From Monk to Money Manager
By J. MONEY - JUNE 5, 2019
Good morning friends!!! Have a really cool story to share with you today, but it’s a long one so make sure to tell all your bosses/clients you’ll be busy for a while and then grab yourself a nice cup of tea ;)
It comes from Doug Lynam, a fellow monk turned money manager, and after stumbling across his story and asking him to share with us, he did us one better and allowed me to publish the first chapter of his new book which artfully goes over the twists and turns of his wild journey so far…
I was glued to every second of this, and hopefully you will enjoy it just as much :) To learn more or pick up a copy of the book to continue reading, visit: From Monk to Money Manager: A Former Monk’s Financial Guide to Becoming a Little Bit Wealthy — and Why That’s Okay
(Bolding below are my own to help break up the text a little…)
My Hate Affair With Money
Ironically, most of my money troubles occurred because I tried to escape worrying about money. I didn’t want to deal with any of it. I grew up in a rich family where money was abundant but weaponized. Like a common virus engineered to be a weapon of mass destruction, money was the tool we used to hurt, control, manipulate, and dominate one another. It was horrible.
Growing up, I learned through the behavior of those around me that money and materialism were evil. So when I started studying philosophy and religion in high school and read the words of Paul the apostle, “For the love of money is the root of all evil,” I believed Paul was right.
row a Jesus quote into the mix and you have a proto-monk in the making. That would be Matthew 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This seemed like the answer I was looking for.
I was a long way from becoming a monk because, at the time, I was an agnostic and a teenager. So I became an anti-materialist wannabe hippie instead. I covered my car with rain forest murals, peace signs, and rainbows. I grew out my hair, wore ratty clothing, and tried to drop out of society.
It seemed like a clever idea at the time, plus it annoyed my parents. The only problem was that many of my new liberal brethren were just as selfish, self-centered, and materialistic as my conservative parents.
They just wanted different stuff. They didn’t want to be told what to do, and their anti-establishment attitude was often ego in disguise. They wanted the freedom to be as self-centered as possible and seek as much personal pleasure as possible without any responsibility. Despite the “one world” rhetoric, which I greatly admired, they didn’t seem to give a darn about anyone but themselves. That wasn’t much of an improvement.
So then I tried to find selfless service in the military—the perfect egalitarian meritocracy. Excellence is rewarded, but your pay is fixed. In college, I ended up at Officer Candidate School with the US Marine Corps and loved it. I graduated near the top of my class, and I almost stayed to make a career out of the military (I did not go active duty), but I realized that my real job as a Marine was to kill people.
I’m not a pacifist, but the Marines taught us to enjoy killing, and that freaked me out a bit. I found the idea of killing people for a living disturbing, but mostly because the adventure part of it thrilled me.
Unlike some, I didn’t quit the Marines because I hated soldiering. I quit because I got good at the soldiering part and enjoyed it too much. There is a reason many men and women like hunting and playing shooter video games: it is a heck of a lot of fun.
If I was going to quit the Marines and do something better, what could be a higher calling? Where else could I find a life of service and avoid the “greedy capitalistic corporate world”? Just then, I began to have a religious reawakening and started to explore the possibility of becoming a monk.
It seemed a perfect solution. In the monastery, I would have all the structure and discipline I liked about the Marines along with comradery, or esprit de corps, but with an even nobler purpose. God comes before country. Best of all, I would take a vow of poverty and be free from the grip of money and materialism forever.
Or so I thought.
A Surprise Twist
I entered the monastery when I was twenty-two years old and fresh out of college. My original intent was to try it out for a little while, like taking a gap year, as a break before my life started. It was also a rebellious adventure or the “road less traveled.” I was looking for the meaning of life, and I decided that if I was ever going to find it, a monastery was the most likely place to do so.
I wasn’t disappointed. Being a monk was everything I’d hoped for, and much more. I discovered a remarkable community filled with lovingkindness and wonder at the grandeur of the universe. Each day was rich with meaning, even if poor in spirit.
In my early years at the monastery, it was a struggle to pay the bills and keep the household running smoothly. I was the junior monk by almost thirty years, so I was the lowest person in the pecking order. I had very little power or control over daily events. I was just a happy grunt, trying not to screw up.
Since the other brothers were older, wiser, and smarter, I assumed they knew something about finance and bookkeeping. Sadly, that was not the case. Within a few years it was clear that something was desperately wrong with the community finances. We were all working full time, but somehow there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills.
Eventually we hit the breaking point. Calls were coming in from creditors, and I was using my personal credit cards to cover living expenses. I didn’t understand what was going wrong. I finally insisted on taking responsibility for the household finances so I could see what the problem was. I had no idea if I would have better luck than the other monks at figuring out a solution, but I had to give it my best shot.
