September 2, 2013

Health, Wealth & Family: The Lessons We All Learn

Jeanette Wells’ “The Glass Castle” tells the story of a family in abject poverty. The author’s parents, one an artist and the other a would-be entrepreneur/engineer, move their four kids all over the country. Somehow, the children make a successful transition into adulthood.

Reading the well-written memoir—set to become a movie—over the Labor Day weekend, I couldn’t help but think about my own upbringing and how our parents’ concepts of money and wealth can be so helpful and, at the same time, so convoluted. (Naturally, I was also very grateful that I had not faced as tough a financial situation growing up as the Wells kids had.)

The poor Wells’ kids had very inconsistent messaging from their folks about money. It appears there was no cash for food most of the time.

Yet when Jeanette literally finds a diamond ring on the ground, Mom keeps it to boost her self-esteem. Most days, the kids dream of hot meals as Dad throws back a bottle of booze and goes through four packs of cigarettes.

As the kids get older, though, they figure out that the beat-up house in Phoenix and drilling land in Texas owned by their Mom are assets that could be used to improve their lives. But despite the family’s lack of food and plumbing, Mom says these assets are for keeping, not selling.

Often, their eccentric parents exhibit the “penny wise, pound foolish” mentality, ignoring the family’s immediate need of nutrition or decent clothing in favor of art supplies, an odd piece of furniture or a broken vase.  

In my case, I was fortunate enough to grow up with more than adequate food, clothing and shelter. My parents, a Ph.D. chemist and a Ph.D. language instructor raised during the Great Depression, taught me how to save, save, save and save (and to read, read, read and read).

But certain decisions haunted me.

My mother mistakenly thought we’d save money by using the Laundromat down the hill from our house in Texas, rather than getting a cheap washer and dryer for our home. When my sister and I were teens, we were constantly washing clothes in the sink, to be sure we had the item we needed to look our best at middle school and high school.

I don’t think we ever complained much about the situation until we got older and realized what “penny wise, pound foolish” really meant. As my Mom neared age 80 and soon afterwards broke her leg, it became clear that she needed both regular home care and a washer and dryer on site. And that was what a few of her well-saved dollars were spent on, after she reluctantly agreed.

(Investment Advisor columnist Olivia Mellan addresses these issues in her writing and speaking; for example, see this column on mothers and daughters (and advisors).)

During the heyday of the recent financial crisis, I constantly debated what “penny wise, pound foolish” meant with my two sons. We watched our shopping and holiday budgets much more closely, and we also started dropping by the local food bank to see what items some community members were most in need of.

Reading “The Glass Castle” made me deeply appreciate how painful it is for a family to go through hard times and how each family member has his or her own deeply held notions of how to best survive these rough periods.

It wouldn’t surprise me if many financial advisors had clients with unusual spending and saving habits or clients with family members facing very challenging circumstances. It’s isn’t always possible or useful, of course, to offer standard advice to such clients or their loved ones.

Health and wealth are concepts that each of us defines in our own special way. We have to do our best to respect these differences, while also staying true to our own needs and beliefs, as Wells so eloquently writes about in “The Glass Castle.”

As the book poignantly shows, keeping our mouth shut can prove extremely difficult, especially when we see that clients or family members may be putting their health and wealth in jeopardy. As Wells writes, such is “our cross to bear.”

 

 

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