Lesson for Paul Manafort and all of us: Honesty can lead to financial freedom

By Bear Gebhardt

I experience more financial freedom than Paul Manafort, even before he went to jail.

My more financial freedom than pre-jail Manafort came as somewhat of a surprise since Mr. Manafort recently earned over $60 million dollars in a single five-year period.

Bear Gebhardt is a Colorado writer. Learn more about him…

By “financial freedom” I mean free from excessive worry when it comes to money, free from hurry, free of looming cash deadlines that I can not meet. Free from having to think about money too much.

Here’s one lifestyle difference where Paul and I diverge: My mom bought me a suit several decades ago. It hangs in the closet for funerals and the as-yet-to-be received invitation from Stockholm to come and accept the Nobel—Peace, Literature, whatever. The suit used to be a little too big around the waist. No longer. Still, one suit is enough. (I live in cowboy country.)

I’m on Medicare (we all should be on Medicare!) and my payment for supplemental insurance for my wife and I is automatically deducted each month from our bank account. I pay my household and auto insurance once a year, on August 1. It’s a big chunk—in the low four figures. Two or three weeks ahead of that yearly payment I sell some of my losing stock investments to cover the premium. (If one invests in the stock market—what I have simplified down to “buying a little income”—one will with great certainty have at least a few losing investments. )

Curiously, this is a win, win, win deal. 1.) My insurance is paid up for the year and I don’t have to think about it again; 2.) I get to take a loss on my income tax for the stock I sold; 3.) I get a somewhat significant reduced rate on the cost of my insurance for paying it all at once, a year ahead. Such are the small victories in middle-class money management.

Paul Manafort’s secretary once sent several e-mails reminding him that his insurance payment was overdue and was going to be canceled soon if he didn’t send a check pronto. A check or a wire transfer from Cyprus. I’ve been in that circumstance (except for the Cyprus option.) Haven’t we all? It’s gut-twisting and a potential sleep depriver.

What do you think? Please take the short poll at the end of this article.

I’ve been happily married for close to a hundred years. We’ve been in our modest home for almost forty. Long enough to pay off the mortgage, be mortgage free. I planted all the shade-bearing trees that are now taller than the house.  I put up the fence, planted the grass, decades and decades ago. For us, our home is now a little slice of heaven.

Paul Manafort is worried his house—where he and his wife live—might go into foreclosure. Actually, he worries about several houses that might go into foreclosure. Maybe he could take out a loan…

Decades ago, I knew how he felt. Haven’t we all been squeezed, a time or two or three? But I’ve matured since then. Most of us mature. By the time most of us are Paul’s age, we’ve learned what’s important, what’s not.

House going into foreclosure: another sleep depriver.

As I said, I was surprised to discover—owing to a somewhat obsessive following of the Manafort trials—that in my current season I accidentally feel more financially secure, financially free, than Mr. Manafort did, with his sixty million.

So, other than suits, do Mr. Manafort and I have extremely different lifestyles?

On the one hand, yes: I don’t wear an ankle bracelet, telling my jailers where I am, moment by moment.

On the other hand, no: In the bathroom, we each take our pants off one leg at a time, and do our business, standing up or sitting down, for as long as it takes to do our business.

At night, when he is in his bedroom, and I in mine, and we each lie on our beds, close our eyes, fall asleep—the cost of the curtains is immaterial. The trust of our bed partner—and her easy sleep, and thus our own easy sleep—figures significantly.

Following the Manafort trials, I’ve come to see that financial freedom does not come from a number in the bank but rather from the relationships I cultivate with those around me—both people and institutions.

Honesty, transparency, forthrightness are all obviously necessary for financial freedom. Hard work over many decades, paying the monthly bills, also adds up to a certain freedom. But financial freedom is impossible if that hard work over many decades is not accompanied by open and honest dealings with co-workers, and the institutions that support that work. And it’s probably easier to do if the daily work is grounded in true service to a worthy cause.

Paul Manafort, lobbyist, political consultant, lawyer, and convicted felon for tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to report foreign bank accounts. Learn more…

Perhaps some small minority of people get born into a certain narrow type of “financial freedom”—where they hardly ever worry about money just because there’s so damned much of it. But this is rare, and not really relevant to most of us in our search for financial solvency.

The financial freedom most of us yearn for is freedom from excess worry—not worrying about bouncing checks, making monthly mortgage payments, regularly paying off the credit card,  making the insurance premiums. It comes down to not worrying when shopping at the grocery store about being able to pay for what we want to eat this week.

Financial freedom means we can pay the cable bill and watch the Yankees game on television—without needing Paul Manafort’s $250,000 season tickets, a charge still showing up on his American Express bill long after the season has ended.

If he had the time—and the freedom—I’d like to take Paul Manafort to coffee and explain to him the “common man’s”  metrics for financial freedom, and the relatively simple things we need to do to attain such freedom. (Be open, be honest, work hard, pay your bills, hang in there.) Again, learning what’s important, what’s not.