What I stumbled into was a Pandora’s box of troubles. I learned that the community had been running in the red for years. There were medical bills, car repairs, student loans, insurance payments, and all the living expenses required for any home. There were also retreats to Rome and help given to those in need.
Most importantly, there were several years of underemployment and below subsistence wages for some of the brothers, along with a failed business venture when finding meaningful work seemed impossible.
There wasn’t enough money coming in the door. So credit cards became a necessary survival mechanism. Even when our income level improved after we all landed good teaching jobs, it was too late. We were under an avalanche of debt.
Moreover, we were not supported by the church and never accepted any donations. Part of our charism (the style of our religious order) was a commitment to being self-sufficient and to never rely on outside support. Why should someone else donate money so we could live the lifestyle of our choosing?
How did our financial problems get so bad? For two reasons. First was the hope that prayer alone could solve our money problems. If prayer alone was ever going to solve a big money mess, we were first in line.
The second reason was we all played an insidious game of hot potato with the community finances. We viewed money as evil and didn’t own up to our individual or collective responsibilities.
Somehow, everything was going to work out for the best, or it was someone else’s responsibility to fix. We could always find someone else to shift the responsibility onto, another brother or, worse, God.
The quest for blame is always successful. And “giving everything to God” doesn’t mean pushing our responsibilities into his lap. God shows us how to live, but God can’t do the living for us. We each have responsibilities to ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. In fact, we have a universal responsibility to all humanity and nature.
Hope and blame are not strategies. Prayer that leads you to the right action is great. Prayer that leaves you sitting on your backside isn’t. And prayer used as a form of denial or blame isn’t real prayer.
I believe in the power of prayer, but praying for the bills to get paid without taking right action is a guaranteed path to failure. You won’t have enough money for retirement if you don’t put any money into your account or buy lottery tickets as your financial plan.
One of the hardest truths for the community to face was the reality that God was not going to magically pay the bills. It didn’t matter that we were doing good in the world. It didn’t matter that we lived a life of love, service, and self- sacrifice. Visa wanted their money back, with a lot of interest, and they wanted it by the end of the month.
After many months of trying to untangle the financial mess I’d just uncovered, there was only one course of action available—bankruptcy. The community was insolvent, and since much of the debt was on personal credit cards, personal bankruptcy for each monk in the community was the only solution.
It was a horror and a logistical nightmare. The process took over two years to file and discharge all the bankruptcies. My part-time job, in addition to teaching full time, was to organize, file, and track all the paperwork.
However, there was an upside. Since we were broke and lived in relative poverty, we had nothing to repossess and nothing to lose. Bankruptcy immediately improved our credit scores and left us with a completely clean slate, able to start over and build anew. In the end, it was a huge blessing.
Fortunately, we filed for bankruptcy long before the laws changed in 2005, which made filing harder and more complex . . . as if it was easy before.
After surviving that ordeal, I made it a point to learn everything I could about personal finance. If I was going to be responsible for the community money, I was going to do it right.
Determined never to repeat past mistakes, I went to our local bookstore and purchased every credible book on personal finance I could find. The depth of my ignorance on the subject shocked me. I had no idea how the world of money worked.
Finance was one of the most crucial aspects of life, and I knew nothing about it. Most schools don’t teach it, most parents don’t teach it, and most adults are financially illiterate to some extent. Even people who have money often lose it due to poor planning. Financial illiteracy causes untold amounts of suffering.
Over the years my knowledge of money management deepened, then took another unexpected twist. Monasteries have regular guests, and we were no exception. Friends and visitors frequented our dinner table, often pouring their hearts out, seeking solace and support during troubled times.
Since I was the most junior monk, I wasn’t encouraged to give spiritual counsel to guests. That was for the prior. I mostly just watched and listened during conversations with visitors.
And as I listened to those conversations unfold gradually, I realized that almost every visitor who came with a spiritual problem also had a financial problem lurking in the background. More importantly, I could help. So I did.
I started working pro bono with guests to solve their money problems. If guests could afford a real financial planner or lawyer, I sent them to an appropriate professional. I took the clients who were too poor to get attention from anybody in the industry. I knew that I wasn’t good enough, yet, to charge anyone, but I was steadily developing my skill set.
The most unusual problems fell into my lap. I probated estates, helped file more bankruptcies, worked out long-term debt repayment, helped with child support, student loans, and identity theft, to name a few.
Financial problems are often entangled with spiritual problems. The financial problem is sometimes a root cause and sometimes a by-product—and sometimes they’re so tangled together it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins.
For example, when one client was dealing with the death of a loved one, their grief and loss were the primary concern. But there was also an estate to probate and no one to help. Trying to navigate probate while mourning the loss of your dearest loved one isn’t practical.
