how irresponsible I’d been; how careless. He painted a bleak picture of what my future would look like. I was practically beyond redemption. He presented me with all sorts of options – dazzled me with fancy financial terms – pressed the buttons on his calculator with the dexterity of a concert pianist – and conjured up a scary-looking neon graph on his laptop. I left his office laden down with glossy prospectuses and annual reports, and an appointment for the following week that I never kept.

Over the next ten years, I kept busy travelling and moving around, going to school, working my way towards Budapest. I was so busy living that I didn’t give any more thought to what would happen once I stopped work and the money stopped coming in. Until last week, that is.

Scared senseless

I was in a pharmacy over in Széna tér waiting to have a prescription filled. The old lady in front of me handed in her ‘script with a 5,000 forint note. She asked the pharmacist to give her the most important tablets; that was all the money she had. She was about my height. She had her hair cut short. Like me, she wore glasses. We both wore green coats and brown scarves. In a flash, I saw my future and it scared me senseless.

I went home and immediately made an appointment to see a financial advisor – someone into ‘wealth management’. I’d talked to him socially, and had been promising ever since to get my paperwork together and go see him officially, but I never did. I’m sure I had a good excuse (or twenty) – I always do.

For three days before my appointment, I had flashbacks to my man in Alaska and his calculations and permutations, his fancy software and his alphalary of financial terms. I was in no mood to be humoured as a brainless broad, but neither was I prepared to do the necessary research to educate myself. I was nervous as hell and dreading the outcome. I could see myself on a diet of bread and water for the next twenty years as I saved enough to eke out a sad, hermitic existence for twenty more after that.

Saved from the brink

We sat over a coffee. He asked me what age I wanted to retire at. I told him. He asked how much money would I need to live on, per month if I stopped working today. I did the math. He drew an x/y graph, in biro, plotting time against money, explaining what he was doing in words of one syllable. I was actually following him! He factored in inflation and figured out how much money I’d need to give me that sort of annual dividend at 65. An impossible figure. A future of penury opened in front of me, a future I was slowly but inexorably slipping toward, one forint at a time. He continued: How much could I comfortably set aside per month, starting now? I did the math again. He pulled out a printed table of closely set figures – and taking a conservative annual return of 6.5%, showed me how much I would have saved by the time I retired. I started to breathe again. I was salvageable. The irony wasn’t lost on me: I’d to come to Budapest to find a financial advisor who spoke in plain English. I have an appointment for next week…and this one I’ll keep.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 February 2012

And if you’re interested…. check out Gerrards International

Wanted: a good man

Jim Carrey, that Canadian-born actor with an extensive library of grins and grimaces, put it well when he said ‘If you ain’t desperate at some point, you ain’t interesting’. And I’ve reached that point of desperation which has elevated my being interesting to stratospheric levels. 

Now let’s be clear from the outset. I am not, I repeat, not desperate to find a man simply because I’m tired of paying single supplements in hotels, cooking for one, or talking to myself all day. Neither am I desperate to find a man because I am fed up being a fifth wheel in this contracting world of couples, have run out of socks to darn, or have an egotistical desire to procreate.  And I’m certainly not desperate to find a man in order to ‘complete’ myself! It’s far more serious than that.

A little too comfortable

I’ve had a couple of OMG moments in the last week which have made me realise that I’m getting way too comfortable being on my own. And before you get your knickers in a knot, I know there’s nothing wrong with being single…just let me explain. 

I was in Ireland doing the family thing.  At mass on Sunday, the priest said something that left me gasping. For the non-Catholics amongst you, there’s a prayer in the mass that includes the line ‘protect us from all anxiety’. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember (at least since Vatican II). With the congregation muttering in unison, it was easy to hear the priest as he boomed his modified version into the microphone: ‘protect us from undue anxiety’.  Now, anxiety refers to a state of uneasiness and apprehension about future uncertainties. And, truth be told, we could all do without it, ergo the prayer to protect us from it. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have become an accepted fact that anxiety is part and parcel of our lot in life and that what we need protection from is ‘undue anxiety’. This new take on it sent me into a tailspin of introspection, which, as history will testify, is very likely to result in drastic action on my part which is completely out of character.

A little too safe

In a conversation about salary cuts, reduced pensions, currency fluctuations, and the scarcity of jobs, I happened to mention what I earned last year, before tax. The figure drew gasps of incredulity – and yes, I had converted it to euro to make it easy for the zerophobes.  It was so small it wouldn’t have enticed most of those present out of bed, let alone to iron a shirt and shine their interview shoes. Yes I work and I work damn hard but about half of what I do, I do for free. I do it because it interests me, because it’s for a good cause, or because I’m learning something in the process. And because I’m single, with no dependants, incur minimal costs, and, as one ex-boyfriend put it, can cook potatoes in more ways than are known to man, I won’t starve. I enjoy a better quality of life than many of my materially wealthier friends who are dotted around the world.

I love my life. I get to do pretty much what I want, when I want, time and weather permitting.  I travel. I read. I cook. I write. I talk. I have no one to answer to but myself; no one to consult before I accept or issue an invitation. In short, I have been blessed with an anxiety-free life.

A little too incredible

But is it sustainable? Is life a little too good? Should I be this content? We’re in a recession for God’s sake. Times are tough. Things are bad. The future is dim. If everyone else is so miserable, at their wits end trying to survive yet another spate of redundancies, keep their creditors at bay, and cope with climate change, what’s wrong with me? What has me so happy?

Why is my life so free from anxiety? Could it be because I live in one of the greatest cities in the world and enjoy my work so much that I’ve forgotten that it’s actually work? Or that I don’t have to commute? Could it be because I really value my quirky friends and supportive family who keep me sane? Or that I consider myself truly blessed? Surely not! It must be because I’m single…mustn’t it? Perhaps I need to test that particular hypothesis.

Man wanted: must be low maintenance, socially adept, honest, independent, solvent, able to punctuate, and in possession of all his faculties.  Ideally will be able to laugh at himself, hold down an interesting conversation, and be capable of making decisions. spontaneity a plus.  All replies considered.

First published in the Budapest Times, Tuesday 25th May 2010