Family Finance Transparency

March 8, 2009

Transparency is a hot topic among investors, whether talking about the financial well-being of public companies, investment funds, or executive compensation.  But have you thought about how transparency factors into your personal financial life?

Most of us have suffered significant financial setbacks, ranging from investment holdings to the equity in our homes.  There’s not much you can do about those losses at this point, but you can do something to reduce the stress that you and your spouse may be feeling.  I find that very few couples do a good job communicating about their personal finances, which results in one or both parties shouldering a greater burden or feeling more in the dark than they would like.  And this puts a lot of stress on a marriage.

About fifteen years ago, I made a big mistake.  On a business trip, I heard a story on CNN that suggested that Microsoft was on the brink of some big problems.  We had a small investment in Microsoft, and in an effort to protect that investment, I made the decision to sell it – without consulting my wife.  It turns out that the stock never suffered the way that news story had suggested it might, and in the late 1990s the stock made some big gains and my rash move was exposed.  After my wife asked me how much our Microsoft investment had appreciated, I had to admit that I had sold it, costing us thousands of dollars in the process.  I didn’t look so smart, and more important, she felt betrayed.

We made an agreement that we would not make significant financial decisions without consulting each other. We created a family “finance committee” and since that time, every time I want to buy or sell something, we sit down together and I make an argument in the context of our current financial condition.  She always asks tough questions (despite the fact that she was not very sophisticated on financial matters when we started) and she generally accepts my recommendations, but the critical things is that we are partners in our shared financial life.

marital-decisions

Many of us (generally the husbands) operate under the false impression that shielding our wives from the details of our family finances will reduce stress.  That’s not the case.  My wife and I have been well-served by sharing knowledge and responsibility for our financial life and I urge you to do the same.  Here’s what you can do:

  • Sit down and review your financial situation:  Cash in the bank, investments, equity in your home, as well as liabilities like mortgages, credit card debt, and any other liabilities you may have.
  • Review your budget together.  It is much more effective than criticizing spending or issuing edicts on regular expenditures.
  • Obtain agreement on any significant financial move before you make it.

Being partners has a couple important benefits for our marriage.  First, we make better decisions when we collaborate.  Second, we share responsibility for the outcomes – good and bad – which means that she is never in the dark about where we stand.  And this eliminates a lot of the tension that inevitably results when one party knows a lot less than the other. It will not recover the value you have lost over the last 6-12 months, but it will make your marriage stronger.


Facebook Convert Apologizes

March 3, 2009

Last June, brimming with the confidence that invariably attends the launch of an upstart social media business, I posted on a discussion I had with SocialSphere’s John Della Volpe about the momentum building behind Facebook.  John, at the time an advisor to SchoolPulse, warned that Facebook’s reach posed a real threat to nascent SchoolPulse and every other social networking platform on the planet.  My response:

I don’t buy it. Facebook may work for GenY, a demographic that has grown up in a very different technology context and is comfortable in that medium. The rest of us — anybody over age 30, really — aren’t looking for social networking. We are looking for ways to improve, simplify, enrich, organize, extend… our real lives. A generic social networking platform built to serve tens of millions can’t do that.

Well, it turns out he was right.

Over the past three months, I find myself spending an increasing amount of time on Facebook, and that investment of attention is steadily increasing.  I post photos and updates from my iPhone, I visit the site 10 or 20 times a day, I have connected with long-lost high school and college friends, and I created a group to manage my 25th high school reunion (46 FB members so far!).  I love it.  Tonight, my wife – a mid-late technology adopter and FB newbie – spent about an hour connecting with old friends, dishing with others… She had a blast.

In my June post, I asserted that generic platforms couldn’t meet the requirements of the 30+ crowd, and that’s just not true.  The network effects of a platform like Facebook (meaning that the service becomes more valuable as more people join) are real, tangible, and render moot any objections about generic look and feel.

If the most vociferous opponents are the most difficult to convert, then Facebook must be pretty good.  In fact, I’m more than a convert.  I’m an evangelist.

Go ahead, give it a try.


Is My Marriage Solid?

January 3, 2009

I just came back from having a few drinks with a close friend.  We didn’t know each other five years ago – we met when our oldest children were in kindergarten together – and have managed to build a strong friendship since then.  It always amazes me how difficult it is to form close friendships after college.  There is something magical about the intense, shared experience of college coupled with the fact that that is the time when we are finally coming into our own as people (I hesitate to use the term “adults” since I didn’t display a whole lot of adult behavior between the ages of 18 and 22).

Anyway, we were talking about our families and our relationships with our wives and we stumbled upon this startling conclusion:  Every man we know is grappling, struggling with the same fundamental question in his personal life:  Is my marriage solid?  There are two facts of life conspiring to make the lives of American men aged 30-50 more challenging right now.  Forgive me the gross over-simplification, but I think it’s necessary to make my point.

First, as we age, most of us slow down; we have a decreasing amount of energy at our command.  There may well be exceptions, but I haven’t met them.