And oh yeah, financial freedom is also much easier if you live the type of life that you seldom find yourself in the position where you must hire a bevy of expensive criminal lawyers. (I wonder if Mr. Manafort’s lawyers ever worry about his paying of their fees.  Or did they ask to get paid up front?)

I think I’ll go check to see how my small portfolio of stocks is doing.  And then watch a Yankee’s game on cable.

The True Privileged Class

By Bear Gebhardt

I recently recognized that I am privileged—that most of us are privileged—in ways that our President is not. Such recognition of my own privilege helped me find more compassion for that underprivileged man.

Here’s how it happened: I recently found myself hooked on a very well-done, in-depth, four-part  Netflix documentary called, Trump: An American Dream.“   It’s a picture-window into his personal history (raised in a mansion in Queens),  his view of the world (“some people are predators, some are prey”), and his adult “deal-making” philosophy (“I win when you lose”).

Bear Gebhardt is a Colorado writer. Learn more about him…

Watching the last episode, it suddenly struck me how truly rich I am, and how impoverished, in very simple ways, this poor rich guy is. I saw how I often experience life’s authentic abundance in ways that in the long run truly matter, nourish and sustain not only me but those around me. I don’t own a private jet or a yacht or tropical island with servants requiring privacy fences. I have never talked with bankers about billion-dollar projects or loans.

Still, I’m rich, privileged.

Watching this documentary,  I recognized what riches my ordinary life offered that I would have missed if my destiny had been different.

And with such insight, I was also struck with what the “born rich,” and the famous and powerful, usually miss out on, if they are not careful.  To wit:

  • Our President has never in his life had the small but genuine privilege of remembering to take out the trash on trash night
  • I suspect this man has never been privileged to play, and laughed for hours, at a  nickel, dime and quarter poker game with old buddies—a carpenter, a metal worker, a plumber, and a college professor.

    Has Donald Trump ever had the privilege of weekly coffee chats with old geezers?

  • Our tea-totaling President never savors a nightcap, with an intriguing book and the approaching midnight hour
  • I suspect The Donald has never had the privilege of a shared laugh with his wife while the two of them made up the guest bed in their guest room on the morning before their guests arrive.
  • Has Mr. Trump ever had the privilege of writing a late-night haiku about the beauty of life, with the train whistle sound in the background?
  • This President has never had the victorious feeling of getting his backyard fountain to work again, with his own hands, his own shovel and electrical tape, after the fountain’s sudden and mysterious shutdown.

    Scrabble and potluck for Donald Trump–probably never.

  • Has Mr. Trump ever felt the privilege of getting an email from his favorite cousins, announcing they’ll be stopping to visit, just passing through?
  • Has our President ever known the privilege of discovering his favorite chocolates on a “two for one“ sale at his neighborhood store?
  • I suspect DT does not know the deeply enjoyable privilege of a monthly scrabble game and potluck with old friends
  • I suspect he has never had the privilege of a regular, once a week coffee chat with fellow geezers held at the local grocery deli.
  • Has he ever had the small joy of checking off the final item on the grocery list at the grocery store, heading for cashier?
  • Has he ever felt relief at discovering an empty check-out lane at the grocery store with the cashier waiting for the next customer?

    Writing a late-night haiku? Not a pleasure the president has likely ever done.

  • Does he know the modest comfort, gentle pleasure of seeing the “auto-deposit” of this month’s social security payment?
  • Does he know how satisfying it can be to empty the dishwasher?
  • I know this President has never been able to say, simply, “good night, love,” to his spouse of forty-five years as she goes one more night upstairs to their shared bedroom.

Watching the documentary, it was clear the man in the White House is not a man like most of us. His life experiences have deprived him of privileges that  98%, even 99% of the men on the planet share every day. Thus, his basic expectations are different. His reality, his priorities are different. He has never, I would wager, mowed his lawn.

Somehow, these insights helped ease my alienation. The America he wants to “make great again” is not the already-privileged life in America that I know and my buddies know, my family knows, that most of us know. He’s never, I would guess, had the privilege of taking out the trash.

Our simple daily pleasure, obligations, privileges are what make life in America, and on this planet, worth living. The privilege of laughing with our kids, our spouses, our neighbors, our long-term buddies. The privilege of making little things work again—the backyard fountain, an oven light, a garden gate.

What do you think? Take the short poll at the end of this article.

Rather than getting “the bigger picture,” it struck me we can find wisdom in getting the “smaller picture.” What’s really important? The relationships we have with the people under the same roof. The relationships we have with people we have worked with, been in business with. The trust we have in each other. Trust that we are, at root, looking out for each other.

Which we are. A long, happy life has convinced me of this: we do indeed look out for each other, when we can, where we can, as a basic life value. This is true “privilege.”

We don’t need, as our President has insisted, a “killer instinct” to get along, to get ahead. “Ahead” meaning more love in our lives, more peace, more good-will and happy camaraderie. Even if we should be President of the United States, if we have not love, have not peace, have not humor, and the simple privileges of life, what have we?

Sometimes, it’s useful for ordinary, everyday people to talk to each other, remind each other, about ordinary things, and what makes life worth living. What makes this life truly privileged. This seems to be one of those times.