One terminally ill client was dealing with their end-of-life grief process, but they also needed to write a will, assign someone to have power of attorney for health care and finances, and create a Do Not Resuscitate order. Focusing only on the spiritual grief would have been a travesty.
Some suffering in life is unavoidable, especially from unforeseen financial catastrophes, but the suffering that poor estate planning produces is avoidable. If I could help avert the lesser tragedy that dying without a will (intestate) produces, I felt a moral obligation to do so.
Frequently guests would ask me to pray for them to get relief from their money crises. I always did, but I also insisted we make a budget. As I have said, we must make real change happen for ourselves. God has given us free will and agency— and the responsibility to use them. God is not going to work a miracle to solve a problem that you have the power to fix.
A New Source of Suffering
The greatest irony of my life is that I joined a monastery, in part, to escape the world of money, and I ended up spending more time worrying about money than almost anyone in the outside world. Another irony, directly related to the first, is that I learned I’m good at helping people with their financial problems.
From these experiences, I learned several rules about money and life. Here are two:
Rule #1: If you ignore money it will always bite you in the backside.
Rule #2: Bad things happen to good people. (Remember that nice guy called Jesus? They nailed him to a tree for saying that we should all be kind to one another.)
Around 2005, my life took another unexpected turn. I was working as a math and science teacher at a private seventh-through twelfth-grade school, and serving as chair of the mathematics department, when the school’s statistics/economics instructor left unexpectedly.
In a moment of crisis, I took the course on as an overload. I wasn’t the most qualified person for the job, but I was good with kids and was familiar enough with the material. Most importantly, I was also the only person available.
Surprisingly, it became my favorite course to teach. I loved it. I was in my element and, unbeknownst to me, on my way to realizing my true calling. The first thing I did was throw out the horribly dry textbooks and teach through projects and real-world examples.
After several years of teaching economics and personal finance, as well as helping countless monastery guests, my colleagues at work began asking me for financial advice. I gladly helped them, free of charge. As a monk I never billed clients. It was just my form of service. And that is when I took one big step closer to where I am today.
Do you ever have “bookmark” moments in your life? Events so profound there will always be a before and an after for that event?
Here’s one of those moments for me.
I have a good friend and colleague with whom I worked for decades. Around 2008, she asked me for help planning her retirement. At sixty-four, she knew it was past time to start. I asked her to email a convenient time to meet and we’d set something up. But the email never came.
We’d pass each other in the hall every few days, and each time she saw me, I would remind her to set up the appointment. She’d promise to email me soon but keep procrastinating. This went on for over a year. She was avoiding a difficult conversation.
After I pressed her on the issue during a faculty event, we were finally able to set up an appointment. A week later, on that fateful winter afternoon, we met after school in her office and tried to plan her retirement.
I’d already had a busy day teaching classes, supervising the cafeteria, and tutoring students on how to use the trigonometric ratios during my free periods. When I walked into her cramped office, the dusty smell of books and Band-Aids lingered in the air. In a small school, everyone wears multiple hats.
As the resident den mother, she kept a ready supply of first aid gear to help bandage bruised knees, tape sprained ankles, and soothe upset stomachs, all piled up alongside stacks of papers and reports.
She greeted me warmly, gave me a big hug, and thanked me for taking the time to meet. In the dark months before spring break, every teacher is exhausted, and we could both see the fatigue in each other’s eyes. Still, it was nice to connect with an old friend, and we settled down into squeaky office chairs in front of her computer.
The first surprise: it took about thirty minutes just to log in to her account since she’d never opened it before. We had to get customer service on the phone to set up online access, which is always maddening. After numerous failed login attempts, we were finally in.
Then came the big shock: after thirty years as a private school teacher, her retirement savings was only $16,000. That plus credit card debt put her in a tragic hole. She had never faced this money demon, had never opened her retirement account, and had given the matter zero time and attention. I always suspected it was going to be an unpleasant conversation, but I had no idea it would be dire.
She then politely asked me what I could do to help, as if it were like fixing a broken sink. Just tinker with it a little, slap on some duct tape, and the problem will be solved.
By all accounts, she is one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. To this day, she is still a national mountain bike champion for her age bracket. But when I explained the gravity of her situation, as delicately as I could, she broke down in tears and cried. And cried. It was a heartrending moment.
My friend then asked me when she could expect to retire. I lied and said I didn’t know. But I did know. The answer wasn’t good, and I lacked the courage to speak the truth. I tried not to make a horrible moment worse by letting her see my sadness.
I fought back the tears but, as I thought of the life she dedicated to selfless service, I couldn’t help it— I started to cry too. I wanted to give her hope and encouragement, not a pity party. Yet I was breaking inside along with her. Worse, I understood the seriousness of her situation more acutely than she did.
She was just worried about retiring next year. I saw a mountain of unpayable medical bills in her future and pictured her struggling to get out of bed to go to work in her old age.
