I moved into my first post-colligate apartment in November 2008. I was an independent woman (or at least I thought I was), complete with my very own Brooklyn mailing address, where insurers, bankers, and marketers would send packets, bills, and brochures, all vying for my attention and my money. Enjoying life as a pretty and petite twenty-three-year-old in New York City, I was too distracted to care about any of it. I shuffled anything resembling official correspondence (not junk mail) into a cardboard box to look at “later.” This was the beginning of the Box of Responsibility.
Seven months later, on June 15, 2008, I recorded the following into my journal:
LIST OF THINGS TO DO
(In no particular order of importance)
1. Apply for passport
2. Eye doctor
3. Absentee ballet
4. Box of Responsibility. Just deal with it already!
5. Take care of S&S and Martha Stewart 401k money
Looking back, only one item is crossed off. I guess I can say that in 2008, I voted.
In January 2010, the Box and I moved to my second apartment on 2nd Street on the border of the East Village and Alphabet City.
In 2013, I moved to California, bringing my now busting-at-the-seams Box of Responsibility along in tow. How many people can say they actually packed, taped, and labeled a box of their problems to bring with them across the country?
Once unpacked in my first of six San Diego apartments in two years, I looked at the box with regret and fear. Then, I evaded the problem with a proactive illusion (or rather self-delusion, since no one besides me knew about the ever-accumulating financial mess being stored in a secret box under my bed. I should have changed its name from Box of Responsibility to Box of Shame). Mustering five years of determination, I managed to sort my responsibilities into categorized folders. As I opened sealed mail and made piles, I was literally “shuffling papers” in a rouse to no one but myself of “doing something.” The categories included but were not limited to the following:
- Offer letter, insurance information, and exit papers from Simon&Schuster, my first job in New York.
I remember arriving outside the office on my first day, wearing a cropped summer suit from Express with knee-length clam diggers and half-sleeved jacket, both black with subtle white polka dots. I walked from Grand Central Station up six blocks to 48th Street and west two avenues toward 6th through Rockefeller Plaza. As I passed, adoring fans stood outside, hoping to catch the cameras’ lenses directed at the newscasters of the Today Show. Before entering the majestic building of 1230 Avenue of the Americas with its marble lobby and gold-leafed embellishments, I stood across the street moving my eyes back and forth between Simon&Schuster and the Radio City Music Hall. “I’ve made it!” I actually said to myself.
I was only at S&S for a couple of months before moving on in my peripheral publishing career.
- Offer letters, insurance information, and pay stubs (actual pay stubs!) from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
- Offer letters, insurance information, and pay stubs from the two jobs I had in Manhattan between leaving Martha Stewart in 2010 and arriving in California in 2013.
- Paperwork for Ronda the Honda, my newly leased Civic with California plates.
- Additional pieces of mail that at the time seemed important.
- Receipts for my 2010 Apple MacBook.
Phew! I was exhausted after all that shuffling. I looked at the now neatly categorized Box. Ignoring what I had to do seemed easier than to actually do something. So I ignored my Box of Responsibility for the next two years in San Diego and then for two more years after moving to San Francisco in 2015.
Now it is 2017. I am the Digital Content Producer for a thriving skincare company struggling to update and stabilize its digital user experience. I am not just an adult, I am a woman. Or at least I am trying to be. The biological proof is there — sporadic grey hairs, intensified hangovers, and the development of more pronounced child-bearing hips. Yet I still feel so juvenile.
At thirty-two I still feel confused and stuck by the path my career has taken. But maybe all is not lost! Just like this company, forging through years of technological procrastination to relaunch their systems in order to get to the next level of their capabilities, I too need to make overdue changes to get to the next level of mine.
About a month ago, I was walking on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco during my lunch break. As I crossed from one side of the street to the other to avoid construction zones of the new SalesForce towers that will monopolize an entire city block, I berated myself for not accomplishing anything. (Harsh, I know. But sometimes, you have to be harsh to make an impact. It’s called tough love.) Sure, I’ve established a life with friends and activities in San Francisco, and sure I’ve committed to and grown from my first long-term intimate relationship. But I’m still here, procrastinating on my lunch break, wandering the streets with nowhere to go.
When I say I haven’t accomplished anything, I am thinking specifically of my book. I want to write a book; a feat I wholeheartedly dove into when I first moved to California and remained fairly devoted to for my first two years here. Following the printing of my manuscript’s first draft, however, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the task, namely how much it was distracting me from meeting people in this new state where I knew no one. I was lonely.
