How Fixing a Phone is Like Fixing a Portfolio

My recent phone problems remind me a lot of my retirement planning issues. You are on your own out there – whether fixing your phone line or your portfolio.

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I was a young reporter when the newsroom I worked in made the switch from typewriters to computers. Yes, I really said that. People under the age of 50 talk today about typewriters the way folks over 65 used to talk about buggy whips. But my first stories as a professional writer were written on an IBM Selectric, edited on paper and sent to a keypunch technician whose machine spit out a ribbon of cutout nonsensical symbols that, somehow, the presses translated into the printed word. 

When the computer came along we were able to skip the keypunch guy and, it turns out, a whole bunch of other folks too. It was my first taste of technology wiping out jobs even as it required those who remained to learn new skills. We reporters weren’t just reporters anymore. We were also keypunch technicians, and not all of us were on board with doing two jobs for the price of one.

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This memory filled my head the other day after the craziest exchange I have ever had with a machine. My phone lines at home have been down since Hurricane Irene. When I called to report this enduring problem, I spent 30 minutes with a computerized voice at Verizon central, where there are so few live bodies that the digital helper dutifully warned I’d need a haircut before anyone became available.

So I dialed “1” for automated troubleshooting. I was immediately told to call back later if I did not have copious amounts of time just then. This warning seemed at odds with the machine’s message that I would be asked to perform a few “simple tests.” Simple like, you know, learning to speak Swahili.

Step one: locate the network interface device. I was instructed to search for a small box that might be anywhere outside or possibly hidden in a closet. I’d need a screwdriver, and if anything was wet I should stand clear and consider calling the fire department. Note to Verizon: It’s been kind of, well, damp out east.

Let’s just say I didn’t get to step two.

All those years ago I reluctantly took the keypunch guy’s job. I was being paid. I had little choice. But Verizon doesn’t pay me; I pay them. Enough was enough. I scheduled a lineman’s visit through the automated system, and my penalty was having to set aside an 11-hour window when the virtual voice assured me a lineman would show up, presumably with a screwdriver, to locate my network interface device and fix it.

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What’s all this got to do with a blog about financial education and retirement planning?

Well, the same thing is happening in your financial life. Our employers, educators and policymakers have put us on automated advice and, essentially, told us to get a screwdriver. That’s the only way to read trends in private and public pension plans, and the lack of formal personal finance coursework in our schools.

If you’re handy with financial concepts, motivated, and have the time to think through money issues, you’ll be fine. Which is why you and your kids need to learn about things like budgets, debt, retirement planning and insurance. You are on your own out there – whether fixing your phone line or your portfolio.