Author Archives: Robert M. Brown - Page 2

Whose Money Is it?

Ever buy anything on ‘layaway’ or any similar arrangement? If you’re handing over money, but not getting the goods, you’re probably doing something wrong. The vendor has your money, but doesn’t have to provide anything in return. You don’t have your money, or whatever it is you’re buying.

Try this: Instead of making payments to a store, make them to yourself. Put the money into an interest bearing account (preferably something like one of the online high-yield savings accounts). It will make you more money while it’s sitting there and when you have enough saved up, go buy what you want.

That assumes, of course, that you have the discipline to leave the money in the savings account and not spend it on something else. If you can’t do that you’d better learn how, or you’re never going to be able to get a handle on your finances.

Who Will You Be When You Grow Up?

It has been nearly 18 months now since my son was born and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.

I know what I am. I’m a dad. No job, no career, will ever be more important than that. Unfortunately, while very rewarding in its way, the pay isn’t very good and the bills still have to be paid. For a year and a half now I have been juggling, trying to spend as much time as possible at home, with my family, while still making enough to support us. The results, so far, have been mixed.

I’m self-employed, so to a certain extent I get to set my own schedule. If I don’t have anything scheduled for a given day I can stay home, and Nathaniel is delighted to have Daddy around all day. On the other hand, sometimes I get called out to work on a Saturday afternoon and I feel a certain resentment at missing that precious family time, but I do it because I can’t pay the bills with baby pictures, no matter how cute they are.

I’m luckier than most fathers, who may have to leave the house at 7:00am or earlier, and may not get home till 8pm or even later. They might spend little or no time at all with their kids during the week. Some of them may make more money than I do, have a bigger house and nicer things, but does the price in time that pay for that material wealth make them happier?

No one ever lay in bed at the end of their life and thought, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” For me, the family time is worth giving up a few gadgets and sweating a little more trying to make the finances work.

I write, I work with computers, but I’m not a writer, I’m not a computer technician. Those are things that I do. But what I am is a dad. Solving some computer problem may be satisfying in its way, but it’s nothing compared to my son running to greet me at the door, yelling, “Da’y, Da’y!” and throwing his arms around my legs.

Call me greedy, but I’d like to find a way to spend even more time with the family, while still paying the bills. It’s something that our society doesn’t make easy. Something that is actively discouraged, in fact, but I plan to do it anyway. If I can figure out how.

How about you? What brings you the most joy in your life, and how do you plan to spend the most time possible doing that?

What You Save May Someday Save You

Are you doing well right now? Making money hand-over-fist? Living large? Think the good times are going to last forever?

Maybe they will. But then, maybe not. The foreclosure lists are full of people who thought the money would never stop coming.

The most important thing you can do to get through financial hard times is to save up a reserve of cash when times are good. It might mean missing a vacation or waiting to buy that new home theater system, but when you’re laid off and wondering how you’re going to make the next mortgage payment, you’ll be damn glad to have a few thousand in the bank. That reserve buys you time to get your income flowing again, without losing your house or credit rating, or accumulating debt that will drag on you for months or years to come.

The experts say that you should have enough cash on hand to cover six month’s worth of expenses. That’s a lot of money; $30-40,000 for many middle class families. I think that may be excessive (though if you have the resources, and you want to do that, by all means, go ahead) but some sort of reserve is invaluable. I cannot emphasize that strongly enough: It is absolutely imperative for your financial health and freedom that you maintain a cash reserve.

If you’re making money now and don’t have any ready savings (I’m assuming that you have some retirement savings, something in your company’s 401k at a minimum, but that’s not something you can access in an emergency and you don’t want to anyway.) start accumulating some, before your luck runs out. Don’t aim at tens of thousands of dollars right away. That goal will seem unattainable and you’ll be going cold turkey on some other spending you’re used to. Start small. Figure up how much you spend on groceries in a month and make that number your savings goal. (Use a savings account; you want to mentally separate this money from the contents of your checking account.) If your finances are currently in good shape you should be able to do that in a month or two. Now aim for having one mortgage payment in the bank. And so on.

