Financial Planning Lessons from My Mother

David M. Cordell, Ph.D., CFA, CFP®, CLU®, is director of finance programs at the University of Texas at Dallas.


Although you are receiving this Journal issue around Independence Day, I am writing it on Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day in the Cordell household means that my wife doesn’t have to do anything and I have to do everything. Sometimes I think she takes “anything” and “everything” to the extreme, but it’s a small concession on my part—one day for her and 364 days for me.

Mother’s Day is a day for honoring our mothers, but for many of us, we can only honor the memory of our mother. My mother, Fran, passed away 13 years ago, but I now realize how many financial planning lessons she taught me long before financial planning was a recognized profession.

A Little Background

Mother was the first-born child of two Sicilian immigrants. Her father, Vito Sparacio, came to America by himself at age 19. He first performed manual labor on the railroad, then worked in a shoe shop, then on the production line for the Thomas Edison Co. in New Jersey. While there he played cornet in the company’s band that greeted the troop ships returning from World War I. A few years after he and my grandmother Millie, who was a seamstress, were married they saved enough money to achieve their dream of buying a neighborhood grocery and butcher shop, and they lived in the apartment above it. When my mother was 7 years old, she was delivering groceries to nearby customers.

My mother taught me the importance of saving and hard work to achieve financial goals. 

Not long after the stock market crash of 1929, my grandparents had saved enough money to buy a bleach bottling plant in Saint Louis. Vito and Millie sold the shop, packed up everything, including four little Sparacios, and motored west. After a couple of years, they bought a house in an Anglo neighborhood. Most Italians in Saint Louis lived in an area now known now as The Hill, the neighborhood where baseball players Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola grew up during that same period. At that time, the area was known derisively as Dago Hill, an obvious slur to Italians. Vito refused to move to Dago Hill, proclaiming, “My children will grow up as Americans.” In the middle of the depression, he bought a five-bedroom house in a very nice cul-de-sac with cash. Ironically, Vito, by then a naturalized American citizen, was eventually subject to a shakedown in which he gave up half of his business to a Mafia-like protection racket.

My mother taught me that unforeseen and unavoidable situations could undermine even the best-laid plans.

There was a downside to living in the Anglo neighborhood. The Sparacios looked different. The parents spoke with funny accents. Young Fran was the recipient of more than a few ethnic insults. One of the mildest was being called “spaghetti.” Teenagers can be cruel. Adults, too, for that matter. Italy’s role in the war in Europe made things worse, and soon thereafter, the United States was at war with Italy. Not good. My mother suffered under the weight of comments, slights, and insults, both real and imagined.

She attended the University of Missouri to study journalism, but left after two years to marry my father, then a graduate student. They were the owl and the pussycat. He was the tall, strong, silent type. Brilliant and professorial. She was petite, vivacious, and mercurial. When she walked into a crowded room, she immediately became the center of attention.

After my father finished his doctorate, his academic plan reached fruition as he accepted a faculty position at Colgate University, which, like most universities, was gearing up for an onslaught of new students—GIs returning from World War II. A couple of years later, he went home, slump-shouldered and pale as a ghost. Mother, who was intuitive, and pregnant with me, knew something was terribly wrong and excitedly demanded an explanation. Dad revealed that enrollments hadn’t grown as much as expected and the university was cutting some faculty positions. Having the least seniority, he would be out of a job at the end of the semester. To Dad’s surprise, Mother’s agitated state evaporated, and she sighed, “Oh, is that all? I thought someone had died.” Within a month, my father had a job offer in industry at double his university salary, and he would still be doing the type of research he enjoyed.

My mother taught me that every plan has setbackschallenges that we can overcome. 

In June 1951, my parents and my older brother left Hamilton, N.Y., and headed toward Texas. (Keep in mind that the interstate highway system was years in the future, and the rickety old Willys automobile could not boast of a ride smooth enough to provide comfort to a woman who was eight months pregnant!) They stopped in Saint Louis to visit my grandparents, who begged my mother to stay with them until the baby was born. In a retort somewhat reminiscent of what her father had once said, she responded, “No. We’re going to make our life in Texas, and my child will be born a Texan.” They hopped, or waddled in my mother’s case, back into the car and continued their journey over the rough roads of Oklahoma and on to Abilene.

