From the January 2010 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

January 1, 2010

Who Owns Whom?

Sidebar to Olivia Mellan's Column "The Gift to Be Simple"

Eric Park, an advisor with Steamboat Financial Group in Washington, Missouri, reminded me in a recent e-mail that as we go through life, we accumulate "stuff" to improve our standard of living. When we have just one car, we might have to share it with other family members. Getting a second car makes life better. A third car adds still more convenience. However, with each new car come taxes, license fees, maintenance, and maybe loan payments. Eventually, Park says, the added cost overcomes the added benefit. Then, we start being owned by our stuff.

I thought of his wisdom when presented with this client issue.

Q: Without her late husband's pension, my client needs to reduce her expenses. The problem is that she's weighed down by high-maintenance "stuff"--a big residence, a summer cottage, a boat, and an extra car. Although she agrees with the need to scale back, she can't imagine living without these possessions because they're associated with memories of her husband. I understand completely, but her savings will soon be gone unless she can simplify her life. How can I persuade her to take action?

A: Even though your client may rationally accept that the proceeds from selling these assets could help maintain the quality of life her late husband would have wanted for her, emotional acceptance is quite a different matter. You might begin by inviting her to tell you more about his legacy. What does she cherish most about him and their life together? Urge her to talk over her memories with friends, or write about them to children or grandchildren, including pictures of the things he loved. This may make it easier for her to consider letting go of some of the physical reminders of her life with him. For example, she could take pictures of his car and write about his experiences with it, then slowly get ready to sell it and move on with her life.

But remember, mourning takes time. Don't rush her into decisions. If you stay patient and respectful, she'll sell some of that extra "stuff" as soon as she's emotionally ready. I wouldn't be surprised if she discovers that her lightened burden is both liberating and empowering.--Olivia Mellan

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