It’s Hard to Talk about Money

Next generation heirs are not well-prepared to handle the financial and emotional responsibilities of wealth.

Why is it so hard to talk about money?

Productive values and actions with wealth start with learning how to talk about money.  There is widespread fear, particularly with affluent and high net worth clients, that children will spend beyond their means because they will grow up naïve about the value of money and the effort required to earn it.[1]  The fear of senior generations is that descendants will squander their wealth, leaving little or nothing for future generations.

The story of the failing family fortune has been told so often that it is a cultural proverb – “Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves.”  Jay Hughes proposes this non-productive cycle can be broken by practicing successful wealth preservation. In Family Wealth: Keeping it in the Family, Mr. Hughes encourages families to think out one hundred years into the future in order to preserve the family wealth.[2] This seems like an incredibly long time, but it gives families a format to talk about their wealth, what they want to do with it, and how future generations can preserve their wealth.

Why don’t people talk about money?

Money is a very private matter and is freighted with emotion. “I don’t want others to know how much or how little we have.” “We’ve been taught that it is not polite to talk about money.”  “Talking about money creates arguments in our family.”  “I worry about what others will do with the information.”  “I don’t know what to say when my children ask the tough money questions.”  “I’m embarrassed that I’ve not done a good job with my money.”  “If the kids know how much they will get, they might get lazy and not get a “real” job.”

But, not talking about money can create suspicion and distrust.  Fear of conflict drives some families to withhold information about their estate plans which could result in their wishes not being met.

How do you start?

Using a facilitator levels the playing field. A family meeting devoted to a discussion about wealth includes identifying money attitudes and behaviors.  These are not likely to be familiar topics of conversation, but are important because they help families decide what their values are and what is important to them.   There are many questions that can get families started.  Explore the family tree for stories about the family wealth, how it was created and by whom.  What difficulties do various generations have to overcome? What were the founders’ visions, values and important messages? It is important to cover a range of topics including goals, fears, worries, behaviors with money, relationships, burdens, stresses, expectations, etc…

It’s not easy being wealthy. Families work hard to protect and preserve their wealth.  They want to know how to do it right, protect their investments, handle inheritance, train heirs to be responsible, be successful in their work, have relationships and be happy and productive. It takes hard work to manage money and communicate well.  Both are necessary for success.

The best way for families to succeed in preserving the family legacy and wealth is to learn how to talk about their wealth: what it means to them, what they want it to do and how they can be a resource to each other.


[1] See, Why Clients Don’t Stick with the Plan: Emotional Barriers About Money and How Advisors Can Help, by Marty Carter, Journal of Financial Planning. August 2006.

[2] See, Family Wealth-Keeping It in the Family, Hughes, by James E. Hughes Jr., Bloomberg Press 2004.

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I am grateful for being taught how to think, reflect and openly share with my family in a way that I simply was unable to do in the past.