Depending on how much disposable income you have (income after basic expenses), it may take anywhere from a few months to a year or two, but eventually you’ll have enough cash in the bank to live on for a month without bringing in a dime of outside income. Congratulations. You’ve bought yourself a huge chunk of financial freedom and peace of mind. That reserve won’t just save your butt if you’re axed from work. That’s what will pay off your credit card after you had to charge those home repairs. Or car repairs. Or that trip to the emergency room. What it is, in other words, is a buffer between you and debt. It’s a cash airbag that will hopefully keep you from being hurt by a shock to your finances. It is one of your most precious assets and should be guarded accordingly.

One thing that you will quickly notice about your growing savings account is that your bank doesn’t think much of it. The first time you look at your statement and realize that the $5,000 you have in your money market account has netted you 83 CENTS in interest, you will be quite justified in saying, “What the fuck is up with that?”

Now that you’ve got a satisfying reserve saved up, it’s time to vary the theme a little. The interest paid by most banks on savings accounts right now is negligible. You might be tempted to just keep the money in your checking account, for simplicity, but don’t do it. The separation you get by keeping your reserve in its own account is worth much more than the minor hassle of tracking two accounts. If you just keep it in checking what you’re going to do is spend it and that is what, in technical terms, we call bad.

So what you want to do is keep the savings/money market account, but only keep a portion of your cash reserve there. A thousand or two, maybe; just enough to smooth out the bumps in cash flow and deal with any minor emergencies. The rest should be placed in a higher-yield, but still readily accessible account. A CD won’t do; you don’t want your reserve locked up for that long. Any other sort of investment is even worse. What’s left?

Fortunately, the Internet has brought us the online high yield savings account. Head over to Bankrate.com and check out the various offerings from ING Direct, HSBC, and others. Pick one that you like and move most of your cash reserve there. Now, instead of 83 cents your five grand will bring you in twenty bucks or more each month. The only drawback is that to get at that money you have to have it transfered to your local account, which can take a few days. That’s why you still want to keep a grand or two in what I call the ready reserve.

What you are developing here is financial defense in depth. You have a ready reserve of modest size, with just enough cash to meet immediate and minor emergencies. That buys you time to tap into the larger reserve, which in the meantime is generating noticeable amounts of money for you. Together, they buy you time to get back on your feet in the event of a financial hardship, without going into debt or ruining your credit (or worse, going hungry).

There are some further variations we can add to this basic theme, but that’s enough to get you started. If you don’t have a reserve now, get saving. Even a little money in the bank can be very soothing, and a healthy savings account will help you sleep at night when the chill wind finally blows and you find yourself facing a pile of bills and no other way to pay them.

In The Beginning, So At The End

We all start our lives with a very narrow focus. First the womb, than which it doesn’t get much narrower. Even after make it to the outside, our worlds are narrowly focused on eating and breathing. We can’t even move, just lie there and hope nourishment is brought to us. Our parents keep checking to see if we’re still breathing, so precarious does our grasp on life seem.

As we get older our world slowly expands, each tiny step a monumental landmark. Rolling over, to change our view. The first hesitant movements that let us inchworm or scoot around a tiny patch of floor or playpen. Then, with the discovery of crawling a whole room can be our domain to explore. Walking will bring the rest of the house into play, and eventually the yard. Outside! Gradually we explore an entire neighborhood. My son is at this stage now, not yet two years old and scurrying around the neighborhood with great enthusiasm.

With the start of school whole new territories open up. Most of then turn out to be horrific, but through the school years the world in our reach expands to include the whole town and maybe more.

Adulthood opens up most of the planet to us. We can, if we chose, go nearly anywhere, meet people from all over. Our jobs, if we are fortunate, give us the opportunity to accomplish real things, change other people’s lives. Most of us mate and begin producing additional human beings.

Then, gradually, our lives narrow. The responsibilities of job and family cut down on travel and adventures. Old friends move away or die and may or may not be replaced by new ones. Retirement comes along and the world of the workplace disappears. Some people are fortunate enough to be able to take up traveling in their retirement, but most are not.

With most of our friends gone, with no job to take us out of the house, life narrows down rapidly. We might get together with a few friends now and then, or get involved with a hobby. Or maybe not. My grandmother only left her house a handful of times in the last fifteen years or so of her life.

As our bodies wear out, even climbing upstairs in our own house may be beyond us. Like an infant, we are back to a world that consists of one floor. But the stairs are no longer a challenge to be overcome; the barrier is now permanent.

