Women

Labor Day and Investing in YOU

Posted on Sep 2, 2019 in Community, Investments, Planning, Retirement, Women, Worklife

We’re in an era of constant change. As soon as you buy one thing, there’s a newer version. In the old I Love Lucy television show, Lucy asks the question: “If everything now is new and improved, what was it before? Old and lousy?”

In the same way store shelves are continually restocked with the “new and improved,” we need to think of our skills and talents this way, too. You have no doubt spend time and money on knowing what you know, doing what you do, and becoming who you are. This human capital – you – needs on-going investment and care to stay in top form.

Keeping your tools sharp helps you jump on a new opportunity or take on a new role, and it’s important because sometimes the decision to make a change may not be yours. As the prospect of a recession looms, you need to be able to recover quickly if a downturn affects your job, or company or your industry.

A career transition expert tells me that while this is good advice, you’re not likely to move on it now, even if you’re in a bad job. Like being in a dead-end relationship or on the brink of needing to think seriously about a long-term care plan, no one likes to think about the possibility of future misfortune — job loss, break-up, or broken hip. And yet, now is the best time, when you don’t have to make a reactive plan, but can craft a proactive one.

If you think you can skip this step if you’re retired, you might want to think again. Whether it’s serving in a volunteer role, re-entering the workforce, or keeping up with the grandkids, you’re still going to benefit from learning something new. (Your brain will thank you too – more on that in another post!).

Think FaceBook, Instagram, Slack, Evernote, the newest shiniest iPhone…Continual learning is a habit all of us need to develop, not only to recession-proof your income-generating capacity, but also because the way we live will continue to change at an ever-increasing pace.

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, co-founders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford and recovering techies themselves, argue that much unhappiness comes from an unsatisfying work life, and by designing your life you move into a mindset to constantly evolve who you are and what you can do.

There is no better time to start than right now.

Make it Personal
If it sounds daunting to tackle “how to keep up with an ever-changing world,” literally take it personally: think about what you’d like to do that you’re not doing now, and identify how you can add to your tools and talents in those areas.

You can use this exploration to think about career or industry changes, in addition to getting to the next career step. Yes, you need to pay your bills, and you’ll spend 2,000 hours this year working that 40-hour a week job to do it – you may work more. Life is short, but workdays are way too long to not like what you’re doing. Thinking about what you’d like to learn next could take you in a satisfying new direction.

What’s the next step? Do you want to move to the next rung on your career ladder? Pivot into a new function? Make a move to a new organization? Attract a new opportunity? This might mean thinking big, and sometimes that means making big changes. But this is your life, after all. What skill, experience or quality lights you up when you think about adding it to your toolbox?

When you do this, your values and personal strengths naturally enter into the mix. And when you align what you’re doing at work to what you value, you do better work, are more likely to be inspired and happy.

Shifting your thinking from “what skill do I have to have to keep my job?” to “what can I learn that will help me do my best in my career?” changes your focus from thinking about working in a job to thinking about working on YOU.

Make it Portable
It’s not only about what your organization needs next, it’s about what you can learn that you can take with you. In the work world today, you want and need to be able to jump into a new role, or to a new company, when you want to – and even when you don’t.

In her book, Radical Careering, Sally Hogshead explains portable equity this way:

Portable Equity is personal capital that boosts your long-term career opportunity and market value far beyond your current job: your experience, skills, network, reputation.

The portable part of this is important. Many covet the equity compensation that comes from working someplace that pays employees in some form of company stock. But that kind of equity can dissolve overnight based on the fickle nature of financial markets, and it can get left behind if you don’t stay long enough. Portable equity moves with you. It IS you. As Hogshead rightfully points out, “You can be fired from a job, but you can never be fired from your career.”

When you develop a mindset of continual improvement in yourself- in all the things you know and can do and can offer the world – you’ve made the leap to thinking about building your portable equity. It’s not a machine you leave on the shop floor, it’s not a proprietary software system your company built for internal use. It’s the skill you have to use that machine in any shop, the knowledge of a system that is like many other systems.

The Three Pieces of Portable Equity
Your human capital consists of skills and experience, your network, and your reputation. Start by choosing one thing to work on next, and write it down. Plans that you write down have a 42% better chance of being achieved:

“I will learn python.”
“I will understand tax reporting for Americans overseas.”
“I will learn canine CPR.”

