Storytime: Doubling down
Even ostensibly value-driven decisions can be misleading if they are not thought through
‘Do you have a rough idea of how much you spend on, or because of, your children?’
The husband looks surprised. He’s come armed with spreadsheets and the sort of job title that, refusing to be constrained by a business card, seeks to colonise the air in every room it enters. But his spreadsheets don’t know the answer to this question. I look at the wife to remind her that she’s allowed to play too. The wife looks at the husband. The husband looks around the room.
‘I guess it must be a couple of hundred,’ he says. ‘Three sets of school fees… These are undoubtedly “peak” spending years… all three in school… a nanny is a necessity because of our jobs… we’ve visited my parents – their grandparents – in Australia a lot too.’
‘Good guess! It’s about that. More pertinently, how much of your earnings does that represent?’
‘Well it must be about double.’
‘Last year, according to your own figures, your children accounted for £457,000 of your earnings before tax. And that’s before considering their effect on your second biggest expense – your mortgage. It’s probably fair to assume that you wouldn’t live in such a big house if you didn’t have three children.’
‘True. Wow. Sounds a lot when you put it like that.’
‘How else would you put it?’
‘I guess we just wouldn’t. I tend to think of the ins and outs as more of a monthly flow–‘
‘Rather than a finite lifetime pile of resources? Most do.’
‘This room is the only place we address these sorts of questions–’ says the wife.
‘It’s great to do so,’ interrupts the husband. ‘They’re obviously so important, but between work and the kids and what’s left of each weekend–’
‘–and worrying about work even when we do get time to think,’ says the wife, the recollection triggering a shudder that starts at her shoulders and works all the way through the hefty boardroom table.
‘Completely understandable,’ I say, tactfully not screaming: YOU SPEND 90 HOURS A WEEK AT WORK, HOW CAN YOU NOT STOP AND THINK A BIT HARDER ABOUT IF IT’S WHAT YOU WANT TO BE DOING?
‘The key is… you’re not spending for the sake of it (I hope). And while it’s great – superb, really – that your spending is largely aligned with your core values, in this instance being great parents, my job is to help you think things through to ensure that not only are you living in accordance with these values, becoming who you are, fulfilling your potential and all that, but also that you’re doing so in a way that’s effective and burrows well below the surface.
‘So, hypothetically, could you meet the value of being great parents for less? In a way that would leave you more to “spend” on other values… I use quotation marks, because it could be that you “spend” time not being at work, or “spend” mental energy on calmness by doing a job that you didn’t – in your words – “hate”, that you [peeking at my notes] “felt in your heart rather than your neck”, that allowed you to actually see your children more, and “be more present” – and less on-edge – when you did.
‘And, less directly,’ I continue, speeding up with the fear that I’ve said too much already, but have an irresistibly important point twitching on the tip of my tongue, ‘do you think you risk instilling in your children the idea that a “high standard of living” or perhaps even “work” in general, must be boring, painful, unloveable, even? To quote every tech start-up’s favourite guru, Paul Graham, “A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house.”[i] I’d argue it’s at least worth contemplating whether good, smart, people like you can achieve their parenting goals without spending 20 times the average UK salary each year to do so.’
[Pause for effect… while wondering if I’ve poked a bit hard this time.]
‘When we first met,’ I continue, in response to heads trying to scratch themselves with eyebrows, ‘you said you wanted to retire. Well you can. Yesterday. But it would mean pulling your children out of public school, living somewhere worth “only” £1m – so matching your equity, not your equity and your borrowing. Maybe not flying first class…’
That’s enough for now.
Silence grows slightly awkward.
Digits start to fidget. Even the table feels tense. Left unchecked, we’ll soon be in disastrous-first-date territory, shifting and squirming and soliciting of divine intervention to just make it end. It’s a dangerous play for a professional relationship.
Let it sit. Let them squirm, I tell myself. If this isn’t important, nothing is.
‘It’s amazing,’ the wife says, fighting back tears with mixed success, ‘it’s amazing to think that we could spend that much in the name of being good parents and actually be… be… do a worse job of parenting because of it.’
I make some reassuring noises about going easy, about even the best parenting intentions struggling in such a situation, about focusing not on what’s been lost, but what’s been learned, and what’s to be gained. About responding to the uncontrollable circumstantial challenges, not with direct attempts at remedial action, but with environmental control. About aiming not for lower stress and lower shoulders, but for the sort of environment that ensures such things as side-effects. About not being told what to think, but heeding being told just to think, and trusting the rest to look after itself. What would be lost by quitting? What would be gained? What confidence is attached to each? What would be irrevocable? What could be learned? What could be unlearnable any other way? What’s worth more: wealth, health, money, posture, time with children, or toys for children…?
‘You know what the craziest thing is,’ the husband says, ‘I’d always… sometimes… well, in the sort of circles that come with this sort of job… while no one really talks about spending specifically, we do talk a lot about it generally… those hints that pretend to be subtle but really aren’t… and it’s always to brag about how much has been spent, not how much one has got in return.’
My cold financial heart lives to be warmed by these moments. ‘That’s possibly in the top three things I’ve ever heard a client say. How much more beautiful all our worlds would be if people remembered that the goal is living a Good life, not an expensive one.’
 See also this from Lynne Twist in The Soul of Money: ‘Our three young children […] were the center [sic] of our lives, or so we thought. Our marriage and our relationship with our children were the most important things in the world to us, or so we said. Yet, if someone had filmed us during this time and looked at it objectively, they would have said – No, they don't care about the children. The kids are with the nanny, the wife is always off on these boondoggles with her husband, or shopping or entertaining, and they're missing out on the most important stages of their children's development, seeing those first steps, being there for good-night stories, kisses, or the spontaneity that builds relationships. They're able to purchase child care and purchase toys and a great house, but even when they're with their children their heads are spinning with what they need to do next to achieve financial goals or demonstrate to their friends that they know how to be facile with the emerging experience of wealth. We felt we were sincerely devoted to our children, but if you looked honestly at how we actually spent our time and energy, you'll see that our actions were not consistent with our intentions.’