Second, as we move from newly-weds to empty-nesters, the demands on that diminishing energy pool change dramatically.

slide21Early in marriage, our robust energy is focused on the marriage and budding careers.  As we move into our late thirties and forties, careers get more time-consuming and kids hit the stage.  Not a lot of time to focus on our wives or even ourselves.  This is the stage when most of us fall out of shape and out of love.  Love in the romantic sense; our marital relationships are more important than ever, but for many of us our passion for our kids is more evident than our passion for our wives.  As the kids mature and gain independence – and here I’m conjecturing since I am not there yet – the kids consume less energy which means we can begin to focus on our wives again.

I saw my own parents go through this evolution.  There was a time when 110% of their time was consumed by kids and work, but now that they are semi-retired grandparents, their marriage seems to have regained a richness and levity that didn’t exist when I was living at home.

Why am I bothering to write this?  Because I think this is a universal issue associated with all young families.  It is easy to give up hope, to forget why you married your wife in the first place; to figure that your marriage will go downhill as time passes.  But that’s doesn’t have to be the case.  In fact, there are things you can do today to rekindle your optimism and commitment to your marriage.

  • Don’t give up the faith.  Recognize that the doldrums you may perceive have more to do with your stage of life than your connection with your wife.  At some point you and your wife will both have more time to devote to your relationship.  I can’t say when, but I know that kids become more independent over time which restores energy to your marital relationship.
  • Re-prioritize your relationship.  If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel – a rich, bright light – it is easier to commit more attention to it.  Dare to believe that you will turn a corner at some point, and you will find yourself putting more thought into maintaining a good marriage.
  • Look for the easy wins.  Most of us overlook chances to score huge points by doing the little things.  Take out the garbage without being asked, buy some flowers on the way home from work on a Friday, surprise her with a babysitter and a night out… These things don’t take a lot of time or energy, but they help our wives see that we are committed to our relationships.  And that, in turn, will inspire them to respond.

I’m no marriage counselor, but I’ve talked to enough friends to believe what I’m telling you.  I think women discuss the state of their marital relationships with their friends all the time; men never do.  And because we don’t, we have no support system to bolster us when we tire.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we men dared to talk about the universal challenges we face as fathers and husbands?  We’d all feel a lot better.


Emasculation Rewarded

December 20, 2008

img_0390Guess what.  If you can set aside your pride, emasculation ain’t so bad.  I posted yesterday about the embarrassment suffered when my wife went public as the family snow blower, and am happy to announce my full recovery today.

img_0395As predicted, the storm started yesterday afternoon and we woke to 12 inches of snow.  Worried that my wife might call my bluff by offering to let me clear the walks and driveway, the kids and I left before she got up and walked into town for breakfast.  It was one of those idyllic, snowy mornings with clean white snow and few cars on the road.  I towed the younger kids on a long sled, and the older kids (including a couple friends who had spent the night) had a running snowball fight.  Do you recall a time when you didn’t mind taking a snowball in the face or getting an arm full dumped down your back?  My kids are there.  We rolled into our local breakfast spot, ordered up hot chocolate, coffee, waffles, pancakes, sausage, the whole shebang.  It couldn’t have been nicer.

img_0407Meanwhile, it was still snowing and my wife was sure to be rising soon.  I texted her from the comfort of the restaurant – “driveway clear yet?” – but got no response.  Where could she possibly have been?  Were the shear pins behaving?  Not my worry.  We finished our breakfast and moseyed home.  As we turned the corner into the driveway, the steps were clean, the walks clear, and Johanna was about 90% finished with the driveway.  I made no pretenses about my masculinity.  I whipped out my camera long enough to take a shot of Johanna in action (somewhat annoyed at her carelessness in letting the snow blow on my camera) and cruised inside to start a fire and get a fresh cup of coffee.

She asked for the job, right?  Far be it from me to suggest that a woman shouldn’t operate heavy machinery.


Emasculation

December 19, 2008

darntoughanvilAs dads, we all understand the roles we are expected to play in our families. My wife and I have a twenty first century marriage, meaning we take a more balanced approach to parenting.  We both cook, bathe the kids, discipline… Ward Cleaver would be appalled; June Cleaver would feel disenfranchised.  I should have known I would get in trouble letting my wife play lead on snow blowing. For some inexplicable reason, she loves to do it, but today it went too far.  With a big snow storm heading our way tomorrow, I took my blows today.

Apparently, Johanna ran into Charles Rutstein at Ace Hardware this afternoon. Charles is a man’s man.  He takes golfing trips with his buddies, let’s his wife manage their social calendar, and has a professional grade wood shop in his basement.  I’m not talking about a simple table saw.  He has a table saw, a chop saw, a router table, a planer, and a lathe, all tied into the same saw dust collecting vacuum system.  It’s awesome.

