What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Money

There's only been one topic of conversation that has ever been off limits in our house — the inheritance

Photograph by Getty Images/Imagezoo

The thing that I most admire about my 90-year-old mother-in-law Margaret is her dead-on Midwestern honesty. You always know where the woman stands because she is not afraid to tell you, and because her verbal skills are unmatched by anyone, with the possible exception of her only child — my husband Rob. The three of us can talk about any thing at any time and in any place.

With one exception: the inheritance. On this topic, we haven’t uttered a solitary word in the 35 years since we became kin. Likely, we never will.

Lately, this strikes me as just a little bit odd, considering the not-so-terrific economic reality that my husband and I now face. Rob hasn’t worked full time since being downsized more than five years ago, and my own earnings are off by more than 30 percent. In our late 50s, my high school sweetheart and I find ourselves not amassing additional wealth for retirement but, rather, attempting to preserve the savings that we already have as best we can.

The thing is, it’s almost impossible to imagine these savings will be enough to support the modestly comfortable lifestyle that we both had envisioned for ourselves. And don’t take my word for it. Every “retirement worksheet” that we’ve ever downloaded off the Web tells us so, and the people who create those worksheets are a lot smarter about money than we are.

What’s happened to us, in a nutshell, is this: The economic meltdown basically ruined the entire final decade or so of wage earnings that Rob and I had planned on accumulating before retirement. My husband, who’s now 59, was earning around $90,000 when he got laid off; this year he’ll be lucky to scratch together $25,000. I used to bring in around $70,000, but now I’m more in the $50,000 range. Over a decade, that’s a minimum of $850,000 in lost wages, more when you factor in raises, bonuses and earnings on the monies that we would have saved or invested over that period.

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A lot of money experts say that you need to accumulate savings of eight times your last year’s annual salary in order to retire in a way that suits your lifestyle. At the pre-crash $160,000 combined annual wages my husband and I were clocking, that would amount to around $1.3 million. Our savings are barely half that, and considering the job prospects for people our age, we aren’t counting on that number to go up; if anything, it could go down. Easily.

And so suddenly — unbelievably — the money that Margaret will leave her son when she passes could prove critical to our future. I know this. Rob knows this. Margaret knows this. And still we find no words.

I know that there are a lot of couples out there in far worse shape than we are. Many Boomers face a dark financial future, due to late-career job losses and early “retirements,” and for a lot of them, “wealth transfers” from a parent could be the difference between living comfortably and not so. Which brings us to another not-so-terrific reality: There is a lot less wealth to go around. At one time, Boomers stood to inherit $41 trillion from their parents, or so we were told. That number has cratered to well under $12 trillion.

RELATED: Why Women Should Be Talking to Other Women About Money

Honest to God, Rob and I had never given his parents’ money any thought whatsoever. We’ve both always worked and earned decent wages, never had any kids to support or to put through school — and always used to think that we had the whole retirement thing pretty well figured out. Besides, Rob’s parents were never what you’d call wealthy. Stan, Rob’s father, was a college professor at a state university; Margaret made a good but not great living as a part-time caterer.

It wasn’t until only recently that Rob and I actually spoke aloud about his mother’s estate and the possible impact that it might have on us. He’d just gotten off the phone with an old colleague who had discovered him on LinkedIn. Rob had managed to convince himself that the younger man had a substantial job offer to discuss, and that that was his reason for reaching out. But all the man wanted was to chat, and to see if Rob could help him find another (younger) colleague he’d also lost track of.

After getting off the phone, Rob walked over to his desk and began quietly opening the mail, which these days is rarely anything other than bills that need paying.

“I guess we’ll be all right,” my husband said and sighed in a way that I was not familiar with. “Mom and Dad’s house has gotta be worth two, maybe three hundred. And they were good savers, so …”

My husband is a proud man who loves his mother dearly, and this is one of the reasons that I love him so very much. I am certain that hearing these words coming from his own mouth hurt him deeply, so I remained silent.

And we haven’t spoken of it again since.


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