By Bert Whitehead, M.B.A, J.D. © 2011
Some of the most important lessons I have learned didn’t come from classrooms or continuing education sessions, but rather from observing real life experiences of my clients. One such lesson I learned 35 years ago was from Tony. It was very impactful for me, and so I have decided to share it.
Tony was a 30ish manager who worked for a large Detroit corporation. He was raised in the ghetto, but managed to struggle through college and earned an M.B.A. He was recognized as a rising star in his company, and in our relationship he was what we term ‘a compliant client’ – which is an understated high praise. He regularly saved 10-12% of his earnings and invested prudently.
At one of our appointments, which he had been forced to reschedule, he explained that his father had died the month before. He was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy for $25,000. This was a tidy sum in the early 1970’s, equivalent to about $100,000 today. He wanted advice on how best to invest it, since it basically doubled his investment portfolio.
His father lived in Seattle. While he didn’t know him as a child, they became close later in life. He was somewhat embarrassed to admit that he had already spent $5,000 on a first class ticket to go to his father’s funeral (this was before airline rates were deregulated). I was startled by this, and mentioned that spending that much money on a plane ticket was quite a splurge.
Tony felt it was important to explain himself. He confided that he didn’t see his dad much while he was growing up, but he and his father had grown very close since he graduated from high school. His dad, who never graduated from high school, would always brag of his achievements.
His dad was so proud of him that he flew back to Detroit to attend both of his college graduations. The last time he saw his dad, his dad had told him that when he was boarding his last flight, walking through the first class cabin, the thought came to him that someday his son would be able to fly first class.
So that was why Tony decided to fly first class to his dad’s funeral.
Interestingly, less than a year later, Tony came home from work exhausted and laid down on his bed and died. He was 33. The cause was something related to a congenital heart problem he didn’t even know he had.
A few days after his death, I had vivid memories of going to his funeral and seeing him laid out. As I sat through the ceremony, it occurred to me that I was really glad that Tony had decided to buy that first class ticket.
That’s when I learned that how clients decide how to use their money is ultimately a very personal decision that reflects their deepest values. It is not my job to set their priorities on how they spend their wealth. As long as a client is saving 10% of what they earn, come what may, it will accumulate and compound through the years to assure they can maintain their lifestyle after they retire.
Through life, I have seen the importance that clients use their surplus however they deem appropriate. Some do save it. Others use it for their kids’ educations. Or perhaps they take their family on trips and invest in memories. The point is that as we live our lives, financial planning isn’t a process of sheer deprivation.
Sometimes it is important to splurge on a first class ticket.
I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY.