Eve was curled in the big white armchair. Michael and Judy were snuggled on one of the sofas. Rick and Daniel loafed on the other, and I burrowed into the beanbag. We were in a loose circle around the coffee table, the curtains open to allow views of serene Tambourine Bay.
You could not have imagined a more relaxed, comfortable scene.
But you would have had it wrong. Underlying the casual demeanour, the tension in the air was palpable. What little conversation we had was punctuated by coughing and clearing of throats, with voices pitched a tone or two higher than usual. Feet tapped restlessly and fingers drummed. I was as nervous as I’d been in a good while.
It had begun over dinner a few nights ago, when I had suggested it might be a good thing to share details of our financial situations. Fortified by a glass of wine, I had talked about how if we were going to be entering into what was potentially a lifelong partnership with each other, spending significant amounts of money together on our property and future home, it made sense to know where we all stood. I mean, I’d said to the group, you wouldn’t enter into a marriage without understanding your partner’s financial position, and communal living wasn’t so much different.
It was all very logical. So, after dinner that evening, we had decided to set a time to bare all and share all. We’d tell the story of our assets and liabilities in the context of our expected retirement and future earning capacity. This coming weekend, we’d talk about the money.
* * *
A couple of years previously, I had taken a phone call from a friend, Sue. Her husband Ken was a good friend of Rick’s, and the two of them had shared many a coffee and breakfast over the years as they discussed life, wives, cars and money. In these conversations Ken had often shared with Rick the dream he and Sue had of buying an off-road caravan and becoming perpetual travellers. But who knew, he said, how long they would need to work before they could afford to do that?
Sue was the one who had eventually swung into action. She rang and suggested that we might form a little research group – semi-social, semi-serious – to work together to get clear about our retirement options: how much we have versus how much we need. We would research superannuation legislation and how it might impact us; we’d study up the actuarial statistics; we’d do the inflation calculations. We would figure out when (if?) we could retire, and have a few good dinners together along the way.
Other than the “good dinners” part, my reaction was mostly dread. Our financial situation seemed like an amorphous cloud of “maybe” and “what if”. I wondered if it was even possible to get certainty in this area, fearing that perhaps Rick and I would be better off spending the time keeping our noses to the grindstone and hoping for the best.
Nevertheless we couldn’t deny it was a smart thing to do, so Rick and I agreed to be part of the research team. Sue ultimately succeeded in drawing together six friends to participate in the project, and over the intervening two years we had had many a glass of wine, frequent dinners and even a few splendid weekends away.
More significantly, we had gained a thorough understanding of superannuation legislation, and made some informed decisions about how best to take advantage of it; for example, I’d begun “salary sacrificing” most of my income into our superannuation fund, saving an amazing amount of tax in the process. We had come to an exact understanding of our assets and liabilities, and had worked out what we were spending annually. We’d studied actuarial tables and created a spreadsheet which showed us how much money we were going to need before we stopped working, given such-and-such annual spending and such-and-such length of life. We’d done our income projections, resulting in clear best- and worst-case scenarios after assessing the likelihood of earnings, bonuses and pay-outs. And from all of this scrutiny, we had all created an optimum date on which we could stop working for a living. We called it the FLAFF project – “Footloose and Fancy Free”.
By the end of the undertaking, I had a good picture of when in the future Rick and I could be footloose, and in the present found myself considerably more fancy free. It had taken some time and effort, but I now knew exactly where I was in the world. As a result, I slept better at night.
* * *
So – back to drumming fingers and tapping toes as we awaited the start time for our show-me-the-money meeting.
On a logical level, I was certain this discussion was the right thing to do. I was confident of our figures and knew from having done the FLAFF project how important it was that we were clear about everyone else’s situation as well.
On a more personal level, I wasn’t so comfortable. I had a concern Rick and I might be financially lagging behind everybody else, unable to quite keep up with the quality of life and the amount of spending of the others. What if we were the dragging axle on the cart?
