Archaeologists are intimately familiar with financial fragility


Our vicious cycleIf you’ve been reading this blog for any time, you probably know I started Succinct Research as a reaction to my being laid off from a cultural resource management archaeology position in 2012. Back then, I was angry. I used to believe that the fact CRM businesses suffered from the recession was because of their own shortcomings: not knowing how to reinvest profits or properly capitalize their companies, overreliance on a single income stream, and embarking upon financially cataclysmic strategies like lowballing.

From 2008 until 2012, I watched my bosses proposaling until they passed out, going after the very same contracts that all the other companies were going for. I watched them land a few projects that were horribly scoped, bloated with overhead, and extremely difficult to complete within budget. Our work suffered. We suffered in the field, breaking our backs to bring in ridiculously scoped projects. Then, I watched as my peers and myself were all let go with no promise of future work even though it was us who had undertaken herculean efforts to bring these projects in on budget. Meanwhile, the company continued hiring more upper management that they couldn’t pay for. The idea was: If having two principal investigators (PIs) isn’t enough to bring in work, lets hire two more and use the money we “saved” by laying off all the techs and crew chiefs to feed these new PhDs.

This story is familiar to anyone that has worked in CRM archaeology since before the recession. Times were tough and most techs and crew chiefs were laid off leaving their finances in disarray.

Other companies used similar strategies. When that didn’t work, these companies were totally screwed. They had no assets because college degrees and CRM reports have no intrinsic market value. The only value these companies had was their market share. I watched many of these companies get sold to larger conglomerates seeking to expand their CRM revenue through acquisitions. Now, a lot of these branches are closing shop. The act is complete. Even larger, “total environmental solutions” conglomerates can now move in, even though they have higher overhead and (most of the time) do worse work than the mom-and-pops they drove from the market during the Great Recession.

After getting laid off, I started scrambling for work. For the first time in years, I had to take unemployment to buy diapers for my then infant son. I started hustling for work just like I’d done when I finished my Masters in 2005, but this time I knew how the process worked. I spent more time networking than spamming out resumes. I advertised myself because, after scraping through dozens of quasi-lowballed projects for four years, I knew how to bring things in on time and on budget.

The strategy worked. I found a new archaeology job in about 4 weeks. Then, I helped several of my friends land work as well. The strategy I used was the source of my second eBook “Resume-Writing for Archaeologists.”

No matter how bad things got back in ’12, I never really worried how I was going to pay my mortgage, student loans, or other bills because my wife and I had built up a substantial nest egg. Of course, I was freaking out because my revenue stream had dried up and the CRM industry was like a smoldering SaniCan that hadn’t been cleaned in a few weeks, but I wasn’t worried about immediately losing my house. I knew we wouldn’t starve unless I was out of work for more than 9 months. I knew that even if I didn’t land another archaeology job we’d still be okay for almost a year, long enough to find some sort of work.

How’d I build a safety net on grad student/archaeology technician/crew chief wages? How did I grow my savings while living in Seattle—one of the most expensive cities in the country? How’d I go from washing toilets with a Master’s degree to sitting on five figures in just my family saving account alone? I’ll tell you at the end of this post, but first I want to address one of the most salient things in our society today: Financial Fragility (i.e. the fact that half of middle class Americans don’t have more than 3 weeks’ worth of household finances in their savings right now).

Americans are Financially Fragile

This is not a good thing. We all know we should be saving but we don’t. We all know money can’t buy happiness but we keep borrowing in hopes of becoming happier. Americans do not learn how to manage their money and, as a result, we don’t have any. We need to start having conversations about it.

Financial fragility is not something only suffered by archaeologists. Recent research shows about half of middle-class Americans (47%) could not come up with $400 in an emergency. They live paycheck-to-paycheck. I’m not talking about the working poor or homeless. I mean, half of the people who have achieved the American Dream (career, home, car, kids, spouse, ect.).

This spans a huge demographic and isn’t limited to just Millennials or women-headed households or the elderly or people with handicapped children. Financial fragility is the way middle-class families are living (i.e. four-person households bringing in $48,000 and $145,000/year). Many families are one expensive event away from financial disaster, causing substantial strain on our households.

If you’re anything like me, you’re an archaeologist that either 1) is middle class, or 2) wants to become middle class. So, WTF? If middle class is our goal and it’s like this, then why would we want to go there? Is there any way to prevent this? I argue there is and it starts with each and every one of us.

What is Financial Fragility?

Financial fragility (n): organizations, groups, or individuals operating within a financial system where they are vulnerable to a financial crisis.

All of us are financially fragile to some degree but it seems like everyday Americans are more vulnerable than, let’s say, the government, large corporations, or the wealthy. The problem is many of us are so fragile that something like getting a flat tire or missing a credit card payment is enough to threaten you having enough to eat this week or losing your job.

Financial fragility is both a cause and effect of the society in which we live. Wages have been stagnant since before we were born. The American Dream of being a homeowning, careerist, with a spouse and kids was created to sell stuff after World War II. That meme has also been around since before we were born. Fortunately, the easiest solution to financial fragility was also created before we were born. In fact, it’s one of the oldest aspects of post-agricultural human society: being frugal.

