What follows is a personal post, but I believe it’s relevant to investing. I won’t be discussing underpriced stocks or earning more money. Instead I’ll share something that for me puts the business of personal finance into perspective. Call it an end of year message.
I’m visiting my parents. In the next room, my gentle and intelligent father is asking my mother when he’ll have to leave the house again. It’s the third time he has asked in the past half hour. I can’t make out all the words, because he is slurring them.
He’s confused and agitated. Soon he’ll ask my mum – his wife – to take him to the bathroom. He goes every 45 minutes, sometimes messily. I wonder if they’d ever thought of such things when they met 40 years ago.
Dad wooed my mother one summer by the beach. He took his pasty, portly frame to the seaside every weekend, talked about surfing, and hid that he couldn’t swim. Mum was a church-goer who’d never had a drink. And now here they are, old and still together even as they fall apart.
I could not be more proud of him and her, nor more grateful that he’s still around to frustrate us and make us smile. In two days he’ll go back into the hospital for further treatment, but if he keeps getting better then he could eventually come home for good. Or at least for as long he gets.
Well, how did we get here?
Three months ago I left London in a hurry on a weekday afternoon. I’d bought the Financial Times to take my mind off what I’d heard an hour before: my father had suffered a massive cardiac arrest. He was in an ambulance. My mother was in shock, having initially mistaken dad’s heart attack for one of his practical jokes.
(She laughed with him even as he spluttered in the chair and pulled faces. Being his son, despite everything I can’t help but smile at that. I think it speaks of a life well-lived.)
Dad was given CPR by a neighbour whose arthritis meant he had to fall in agony to his knees to pound my dad’s chest. My mother wasn’t sure if dad was still alive, or even where the ambulance had taken him.
On the train I barely glanced at the newspaper, and I still can’t really believe what it said. Lehman Brothers was gone and stock markets were in free fall. These were historic times. This could be a new 1929, geared up for the globalised generation.
My mother initially mistook dad’s heart attack for a practical joke
I’d expected the economy to blow up for years; not the death of investment banks – like the bankers themselves I’d assumed they were smarter than that – but an end to the boom times, especially in property. Now it was unwinding in spectacular fashion, and my mind and heart was elsewhere.
I spent the train journey gathering the family together, making mobile phone calls to the people my mother couldn’t reach (which was nearly everyone, since she had probably used her mobile phone twice in her life. Dad’s phone was found to be broken, and we realized later it had been blasted to uselessness by the emergency defibrillator). Like a true Brit, I’d flushed with embarrassment when I turned in the space between the carriages where I was making the calls to discover a dozen disembarking commuters looking at their toes and avoiding my eyes as a mark of mute respect at what they’d heard.
That shocking Financial Times lay unread on my seat – an appropriate addition to a suddenly crazy time that overnight changed how I saw my world.
In the long run, we’re all dead
I’d expected my dad to decline for even longer than I’d been skeptical of the global property boom.
Seven or eight years ago dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, at less than 60 years old. When I heard I was disbelieving at first, like most adult children of thoroughly loving parents when they’re reminded they’ll one day live in a world without them. But one of the best investments I ever made was to then bury an unspoken competitiveness that had marred my relationship with my father in my self-obsessed twenties, and to get to know him anew.
I traveled down from London much more often. We built a birdhouse together. He taught me to hammer and saw again; this time I listened, watched and learned, and for his part he let me make mistakes and even offered the odd word of undeserved praise. We both agreed it was a shame we hadn’t managed to reach this understanding when I was a child, no longer caring why we hadn’t.
Dad responded to the cancer battle both positively (the thing receded) and badly (the various side-effects of the cancer treatment can challenge a man). Meanwhile we mended fences, poured foundations for garden furniture, and memorably salvaged a greenhouse at midnight in a cold, wet British winter in a gale. Hands frozen and completely ineffectual, we were eventually laughing like mad seamen as the wind tugged at the skeleton of plastic and aluminum. I held a torch in my teeth, dad stuffed one in his shirt. It pointed up so his face glowed like some jolly demon. We could have been eight-years old.