All too soon, for most of us, comes the hospital bed, the recliner we can no longer get out of, the struggle for one more breath to try and stay a little longer in a world that has narrowed down to nothing more than that; hoping someone will bring one more meal, while people check to see if you are still breathing.

We have come full circle. Everything that life has given us, it has taken away again.

Napoleon once said, “The time we have for war is short.” Strike the words “for war” and what he says is true of everyone. The time we have on this world is painfully short, and you never know just how short it may be. Napoleon also once said, “Ask me for anything but time.” He knew what he was talking about. Time is utterly unforgiving.

Make the most of every day you have on this Earth. You don’t know how many of them you’re going to get and once you have lost one you can never get it back.

The Blind Leading the Stupid

I see that the mortgagepocalypse continues apace. Perhaps it’s easy for me to point fingers, burdened with only a sensible mortgage and in a housing market that isn’t in free fall, but I feel little sympathy for either the home owners who are losing their houses or the bankers who are losing their jobs. (Though I admit I do feel more sympathy for the former than the latter.) They have combined to create a fairly major economic disaster that is going to put a drag on the whole US economy and which will probably take five years to recover from.

The whole mess was easily preventable; people just had to not act like dumbasses. But history tells us that that is too much to expect. For anyone not familiar with how we got into this mess, it breaks down like this.

The mortgage companies figured out a way to make a pile of money selling loans to people who couldn’t actually afford to buy a house. They pushed these interest-only adjustable-rate mortgages to overly optimistic people who wanted a house but who didn’t have any, you know, money. Then, and this is key, the lender sold most of those loans to other financial institutions. The people making the loan, in other words, were not the people trying to collect on it. They had no incentive to make sure that the borrower would actually be able to make the payments. They just took their cut and dumped it on someone else. Like most businessmen, they were short-sighted, focusing only on the quarterly bottom line.

The home buyers thought they finally had a chance to buy their own house. With home values rising, they could make relatively small interest-only payments on their mortgage–never reducing the amount they owed–and still build equity. If they wanted, they could sell the house at a profit.

Here’s an example. A few years ago we sold our old house. Nearly all of the offers we got for it were identical. The prospective buyer wanted to pay about $5000 over our asking prices, but wanted us to pay the closing costs. This was just a way of rolling the closing costs into the loan (further increasing their payments). They were trying to buy a house without money. That was when I realized just how badly the mortgage industry had stepped in it.

These are people who were not able to save up enough money to buy a house through more traditional loan programs. Either their income was too small, or their financial management too poor. Neither of those things changed for the better after they became home owners. Now an unfortunate number of them realized too late just how expensive it can be to own a house, and that they couldn’t make their payments (particularly as property taxes and interest rates climbed and their payments went up accordingly) and the number of homes being foreclosed on began to climb dramatically.

The glut of houses on the market began to drive prices down, putting even more pressure on the marginal home owners–not to mention builders, and the finance companies. (Here’s a secret for you: Your mortgage company doesn’t want your house. They want your money.) More foreclosures. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The later Robert Heinlein once said, talking about writers, “We’re professional gamblers. Make sure your house is paid for and your car is paid for. Don’t go into debt.” Today that isn’t just true of writers, or even the other self-employed. Just about everyone is a professional gambler these days. You never know when your company may hit some hard times and start laying people off, or merge with another company, or relocate, or offshore your job, or just decide to dump a bunch of people off the payroll to make the quarterly bottom line look better so the executives can get bigger bonuses. Your income may drop to nothing at any time.

People have been gambling with their houses. They bet that home values would keep going up forever, and interest rates would stay low. They lost, and continue to lose. The bankers bet right alongside them and the rest of the country is going to have to pay the price, one way or another, because these two bunches of overly-optimistic dumbasses never thought about the implications of what they were doing.

Buying something you can’t afford is bad enough. Buying something you can’t even start to pay for is just pure folly.

A Matter of Interest

A commonly given bit of financial advice is to call up your credit card company and pressure them into lowering your interest rate. This, the advice goes, will save you a pile of money.

The advice is good, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, if you are carrying a balance on your credit cards it is to your benefit to lower the interest charges. The thing is, though, you are better off not carrying a balance in the first place. THAT is the advice you want. If you cut your interest rate from 20% to 10%, you haven’t saved anything. You’re still paying, just not as much.