One: Skills and Experience
Picked a skill or experience to target? Once you have your target, research resources to help you get it:
Places – Classrooms, on-line learning, local workshops, your organization. Where can you find the resources to learn what you need to know or do? EdX, Coursera, your library, YouTube – there are more ways to connect with your interests than ever before.
Funding – Check to see whether your company offers financial assistance for what you’re planning, or if your boss will approve funds to pay for it. The thing about investing in your human capital is that while you’re going to benefit your company as long as you’re there, it doesn’t mean you can’t take it with you when you leave. Barring a corporate budget for development, think about setting aside your own reserve for career investment.
People – Who already has this skill you’re after? Who is doing the job you want? And how did they get it? Perfect questions for your network.

Two: Network
Decided to expand or engage your network? Just like getting a loan from a bank, it’s easier to connect with your network when you don’t need anything from it. A network, a real one, is not just 500-plus connections on LinkedIn. It is a living thing, and you need to participate. You are connected to these people for a reason.

Find a cohort – another person or small group of people you know who might be interested in the same thing. Early in my career, I wanted to learn SAS and gathered two other colleagues to take a weekend course.
Find an accountability partner and schedule regular coffee or lunch or exercise class. Even if you’re working on different next steps, you can encourage each other.
Don’t overlook the social part of your network. You never know what you’ll find when you speak from the heart about what you want next. A recently laid off woman in my book group found a connection to her next step, a career pivot, just by letting us know what was going on with her. Most people want to be helpful.
Update your connections – all of them – Keeping your network up-to-date isn’t about just asking for something. Your posse knows about your successes already; let your broader circle know what’s new. It might be as simple as turning on alerts in LinkedIn. Or when your brunch buddies are checking in since your last get-together, give yourself some snaps: “Things are good; had a few forgettable dates, still enjoying my yoga class, and took a class to learn python/taxes/canine CPR.” You never know who or where opportunities to use your new skills might pop up.

You don’t have to do this alone. And you shouldn’t. Find friends, colleagues, family who can help you. You don’t need a lot of people, but you do need people. They listen to your Big Idea if you have a major transition to work towards, they offer feedback, they refer you to others who can help, they are a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes just getting the word out to that first person can get the ball rolling.

A SPECIFIC CHALLENGE FOR WOMEN: Women are usually more than willing to offer help someone else. When you help another woman, and that woman asks “if there’s ever anything I can do for you,” ask her to pay it forward: when she has an opportunity to help another woman, ask her to commit to doing it. Imagine what we could accomplish if you knew that every woman you helped would help another, and that when you needed it, that huge network would be there to help you.

Three: Reputation
Want to ensure that your best self is what recruiters find when they go online? It’s super to have learned a new programming language, added another certificate in your field, completed a project that stretched your skills and knowledge. Don’t keep it to yourself.

Clean sweep your social – Whether you love social media or hate it, it has become a necessary tool of work life. A recent CareerBuilder Study found that 57 percent of hiring managers are less likely to interview a candidate they can’t find online, and 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates. More than half of managers have decided not to hire a candidate based on their social media profiles. Think about online complaints about your job, or photos from a late night out. Check your online reputation through the channels you manage yourself; do a Google search to see what else turns up about you. The rest of the world is going to see that too.
Update your “Atta Girl” file – We live in a culture that requires both competitive engagement and for women, modesty. Ladies, let’s get over that last part. If you can’t get comfortable using your own words, use someone else’s. You will need to sing your praises. On your resume, at your next performance review, at the interview. You need a file or e-folder where you keep track of every compliment, each piece of positive feedback, or stat showing successful outcomes that you receive or contributed to. And when a crap day rolls around, you have a secret weapon to remind yourself what you can do.
Update (or create) your LinkedIn profile – More than half of employers won’t hire a candidate without an online presence, and employers are increasingly looking online to check up on current employees. If you’re planning a career change, be smart about whether you want to advertise that you’re “looking for new opportunities”. Think about whether your online profiles reflect where you are – and where you might want to go next. If you’re enrolled in a class, add it to your profile. Your online profile becomes another accountability partner, and you’ll have another update for your circle once you complete your new thing.

