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Under the Affluence

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American affluence is so widespread that we tend to forget how recent a phenomenon it is. There are still many older people who grew up with just a couple of shirts or dresses to their name, walked everywhere, and as children were overjoyed to receive one toy for Christmas. Today, many of us have so much “stuff” that we have to rent storage units for what we don’t use.

As your boomer clients move into the empty-nest and retirement phases of life, I would anticipate more soul-searching about the values under their affluence. Questions about how they live and what legacy they are leaving are most usefully contemplated while they still have choices. By coaching them to identify what’s truly important, you may help them achieve goals that go beyond money.

Ever since my clients’ 21-year-old daughter returned from a long stay in a rural village in Kenya, she’s been scornful of her family’s lifestyle–complaining about food they waste, expensive clothes they seldom wear, and so on. They respect her feelings and would like to go along with some of her views, but not to the extent of giving away all their belongings. What would you suggest? This question certainly rings a bell! My son recently spent nearly a year visiting relatives and studying Hindi and Sanskrit in Thailand and India. After this rich experience, he now views America through a strikingly different lens.

I think your clients should sit down with their daughter and calmly discuss how they feel about choices they’ve made on issues that are important to them, perhaps including personal, financial, and environmental responsibility. They need to be honest about ways that their level of affluence and comfort makes them feel good, and admit any choices that make them feel conflicted or guilty.

Do they like the way she lives and aspires to live? Are they proud of her? Do they feel she is unrealistic or misguided, or has she led them to change their thinking in some areas? No matter what the parents’ opinions are, they need to take care not to judge her (or themselves) too harshly. Their dialogue should strive for compassion, honesty, and mutual understanding (For further reading on the form this dialogue should take, see Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg (Puddledancer Press, 2003). Gently confronting their daughter about her harsh judgment of their choices, they can ask her to be more tolerant of the difficulty they would have in implementing some of her suggestions.

This conversation will probably lessen the sting of her proselytizing. Converts to a new belief are particularly hard to live with during the initial phase. However, their stridency usually passes with time.

After 10 years as a corporate lawyer, my wife plans to give it up and become a teacher. I’m trying to be supportive, but it will mean a substantial drop in our family income. At this point in life, I’m not ready to skimp on the good things. After my years of hard work as a planner, don’t I deserve better? There is nothing wrong with your desire to enjoy the things you’ve worked hard to achieve. Nor is there anything wrong with your wife wanting a worklife that seems more meaningful and rewarding to her.

However, the slight defensiveness and resentment I detect suggests that her career shift may be making you feel anxious and disoriented. See if you can table your fears long enough to enter her world, then invite her to enter yours.

Find time to talk when both of you are feeling calm. Discuss each other’s hopes and dreams concerning your wife’s planned career move, then your fears and concerns. I suggest that each of you play back what the other says and then validate it by saying, “It makes sense that you feel [A, B, C], because [X, Y, Z].” Repeat this process without judging or criticizing your spouse, and end with, “I imagine you might also be feeling [D or E].”

After you’ve done this for each other, you may find yourself letting go of the need to defend your own desires. You may then be able to brainstorm a win-win solution that allows your wife to achieve at least some of her dreams without your having to give up all your creature comforts. Even if neither of you is fully able to satisfy your needs, the changes that result from visiting each other’s world should leave you feeling closer and more aligned.

An entrepreneurial couple who are clients have made a very comfortable life for themselves. They would like to share some of their good fortune with his parents, who live very frugally, but the older folks have turned down their offers to pay for such things as home improvements, a Mediterranean cruise, and a new car. Is there a way they can persuade the parents to accept the rewards of their affluence? Decades of living a certain way can have a powerful effect on what folks will allow themselves to enjoy. In addition, many people are afraid to try something new, even if it promises to be more pleasurable than their old way of life. Skimping and “making do” may feel as comfortable as a worn old shoe to this older couple, while the prospect of being swept into a more luxurious lifestyle makes them feel disoriented and ill at ease.

If your clients want to bring his parents around to accept gifts, the process needs to begin with a thoughtful exchange of views. Your clients can explain how much they would enjoy making the parents’ lives more comfortable. The parents should be invited to share their attitude toward pleasure and money, and explain their resistance to receiving the previous gifts. Did it offend their pride to be offered things they could have afforded to buy for themselves? As parents, did they feel ashamed to accept such valuable gifts from their child? Or were they just not interested in the car, cruise, or renovations? If this is the case, is there another gift that they would be willing to receive from their son and daughter-in-law?

If the two couples take enough time to talk about all this (possibly more than once), they will come to understand each other’s desires and limits. Moreover, by slowly inoculating his parents against their fears of new pleasure, the son may eventually find a way for them to accept at least some of his well-meant gifts.

My client’s 7-year-old daughter recently asked him if they were as rich as the family of a classmate. He’s wondering how to explain the concept of being wealthy in a way that doesn’t lead to comparisons. Any ideas? I would not encourage this father to waffle on whether his family is more or less affluent than the classmate’s family. First of all, I don’t think it’s possible to avoid comparisons. Second, dealing with the issue head-on will only help his daughter.

If his family is wealthier than most others, he needs to tell her that they are fortunate to be in that position. He may want to explain how they came to have the money (“We inherited it from Grandpa, who used to have a store” or “Mom and I worked very hard and saved as much as we could”). I think he should also urge his daughter to be kind and sensitive to her friends’ feelings by not bragging about how many birthday presents she got or how much her new shoes cost.

This can also become an opportunity to help the girl understand that it’s important to respect everyone, whether they have a lot of money or a little. Many jobs that are very important and useful don’t pay as much as others (teaching and nursing, for example). By turning the question of “Are we as rich as the Joneses?” into a lesson about pride and prejudice, and what money is and isn’t, your client can not only help his daughter now but also open the door for further discussions in the future.

A college professor who will soon be retiring has come to me with an unusual request. She wants me to help her figure out how little money she will need so she can give away the rest. To begin with, she asked whether she should disclaim a real-estate inheritance because of the anticipated hassle of managing it. I’m all for people simplifying their lives, but this woman isn’t as well-off as she thinks she is. Should I go along with her potentially risky plan? I don’t think there’s any need to shelve your professional judgment here. Your client’s desire to contribute to society in a meaningful way is a legacy she wants to leave.

I would spend some time exploring her motivations, though. What does she want to accomplish? Does she yearn to make a real difference? Is she feeling guilty about something she did–or didn’t do? What kind of charitable giving or volunteering has she done in the past? See if you can empathize with her decision to give away money she’s unlikely to need.

Then discuss some ways she may be able to live on less and still take good care of herself. By examining various scenarios, she can reflect on how simple she wants her life to be, and how she can be most useful to the causes she wants to help.

As part of this conversation, you can address her question about the inheritance. You may think it would be wise for her to retain the real estate, either to provide more financial security or to serve as a potential charitable gift later on. She might consider hiring a property management firm to ease the administrative hassle.

When clients come to you wondering what they should do with their money, what would make their lives more meaningful, or even how much money is enough, help them identify the values and goals that are most important to them. Take time to explore their feelings and desires on the deepest level, so you can help them move from fantasies to goals that are grounded in reality.

Then, consider discussing the changes and sacrifices that may be needed in order to achieve these objectives. You might want to encourage them to “try on” their desires in incremental steps, instead of flinging themselves headlong into the unknown.

The more willing you are to hear them and put yourself in their shoes, the more likely they are to listen to your opinions, concerns, and suggestions. Then you can truly help them achieve some of their most cherished dreams, making yourself an irreplaceable resource in their lives.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through You can e-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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