Johanna was shopping for shear pins – yes, shear pins, those little clips in the augur that have a penchant for failing when the snow is heaviest. So in addition to exposing Charles to the fact that she works the heavy machinery in my house, the two of them evaluated rock salt options together. Which is better… the 100 pound bag or 40 pound buckets? She opted to take home two 40 pounders after concluding the 100 pound bag would be too hard to lug around. Did she think I couldn’t handle that? What am I, a girly man?

Suffice it to say that it hurt. I’ve been completely emasculated.  Next thing you know I’ll be pushed into darning the kids socks.

I hope all of you in New England enjoy the snow tomorrow. I’ll be inside baking cookies while the rest of you are shoveling.


Make the Most of the Holidays

December 4, 2008

img_0226Tonight was the annual Fifth Grade Holiday Concert at my kids’ elementary school.  71 fifth graders took the stage and did a bang up job singing an assortment of holiday songs from a variety of cultures and faiths including Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah.

There were no solos and nobody stood out as a future American Idol winner, but I left the concert feeling really good about our school community.  As a father, I walked away with a few thoughts that may help me to help my kids as they mature:

  • Instill the courage to try something new.  The stage was full of kids who probably don’t think of themselves as performers or musicians, and many of them looked awkward and nervous, but they were all immensely satisfied at having been part of the show.  I’m guessing that given the chance to sing in a chorus again, many of them would jump at it.
  • Accept them for who they are.  The auditorium was full of parents and younger siblings who were smiling the whole time.  Why?  Because they were all proud of the fifth graders who invested the time to learn the songs and took the risk of performing in front of a crowd.  There was a palpable feeling of unconditional appreciation for the kids on stage.
  • Motivate them to enrich their community.  Elementary schools organize small-scale events all the time that adults may think are a little corny.  Pajama day, crazy hair day, school spirit day… these are the types of events that hold diminishing interest for kids as they get older.  Our kids grow up too fast.  In general, most first graders are psyched to wear their pajamas school, but by the time they are 10 or 11 far fewer students are willing to play along.  They don’t want to risk looking silly.  An enthusiastic adult (in this case, the music teacher) has the ability to inspire those reticent students to take those kinds of risks, and in so doing they build a sense of tradition and shared experience within their school communities.

img_0243These are the kinds of values that are best taught experientially and they represent classic “teachable moments.”  As you roll through the holiday season, you will have many opportunities to influence how your kids spend their time.  Seize the opportunities to let your kids experience the impact that they can make on the world through their generosity, love, and participation in holiday traditions.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Carve out some time to make (not buy) presents for friends and family.
  • Go shopping as a family to buy presents for Toys for Tots or similar organizations.
  • Gather up old hats, mittens, and clothing to be donated to Goodwill.
  • Set aside one night for the whole family to decorate your house for the holidays.

These types of activities too often fall by the wayside during the busy holiday season, but any one of them can make a lasting impression on our kids and equip them to make the world a better place.


Extend TARP to Education

November 26, 2008

The government has allocated $700 billion to shore up the economy, and most of those dollars are destined for the financial service companies that created the problem.  There is no doubt in my mind that education funding will suffer over the next couple years.

  • “With California’s budget now facing an $11-billion shortfall, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed billions of dollars in spending cuts, most of them aimed at the state’s already beleaguered schools, colleges and universities.”  Source
  • “… Shortfalls in state budgets coupled with pessimistic predictions about local revenues are forcing them to look for ways to trim next year’s budgets, which they are working on now.  About half of the states are facing projected budget shortfalls, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group.”  Source
  • “Budget woes continued to affect education funding around the nation, as states struggled to ward off major shortfalls under a teetering economy.”  Source

Public education is funded with tax receipts, and as municipal budgets fall – the obvious result of lower property values and sales tax receipts – parents are likely to step in and bridge the gaps.  There is no doubt that parents will be asked to fund gaps with user fees and additional fundraising.  Beyond that, the volunteers who already give over 36 million hours per day on volunteer-related activities will be asked to do more.

We created SchoolPulse to help those volunteers – room parents, scout leaders, and club advisors – manage their daily communications with parents more efficiently.  Volunteer burnout is a well-known phenomenon and we want to do everything we can to keep current volunteers in the game and bring new volunteers to the table.  But who has the time to increase their involvement in an economy like this?

I have been trying to figure out how we can support the nation’s schools through this crisis.  Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the $700 billion in TARP funds were earmarked for education?  Today, our legislators are listening most closely to the financial  service companies that created the problem, and those companies are successfully capturing the bulk of the dollars.  Going forward, I would like to see parents have louder voice.

With that in mind, I thought of an idea that may or may not work (I’ve never been a political activist).  I created the Protect Spending on American Education petition that I hope you will sign.  Is it a long shot?  Sure, but if we can get enough support behind the idea of directing even a small portion of the TARP funds toward education, we just might be able to make it a reality.  Please click here to review the petition and signal your support.

Please spread the word by telling others about the petition.  The easiest way is to copy/paste the address of this web page into an email and forward it to other concerned parents.