Make It Happen
Other than a haircut, change doesn’t happen overnight. But it can look swift and feel effortless if it’s aligned with what you love to do.

Reframe how you look at your talents not as what you need to do for someone else, but with an eye to what really floats your boat. Pick one step or all three, and get to work. Vocation or avocation, you’ll invest the majority of your time in it. Make sure it’s serving you and what you want out of life – and make sure you can take it with you.

Read More

Lessons from Apollo 11 at 50

Posted on Jul 24, 2019 in Community, Family, Planning, Relationship, Technology, Women

This weekend, the Apollo 11 moon landing celebrated its 50th anniversary. The event was just on the edge of my personal history: I was five (and a half – back when counting halves was important). The experience of Apollo 11, and the missions that came after, shaped me and the way I see the world.

I’ve been a space geek since I can remember. A highlight of my life was a trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the late 1990’s, an outing during a business conference. Apollo 11 was one of many missions in the Apollo program, which followed the Gemini program and the Mercury program before that. The tour at KSC recreated the last two minutes of the Apollo 8 mission launch. Apollo 8 flew the first humans into the Moon’s orbit, and gave us the famous photograph, ‘Earthrise.’

After a history lesson about how many things had gone wrong – seriously wrong – just prior to that mission, we visitors looked into a room with the actual consoles from that Mission Control room, the jackets and windbreakers with the logos of companies now gone, or merged into others, hanging on the backs of chairs: McDonnell Douglas, Northrup Grumman, North American Aviation.

It was 1998 and we were all thinking about Y2K and what could go wrong. At the time I was at Starbucks and responsible for the company’s banking relationships; one fear was that the electronic ledger that banks used would go kablooey as we flipped into the new century and money would disappear off the books (it did not).

The Apollo 8 launch required more than 400 different systems to work together, systems built by many different companies, each responsible for a piece of the whole. We counted down to zero – Ignition – and the room shook and filled with light and sound. Apollo 8 had launched! Then we walked out into the hangar, out under a Saturn V rocket. All 363 feet, 3,270 tons of it. We sat down for dinner, of which I have no memory. Everything stopped with that rocket.

The technology of the time: The telephone. The typewriter. The transistor.
Not yet invented: The personal computer. The cellphone. The internet. Pong.

Thirteen missions using a Saturn V rocket were flown, all of them successful. They completed these missions and never carried a weapon into space. “We came in peace for all Mankind.”

With a backdrop of great civil unrest and international turmoil, we found the money and the focus to send men to the moon. There were detractors; there were plenty of domestic issues that needed attention, too. The same can be said today.

Destination Moon
In homage to the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, I went to the Museum of Flight outside of Seattle and stood inches from the Command Module, Columbia, that splash-landed in the Pacific, bringing Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong safely back to Earth.

There were a lot of things that had to happen before Columbia came back to us. Tests, mistakes, massive, tragic failures. Many of the Apollo missions you don’t hear much about were testing equipment and different stages of what would become the trip to land on the Moon.

Making mistakes, course correcting along the way
We talk a lot about “course corrections” in planning and investment management, too. We offer questionnaires and exercises to test your risk tolerance, to establish benchmarks so we know whether we’re meeting your goals, and make many small and sometimes big changes to plans as we go and as the environment changes around us.

Apollo 7 tested the Command Module in Earth orbit and Apollo 8 tested it in lunar orbit. Apollo 9 evaluated the Lunar Module in Earth orbit, then Apollo 10 was the “dress rehearsal,” testing all of the stages of a mission to the Moon, up to landing on it. All this work was to prepare for Apollo 11.

The point is that Big Goals are accomplished in many, many small steps. For those of you thinking you “should” know something, or “should” be at a certain point in life financially, know that we all learn as we go. It might have been a little easier for the rocket scientists at NASA to set and keep their goals, given that they had the laws of physics to work with; there are no such rules that govern the stock market. You make a plan, you test the plan, get help as you need it, and course-correct along the way.