Have you ever excavated a prehistoric storage pit? What about a root cellar? Folks who have worked in the Middle East might have excavated a prehistoric granary. What do all of these archaeological features have in common? (HINT: They’re used to store stuff for a rainy day). Saving part of what you bring in isn’t even a human idea. I’ve been battling packrats at my house and can tell when they’re gone when I no longer see any of my kids’ toys integrated into their middens. Packrats are iconic savers. We should follow their lead.

Being frugal is human nature. It’s part of the reason why we’re so fat. It’s the reason why houses, banks, hard drives, and storage units were all created. Our species revolves around the idea of harvesting/creating/imagining stuff and saving part of it for future use. Our ancestors have long known that it’s of paramount importance to save money, so that is the first step in addressing financial fragility.

I know you know this but I can hear you now; “I don’t make enough to start a savings. Every penny I bring in HAS to be spent on my daily survival. I’ll start saving once I make more money.” This is the wrong approach for a few reasons:

–Nobody said you had to save a lot of money. Think about a child’s piggy bank.

–Every day you do not save money, you are starving yourself tomorrow. Ever heard the old fable “The Grasshopper and the Ant”? Don’t be the grasshopper. You won’t make it to the future if you don’t start saving now.

–People in Third World countries save what money they can. They are frugal because they have to be, but even people that make bank in these countries still save some of their income. Let them be your role model.

–Your career is desperate because you don’t have any savings. You must take whatever job you can get because you cannot survive very long without some sort of income.

–Finally, you probably won’t make more money from your day job without a savings because you’ll have to “play it safe” at your job which means you’ll never take the risks necessary to get promoted. Or, you’ll never be able to take another job because you can’t afford transitioning out of your current position.

Search your feelings. You know you should be saving if you are not already. If you have any sort of income, there is no justifiable excuse— especially if you’re getting per diem.

What can you do to remedy your own fragility?

I admit: I’m financially fragile. I can keep my family afloat for a few months off our nest egg but, eventually, I would have to find some sort of income to make ends meet. I’m working towards supporting my family solely from residual income but that day has not come yet. Until then, I’ve got to keep working.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m not doing what it takes to be less fragile. There is to absolute, foolproof, totally easy way to solve financial fragility but here are some of the steps I’ve taken over the last few years:

The secret to freedomLive within your means—Most of us are borrowing money to buy stuff we think will make us happier or impress other people. Clothes, foods, gadgets, most of the possessions we own are things we bought because we thought they’d make us happier, improve our lives, or to convey a message to impress the people we know. This goes for college degrees, which, I’d argue, are among one of the most coveted boutique items any of us can possess.

There is so much temptation out there for us to buy stuff that its really ruining our lives. We can barely be content with what we have because there are advertisements to buy more coming at us from all sides. Where you’re at is never good enough. You need to buy a better life. Living within our means is the most difficult challenge for middle class Americans because our ethos is “you are what you have.”

The easiest way to solve this is to sell your stuff, pay off your debt, and live the life you’ve always wanted to live. However, this won’t work for all of us because we love stuff too much.

(FYI: I totally stole this from Adam Baker’s 2011 TED talk on minimalism. You don’t have to go Baker-style with the minimalism thing, but we could all learn something from what he and his family have done)

This has been the one rule that has been most difficult for me. Being satisfied with what we’ve got is the most difficult thing for any American to do. We are trained to consume. But, you have to do what you can to right-size your life. Buying a bunch of crap isn’t enjoyable. Paying it off over years sucks even more.

There are two things that help me live within my means:

1) Whenever I’m buying something that isn’t food or work related, I’ve started asking myself, “Is this thing going to still make me feel good 6 months from now?” Most consumable items fail in less than 12 months so a year is really all you can expect from something like a pair of pants (unless you’ve gone all in and bought something really quality). Usually, that baseball cap, smoothie, or pair of jeans isn’t going to make you feel good, bad, or anything 12 months from now. If you can’t look at that thing and be excited to use it 12 months from now, don’t buy it.

2) Next, I ask myself, “Do I really need this?” Even if you’ll love a new iPhone and will still be stoked to use it 12 months from now, you should ask yourself if you truly NEED a new phone or are you just buying some shit because you feel like it. Needs and wants are fickle. Fulfill your needs and starve your wants.

Don’t use debt to pay for liabilities— What happens when we run out of money to buy stuff? We borrow money, of course. This is where the real problems begin because we can easily get in over our heads with debt that saps what little income we do generate.

 

Is borrowing bad? No. Borrowing money is how Trump and all the other billionaires got rich. Debt is not bad as long as it’s used to acquire assets. The key is to make sure you’re really obtaining assets and not liabilities.

Asset== something that puts money in your pocket. Stuff like a right-priced college degree, the right-priced house, or the right investments.

Liability== something that sucks money out of your pocket. Your clothes, your car, your apartment, your student loans are all liabilities. Liabilities are not bad. Some of these things add quality to your life. For example, the anthro degree that allows you to do the archaeology job you’ve always wanted is a good liability. Sure, paying back the loans sucks but you wouldn’t get hired to be an archaeologist without it. Your degree is only a bad liability if you overpaid for your degree.

