A legacy more valuable than money
Affluent Black/African American families prioritize teaching the value of hard work and financial know-how. Here, they share tips all families can find useful.
By Tamara Holmes
ONCE, WHEN I WAS CHATTING WITH SEVERAL WHITE CO-WORKERS, the subject turned to how they had spent the money they’d inherited. One colleague made a down payment on an investment property. Another paid off student loans. I couldn’t add anything to the conversation, because no one in my family — or any of my Black/African American friends, for that matter — had ever received such a windfall or expected to get one.
“You can’t begin to pass on financial values without a solid foundation in basic financial education.”
For the majority of Black/African Americans in the U.S., even affluent ones, the experience of intergenerational wealth is novel. “Many of us are first-generation wealth creators,” notes Merrill Financial Advisor Nedra Agnew, who puts herself in that category. “My grandmother didn’t write checks drawn on a comfortable bank account; her method of paying bills was getting money orders,” she says.
Perhaps because of that — as well as the legacy of systemic inequities passed down from previous generations — we’re determined that our children will have a different experience. According to Merrill’s report, Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the Black/African American Community, affluent Black/African American survey respondents were likelier than the general affluent population to have a financial plan to pass on wealth to their children and to want to set them up for success. “Passing on wealth is also about the financial values and work ethic the next generation needs in order to prosper,” says Agnew. “We want our children to understand that they’ll have to be just as committed as we were to achieving success.”
So how can we instill those values? Here are some tips that Black/African American — and all — families can use to pass along a financial legacy that goes beyond assets.
“You can’t begin to pass on financial values without a strong foundation in basic financial education,” says Agnew. “Those lessons about money can start early,” notes Valerie Galinskaya, managing director and head of Merrill Center for Family Wealth.TM
“Lessons about money can start early.”
Brenton Hamlet, a Merrill advisor agrees. “I want my kids to see what money can and can’t do,” he says. That’s why he gave his children John-Ryan and Marley each a piggy bank with slots for saving, spending and giving when they were 10 and 6 respectively. “When one of my kids wants a new toy or video game, I'll ask, ‘How much of your own money are you going to contribute to buying this?’” he says. “They'll have to give me some dollars out of that spend bucket.”
As children get older, the same strategies can still be useful. Sandra Williams, a client of Hamlet’s and a retired lawyer, expected her daughter to work during the summers so she would become comfortable earning her own money. And while Williams financed her college education, when the daughter wanted to go to graduate school and law school, “I decided she needed to have some skin in the game, so she had to take out student loans.”
Affluent Black/African Americans are more likely than the general population to value what financial advisors can do for them; 58% reported having an advisor relationship, compared with 49% of the general population, the Merrill study found. Even so, historical exclusion may have left Black/African American people more skeptical — and more conservative — when it comes to investing as a way of building wealth. Research from Gallup in 2022 found that only 46% of people of color owned some form of stock, compared with 52% of non-Hispanic white adults in the U.S.1
“Be sure to place success in context: the moves that made it happen, the work that was put in.”
There are ways to help future generations become more comfortable with investing. Williams and her wife, Theressa Shields, have five grandchildren ranging in age from nine to 26. Now that their children, both daughters, are adults, Williams and Shields are focused on providing their grandchildren with financial experience. One way they’ve done this is by giving each grandchild $1,000 and helping them research and invest the money in companies they buy products from, such as video game manufacturers. “If they invest in something they’re interested in, that's a lot more fun for them,” Shields says.
Hamlet recalls another of his clients whose son saved money from his work on a movie set when he was 17. When the teen told Hamlet he wanted to buy an expensive pair of sneakers with some of his savings, Hamlet suggested that investing the money in the sneaker manufacturer, as part of a broader, diversified portfolio, might benefit him more in the long run. The teen chose to invest in the stock, and now at 25, he regularly talks with Hamlet about new investments.
“With what I've acquired, I have to remember that it's not just for me to have. I need to share it with others.”
“Role models are perhaps the biggest key to Black and African American wealth,” says Hamlet. “If you see someone who owns their own business, you go, ‘That's the way to do it.’” Expose your kids to different professions and entrepreneurs of color, Hamlet advises. If those individuals aren’t in your social network, look for programs or organizations that give kids access to people who have accumulated wealth. Also, Hamlet suggests letting kids know about your financial successes and those of others in the community, “but be sure to place success in context: The moves that made it happen, the work that was put in.” Black/African American parents want their kids to understand that success isn’t just magic or luck.
And don’t forget to be a role model yourself — for your children as well as other Black/African Americans. Shelley White-Picott, one of Agnew’s clients, remembers shopping at a local grocery store when the customer in front of her didn’t have enough to pay for her groceries. White-Picott picked up the tab. When the cashier asked how she could afford to do that, White-Picott told the cashier she’d teach her. She returned to the store with a gift for the young woman: a book on investing. “With what I've acquired, I have to remember that it's not just for me to have,” says White-Picott. “I need to share it with others.”
At some point, you’ll want to create an estate plan to pass on your wealth, too. Use it as one more opportunity to share with your children the lessons you’ve learned about success and what the money you have earned has allowed you to do for your family and your community. Your advisor and an estate planning professional can help you craft a plan to transmit wealth to your heirs in a thoughtful way. But “the conversations that are part of the estate planning process are as important as the plan you end up with,” notes Galinskaya.
These efforts by Black/African American parents may already be having some impact on the next generation. Since that conversation I had with co-workers about inheritances some 20 years ago, I’ve seen members of my own family change their financial trajectory because their parents passed down values as well as assets. Now, when my nieces and nephew find themselves in a conversation about inherited wealth, I know they will have a lot to say.
Tamara Holmes has written and edited for dozens of publications, including USA Today, Real Simple, Essence, Black Enterprise, Working Mother and Heart & Soul magazines.