Taking a minute to reflect on and take in each success along the way
After landing on the Moon and before stepping outside the Lunar Module (LM), Buzz Aldrin radioed to Earth: “This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

If you listen to the radio transmissions of the whole mission, you hear the milestones; even under the strict protocol between Mission Control and the flight crew, you hear the recognition of each achievement, each phase of the plan as it’s executed. And on occasion, there is a call out just to honor reaching a goal.

It’s easy to get caught up in checking things off your list, then moving right on to the next thing. But there will always be a “next thing.” Satisfaction and joy are found in between. During each Mission, there was always the next thing to worry about, but as stressed and weary as they were, with this huge responsibility, they still took a minute and just allowed themselves to feel the success. Allow yourself your successes, too.

Part of Something Bigger
Every culture has a creation story. Something started this whole thing, and that something is bigger than you or I. Whether you believe a faith-based origin story or not, the result of all of us being here is deserving of respect. And awe.

Most of the research on happiness boils down to having a sense of purpose and belonging. We each need to feel our individual efforts have value and meaning, and also that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. This perspective can run afoul of the American insistence on individualism, on boot-strapping, on doing it yourself. In the words of Irv Grousbeck, co-founder of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, “We have all drunk from wells we have not dug.”

Astronauts in the Apollo program had various personal beliefs about God and how we got here, and appreciated the collective work that was required for what they were doing.  At each step, they called out how this was in every way a team effort. Even if you’re not a space geek like me, it is amazing to contemplate a time when everyone— virtually everyone on Earth—was pointed in the same direction. There was a profound sense of responsibility for what we were doing, and what it would mean for people other than ourselves. Six hundred million people around the world watched men land on the Moon. We knew we were part of something bigger.

There was a continuous refrain throughout the program and its missions that one person doesn’t do this alone. We set aside major differences: despite the Space Race with the Soviets, the astronauts left on the Moon two memorial medals of Soviet cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov and Yuri Gagarin, space pioneers, along with messages from world leaders. They also left a patch from the Apollo 1 mission, which took the lives of three astronauts in a launch pad fire, but from which we learned vital lessons that later allowed three other astronauts to reach the Moon. On the Apollo 11 patch, the flight crew opted for inclusivity over individual recognition and decided not to include their names, so it would “be representative of everyone who had worked toward a lunar landing.”

It’s a rare client who doesn’t have an underlying goal to feel that what they’ve done during their life has been meaningful, and to want to be connected to others.  For me, meaningful work is my reason for being.   It is my preeminent goal, and it is a privilege to be a part of helping someone else live up to their goals for meaning and connection.

No One is Perfect
As a perfectionist myself, I realize how this limits me, but it’s hard to let go when you feel the stakes are high.  To that, I suggest for both of you and I that we let it go: No one is perfect.  But there are work-arounds!

Perhaps the most surprising part of the exhibit for me was not to see Buzz Aldrin’s helmet and gloves from his Apollo 11 moonwalk (which were awesome!), but to see the notes he had written on his glove.  The display included a magnifying glass so you could read the to-do list reminding him of his tasks during the moonwalk.  Note to Self: get a photograph of a boot print on the Moon! Check!

It’s not just you: Even a rocket scientist needs a crib sheet…

Progress We Have Made
One of the things both inspiring and vexing about a look back at the Apollo missions is that there were women and people of color involved in various aspects of the Program, yet many of them we are only hearing about now, fifty years later:
Katherine Goble Johnson was one of the “computers” at NASA behind John Glenn’s Mercury mission, for which she received the Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2015 (and a film credit in Hidden Figures in 2016);
Frances “Poppy” Northcutt was an engineer, the only woman in Mission Control during Apollo 8, and remained a NASA contractor until the early 1970s when she pivoted to become a lawyer; she now describes herself as a “one time rocket scientist, sometime lawyer, full time feminist”;
JoAnn Morgan was an instrumentation controller for Apollo 11 and the only woman in the firing room. She became the first woman to serve as a senior executive at the Kennedy Space Center.

We have had a history not only of discriminating against women and people of color, but also of leaving them out of the sanitized version of history we record. Were it not for the then-recent invention of television prior to Apollo, we might never have known that there was at least one woman in Mission Control and lots of others who helped one man take a “giant leap for mankind.” After seeing her on TV, little girls from around the world sent Northcutt masses of fan letters saying things like “I didn’t know women could work in mission control.”

