Karen and Ken: Our Married Journey

You now have an idea about my upbringing, let me tell you about Ken, The man I married.

Ken’s parents were born into upper-middle-class families. His father became an architect, and his grandfather had been a builder, so perhaps the family was predisposed to investing in real estate. Indeed, Ken’s father saw it as one of the better investment vehicles. As you can imagine, Ken has always wanted to own and invest in it.

Ken’s dad eventually owned his own company and mom stayed at home and raised their four kids. Ken was the oldest and only boy. Over the years of our marriage, and my career in financial planning, I have queried Ken as to what he remembers about money in his childhood. Like me, he always felt like there was enough money, but he didn’t feel “wealthy.” He has only one memory of his mother complaining that there wasn’t enough money “to go to the grocery store and feed all these children.” Beyond that, he doesn’t really remember money being a source of conflict in his family, or even being a subject that was discussed openly.

In my early years with his family, I was in awe on my first Christmas with them because the gift giving was beyond anything I had ever experienced before. Having shopped with my mother-in-law, I noticed that I go directly to the back of the store to the clearance racks, while she gravitates to the newest things on display.

It goes without saying that we had very different relationships to money when we first got married, and clearly we’d had very different family situations growing up. Yet one thing we had in common was a fear of being without money. This led us both to be committed savers, but don’t be fooled in thinking we were perfectly aligned financially.

Let me tell you about our money struggles. First of all, you have the classic situation where one spouse bears the responsibility for paying bills and making most of the financial decisions. While it generally works for us, there have been many occasions when I’ve felt enormous resentment over this chore.

Another huge area of struggle—actually, fighting—has been our differing views over the use of our savings. Remember that I learned from my parents to save and invest in the stock market. Ken, on the other hand, wants real estate. He believes that we should be enjoying the fruits of our labor by owning a weekend home on a lake or in the mountains. We have been fighting about this for at least 10 years.

It’s not that I don’t see the value in owning more real estate; I just don’t want to part with the cash. I also hate the idea of increasing our monthly bills for utilities, property taxes, insurance and maintenance on another property. I feel that the financial burden would fall on my shoulders and I don’t want any more of this type of responsibility.

But Ken and I have been able to work through our differences and have been able to build a very solid financial picture for our family.


Mom and Dad: Poster Children for Financial Planning

I look back on my upbringing and realize that my parents taught me to value money by buying things on sale. They taught me to save for the future and, inadvertently, to be scared about not having enough money, which is why I have always lived beneath my means.

My parents also, without realizing it, taught me how to enjoy the money I do have today. Once I found out the amount of wealth they did have, and calculated how much they actually needed to support their lifestyle, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t spend a bit more.

My father nobly wanted to leave it for the children, but clearly there was more to it. The truth is that they were still scared that there would never be enough.

I noticed, however, a dramatic personality shift in my mother when she was in her early 60’s, and I asked her what had happened to bring about the change. In the past she had been very uptight, and now she really had a lighter, more carefree nature about her. Had she been through some therapy, or was she taking some medication? No. She said she had come to a point in her life when she knew they had “enough” money. She now struggles with wanting to loosen up and spend more. But my father simply could not break out of the poverty mentality, and this was an ongoing challenge for both of them.

What conclusions can I draw from all of this? I think an appreciation of the value of money is one of the greatest gifts my parents could have given me, in addition to the value of hard work and perseverance. I am who I am today, and have the wealth I have today, because of them. But from their struggles I learned to be a little more reasonable. Financial planning helped me to see that I could plan for the future and still enjoy some of the fruits of my labor today as well.

The Formative Years

Until you can understand WHY you do what you do with money, know how you feel about money and see what void money or stuff fills in your life, you will have a difficult time moving forward and realizing financial success.

Throughout this blog, and in my book, I will share with you my own “Money Story” in the hopes that reading about my personal thoughts, challenges and ultimate success will inspire you.

To start with you have to meet my parents and understand their money story. Dad was born in Cuba to parents of eastern European descent. From what I’ve been told, they lived in near poverty, subsisting on a ten-pound bag of rice as the basis of most meals for the week.

My mother was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1932, the height of the Great Depression. Her father was a shoe salesman who died in his early 30s when she was only seven years old. This left her mother, my Grandma Rose, to support her only child by herself, as Grandma did not remarry until after my mother was married.

After my father bought my mother her engagement ring, he was left with only $1.54 to his name! But they were both working and of course scrimping and saving as people who’ve grown up relatively poor know how to do. They made a decision that they would save and invest my mother’s paltry teacher’s income.

We never lacked for food or clothing, and we always knew we’d go to college one way or another, but we still felt growing up that we didn’t have much money. This was mostly due to the way my parents made decisions around money and spending. Their attitudes towards money were always based on fear of not having enough.

Our home was adequate, but not the nicest in the neighborhood. It always seemed that my friends had more “stuff” than I had. We bought our clothes at Kmart, and this embarrassed me. Our cars were always used and my parents would drive them for years and years before replacing them. When chickens were on sale at the grocery store, but limited to two per person, my mom would take all us kids and line us up with two chickens each so she could come home with eight chickens at the sale price. I’d stand there with my two chickens and my $2.00 hoping to become invisible. We never had the newest electronic gizmos. When we went on vacation and pulled up in front of the motel, the three kids were told to duck down in the back seat so we wouldn’t have to pay an extra occupancy surcharge.

I didn’t realize until years later that they did have money—their savings and investments—but they were committed to living on my dad’s income. They always conducted themselves as if things were really tight. And since they never had the newest of things, I perceived our family as “poorer” than the neighbors or my friends.

Obviously this upbringing would directly impact me and my relationship to money and spending, as it would my siblings. One day, after I’d become a financial planner, my father dropped the comment that they had a multi-million dollar net worth.

Confronting the Mystery of People and their Money Lives

I went into Financial Planning over 24 years ago following an overwhelming calling to help people.

Yet by 15 years into my career, I had become disenchanted with my industry.

For one thing, it often seemed that I cared more about my clients’ financial life than they did. On too many occasions, clients didn’t do what they said they were going to do, or followed some of my advice but not all of it. In addition, it felt to me that although I had certainly helped people, and I’m sure I’d made some difference in their lives, I couldn’t really count many financial success stories.

More and more, I found myself intrigued by some of the bizarre decisions people made over money and purchases. In fact, I found myself downright frustrated. As I grew more mature, I realized that people’s relationships with money were varied and in many cases, pretty messed up.

I started asking questions of my new clients about how it was growing up in their family in relationship to money, to try to understand what made them tick. We started having really good conversations. I found myself—and my clients—more engaged and energized, simply by talking about what they did with their money and why.

This insight helped me see that all the “how to” books written about money and investing would never truly be able to impact people, until they were able to uncover the roots of what money meant to them. People carry emotional baggage about money from their childhood and, without a doubt, it impacts their adult lives and how they deal with money.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that the best way for me to help the most people would be to share the experiences I’d had with innumerable people—and the insights that helped me understand why most people would ultimately succeed or fail financially. These insights would become the basis of my book.