Money 'n Sanity

The hardest part of your job, most likely, has nothing to do with the complex and creative trusts, tax plans or investment strategies you devise for your clients. It's getting all the members of each family to talk to one another. Go on, I dare you: Try to persuade that crusty patriarch, say, to disclose to the rest of the clan how much of his estate he's leaving to whom -- or even the total size of his holdings. It probably won't happen.

This intergenerational dysfunction around communication and money is something that afflicts many, if not most, families. That unfortunate truth is the inspiration for a new 13-part series on PBS called Money 'n Sanity; the first of which aired on Oct. 14. (The bulk of the show will run in 2008.) The creator is a personal finance expert and author, Nathan Dungan, who runs a Minneapolis-based company aimed, as his material says, at "helping families understand the role money plays in their lives and create healthier approaches to money." To that end, Dungan plans to shape each episode of the television show around the story of one family or individual, each of whom is facing a different money-related challenge. "When people start to see themselves in other stories, it gives them permission to talk about these things in their own lives," he says. "You can break the taboo of generational silence."

The first segment focuses on Michael and Elisa, an upper middle class couple in their early 40s with two children, ages 13 and 8. He's an architect and she's a writer, living in St. Paul, Minn., in a large, comfortable home that Michael designed. We also meet Elisa's father, Sam, and her mother, Arlene; patriarch and matriarch have been divorced since the 1970s.

Turns out, Michael and Elisa, both of whom seem to be exceptionally articulate, earnest people, come from a long line of dysfunctional families suffering from a particularly noxious and secretive approach to money, and they're engaged in an effort to stop the cycle. Sam's father fled anti-Semitism and poverty in early 20th century Russia (his sister starved to death) only to settle in this country and live through the Great Depression. Thanks to those experiences, he became a tightwad extraordinaire. So much so, that when, at age 89 he finally revealed the value of his full estate to Sam, his son was stunned: He'd always assumed they were poor.

Sam, however, inherited the same penny-pinching proclivities, as well as a refusal to discuss money matters directly with his wife or children and a tendency to use the pocketbook as a continual power ploy. His wife got so sick of, for example, having to keep track of every single grocery item she bought and used, she eventually filed for a divorce. At the time of the show's filming, Sam still hadn't divulged to his kids how much money he had (according to Dungan, it's somewhere in the $5 million to $20 million range), made a single official dispersal from his estate, or taken any estate-planning steps whatsoever.

As for Michael, his mother was Sam's mirror image. Born to a wealthy family, she turned into a shopaholic and proceeded to charge up a storm after she got married. Then, after Michael's father started a new business and the family finances took a hit, she left her husband for a more successful former boyfriend. One thing led to another and she wound up with $750,000 in debt. Only after a family intervention did she cut up all her credit cards and face her addiction.

Michael and Elisa are determined to stop the madness. For example, we learn that several years ago, they took the unusual move of going on a "family sabbatical." They saved $35,000 over three years, rented out their house (Sam also gave them $5,000), and spent about a year in a little town in Mexico, painting, writing and escaping from the rat race. They also want to be open with their own children about how to handle money and what it all means. So, we get a glimpse of their teenage daughter reluctantly doing exercises in a workbook about spending and personal finance apparently supplied by Dungan. By the end of the show, we hear Sam, who has been seeing a therapist, talk about how he understands that his obsession with secrecy has caused unnecessary pain and he's determined to reveal the value of his estate to the family next year.

It all seems very hopeful. Trouble is, I'm not entirely sure the viewer learns much in the way of skills they can apply to their own lives. What's more, they might have the reaction my 11-year-old son expressed when he watched the show with me. "The one guy is crazy about keeping all his money and everything, the mother couldn't stop spending and then that family went off to Mexico for a year. What does that have to do with me?" In other words, the story is so extreme, viewers are likely to come away thinking, "Well, I know I don't handle money that well, but at least I'm not as messed up as those people."

On the other hand, at a minimum, there's a good chance some viewers will experience an unsettling twinge of recognition. And that could trigger action. Who knows? Someone could have a real epiphany: "I guess I don't talk to my family very openly about money, and I should do something about it."

Fact is, people don't know how to talk about money; it can cripple their ability to enjoy what they have and pollute their relationships, and the topic isn't one usually dealt with on TV. I've interviewed lots of consultants who work with ultra-affluent families, and they tell me the single most pressing problem their clients have is teaching their children how to handle and manage their wealth, how to become responsible stewards of the family's legacy and not drug-addled brats who blow their inheritance in a cloud of cocaine. There's even a cottage industry providing workshops and other services aimed at imparting these lessons to the progeny of the rich.

But, what the series aims to show is that this isn't only a problem for the fabulously wealthy. It's something that afflicts just about everyone in this country. I can recall, as a child, growing up in an atmosphere of perpetual panic about money, the 800-pound gorilla constantly in the room that was never, ever acknowledged by my parents. It's likely your own childhood was haunted by another form of dysfunctional finance-related communication. For that reason, the show is worth seeing. I'm certainly looking forward to viewing the next installment. Maybe you should consider recommending that some of your clients see it too.

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