There is a difference. Hear insight from Paul Sullivan, a former columnist at The New York Times and owner of his own business, The Company of Dads.
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Transcript:[Michael:] Hey, humans. I’m Michael Liersch, and this is the About Money podcast, presented by Wells Fargo. I’m a behavioral scientist with a PhD in cognitive psychology who loves openly discussing money to help humans better understand their money behaviors. By understanding our money behaviors, we all have the opportunity to make better money decisions. This season, we’re going to talk about jobs money can do for us. Jobs, you might ask? Yes. Money does many jobs for us, such as helping us with our family, lifestyle, the community, aging, travel, investing, and more. We have a great lineup of guests for you, so let’s get into it.
In this episode, we’re going to talk to Paul Sullivan. Paul is a former columnist at The New York Times and wrote a column called “Wealth Matters,” where he spent 13 years listening to people’s perspectives about money and writing about how they navigated their money decisions. Now he’s moving on to start his own business called The Company of Dads. We thought it was the perfect moment for Paul to answer the question: How can listening to others and their experiences with money help me to shape my identity? So, Paul, welcome to the About Money podcast. We’re so happy that you’re here.[Paul:] Michael, thanks for inviting me. I really appreciate it. [Michael:] Of course. So where I wanted to start is really asking you some of the things you’ve learned in those conversations. And in the About Money podcast, we’re trying to help empower human beings to make better money decisions. And so, within that framework, maybe you could share with people some of your top learnings in terms of what you heard from people and what you took away from it in your own financial life. What are your thoughts there, Paul? [Paul:] Yeah. The people who were probably the best at it were those who thought about money — and this is going to sound obvious, but it isn’t. Like most people don’t think about money. Most people don’t know, if they’re W-2 employees, like what their after-tax take-home pay is. They know the headline number. They know they make $50,000, $100,000, $200,000, but those who really get into the weeds and think about it and know where their money goes, they have a leg up over everyone else. And that’s something that, at least to me, you know, really appealed to my personality. And you nodded to the book, The Thin Green Line, the whole basis of that book is drawing a line between people who are wealthy and people who are rich. And that sounds almost like the same thing, but I define it as somebody who’s wealthy has the ability to make choices in life. They’ve thought about their money, whether they’re a schoolteacher or a billionaire. They’re on the wealthy side, the right side of the thin green line. And people who are rich haven’t thought at all about it. And at some point, life is going to make decisions for them. Again, whether they’re, you know, striving and working hard or they could be a hedge fund manager and they turn out, they’re super-leveraged and they haven’t really thought through what their money means to them. So it’s really that thinking about money and thinking about where your money is going to go, what it’s going to do for you, what you want out of your money. That was the biggest takeaway and the real, you know, definer of people who were making good money decisions versus people who were having those decisions made for them. [Michael:] So, Paul, what would you say to people who push back on that concept and said, well actually, when you think about money all the time, you make it all about money. Versus if I don’t think about money all the time, you know, that’s not the core part of my life. [Paul:] I mean, you can choose not to think about it but you’re still going to have to make decisions around money at one point or — I mean, there are only four things you can do with money. You can save it, spend it, give it away, and think about it. And the only way you’re going to be able to save it, spend it, and give it away in a productive way is to have some sort of thought around what you’re doing. So people always push back. People say I don’t care about money. I mean, that gets into deeper, you know, psychological issues around money. What some of the research I did with this financial psychologist, Brad Klontz, he sort of coined the term “money scripts.” And these are sort of, you know, the deep-seated feelings that you have around money from how you were brought up. [Michael:] I call those money messages, money messages. So money scripts and messages sound very similar. So give me an example of a money script, though. We’ve talked about that on the podcast, but I’d like listeners to hear your version of it. [Paul:] “My net worth is my self-worth” is a money script. That’s an easy one to, you know — other people are, you know, inveterate hoarders. You know, they may be thinking about money in an unhealthy way. And they may have plenty of cash, but they’re so afraid that they’re going to lose it. You know, a couple times in the column, there were people who referred to, you know, bag lady syndrome. You know, people who have plenty of liquidity, who