These women and others were pioneers of space and also here at home. One of the best parts of their stories was how they helped the women coming after them. As role models, but also actively, by serving as advocates in promoting other women for more senior positions and pushing for policy reforms at their companies, such as parental leave. We may be at a point in our history again where women recognize the power of coming together and helping each other.

Fifty years after Apollo, we have made progress. The big lessons for me are those I note above, along with the message that it’s going to take all of us coming together to push for progress here on Earth, whether that is greater diversity in the workplace, pay equity, leave policies for caregiving and retraining, or new endeavors in space. If we can put a man on the Moon…

The Museum of Flight’s Destination Moon exhibit runs through September 2nd.

For more on the ladies of NASA’s early days, you can read more here:
Poppy Northcutt Remembers Apollo 11 (Space.com)
The Women Who Helped Put Men on the Moon (Los Angeles Times)
Five Women Who Made the Moon Landing Possible (The New York Times (tiered subscription)

And you can follow Poppy Northcutt on Twitter: @poppy_northcutt

Read More

A Mother’s Day Wish List

Posted on May 12, 2019 in Family, Women

 

Mom (on the right), Oak Street Beach, Chicago

My mother was a strong and resilient woman, creative and resourceful, quick to help and even quicker to laugh. I adored her.  People often commented that she’d had a hard life, and she always countered that it was full of interesting experiences. I loved the stories she told about her life, but I also wished she’d had it a little easier.

My mother came to the US in 1952 at sixteen. She spoke five languages, none of which was English. Assimilation was high on her list and she quickly absorbed all that was American: Saturday night dances, movies & television, Elvis Presley.

After secretarial school, she lived with (and paid rent to) her parents while she started work at a bank. She met my father and they married in the early 1960s. They then promptly loaded up everything they had into a Ford Galaxy and headed west, settling in the Southern California suburbs. My father worked part-time and started school on the GI bill. I was born two years later, and my brother two years after that.

My mom had loved her job at the bank, as one of three assistants to the bank president. She loved living in a big city. But as a single woman in the 1950s and early 1960s, her life was limited. It was a challenge for a young woman to live on her own, an even a greater challenge to stay single. Once married and without any family nearby in those early years in California, she was on her own to figure out how to run her house and take care of two small children.

Once my brother and I were in school, she went looking for a job. She found one as a part-time bookkeeper for a local dairy. That job provided much-needed additional income to the household, but also much-needed social connection for my mother, and at least one trip for us to the dairy farm itself, complete with fragrant cow pastures and a dog named Fresca.

By now, it was the late 1960s. We’d sent men to the moon, but women could still get fired for getting pregnant, contraception was not widely available, and banks could refuse to extend credit to women. Betty Friedan exposed “the thing that has no name” in 1963, but my mother already knew what it was: it was the albatross of economic dependence, of limiting cultural norms, and the prevailing expectations about mothers and motherhood.

How much easier have we made mothers’ lives today?

Here’s what’s on my Mother’s Day Wish List:

Pay equity: Becoming a mother should not mean you are worth any less as an employee. Neither parenthood nor marital status should determine pay, yet married men are generally paid more than single men (and most women, married or single).

Paid family leave: We make accommodation for employees to address and recover from other medical events; time to properly heal and bond makes mother and baby healthier and most women cannot afford to take unpaid leave to do this. (Note this is family leave, not just maternity or parental leave; women are more likely to take a second round of leave, when they assume caregiving for elderly parents, impacting their earning potential a second time.)

Access to quality child care: Becoming a mother shouldn’t mean you have to choose between your economic independence and parenthood. Fathers do not.

For those who say we can’t afford to move in this direction, the question really is: Can we afford NOT to? We are increasingly competing with countries that do offer these types of support. Consider these tidbits:

Universal basic health coverage could be paid for from the increased taxes owed by corporations on the higher taxable income they would have once they no longer have the tax deduction for health insurance expenses for workers;
Quality child care costs can be subsidized by the taxes that will be owed on the wages of these new working parents; research has shown businesses would benefit from reduced absenteeism and greater employee retention;
An extra bonus: more workers in the paid workforce mean additional payroll taxes to support Social Security and Medicare.