I could get lower interest rates on my credit cards if I wanted to. I don’t care. I don’t even know what the interest rates are on any of them. I don’t want to lower the rates. Doing that plants the seed in your mind that it’s OK to carry a balance. You think you’ve done your part and saved yourself some money. Depending on whether or not you currently have a balance on your card it’s either a half measure that delays or prevents you doing what you really have to do, or a first step out onto the slippery slope. You start to think, “Ten percent is much better than twenty. If I were to let the balance slide for a month that wouldn’t be so bad….” That’s why the credit card companies are willing to do it; they know they’re going to keep getting your money. You keep bleeding, just more slowly.

If the balances on your credit cards are so high that you can’t pay them off in the immediate future, by all means get the rates lowered if you can. That’ll make it easier to pay them off. But don’t think that the job is done there. If your car gets a flat tire and you stop by the side of the road to put on that dinky little temporary spare, that’s not the end of the job. You still have to fix or replace the regular tire and re-mount it. The same with your credit cards. Lowering the interest rate is a stop-gap measure to help get the cards paid off, but never loose sight of the real goal: A zero balance.

Once you’ve gotten the cards paid off, keep paying off the full balance each month and never worry about credit card interest rates again.

Rogue’s Gallery

When I look at the herd of Presidential aspirants, my main thought is, “Good god, one of these is going to be President?”

At times like this I wish it were possible to vote “None of the Above.” And if NOTA won, the office would sit vacant while the electoral process started over again. Never happen, of course; among other things, it would show up how little we need our elected officials.

No Good Work Goes Unpunished

There is a school of though, which I have seen advocated on certain online forums, that no matter what your job is you should be willing to do anything your boss tells you. For example, if you were a highly paid specialist engineer and your boss told you to make him some coffee and then mop the floor, your response should be a cheerful, “Yes sir!” You will then be rewarded by raises and promotions.

I have to shake my head in cynical amazement at these optimists (some of whom at least claim to have gotten actual promotions through cheerfully doing whatever shit job is thrown at them). In any company I’ve ever worked at, or any company everyone I know has ever worked at, that sort of attitude is only going to get you more shit jobs to do. As the saying goes, “If every day you do a little more than people expect from you, pretty soon people will expect a little more from you every day.”

It is an unfortunate fact that advancement in the workplace has nothing to do with hard work. If anything, working hard will make it less likely that you will be promoted. The way your boss sees it, the more work you do, the bigger the hole in his department when you leave. He might have to hire two people to do the work you’re doing. Or spread the work around to other people, which is not going to please his other subordinates. Or even the nearly unthinkable option of having to do some of the work himself.

Faced with the choice of keeping you in your place and piling work on your desk, or piling the work on his own desk, your boss is going to keep you where you are every time. He isn’t concerned about what’s good for the company and he sure as hell isn’t concerned about what’s best for you; he’s concerned about his departmental budget and keeping his own ass and desk clear.

I’ve seen this first hand. My wife has a very strong work ethic. She kept working long days, over my objections, right up to the day before our son was born. She was constantly working late, taking work home, frantically working away at every project that landed on her desk, in every job she ever had.

It got her precisely nowhere. She never once got a promotion at any of those jobs. When she finally moved on to another company (or, in the case of her last job, quit to be a full-time mom for a while) it usually took two or three people to replace her.

(A variation on this situation is when the company wants you to start at some low-level job — frequently, though not always, clerical — but promises that they will promote you to something else later. They won’t. Ever. Once a secretary, always a secretary, at least as far as that company is concerned. Don’t fall for it.)

It isn’t only your boss that you have to watch out for, of course. Your co-workers will be more than happy to slack off and let you pick up the workload. Work will flow to you to match your willingness to accept it. The rewards will flow to the guy who goes out drinking with the boss while you’re working late.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard at your job. You should do the best job you can. I’m saying that when it comes time to decide if you’re going to go that extra mile, take on that overtime, take all that work home, think about if your boss or your company would go that extra mile for you. Odds are they wouldn’t. Do your job and do it well, but never forget that your first responsibility is to yourself and your family, not your employer.

