Survival Tips For A Sad Parent

2015-09-18 19.23.04A father with two young children asks, “Is there anything you could recommend to make my family life less awful?”

I can’t wave a wand and make it enjoyable. However, I take comfort in the knowledge that there are many people that enjoy young children.

Let’s start with some tips for maintaining your personal sanity and your marriage.


2015-09-09 18.36.01Perspective

Listening to parents talk about their kids, and the scars of their own childhoods, it’s universally reported that little kids are challenging people to live alongside.

My current experience is one day out of ten is very tough. If I want to get dramatic, then I can extrapolate to 40 days a year that are awful… more than a month a year in suffering!

However, if I look deeply then it is closer to 100 hours a year, and I’m with my kids a lot.

Looking even deeper… I break it down to a couple “moments” each day where I need to resist my urge to retaliate and settle a sensation of internal panic.

Five years ago, it was closer to ten “moments” a day, and I spent far less time with the kids.

It’s important to recognize the positive trend line in our lives.

So what seems like constant bedlam (to my remembering self) is, more accurately, twenty moments a week when I need to be skillful, or simply not make the situation worse!


2015-09-10 11.40.34A Hard Truth

From the time your oldest turns two until your youngest enters first grade — it’s not about you.

If you were the prettiest girl in high school, the captain of your varsity sports team, or the highest achiever in your firm then this reality will come as a shock.

I understand that you are shocked by your situation.

I was also shocked.

We should both set a date to get over it.

Your kids are going to present you with an opportunity to become better than you are.

Take the opportunity because a self-serving attitude will become one of the key regrets of your life.

Ask around.


2015-09-12 18.48.03All We Have Is Time

Most of the pain I felt in the early years had to do with a conflict of choice => further external validation versus doing what’s best for my family.

So I jettisoned the easy stuff – anything that cost significant time and money – went.

What has worked is redirecting the additional spending towards childcare that enables me to spend time with my spouse and alone (in nature, in silence).

You might find it tempting to let your spouse get overwhelmed – losing health, embracing addiction, breaking down mentally.

Make a pact that you won’t let each other go that far. The kids will grow up and neither of you will want to be married to that sort of person.


What You Control

What changes can I make to offer my family a better version of myself?

  1. Say no to non-core
  2. Practice not-response

I work on a small scale and life consistently gets better.

Family Financial Review

2015-09-10 11.53.28August/September is the time of year when I do my life review. I’ll be writing about the various components over the next few months.

2015-09-04 19.00.49Fear Impairs Judgement – you’ve certainly felt financial fear in the last three weeks. However, the lesson runs deeper than short-term volatility.

The financial media tempts me to:

  • frequently tweak strategy
  • aim for the perfect asset allocation
  • act impulsively to avoid future losses
  • seek superior returns

Strategically, I want to avoid all of the above.

Tactically, I want to manage family expenditure and execute a reasonable long-term financial strategy to the best of my ability.

Being good enough is good enough.


Sell Illiquid Assets Into Late Bull Markets – in 2014, I decided to sell land, art and jewelry.

Our illiquid assets cost money to hold and I realized that the cash would be better spent on childcare and pre-K education.

Despite selling for less than expected, the net result has cut the family’s core cost of living by 4% and enabled my wife (and me) to work less.

The question to ask yourself is not “is this my best price?”

The question to ask yourself is “are we in a late bull market?” If the answer is “yes” then it’s a good time to sell illiquid assets.


2015-09-06 17.06.43-1Asset Allocation is often a distraction from what matters – with good wealth habits, you can ignore the small stuff.

Here’s a post from December 2010 on asset allocation. Five years along, I’m making progress at following my own advice.

This post from April 2012 (about my future asset allocation) reminds me of the folly of forecasting.

For the benefit of my future self, here’s a snapshot from 2015.

  • 30% – investment real estate
  • 25% – low-cost, diversified equity funds
  • 25% – fixed income in home currency
  • 15% – family home
  • 5% – cash and other

There are historical and family-specific reasons for the above. Not a recommendation to your family.


