At the age of 5, I became a finance intern....
Most people struggle to pick a career. It’s considered a stroke of good luck if someone finds their vocation, a job that they truly enjoy. I do consider myself a lucky man, but I wouldn’t exactly say the leprechauns were looking out for me the day I started on my career path. I’m also not sure that I found financial planning. Maybe it found me.
Growing up in a single parent home in 1970’s Braintree, Massachusetts was unique. Divorce was only starting to become somewhat main-stream. In our town, most couples seemed to adhere to the Ozzie and Harriet way of life. My highly realistic mother would tell you marriage isn’t always easy, but she was a single mother for a very different reason than divorce. As she describes it, one night she went to bed a wife and woke up a widow. My father suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep. She was left with 13 kids under the age of 18, one of them severely autistic. I was in kindergarten at the time and the second youngest.
Even in the pre-Facebook age, stories like these spread like wildfire in suburban America. A sudden death is everyone’s worst fear and a stark reminder of our own mortality. My family was a little prominent in town mainly due our size; everyone knew one of the Hansons. Ma was even named mother of the year by a Braintree newspaper. One of the prizes was dinner out with columnist Olive Liang, “Your Braintree Observer”. Ma never let herself bask in the bit of glory. She was too busy being a wife and mother.
I was witness to some of the best in human nature when Ma became only a mother. People in the neighborhood and Ma’s old friends were compassionate in very practical ways. Ma didn’t have much time and a neighbor took us shopping to get new school shoes. Another neighbor taught Ma to drive our enormous Ford LTD station wagon. When she needed a break all of a sudden there was a tidal wave of “eat over my house” invitations. The mothers of the neighborhood were priceless.
Some tried to be compassionate and came up short. With little discretion, people started making comments and speculations about our financial situation. Forgive me if I come off a little angry as I detail some of the comments. The reason is I seldom talk about this and maybe I’ll never develop a filter for this subject matter. Even as a kid, I knew the comments were ill informed, rude and not helpful at all. For the record, I will be generous and say people probably meant well but something was lost in the translation.
These dubious do gooders also gave me a practical education and I only realized this later in life. I could have gone through childhood oblivious to the fact that most widowed women simply can’t support a family of that size while maintaining a middle class lifestyle. The fact is a disproportionate amount of impoverished households are headed by a sole female wage earner. Ma always amazes people because we weren’t poor. So, at an early age the unintended digs opened my eyes to what can happen if there is no financial planning in place when disaster strikes.
Let’s review some examples:
• I once purchased a snack in the second grade and the teacher asked me where I was getting all this money. She didn’t ask anyone else this question and what business of was it of hers?
• Once a kid made a remark about my new leather Nikes. She said “It’s so nice your brother works and brings money in the house. Where did she get that idea? Ma’s money bought those sneakers.
• Every year at school homeroom teachers would force me to take an application for the federal free lunch program. I only gave it to Ma only once. She simply said we weren’t eligible.
• I once played a little hookey in junior high, showing up at 10am. The assistant principle was irate. He wanted to call my house and would not believe me that my mother worked nights.
• My tuition to Catholic high school was always paid in a timely manner. Imagine my surprise when a teacher call me up to the front of the room to discuss a need based scholarship with me. She screamed at me publicly when I told her Ma did not meet the income guidelines.
I never told Ma about these incidents and I wonder if I should have. Ma’s a very proud women and she would have certainly called the schools and put a stop to all this. But these comments were so frequent it almost seemed normal to me. I also always felt if I did tell her, it would have only rubbed salt into the wounds of widowhood.
Ma engaged in prudent financial planning before and after my father’s death. Both my parents were ahead of the curve. Planning was a novel concept at the time; most people did not do so. Maybe this is why many made those erroneous assumptions about my family’s finances. Again, I truly think people meant well. I’m also realize I am very lucky that their assumptions weren’t true.
I frequently stress to my clients that you cannot judge anyone’s financial book by its cover. I have worked in accounting and finance for many years and I have looked under many hoods. A lot of people with shiny luxury cars and ultra-big homes have nothing saved. Conversely, a lot of people that value family and simple pleasures have accumulated substantial nest eggs. I’m not saying Ma is a multi-millionaire and that she never struggled financially, but we always got what we needed and had some left over for extras and charity.
After high school I attended the relatively affordable Isenberg School of Management at U Mass Amherst. I got a world class education at somewhat of a bargain. I majored in accounting and took all the requisite courses to work in the field. While I was in school financial planning was becoming a new discipline within the accounting profession. I took an introductory class and realized how ahead of the curve my parents were. She also made sure we learned from her misfortune. I was still in grade school when she openly talked about spending habits, insurance and investments with me. I was learning my craft from one of its early adopters. Now a college senior, I knew I would pursue this field one day.
I put this education and personal experience to work when I entered the field. I knew my recommendations would have both and immediate and long term impact on my clients. I also knew that there are good approaches to financial planning and some not so good. I steered clear of banks, insurance companies and publicly traded outfits. It is well known in the field these companies push products that are high commission for the planner and the business, but probably not in the best interest on the client. Simply put, there is an inherent conflict of interest at those types of firms. I decided to become an independent financial planner with low fees and an academic investment approach which reduces risks and gives my clients the best chance for success. It is this approach that worked for Ma. If something disastrous like the sudden loss of a spouse happened to one of my clients, I like knowing I did the best anyone could do for them.
Ma continues to make financial planning a priority in her life. She never cancels the appointment 2 and 3 times. I’m sure it is no surprise that she planned for her retirement. That’s when everyone gets “widowed” from their paycheck. Ma always says you never know what’s around the corner. She’ll never bury her head in the sand and hope things just work out. She has a special warning for women: “Don’t sit around and wait for Prince Charming to show up and save the day. He may never come”.
Her foresight and stubborn grit has paid huge dividends. Ma’s enjoying a comfortable retirement.
As writing this article is very cathartic, please indulge me as I list a couple of examples of when I did speak up later in life.
• A few years after college, a self-absorbed coworker asked everyone when they would pay off their student loans. Mr. Wonderful’s face sunk when I told him “I don’t have any loans. I wasn’t eligible”.
• At a T station, a complete stranger saw my Babson MBA tee shirt and asked me if my father paid for school. My response was “No, my father died when I was 5. I paid for it myself”.
I’m glad financial planning found me. I hope, because of my hard work, should a disaster strike my clients that they will have an out
Chris Hanson the author of The Wicked Smart Investor blog and a CPA who specializes in financial planning.He earned his BBA at the Isenberg School of Management University of Massachusetts and an MBA at Babson College’s F. W. Olin Graduate School of Business.
His office is at Oaktree Capital Partners in Easton.
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