The Money Talk, capital “M” and capital “T,” is overrated. As with the Sex Talk, children can sense that one is coming. And if they get antsy, your words will go in one ear and out the other.
Tempted to hand over a notecard instead? Your first principles may fit on it, and making one for a new graduate is a fine thing to do. But there isn’t much space for storytelling.
So in this season of transitions, consider the old-fashioned letter. It’s long enough to tell some tales to bolster your advice, and if it’s written with enough soul, there’s a good chance the recipient will keep it for a long time. Plus, it’s a literal conversation piece, since the good letters will inspire more curiosity about how the writers oversee their own financial affairs.
Kimberly Palmer still has the money letter her mother wrote her and her two younger sisters 13 years ago, and in her new book, “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” she offers a template that parents or grandparents can use to pass on similar wisdom.
A good letter, according to Ms. Palmer, should include at least one story about a large financial challenge and another one about a big money triumph. Then, include a list of crucial habits and the tangible things they have helped the family achieve.
HEED YOUR IGNORANCE Quite often, the best stories and takeaways come from the biggest mistakes, and so it is with Gail Shearer, Ms. Palmer’s mother. Lesson No. 6 in her letter is this one: Never invest in anything you don’t totally understand.
How many times did she and her husband ignore this advice? “Oh, three or four,” she said in an interview this week. Ms. Shearer, 65, a retired consumer health advocate who spent years at Consumers Union, proceeded to tick them off.
There was the tax shelter. “In the 1980s, they were the thing,” she said. “We drank the Kool-Aid, just a little bit.” And then suffered through many years of complex tax filings, which nobody tells you about during the sales pitch.
Then, there was some variable life insurance. And an annuity. And an adviser who promoted a “black box” investment strategy, as if that were a good thing.
The couple did not lose a lot of money, though if they had put it all in indexed mutual funds in the first place (See Lesson No. 5 in the letter). as they did with most of the rest of their savings, they would have more money now.
So better that their daughters avoid any such blunders from the beginning.
BEWARE OF GENIUS The Palmer-Shearer clan is not the only one with a letter-writing tradition. Four years ago, John D. Spooner, an investment adviser and writer, collected an entire book of them called, “No One Ever Told Us That: Money and Life Letters to my Grandchildren.”
In it, Mr. Spooner takes to its logical conclusion Ms. Shearer’s advice about not understanding something: Don’t trust the person who claims to be omniscient either.
Writing to Your Children About Money
Kimberly Palmer, author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” offers a template that parents or grandparents can use to pass on financial advice.
In a chapter titled “Beware of Genius,” Mr. Spooner tells the story of an impenetrable Alan Greenspan speech he once heard. He instructs his grandchildren to consider the following hypothetical: “If someone cannot explain his economic concepts to you in several simple paragraphs, then you should view those concepts as probably being dangerous to your financial health.”
STICK TO YOUR SELLING PLANS The most memorable tale in Mr. Spooner’s book is about his failure to sell his seven-figure holding in Citigroup stock before the economic collapse in 2008.
As an investment adviser with the firm, he thought he knew it well enough. He had made plans to sell after any change in leadership. But the new chief executive liked him. “We can be blinded by flattery from the seats of power,” he wrote to his grandchildren. “Be aware of this in your business lives.”
Selling something that is still valuable is the hardest part of any trade, he added. So if you can’t name three good reasons to continue owning something, he warned his grandchildren, then it’s time to sell. In retrospect, he did not have three good ones, but he kept the stock anyway as it fell to $1 a share. (It had been above $55.) He held on to it as the stock rebounded and made some money buying shares of other blue-chip companies during the downturn.
Another idea that I’ll include in my own letter someday: You could just follow Ms. Shearer’s lead and invest in a variety of index funds that own every stock in a particular market, thus avoiding this sort of concentrated stock risk.
BUDGETS ARE ABOUT VALUES It may be tempting for any of Ms. Shearer’s daughters to gloss over Lesson No. 8, where she exhorts them to keep track of their spending. How boring, right? But almost in passing, she seizes on one of the least understood, yet most essential, pieces of money wisdom.
“When Daddy and I first got married, we kept the roughest of notebooks and would sit down once a month and try to figure out what happened to our finances,” she wrote. “Communication, and shared values/goals about money, are really important.”
Budgets are about dollars, sure. But they’re also about values. What you spend says a lot about what you stand for, and if you don’t like what your own notebook says about you, try to make it look different next month.
Fortunately for Ms. Shearer and her husband, Christopher Palmer, 68, a filmmaker and professor, they mostly agreed on what they should see. Saving for their daughters’ education was the big goal, and retirement was a close second. They managed the first with some parental debt, which they’ve now repaid. As for the second, they’re waiting until age 70 to collect Social Security, so the checks will be bigger.
With the publication of their daughter’s book, written correspondence may be among their biggest legacies. Mr. Palmer would leave a letter for the girls for each night he was away from home when they were growing up. The family eventually collected them in a bound volume.
Ms. Shearer’s money letter is now a public document, thanks to her daughter’s own writing. If any of you have written or received your own money letters (or plan to write one now), I’d love to see them and perhaps include them in a future article. You can upload them via a tool on our website.
Ms. Palmer, who is 36, writes letters to her own children now. And her book is itself a sort of open letter, urging mothers, in particular, to take a leading role in their family’s financial lives. She argues that heterosexual families who fall into traditional gender roles, where a father runs the investing and taxes while the wife handles everyday expenses, may inadvertently teach their children that men should take on the more consequential money tasks.
As part of Lesson No. 6, Ms. Shearer encouraged her daughters to read good personal advice books. What she did not anticipate, however, was that she would help inspire her eldest to write her own.