2015-09-06 20.04.16Time and Health – Am I acting in harmony with my mortality? with my values?

If you find that a self-serving bias isn’t generating satisfaction then consider shifting your focus towards taking better care of your health.

The shift towards health will surface conflicts between your values and how you allocate your time.

No step is too small with regard to positive self change.


When To Review Strategy

dad_axI’ll start with my answer… now is not the time to change strategy because I know…

  • The more often I change, the greater my opportunity for error and increased costs
  • The more changes I make, the worse I’ll do


Q2-2015 marked the completion of the five-year plan that I put together at the end of 2008.

When to consider change?

A major life event is a good time to consider change.

  • In 2008, I was faced with unemployment.
  • In 2000, it was a divorce.
  • I’ve seen friends face criminal charges, bankruptcies, health emergencies and deaths.

A crisis can be a sign that, absent change, things are likely to deteriorate. It can also provide a nudge to endure the discomfort of change.

In my case, a high-spending rate combined with unemployment to tip me off that I was heading towards a major problem.

The plan required us to move (twice), establish new careers, achieve a dramatic reduction in spending and change the allocation of 95% of our balance sheet.

I expected the changes to be costly and forecast our balance sheet to decline by 20%. I was wrong. In reality, the balance sheet increased by 2% per annum.


  • I’m good at cost control – we made changes early, and severely.
  • We maintained exposure to favorable events – things like promotions, bonuses, babies, cheap mortgages, new friends, equity options.
  • Despite my fears, the world tends to improve.

I was also wrong about the price that we would achieve for the assets we sold. On average, we sold 10% under my estimate of “fair value.”

The Endowment Effect shows that we overvalue what we own. It’s valuable knowledge to be reminded that I’m prone to the standard forms of human misjudgment.

These two lessons are important to remember:

  • Things are likely to turn out better than I expect
  • I overvalue what I possess (jobs, assets, habits, the status quo)

I paid close attention to my “good days” since 2008. They were nothing like I expected and have influenced my thinking in how best to spend the next 1,000 days.

Effective Wealth – Legal and Strategic Considerations

alvinIn my first piece on effective wealth, I laid out…

  • Individual wealth => 5 to 10 years cost of living
  • Generational wealth => 10 to 25 years cost of living
  • Multi-generational wealth => 25 to 40 years cost of living
  • Surplus (excess?) wealth => beyond 40 years cost of living

We hold our individual wealth in Living Trusts – these have the benefit of being fully revocable (assets in and out easily) and transparent to the IRS (easy for taxes and administration).

TIP – five years cost of living in a debt-free balance sheet will change your life and make you far less susceptible to corruption and influence. Once you hit ten years cost of living (in a debt free balance sheet) then you should consider cutting expenses and working part time. At a minimum, 5-10 years worth of wealth should trigger a sabbatical to consider personal wellness and how you allocate time.

Generational wealth is held in an irrevocable Grantor Trust that benefits my spouse and kids. I can’t get the assets back nor can any creditor or petitioner. In my lifetime, I retain the obligation to pay taxes on the trust as well as the ability to swap assets in/out for fair consideration. Admin is about the same as managing a partnership/LLC with similar assets/earnings.

TIP – once you are nearing 20 years cost of living in a debt-free balance sheet you are close to the breakout point where you can stop working, forever. Now is the time to shift towards personal wellness!

Multi-generational wealth – this is small part of my family balance sheet, because I followed my advice at each of the above segments. We use a Private Trust Company (in a state without income tax) that oversees a trust that benefits my descendants. We also use 529 (college) accounts.

TIP – the first time you realize that you might be making money for your adult children STOP and undertake a life review that focuses on how you allocate time and personal wellness.


What does all this cost? Charging market rates for my work, I oversee the structure for less than $5,000 per annum. Living Trusts/Will were $5,000 to set up. Grantor Trust was $5,000. Private Trust Company and Family Trust was $10,000. These are Boulder, not New York, rates.

