Christmas ’17 Lesson: The Best Gifts Aren’t Found Under A Tree!

We had a weird Christmas schedule this year. It wasn’t your normal December of Christmas parties followed by lots of family time and then mounds of presents on Christmas day. It never is really like that in our family anyway since I am a pastor and our Christmas is dominated with church activities and multiple Christmas services on December 23rd and 24th. But this year was weird-er than normal and I’m glad because the weirdness drove home the true meaning of “Gifts”.


By weird-er, I’m not talking about our Christian viewpoint that Jesus Christ is the true gift, available to all, in the season. While I believe that with all my heart, that’s not weird to me but true. I’m referring to having such a chaotic schedule during Christmas that we never even got to open gifts nor do the normal Christmas morning stuff.  That’s because this year, we decided a while back to do some family travel. Earlier in the year, after saving and planning for about six months for a trip, we decided to pull off all the Christmas services and then on Christmas morning, get on a plane and go to Costa Rica for 10 days! (Being good FI enthusiasts, we paid cash!) Why Christmas morning you might ask? There were four  main reasons: 1) We all could get that time off from work or school, 2) I needed to physically and spiritually renew, 3) We heard Christmas day travel is easier, 4) We wanted to shift the idea of gifts from “stuff” to “experiences”.


Christmas Day Travel To Costa Rica

So we did just that. We held six Christmas services over a couple days and collapsed into bed on Christmas Eve. Then Christmas morning, we headed to the airport. No time for opening presents. In fact, we all agreed earlier that the big present for all of us this year was the Costa Rica trip. So for the most part we just had stockings to go through upon return.


Costa Rica was amazing! The tropical beauty is very “Hawaii-like”, and Hawaii is our happy place. Beautiful beaches, majestic mountains, incredible creatures everywhere. It was truly beautiful. But the best part were the people. They are warm, joyful, hard-working and kind. Everywhere we went, we experienced great beauty and warm people.

We were in Costa Rica for about 10 days, most of them without WIFI, email or any connection to the outside world. We stayed, for the most part, in a home with this incredible view of the ocean but with no WIFI and no easy way to get in or out to ANY civilization (It takes an hour on a bumpy dirt road to get to a 50 person town). Check out the view:


The only neighbors we had were three iguanas that lived on our roof. I was told they have lived there for close to 20 years. Here’s daddy iguana in his morning sunning ritual on the peak of the roof…he just sits there…for hours…I’m either puzzled by his behavior or jealous that he has hours every day to do that!


I could talk about Costa Rica and this wild trip all day long. It was that great. We will remember this vacation forever. But something else happened on this trip that tickles my Financial Independence-focused heart: We not only got away from mounds of presents and a focus on “stuff”, we got completely unplugged from telephones, email, the internet, TV and even music. We went days without being able to get a signal on the phone nor be able to re-charge the depleted batteries. AND WE LOVED IT!!!  We focused on the natural beauty all around us and spent family time together swimming, walking the beach, collecting shells, hiking waterfalls and eating simple food (no oven, hot water or utensils). We simplified. It was awesome. And guess what? When we returned from vacation we were changed by the experience. Nobody cared that we did not have a traditional Christmas with lots of presents. The experiences we shared, both good and bad, were far more rewarding and memorable.

My favorite moment was when our family was parasailing on the beautiful Manuel Antonio beach. My 14 year old daughter leans over to me after her parasail with her mother,  full of adrenaline and joy and says: “This is really cool, maybe the coolest thing I have ever done. So this is why we save money all year long so we can do things like this. It is so worth it!” Here they are taking off on their incredible sail:


The Best Christmas Gifts

As my daughter alluded while parasailing: Experiences will be remembered forever whereas most presents come and go with little to no impact on our lives. Not only will we remember the big moments of our trip, like parasailing, zip-lining and our view of the ocean from our vacation home. But we will remember, and laugh about, hundreds of small, sometimes trying moments, that come with experiencing life in a remote foreign country, like:


  • being held up by a herd of goats that were just sitting in the middle of the road and not willing to move
  • ordering three drinks and one plate of nachos in Spanish and getting three nachos and one drink delivered, oops!
  • seeing a turtle return to the ocean after laying its eggs
  • learning that the rules of driving in Costa Rica are more like guidelines: Something to consider but by no means automatically adopted, like speed limits and no passing zones

It’s all about experiences…and peace of mind. The peace that came with being totally unplugged from our technology was amazing. At first the disconnection was unnerving. It took about three days to get over the fact that we could not connect with anything or anybody. Then, it seemed like time slowed down, like colors seemed richer and joy reigned. We all loved it.


