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Making Simple Things Complicated

Is simple ALWAYS best? No, but usually...

I was standing in a line at the local deli the other day. There were perhaps six people in front of me and after several minutes, I noted that the line was not moving at all. I stood there like a statue in a museum, watching helplessly as the customer at the front of the line gazed at the food, trying to decide what to order. I kept a bland smile on my face while inwardly fuming: What's so complicated? There are perhaps two dozen items to choose from and you've certainly had plenty of time to peruse the selections before getting to the front of the line. But still, minutes go by and there you stand, looking, looking, looking while the line of impatient and hungry customers stand frozen in place behind you. This was, I realized, a perfect example of making simple things complicated and reminded me of an incident that took place in my office recently.
I was meeting with some clients, a couple in their early thirties, for our bi-annual check-in. Since we'd last met, they'd had a new baby girl. They both looked very happy, albeit a bit sleep deprived. In front of them wobbled a tower of checkbooks and other paperwork.
"Michael, we are pretty organized people, but somehow we feel paralyzed by all the components of our finances." Sharon said, gesturing towards their stack of papers.
"Tell me more. What do you feel paralyzed about?" I asked.
Kevin begins, "Well, when Sharon and I got married, we each had a checking account and a money market account. Plus, I had a savings account as well. Sharon and I each had our credit cards. After we got married, we opened joint accounts, but still maintained our single accounts. Now we have a passbook savings for the baby for college and Sharon wants to open a new account to use for savings for a house."
While there was nothing fatal about this situation, it was clear that the many different accounts, set up to keep their finances organized, were instead creating confusion.
"Help me understand. Do you need all those accounts?" I asked.
Sharon and Kevin exchanged glances and then smiled.
"Need? Absolutely not. But it's what we're used to," Sharon said. "I think the personal accounts are a symbol of our own independence and after six years of marriage, I am ready to let go. How about you, Kev?"
Kevin laughed a kind of embarrassed laugh. "I suppose so. It just feels weird."
"Weird, I can live with. In fact, if change just feels weird rather than unbearably difficult, you are in a pretty good position to improve your life. What will change if you eliminate all these extraneous and consolidate them?"
"Well for one," Sharon said, "we will be able to free up a whole drawer full of checks, statements and deposit slips.
"Yeah and we'll have fewer accounts to reconcile each month too." Kevin added.
"It sounds like you're both on the right track." I offered encouragingly. "What else can you simplify?"
We spent the rest of our time together creating a list of action steps that would result in a clearer, simpler accounting system and agreed to check back in after a few months to see how the streamline system was working.
There is a dividing line between our self-created complexity and our ability to simplify and move forward. We all have habits that "feel right" because we've always done them. However, when we examine those habits, we may find that they just don't provide the value they once did.
What are you overcomplicating in your financial life?
What can you simplify?
Life would be just so wonderful if we could keep it simple and not overly complicate things, but alas, it isn't our way. Just to look at the number of different types, flavors, sizes, shapes, and features of toothpaste alone. It's not always simple - but it should be.
A half a pound of tuna, two pickles, and a package of pita later, the line finally begins to move again. There are now just five people between me and "you're next" and I am hopeful that these five will know what they want and keep the line moving. But this is New York, the weather is changing, and no one seems to know what they want. I guess if they want simple, I'll have to do it myself. Tomorrow I'm bringing a bag lunch to work.

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