It’s Been 50 Years, Folks! Let’s Discuss Net Worth, Life Worth – and What Ed Coyle Taught Us About Legacy Horticulture

During these first months of 2022, we’ve experienced a stock market correction resulting in an erosion of our collective net worth. Two years ago, with the start of the COVID pandemic, the year 2020 was marked by a large drop in the stock market–followed by a steady and substantial increase in equity portfolios through the end of 2021.

And so the cycle goes: steps forward, then back, on and on.

Is our net worth just all smoke and mirrors, funny money, some random step theory with a splash of luck thrown in for good measure? It might seem that way at times.

Are we defined by our net worth? Well, sometimes, at least through the lens of money.

But adolescent children certainly don’t define us by our net worth. They are far more interested in our time and attention.

And many strangers don’t define us by our net worth–rather, by the short-lived interactions they have with us during random encounters.

Our close family members certainly have complex relationships with us that, true, are partially defined in their eyes by our net worth.

Greater net worth does offer us more opportunities to do good, or harm, to ourselves or others. When markets are favorable, we tally our progress like a scorecard on how “well” we are doing. It gives us momentary comfort, with the caveat that it may be fleeting–though historically over market cycles, “the trend is your friend” and persists steadily upwards over time.

Still, why is it that we pay so much attention to our net worth rather than the freedom that our cash flow generates, allowing us our comfortable lifestyle?

Spoiler alert: We can’t take it with us. It will all end up in the hands of the next generation, charity, or the Government coffers.

During times like this–the U.S. economy in mid-cycle, a market correction, the Fed aggressively determined to dampen inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–we may elect to reassess our net worth, to score it relative to other key attributes of our estate and how our life is influenced directly or indirectly by family members and others.

Some of you may remember the 1950s TV quiz show “What’s My Line?” with host John Daly. The celebrity panel asked yes/no questions to try to determine the mystery guest’s identity. Steve Allen, one of the popular panelists, coined the famous question: “Is it bigger than a breadbox?”

Our net worth can be thought of that way (hopefully, bigger than a breadbox!). Virtually everyone desires to define themselves by some metric: some down-to-earth, clear-cut analytical measurement. It may not necessarily be our net worth, but that’s part of it.

Emphatically, we are light years more than just an extrinsic measurement.

“Please think about your legacy because you are writing it every day.”

—Gary Vaynerchuk, entrepreneur

Subjectively, what’s your net worth, your self-worth, your life worth? Will you be remembered? What impact will you have on those around you or society at large? Does it matter to you or are you satisfied to have made it this far, just happy to live out a full life?

The late Steve Jobs’ wife and philanthropist, Laurene Powell Jobs, insisted that one of his most famous quotes, “Make a dent in the universe,” has been misinterpreted. She says the quote was actually about believing one has the ability to “manipulate the circumstances.” The quote is more about a conviction that one has the innate qualities to change a given situation. And Jobs certainly did, creating Apple products that are beautiful, easy to use, and positively impactful to our daily living.

Does your net worth, your “stuff,” have meaning or purpose for your heirs? Do you want it to?

When we discuss these deeper questions with our clients, the general response is: We want to make life a little better, a little easier for our children and/or fund college education for our grandchildren. We don’t want them to go through life enduring the stress we faced building our net worth.

This is simple, clear, straightforward.

Let them focus on something more substantive in their life. We can at least help to make the way smoother in the money department.

What comes along with the money? Our values? Our legacy? Our purpose? Examples of our life’s work? These 2 a.m. questions wake us up, our having been alerted to a family member who is going through a difficult time and needs help.

Ultimately, each one of us has something we don’t want to regret on our death bed.

Do you remember hurrying to get that first Will signed that designated your younger brother or sister as guardian for your newborn, before something terrible might happen to you and your spouse?

Yes, we needed to check the box to make certain little Johnny didn’t end up with the wrong family member!

During those early years, net worth was something fairly meaningless, considering we had more debt than assets. A Will was all that was needed.

Fast forward 30 years and that original Will is now replaced with a few Revocable Trusts, Wills, Powers of Attorney, and so on.

Assets have grown with 401(k)s, IRAs, brokerage accounts, real estate and more.

This is serious money.

Is our estate plan still a “check the box” item? Possibly, but in all probability, not.

Outside of taking care of our families, approximately one-third of all successful investors (defined as over one million dollars in investable assets) are charitably inclined.

They desire to do something more formal with their money, either as charity while living or at their death. For most of us, charity starts at home and eventually may extend beyond ourselves and our immediate family.

Many entrepreneurs want to pass on their entrepreneurial dreams by involving family in their enterprise so that their business survives them and thrives under the leadership of the next generation. Sometimes, family members enthusiastically cooperate, and at other times not.

Then there are second homes that have become part of the family with decades of family traditions, memories and deep meaning for children and grandchildren.