Dad tried to retire early and had to wait. I was quietly furious at his lack of options, and started Monevator with a post about a nameless relative’s pension plight. I didn’t say then that it was my father because I didn’t think he’d like to read about himself as requiring sympathy, pity or even anger. Now I don’t believe he’ll ever read my site.
The sensation of cliché doesn’t last once you arrive at an intensive care bed. It’s suddenly very real.
He has made huge strides, though. When I arrived from London that first night, I went from my anxious relatives in the waiting room to dad’s bed in the intensive care ward like a finger running down a checklist of clichés from soap operas. It all seemed too familiar, like how the first time you visit New York you feel like you’ve lived there before.
The sensation doesn’t last once you arrive at the intensive care bed, however. It’s suddenly very real. All the tubes going into every bodily opening. The machine breathing for your father. Bleeps punctuating the hush. Every variable of being alive monitored and noted down by blue-robed medical staff – like priests in a cathedral dedicated to keeping sparks of life alight.
I can’t tell you that as I sat there holding my father’s hand for the first time in 30 years that I decided investing and the pursuit of some modest wealth was wrong. I didn’t think that then and I don’t now.
But I did finally realize – suddenly and in a powerful way – that it was all ultimately for nothing.
We can save, we can invest, we can calculate what replacement income we need to escape the rat race. But for all of us – whether we’re poor or we run a business empire that spans continents – our world will one day fold in, and everything that matters will recede to a few rooms and faces. And after that, honestly, to a bed and a few breaths. Any comforts then are between an individual and their faith or philosophy.
Particularly in those first days, when I could sneak away to be angry without being seen, I thought even more that my father had been dealt a rotten hand. I knew he hadn’t, really – born into the developed world healthy, smart, and to loving parents, he missed the Second World War and the skirmishes that followed and enjoyed those decades of opportunities for those who could take them.
Yet selfishly I still thought about how he’d done the right thing, only to be struck off a decade before the actuaries ought to be claiming him. Why hadn’t he drunk, womanized, gambled and brawled? Why not?
Perhaps this is what everyone thinks at times like these: life assessment. As he had done so many times when I was a child, my father was making me think again about what my life was really all about.
Healthy is wealthy
Ten weeks ago – two weeks after he was admitted – I sat in a room with doctors who explained that though they didn’t really understand the brain at all (and thus they couldn’t be definitive) things looked extremely bad.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the small room inside which my dad was on a padded bed, clawing at his face, chewing off his own lips and oblivious to the world except for a few reflex actions.
The doctor implied (not unkindly) that we’d best hope for another heart attack.
Tonight my father got a question right in The Weakest Link that I got wrong. (“What did Admiral Horatio Nelson say England expects every man to do?”). Dad getting the answer right (“His duty”) was a tiny moment in a day in which I’d had to explain to him once more what socks were, walk him 20 yards around his garden in as many minutes, and scold him as if he was a schoolboy for nagging my mum. But life with him now is all about these tiny moments.
We are lucky in the UK to have the National Health Service, where dad has got pretty good treatment. Sure, there’s been a slip here and there, and fault to find if you wanted to find it (family keeping an eye out definitely helps a patient). But most of the medical staff have been great, and the freedom never to worry about the cost of it all is something it’s hard to appreciate enough.
I dread to think what the uninsured cost of dad’s nursing treatment and latterly occupational, speech and other therapy would be in some countries. So dad is ‘lucky’ again – and don’t take my word for it, he told a visitor just this morning, curled in his chair, reaching for the words, that many are worse off then him. I could have cried. Perhaps I should have.
Do I wish I’d made millions, to make dad’s pain easier for everyone? Yes… and no. No if it had meant that in pursuing those riches I’d been unable to spend leisurely weekends getting to know my dad again. And not if it meant I was too mission-critical to my company to spend half of the past three months with him and my mother when every day felt like an ending.
