As a young boy I was blessed to know and learn from my Uncle Segundo or Tio Segundo as I knew him. He like so many other relatives came to live with my family for a short time as they fled their beloved Cuba to make a new home in the welcoming arms of the United States. Tio Segundo was like many Cuban exiles. He came to this country in his late 40’s by himself, penniless and left behind everything that he knew and cherished. In Cuba he was an intellectual, a philosopher, a consultant to Presidents, a lawyer and the Mayor of Holgin, the second largest city in Cuba. This tale teaches us that the unexpected happens and that you must prepare. This tale like so many others teaches us that you must prepare by creating financial capital from saving and investing, by creating human capital in the form of education and knowledge and preferably you should do both. You must prepare for the worst so that wherever you may go and no matter what may happen you land on your feet. I probably heard this a thousand times growing up.
Let me tell give you some history on Tio Segundo so that you can understand what unexpected means to many and the degree to which many prepare. It’s a high standard.
One day, late at night, he gets a knock on his door from a revolutionary soldier or Fidelista, one who is loyal to Fidel Castro. Tio Segundo had saved this soldier’s life many years before by publicly locking the door to this soldier’s prison cell and putting the key in his pocket in front of reporters. The government’s practice at the time was to kill revolutionaries that were trying to escape from prison. Of course the revolutionaries weren’t trying to escape they were just being executed. Tio Segundo made it clear by his public display that if the government killed this revolutionary it was an execution because he could not escape since Tio Segundo had the only key. It was the only way that he knew to stop this practice.
What happened next? The revolutionary soldier tells Tio Segundo that he is in his debt and that he is there to repay him. He tells him to pack up because he has a car waiting for him to take him to the Ecuadorian embassy where he will be able to make his way to the United States. Tio Segundo is confused. The soldier explains, “I have been ordered to come get you at 7:00 A. M. tomorrow morning to take you to prison where your fate has already been decided. You saved my life and now I will save yours. If you are still here tomorrow you are doomed so hurry up there is no time to waste. If you are not gone when I arrive tomorrow I must follow orders. Say goodbye to your family, pack 2 suitcases and get in the car.” Several days later Tio Segundo was in my family’s living room in Maryland.
Why do I tell the story of Tio Segundo? Because leaving everything you know at a moments notice to go to another country is what I call unexpected. Losing your job, getting sick or growing old is expected. The chances are that someday you will lose a job, get sick and since the alternative to growing old is unacceptable, I suggest you plan accordingly. As a planning device you should ask the question, what would I do if I had to leave my country at a moment’s notice and relocate to a country where I had no money and didn’t speak the language? This was the situation most Cuban exiles from the 1960’s encountered. We as citizens of the United States don’t think about things such as this because of our global status, but to many in the world it is very real. If you can answer that you would be fine given this extreme scenario because you would have either created access to funds or you have a readily transferable skill then you are way ahead of the game. I congratulate you. If not, it’s time to get moving.
I am sure I speak for every first generation Cuban-American when I say that I must have heard my parents and other relatives describe this exact and extreme what if scenario countless times. They didn’t have to tell us to prepare for the unexpected because we could all point to someone as a visual reminder. I am not a sociologist, but if you were to ask my opinion, the success of the Cuban exiles and their first generation offspring is directly attributable to this almost paranoid need to prepare for the truly unexpected. The term unexpected is much more exacting and so we plan for eventualities that seem far-fetched to those that have never suffered through dislocation.
Tio Segundo taught me many things. He was a philosopher and believed strongly in the concept that “everything comes back.” He believed that people either consciously or subconsciously always get exactly what they want out of life. He described it as a journey and that you will in this life be rewarded for your good deeds as well as punished for your sins. He would often talk to me about gratification. He would say “Instant gratification is the enemy of the future.” Instant gratification means indulging today at the expense of tomorrow. We see it in our everyday lives. If we want to be fit and strong we must invest in exercise and good eating habits. If we want rewarding careers we must invest in our knowledge. If we want to secure a comfortable lifestyle for when we are old we must save and invest our money today. Saving money today is delayed gratification and if you don’t learn it as a child you probably won’t learn it as an adult.
A common request I hear parents ask is what can I teach my young children about money? In A Tale of Habits we learn to teach children how to shop wisely. This tale speaks to the need to prepare for the unexpected. But, just how do you teach your children to prepare for the unexpected? The answer of course is to teach them delayed gratification. Learning to shop wisely in combination with delayed gratification will put your child well ahead of the curve.
Experiments have shown that even very young children can delay gratification. Some experiments even go so far as to study the correlation between the length of delayed gratification and future academic and social outcomes. The results were not surprising. The ones that could delay gratification the longest had better academic and social outcomes.
If you teach children well you are providing them with human capital. I often speak to the need to be prepared because of the Cuban exile experience. If asked what is more important financial or human capital I will always vote for human capital. History has proven that you can lose all your financial capital but you can’t lose your human capital. In the words of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Teach your children well.”