The town of Weston, Conn., is in many ways an idyllic environment for raising kids. The schools are excellent, there's plenty of fresh air and lots of room to run, jump and play. Yet one mother, who grew up in Weston herself, was so shocked by her experience there that she and her family packed their bags and moved to Ohio.
The problem in Weston was money-too much of it. "I was appalled to discover that the going rate for a baby tooth in my son's kindergarten class was $10," says the former Fairfield County mom. "When my son was invited to birthday parties, each house was more opulent than the last. Some of these kids in kindergarten had whole file cabinets filled with hundreds of computer games, plus every Nintendo game ever made." She worried that her kids would develop an unhealthy me-first attitude; her fears were realized when her 5-year-old began to whine incessantly about not having as many toys as his friends.
In many ways, Fairfield County is the ideal laboratory for the study of "affluenza," often described by psychologists and sociologists as a distinctly American malaise brought on by sudden wealth. Within commuting distance from New York City, Fairfield County boasts the fourth-highest per capita income in the nation and harbors more than its fair share of investment bankers, corporate executives and entrepreneurs-the ones most likely to have achieved sudden wealth.
The problem of affluenza is by no means confined to Fairfield County, of course. Advisors across the country report that more and more clients are grappling with the effects of wealth for the first time, and, in particular, the effect that wealth has on their children. At least 68% of the top 1% of wealthy Americans feel their children place too much emphasis on material possessions, according to a recent U.S. Trust survey of affluent Americans.
"This generation of parents really wanted to give their kids the good life," says Marilyn Capelli Dimitroff, president of Capelli Financial Services in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Yet in addition to introducing their children to lifestyles they could once never have imagined themselves, these parents may be leaving a legacy of heartache that could last a lifetime if they don't do something to stop it now. Increasingly, these clients are turning to their financial planners for help in solving those problems.
Affluenza has become particularly prevalent in the last decade, as more and more Americans are facing significant wealth for the first time. The number of households worth more than $10 million has grown fourfold in the last decade, to almost 350,000, according to New York University economics professor Edward Wolff.
The term "affluenza" was coined by Milwaukee-based psychotherapist Jessie O'Neill in her book The Golden Ghetto (Hazeldon, 1996). Affluenza strikes when large amounts of money drastically alter an individual's self-perception and social role, she writes. He or she may no longer need to work, leading to a possible identity crisis for those who define themselves through a career. In addition, the newly rich may feel guilty, have trouble relating to family and longtime friends and feel unstable, worrying that the money that came so easily could just as easily go. For parents, the question of how to raise children in a conspicuously consuming culture and retain traditional values exacerbates these problems, especially when kids adopt the materialistic values of their peers over the more community- and family-oriented priorities of their parents.
"These kids have grown up with very affluent lifestyles that they cannot at this point re-create themselves," explains Dimitroff, who counsels many clients in their fifties with children in their young adult years. "They have grown up with designer clothes, beautiful homes and world travel at the drop of a hat. Some have dropped out of college or are just drifting around, not really using their degrees. Yet their parents continue to pay for their health club memberships, new cars, insurance and Visa bills."
This is a problem not just for the children, who are failing to mature into responsible adults, says Dimitroff, but also for parents who may in fact be jeopardizing their own retirements. "My clients are very affluent, but most of them simply will not have enough money for their own retirement if they continue in their current [spending]," she says. The curious thing, she says, is that her clients are mostly self-made entrepreneurs who never expected handouts from their own families.
The first step in dealing with these clients is to perform a needs analysis that graphically displays the shortcomings of their current plan. Sometimes parents have to be shocked into realizing that they cannot go on supporting their children forever, says Dimitroff. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. "Parents realize that they have created unrealistic lifestyle expectations in their children, and they feel some guilt about that or a desire to protect their kids from the rigors of the real world." Changing those attitudes requires that parents consider their own role in creating dependency, and that can be uncomfortable, she says. "For some parents, this is the first time they realize that they actually have choices, and that supporting their adult children is a voluntary decision."