I dread to think what the uninsured cost of dad’s nursing treatment and therapy would be in some countries.
I don’t want to finish this article on a rousing conclusion. I don’t think there is one. It’s one thing to argue the merits of index funds versus active management, quite another to dare to suggest how anyone should live their lives – especially when I’m clearly still finding my way for myself.
Perhaps all I’m trying to say this: As we save money and invest for the future, whether for retirement or for some rainy day when the roof falls in, it’s too easy to forget why we bother. Whether it’s fear of being trapped in a job you hate, worries about your children, dreams of doing something exciting, or any of a hundred other good reasons – life is why we need the money. We don’t live for it.
It’s often said that nobody on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more time in the office, but I bet a few wish they’d spent more money before the end. Even a penny to your name isn’t worth much where we’re going.
This site is about making, saving and investing money, and that’s not going to change. I’ve dozens of articles I’m really looking forward to writing, about everything from corporate bonds and property to entrepreneurship and philanthropy. And I’m surer than ever that spending less than you earn and investing the difference is vital to a happy life, however else you choose to live it.
But I bet every reader has – or will one day have – a story like mine and my dad’s. None of us are sitting in some garret counting our pennies. At least not without an occasional glance at the sun rising and setting, and at the people milling around below.
Hi there i am a relatively new reader of your blog and enjoy your financial views and as you rightly say there is more to life than saving and investing when someone close to you is unwell especially older parents which i also have. As much as i enjoy your financial advice it is also nice to see a personal side to people so you can get a feel for the kind of person they are,so keep up the good work and kind regards
Thanks for your kind thoughts.
I wandered over from Sweating the Big Stuff and have been blown away. I don’t know you or your family, but I wish you the best.
I’m trying to get to know my grandparents better now in my mid-late twenties than when I was living with them as a child. They just reached their 80’s and I’m worried I won’t know enough about them before they go. I want to connect with my parents, but all of this judgement from both sides gets in the way.
I just want to say thank you for this. Thank you for making me think about loss while also thinking about my future. Good luck to you and yours.
.-= Budgeting in the Fun Stuff on: Determining Our "Allowances" =-.
@Budgeting – Thanks very much indeed for your comments. Grandparents are indeed a precious commodity, and I must admit I never really got the knack of getting to know mine before they all did. (My girlfriends did better, strangely?)
I hope you do well with yours. Thanks again, it’s good to know this post was read and thought about by someone out there.
came here from budgeting in the fun stuff’s blog…. this is a great article, thanks for sharing your story. wishing you and your family the best.
Also found my way here from Budgeting in the Fun Stuff. Loved the article as I list my father to a heart attack 8 years ago. Thankfully we had a really good relationship, but his life was still cut too short for me. He was 64 when he passed and I was only 26.
The only regret I have is that I missed my weekly call to my parents that week. I lived a few hours away and called home every weekend to talk with them. I missed that Sunday call that week, don’t even remember why, and he passed away that Wednesday.
I now make sure that I’m never too busy to miss the call with my mom, as I don’t know whether they’ll be another.
MikeS – Thanks for your thoughts, I know what you mean about missed last opportunities. My best to you and your mom.
Somehow this is Day #1 of discovering your blog, 6 years after you wrote this. I found you through the “How To Be A Capitalist” post, via a link from David Hultstrom. Great post. Lovely thoughts. I’ll be back.
Quite a touching post. This is the first time I’ve stumbled onto this site and I’ve already read a few posts – I enjoy your writing style; concise, fun and easy to understand.
You’ll be glad to know that I’m one of those beautiful young (20 something) readers you’ve mentioned before!
Great read. I got diagnosed with hodgkin lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system) back in January (certainly not what I was expecting from going to the GP with a slight chest pain at the age of 29) but I’m almost through it now and hopeful of getting an all-clear next month, one thing it has done for me though is given me a real chance to think about the future, a bit of a wake-up call if you will, and plenty of time on my hands to do a lot of research into all my financial plans & options.
