John D. Spooner is an investment adviser, author and novelist. His most recent book is No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Lessons for Young Adults. Here, he responds to queries from advice seekers of all ages. Send your conundrums to email@example.com.
I live on the North Shore in a small house that looks out on the water. One rather dim outdoor light lets us look out on the lawn and the quiet scene at night. Last week I got an email from our next-door neighbor, a woman who has been somewhat unfriendly since we moved in. The email complained about the light in her eyes from our house and how outrageous and inconsiderate we are. She demanded, in strong language, that we get rid of the light. How do you handle such difficult neighbors? I tend to be non-confrontational. When it comes to neighbors, it’s the luck of the draw. Once in a while, at dinner parties, I suggest that we all go around the table and share neighbor-from-hell horror stories. Everyone seems to have them.
Walk across your lawn and knock on her door. Tell her that you’ll adjust the spotlight. Then tell her, “You know, you can get more out of people with honey than vinegar. Perhaps there are difficult things going on in your life, but it doesn’t give you carte blanche to assume that if you have a problem, others are going to roll over to accommodate you. Some people understand human nature. Have a nice day.”
You accommodate her. But you teach her a lesson. And you put nothing in writing. Have a nice day.
The whole election year was traumatic, for almost everyone. Forget about politics when you answer this: Should I be terrified about my investments (my 401(k))? Or should I be overjoyed? No matter who’s in power, I have to think about my money and my eventual retirement. I know you can’t predict the future, but what do you recommend? One big lesson I have learned over many years in the game of money and in watching many presidents: When the bar is set so low, as far as the people’s expectations go, and when everyone of certain persuasions seems to think they know everything wrong about a situation—if anything goes right, there can be big upside. This low bar applied to both presidential candidates, as viewed from opposite sides. In the stock market, I have always tried to take a contrarian view, investing in areas that were out of favor, not the ones popular at the time. This takes patience and is not for the short-term thinkers or traders.
There is a story I love that mirrors my feelings about investing. I think you can take this story to heart as you think about your own money. Two summers ago, the stock market was going through a rocky downward ride. I often walk the halls of my office, checking on the mental health of my co-workers, particularly in tough climates.
“How are you doing in this firestorm?” I asked one man.
“Well,” he answered, “I look at it this way. I came into the business in 1993. The Dow Jones was around 3,000. Since then, we went through the bursting of the internet bubble in 1999-2000, then 9/11. Then the meltdown of the financial system in 2007-2009. And today we’re almost at 18,000. If you believe in America, and invest little by little in quality, you will eventually come out the other end. Sooner or later, bad turns to good, regardless of news or who’s in power. You can’t repeal the cyclical nature of things.”
“A smart man,” I thought. Put your politics in one pocket, your investments in another. Long-term, your money will survive the political winds.
My brother is a great guy… well, most of the time. OK, sometimes. Actually, he’s pretty much a nasty jerk to my friends (and me) at social events, and I don’t know what to do. It’s not that he drinks; he’s just so argumentative (politics, sports, money, you name it). I am getting to the point where I don’t want to have him in my life. It’s always a drama! If only the rest of the world could know down deep he’s a decent guy—he’s just really opinionated! Don’t you know that every family is a soap opera? And that every family is dysfunctional in its own way? Family can be a killer, if you let them. Which brings me to my least favorite word… guilt. It’s OK to be annoyed at your brother. Almost everyone I know has family issues of all kinds. I have a family member who won’t eat anything that moves in a zigzag (chicken, fish), another who won’t get up before noon, another who breathes fire in a heavy metal band, another who got banned for life from a restaurant and another who chained himself to a fence at the Seabrook nuclear site to impress a girlfriend. Shall I go on?
We all have our baggage. My suggestion for you and your brother: Never invite him to parties with your date or with your friends. Easy. Don’t assume his behavior will change. It won’t.
When you have family gatherings, there’ll always be someone who will keep him in line or tell him what a jerk he’s being. These days, parents will put up with bad behavior. The rest of the family won’t. They have a stake in putting your brother down. Let them.