This I Believe

Mary Claire - Atlanta, Georgia
Entered on February 22, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: work

I remember my college 10th reunion well: “What are you doing?” had replaced “Are you married?” The answers likely reflected the self-selected pool of attendees, but they humbled me: “I’m researching a cure for cancer.” “I’m raising three children, all home-schooled.” “I sold my dot-com last year, so now I’ve fully dedicated myself to venture philanthropy.” “I’m working on my second book.” I decided that humor was my best defense, so I shot back with, “I’m helping the rich stay rich.”

Not one classmate ever responded to this flippancy. They just dropped their eyes, and I wondered if they had wished they’d asked about my marital status. Years later, I still find myself pondering my defensiveness. I wasn’t ashamed of my work. Instead, I think the truth is that I’m lost on how to explain how much and why I love the work I do.

I’m a consultant to wealthy families, and I spend my days helping them pick investments, optimize estate plans, budget for charitable gifting, manage cash flows. At least, that’s why clients hire me. The truth is, I’m an intimate to people who have achieved tremendous financial successes in their lives and then are left to deal with the resulting responsibility.

This I Believe: Tell me how you spend your money, and I’ll tell you who you are. An MBA in finance and accounting seemed to prepare me to research and advise on investments and tax strategies. But, in truth, I am a financial planner because I am drawn to its unparalleled access to human truths, ambitions, and vulnerabilities.

When a client has a significant hole in the budget month after month, two common explanations plug the deficit: cash-paid household help or an extra-marital affair. It’s time to part ways with the client. When a client avoids dealing with any issues that might arise after a disability or death, I must wrangle with those existential fears, not focus on tax laws. When marriages un-wind, money becomes a proxy for the issues that initiated the break-up.

This intimacy isn’t all about dark secrets. More often, I see clients’ greatest values: the client donating more than he should to educational causes; the payments for a daughter-in-law’s fertility treatments; the fear of selling a stock grandfather received as payment when his employer had no cash in 1937.

Working with such realities during the day makes me hyper conscious in my own life about where our cash flows. Parents still working in their 70s after sending three children to private universities. An aged grandmother living at home with two caretakers, paid for by her children to assure she does NOT finish her days in an institution. A son in hand-me-down clothes, so his college fund grows monthly. My husband and I in modified careers to assure we’re home for breakfast and dinner every day with our child. This I believe: you know now who I am.