It did not take long for all of us to slow down a bit and enjoy simple things, like walking the beach searching for shells. We also seemed to sleep better and feel better.

Another incredible effect of living simply in rural Costa Rica, removed from distractions and paved roads was that our daily activities were really active, mostly outside and really healthy.


We ate simple meals and ate well because we had make our own food for the most part. We exercised regularly and got a lot of fresh air because we were constantly hiking, on the beach or swimming. And guess what? We felt great! There’s no better gift than good health.

With little electronic distractions we found we were much more able to be in the moment during the vacation. There were no large blocks of time lost in a phone screen or transfixed on a TV screen.


And since the three of us were largely always together, we experienced things together. One time, while traveling on a dirt road, going about 3 miles an hour because the road was hardly passable, we came to an abrupt stop because the road just ended, without warning, into a deep ravine. Thank God we weren’t going fast because we may not have stopped in time before plunging into a creek bed. At first we were all startled, lamenting on what could have happened had we not stopped in time. But the mood quickly swung to one of “that’s just how it is in Costa Rica”, and we kind of laughed about it. After about 20 of these types of experiences we termed the phrase: “Just another Costa Rican adventure”.


Another great gift from being disconnected from the world in paradise: Our attitudes improved and each of us was really positive. We were content. I think the combination of the beauty of the land and sea, the niceness of the people and the “it’s an adventure” attitude made each of us happier, healthier and wanting for nothing. We were completely fulfilled.


I think the key lesson from our Costa Rica Christmas excursion was two fold: 1) The best gifts were more about experiences, together as a family, than about gifts under the tree. Yes, we did eventually come home, open our gifts in the stockings and enjoy some presents. I always appreciate getting new underwear and socks. But the presents we opened were secondary to the experiences we had. 2) When we had less (no WIFI, email or internet), we had more (contentment, fulfillment and peace). Those are the best gifts and they aren’t found wrapped under the tree. Which makes my FI heart happy because we are constantly bombarded with messages of materialism that essentially say, more is better, right? No, in fact, less is many times, better. Less consumption, less distraction, less materialism:

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who

                              craves more, that is poor. ” ― Seneca.

Hopefully, our family will now live more in the moment and more focused on experiences rather than stuff. I think this quote image says it all:


The best Christmas presents aren’t wrapped and placed under a tree!

My Love Is Unconditional, My Money Is Not!

As parents raising children, we are called to love our children, equip them for life, and lead them in the way they should go to lead happy and productive lives. A large part of being a parent is to introduce our children to unconditional love. A love that transcends behavior and choices and focuses on loving them for who they are. A parent’s love truly is unconditional…


…but that doesn’t mean they can be irresponsible or entitled with money! In fact, one of the first lessons parents need to teach their children about money is that money, and the making and spending of it,  is very conditional. Here are some basic tenets about money that should be impressed upon our kids:

  1. We are paid money for producing results. For the most part, we get paid in our work based on the value we provide. Provide lots of value, get paid lots of money. But the opposite is also true: provide little value, get paid little.
  2.  There’s a BIG difference between being financially free and making lots of money.
  3. Wants and needs are VERY different things.