So I put my book down and focused on building a life. Now, four years and two Californian cities later, that life seems to be up and running: Full-time job, check. Friends, check. Boyfriend, check. Yet, I am stymied. Something is holding me back from writing my book, a memoir called Let Me Out I’m Stuck.
As if a glass panel had fallen from the erecting Sale Force tower and shattered on my head, at that moment I recognized the problem. My Box of Responsibly, which I now maturely referred to as “my finances” was still my messy not-so-little secret. I had absolutely no concept of my monthly budget (except for the principal knowledge that, for the first time in my life, I was making more money than I spent).
The glass now shattered, I began talking to myself as I walked. (This is common practice for me. I figured out sometime around high school that I do not have an internal monologue. I am not someone who can keep it inside. I go about my day saying most thoughts that come into my head out loud, reasoning with myself as if I am having a compassionate conversation with an old friend. (Hey! Who are you calling old?)
So there I was, walking on Mission Street, gabbing away about my financial deficiencies, ignoring everyone around me. (The trick to talking to yourself in public is to be wearing earbuds. I could just as easily be talking on the phone. They don’t know. But the truth is, even if they did know, even if I were wearing a giant red “TTM” on my chest for Talking To Myself, it wouldn’t matter. I’ve got something to say).
Up ahead, I watched the pedestrian crossing sign count down from ten seconds as I approached the corner of Mission and Fremont Street. The sidewalk became more crowded as commuters crossed Mission and herded past me perpendicularly. Some gathered by the bus stop, others paused at the corner, waiting for the light to change so they could continue on Mission in the same direction as me. On this day, I had no particular destination. I just needed a walk to escape the numbing blue and fluorescent lights that dominate my office job. I slowed my pace, not wanting to have to wait in an idle crowd until the light changed again. Easing passed a street-side florist and inhaled the fresh-scented bouquets. Taking a long, exaggerated smell of the roses, I told myself harsh truths, Who am I to be writing a book about how I’ve overcome the progression into adulthood to become a confident, sexy and honest woman? I haven’t even finished the thing I set out to do in chapter 4! How could that story be ready to be told? It’s not. Grow up, Charlotte.
It was time to take care of business. Still terrified of the task ahead, however, I came to the conclusion that I needed to delegate out the work. Hand over my passwords, account numbers, Box of Responsibility, and more recently accumulated piles of mail to a financial professional and have them sort out the mess.
I gave myself a pep talk. Yes, I think that is the right thing to do. But you have to actually do it, Charlotte. When you get back to the office, start asking around if anyone has a financial advisor they’d recommend. I just want someone to set everything up to easily track and manage. Once all my accounts are organized, I can take it from there…
The light changed again and I entered the flow of pedestrians gliding across Fremont Street. How much will this cost me? I’m willing to pay… I think for a second on this arbitrary bid on a service I know little-to-nothing about, three to four hundred dollars. I can’t imagine it would cost more than that!
The shaded side of the sidewalk was closed due to SalesForce construction, so I was forced to walk on the sun-drenched side of the street, made even warmer by the pack of pedestrians forced to do the same. Now five city blocks away from my office building, I felt my body temperature rising just below the point when I would start to sweat and took this as a sign that my lunchtime walk should be over. I did an about-face and retraced my steps toward my office, still talking to myself, only this time presenting something more of concluding remarks, Good job, Charlotte. Just take care of this. You will feel so much better when you do. Financial freedom is one thing. Financial control is where the money’s at. These days, a woman is only a woman when she has the financial maturity to take care of herself.
Back at the office, I grab my laptop and head to my first meeting of the afternoon, still thinking about my delegation plan. Although my walk had been so productive as to come up with the what, I still did not know the who.
When I first moved to San Francisco, before my boyfriend was my boyfriend, I met a boy (at twenty-eight, he was a boy, though he hated when I called him that) at a Friends-Giving party the week before Thanksgiving. This boy was the only who I could think of; he was the only financial advisor I knew on the west coast. I contemplated reaching out to him.
If we saw each other again, I know it would be as friends, no romantic or sexual tension remaining between us (not only do I love my boyfriend, but I also know better than to believe that this boy and I were compatible for any longer than the few weeks we dated. We had little in common. And, although it was only a couple of years difference between us, he was in his twenties and I was not. The way we communicated was fundamentally different, and neither one of us thought enough of the other to change our ways).
Should I text to ask for his financial services? I considered on one hand that this was a practical idea for necessary reasons, I considered on the other that I really didn’t want to talk to or see him. I needed to find another resource.
