Rob and Susan Richards1 grew up in families that talked about money, "but only in the sense that it was in short commodity," Susan says. "We came from very middle-class families. We were always trying to conserve money, and we were raised to feel money wasn't something you discussed in polite society."
Those childhood lessons are deeply engrained for the couple, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We're still careful not to spend money foolishly, but unfortunately, we also have been reluctant to talk about money, even with our children—Zach, Cameron and Grace, who are now ages 28, 26 and 19," says Susan, 60.
That hesitancy is gradually shifting, thanks to a 45-minute family mapping exercise the couple and their children recently engaged in with a Fidelity financial professional.
"We assumed that since we never talk about money to them, our kids never think about it, or were unaware of the issues that Susan and I face," Rob, 59, says. "The mapping session was an eye opener. I couldn't believe how much they really think about money."
See how the family mapping process works
A visual snapshot of your money and relationships
"The family mapping process is a great way to bring the family's financial picture into focus and see the connections between the people, planning intentions, and outcomes," says Tobias Donath, vice president, Center for Family Engagement at Fidelity.
The centerpiece of the interactive exercise is a large white board where the Richards' financial professional drew their map. It denoted family members and financial obligations, with the present and future connected to show how they're entwined.
To begin, images of Rob and Susan were drawn at the center of the board, and then their three children. Characteristics that inform their Family Wealth System were added, including the children's life stages, and considerations around gifting, vacations, and estate planning. According to Donath, a typical mapping session can include siblings, parents, charitable organizations, and any other important participants and monetary commitments impacted by the family's financial decisions.
A framework to see how your money and relationships are connected
"We think it is vital for people to explore what we call their Family Wealth System – how their money, wealth and estate planning interact with their family and wishes through time," Donath said. "When a family participates in creating a visual map together they get a new perspective on how their decisions are impacting those around them and what might be the intended and unintended consequences."
The maps are built out of questions such as:
- What are your feelings about wealth in your family?
- Who are the people impacted by the decisions we're making today?
- How are they impacted and where do we need their voice?
- What are their wishes, fears, goals, and intentions?
- What are some potential unintended consequences?
- What would it mean to co-create some of these decisions?
Learning from each other while talking about money
The Richards were well aware that talking about awkward issues like their own deaths and estate planning to their children was an aim of the mapping exercise. And not surprisingly, with their engrained aversion to talking about these kinds of topics, they dragged their feet. "We put it off 2 or 3 times, thinking the mapping and the family conversation was going to be uncomfortable" says Rob. "But it actually allowed us to create an atmosphere where we would all feel safe to share our voices, hopes and worries."
Susan concurred. "We were all not quite sure what to think," she said. "The kids realized it was going to be more about the family, rather than money. Once our kids felt more comfortable talking, they really opened up. And I learned a lot from them and about them during the process."
There were those aha moments. "For example, I thought there would be more drama about who should administrate our estate after our deaths. But, when we asked our children who they thought should manage the money, two of them looked at Cameron, our middle son, and said they thought he should do it. I had anticipated that there would be a big to-do about it, and there wasn't," explained Susan.
"We've noticed that families who have gone through the mapping experience have been surprised and pleased to find how it helped them unearth and work through misalignments between family members," affirmed Donath.
6 lessons learned from the Richards family
1. Drawing a family map that visualizes your planning can generate family conversations you were avoiding or afraid to have. 2. Engaging family members in the mapping experience can surface unexpected views on family heirlooms and relationships that can be a revelation and bring the whole family closer together. 3. The money discussion is really about how your family desires to grow together through time—it's a conversation about your future wishes and fears 4. Your children are more money-aware than you realize so "trust the process" and engage them on the topic. 5. Hearing your children's views may lead you to provide a supportive financial hand today, rather than waiting. 6. Wealth planning can be about co-creating experiences that bring the family together and build happy memories.
Having the conversation now—not later
The mapping experience also inspired the couple to begin to consider ways to share their wealth with their children while both parents were still alive–something they had always thought would spoil them and squash their ambition. "Once we began to share our wishes and fears about money with our kids, we began to see that giving some money to help them during our lifetime is ok," Susan says.
These moments are captured as "co-creation" opportunities for further family discussion, and Continuing Agenda items are also tracked for future meetings (see animated video). And then it happened, the true meaning of money to the couple and their kids appeared.
"Even more importantly, the process made me think about what do we really value and what kind of alliances keeps us together as a family," says Susan. "One of them is taking family vacations to a destination where we're all experiencing something new together. Rob and I had no idea how significant that was to the kids, and how much they loved going away with us."
Connect with a Fidelity financial professional to explore ways to get your family talking about the money values and wealth wishes that are important to you.2