Taking these very basic money rules into account, here are four parent teaching moments in the lives of our children when it comes to money and the path to financial independence:

Money Does NOT Grow On Trees


It does not take very long for a child to learn that if they want something, they say: “Mommy, I want this?” To which, sometimes, the mommy pulls money out of her purse to pay for the desired item. Mommy gives the clerk some money and then the child gets to keep the desired object. Wow, that’s easy. It seems, at least to the child, that it is even easier when mommy “pays” for the item using that little piece of plastic called a credit card: Pull out card, swipe and voila! Easy and fast. The realization that money, especially when using a credit card,  can be rapidly exchanged for desired things is quickly followed, usually, by the fact that the child can find many wants. “Mommy, I want this, and this, and this….well, you get the picture. Which brings us to the first set of Money Lessons and Conditions (Yes, I said set of lessons):

  1. Money is in limited supply, it does not grow on trees (or magically within a credit card)
  2. As a child, mommy or daddy get to determine the best use of the family money
  3. Big finish: The child MAY get to use some of the money, but they are NOT entitled to it! Especially not whenever they want it.


Wants And Needs Are Two Different Things

As stated earlier, a child learns very quickly to express the desire for many things. The request for stuff can be endless as most kids have seemingly endless energy to express those wants…until a parent teaches their child the difference between wants and needs, as well as the difference between yes and no! A need is something the child requires to grow (like nutritious food), wear (like proper school clothes) or develop (maybe athletic shoes, glasses or some pencils). But a want is strictly discretionary. My favorite line with my kids, when they were old enough to understand it, when they started expressing all their wants, was to say “Well, I want a Ferrari, but we don’t always get what we want.”


Which leads us to the second set of Money Lessons and Conditions:

  1. Wants are completely different than needs. Your needs will be provided for. Your wants will be taken under consideration.
  2. Your (the child’s) desire for a want will be noted, and when a parent decides either to purchase, or not to purchase an item, that parent’s yes means yes, and a no means no. Period.


Fair Is A Place To Take Rides And Eat Bad Food

“That’s not fair!” A parent may hear this often. “It’s not fair that a classmate got a new bike, or new video game or new app”…so the child exclaims. The list of unfairness can go on and on. It is important for parents to explain that fairness has little to do with anything, and frankly, that life is not fair and you better get used to it. Fairness stems from comparison. And comparison can lead to envy and discontentment. We compare ourselves to friends, neighbors or what we see on TV. It is important for parents to remember and teach that what our neighbors do should have no bearing on what is best for our family.


Which leads us to the third set of Money Lessons and Conditions:

  1. Wants are completely different than needs. Your needs will be provided for. Your wants will be taken under consideration.
  2. Just because a neighbor or friend gets something doesn’t mean you automatically get it. (Don’t covet)
  3. Funding family goals and dreams are a priority over instant gratification


You Do Your Part, I’ll Do Mine

This one is my favorite. We must, as parents, teach our kids that work, and good behavior, gets rewarded AND that the opposite is also true: You don’t do your work, or you have a bad attitude, and you will not be rewarded (or paid). You get paid your allowance when you do all your chores. Don’t do your chores, don’t get paid. In my family, a school aged kid has one priority: learn in school to the best of their ability. Essentially, school is their job. Don’t do your best in school? You lose privileges. If you don’t study for a test, then get a bad grade, you don’t get sleepovers and shopping trips to the mall. Essentially: You do your part and I’ll do mine.


Which leads us to the fourth, and final set of Money Lessons and Conditions:

  1. There are rewards and/or consequences to our actions. If you do your part, I’ll do mine. But if you don’t, then I won’t either.
  2. Responsibility brings value (and is rewarded). Irresponsibility, not so much
  3. I don’t care how much you want something if you’re not willing to do your part of the agreement (Earned vs. entitlement)


Final Note – Unconditional Love Means Money Conditions

It’s our responsibility as parents to train our kids in the way they should go…in their actions, behaviors and decision making. Especially when it comes to money because neither our school systems or our culture will or can give them the solid foundation they need when it comes to money and the pursuit of financial independence. The first time I heard a parent use the phrase “my love is unconditional but my money isn’t” seemed a little harsh. But the more I processed the concept, the more I realized it was both responsible parenting and very loving. Teaching our kids that money, rewards and promotions are very conditional helps our kids develop the work ethic and fiscal responsibility they need to take care of themselves and form a proper relationship with money.

My love is unconditional but my money isn’t!

