Life Lesson #1: You Shouldn’t Need Saving

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I will never forget the twenty or so of us who gathered in Mem. Gym at UVA all yelling “No!” at the top of our lungs. Because there was no air conditioning in the building, the windows were open and our sound boomed and echoed up and down Emmet Street. Passersby stopped to look. Cars hesitated to continue.

It was my third year of college, and I was enrolled in a Women’s Self-Defense class. We were learning the R.A.D. curriculum, which stands for Rape Aggression Defense. While much of the class had the type of lessons you would expect, such as how to throw an effective punch and strategies for breaking out of various grips and pins, some of the most important lessons were psychological.

For example, we were taught on day one to yell “No!” at the aggressors in our life instead of “Help.” This lesson was both literal and metaphorical. You should literally yell “No” because, if someone is behaving overly familiar or aggressive with you, yelling “No” clearly communicates your opinion and leaves no excuse for confusion. You should also metaphorically live a life where “No” rolls off your tongue at your bullies before crying “Help.” You can save yourself. You should live like no one will save you.

While I only used the fighting skills I learned during the final exam, the mentality is an important lesson for each of us.

At the start of class, my instructor, Lisa Speidel, would ask if anyone used what they learned over the past week. I remember one week, my classmate shared that she had been at a party when someone grabbed her butt. Before the class, she would have quietly pushed the man off. This time, however, without even turning around she grabbed the hand in a learned grip and held it straight up in the air and yelled, “NO! Whose hand is this?” The eyes of the room turned on the boy as she yelled again, “NO! You are NOT allowed to touch me.”

While it is a wonderful blessing to have friends and family who can help you, you shouldn’t need saving.

In my self-defense class, we learned to always keep our hands up, ready to protect our torso and face. “No limp arms!” my instructor would yell if she saw anyone’s arms bobbing along or, worse, relaxed at their sides.

In finances, the equivalent advice is to always live within your means. Make sure you are not only spending less than you are making but that you have margin in your finances.

The generic advice is to save 15% of what you make towards your retirement. While you may think you have plenty of time to get started on that savings, that advice is actually targeting people who are age 25.

To have a 40-year working career (age 25 to age 65), you need to save and invest 15% of your standard of living each of those 40 years regardless of how much you earn in order to stay on track for retirement. If you delay saving until you are age 30, you will have to increase your savings to 18.5% of your take home pay in order to still retire at age 65.

Saving for retirement is a good first step, but you also need to budget for emergencies.

We all have irregular and unexpected events that adversely impact our finances. Your work hours are cut back. You are widowed. The car breaks. You need to go to the emergency room. The roof leaks. You need to fly to a family funeral. Your friend asks you to be maid of honor. Lightning strikes a hole in your roof. Or more!

In economics, these are called financial shocks. In 2015, the PEW Charitable Trust analyzed the frequency and impact of household financial shocks . They found that 60% of households experienced at least one financial shock in the past 12 months.

To protect yourself and your retirement, you need to keep your hands up. On top of just your retirement savings, you need to budget for emergencies. I recommend earmarking 10% or more of your income as an Unknown Budget. I call this budget the Unknown Budget because the question everyone asks is, “Like what?” and that is the point. You do not know how you will spend this budget.

When you are always contributing to and replenishing your Unknown Budget, you are protecting yourself from the financial shocks that life will inevitably bring. Although for many years this budget might accumulate in long-term savings, you will also unfortunately use this budget more often than you’d think.

The most common financial shocks are a major car repair, major home repair, trip to hospital, pay cut, other large expenses, and divorce, separation, or widowing.

Over my twenties, I experienced many of these.

We repaired flat tires, engine failure, transmission failure, ABS brakes failure, and more on the family car, perhaps $6,000 of repairs across the 10 years. The roof leaked on my first home, requiring a $12,000 repair for a new roof and upstairs ceiling. I gave birth to our daughter, with the associated medical costs of around $5,000. My husband retired to be a stay-at-home father, giving us a pay cut. My husband hit his leg with a hatchet during our year without health insurance for an $8,000 ER visit. Our six-month-old Balinese kitten had a health scare which she recovered from thanks to $2,000 of emergency animal hospital bills. Our HVAC system broke and needed a full replacement for $7,000.

That is $40,000 from just the expenses I remember.

It is easy to see why financial shocks are the main reason why people get into credit card debt. If you are not budgeting for them, what choice do you have?

By living 10% more frugally and investing those savings, it is possible to be prepared for financial shocks. When you are constantly budgeting for unknowns, financial shocks are no longer shocking. They are simply financial inconveniences or disappointments that can be solved.