For some extremely well-to-do clients, the needs analysis reveals an opposite problem-too much money. "I have a social acquaintance in her late fifties who recently became a client," says Laura Tarbox, president of Tarbox Equity in Newport Beach, Calif. "She and her husband netted a couple of million about eight years ago. They had invested in the best mutual funds and now have about $13 million. They own a gorgeous home, completely paid for, on Laguna Beach, and they are extremely thrifty-they really have to push to spend $80,000 a year. The needs analysis showed that even if they spent double what they spend now, they would still have over $100 million 30 years from now. Yet the frustrating thing is we can't figure out what the goal is! They're not interested in spending a lot of time and money to avoid estate taxes, they have no real charities or charitable intentions, and neither they nor their children are particularly interested in forming a family foundation." After several sessions, and faced with the prospect of $6 million going to the government, Tarbox finally got the husband to admit, "Well, I guess I'd rather have my name on a library than a bomb."
Extremes of thrift versus conspicuous consumption are quite common among the newly wealthy, explains David Morgenstern, a financial advisor who grew up in Fairfield County and is now with Capital Management Consulting in Portland, Ore. "Many of these millionaires are self-made people who grew up in poor or middle-class households and are now successful beyond belief. Some are extremely flashy because they want everyone to know how far they've come. Others are ashamed because it's a source of tension and embarrassment in their families." Morgenstern, who pursued a master's degree in family and marriage counseling, stresses that there are no right or wrong answers. "It's important not to make value judgments but to work with clients to understand their motivations and issues around wealth," he says.
The first step in tackling affluenza is to take a good, hard look at the emotional issues surrounding it, says Mimi Chace Leuba, a psychotherapist who deals with affluenza in her Easton, Conn., practice. "For some parents, sudden wealth means having the resources to give kids the things they longed for themselves as children and to provide the best educational opportunities." For others, "spending on their kids is a way of keeping score and showing how far they've come."
Another Fairfield County psychologist, Rob Selverstone, who worked for 20 years as a high school guidance counselor, says that parents need to examine the pressures they place on their children. "Some parents want their kids to reach their absolute potential in every single aspect of their life, whether it be academics, sports or the violin," he says. "Some kids become anxious overachievers, whereas others feel they can never live up to their parents' expectations, so they just give up."
Parents often do not realize the messages they are sending their children, as embodied in their own actions, says Selverstone. "Parents who take the 6 a.m. train to New York and don't return until late in the evening are sending a message that money is more important than quality time together," he says, noting that material possessions often function as guilt-assuaging alternatives to parental attention. Yet that strategy usually backfires, Leuba says. "Loading your kids up with stuff robs them of the opportunity to develop inner resources like creativity, imagination and curiosity and teaches them that happiness comes only from material things."
Most parents want nothing more than for their children to be happy, of course, but sometimes that takes tough love. For Dimitroff's clients, that means putting their own retirement needs first and acknowledging that for children to be financially independent, they have to make their own mistakes. "We tend to learn best by feeling the consequences of our actions," she says. "If Dad foots all your bills, you'll never understand the dangers of spending beyond your means. Sometimes you've just got to deal with a creditor."
For Tarbox's clients, the issue is not whether her clients have enough money to retire, but figuring out what to do with themselves now that they no longer need to work. Helping clients discover their passions is one antidote to affluenza, says Tarbox, and often has the added benefit of allowing parents to spend more time with their kids. One of her clients, a biotech engineer in his sixties, has a passion for building miniature birdhouses. "His body language completely changes when he discusses this hobby," she says. Another client, a 31-year-old man with two small kids and about $5 million worth of Cisco stock options, has decided to retire next year. "He's still wondering where his real passions lie, but in the meantime, he's planning to just take time off and spend it with the kids."
Tarbox feels her clients' pain as she struggles with the issue of affluenza in her own life. "My daughter will be five, and by the time she came along, my husband and I were already quite well-established. We tell our daughter all the time how lucky she is, and of course, it's absurd. How can that mean anything to her?"
