The idea of legacy is rarely discussed in traditional financial planning. Few of us identify as wealthy and we tend to associate “legacy” with having a university building named after you or XYZ’s trust fund that endowed your favorite PBS show. It seems impractical and unattainable — something only for the super-rich.
But legacy, as I see it, is a much broader concept that most people should consider including in their financial plan, because it is not limited to famous family foundations and public works. Yes, things like Carnegie libraries change the world, but you change it too, albeit on a more limited scale. Legacy is about how you express your values to create impact while you are alive and how you continue to create impact once you are gone, based on the same values.
I learned this lesson while sitting in Duke University’s Neuro-ICU, which is the equivalent of having a gun at your head to learn lessons. Following a successful awake craniotomy to remove brain cancer, I had the privilege of living in their neuro-ICU, my heart pounding with massive gratitude. After all, I was the healthiest person in the hall. The woman in the room to my left had stroked out while having a baby and the man to the room to my right suffered massive head trauma after a motorcycle accident in Durham.
I was fully cognizant of how lucky I was, especially at age 30 and with a son at home who was only six weeks old. Call it God, call it good medicine, but my reality required some serious reflection. While watching TV and waiting for a strong cocktail of IV antibiotics to stave off any potential infections with wires and tubes coming out of my head, I started to deeply consider questions of meaning. What was I going to do with this gift of surviving, when most everyone I know in brain tumor circles that had my diagnosis died?
Surviving a glioblastoma made me a statistical anomaly. How would I set an example of what you can do with your life for my infant son, and how would I demonstrate to him who I had been, who I was in my soul? I needed to get busy driving my real purpose to create impact and to figure out what this diagnosis and this odds-defying gift of survival meant.
At that moment I was trying to identify how I would measure impact in my life. Impact would become my north star and my key performance indicator for how I defined success. And funnily enough, impact didn’t necessarily mean money earned or saved even though I was a financial advisor.
My mortality had knocked on the door (pounded, really) and I needed to answer. I realized that like most human beings, I did not want to be forgotten. The culture of genealogy where you are defined by a birth date and date of death was not acceptable to me in the least. The dash separating those two dates and everything in between was critical.
Over the next ten years I created a framework for impact and a value system based on my core beliefs, with corresponding actions to help me demonstrate to my son what I believe living a good life means:
● Pushing a bit more each day in every aspect of my life
● Mentoring and helping others wherever I could
● Allowing others to make a clear choice to play big and take that hand up vs. handout
From there I needed to align my own financial plan with this framework. This meant that if I were to get hit by the proverbial bus my family and certain nonprofits would receive monies in accordance with this way of thinking. While I haven’t sold a massive tech startup or moved tens of millions of dollars in the Atlanta commercial real estate marketplace, legacy is a powerful enough driver for me to utilize life insurance.
Many people underestimate the power of this very simple tool, but I’m paying pennies on the dollar of the legacy I wish to leave. And undoubtedly, no matter how the market fluctuates, those funds will be there should something happen to me.
In my 40s I became more interested in genealogy. While this makes me sound like an old lady, I have to admit that my ancestry.com subscription has been fascinating. It has allowed me to unearth the details hidden in the “dash” for all my ancestors via the public documents that Ancestry associates with people — death certificates, yearbook pictures, newspaper articles, etc.
Combined with occasional trips to the cemetery where my mom, grandparents and other ancestors on my dad’s side are buried, this information lets me feel connected with these previous strangers in my family tree now that I have visibility into their former professions, interests and roles in their community. It gives me a glimpse into their legacy, in some sense.
Their family saw fit to demonstrate legacy with the size of their headstone or memorial. This is certainly another indicator of legacy, but it made me think: In order to justify the size of the marker, what actionable items must you accomplish before you are worthy of that stone?
As a financial professional I know that the planning process doesn’t usually ask about legacy, as if impact isn’t a metric. The first focus is always on “enough.” The thinking (and perhaps rightfully so for some), is whether there’s enough money to ensure financial security for a lifetime. This is a pragmatic approach but it reflects a scarcity mindset. And in reality, impact isn’t tied to wealth.
Have you begun to really consider what your legacy may be? When your great grandkids look back upon your date of birth and date of death, what will your dash be and what will the people that truly knew you say about you?
If you want to start leaving a legacy in your financial plan, sign up for my free Kids and Money Resource Guide because your biggest impact is with your children.