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What Does Your Money Say About You?

  • Dr. Susan McCarthy Contributing Writer
  • 2006 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
What Does Your Money Say About You?

What if the only way that people knew you was through what you did with your money? What if that was all that people could see?

I don’t ask these questions to make our dealing with money any more complicated than it already is. It’s just that there are times when our money speaks for us. And we rarely think of our money in these terms.

When we have an unexpected expense for example, would an onlooker see us handle it with anger or fear or calm? When we have to make a difficult financial decision, are we confident or fearful? Are we willing to learn about money or do we run the other way when it’s time to evaluate our finances? There’s lots our money could tell about us if it could talk. Usually, of course, it doesn’t. But there is one time in particular when it speaks loud and clear.

In my work, I often advise people as they think through what is to happen to their money after their death, as they make decisions about their wills and trusts. Although we rarely think of it in this way, writing a will or a trust is a golden opportunity to let our money speak for us and to make it say exactly what we wish it to say. It’s a chance to right the wrongs of the past, bring peace to our families, and leave a legacy of good. Unfortunately, it’s also an opportunity to set the stage for all-out war!

Consider Ronald for example, a client I dealt with for many years. Each time I met with this gentleman, I was struck by the heaviness and darkness around him. This was an unhappy person and his unhappiness radiated from him like heat from an oven. Although he was always courteous in dealing with me, he was bitter and harsh when he spoke of others.

In order to arrange his financial affairs, Ronald had carefully structured a trust document to spell out what was to happen to his money after his death. In it, he systematically gave money to some family members and just as systematically (and quite explicitly) excluded others. He named distant family members to oversee things and sidestepped those closest to him.

I knew some of Ronald’s family members, but not all. I assumed this was a family with a long history of arguments. But I could also see that Ronald’s actions went well beyond family squabbles. For him, forging this trust was like swinging an ax. He claimed that the inequality of his gifts was intended to protect some family members and assure their financial futures – and I have no doubt that on some level it was. But clearly there was more. Ronald used his trust to express one last time his disapproval of certain family members and his approval of others.

When Ronald passed away, the battle began. Predictably, his family fought hard for years. Lawyers got involved. For a time, it was unbelievably nasty! All sides fought for what they thought they deserved. All sides felt they deserved something. However, at the end of the day, it was all for nothing. Ronald and his unhappy trust prevailed.

Although I never would have believed it possible while the fighting was taking place, this story has a happy ending. After what felt like years of arguing, one young woman from the family finally rose up and called out "Enough!" Only she was willing to step out of the fighting and call a halt to it. Slowly but surely (and perhaps it was out of sheer exhaustion), other family members chimed in. They began to settle their differences. They allowed themselves to bring this sad story to a close. But how many unkind words were spoken! How many hurt feelings! How much anger expressed!

Now, it’s true that Ronald’s terrible trust document created this turmoil and that he remained a part of it even beyond this life. But I prefer to look at this story differently. I prefer to believe that his trust accomplished one wonderful thing. Ronald’s trust set the stage for that one young woman to become the peacemaker she was meant to be. Only she was willing to shoulder the responsibility of breaking the cycle of family arguments. And it’s to the credit of all the others that they followed her lead. Perhaps for her to become the peacemaker that she truly was, things needed to play out as they did.

So what if people only knew you by your money today or what happens to it after your death? What does your money say about you?

Look for more articles by Susan McCarthy in coming months about managing our emotions with our money.

  Susan McCarthy recently made Barron's list of the top 100 Women Financial Advisors in the U.S. Susan serves as First Vice-President and Wealth Advisor with a major global financial services firm. In addition to her work overseeing investment portfolios, she is the author of More Than Wealth, Discovering "Heart" in Money Management. Susan is a frequent speaker on such topics as our emotional relationship to money, business practice with heart and securing a legacy through your money. To learn more about her or to order her book, visit her online at www.morethanwealth.com.