It's Clear: Communication is Key
By: David Smyth, June 17, 2020
One of the most interesting things about my job as a financial planner is that in the conversations I have with clients, I get to look in through the proverbial kitchen window and see how couples communicate. Now, I make it a practice never to throw any of my clients under the bus in my weekly newsletter. But there's nothing that says I can't throw my parents under the bus!
Yep. I'm going to go there. Call it comeuppance for all the times they said to me, "Dave, we changed your diapers. What could you possibly know?"
So, without further ado, let me tell a couple stories. My parents are in the midst of selling the Seattle home I grew up in and moving to Kentucky, and my boys and I are all super excited at the idea of having more family around. In the midst of all this, my parents decided that my mom should fly out to Kentucky to look for a house to buy. Now, you may be wondering, why not Dad too?
Flash back to a few decades ago, when my mom was pregnant with me and she and Dad were moving to Seattle. Dad flew out first to find their forever home and look for a place to raise a family. One of the joys of being the oldest of four kids is that I'm also the most responsible (editor's note: this has been fact-checked and proven), and I usually get the catbird seat observing my parents on a variety of topics.
My mom and dad are a lot of things. They're readers, and gardeners, they love to stay active, socialize and entertain their friends and family. My parents are not, however, financially minded people. I have to remind myself from time to time when I find myself banging my head against the wall in conversations with them, that they are not financial planners. Even though they birthed and raised me, they didn't educate me on topics of money and finance.
Once we're safely allowed to start our Family Financial Partners gatherings up again, you'll meet them if you haven't already, and you'll see how completely different my mom and dad are from each other. I'd also like to point out that I'm the perfect combination of them (editor's note: this has been fact-checked and found to be open to interpretation).
In seriousness though, when it comes to conversations on just about any topic, my parents tend to differ. They celebrated 50 years of marriage a few years back, and any of you who are also in long-term marriages, well, I'm sure you get it. So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that it was Mom alone who jumped on a plane to go house-hunting. This is how my parents have successfully navigated retirement, whether it's in the form of Mom heading to flower shows, or Dad going out for wings and wine with his former students. Now, Dad is looking at his future home for the first time on Zillow.com - after my mom made an offer!
However long you've been with your significant other, I'm sure you can relate to these stories and recognize that all of our spouses and partners have their own qualities that make them unique. I've seen some couples who do absolutely everything together, and some who do absolutely nothing together. Most of us fall somewhere in between. No matter where they fall on that spectrum, the couples who are successfully navigating life in retirement and what that looks like are the ones who have learned to effectively communicate about what they each want. I don't mean being demanding or entitled. I'm talking about being up front with your spouse about something, and then having a real and honest conversation about it if there's a disagreement.
I know most of you reading this aren't in the midst of selling your house of 40-plus years and moving across the country. But from what I've witnessed in my business over the years, the more clear and concise you can be about your personal and financial goals, the easier it will be for your spouse (and your financial planner) to embrace those goals, whether they decide to participate, support you, or cheer you on from the sidelines.
I didn't go to school to become a psychologist or marriage counselor. But we've all heard that the leading cause of strife in marriages is money, and there certainly may be instances where that is true. But when I meet with couples whether in person or via conference call, and I hear signs of animosity, it's rarely because of a shopping spree or impulsive golf trip. It's because someone feels unheard. As financial planners, we can create a judgement-free space where everyone can be heard. Sounds a lot like counseling, doesn't it?
If you find yourself in that situation, whether you're about to retire or not, let me offer a simple way to try and fix it. I truly believe that people will spend every dollar that isn't automatically saved. By that I mean retirement plans, savings, college accounts, life insurance premiums, etc. All other money will eventually be spent, whether on the mortgage, a vacation, or new school outfits for the kids.
For any couple having trouble communicating about where that money should go, please, sit down and do this simple exercise. Each spouse should separately write down five places they want that money to go. Not beneficiaries, but in a world without bills, where do you want any leftover money to go? If you didn't have any kids or grandkids in the picture, would that list change?
Once you've both done this, sit down and compare lists. Perhaps over a nice bottle of wine to loosen up a little and make it feel like a date. Look at where your lists overlap and where they're different, and discuss that. Make sure you listen to each other, and explain to each other why the things on your lists are important to you. Then, create a list of the things you can and do agree on. I've seen this strategy work, folks. Give it a try.
The bottom line is that while we love to manage money and that's what we get paid to do, we take great pride in working with client couples in whatever stage of life they're in to improve their financial and personal communication. Mastering both leads to an easier retirement. (I'm still working on mine...)