Being a mother can be a priceless experience. But it shouldn’t be a Hunger Games competition. It shouldn’t rob a woman of an equal wage for equal work, or advancement if she doesn’t have funds to pay privately for quality child care.

All of the ideas on my list would have gone a long way to help my mom. She did a great job despite these hurdles, but while we celebrate mothers today, isn’t it time we make it a little easier to be a mom the other 364 days a year?

Happy Mother’s Day.

Read More

A Post-Election Note

Posted on Nov 9, 2016 in Community, Investments, Planning, Tax, Women

Like me, you may have felt that the world would look different this morning (if we even woke up at all) after the results of the presidential election. And yet, the sun rose, the day began, and here we are.

What we know after the election is that our country is seriously divided. As we saw when we elected Barack Obama, we want real change. The trouble as I see it is that the direction in which President Trump will lead us will be more of the same. Right now, markets — and the people who make them up — are orderly. There may come a time when the emotions that drove this election will react negatively to a lack of any real change.

Here are a few thoughts on what comes next:

Economics – We have limited specifics on Trump’s plans for “national growth and renewal” in the economy, but there are echoes of Reaganomics: lower taxes, relaxed regulation, big government spending. If the fiscal stimulus he plans repairs and expands our infrastructure, that’s a plus. Reduced regulation (such as repeal of the new DOL Rule (which requires advisors to your 401k to act in your best interest), repeal of Dodd-Frank (Wall Street reform), repeal of the Affordable Care Act) means you’ll be more on your own to protect your interests.

Taxes – We can expect lower taxes, at least on higher earners. I am doubtful Trump’s plan to bring overseas corporate earnings home; if he is able to do this, that’s again a plus for higher earners. Given the structure of our Federal budget, we can’t grow our way out of a deficit spending situation, so lower taxes means increasing deficits.

The World – We are more connected globally than ever, and building walls and reducing trade is likely to hurt us economically, as well as in our leadership role in the world. Bombastic rhetoric in discussions with other leaders and nations could have dire consequences.

The Rhetoric – The most difficult part of the campaign for me has been the vitriolic, threatening language that stirred up some of the ugliest facets of the American character. As a woman, I feel unheard, less safe and decidedly second-class. But I believe we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge, and we must admit this election cycle has revealed a dark side we have wanted to ignore. How we continue the conversation around these issues and change them is the real challenge.

Markets are mixed this morning, after some strong negative indications overnight. We can expect to see more volatility in the months and years ahead, and increasing economic inequality. What we can do is focus on what we can control: diversifying the risk in portfolios, organizing your accounts for tax diversification and to keep expenses as low as possible, saving more, and when we spend, spending with intent.

The table next to mine at the Election Watch Party I attended last night joked that at least here in California we also passed a recreational marijuana law, which we’ll need all the more after this election. (To be clear: I don’t recommend that as a personal financial strategy.)

In the meantime, we need to continue the conversation, and fighting for what we believe: “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”

Read More

Mad Men. And Surprisingly Not Angry Women.

Posted on May 21, 2015 in Divorce, Uncategorized, Women

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains several spoilers for AMC’s Mad Men series finale.

For several nights last week I was catching up with the rest of you on the trials and travails of Mad Men in time for the series finale. For years I avoided watching the Emmy-award winning show: Who wanted to relive the awful way women were treated in the late 50s/early 60s, especially in an office environment? But a good friend with style and an eye for mid-century design worked in advertising as a copywriter and was a fan of the show. She, along with the hype around the finale, persuaded me to tune in.

Over a four-day marathon, I covered the ten or so years of the series, which coincided with ten of the more tumultuous years of change in the U.S. I was surprised to find I preferred the first few seasons set in the early 1960s: the world just looked better, cleaner, and more orderly than in the later seasons of the early 1970s, with sideburns and tie dye and slightly sloppy clothes (and some would say, sloppy morals).

But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.

These years were just on the edge of my personal history: I was born two weeks before President Kennedy was shot, and as an adult I wondered what my mom must have thought, having only immigrated to the States in 1952 and now with a baby girl, civil unrest and what must have seemed like chaos everywhere. We went from pill box hats to openly pill-popping in a very short time.  We often forget how far we’ve come since.