could do lots of things but they’re too afraid about money. [Michael:] When you were listening to all of these human beings talk to you about their money scripts, or at least you were intuiting them from your interviews and what they were telling you, what money script did you reflect on the most in your own life and then decide to either intentionally keep it and propagate it or do more of it, or lose it and drop it and do something differently? Can you share that with our listeners? [Paul:] Yeah, 100%. I mean, I am — and my wife is the same way — we’re over-savers. And you would think, oh, how could that be a bad thing? It’s because you’re not really enjoying the life that you should be able to enjoy. And, for me, I just don’t like things. I don’t like stuff. I like to spend my money on an experience. If I’m taking a trip with my family, if I’m taking my daughter skiing or something like that. But my wife is the same way. And we both, you know, we’re both in our late 40s and starting to work on understanding that and saying — hey, you know what? This is foolish. If we want to go for a week to Florida with our kids, we should go for a week to Florida with our kids and stay in a nice hotel. We’ve, you know, made wise decisions around money so that we have the optionality to do that. Now, are we ever going to go out and, you know, buy a giant boat? Probably not. But, you know, there are downsides from being an over-saver because you run the risk of not fully enjoying life, you know, having worked hard to save all that money. [Michael:] How do you actually enjoy those experiences now, Paul? And then, when you think about your children, how do you work with your spouse to help them develop a more balanced money script? [Paul:] Yeah. Yeah. I mean — and look. There’s a balance here. Yeah, you think about it like this is an amazing experience because I’ve been a father now for almost 13 years, and I’m 48. And I can remember so clearly things that I did in my 20s. But, as a parent, one day rolls into the next. And having those vacations where we go and do something — we all remember, you know, the trip we took to Disney World. Those are just wonderful experiences. Now, the other part of your question, you know, how do we teach money lessons to our daughters? You know, one thing that my wife and I have always done is we’ve been very open — well, not open-open and say, you know, this costs x. This costs — you know, our house cost x and we earn this amount of money. That’s too much information for young children. But we answer them honestly when they ask questions about, you know, why are we, you know, why didn’t we do this? Or, you know, why are we spending money on this? Or, you know, why don’t we have a new car? Why did we get a new car? We’re just very honest and direct about, you know, how we as a family think about money. [Michael:] Do you feel like the big challenge we have in front of us, you know, in the United States or the globe, is the lack of money dialogue or the lack of willingness to share our money experiences? Or do you feel like there’s something else that’s holding people back from making better money decisions? [Paul:] Yes, yes, and yes. If we could reduce the psychological baggage that we have around money, we would be able to make better decisions. Because, at the end of the day, money is only a means of exchange. It doesn’t mean that we’re smarter, better looking, healthier, wittier. The more money we have, the more choices we can make. Less money, fewer choices. That’s it. You know, and that’s what I was always so passionate about trying to communicate. So that’s all it is. It’s just — and it’s all the baggage that these money scripts, or the money messages as you call them, that’s what inhibits people. And if we could get people to think, you know, more openly, clearly, and rationally around money, it’s going to help them make better decisions in every aspect of their life. [Michael:] So let’s move your narrative then, your personal narrative from — speaking of money and money journeys — now you’re moving into this journey of starting a new — and I don’t know what you want to call it, so I’m not going to label it. You can label it. You call it The Company of Dads. But you tell us. What is this new thing you’re doing and how did you get the courage to do it? [Paul:] Thank you. So, yeah. I was at The New York Times for 13 years. I was a journalist for 25 years. But, to put it in context, the only thing I ever wanted to be when I was a kid was a writer for The New York Times. I wrote 608 columns. I wrote 750 stories all in for the Times — I loved it. Like it was fantastic. But, as I said in the very last column, during this whole time I had this secret second life, and that was I was the lead dad to my three daughters, three dogs, three cats, and, somewhat improbably, three fish. I had an incredibly rigid schedule at the Times. Every Wednesday between 5 and 6, I had to file my columns. When I ran some of the special sections, I knew when all of the copy was due. When I wrote books, the deadline for a book is a year and a half out. When I would go — you know, you and I have been to conferences and given, you know, keynotes together — you know, you know months in advance when that is. And I just happen to be a planner, so I was able to do that. My wife, on the other hand, she