Three Financial Lessons For My Soon-To-Be College Graduate


May 8th Is The Big Day

May 8th is a big day for our family as our son graduates from college with a Bachelors degree in Business. He has been an excellent student and he will be an excellent employee working for a Fortune 500 company in their business planning division, starting in June.

As I thought about preparing him for his step into the “real world” I realized that he has been taught proper budgeting and money management. He knows the value of compound interest and investment over time when it comes to investing and retirement. So he is prepared for the “blocking and tackling” of managing his finances. But I felt there was a couple missing pieces of good personal finance management that I have yet to share with him. So, after some thought,  I came up with three pieces of advice that will help him become a valuable employee and as a result, help him meet his personal finance goals.


Become A Man Of Value

Teddy Roosevelt once said: “It is not the critic who counts…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who actually strives to do the deeds…” This is just a portion of his famous quote that so accurately focuses on getting into the arena and becoming a man of value. To this end, the first encouragement I want to give my son is to strive to be a man of value. Focus on creating value for your company and your customers. If you are working for a good company with good management, and he is, they will identify that value that you are providing and value you all the more. That value will provide you options, like promotions, and opportunities, like salary raises, which feed into meeting or exceeding his personal finance goals.

The focus on value will also apply to your investing. Find great investment vehicles of value, that can provide a decent return. You’ve got time and compound interest on your side, so you don’t have to take huge risks or gamble with your money. If you focus on value, success will soon follow.


Choose Wisely

Up until this point, my son has led a fairly charmed and successful life. Good grades, good choices, good experiences with very little trouble or distraction. Now that he is going out into the working world, I want to prepare him for trouble, disappointments and change. Trouble happens, sometimes when you least expect it. Many times due to circumstances completely out of your control. Same is true with disappointments. Probably the most impactful thing he will experience, though,  is change, because up until now, everything has been fairly regimented and predictable: Elementary school to middle school to high school to college. Next he gets his degree and he starts his job. But in the working world he will experience substantially more change: work changes, bosses change, business changes, etc. In all these cases: trouble, disappointment and change, I want him to understand that it is normal and encourage him to grow from it. Learn how to adapt and prosper in the new circumstances. Embrace change and expect trouble and it won’t detract you from your personal or professional goals.

This applies to his finances as well. There will be bad investment years. There will be scandals, new politics and new laws that will cause financial trouble, disappointment and change. Learn from it, adapt and move on toward your goals. Do not let this trouble, distraction or change keep you from taking the right financial actions.


The Secret: Enthusiasm

Last, there is a key to being successful in your career and your personal finance, and that is to be wildly enthusiastic at what you do. Get after it with energy, focus, passion and effort. Not only will it open doors for you, it will motivate others in the process, making you that much more value. Set huge goals. Give it maximum effort. What’s that Norman Vincent Peale quote: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” It will be obvious to him how this applies to his career. But it also applies to his personal finances: Set big financial goals. Want to retire by age 45? Want to afford international travel? How about give away one million dollars to charity? Whatever it is, go after it with all you got, and watch how it effects both the results as well as the people around you. It is contagious.

How else does enthusiasm apply to personal finance? I would say this: Be involved in your finances as much as you enjoy and partner with trained professionals and technology to help in those areas you do not enjoy. Because no one wants you to be successful with your money more than you! Go after it with vigor and enjoy it. Let your friends and family see your enthusiasm for proper money management and watch it rub off on them too!


The Big Finish

Sheryl Sandberg once said: “Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold, and I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try.” To paraphrase in other words: Be a man of value, for your company and your customers, facing and expecting trouble from which you can learn from and adapt, and work with all your might and enthusiasm to achieve even more than you imagined possible.

Financially this applies just as well: Do the basics really well: Make a budget, save an emergency fund, save for large purchases and retirement, invest your money early and often in valuable investments that use compound interest and time to build it into a fortune. Expect hiccups and setbacks. Work with enthusiasm and enjoy the process. But most of all, stay the course to build your legacy and your wealth. All of which leads to the ultimate goal of financial freedom!

For more on personal finance, read Dave Ramsey’s best selling book, The Total Money Makeover. Click on the link and SAVE!

The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness