Financial Planning Lessons from Downton Abbey

with 5 Comments

As a financial advisor, season 3 of Downton Abbey has become the most interesting as deep financial tension infiltrates the Crawley family drama. The first episode begins with quite a shock. Lord Grantham, the stately family figurehead, is informed by his legal advisor that the family fortune is in serious jeopardy.

I must admit that part of me enjoyed seeing the family squirm without losing their composure at the thought of downsizing to a smaller mansion that Lord Grantham estimates would need “no more than eight servants.” One of the Crawley daughters exclaims, “Won’t it feel a bit cramped?”

Matthew Crawley, no longer haunted by the family’s lavish lifestyle, is a great example of how quickly human nature becomes accustomed to upward adjustments in standard of living. There is a good reason for the phrase “trappings of wealth.” To make any headway in savings, you need to squirrel raises away quickly before they disappear as the family’s “new normal” standard of living. Downward adjustments will not come so easily.

It is telling that Lord Grantham’s first thoughts turn to losing “Cora’s fortune.” This reaction refers to the obvious reality that Lord Grantham married “new money” to save the family estate. But as a financial manager, it saddens me to see the thread of shame that has haunted Grantham his entire adult life. Continually referring to “Cora’s fortune” is evidence that Lord Grantham views himself as enjoying his position somewhat dishonestly. If not for his wife’s graceful outlook, we could safely assume Lord Grantham would be crushed by this weight.

One reason why money is so often at the heart of insecurity is that it is seldom talked about. I’m not speaking of sharing how your “hot stock” performed or the “great deal” you got on that new car. That’s “easy peasy,” as my kindergartener likes to say. The hard part is talking about the deeper issues surrounding our financial goals, challenges, and fears. When was the last time you discussed these important money topics in any profound way?

Failure to communicate about money matters is particularly damaging to a marriage. At every step, a husband and wife must strive continually to “become one” in financial affairs. Lord Grantham is too proud to accept the overtures of Lady Grantham to mature in this way. Moving from thinking about “my money” to “our money” takes time, trust, and a lot of communication.

Every single person enters a marriage with a completely different money history than their spouse. Marrying these rational and irrational inheritances has toppled many marriage partners who are not equipped to manage these differences.

I recommend two exercises to overcome these challenges. If it is not your practice already, start by using a shared checking account because this arrangement forces necessary communication. Second, set aside a regular time to review finances together. My wife and I borrowed the concept of a “state of the union” from good friends. We make time every month to discuss family finances among other important household topics.

A second important financial planning lesson is learned by the circumstances of Lord Grantham’s financial loss. He committed the majority of his fortune on a Canadian railway company that has gone bankrupt. “Investing in one enterprise—wasn’t that foolish?”, Lady Crawley asks in a creepily sweet and civilized manner.

We all know the answer to this simple question. The success of any size investment plan should never rest on the fortunes of a single company. And yet, this is neither the first nor the last time a family’s wealth will be crushed by the toppling of a single company. Every time a large company goes bankrupt (e.g., Enron, Lehman Brothers), we hear from many families who lost everything as they are interviewed via the media.

Hubris will always find a new moment. In the current generation it has been real estate and before that, technology. For Lord Grantham and his peers, the growth of railroads seemed limitless. Each new generation of investors has to steel themselves for their own bubble-building narrative that requires no analysis of company fundamentals.

Although financial calamity at smaller companies does not receive the same level of media attention, small company bankruptcies are more common and affect a broader group of families. It is simply that more often that a family-owned business has its entire net worth tied up in one stock.

Business owners need both a financial plan to pay themselves twice and an investment strategy. The first payment is a reasonable compensation for the effort they put into the company. The second is an investment return for the risk they have taken to invest their capital in a business venture. We recommend that you diversify a healthy percentage of these profits outside of the company that sustains you.

Financial advisors generally agree you should have no more than about 15% in any one stock position in your portfolio. Even the Bible warns us: “Divide your portion into seven, or even eight parts, for you do not know what disaster may occur on the earth.” One seventh is 14.29%. Although this might be painful, you can recover.

That’s all for now. And what is most fun, is that the financial drama is nowhere near ending. Young Matthew Crawley has uncovered some financial mismanagement and will be challenged to navigate the situation with his father-in-law. But we’ve picked on Lord Grantham enough for one day. Click here to read Part II: financial planning lessons from Downton Abbey.

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Matthew Illian was a Wealth Manager at Marotta Wealth Management from 2007 to 2016. He specialized in small business consulting, college planning, and retirement plans.

5 Responses

  1. Bob Arms

    Matt, This article is great! I like the idea of a monthly “state of the union” spousal meeting too. Thanks! – Bob

  2. Jim McCormick

    Great advice. Looking forward to the next column.

    • Matthew Illian

      Thanks Jim! I really enjoyed writing this one.

  3. paul munson

    Nice column – I’d add that marrying British nobility was often a crusade for rich Americans of the time, so caveat emptor still applies. Further Wachovia is a classic local example – it really stung a lot of heavily concentrated portfolios, in several cases altering lifestyle plans.

    • Matthew Illian

      Paul, after reading Sheila Bair’s latest book, I’d argue that Wells Fargo and JP Morgan are the only two big banks that should still be standing. The other bigs and the remaining investment banks can all thank their friends on Capital Hill.

      Like the Crawley family, it often takes more than one bailout to fix a sinking ship.

      I enjoyed the lunch!