I believe my mom’s path — created by her unique circumstances — could be one that many other people could follow, but especially women who feel from an early age that they don’t know much about investing.
In a career spent talking with legendary investors, financial gurus and top educators, no one ever taught me more about money and investing than my mother.
Evelyn L. Jaffe lived her life with an irrational fear of running out of money, balanced with the rational sensibilities of an accountant with an eye for risk-taking. She was a one-person contrast study in behavioral finance, whose results made her a role model for my entire family.
She died late last month in New Jersey at 88, having defeated the demons of finance — fear and greed — by dancing with each of those devils to a tune of her own composition.
Because that delicate balance of risks strikes a chord with so many people, I believe my mom’s path — created by her unique circumstances — could be one many other people could follow, but especially women who feel from an early age that they don’t know much about investing.
The fear of running out of money was borne out of fleeing Germany for the United States in the 1930s, with her family leaving behind its wealth, and it was steeled in her desire always to be independent. She made it her mission to ensure — along with my father — that her biggest financial fear would never be realized.
Thus, when I was in grade school, my mother went back to work as a part-time typist, and quickly advancing to bookkeeper, thanks to her eye for details.
It was at this point that she started looking into investments; I started hearing kitchen-table talk about stocks like National Home, Goodyear, Coca-Cola and more. I started to see her reading financial statements.
By the time of my bar mitzvah in 1975, Mom was talking to me about how money-market funds were paying more than bank accounts and she helped me invest money that I received as a gift, conservatively (“because we don’t want to lose it”) but aggressively (“because we want it to grow”).
She went back to school, earning a degree in accounting after six years of night courses, graduating in 1982 at the age of 54. She put that degree to work as the controller of a large travel/events company, but also in working on her own investments.
She could read a balance sheet with the best of them. She didn’t like a lot of corporate debt, she liked strong dividends and experienced corporate leadership. By 1981 — when I needed to invest money earned in a summer job — she was talking about the benefits of diversifying through mutual funds.
Intuitively, Mom understood that running out of money and losing money were two different things.
It’s a key distinction that many investors — especially women — don’t make; to avoid losses, too many become superconservative with their investments. They buy high and sell low, because any dip in price is scary. The problem is that a portfolio of money-market funds and ultrasafe alternatives may not grow sufficiently to support a long life.
Mom knew she needed to take risks to make money. Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me that she was an owner in Reserve Primary Fund — the money fund that broke the buck and lost money as one of the triggering events of the 2008 financial crisis — or in a series of nontraded REITs that wound up having valuation problems.
At the height of the internet bubble days, she shocked me by asking what I thought about JDS Uniphase stock; I told her it might help make her nightmares come true. She later asked about Enron, which would have been an even more colossal disaster. She always made her own decisions, but I am thankful she ignored the siren song of the hot stock, took my advice and passed on both.
That she was attracted to risky asset classes at all seems strange for anyone who fears losses, but money pros recognize the issue as cognitive dissonance, the stress felt when you have two conflicting beliefs — the fear of running out of money and the need to grow assets, in my mother’s case — and have decisions to make.
Mom alleviated that stress in a few ways:
First, she diversified, taking chances on any number of assets; it allowed her to take chances, and spread the potential dangers around.
Next, she was frugal. Mom had no problem spending money on the things she wanted or needed, but she knew the easiest way to run out of money was to be irresponsible spending it.
Third, she understood that longevity itself must be factored into a financial plan.
Having been an accountant, she recognized that the longer she lived, the longer she was statistically likely to live. That meant that as she aged, while she was allowed to make her portfolio more conservative, but she couldn’t go all the way to protecting all of her money from the market.
She worried about some friends who were, effectively, living out of savings accounts and piggy banks, depleting their assets meaningfully with every bill they paid or thing they bought.
“I don’t want to outlive my money,” she told me, “so I am planning for ways so that my money can outlive me.”
That made her a role model for my family, but if you had ever had a chance to meet her, it would have made her a financial role model for you too.
Rest easy, Mom, mission accomplished.