My mother taught me what it means to be fully committed to a plan.

My father was rather passive in his approach to parenting. His philosophy seemed to be that children should learn by observing or by osmosis. Whenever he became active in my upbringing, it was because my mother insisted on it.

Mother was the active parent. She was the one who expressed expectations and gave rewards and punishments while implicitly sharing her view of the world. She loved to use common idioms. “The Lord doesn’t close one door without opening another.” “It’s six of one, half-dozen of the other.” The phrase that has had the most impact on me was a version of this general concept: “Don’t box yourself in; don’t burn any bridges, and leave yourself an out.” The version that stuck with me the most was: “A good general always plans a retreat.” To me this meant that a static plan isn’t sufficient. We must anticipate factors that could foil the plan and be ready to react.

My mother taught me the importance of what-if analysis.

When I was about 12 years old, Mother owned shares of Sterling Drug Co. Back in those days, the company sent out a package of its products, such as Bayer aspirin, to stockholders. Perhaps that tangible “dividend” is what piqued my curiosity in investing. I started creating my own make-believe portfolios without any understanding of the investment process. I would look at stock prices daily and select stocks because they had performed well recently. Well, what do you expect? I was a kid!

Eventually there was a broad decline in the market, and it hit my paper portfolio hard. I didn’t understand that the whole market was hit, not just my holdings, and I was very discouraged that my clever stock selection process had let me down. I showed my daily chart to my mother and I whined to her about how much “money” I had lost. She listened patiently, but finally responded, “You don’t lose money unless you sell.” Of course, as is always the case, the market rebounded, as did my paper portfolio.

My mother taught me the importance of patience and staying the course in the investment process. 

In the summer after my sophomore year in college, I worked in a plant near Dallas for a small company founded by some ex-Texas Instruments engineers. They manufactured substrates that received electronic chips for use in computers. One day a man came to the plant to observe the various processes. He seemed to attract a lot of attention, but not much from me, other than a handshake. He struck me as being rather ordinary. When I went home that evening, I mentioned offhandedly to my mother that some nondescript man had visited that plant, and I didn’t know what the fuss was about since he seemed undistinguished. She asked if I had caught his name. Yes, it was Jack Kilby. My mother knew who Jack Kilby was, and she shared her knowledge with me. He had invented the integrated circuit—the chip that is in our computers, our smartphones, our cars, and so many other products in our consumer-oriented lives, not to mention the medical and industrial uses. Kilby would receive the Nobel Prize in Physics 30 years later for that invention.

My mother taught me not to make rash assumptions or judgments about people, or clients. 

Several years later, I was a doctoral student and managed to talk the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas into hiring me for a summer project to evaluate bank holding company performance. During those two months, my wife and I lived at my parents’ house to minimize our expenses. My parents had a hideous little dog, rendered toothless because my father let her lick the bowl when he was finished with his nightly ice cream fix. Mother disliked fences, but she decided that she would have a short picket fence installed around the patio and a small grassy area so that she could simply open the door to let the dog out rather than having to put her on a leash. In the evening after the fence was installed, I returned home and found my mother sitting on the step of the back porch, sobbing. I asked why she was crying, and she explained that the contractor hadn’t built the fence as she had specified. She added, “He just thought he could get away with it because I’m Italian.”

My mother taught me that some people, and clients, have deep scars that affect how they see the world and how they make decisions.

Only recently have I realized that I was never with my mother on Mother’s Day in any of the last 30 years of her life, largely because I never lived within 300 miles and, sad to say, I didn’t make the effort. I did make it to her 85th birthday, though, and I learned at that time that she had pancreatic cancer. My father had died 10 years earlier, and his struggles with treatments for his lung cancer were, to be incredibly euphemistic, unpleasant. Mother insisted that she had lived long enough and declined any life-extending treatments of her terminal disease since she reasoned that the treatment was worse than the disease.

A month later, my son Rob died very unexpectedly.

After Mother passed away, my sister revealed to me that, without informing me, Mother had decided to undergo chemotherapy that made her weak and constantly nauseous. My sister asked Mother what changed her mind. She quoted Mother as saying, “Don’t tell David, but for his sake, I want more time to pass between Rob’s death and mine.”

My mother taught me something more important than financial planning—the depth of a mother’s love.