“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.”
Uncertainty seems to have become a theme in our lives, especially during the last few years: uncertainty around the pandemic and what the future will look like. Fortunately, people have an incredible ability to adapt to new realities and accept the unknown. Some uncertainties, however, feel as though they bring us to a standstill. Money can be one of those showstopping ambiguities. We all need it and use it every day, yet money is often cited as one of the most uncomfortable things to talk about. When you add family wealth and dynamics into the mix, the complexities of money, specifically those complexities caused by not talking about it, only grow. It can loom in our minds like the “elephant in the room” — we know it’s there and we know we should be paying attention to it, but we continue on as if it doesn’t exist.
I was speaking with a young adult one day about her family’s wealth. I asked what her parents had shared about the wealth and immediately noticed a shift in her energy. “Nothing. They haven’t told me a thing,” she responded. “I know we have a nice house, take nice trips, but as far as actual numbers, I have no clue. I feel awkward asking, and I’m worried they don’t trust me enough to tell me anyway.” She felt hurt by this perceived lack of trust, which was far from the real reason her parents were keeping quiet about money. She also felt somewhat directionless, given the looming ambiguity about her future and the family finances that may or may not be coming her way. She didn’t know how to make decisions for herself without knowing all of the information. Should she continue on her current career path—a well-paid profession but not one she was particularly passionate about? Would her parents be open to supporting her financially if she chose a lesser-paid career?
Having recently spoken with her parents, I knew that the reason they were so secretive stemmed from their desire to protect their daughter. They were incredibly proud of the path she had carved for herself — an aspiring lawyer in her second year of law school — and didn’t want anything, especially the family money, to knock her off course.
We hear this sentiment all the time. Parents love their kids just the way they are and are afraid of anything that might change them. And to be sure, significant wealth can be life-changing and has the potential to impact us positively and negatively. While young people cannot control what their parents choose to share or not share, they can choose to ask questions and connect with their parents in a constructive way.
- Ask questions and be upfront about what’s driving them. Many of the young adult clients that I work with are curious about the family wealth but hesitate to ask anything for fear of sounding spoiled or entitled. While I understand the sentiment, sometimes not asking, and the ambiguity that follows, ends up causing more stress down the line. With the client I mentioned before, her career path was tethered to the family wealth into which she had no insight. She wanted to know more so that she could make the most informed decision about her career path: continue towards the high-paying, high-stress role or shift into a lesser paying but equally noble career she truly cared about. Sharing her “why” would have gone a long way with her parents, and while they still might not have been fully transparent about the family’s wealth, they would have been able to show their support for one of her options and provide additional insights or considerations for her choice.
- Think about your framing. There’s a difference between asking, “How much money am I getting?” versus, “I’ve been thinking about my future and want to start planning for it. Is the wealth that you have created going to impact me at some point? How should I be preparing for it?” Being thoughtful and intentional about how you ask questions can go a long way in opening the door for meaningful conversations.
- Cut your parents some slack. While many of us like to think of our parents as having it all together, the truth is — they are human. Often, parents are trying to figure out what wealth means for them and what they will do with it. This can be a complicated, time-intensive process. They are likely unable to answer your questions when they don’t yet know the answers themselves. If your parents seem evasive when it comes to money, assume positive intent, and give them time to consider your questions and ideas before expecting a response.
Be open about what is on your mind. Come with questions, but also empathy and curiosity to learn from their experiences and perspectives.
Questions to spur action
What questions do you have for your parents or broader family? What is driving your questions? How might you frame your questions to open up a productive conversation?
The Cresset Family Governance and Education team can help you think through these questions and more. Contact us below.