How to ensure your financial life reflects your values and leaves the legacy you intend.

We’ve had a special visitor come to our house recently. Every few months (twice this past month), my daughter will wake to a crisp $5 bill (thanks, inflation) under her pillow in place of a tooth she lost the day before. We’ve tried to uncover said visitor, even going so far to set up a night-vision camera last time to catch them in action. Alas, “the dog” knocked it down before recording any evidence (though the video of the dog knocking the camera down was well worth the effort!). Aside from this amusement, one of the things I have enjoyed about these visits is seeing how my daughter’s attitude towards money is evolving. She is, for the first time, figuring out what to do with her money. And as I watch her and wonder how long I can keep up this Tooth Fairy charade, I realize what to do with our money is a question we should all revisit over time.

On the surface, what to do with money may seem like a trivial question with a few very obvious answers. To survive. To pay for food and shelter. To save so that we can retire one day. But each of those broad answers comes with their own set of nuances – your sister may prefer to only dine at Michelin-star restaurants, live in a multi-million-dollar home in the suburbs, and plan to take monthly cruises in retirement, but perhaps your ideal living looks more like a DoorDash’d meal, a small flat in the city, and spending time with your grandkids in retirement. The specific “right” answer for what to do with your money will always be different for each and every person, and this is especially true when trying to figure out how to leave a legacy with your assets.

Prioritize You

As alluded to above, we all live life at our own pace and there is rarely one right magical formula for how to spend our funds, despite many clients asking for one! As I walk through the financial planning process with clients, a common question I get is whether they are spending the “right” amount in certain categories – is their “dining out” budget too big or is their “travel” one too small? The truth is, the right answer is the one that is aligned with your values. However, we don’t always take the time to pause and think about whether our spending is, in fact, aligned with those values. So, before spending too much time pondering the long-term legacy you leave, it is important to ensure the current legacy you are living is the right one for you. It can be easiest to start thinking about these in terms of some high-level priorities you may want to set, e.g., leisure, travel, home, giving, family, health, etc. Once you have these in order, ask yourself what “ideal” spending would look like in each of those priorities. How would you spend the leisure funds? What kind of travel do you want to do? Who are the important people or organizations you want to give to? This process helps uncover the values that are important to you, as generally the bigger the ideal spending the more important the value. Of course, the final step here is to ensure that your current spending is aligned with these values, so it can be helpful to look at your past spending over time to make sure the actual spending aligns with your stated “ideal.” If you’re not sure how to do this, your Portfolio Counselor will be able to point you towards some tools and resources to get this process started.

Incorporate Your Family

Ensuring your current spending is aligned with your values helps set a stable foundation and clear path for your legacy that will resonate with your family as you bring them into the mix and ultimately make your wishes readily apparent. It is important to recognize, though, that legacy planning isn’t just about the ultimate end-all-be-all financial legacy you leave at the end of your life. We all start small, and our lives are made up of multiple stages. The first legacy we leave might be the lessons we teach our kids about spending, either explicitly as we debate how best to spend Tooth Fairy money or implicitly as they watch how we spend our money. As kids grow older, I believe it imperative we begin to incorporate discussions about how we value the different life priorities discussed above with adult children (which is why it’s important we have our own values squared away first!).

I’ll never forget a Harvard “Family, Finance, Philanthropy” Alumni event a few years ago in Denver where the Director of Planned Giving asked how many of the attendees have had a financial planning conversation with their adult children. Only 3 people out of perhaps 150 attendees raised their hands. While I recognize the ulterior motive in the question posed to this group, the follow-up response remains relevant to all: how can we expect our legacy to be lived out if we don’t include others in our planning conversations? As with everything, incorporating our family into our legacy planning will look different for everyone, and I’d like to stress that doing this does not even need to incorporate any concrete numbers if that isn’t what is comfortable for your family. To me, the crux of the issue are the values, stories, and potentially even family history behind the values that matter in that legacy. As Aristotle said, “Wealth is not the good we are seeking, since it is merely useful for some other end.” Leaving a legacy goes beyond the numbers. How will you leave yours? And again, if you’d like some additional guidance on how to go through this process, make sure to reach out to your Portfolio Counselor!