So we see Mad Men begin with the introduction of a new woman to Madison Avenue: Peggy Olsen. Sincere, ambitious, slightly naïve. I related to Peggy. The other women of the series – Joan (statuesque office manager), Betty (blonde and beautiful wife of Don Draper, former model, now mother of his children) – never settled into the stereotypes they might have. They all struggled with what we now call work/life balance.

But in this era, the choices were few. In one episode the men mock how the young women in a focus group about cold cream only wanted to know if the product would help them find a husband. The reality of the time was that there were few other options: before the 1970s, a woman could be fired if she was pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 changed this), she couldn’t get a credit card without a husband to cosign (changed by the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974), and could be forced to retire at 32 (Pan Am’s requirement for stewardesses, changed by the Civil Rights Act).

At the end of the Mad Men run, the women found contentment we might not have expected. Joan chooses love of career over romantic love, Betty chooses honesty and her education over the image of perfect domesticity, Peggy chooses career – and finds love that fits into that choice. The strength it took for the women to make these choices — and other difficult ones along the way — given the obstacles of their time, was for me the real draw of the series. The women focused on what they really wanted, and went for it, despite the odds. Fairer sex indeed.

Read More

Downton Do’s and Don’ts: What Downton Abbey Can Teach You ABout Financial Planning

Posted on Mar 30, 2014 in Estate Planning, Family, Uncategorized, Women

SPOILER ALERT: If you’re not already watching PBS’ masterpiece series, Downton Abbey, first of all, where have you been? Secondly, you may want to read this after you’re caught up on the travails of the Crawleys and the Granthams through Season Three of the series.

In the wealthy world of Downton Abbey in early twentieth century England, one didn’t discuss money. And gender lines often determined roles in financial management, despite one’s skills, or lack thereof. In the early twenty-first century, one luxury we don’t have is to ignore our personal financial lives, and Downton provides some solid lessons.

1. DON’T Die Without A Will
After surviving war, injury and star-crossed romance, Matthew Crawley finally finds love with Lady Mary Grantham. Tragedy strikes at the end of Season Three when Matthew is killed in a car accident, leaving a widow with a young child. He was 32.

Don’t think it can’t happen to you. I still have young clients who start an estate planning conversation with “ If I die…” The only two things I can say for sure about anyone’s financial plans are that their plans will change, and they will die. No one expects an accident (thus the name) and the time is now to get your affairs in order.

Often it’s a life change (marriage, birth of children) that prompts clients to start the estate planning process. Guardianship of children and taking care of a surviving spouse are classic needs addressed in estate planning, but everyone including single individuals needs to have a plan: to make known your wishes for life-sustaining treatment (or not), management of assets in the event of incapacity, even planning for your pets. Your dependents are depending on you.

Matthew left a witnessed note that was deemed adequate to express his wishes, but without it, English law would have decided the financial fate of his wife, son and estate. Single or married, with children or without, see an estate planning attorney for basic documents (Will, durable powers of attorney for health care and financial matters). If you don’t have an estate plan, the State will have one for you.

2. DO consider your skills realistically
Robert, Lord Grantham, wants to manage all of Downton’s assets now that Matthew is gone. Viewers will recall not one but two incidents in which Robert’s poor money management almost cost the family its ancestral home. The first crisis was averted by his marriage to Cora Crawley and her fortune. Season Two found Downton in financial peril again, after Robert has lost Cora’s fortune through bad investments. It’s Matthew inheritance from ex-fiancée Lavinia Swire that comes to the rescue and Matthew becomes co-owner of Downton.

Season Four opens with Robert’s assumption that despite his history of poor investment choices, he is nonetheless the right person to make financial decisions for Downton, and he talks excitedly about a new investment scheme by this fellow called Ponzi.

Note that the 2013 IRS Schedule A now has a new section (Form 4684) for reporting “Ponzi-type investment losses.” Charles Ponzi was a con artist who in the 1920s swindled clients out of $20 million. Bernie Madoff is our modern-day equivalent.

