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The Wooden Nickel:  Where In The World?

The Wooden Nickel: Where In The World?

August 03, 2022

I’ve always loved maps. 

When I was a kid, I used to just sit and leaf through a world atlas we had, looking at all the maps. There were all kinds of maps in it: maps that showed roads and cities, maps that showed elevations, lakes, mountains, rivers, maps that showed population density or agricultural output. Lots of people play the daily “Wordle” word guessing game. I play “Worldle,” which shows the outline of a country for identification (hint: most seem to be in Africa!).

You’d think in the era of GPS my love of maps would dim because I no longer have an urgent, practical need to read a map to get where I need to go.  But the cool thing about GPS is that it gives us real-time views of where we are. I love having the map screen on in my car even if I know exactly where I’m going. It’s almost like I’m more significant if I can see my little dot on the map.

Of course, I’m very excited about the new National Geospatial Intelligence Headquarters under construction in North St. Louis City because that means we will be the at the very center of the US Government’s Map-Making Agency. We will be the Mecca of Mapmakers! (and yes, I do know where the real Mecca is on a map).

Maps are great for 3 reasons:

First, they tell you where you’ve been. If you have taken a trip to a far-away land, then when you are done you can show others the path you have taken. You might point out particularly interesting landmarks, review places where you found great joy or had a difficult time, and marvel at the places you’ve seen and what you’ve learned from visiting them. You can tie objects you brought back to where they originated. 

Reviewing a map is reviewing history. Look at a globe from 50 years ago; there are dozens of countries on it that no longer exist!  There are places that have experienced tragedy or triumph, and you can see how they relate to where you were or where you’ve been. You can think of people you met and what you learned from them. A map is a visual representation the past up to now.

Second, maps tell us where we are right now. I can look at a (digital) weather map and see that St. Louis, at the confluence of the continent’s two greatest rivers, has rain clouds over it.  I can view an online “coronavirus map” and view where infections are most prevalent. I can view a political map and understand where I am in relation to states where voters choose different kinds of leaders. I know, by looking at a map, how far I am away from a disaster that just happened, or from the stadium in which the Cardinals are playing their next game. I’m a huge fan of soccer in England, and by checking a map I can understand where Leeds is in relation to Southampton or Brighton.

Maps give us real-time information into our current status  as citizens, fans, workers, and commuters. I just saw a map that shows that 50% of all Canadians live south of part of the Northern border of the continental United States, which seems odd. 

Third, maps also show us where we are going. This destination mapping may be quite literal: I’m looking at a map of where I’ll be going on my next trip and wondering what it will be like.  How will I manage the journey? Will it be hard to speak with  people there? What are they like? What side of the road do they drive on? Will my electrical plugs work? Will I like the food? Why does their city center look like it does? Why are there no suburbs?

There might also be maps that show the broader future: population projections, the projected effects of climate change, future geopolitical events.  What would Europe look like if Russia succeeds in Ukraine? What is NATO going to look like? Where will the St. Louis City Soccer Team play road games next year?


I never became a professional cartographer (map-maker), but I did get into a profession much like cartography. Creating Financial Plans is a combination of those three features above. A Financial Plan shows you where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going in your financial journey. I know it sounds totally geeky, but I really do love looking at plans and tinkering with the assumptions because I’m always learning something about people and their journeys. Show me a person's investments, and I can get a pretty good idea of where they’ve been.  Talking to them about their plan helps me understand where they are, what they are feeling, and what worries them. Helping them create financial goals helps me understand where they want to go so I can help them get there. 

I think of Financial Planning as just mapmaking by a different term.

When I travel, I’m always kind of shocked when I run into travelers who have no real idea where the journey is taking them. Sometimes you’ll meet somebody, usually somebody very young or very rich, who doesn’t plan the trip and just figures he will travel without a plan. I did that once right out of college when Julie and I backpacked through Europe for a month. It’s fun if you don’t have any obligations or expectations. You must make peace with the discomfort of not knowing what’s next.

Good for them. Some are happy to go through their travels with few plans. For the rest of us, we like to know the hotel room is reserved and whether our budget will cover the expenses yet to come. 

Financially, it’s the same thing. The very young and the very rich don’t worry too much about the financial future, either. The rest of us? We need to know we have a map, an outline, a plan. Even if that map is written in pencil, and we have an eraser.