In our family, when we experience a financial shock, we often say to one another, “I’m happy that this is a problem money can solve.” There are many upsetting things in life, and so many upsetting things money cannot solve. With preparation, those that money can solve can be less devastating.

Heavy-weight boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” You should expect to get punched in the finances now and then.

I was punched in the face as the first part of my self-defense final exam.

The day before the exam, my instructor had thrown us a party where she gave us each handmade metal necklaces. She hand-stamped each one with a word she had chosen specifically for us. She gave us the necklaces in a ceremony where she called out our names, announced our words, and said a bit about why she picked that word. When it came to me, she said with a smile and a chuckle, “Megan got ‘Strength.’ I wonder why?” The class broke out in knowing laughter.

I hadn’t realized until that party that I’d developed a reputation for throwing hard punches. Even though we had several mentality lessons, self-defense was a physical education class, and we spent hours in physical exercise. We’d partner up and practice the moves we were taught on our partner’s handheld strike pads. If your partner threw relaxed practice punches, holding the strike pad meant an opportunity to rest. However, when partnering with me, receiving punches was still a work-out.

Our instructor had explained, “The way you practice is the way you will fight,” and I took that lesson seriously.

It took two classes for each of us to have our final exam, which was a simulated attack. I was scheduled for the second day.

On the first day, our simulated aggressor was a police officer who was kind and silly. We overheard him making jokes before class with the instructor. He was shorter than me but clearly amazingly strong.

We were wearing a simple head brace to prevent concussion with punching gloves and knee pads intended to soften our hits and prevent our aggressor’s injury. Our aggressor was wearing what was affectionately called “the lobster suit.” Limiting the officer’s movement only slightly, the head to toe padded suit allows the student to throw punches and have the officer only feel them a little bit.

The first girl was up. I could see the policeman trying to act out the reaction a punch like that should create in him. He’d get kicked in the chest, there would be a beat, and then you’d see him shuffle backwards intentionally with an acted “Oof!”

On the second day, our simulated aggressor was more of a method actor. He was over six feet tall and glared at us as we walked in from behind his mask. He didn’t say anything and certainly didn’t smile. I was called to go first for the day, and I saw my instructor whisper to him while a classmate said casually with a giggle, “Megan’s got this.”

I got the impression that my reputation for strength had made it to the ears of the policeman, and he’d decided to go harder on me. Each girl had to survive two scenarios. Survival meant escaping to the designated safe zone. In the simulation, you started “not knowing” you were going to be attacked with the aggressor between you and the safe zone.

My first scenario was that I was at the ATM when an aggressor shows up. I was to start with my back turned and my hands on the imaginary ATM machine. The instructor said, “Action,” and the policeman’s padded hand tapped me on the shoulder. I turned trying to have a healthy balance of pretend not knowing I was going to be attacked and definitely knowing that this was a self-defense final. “Yes?” I said.

Then, I was punched in the face. I was not ready. My hands were “putting my wallet away.” My classmates inhaled sharply in shock. Even though this was a self-defense final, nothing that aggressive had happened on day one. A moment later, the policeman tried to pick me up, and I defended myself. I remember that the harder I hit, the more my arm recoiled off his padded springy suit and ached my shoulders. He wasn’t as much of an actor as the officer from day one. I, as a retired star soccer player, kicked him hard enough that I lifted him off the ground slightly. His feet boomed back to the ground, but he just stared at me with a cold, calm gaze. His acting was merely backing up slightly. It was enough of an opportunity to escape though.

One of my classmates in the same scenario was given more testing behavior from the aggressor. Testing behavior is how a potential perpetrator finds out if you are a good victim. “It’s cold. Are you alone tonight?” the officer said. My classmate turned to look at him. “Do you want my jacket?,” he said as he edged closer. She ran to the safe zone. No punches thrown. No fight engaged. At first thought, it seemed like this wasn’t the point of the final, but actually that’s the best way to pass it. Be so prepared that you don’t need to get punched in the face. You don’t need to kick him. You don’t need to find a way to escape.

Be so prepared that your shocks make bad stories.

One time, my kitten needed emergency medical care, so I paid for it and she got better. It’s a boring story but a good life.

No limp arms. Keep your hands up. Budget for emergencies.

Photo by author. This is part of Life Lessons (the series).

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Chief Operating Officer, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 700 financial articles. Her most popular post is "The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine" while one of her favorites is "Funding a 3-Year-Old’s Roth IRA."