The rest of her life was likely to be a financial train wreck, and she was just beginning to realize it. Social Security is great, but it doesn’t go far in the expensive town where we live. The best I could do was help her build a workable budget, clear up her debt, increase her savings rate, select better retirement investments, and encourage her to buy a modest home so that her cost of living would go down as she aged. It still wasn’t going to be the retirement she deserved.
A New Calling
Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke 6:20.
I never fully understood the meaning of these words until I was financially desperate. I think the desperately poor are going to heaven because there is no reason for them to go to hell—they’ve already been there. That might be a theological overreach for some, but maybe they at least get a few decades off purgatory?
After seeing the trouble my friend and colleague had saving for retirement, I began to dig into the retirement plan at my school. I wanted to know what went wrong. How could someone spend a lifetime as a teacher and have no retirement savings? Someone must run the plan and be responsible for it, right? Didn’t anyone ever reach out and let her know she was so far off track?
What I found when I examined my school’s retirement plan shocked me again. It wasn’t being run for the benefit of the employees. It was being run for the benefit of the company administering the plan. Then, after more research, I discovered this wasn’t a unique situation.
Almost every teacher retirement plan in the country is in shambles. For decades, schools and teachers have innocently pumped money into plans they trusted but that are actually broken. Retirement plans have been neglected by school boards in both public and private institutions, providing financial predators an easy feast.
As a result, there are currently multiple class action lawsuits against Ivy League schools for failing to monitor and supervise their retirement plans adequately. The problem is so endemic that even Ivy League schools struggle. Having seen for myself, I can assure you it isn’t a pretty situation further down the academic ladder.
(If you want to find out if your school retirement plan company is working for you or against you, just ask one question: Are they a fiduciary? A fiduciary is legally required to act in your best interests. I talk more about them in chapter 14. Run away from the rest. And don’t be fooled by any answer that isn’t an unequivocal yes. The rest are sharks.)
There was only one solution to this problem I could think of, though it wasn’t going to be easy: build my own company and take these plans away from the financial monsters preying on teachers.
So that is what I did, and that is what I continue to do. I formed my own company, Lynam Financial Services, then happily merged with a larger firm, LongView Asset Management. That’s when I left the monastery. I’d found a wider community to serve. In my mind, I didn’t leave monasticism; I’m just bringing what I discovered in the monastery out into the world.
When I became a monk, I mistakenly believed I had to choose between a life of spiritual abundance or material abundance.
I was wrong. We need to be a little bit wealthy— meaning, fiscally wise and financially strong— so we can help others and make the world a better place. When money becomes a part of our spiritual practice, used in love and service, it brings us closer to God.
My mission is simple: I don’t want anyone to be poor. Poverty sucks—and though I know what the verse says, I can’t think of anything blessed about being poor. (Perhaps it is like the blessing we give to those heading off to war. They deserve our compassion because of the suffering they will face, and so they are blessed with our most solemn prayers.)
Instead of just praying for the poor, can we find pragmatic solutions that don’t require huge government intervention? Every forced poverty reduction plan has failed. Just ask the Russians. But what does it take not to be poor? What do you need to avoid that pain?
Moreover, what do you need to ensure you aren’t at risk of being poor ever again? The answer is simple: you need to be a little bit wealthy.
For the record, my faith journey is complex. And it isn’t over yet! I’m still growing and learning in my spiritual adventure. But I see the divine everywhere and in everyone, regardless of their faith tradition or lack thereof. When I share my faith, it is to help connect you with yours, not convert you to mine.
While this book is grounded in my unique experience of Christian monasticism, the discussion of religion and money impacts you regardless of your religious beliefs. Our Western values are heavily influenced, both consciously and unconsciously, by more than three thousand years of Judeo-Christian history.
Sometimes this unintentionally causes pain in the world. So I joyfully welcome people of all faiths, or no faith, to this conversation.
I believe God wants you to be a little wealthy. Not selfish or heartless, like a robber baron, but comfortable, able to pay your bills, care for your loved ones, pay for college, afford health care, give to others, and retire with dignity. Those things require wealth. This idea may strike some as a radical notion. In the next chapters I lay out not only why it’s not but how you can do it and still be true to your highest values.
With courage, compassion, and common sense, you can improve your financial situation and even become wealthy while putting your life in service to others. You can also connect deeply and meaningfully with friends, family, and your community while growing in material abundance.
It’s okay to be a little bit wealthy. In fact, it’s necessary.
From Monk To Money Manager
Douglas Lynam is a former monk turned financial advisor, and author of the recently published book, From Monk to Money Manager: A Former Monk’s Financial Guide to Becoming a Little Bit Wealthy—and Why That’s Okay. He can be found at DougLynam.com, as well as LongView Asset Management.
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