What's Your Relationship with Wealth? For Many, It’s Complicated

Written By

David Bokman

Head of Family Office Resources

Elizabeth Chand

Head of Family Office Resources Generalists

Before engaging in family wealth-planning conversations, you may want to examine your own feelings and attitudes about wealth. Here are some questions you can ask yourself.

If they are going to be successful, family conversations about wealth often require us to engage in deep, introspective analysis to understand our own personal values and opinions, as well as what drives and motivates us. Once we identify what matters to us individually, we must take it to the next level and work to reconcile our views with others in our family. It is that work and a sense of shared purpose and values that help us arrive at a consensus and identify a family mission.

A Different Way to Think About Wealth

Typically, family members report that it is much easier to articulate their individual views than it is to find consensus. In our experience, however, family governance planning is most successful when each family member spends as much, if not more, time diving deeply into their own personal relationship with wealth as they spend discussing it in a group setting.

“Relationship with wealth?” you might ask. “What does that even mean? Money is just a medium of exchange. I have relationships with people.” But suppose you think of your relationship with wealth as the values and attitudes you have developed over time as the result of your unique personality and life experiences. How would you describe those values and attitudes? That may be a more subtle question—with more complex answers—than you assume.

It may make sense to approach family wealth conversations only after thoroughly examining your own relationship with wealth.

A Matter of Circumstance

Like any relationship, your own attitudes about wealth can look very different depending on the circumstance. For example, you may focus on economic details when purchasing real estate but a broader list of criteria when giving to charity. Similarly, your approach to wealth when you are collaborating with your spouse can be very different than when you are making collective decisions with your children. And your opinions will almost certainly evolve over time.

Keep in mind that wealth can evoke strong positive and negative emotions—and that’s not a bad thing. After all, our emotions can relay useful information about our core beliefs, fears and personal history.

When your emotions have something to say, try to let yourself feel whatever it is you’re feeling rather than suppressing it. Then you can translate those emotions into words and consider whether they’re based on relevant experiences and knowledge or other influences.

Additionally, some of our emotions and opinions about wealth may be based on assumptions, which can be explicit or unconscious. There can be a lot of baggage. So when you think more deeply about your relationship with wealth, the most honest description is usually “It’s complicated.”

A Starter Path for Growth

For all these reasons, it may make sense to approach family wealth planning conversations only after first performing a more thorough examination of your relationship with wealth than most of us routinely do. After all, wealth can be a challenging topic to discuss, even with ourselves.

How do you do that? Of course, that is a question only you can answer for yourself. Nonetheless, having worked with many families on these issues, we have several suggested questions you might ask yourself. Regardless of your specific answers, the exercise can improve the odds that you will come to family wealth conversations with a more nuanced sense of how to best contribute.

Some of these questions may be challenging. If so, they are only intended to help you see what emotions and assumptions might lie beneath your opinions.

  1. Does my wealth make a statement about me? If so, what image do I feel my wealth conveys to others? Is it positive? For example, am I seen as a generous person who helps others feel good and improves their lives? Am I a successful person who makes an impact and leaves a lasting legacy? Am I seen as a uniquely talented, creative or interesting person? Something else?

    On the other hand, do I have any concerns that my wealth causes others to view me negatively? If so, what specific messages do I worry that my wealth might convey? Do I harbor any negative judgments about wealthy people? Do I feel any guilt or shame about being wealthy? If so, when did these feelings start and where do they come from? Are my decisions motivated by a desire to avoid criticism from others? Does my wealth make me feel lonely and/or isolated?

  2. Does having wealth provide me with a sense of security? If so, what does security mean to me? Is it a sense of safety? Privacy? Self-reliance? Financial stability and a feeling of being a responsible contributor to my family and community? Opportunities for adventure and variety in my life experiences? Something else?

    On the other hand, does my wealth create feelings of unease or insecurity? Do I have any fear that I might poorly manage my wealth, or otherwise lose it? Do I feel unsure that I can transfer my wealth to my family in ways that help, rather than damage, my children and grandchildren?

  3. What is my relationship with the respect and power that often accompany wealth? Do I like that wealth helps me control my own destiny, lead others and protect those who are important to me? Am I more focused on the fact that money helps me avoid undesirable work, unpleasant conflicts or burdensome commitments? Or do I enjoy wealth as a means to improve myself, people close to me, my community and even broader society? Or is it something else?

    On the other hand, does my wealth sometimes leave me feeling vulnerable? Do I question the motives of some who interact with me? Do I feel overwhelmed by the decisions that my wealth requires me to make? Do I feel controlled by others with whom I share ownership of family businesses or charitable enterprises? Or do others express that they are uncomfortable by the extent to which I try to control them?

These are just examples of questions that can provoke helpful self-examination. You might also focus on messages you received about wealth as a child and the extent to which you adopted or rejected those messages. Consider also how your attitudes and values about wealth differ from those of your spouse and children. When making group decisions, are you more prone to bend to the opinions of others in your family, or bend others to your views?

Once you have conducted thoughtful self-reflection about your relationship and emotions tied to wealth, it is time to engage the rest of the family to see what they discovered. Do common themes emerge? Is there a sense of shared mission and purpose? If not, can you all imagine one and begin to work toward it? It is through thoughtful engagement with oneself and family that a truly meaningful sense of purpose, mission and legacy can emerge.

This article appears in Insights & Outcomes, a magazine from Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management providing industry insights, analysis and thinking from our Firm’s leading specialists.


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