May 2011, Volume 07 Issue 04
By Lloyd Graff
What is your “net worth?”
I remember my father used to calculate his net worth often and would meticulously record the amount his assets exceeded his liabilities on sheets of paper he kept in an accordion file in his desk at home.
When I worked with my Dad we would periodically discuss his net worth. He talked about it with reverence, sometimes in hushed tones, like the figures were inscribed on sacred parchment. And they truly were to him.
Those numbers he wrote down yearly were his personal score card of success, his record of succeeding or failing. They were figures that meant “security” for him. He told me that a rising net worth made him feel more secure, which was a feeling he sought more desperately than any other in his life. But the irony that I came to understand more clearly as we both matured was that he never felt “secure.” No matter how much money he had in the bank or in stocks it wasn’t enough for him to feel “secure.”
Over the last 40 some years I also observed my father-in-law, Sol Levine, who recently died at age 89.
Sol was a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina, who practiced a mishmash of everyday law. He was a problem solver for people. He had an accomplished secretary, Nellie, who tried to keep him on track. She handled the everyday contracts on real estate that kept enough cash coming in to afford a decent lifestyle. Sol really didn’t care about having money. He wanted to have enough to live okay, give to charity, and play poker on Tuesday nights. Oddly enough, he never seemed to worry about “security.”
For me it was fascinating to observe these two disparate views of net worth and security. My father had a lot of free cash and Sol had little, yet my Dad always worried about money and Sol never seemed to. How odd.
The term “net worth” always bounces around in my head when I hear it because for me a person’s net worth isn’t really about his “net worth.” My father’s net worth to me was his relationships with his family, his compassion, his strength as a person, his honesty and courage and tenacity. Yet he measured himself very much in dollars. Once, near the end of his life, we had a poignant talk and he revealed to me a disappointment he felt about his relationship with my mother, who had died a few years earlier. He said, “I wish I’d given her more jewelry.” A Freudian psychiatrist interpreted that remark to me as a sexually symbolic reference, but I don’t think so. For my Dad, success, love and money were an intertwined bundle.
Over the years I have arrived at a cynical view of accountants and financial statements because they summarize the strength of a business through arbitrary quantitative analysis. The net worth of a business is so much more than a financial statement. The net worth of a man has little to do with the amount of assets he has versus liabilities.
I often chuckle derisively at the come-on artists who could call me saying they have “investment ideas for ‘high net worth individuals.’” Are they calling me? Are they calling the right person?
I really do hope so.