My dear partner and I recently sat before a large flat panel screen flashing different retirement scenarios while our third team of financial advisers plugged hypotheticals into the planning instrument they preferred. Our second team was Charles Schwab. We tried to talk to Chuck, but their plan left us wondering, “What’s up, Chuck?” Our first team of advisers had preferred an instrument called the less-than-reassuring “Monte Carlo.” In the increasingly arcane financial world, we had begun to prefer an instrument called “The Mattress.”
Suddenly I flashed on an image of my Dad.
Saturday afternoons, after he’d mowed the lawn or shoveled the driveway down to the blacktop, ate his lunch standing at the counter while my Mom urged, “Sit down, Jack,” my Dad would open the top credenza drawer, take out a rubber-banded pack of bills from the week, the faux leather, three-check ledger, the Cross pen etched with his name, sit at the far end of the dining room table, and pay the bills.
Despite a family reticence about money talk, on those Saturday afternoons, Dad held an open seminar on money management: how mortgages work, family budgeting, checkbook balancing, debt, student loans, taxes, insurance, charitable donations, savings accounts, and government bonds. I can still hear him say, “If you don’t have it, you can’t spend it.”
One Saturday in a grainy Dickensian matinee on our black and white TV, a judge sentenced some poor schlub to a debtor’s prison. I asked, “But if he’s in prison, how can he work to earn money to repay the debt?” My Dad seemed pleased with his protege. The insight still works today to explain the folly of austerity.
I felt confident in my financial literacy until I didn’t. Now I tend to feel like someone has just smashed a brick on my forehead when dinner conversations veer inevitably into the transactional complexities that spawned a financial services industry. Or is it vice versa? We had a major FOMO: Fear of Missing Out, i.e., “We better talk to a financial adviser! We don’t know what we’re doing!”
At sixty-five, I come a bit late to the planning stage, but thanks to my Dad, and thanks to sheer luck at avoiding catastrophes, I have saved money to plan with. Also my partner says I am “tight as a new shoe.” I started saving money my first job working underage at the New York State Fair, selling Hickory Farms smoked sausage, “Try it, buy it, take home a pound.” And I am incredulously grateful that my partner has been a salaried LGBT activist and that I have made a living as lesbian comic. Neither was an option on the sixth grade career-day choices.
My Dad never said it, but the older you get it, the more it all comes down to paperwork. I realize these are privileged problems from the tail end of a white middle class order. I resent the monetization of life choices and yet I am glad I have some. I am grateful to be with a fully employed partner for twenty-five years. If we marry, we will divorce one lawyer and one estate planner.
I don’t want to talk to Chuck. I want to talk to Jack.