Also, I’d come from a family background where money was never talked about. When my father died a few years previously, my mother had taken me into her confidence and shared everything about her finances. Before that, I’d had no clue. There wouldn’t have been a soul on the planet who did; I doubt even their accountant knew with any accuracy what their overall situation was. It felt just plain wrong to talk with anyone other than Rick about our money.
And yet here we were, gathered in the lounge room for our meeting, folders in hand and concern written on our faces. The clock ticked over to 2:00 p.m.
Daniel cleared his throat. “Before we start,” he said, “I’d like to say I’m feeling very nervous about this. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but I am saying I’m uncomfortable. Eve and I have never talked before with friends about our finances. Plus I’m feeling like we could look bad. I guess it’s something I’m covertly competitive about. I’ve never been interested in earning a lot of money, but now I’m embarrassed we’ll look incompetent in front of you all.” He glanced quickly around the room before looking down at his twiddling thumbs.
The effect of Daniel’s words on the room was immediate: he had spoken for all of us. The worry lines on the faces I was looking at disappeared; there was much nodding and me-tooing and all of a sudden we were ready to start sharing about money.
Rick and I went first. We drew out our spreadsheets and detailed our assets and liabilities. We summed up with our overall current financial position. We then talked about what we expected to earn over the next couple of years, at which time we hoped to stop working day to day. I speculated about my anticipated bonuses and what they would do to the picture. We finished with a quick summary of what we had now and what we expected to have in two years when we’d be ready to start building our communal house.
It felt okay. I’d survived. It might be embarrassing after I heard what the others had wrought in their own lives, but at least it was all out on the table.
“Well, it’s a bit uncomfortable to go after that,” Judy said, and I thought, maybe we’re not going to look so bad after all. “Here’s how ours looks.” She and Michael went on to paint their own picture. Where our money was largely in cash, theirs was mostly in the inner city house they were currently renting out. Like us, they were counting on some future earnings. And the bottom line figures and estimates came out not so different from our own. How about that?
That left Eve and Daniel. Eve had recently sold her yoga studio and Daniel was well into the process of trying to find someone to buy him out of his company. So how was this going to translate into their financial position?
They talked about their savings, about their stock portfolio and about the value of the software business. They talked about how the sale of the business could go, and about ways in which they could keep generating revenue long into the future. They too painted a full and straightforward picture of their finances.
In the end, it was a strange little miracle. We all had similar amounts of current assets. We had similar projections about what we’d be earning pre-retirement. And we had similar hopes about what might happen if some or all of our chickens came home to roost.
We were on the same page. There were neither tall poppies nor drongos among us.
Just as important, we all looked prosperous enough to be able to build a house together. There was enough money around the table for our dream to be fulfilled. Our project could begin.
I felt a flutter of relief and of anticipation, and a strong sense of something else that might even have been pride. After all those years working with Sue and our other FLAFF friends on our finances and on planning for retirement, the vision Rick and I had created was within reach. We had opened up a new possibility and we had contributed it to our housemates.
For the Shedders, something even more significant was released out of this meeting.
Like it or not, some part of us is inclined to measure our worth by our balance sheet. It is unusual – and confronting – to put that on the table and allow others to also judge our life’s worth. That’s what we had done today: we had been vulnerable with one another, laying ourselves open to assessment.
The six of us had something a bit unusual in common: we had all started and run our own businesses. Michael and Judy had owned a business in marketing and public relations, and Michael was currently a partner in a leadership training business. Rick and I had run a corporate training centre. Eve had run a yoga studio. Daniel was a partner in a software development business.
In taking on these enterprises, we had declared to the world we had something valuable to offer, and had put our egos on the line as well as our finances. We had all experienced good times and bad in our pursuit of our passions – and of a living. And through it all we were raising children, trying to balance the demands of our businesses and careers with the ever-increasing expenses associated with offspring.
Many would say the measure of success with these critical aspects of life is our balance sheet. Though none of us would have agreed, that judgement was a ghost in the room with us.
As partners, we’d jumped another hurdle: we had found enough trust to tell each other one of the most intimate parts of ourselves. In doing that, we’d gained a new respect for what all of us had taken on and accomplished in life.
I think we loved each other more from that brave moment on.