Economic recovery will give lots of choices

  • Article by: Ross Levin
  • March 28, 2009 - 3:26 PM
There is a big owl perched across the street from our house. I found out about it when a neighbor stopped by and told me that he sees it in the evenings. Our yard is filled with bird feeders, I often sit on our front steps with binoculars, and I listen to bird songs in my car. Yet I have never seen this owl.

Maybe I have spent too much time lately distracted and with my head down.

Maybe we all have. We are looking down at our account statements, down on our politicians, even down on ourselves for getting caught in the economic tailspin that has become our world. Yet with spring in the air, things are looking up.

The seeds of economic recovery are being planted, though we certainly don't know what the growing cycle is or exactly how much fertilizer to add. In the short run, this government intervention is working and will work. Eventually all this debt could give rise to inflation, perhaps in the form of that giant plant from the Little Shop of Horrors ("Feed me, Seymour"). But for now, let's focus on new growth.

If you have a job, your cash flow has probably never been better. Mortgage rates have fallen, gas is relatively cheap, taxes for most of us this year are lower and the concept of paying retail has completely melted away. Of course there are the typical things that are uncovered when the snow thaws -- the potholes of 401(k) statements and the droppings from the dogs in our portfolios. But eventually they get covered up or scooped up, and life goes on.

It may not yet be the perfect time to be singing in the rain but it is a very good time to pay attention to that owl and begin to ask yourself "Who?"

Who are you going to choose to be in these times? What are you teaching and what are you learning? And when did you allow your money to take over your life? Most important, what are you going to do to reclaim what is most important to you?

In his book, "The Thing Itself -- On the Search for Authenticity,'' Richard Todd writes: "With our purchases, we try to become more acceptable, not fundamentally to others, but to ourselves." The things that we own serve a purpose to distinguish ourselves. We are conflicted with our needs to be different and our needs to fit in. The car we drive may say we're successful or affirm our belief that we don't need to prove anything to anyone.

If Todd is right, then maybe one thing to explore during this season of awakening is other ways for self-expression. A gratitude journal helps us focus on what is going well. Writing notes to others is an inexpensive way to be generous. Quietly taking the time to volunteer at a local shelter or other nonprofit can be far more fulfilling than a trip to the mall. Even consciously saying ''thank you'' is an act of affirmation.

Perhaps we could spend less time imagining how things were or will be and more time looking at how things are. Todd says we often suffer from "nostalgia, that fondness for something that never was." Pleasant memories have a tendency to expand. That can be a good thing and a good reason to create experiences upon which you can look back. But to live in the good old days deprives you of experiencing the exhilaration of now.

Today almost always tends to be a little uglier than our memories of yesterday and, depending on how you frame things, our prospects for tomorrow. But it is the present moment that matters. Tomorrow is a result of millions of these moments. The best way to maximize tomorrow is by maximizing today.

Take appropriate action, but don't simply take any action just to try to gain control. For example, everyone should be evaluating refinancing their home. Anyone with investments should be looking at rebalancing. All of us should be reviewing our budgets and making determinations between wants and needs. And each of us should be asking ourselves whether this is what we truly want to be doing with this moment of our life.

I don't know if my search for the owl will be successful, but I do know that I probably will find some other interesting things when I look up.

Spend your life wisely.

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains & Losses column appears on the fourth and fifth Sundays of the month. His e-mail is

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