I think like a lot of people I was living within my means, had no debt except the mortgage, put a bit of money in a savings account every month etc and thought “this is great, I’m saving for the future”, but of course that’s nowhere near good enough. The best thing about spending so much time in hospital lately is that I’ve come across your blog & several others as well as a lot of other good advice that’s out there and had a chance to really think about it all and make a proper plan, and started making some sensible investments. Running some basic numbers I’m pretty sure I can retire by 50ish if I do things right and I’m pretty happy with that, and if I can get myself a few promotions maybe it’ll be sooner than that.
Thanks again for all your good advice, even if I am coming to some of it 8 years after it was written, but most of all thanks for staving off the hospital boredom!
@Dan M — Wow, sort of humbling to imagine this blog speaking to you at such a time of personal challenge. All the best for your full recovery, and good luck with the financial plans!
Just back home from my last hospital visit and I’ve got the all-clear 🙂 now on to the future planning!
Having recently lost my Father (almost 25 years to the day that my Mother passed away), may I thank and congratulate you on such a fine, open and honest piece of writing. It really struck a chord with me.
@John M. — Sorry for your loss of your father. I still miss mine at some point every day. Your generous comments are very much appreciated.
I’ve just discovered your website and I read a lot of its articles. This one is so touching.
May they all stay in peace.
What made me think a lot, is that my father was the total opposite of yours during his whole life.
He started a lot of ventures in different areas and domains. The script goes as follows: kickstart a project, generate a solid income and engage in fructuous business opportunities, make a fortune out of it, and then spend it all (trips, women, parties, luxury …), and then go bankrupt. This was his lifecycle. Until some day, life catched him in a low point, where his enegry of youth abandoned him, and he wasn’t able to do any prolific activity anymore.
Now, he lives alone, far from a family he left, in a foreign country (now, he couldn’t go back to his home country because of business related charges).
I think I saw the other tip of the spectrum with my dad’s life, a life spent gaining and spending money. Today, he’s got nothing left: family, money, comfort, it’s all gone.
I saw him cry for his misery, but I also saw him laugh and enjoy the irony.
His best song is Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” (French: I regret nothing).
Thank you Monevator! I will continue reading your site, and I wish all the best 🙂
@W.H. — Thanks so much for your generous words, and for sharing your story.
I suppose it takes all kinds of people to make the world go around, and who of us can really know for sure what’s the best way to live one’s life when all is said and done? I have less certainty every year. 🙂
Thanks for reading our site!
Having been an avid reader of your site for years this is the first time I’ve read this article and it moved me deeply. It may be the lack of sleep caused by a newborn but I don’t mind admitting I had a tear in my eye as I read This.
Your relationship with your father seems akin to my own. He’s self made from a poor background, risen to become a chief executive. I had an upper middle class upbringing, privately educated and overseas holidays were the norm.
The trade off however was nights spent eating dinner at school with the boarders as he was late picking me up, holidays cut short due to some crisis at work only he could fix and a general absence from my life growing up culminating in a divorce from my mum where I took her side as that’s all I knew.
Don’t be too hard on yourself with your regrets on your relationship growing up. With the hindsight of adulthood I understand and appreciate the sacrifices he made for us doing what he thought was best and despite the fact he now lives thousands of miles away most of the year we are closer than ever. Actually closer than I am to my mother who is half a mile down the road and who I now find probably as frustrating as my dad did when he left.
I’ve never asked him outright whether he regrets the way he was when I was young. Perhaps I should though he’s not one to admit mistakes. I choose to judge him now by the fact he’s looking to uproot his own life and move thousands of miles closer ASAP so he’s not an absent grandad and can visit more freely.
As I look at my own child just 7 weeks old there is a phrase I heard on a financial podcast which summed it up nicely to me. ‘your children will remember your presence not your presents’ and I am determined I won’t repeat the mistakes my father made as I see them.