How does this give you peace of mind? My personal assets are the smallest of any adult in my family tree. By value, I own less than 1% of the above structure. I am free to give my family the gift of service.

I’ve said what needs to be said.

I’ve done what needs to be done.

I’m free to focus on loving those that love me.


The legal and tax consequences of an error in your family structure can be severe. Take expert, local advice. Nothing on this site should ever be considered professional advice.

Effective Wealth – Due Diligence Results

tulipsThis series started with a definition of effective wealth and a due diligence exercise for your family.

I’ll share the best tips that I received from my due diligence work:

A general liability umbrella policy can be an effective way to insure against ruin – in my life, hosting events (where athletes might die) was the source of my greatest liability. Due to my other insurance coverages, $5,000 per annum bought me $5,000,000 of coverage.

Have an expert read your insurance contract to ensure you’re covered for your key risks. I’ve reviewed draft policy documents that specifically ruled out the only reason I was buying the policy!

Paying $5,000 per annum got me thinking that there might be a better way to structure my life. There is a better way and I’ll share my family legal structure in a future post.

Hosting athletes is a low-margin business and my need for multiple insurance policies greatly reduced the profitability of the events. So I handed the events off and removed myself from their promotion and management.

In speaking with successful families, three things stood out.

#1 – the advice to share information widely and control the structure narrowly. As much as possible the family is involved and consulted on family matters. However, not more than two individuals from each generation are involved in governance. Write out the process for a family member to become a fiduciary, or trustee.

#2 – each generation must decide their own values. It’s impossible for elders of the past to influence third and fourth generation family members. The best tip here is a reminder that no matter what you do, what you decide, what you structure… there will be aspects of life that you find disappointing – in yourself, in your spouse and in your kids.

#3 – young family members should be given the opportunity to learn from mistakes early in life. No family member should be given the opportunity to bring down the entire family and individuals should experience the impact of their poor decisions.

How To Make Money At Real Estate

taxiEffective last month, my family owns a house in North Boulder for a net cash cost of US$100,000. It took me a decade to get that deal done. I did a similar one in New Zealand in 2001.

When I buy, I look for a good asset, at a fair price, with built-in options that can create upside.

If you’re going to make superior returns then it will be due to an option embedded in the deal.

For example:

  • Excess land gives the option to subdivide (Boulder 2010)
  • Buying outside my “home” currency of US dollars gives the ability for international arbitrage (New Zealand 2001)
  • Buy homes for less than their cost to build (Tucson 2010)

The goal is not having a property that you would be proud to show off to your friends. Until recently, I owned a “pride” property. A 6,000 sq. ft home that earned my family nothing for the time we lived in it. Truly fantastic house, mediocre investment.

Likewise, the option should not be created by using a ton of leverage. High leverage is appropriate only when you’re using other people’s money in a non-recourse vehicle. More here.

When should you buy?

#1 – Buy when you need the asset. You rarely need the asset! Be patient.

#2 – Buy when the cost to own is FAR less than the cost to rentsee my free ebook for how to do this calculation.

#3 – Buy when banks are foreclosing – banks, governments and trustees often sell for less than fair value.

#4 – Buy when the local debt market has collapsed – a cash buyer in a liquidity crisis will receive favorable terms.

Note, these tips apply to every asset and you’re going to need substantial liquid assets to take advantage.

All of the above, imply that you should study your target market for a decade before you buy. I also recommend that you limit your equity investment to 15% of your family’s balance sheet.

Right now, we’re in a bull market and you probably feel like you will never get another chance to buy at distressed prices.

You’re wrong.

In my working life, I remember bear markets in 1990 (UK), 1997 (Asia), 2000 (US) and 2009 (Global).

Take your time and remember you don’t need to do the deal.

Once a decade, the patient investor will be sent a fat pitch.


Understanding Your Family’s Risk of Ruin

nightwalkIn my previous piece on effective wealth, I made the case for linking wealth to spending.

