College Admissions Counselor: “You don’t have enough money.”
Father of incoming Freshman daughter, Alex: “It says right here we have $401,000. You missed it!”
Mother of Alex: “Jackpot!”
Counselor: “Uh, that says you have a 401k account.”
Later at home
Mother: “Alex thinks we can afford tuition and we can’t. What are we going to do?”
Father: “We’ve got to lie. That’s what parents do. Because otherwise the kids are going to realize that we don’t know what we’re doing!”
These few exchanges give the basis for the plot of the soon to be released, The House, starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler in the parental roles mentioned above. The story continues as the parents, desperate to come up with tuition for their daughter, start a fairly substantial gambling operation out of a private home in the hopes of raising the funds in a month.
The movie won’t hit theaters until late June, but as a connoisseur of Mr. Ferrell and Ms. Poehler’s work, I can safely assume some level of hilarity ensues. Watching the trailer provides a good enough sense of what’s in store.
What has jumped out at me since seeing these clips is how emblematic it is of the more widespread issues around family, friends, communication and money we tend to see in this business.
Adult children in need of regular support. Parents of adult children in need. Helping a sibling, cousin or close family friend. These are just some of the examples we see that can lead to well-intentioned people doing financial harm to themselves or loved ones because of a lack of willingness to communicate, set expectations or evaluate how their assistance impacts the long-term plans of themselves or the ones they’re trying to help.
We could spend dozens of blog posts on each of the underlying psychological causes and biases for this. But captured in just a few comedic lines of script above are illustrations of willful ignorance, blame games, avoidance and deception just to name a few.
Money is a powerful tool that can drive our behavior for better or worse. Financial planning is at its best when it helps us drive that behavior towards using our financial tools for the things that are most important to us and in a construct that doesn’t force us to make panicked unfocused decisions.
Most of these things aren’t as dramatic as trying to fund college overnight, but many of us carry nagging financial questions or concerns we struggle to discuss, even with a trusted advisor. But, if we can find a way to get a little more vulnerable in exploring those issues when they first arise rather than when they reach a boiling point, we’d be all the better for doing so.
If Alex’s parents would’ve started these conversations earlier, they might have been able to make slight savings adjustments to reach their goal. If they had started conversations with their daughter around expectations, all might have been better prepared. Even in the moment of crisis, if they might have sought advice on how best to balance student debt, cutting back to maximize cash flow, etc. they could have avoided the extreme risk they ultimately decide to take in attempting to shortcut their problems.
Sure, it doesn’t make for much of a movie plot. But in our real lives with our real families, I think we can agree it’s best to save the drama for the silver screen.