Lessons Learned: Advising Families from Foreign Cultures

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diverseI recently started working with a family with a strong Pakistani heritage. The husband is a first-generation immigrant and his wife is an American-Pakistani (born in the USA, but of Pakistani descent). They are both doctors and have a great combined income. However, as we started discussing how their plan would be designed, it become clear to me that my whole education and experience was going to be turned on its head.

Different country, same culture

When I entered the house on a winter’s morning, I was struck by the smell of curry powder and Bollywood-type music. My client’s mother and mother-in-law were watching Bollywood soap operas while cooking the family meal to be eaten later that night. When I approached the house, it seemed large for a family of four, but I then realized after stepping in, that this was a house for six as both mothers lived there as well. As I discovered, they would live with them until they passed away and it was my client’s duty to look after them until that time. While this arrangement can exist in Western cultures, the conviction in my client’s voice that his mother would not be moving into care told me that this was a strong part of their heritage that held no regard for country borders.

College before retirement

As I examined my client’s assets, it became clear that there was an imbalance in their savings. They had both received six-figure inheritances but the wife said she was going to use all of her money to fund college expenses. The husband wanted to invest his, but also said that if needed, it would be used for college. They then told me that they had purchased and paid for an entire undergraduate education in Illinois’ prepaid college plan for both of their girls, so that expense was covered. At that point, I was confused. As we discussed this further, it turned out that they wanted to fund both of their daughter’s education at whatever institution they wanted – Ivy League preferred – and they would pay for any additional legal or medical schooling that they opted for.

This caused me to sweat a little as it became apparent that they would come up short when it came to retirement savings. As I explained this to them, they politely told me there was a cultural reason behind it, not just financial. In their culture, every resource is given to the children so they can gain a great standing (and income) in their career. This will prove to be important, as they will be supporting their parents in their retirement in addition to their own family. While I politely challenged if this would still be the case as their daughters were born-and-raised in a Western culture, they assured me that their daughters understood the expectations placed upon them.

Male figurehead

Throughout our discussions over the next couple of months, I saw a reverence for the husband / father that is not typically seen in Western households. While the family talked together, if they had a difference of opinion with their husband/father, they were to concede to his opinion. Even the wife, who was on an equal footing professionally as her husband, respectfully deferred to him as being the household leader. While for women of Western upbringing this may seem to be going back in time (or even demeaning), it was enlightening to see the amount of respect that the household had for each other. There was an obvious hierarchy among the family members, but it was adhered to with the utmost respect for everyone involved.

As I carry on planning with this family, I have asked them if I can ask questions about their family structure and heritage if I am not sure of the norms. The smile and appreciative response that this received was encouraging. I am under no illusions that my education and experience has prepared me for everything, and it’s nice to know that clients are happy to teach me something when I don’t know the answer.

Dave Grant, CFP®, is the founder of Finance For Teachers a fee-only RIA in Cary, IL. Dave exclusively serves teachers in Illinois by helping them to organize their financial lives and live a fulfilled life. He is also a columnist at Financial Planning magazine, a ghost writer for various companies, and the founder of NAPFA Genesis, a networking group for over 300 young, fee-only planners.