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Sandy Banks

Profit and Loss Statement: My Parents Got It Right

July 28, 2002|Sandy Banks

I'm almost home when my cell phone rings. The voice on the other end--full of dread--is that of Johnny, my fiance, whom I've just dropped off after a night on the town.

"Tell me my wallet is in your car," he says. "Under the seat maybe, or on the floor." I pull over and turn on the lights, get out of the car and check around. There is no sign of his black leather wallet, last spotted bulging with cash.

"Did you check your pocket?" I ask him, unwilling to believe that the wallet could have just disappeared.

"Of course," he says, bristling at the question. "That's how I know it's missing. My pocket's unbuttoned and my wallet's not there."

We think back, retrace our steps. It could have slipped out at the restaurant, after he paid the dinner tab. Or it might have been lifted by a pickpocket as we made our way through the dance club crowd. He remembers being jostled, but it didn't occur to him then to check for his wallet.

And perpetual optimist that he is, he's still having a hard time believing it's gone.

A lot of people have been feeling like Johnny lately, blindsided by financial loss, searching their ledgers for evidence that the money they counted on for retirement hasn't really disappeared. They are reaching into the pockets that held their future and discovering that they, too, may have been pickpocketed.

News accounts tell us that the stock market's decline has wiped out trillions of dollars in wealth in a slide driven by corporate scandals and what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has called "the infectious greed" of the business community.

While that doesn't equate to poverty, it does affect the bottom line for many families. More than half of American households now own stock, much of it packaged with other investments in retirement plans that are supposed to provide a cushion for our golden years.

The market fall has torpedoed the hopes of millions, whose worth skyrocketed in the past few years when the market soared to irrational highs, then plummeted just as quickly due to corporate misdeeds.

Much of that wealth was on paper only, but it fueled our dreams and seemed a ticket to limitless possibilities. It reflected our optimism--and more than a touch of naivete and greed--rather than economic certainty.

That doesn't make the loss less cruel or the emotional adjustments less painful. Dying are dreams of retirement cruises, second homes at the beach, an early exit from careers that have long ceased to be fulfilling. The crash has put marriages on the skids, as couples bicker about whose fault it is. It has forced retirees back to the streets, knocking on doors of companies that are no longer hiring. More than a third of Americans between 50 and 64 say they will have to delay retirement because so many of their assets have disappeared.

It's not only the missing money but the lost chances that sting; the feeling that doors that once swung open are now being closed.

I'm sure lost chances dogged my parents too. They could not have survived the Great Depression without learning how to let go of dreams and making do on less than what they needed.

I grew up in a family in which there were no discussions of portfolios and investment plans, because we had nothing to invest. There were no pensions or stock plans or college accounts. To my dad, financial planning consisted of playing the numbers in Cleveland's illicit lottery. My parents never had a chance to retire. They owned two homes and put three kids through college. And when they died, still on the job, they left us no inheritance; just a few thousand dollars in life insurance.

Still, I don't remember them worrying about money, and I don't remember ever feeling that we went without. My father owned a barbershop. Sometimes he made enough that one of us could get braces, another could take piano lessons. There were summer vacations and stays in hotels. During lean times he took a second job, and my mother went to work as well.

I didn't learn much from them about financial management. I still don't know how stock options work or the difference between a bond and a mutual fund. I raise my children much as they did, spending what I have on what we need, banking what I can for a rainy day and occasionally buying a lottery ticket.

But they taught me something else, and that comforts me when I think about Johnny's missing wallet and the profits that have vanished from my already-meager stock accounts: Money comes and money goes, and moping over its loss is as futile as spending it before you get it.

Profit and loss statements aren't a measure of a life. And there's so much more than money to the bottom line.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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