works in asset management, and she never — she didn’t have that flexibility. And so it just was natural for me to assume this role as a lead dad. But it’s not a normal role. It’s a role typically carried out by moms and caregivers. And I loved it. It didn’t bother me. I went to all of the doctor’s appointments, went to all of the ballet rehearsals, went to all of the birthday parties. I mean, I love cake. I mean, there was cake, so that was an advantage of going to birthday parties. But during, you know, the pandemic, like many things, my thinking around this started to change. Because, you know, my wife in asset management, she really had to buckle down and keep everyone, you know, moving forward. We didn’t know how it was going to turn out in the early days. And I was doing even more of the parenting around remote learning. And that’s when I started thinking, you know, I’m a pretty organized guy. This is kind of hard. And it’s also kind of lonely. And I started thinking, I wonder, you know — in this world, you see so many, you see so much talk about, you know, gender equity. And I’ve seen it firsthand from my wife’s role as a woman, senior woman in asset management. And I thought, you know, if we want to really have a lot of senior female executives, there has to be some sort of, you know, balance. And so, to test out this idea, I called senior female executives and I said, what do you think? And, at the time, I thought I was going to write a book about it. And I said, I talked to one in particular, and she said this is an amazing idea. My husband is a lead dad. They have two kids. But writing a book is a horrible idea. And I said, oh, OK. Great. Thanks. She said, it’s not a book, it’s a company. [Michael:] Ah! [Paul:] This is adventure. This is a media company. And it was that conversation with her that allowed it all to click. And so The Company of Dads is structured as content, community, and commerce. And you know, the other part of that question you asked me is how did I get the courage to leave. A couple, you know, things come to mind. I mean, one, we had done some good planning and, you know, we were over-savers and my wife has a very steady job. But that gave me the ability to say, OK, I can give up, you know, The New York Times. Now, what was more difficult is I spun it around in my head, you know, 57 different ways because I loved The New York Times so much. But when you’re associated with an organization like that for as long I was, it becomes a good part of your identity. And then they did the nicest, most generous thing any employer could have done. A couple of weeks before my final “Wealth Matters” column was going to run, they said we’d like you to write a Times Insider. Now, the response was overwhelming from men who identify as lead dads, women who are working moms and have a lead dad, several corporations, but also, and I hadn’t thought of this, working moms who wish they had a lead dad. [Michael:] So tell me a little bit about really trying to contradict maybe the stereotypes people have in mind around a dad and that identity. What are the key ones that you really want to — let’s call it, you know, challenge, especially in the United States, around who a dad really is? What’s your thought there? Can you share that with us? [Paul:] Of course. I want to start by challenging the notion that somehow the parenting needs to just default to the mom. There’s a woman named Eve Rodsky who calls it the “shefault” parent, and it’s such a great term. Like why would it default? I mean, some people have different skills. I want to challenge the idea that, you know, it’s weird for the dad to be, you know, the class parent. I mean, I’ve been a class parent three times. It’s a horrible, thankless job. I would not recommend it. However, it does make my daughters very happy to do it. But that’s a small example of something that gets to a bigger issue in society. Like why not? Why can’t the dad do that? Like hey. This is 2022. We’re talking about gender equity. We’re talking about, you know, moving the ball forward, making some progress here. It’s two sides of the coin. You can’t be promoting all of these senior female executives up through the ranks if there isn’t some sort of support system, if there isn’t some way for people to sort of acknowledge, OK, we all need help. Or it’s OK that we’re not going to make that call because we have to do something with our kids. [Michael:] Well, I’m so glad to hear that, Paul, and I’m so inspired by all that you’re saying. And I just wanted to also thank you for joining the About Money podcast. I really always love talking to you, Paul, and it’s great to be your friend as well. [Paul:] Thank you for saying that, Michael, and you know that I feel the same. It’s always great when we get together, and this has been a lot of fun. So thank you for having me on. [Michael:] Thank you. That’s it for this episode of the About Money podcast. Please email us with the topics that you would like us to address at email@example.com. And if you really liked the episode, share it with family, friends, and anyone who listens to podcasts. About Money is produced by Wells Fargo. You can learn more about ways to work with us at wellsfargo.com/aboutmoney. I’m Michael Liersch, asking you to talk about money today.
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