Why would Robert consider himself a competent money manager, given his history? Because he is head of the household? Because he has a title? Because he is a man? Talent and skill in one area do not necessarily indicate talent and skill in others. You may have skill or interest in personal finance, but do you have the time and discipline to implement what you learn? And to stay current? Ultimately you own financial decisions about your assets. Consider your skill, interest and available time when determining whether to go it alone in managing your finances. Whether you seek help through your own research or through the help of an advisor, don’t let traditional roles or pride deprive you of access to the information you need to make the best decisions for your financial situation. And don’t (like Cora) relinquish all involvement in management of your assets.

3. DON’T Be House-Poor
Downton Abbey consists of a grand country house (the real Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England and its 5,000 acres of grounds) and land, some of which is leased to local tenant farmers. The dilemma of much of the landed gentry is having real estate with high operating costs, but no income-generating assets to support on-going expenses.

Similarly, modern-day families can end up “house-poor”: taking out the highest mortgage possible on a home, keeping the family home in divorce, or maintaining a home with lots of equity but minimal sources of income in retirement, all without regard for the cash flow needed to support the debt and the upkeep on the property. A house-poor situation can leave you with such a large portion of your income going to support your home that you are short of cash for discretionary items, or even other financial obligations.

Downton’s estate agent is working to use empty farmyards as an additional source of income, among other ideas. Turning a house into an income-generator is harder: you can rent out rooms, or take a reverse mortgage. Better still: consider not only the capital cost of an asset (its purchase price), but its on-going operating expenses (mortgage payment, property taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance). Trading a dear family home for a more financially manageable one could be the optimal solution to restore a balance between income needed to support your home and income you can use for other expenses, giving you a financial life that is less cash-constrained and less stressful.

4. DO Take a Place at the Table
Mary Crawley begins Season Four haunting the halls of Downton Abbey, the closest thing you’ll see to a zombie on PBS, grieving the loss of her husband Matthew. Often when parents can barely keep going for themselves, they pull themselves together for their children, but she is so deep in mourning she isn’t even able to engage with her child, George.

But Mary has a mentor. Two actually. Tom Branson, the ex-chauffeur and widower of Lady Sybil, has straddled lives above and below stairs. As estate agent, Tom is responsible for the competent management of Downton. He sees Robert working to take control over the estate after Matthew’s death, and believes Mary’s salvation – personal and financial – lies in finding an interest outside of herself, which he thinks is Downton.

The second mentor, Mr. Carson, master of the house below stairs, has known Mary her whole life. At the urging of Tom, Mr. Carson has a caring but stern talk with Mary about her need to step up for George. Initially Mary rebuffs Mr. Carson, but in time embraces his encouragement literally and figuratively. Both mentors were key to helping Mary reconnect with the things she values.

With Mary unstuck from her grief, she shows up at a gathering of tenant farmers and takes a place at the table. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud. Both mentors and taking a place at the table figured prominently in Sandberg’s book Lean In. Lady Mary doesn’t know all the answers, she knows not everyone (and including some dear to her, like her father) will cheer her involvement, but she knows it is her responsibility to George, to Matthew, and to herself, to try to become the best steward she can of the family’s legacy.

By taking a place at the table, you engage in your financial life. You don’t need to know everything: sometimes you’ll listen, other times you’ll speak. All of us are better served by fully participating in the decisions that affect our lives, and financial decisions are some of the biggest. You aren’t going to have all the answers, but you do need to be part of the discussion.

5. DO consider whether you’d be comfortable above stairs
Assuming you’re not already a member of the landed gentry, you might want to reconsider whether a life upstairs is for you.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to accumulate enough money to leave paid employment. But once you get there, is it enough? Many retirees face the challenge of leaving their identities behind with their jobs, and finding meaningful activities to replace their work. Some of you might be longing for days filled with golf or shopping, but others might be bored with the Grantham-style whirlwind of constant clothing changes and gossip about what other people are doing, while doing little else themselves.

Particularly for the young and freshly financially independent, think about what you’ll do with yourself now that money isn’t the object. If money isn’t the object, what is? Virtually all the research on happiness points towards having a purpose and a connection to others that give us joy in life. Whether you’re from old money or new, or working to get there, taking time to reflect on what really matters to you, and using these values to guide management of your finances is more likely to provide you with a truly rich life.

The early twentieth century was a time of changing roles, changing technology, changing economies. In the early twenty-first century we face similar challenges, and we can tune in to Downton to find lessons that still apply today.

Read More