How do you get ahead then, if hard work won’t do it? By jumping ship. Move to another company. (Or, if your company is big enough, another department, but don’t count on that; your boss will be working against you. Something else I have firsthand experience of.) You’ll be in the same trap there, but if you played your cards right you’ve got a better position and higher pay. Then, when you’re ready, jump ship again. If you’ve been in the same position for three years, start checking out the job market. You are probably underpaid and overworked.

Does that seem harsh? Disloyal to your employer? Well, if they are loyal to you, you’ll find no advantage to be gained by jumping ship. Your salary is already as good as it’s likely to get. If it isn’t, ask yourself this: Why should you put your employer’s well-being ahead of your own? What have they done to deserve such loyalty.

You’ll probably find that the answer is: Nothing.

Diversify Your Paycheck

I haven’t had a job since the end of 2000, when the Dot-Com I was working for dropped dead by the side of the road.

That sounds a lot worse than it really is. I have a long history of making money that doesn’t come from an employer and after a few months of trying to find a new job I gave up and haven’t tried since. Instead, I went back to being a tech-for-hire, a computer consultant, a techno-mercenary. The upside of that was that it was work I could do, and I had just enough contacts to get a marginal start. The downside was that I had to work with computers (and users) all day long, and I had just enough contacts to get a marginal start. The most technically adept consultant in the world will starve if he can’t find clients willing to pay for his expertise.

Fortunately, I had time to build up a client base because my wife was working full time. I had a pretty good base built up when, two years ago, my son was born and that all changed. All of a sudden, my dubious and variable consulting income was the sole support of my entire family. It was unsettling.

Two years later, though, there’s still food in the pantry and money in the bank.

Some people would consider it very risky to have a family depending on the uncertain income of the self-employed. You’re too vulnerable to loss of clients, or simple slow-downs in business, where there may not be much work for weeks at a time. The stability of a ‘real’ job is much more desirable.

Perhaps at one time that was true, but I don’t think it is anymore. The so-called ‘real’ job is no more stable than being self-employed. Sure, you have a steady, unvarying, paycheck coming in twice a month…for as long as it lasts. If your employer goes bust, or simply decides that for whatever reason they no longer need your services, you suddenly no longer have an income. (This has happened to me numerous times.)

Financial advisors are always talking about diversifying your investment portfolio, but you never hear them talking about your income portfolio.

As a consultant, if one of my clients goes bust, or decides for whatever reason that they no longer need my services, or re-locates out of the area (and this has also happened to me numerous times), I still have the income from all my other clients. The money I make being self-employed may not be as steady as a regular job, but it is much more fault-tolerant. If one client goes offline, I can keep running on the others; my money comes from dozens of businesses and individuals and it would take a lot for me to lose all of them.

The feast-or-famine cash flow does take some financial discipline to manage, but now that I’ve gotten used to it I like it better than a single paycheck. Perhaps I just have little faith left in the stability of employers, but the diffuse nature of my income is comforting, not worrisome.

It may be useful to you to think, not in terms of earning a paycheck, or an income, but rather of multiple sources of income. That might mean adding investment income to your salary (which could be as simple as interest on your bank accounts), taking up selling things on Ebay, or even a second job. Besides the financial benefits, adding sidelines exposes you to people and experiences that you might not otherwise have encountered. If you are currently between positions (don’t feel bad; that’s going to be more common in the near future, as the economy sags) consider becoming your own employer rather than selling yourself to the highest bidder. Maybe it isn’t right for you, but you might be surprised. Keep an open mind, at least; if you’ve been laid-off then you certainly know how fragile the so-called steady job can be.

In this modern, globalized economy, we’re all freelancers. Think about what you can do to protect yourself from the whims of the market. Your boss might be adding your name to a list right now.

To Rebate and Stimulate

As the US economy worsens, and economists start talking not just about Recession, but Depression, there is some panic in the air. Not from consumers or retailers or bankers, but politicians. The economy heading into the dumpster in an election year is a nightmare for incumbent politicians of any party. Americans may protest long-running wars, but they vote their wallets.

It is certain that the government is going to do something to ‘stimulate’ the economy. A tax rebate is the method that both parties seem to have united behind, differing only on the details. The current proposal, which I will use for discussion here, will see up to $800 returned to each taxpayer ($1600 for couples filing jointly) some time this summer. In theory, the recipients will take that money and run out to the mall and buy a bunch of stuff, stimulating the economy and saving the economy (and numerous Congressional seats).