Buying assets is the key to leveraging debt and generating wealth. Don’t borrow on credit cards to get a new pair of shoes. Instead, borrow to invest in somebody’s business or get an underpriced house.

Save at least 10%– This was my very first Archaeology Hack (http://www.succinctresearch.com/archaeology-hack-1-save-10-of-your-income/) It’s something I believe in and something I’ve been doing for over 20 years now. Saving at least 10% of all my income is how I was able to generate a nest egg big enough to weather my layoff from archaeology in 2012. It’s how I’ve bought new cars when the old ones crap out, bought computers, paid for car tires, new cell phones, trips to Urgent Care when I didn’t have health insurance, paid a repairman to fix our AC in Arizona during the summer…the list goes on. Basically, this rule of 10 has kept me from becoming homeless on more than one occasion.

Can’t afford to save 10%? You still gotta start somewhere. Begin with the easiest sum you can afford. Start with $10 out of each paycheck. Can’t afford that? Okay, $5 each check. Put it all in a mason jar or some other sort of conspicuous place and watch it grow. This is your emergency fund so don’t spend it frivolously. I repeat: DO NOT SPEND IT UNLESS YOU HAVE AN ACTUAL EMERGENCY. This will take discipline if you’re not used to saving but you will be amazed as you watch your money jar overflows.

Save until you have enough money to cover 3 months’ expenses. Once you get to 3 months, grow it until you have 6 months. Once you have 6 months of savings, start looking into some easy to liquidate investments. Start easy with something like CDs. After you have 12 months of savings in CDs and cash you can start contributing to an IRA or low-fee index fund.

Cure your financial impotency—Don’t be afraid to talk to other people about money. Do not be ashamed of your financial straits because there are likely other people out there in your same condition. It would probably help other people who are out there struggling if they knew they were not the only ones. Talking about our finances is like exposure therapy for our home economics.

We all feel afraid to talk about money in the United States, but this whole country was started as a financial experiment. Unless you are Native American, you live in a country founded as a startup. As a financial scientist, you need to collect data that you can use to make hypothesis and conduct experiments. Don’t be afraid to ask others about their financial condition or tell them what you know about money. You are helping yourself as you help others.

Back to the story from the introduction

Every time I was laid off, I survived because I’ve conditioned myself to save at least 10% of everything I earn. I even saved 10% of my meager unemployment checks. When I couldn’t save 10%, I saved whatever I could—pennies, dimes, dollar bills. Ever since I can remember, I’ve put my pocket change into a jar or box every night. Sometimes in the past, I had to use those pennies to feed myself. This is something I learned from my parents at a very early age. I was forced to save at least half of all my income as a child—birthday money, money earned shoveling snow, and all of the paychecks from my teenage jobs. As a teen, I never worried about money because my savings account was always obese.

I’ve used the habit of saving, being frugal, going after assets, increasing my earning potential, and some other gimmicks outlined in the legendary book “The Richest Man in Babylon” by George Clason to protect my family from loss. This book has influenced me and millions of other readers for generations. It’s basically the only financial strategy I consistently apply.

This is the most important thing I want you to know

Good times will come. Good times will go. No job is permanent. Your financial state will swing wildly throughout your lifetime. No matter what, you need to save money. And, you absolutely cannot spend your savings.

In the past, there have been times when I could only afford to drop $1.35 of my paycheck into the savings jar. The rest went to bills. Currently, as a graduate student in the process of transitioning back to the workforce, I’m only able to save about $37 of each paycheck this semester. That’s only $18.50 each week. I’ve only been able to save about $80 a paycheck since I started graduate school 4 years ago. This was about 12% of my income. But, in the last 4 years, I put away over $2,000 from my paycheck alone; not including what I saved from my income doing consulting, grants, and other projects. I would still have $962 over that time span even if I’d only saved $37 each pay period. That’s a decent start towards ending financial fragility.

Two thousand dollars is not enough to become rich by any means but it’s enough to cover my mortgage or all of my family’s expenses for a couple months. I admit, the only way I was able to save that much is because I live in a dual-income household and my wife makes a decent wage. But, my expenses would be much less if I didn’t have a family so I think I’d probably be able to save that much if I was single and didn’t have any kids. In fact, I used to save and invest around 20% of my income before I met my wife so I’m positive I could do better than 12% if I was alone (NOTE: I don’t want to be alone. If they ever ask you, just make sure my wife and kids know I like where I’m at right now).

The only way this can work is if you internalize an ethos of frugality and consistently save money. It’s normal for me because I’ve been doing this since I was about seven-years-old, but others may encounter a shock if they’re starting as adults. All I can say is you’ve got to start now. This minute. Put a couple dollars in a jar right now and call it a good start.

The financial fragility of cultural resource management archaeologists is not something others cannot relate to. Approximately 40% of American families are financially fragile, so we are not alone. In addition to saving as much as you can, you need to talk to other people about their financial state and share information. The only way we are going to keep the middle class alive is by pooling our skills, knowledge, and strategies.

Write a comment below or send me an email.

 

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