One of the most powerful cures for affluenza is helping kids reach beyond their own selfish interests through charitable activities, Tarbox says. After her own daughter was born, Tarbox decided to focus on charities to which the little girl could relate. She stepped down from the board of The United Way and became active with Canine Companions, a charity that trains canine assistants and pairs them with people in wheelchairs. "We have two Labrador retrievers, so this is something she can understand," says Tarbox. "The program has a great newsletter full of pictures of dogs with their owners, plus a center nearby where she can go to the graduations and meet the people in person."
Tarbox has also become involved with Child Aid, a charity that provides hearing aids and literacy programs to children in Guatemala and Mexico. "For $2,500 to $3,000, we can build a library in a town where kids have never seen books before," says Tarbox, who hopes to eventually bring her daughter to Guatemala. "I made a trip on my own first, and she was so intrigued to see pictures of Mom with all those kids."
Her quest to raise her own daughter responsibly has made Tarbox acutely sensitive to clients' concerns in this area. Yet she finds herself in an ethical dilemma. "I'm running into greater problems keeping my personal thoughts out of it and staying objective," she admits. As a result of her experience in Guatemala, Tarbox has given a lot of thought to the ethical implications of promoting her own charities among clients. "Before I went to Guatemala, my feeling was 'How could I?' Now I wonder 'How could I not?'" Tarbox has discussed the issue with a number of other planners and says opinions run the gamut, with some planners soliciting clients for every board they are on, while purists insist that the two remain separate.
Yet the problem goes beyond ethics. "Clients are asking for direction in this area," she says. "One client came to me and said, 'I'm fed up with (a large charity). I never really know where my money's going. I want to be involved in a smaller charity, where I can really help children and see exactly where my money's going.' Another client came to me, having read an article in People magazine about Reginald Denny, the truck driver beaten up in the L.A. riots in 1992. This woman was ready to send him a $10,000 check based on an article she had read in People magazine!" Tarbox did help the woman locate Denny and send him a few hundred dollars, but what she thought her client really needed was more direction.
Tarbox's conclusion is that it is fine to promote one's own charities, provided it is done appropriately. She plans to inaugurate a newsletter that outlines charitable-giving strategies and highlights individual charities that pass muster in terms of sound financials and commitment to stated goals. Her own due diligence in this field would surely add value, and clients could submit their own favorite charities for review. By creating a community of concerned givers, Tarbox hopes to combat the effects of affluenza throughout her practice.
Interestingly, women planners seem to be at the forefront of unpacking the sticky ethical issues surrounding affluenza. Perhaps that's because many women feel more comfortable raising intimate topics like family values and parenting. "I spend a lot of time with clients discussing what's appropriate in terms of parental roles," says Dimitroff. "I try to keep it as natural as possible in the context of overall financial goals. If the goal is for children to be responsible adults who handle money effectively, then parents may need to examine how they are hurting their children by continuing to support them."
Figuring out how to wind down support and broach the topic with kids is a thorny issue, Dimitroff admits. "Once parents realize the dilemma, the question becomes, 'How do we say no to our kids?' Parents may be paying for car insurance, while at the same time their daughter is jetting off to the Caribbean with her boyfriend, racking up Visa bills." Dimitroff helps parents develop a plan by focusing on "critical" versus "frivolous" expenses. For example, paying a child's health insurance premiums might be considered a critical expense, although paying for that vacation is not.
"Parents frequently ask, 'How do we lay all this out to the kids?'" Dimitroff continues. "I tell them to keep it simple. 'In order to be sure we're comfortable at retirement, we need to do more investing right now.' That's all they really need to know." Dimitroff readily agrees to be the "bad guy" if parents need to deflect blame for their change of heart.
"We're all of the same culture, but not everyone gets affluenza," Leuba says. "A kid may be materialistic, but materialism doesn't become affluenza until he or she shows signs of being stressed, unhappy, selfish or unable to get joy from simple things-if nothing is ever enough."