In the meeting room, waiting for the other attendees to arrive, I polled the only San Francisco network I have, my coworkers. I highjacked the small talk, changing the conversation from “is anyone doing anything fun this weekend?” to “I’m interested in hiring a financial advisor,” seeing if anyone would take the bait and offer up a name.
An independent contractor hired to help project manage the chaos that ensued from a recent tech failure and setback, lit up. She had a great accountant! As we chatted, my boss entered the room and buoyantly joined the conversation. Her elation grew when she discovered we were talking about personal finances. Five minutes later, twenty minutes after my self-admission that it was time to delegate, I had a financial advisor apt for the job — my boss. Her fee was not three hundred dollars as I had previously projected. All she asked was for my participation in her DIY approach. I agreed and put a recurring session on our Outlook calendars, Tuesdays 4:30 pm.
The first session was stressful. My humiliation was saved only by the fact that I had previously warned my boss of my financial delinquency so she wouldn’t say something diminishing or un-motivating out to shock.
We went to work. Or rather, I went to work while she supervised.
Step 1: Log in to your accounts. If you don’t have the username or password, call the financial institutions and get them.
This step took several weeks before I successfully ascertained the username and password for each of my 401k’s that I had accumulated over my thus far nine-year career. Nothing was as simple as just logging in. Over the years, companies had changed names and benefit providers, and I had changed zip codes (one of the more popular security questions to unlock your account) more than seven times since I held my first job at Simon&Schuster.
“I guess let’s start at the beginning,” I said, holding the now-graying paperwork with Simon&Shuster’s parent company, CBS Corporation, letterhead at the top. I skimmed through the information. “It looks like when I stopped working there, they started charging me to keep my account! When I left, I had eleven hundred dollars in my 401k (I was only at the job for half a year, so this was not a completely disappointing sum), but now it’s down to $600.”
The Box of Responsibility did not disappoint in the totality in which it preserved my documentation. As if reading a thriller novel, I flipped to the next piece of correspondence. “Terminating my account?! So this is saying that they emptied my account. But there was still $592 in there, where…” As I spoke, I uncovered the next piece of snail mail. At the bottom of the page was a perforated check still attached, virtually unnoticed for the past eight years, made out to me for the cash amount of $592. I called CBS who directed my call to the financial institution, who redirected my call to their 401k department, who, after confirming my birthday and social security number, updated their records with my new address and issued a new check for my entitled amount.
Step 2: Save all login credentials in one secure place: Lastpass.com, an encrypted password vault.
Step 3: Begin tracking monthly spending and bills using Mint.com.
Step 4: Apply for a credit card.
Adults have credit cards. Moreover, women have credit cards. If I want to be an adult woman, I need a credit card.
“Don’t worry,” my financial advisor assured me. “You can set up an automatic billing cycle in Mint. Always pay off the entire thing so you don’t have a balance at the end of the month.”
It took two weeks for my credit card to be approved. It will take another two for it to be mailed to my apartment.
Step 5: Once all accounts are accessed and credentials saved, review 401k investments and rates of return. Sign up for Betterment.com, the investing platform, and Blooom.com, the algorithm that plugs into your 401k account to optimize it.
Now the fun begins! Or at least that’s why my financial advisor would have you think. She gets giddy at this part of the process like it’s a game against infinite options with the goal of discovering the best combination of investments and investors to yield the most cash.
When starting to write Step 5 just now, I texted her to explain the difference between Betterment and Blooom. She responded with those definitions: “Betterment is an investing platform. And Blooom is algorithm that plugs into your 401k account to optimize it.” After a few more questions, I finally caught on:
So right now, my X account is still with X investors, but attached to Blooom so it performs at its best and attached to Betterment so I can see X’s performance in comparison to my Y account.
She responded immediately with a “Yes” followed by the “thumbs up” emoji.
My take away here is that while I may understand Step 5 enough to paraphrase it in a text message, I would be helpless to complete this Step alone.
Step 6: Monitor accounts on various platforms to assess the best rollover option.
At this time, my options are twofold: A) Rollover my previously existing 401k’s into my current company’s 401k, yielding one active account or B) roll them into a new Betterment account keeping them independent from my current 401k, yielding two accounts to watch.
I know. I’m dizzy too.
Step 7: Rollover accounts as desired from assessment in Step 6.
I’m not sure what Step 8 is. I am still on Step 6. But that is six steps ahead of where I was a couple months ago, or eight years ago for that matter. And that is the point of this post.*
*This essay was written in 2017. I no longer use Mint (though I probably should), Betterment, or Bloom. LastPass is AMAZING and I use it every day.