A Tale of Teamwork

Key Bridge, Washington, DC

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A Tale of Teamwork

“The Six Million Dollar Couple”

An essential component of financial success is the need to assemble a team of trusted advisors. Other than practicing the discipline of saving money I think it’s the most important component to financial success. This tale follows because we also know that money knowledge isn’t gender specific and that women must understand how it works and what role it plays since in all likelihood they will spend some portion of their lives as single women. This tale teaches us that the most important person that you must have on your team of trusted advisors is your spouse or significant other. This is a tale of two couples and how they went about building their fortune and their lives. In one case it is a wonderful life in the other it is, in my opinion, a tragedy.

This tale illustrates the need to communicate with your spouse on a financial level as well as a personal level. It teaches us that one’s goals can’t just be financial to the exclusion of life’s little pleasures. Lastly, you must find the way to make the most out of your life and not just the most out of your money.

Jane and Mary were childhood friends that were born in the same small Pennsylvania town circa 1915. Neither one of them came from wealth. They went to grade school together, played together, graduated from high school together, and married their high school sweethearts. Soon after their wedding Jane and her husband Paul moved to the Washington DC area. Mary and Robert soon followed. When Jane and Paul bought a house in the Maryland suburbs, Mary and Robert soon did the same. They were young, starting a family and living the American dream. They didn’t have any money to speak of and they knew that there wouldn’t be any family financial windfalls such as inheritances, but they were confident in their abilities and optimistic about the future.

Both Paul and Robert worked for the federal government and were promoted frequently through the years but essentially they made the same level of income throughout their careers as well as enjoyed the same level of retirement benefits. Both Jane and Mary chose to stay at home and raise a family. Both let their husbands handle the family finances. Where they differed is while Jane took an active role on a monthly basis to understand the family finances, Mary did not.

Through the years they raised their families and tried to give their children the best they could offer. They each had two children. Their children attended public schools and ultimately their 4 children graduated from college. Jane and Paul, my clients and friends, moved to a nicer part of town after many years in their old house and were well regarded and respected in the community. If someone needed help, one of them was there to lend a hand. When Paul retired, they maintained their residence, gardened, traveled, visited grandchildren and were active in their church. Jane and Paul could live comfortably from his , but they always took 3-4%/year from their approximately $1,000,000 investment account to enjoy each other’s company and enrich those around them. Jane and Mary maintained their friendship throughout their lives.

In the meantime, Mary’s husband Robert studied in the evenings and became a lawyer. It took him many years of night school but at the age of 40 he passed the bar exam and took a Federal government position that was more in line with his legal interests. But like Paul he never left his government position and they both retired at age 55 from their respective government positions. Unlike Paul that chose to completely retire, Robert chose to continue working and joined a private law practice where he worked until physical incapacity at age 72 forced him to retire as well as move to an assisted living facility with Mary.

Mary and Robert had lived almost 50 years in the same home and they now found themselves in a new environment. It was shortly thereafter that Mary’s husband surprised her with her half of “what he’d been saving for their retirement.” In an envelope was a check for $3,000,000 made out to Mary. Naturally, having never bothered to understand the family finances, Mary assumed it had to be some type of mistake. She thought that maybe Robert’s mind was starting to slip. However, when she deposited the check and it didn’t bounce she knew it was no joke. Mary turned to her friend Jane for advice. Jane called me and asked me to speak with her friend. A few days later I visited privately with Mary and the first words out of her mouth were “No way did we have this kind of money.” The sad thing is that Mary’s husband had actually saved $6,000,000 for what he considered their retirement without her participation or input. She didn’t even know what the goal was. When reality finally set in Mary became angry and bitter. As she told me, “I had no idea. Do you know everything I’ve missed? Do you know that I’ve never eaten at a fancy restaurant, or taken an exotic vacation? She said she had never bought a new dress, instead making her own clothes. We never had a new car, we never enjoyed any of the finer things in life and now when we can no longer enjoy these things I find out that I’m rich. This is the cruelest trick life has ever played on me.”

I asked Mary why she never took an active role in understanding the family finances. I asked her how she let it come to this. Her answer stunned me but as I’ve learned from many similar conversations with women of her generation it’s not that unusual. She told me that she felt that it was her husband’s role as head of the household to handle the family finances and that her involvement might appear as a sign of disrespect. I asked her how she could be friends with Jane for all these years and not mention to her that she wasn’t an active participant in her family’s finances. Jane was certainly involved in her family’s finances. She answered that money is a private matter that isn’t to be discussed amongst friends.

How does this story end? Mary set up trusts for her children with most of her “retirement money” but not before she made them pass a financial proficiency test and discuss their family finances openly with their spouses. She wasn’t going to let her children repeat the same mistake. I know that she died a few years later happy in the knowledge that at least her children and others would be able to benefit more fully from her life.

What are the lessons to be learned from Jane and Mary?

  1. are a responsibility that must be shared between the spouses. This does not mean that they have to be split evenly. However, common goals must be clearly outlined and reviewed at least on an annual basis. Since one spouse will probably outlive the other it is imperative that they both understand the family finances.
  2. Over-saving is almost as dangerous as under-saving since it diminishes the quality of life aspect of money. Money is not something to be hoarded and used exclusively for essentials. It may, out of necessity, be that way at certain points in one’s life, but once an individual or family unit develops an appropriate savings and investment methodology, the excess, if there is any should be spent.
  3. If you over-save and keep expenses to the essentials you too can build a tremendous but you are paying a steep price. The price you pay is what most people consider a diminished quality of life. You must find a balance.
  4. As I’ve pointed out in , a healthy goal is to save 15% of every paycheck.  This number represents an amount that I think balances the present desire to enjoy your life with the future need to be financially self-sufficient.

We learned in that wealth is a state of mind.  You determine if you are wealthy.  The assumption behind this statement is that you must at least understand the value or worth of your assets.  In the case of Mary, she was wealthy by almost anybody’s standards yet since she didn’t know her financial condition she couldn’t answer the question “are you wealthy?”  There is a saying “ignorance is bliss.”  Let me tell you that in the case of Mary it wasn’t bliss.  She must have either lived in a state of financial apprehension or complete trust in her husband.  I hope it was the latter.  Robert of the other hand knew the family finances intimately buy may or may not have thought that they were wealthy.  I can’t explain what particular set of circumstances let Robert think that he was behaving rationally buy her certainly thought he was saving for retirement.  Let me say on last time when it comes to your family finances ignorance is not bliss.  All couples must work as a team when it comes to finances.

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