A friend of mine recently faced an impossible decision. Bo and his immediate family had moved from Germany to Charleston, South Carolina, for a job opportunity for his wife. He suspended his career as a German police officer to allow his wife’s pursuit and assume the stay-at-home dad role during the transition. Only now, he’d received the news that his father in Germany was deathly ill.
His father, Serge, who’d experienced homelessness and imprisonment as a teen, had overcome his challenged past by sheer will and a faith experience that inspired him to join the ministry, dedicating his life to pastoring an underserved community in Germany while becoming the bedrock for his family. Now he was fighting late-stage cancer that had infected his spine and spread throughout his brain. The end, the doctors assured the family, was near.
Bo faced the intractable dilemma that the effort and cost to go to Germany was so significant that he could only go once—either before his father’s passing or after, for the funeral. As he weighed the decision aloud, I had no right to interject knowing so few of the family dynamics, but I was confident that he had reached the right decision for him when he concluded: If he went later for the funeral, he could be there to support and console his extended family; but if he went now, he had a chance to be a blessing and comfort to his father one more time when he was in his greatest need. One more memory. He chose to go.
Bo’s dilemma reminded me of a brash claim made by hedge fund manager and author Bill Perkins, in his provocative book, Die With Zero, when he wrote, “You can’t be generous when you’re dead.”
As a financial advisor, my instinctive response was, “Well, sure you can!” Indeed, the wealth management canon would claim estate and legacy planning—what to do with your stuff when you’re gone—as one of its cherished tenets. And while I believe that to be true, Perkins’ point did grab my attention and shift my perspective.
At the very least, I can absolutely agree that our giving is much more meaningful when we’re alive than after we’re gone. Here are four reasons why:
1) Giving and receiving the gift is often the best part. Without anticipation, traditions and rituals, wrapping paper and cards, faith and forethought, Christmas morning is just a bunch of stuff and overflowing bags of trash. Without the thoughtfulness applied, we could just skip all reciprocal birthday gift exchanges and save the money. Yes, the act of giving and receiving and all that precedes and follows, is what makes a thing a gift.
2) Gifts are more valuable when they’re needed. The goal of leaving an inheritance is laudable—full stop. But let’s run the numbers here: If you live to be, say, 85, that would make your kids in their late fifties or early sixties, right? Yes, an infusion of cash at any age would likely be helpful, but how much more valuable would it be if your kids were getting portions of their inheritance at the points in their lives when it would truly be the most helpful? A down payment on a house—especially these days! A kitchen or bath makeover, an all-expenses-paid fifth wedding anniversary trip, with babysitting included. Taking your teenage grandchildren on a special trip or helping to fund their college in a creative way. And although it would admittedly be categorized as one of those “good problems to have,” there’s even a case to be made that if your children are very successful financially that a major infusion of cash or assets later in life could be a burden, at least from a tax planning perspective.
3) Experiences are worth more than stuff. By a roughly two-to-one ratio, studies suggest (and your heart confirms) that we derive more joy from spending money on experiences than stuff. Experiences generate memories that pay dividends over generations. No experiences, no memories, no dividends. And it’s hard to have an experience when you’re gone.
4) Your intentions are clear. This last point may be the toughest to hear, but let’s face it, if you give during life, it’s clear that you intended to give, whereas an inheritance, however welcome, might just be…leftovers.
Even after Bo decided to see his dad before his presumed passing, he was anxious. His father’s pain was so high that the doctors insisted on a minor surgery simply designed to relieve his suffering. Still, in his deteriorating condition, there were no guarantees that Serge would even survive the surgery, much less that he would be conscious—and surgery was scheduled for the same day as Bo’s arrival.
Prior to surgery, when Surge was told that Bo was en route, he did something he hadn’t done in days. He smiled. And thankfully, he survived the surgery, and father and son were reunited for at least one more memory, a gift that neither will ever forget.