The problem is, tax rebates as a means of stimulating the economy don’t work. It was tried in 1975 and it didn’t work, and it was tried in 2001 and it didn’t work then either. The problem is that it’s too little money, too thinly spread. It simply doesn’t generate the sort of spending that tax rebate advocates claim it will. People spend based on their predicted permanent income, not temporary windfalls. One-time payments like this tend to either be put into savings, or used to pay some bills.

This time the politicians are talking about up to $800 per taxpayer, rather than the $300 they returned back in 2001. It’s still too little, too late.

A few numbers may illustrate the scope of the problem.

Through this discussion I am going to assume, just for the sake of argument, that the average refund would be $1000 (remember, the rebate is up to $800 per taxpayer). I think the real average check (to single and joint filers combined) would be closer to $750, but to keep the numbers simple I’m going to be generous in my assumptions.

So the hypothetical average household gets a $1000 check this summer to pump some money back into the economy. That household has an income of about $48,000 a year. It spends over $58,000 each year. The $10,000 difference is either drawn from their savings or added to their debt. Their total household debt already tops $115,000, of which about $8000 is credit card debt and $10,000 is other short term debt (mostly student loans or car loans).

The interest on their credit card debt alone amounts to about $1300 a year.

The proposed tax rebate would hardly touch the household’s income shortfall, slightly reducing the rate at which they are sinking into debt. It won’t cover one year’s interest on their credit cards. It probably won’t even cover a single mortgage payment.

It’s pissing in the wind and claiming to be a rainstorm.

The miniscule size of the rebate, compared to the scale of the problem, is only part of the reason why the rebate stimulus won’t work.

To see the other reason, let’s assume that a significant number of people do go out and spend their rebate. Think about where most of the goods at your local mall are actually made. Manufacturers in China, Thailand, and Japan would probably get more of a boost than any in the US. The retail sector would get a short-term jolt, but we simply don’t make much for people to buy anymore.

In my opinion, the purpose of stimulating the economy would be better served by spending that money on some sort of public works project. At $1000 each for, let’s say, 100 million tax returns, that’s we’re talking about $100 billion. (This is just illustrative; the actual rebate total will probably be quite different. I’m just cobbling together some figures to show the scale.)

Now, $100 billion isn’t a great deal of money by government standards, but there is quite a bit that could be done with it. It would pay room, board, tuition, and books for every college student in the country. It would buy health insurance for every uninsured family in the country. That’s not the sort of thing I would suggest, though. Not that those aren’t necessarily worthwhile goals, but they don’t directly stimulate the economy. (Tuition relief to college students would help a great deal three or four years from now. The current system of university education is on its way to destroying the middle class, but that’s the subject for another day.)

I’d rather spend that $100 billion on building things. That money would build a hydrogen fuel network that would include about 75% of all the filling stations in the country. It wouldn’t supply the terawatts of power required to make the hydrogen, but it could be done.

We could convert every car in the country to run on ethanol. (It wouldn’t be a good idea–burning food like that is idiotic and you can see the result in the higher prices you pay at the grocery store–but you could do it.)

We could buy up the tens of thousands of abandoned houses being created by the mortgage crisis, renovate them, and use them for low income housing. (Using apartment properties just creates min-ghettoes in otherwise decent neighborhoods. Scatter poor families one at a time in middle or working class neighborhoods and the transplants are much more likely to adopt the values of their new neighborhood, as opposed to taking the old neighborhood with them.)

We could repair the thousands of decaying bridges that otherwise aren’t going to get fixed until they fall down.

We could build power plants. Improve roads. Build schools. Build something.

Spending the money on this sort of infrastructure improvement is superior to a tax rebate in every way but one. Rather than just handing people a check and telling them to go have a night out on the town it puts people to work, gives them a paycheck and something to do. It builds things that benefit society as a whole.

The only thing it doesn’t do is get votes.

The tax rebate isn’t intended to stimulate the economy. It is intended to stimulate the voters. The politicians will hand you a check and say, “See? I care. Go have yourself a good time and remember me come November.”

Public policy decisions are typically not made with the intent of actually solving a problem, but rather with the intent of appearing to be solving a problem. It is the appearance that counts, not the result.

I’ll take their idiotic check, though. Like everyone else, I have bills to pay.