  • Individual wealth => 5 to 10 years cost of living
  • Generational wealth => 10 to 25 years cost of living
  • Multi-generational wealth => 25 to 40 years cost of living
  • Surplus (excess?) wealth => beyond 40 years cost of living

Spanning 25 years and a range of industries, my careers have had one thing in common… clients can sustain significant losses.

Early in my working life, permanent financial loss didn’t concern me.

  • I had limited assets
  • I was an employee
  • I was insured by my company
  • I was indemnified by my clients

Over time my exposure changed and, eventually, I realized that I had a significant risk of ruin.

My definition of “ruin” has changed over time. It’s worth writing out your own and discussing within your family.

For example, “losing everything I own:”

  • didn’t concern me at 25 – I had a small balance sheet relative to my future earning potential
  • would have been a huge problem at 35 – I had limited earnings, moderate personal leverage and a balance sheet containing more than 15 years cost of living
  • isn’t a problem today – low leverage, small personal balance sheet, greatly reduced cash flow deficit relative to my young family’s assets

Today, ruin consists of adverse events with my family’s human capital.

While I run our family structure, it’s a very small piece of what I do.

Because… the purpose of getting family structure correct is to enable a focus on what matters – human capital and shared experience.

  • marriage
  • kids
  • family
  • health

Get the structure right so that you can focus on things other than the structure!

  • Simple
  • Straightforward to manage
  • Cost-effective (time, expense, future flexibility)


  1. Are you worth suing?
  2. In what capacity could you be sued?
  3. What’s the nature of the losses that could be sustained by any party?
  4. What can go wrong outside of lawsuits? Personal disability, for example.
  5. Can financial, or legal, structuring reduce these risks?
  6. What’s the cost to insure these risks?

Brainstorm the answers and schedule consultations with:

  • an experienced litigation attorney – quantify and understand how you will be ruined 🙂
  • an experienced trust and estate lawyer
  • a fiduciary with experience advising families similar to your own
  • a family that has managed two successful generational wealth transfers – what does success look like when you’re gone?

Write out your notes from these meetings, discuss with your family counsel and reach a rough consensus on your family values.

Here are reading resources to help you understand family wealth.

  • Consult widely
  • Seek out smart people that disagree with you – you’ll both benefit
  • When family members disagree, pause
  • Change slowly

More on the specifics of my own journey in a future installment.

Allowance 3 2 1

amigosMy six-year old has been hounding me to buy her stuff:

  • Pink iPhone
  • Pink Mermaid Tail
  • Pink Guitar

Rather than entering into a philosophical debate on consumerism with my kindergartener…

I decided to put her on the payroll.

We’re starting at $6 per week and I told her that she’d get a raise of $1 per week on her birthday.

$6 also makes the math easy for what I want to teach her.

I gave her three envelopes. I wrote on each…

  1. Save
  2. Spend
  3. Donate

My weekly recommendation was to save three dollars, spend two dollars and give one dollar away.

She asked if she had to do it my way.

Knowing that the purpose is to create ownership, embed good habits and learn from errors… I said it was up to her.

So far she’s saving 100%.

She asked if she had to do any extra work.

Hoping that a reasonable allowance might reduce lying and petty theft, I said that it didn’t rely on anything.

My wife felt that $6 per week was a lot. Looking at a CPI calculator, it’s the equivalent of $2.50 when my wife was six and $1.25 (!) when I was six.

Seems reasonable and the round numbers made it easy to introduce the concept of allocating income (Save, Spend, Give).

Saving half of everything I earned before 30 was the best financial decision of my life.

It will be interesting to see the unintended consequences.

Structuring A Family Pension

Ax_iglooThree questions for your next family meeting, or your financial adviser:

  1. How long of a retirement should we plan to fund?
  2. As a couple, what is our joint life expectancy?
  3. As a family, how do we invest considering our collective life expectancy?

Today, I’m going to take you into the future of your retirement, your children’s retirement and your grandchildren’s retirement.



