There’s a Mahjong saying that goes something like this: “The most important choice is to choose to choose.” If bridge is your game, “a pass is a bid” says the same thing. The fact is, no matter what you’re playing—Majong, Bridge, or the “game of life”—whether you realize it or not, you’re always making choices. Even if you “choose not to choose.”
In my work, I see examples of people failing to make choices every day. As an outsider looking in, I get a unique perspective, and I can see that most of these non-decisions are rooted in the roles people have taken on for themselves—in a family, as part of a couple, or as part of society as a whole. Years ago I read Harriet Lerner’s excellent book Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships that examines roles and patterns not just in romantic relationships, but in families and society as well. That understanding helped me realize why I made some of my own choices—even when I didn’t realize I had a choice at all.
When my husband Ed was disabled from his stroke, I became his caregiver. To me, there was never a question of whether or not I would do this. It was a given. It was part of my value system. It was written into my DNA. Years later, I remember someone asking me why I made the choice to take that role—to care for him at the expense of my own social life and, some might say, my life as a whole. It was difficult for me to even digest the question. What “choice”? At the time, I didn’t feel there was a choice to be made. I just did what I had to do. And yet, in retrospect, I now realize it was a choice—and an important one at that.
Would I have made a different decision if I’d realized I had an actual choice at the time? I don’t believe so. And yet there are so many other decisions we make every day that may go in a different direction if we’re able to step back to consider our options, analyze the potential outcomes, and make the best possible choice for us at the time. This is particularly important when it comes to money.
Last week, I met with my clients Barbara and Rob. They’re in their early 50s with three kids—one in college and two in high school. Rob just got laid off, and while they have a solid savings in place, they’re concerned about making it last as long as possible to cover Rob’s job search.
As we talked through their concerns, college costs were an obvious piece of the puzzle. But when we started talking about the possibility of telling their kids they could only cover a portion of the expense with money in their 529 Plans, Barbara was adamant: “Absolutely not an option! We’ve always told them we’d pay for college. We can’t back out now.”
She was clearly upset, and I can’t blame her. As mothers, it’s our instinct to protect our children—to help them be happy at all costs—even to our own detriment. We mothers can’t seem to help ourselves:
- My client MaryAnn told me her mortgage would have been paid off by now, but she “had to” help out her 40-year-old son and his family financially. At 66, she’d like to retire, but she still owes nearly $300K on her mortgage.
- Frances, a recent widow, has a drug-addicted daughter who wants to come live with mom to “help” her out now that dad is gone. Letting her daughter move in to her home would challenge her emotionally and financially, but even with the support and guidance she’s found at Al-Anon, she can’t get herself to say no.
- At 70, Rachel wants to know if she should buy life insurance to be sure her 50-year-old daughter is taken care of after she dies.
The list goes on…and on. Children and money and mothers. Someone once said, “Mothers are only as happy as our least happy child.” (How true!) But I see it present big money problems, all because of our maternal “money rules.”
As women, it’s particularly important that we identify these rules we’ve created for ourselves and make changes to find balance in our financial lives—and to make active financial choices based on our current reality. But change is hard, especially when it comes to money. It’s so much easier to pretend your husband really can balance the checkbook. Or that you can’t understand money or investing. Or that your adult child really can’t cope without your help. Or even that you’ll win the lottery tomorrow. That’s why, for so many, change never happens.
My challenge to you is to start making changes today, no matter how scary it feels. A great first step is to find someone to talk to about your financial decisions—a confidante with an objective point of view who can take two steps back and help you see the choices you’re making. And if talking about money feels like a scary change in itself, remember that, for most of us, money is a very private issue. But that third-party perspective is often vital to helping us change our old patterns for the better.
Sue Alpert’s book Driving Solo: Dealing With Grief and the Business of Financial Survival is about her challenges in changing her own “money rules” when she was widowed. One of her important pieces of advice: “get a team.” I couldn’t agree more. Whether you’re driving solo at this point in your life or not, I encourage you to build your own team. Find that trusted confidante and start making active choices about your money today. “Choose to choose.”