And legacy stock that has built the family net worth and has taken on the mantle of an “adopted” family member, even though it’s not official.

Professions run in families. Some run very deep. It’s not unusual for doctors, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, carpenters and many other professions and trades to run in the family.

Our family, as many of you may know, has three generations of military, enlisted and officers, represented by the Army, Air Force and Marines.

Children look up to us when they’re young, as if we can do no wrong. They emulate us. They imitate us. They adore us. They honor us and want to preserve what we stand for. Of course, there are the exceptions.

So the question is: What defines you in what you do, think or feel that will help carry on well into the next generation?

More often than we care to recall, we have had the humbling experience of serving loved ones who have lost their parents–witnessing the passing of their parents’ net worth to them, and then addressing next steps.

What amazes me are the number of second- and third-generation family members who conduct their lives like their parents or grandparents, as if these older generations are gazing down upon them as they pursue their daily lives.

They take on the deep values, family traditions and deep meanings behind what makes their families who they are.

The patriarch of our firm, Edward Coyle, started our company 50 years ago in 1972. Never a day goes by where our company operates by different principles than the standards he set for me and for my partner of 34 years, his son, Kevin.

Kevin’s entire family is proud of their Coyle family heritage. Speak with them and they will immediately nod–yes–that when referencing their family elders’ past actions, lessons and legacy they now instinctively summon a core question for any particular situation: What does a Coyle do?

Are they perfect? Hell, no. Are they a work-in-progress? You bet they are! Ruth and Ed Coyle are gazing down on them, knowing they did their very best to leave this legacy: what it means to be a Coyle.

Okay, Ed was a son-of-a-gun to work for! But, it was all worth it.

Did I mention Ruth and Ed’s net worth? No!

Why? Because it didn’t approach anywhere near the impact that they had as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents for their eight children and over 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

All of us realize that whatever importance we attach to our net worth certainly is not what we attach to our family worth or our life’s work, as the latter two have the greatest impacts on future generations.

What’s the real mission? Use net worth to elevate family worth and make life a little easier. Help multiply more opportunities, possibilities, contingencies and fortuities and help limit the damages from the storms as much as possible.

Making a dent in the universe is aligned with a popular Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

Perhaps better yet, the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.” This captures the literal and figurative expression of love for our fellow men and women who proceed us after we are gone.

Ed and Ruth believed this.

You may not be aware that with the arrival of the 20th century there were four billion American Chestnut trees in the eastern United States. They were heralded as the Redwoods of the East with a somewhat similar height and girth. Truly majestic trees.

An acre of land can support only four mature America Chestnut trees. They produce three-to-four thousand pounds of chestnuts annually, supporting a variety of wildlife including cattle that may graze under their expansive branches.

A Japanese fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, arrived in New York City around 1904 and nearly eliminated all mature American Chestnut trees by 1940.

Chestnut blight a devastating disease for North America.

Our estate. Our money. Our net worth starts off as a young tree providing meager sustenance for us and our offspring. To grow while being protected from disease, drought and fire, wise horticulture requires careful planting, vigilant tending and timely cultivation.

As decades advance and new generations emerge, will they symbolically stand under poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s healthy “spreading chestnut tree” for worthy daily toil and happy rejoicing? Forging promising futures through diligent attention to their stewardship and goals and by increasing their net worth?

As family elders, we’ve learned that the fruit of every village smithy’s efforts derives from many arduous years of labor and growth:

“Thus at the flaming forge of life

Our fortunes must be wrought;

Thus on its sounding anvil shaped

Each burning deed and thought.”

The fruit provides the sustenance. Beforehand, though, a tree must be planted and nurtured to provide its nourishment and wisdom for the ages.

Maybe it’s time to dust off your Estate Plan. Maybe there are important subjective changes to be made, or maybe not.

Ed and Ruth’s perpetual legacy is alive and well in our company, going ahead full throttle through Kevin, myself and many others. This is Coyle Financial Counsel’s 50th anniversary.

How about you? How about your net worth, your family worth? What do you want to leave behind for your loved ones, for your community, or the world at large?

Earlier, I mentioned the 50s game show “What’s My Line?” Another regular panelist, actress Arlene Francis, frequently guessed the mystery guest’s identity by starting with the question, “Do you deal in services?”

Service—intentional, planned, intelligent, kind, generous, visionary—identifies individuals as well as families.

And should define every business philosophy and essence.

In our Coyle universe, service is the highest calling.

“Only a life lived in the service to others is worth living” (Albert Einstein).

“And in the end, it’s not the years in a life, it’s the life in the years” (Abraham Lincoln).



This newsletter is designed to provide our friends and clients with information regarding the various subject matters covered. It is not designed to take the place of legal, accounting, or other professional advice. If expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.

© 2022 Coyle Financial Counsel, Inc


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