If I make it to 63 then my wife will be 55. At that point, there is a 50% chance that at least once of us will last another 31 years. Here’s a calculator that you can use.

It’s worth repeating – as a couple we have a joint life expectancy of 31 years when I reach 63 years old (17 years from now). Today, my wife and I have a joint life expectancy of 47 years.

That’s a heck of a long time for inflation to act on our cost of living.

Inflation of 2.5% for 47 years brings each $10,000 of current expenditure up to $31,917.

In other words, despite being middle aged, our core cost of living is likely to triple across our lifetime.



The joint life expectancy of my daughters (6 and 2) is 90 years. Their cost of living is going up 8-10x over their lives.

Can I insure against the risk that my surviving children run out of money late in life?

Let’s look at a case study.

At the end of last year, I was considering an expensive vacation. I couldn’t justify spending the money on myself and the calculation that follows is part of the reason.

As a family, we can make the decision to invest $10,000 per annum. There would be no impact on my quality of life.

What could it do for my children?

  • $10,000 per annum, invested for 47 years, 5% rate of return is $1,781,194
  • $1,781,194 invested for an additional 13 years at 5% is $3,358,707
  • Over $3 million in 60 years from redirecting my vacation budget

Let’s talk in 2015 dollars. I have no idea about future inflation, let’s assume 2.5%.

  • The $3.4 million will be worth a lot less in 2075 than today
  • $3,358,707 discounted back to 2015 at 2.5% is $763,379

In case I’ve lost you.

  • The cost is foregoing $10,000 of annual expenditure for the rest of my marriage.
  • The benefit is my survivors share a 30-year retirement income with a current purchasing power of $49,658 per annum.

The payment is calculated with 5% rate of return, over 30 years, with $763,379 starting value.

It’s never “too late” for compounding to work for your family. I’m closing in on 50 and can leave a valuable form of insurance to my children by changing my current habits.



Run the exact same scenario except I have 85 years to grow the capital.

  • Invest $10,000 per annum for 47 years
  • Roll up for another 38 years (85 years total)
  • Discount back 85 years at 2.5%
  • How much income for the surviving grandkids (in retirement)?

30 years of $90,705 per annum in 2015 dollars ($1.4 million of present value, 5% rate of return).

It’s worth the effort to learn finance and tweak your wealth behaviors.


This post inspired by Nick Murray’s book, Behavioral Investment Counseling

Link to a google doc that let’s you tinker with my assumptions. Make a copy before editing.

Quarterly Update – Q1 2015

winterFebruary contained the most (winter) laughter since my kids were born.

Much better than a gradual slump into seasonally-maladjusted depression!

Rebalancing & Asset Sales

  • No changes in asset allocation.
  • Small purchases to rebalance to target allocation.
  • No year-end tinkering for tax purposes.
  • Cash and short-term treasuries will fall to 6% of our family balance sheet once we make 2014 retirement purchases before April 15th.

We decided to take three non-yielding assets and put them on the market => a vacant lot, a piece of jewelry and a painting.

  • These sales could free 10-15% of the family balance sheet.
  • We expect to save 5-8% of our core cost of living by reducing taxes payable and insurance expenses.
  • A low tax basis on the vacant lot means there will be capital gains payable. However, we own the house next door and the capital increase on the house (as the neighborhood is upgraded) will mitigate the tax bill from the sale.


The biggest change is with my working life. I’ve cut way back with non-family work.

Six years ago, I had over 60 third-party clients. Currently, I work with 3 families. The result is a significant change in weekly time allocation:

  • Kids/Spouse => 35 hours
  • Third-party Work => 5 hours
  • Family Work => 5 hours
  • House Work => 5 hours
  • Exercise => 15 hours
  • Open => 20 hours

The “open” time has been transformative.

I have time to read, write, think and unwind => none of these focus on external achievement, another change.

I also have a lot of flexibility for quick trips and short-term projects. My working life is bursts of focused effort with most projects being 2-10 days long.


2011-2013 were tough. I’ll write more in a separate post – 2014 was a transformative year for the family.