The Money-Management Secrets of A 56-Year Union: “It’s Always Been Ours”

Money is a frequent cause of marital friction. Not with Eddie and Sylvia Brown, however. They have kept financial concerns from coming between them. Here’s how.

Making it through 50 years of marriage is no easy feat—only 6% of married couples in the U.S. have been hitched for a half-century or more. Sadly, more than 40% of all marriages end in divorce. Reasons for this often include disagreements over money. Financial planner Ash Toumayants says that “money is trust, and relationships need to be built on trust.” When couples feel disengaged from their finances, he says, it’s common for relationships to fall apart.

Then there’s Eddie and Sylvia Brown, married since 1962, still sharing horizons that are new to them, 56 years later. You might say they’ve only just begun—to contemplate retirement together. Their secret? No matter their net worth over the years, “we’ve never had the concept of his and hers,” says Eddie. “It’s always been ours.”

This is no ordinary couple. Eddie, 77 years old, is founder of Baltimore-based Brown Capital Management, the second-oldest (after Ariel Investments in Chicago) African American–owned financial advisory firm in the U.S., with $11.3 billion in assets under management. After advising clients since 1983, Brown transferred ownership of his firm to his 34 employees. And although he has no timeline for a full retirement, he is looking forward to more time for traveling, tennis, golf, cycling and collecting artwork with his bride.

Sylvia retired in 1985, after a 15-year career as a middle school teacher. Although she initially stopped working with the birth of their two daughters in 1966 and 1969, she returned to teaching after their daughters were in kindergarten. Today she describes herself as a “professional volunteer”: She works with Baltimore City elementary schools to provide lectures and mentorship for the children and to organize field trips to college campuses. Over the last decade, she has planned lessons on proper manners and healthy eating, and she’s taken groups of students on field trips to more than 10 universities.

Making Ends Meet

Eddie and Sylvia met as sophomores at Howard University. (“Sylvia was the pursuer,” Eddie notes.)

As with many young couples, money was tight in the early years. Eddie served an eight-year stint in the Army, stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. After a two-year term as an active-duty member of the Army’s Signal Corps, he spent six years in the Army Reserve and was promoted to captain. “He didn’t make much money at all,” Sylvia recalls.

But the couple established a budget on day one. “We were going to live within our means and set aside x percent for saving and investing,” Eddie says. “We’ve always had a budget. We still do.” Sylvia balanced the checkbook and paid the bills, and Eddie began dabbling in investing.

Their guidelines on personal spending have been at once flexible and limiting: The Browns don’t require permission from each other to make personal purchases. The only limits are on how much they have budgeted for discretionary spending for each. “As long as it is within the budget, it is okay,” says Eddie.

Financing an Active Retirement

Sylvia collects a monthly pension, which started at age 65, from her teaching days. Both Eddie and Sylvia started taking Social Security benefits at their normal retirement age of 65, bypassing several years of opportunities to claim early. “We really didn’t need it, so why take it?” Eddie asks. “We maximized our benefit and invested the proceeds more productively.”

The Browns haven’t shifted to more conservative holdings in their retirement portfolio because they haven’t needed to. Eddie says that while couples typically become more conservative as they get older, he and Sylvia have enough assets to fulfill their needs “in perpetuity,” so now they’re focused on building additional wealth for their heirs.

That doesn’t mean they’re overexposed to volatile stocks in retirement. “I know what the normal formula says about asset allocation [100 minus your age equals the percentage of your portfolio allocated to stocks], and we’re a little more conservative. My investment strategy hasn’t changed because we have pretty significant diversification—our real estate, our artwork,” Eddie explains. “When you look at the big picture, we are doing what is normally recommended. We’re fine. We’re building for future generations.” For the Browns, that means the couple’s two daughters and three grandchildren. But they take it one step further—empowering their heirs to become community benefactors.

Giving Back

The couple established a family foundation in 1994 to get their children and grandchildren thinking philanthropically. Once a year, Eddie and Sylvia call their family together for a meeting of the Eddie C. and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation. With their family, they investigate requests for philanthropic contributions, and fulfill ones that align with their mission to improve the health of the impoverished, benefit inner-city education and support the local arts. They work with the Baltimore Community Foundation to allocate this grant money.

They’ve also used this foundation to get their three grandsons—ages 21, 16 and 10—involved in finance. Through their foundation, they’ve set up donor-advised funds with $10,000 for each grandson, with the goal of helping them choose small charities to support.

They also got involved in real estate renovation projects early on—starting out by purchasing and renovating apartment and office buildings. “We both like to do projects together. We think about them and execute them together,” Eddie says. In the early days, Sylvia was the property manager and focused more on commercial projects. While they still purchase apartment buildings with the intent of improving their occupancy rates, one of their biggest and most recent real estate adventures was renovating The Ivy Hotel. Sylvia says choosing to spearhead the project was a difficult decision because of the costs and work involved, but it’s been particularly rewarding for them because the boutique-style hotel is the first and only hotel in Maryland to become a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux association of independently run landmark hotels.

Planning for Future Generations

The Browns have been fine-tuning their estate plan for nearly 20 years now with the help of various financial advisers, including a CPA, an estate and trust attorney, and a wealth-management consultant who specializes in preserving intergenerational wealth. “That team of three helps us figure out these different strategies of preserving, legally, as much of our estate to pass on to our children as possible,” Eddie says. “We like planning for the futures of our children and grandchildren.”

The Browns’ priority these days: monetizing Eddie’s ownership interest in Brown Capital Management. Eddie doesn’t anticipate either of his daughters stepping into his shoes at the firm. One daughter, Jennifer, is on BCM’s board of directors, and is a practicing psychologist in the Baltimore area. Their other daughter, Tonya, is a professional painter.

In October 2016, Brown Capital Management adopted an employee stock ownership plan, a major achievement for them. “Even when I’m not there, it will continue. We’ve hired a special team for ESOPs and brought in legal counsel.”

Providing for their two daughters, three grandsons and future generations of the Brown family is very important to the couple as they look to the future. The couple has also set up a grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT), a financial instrument used to minimize taxes on financial gifts to family members. With their estate attorney, they’ve worked on moving assets from their estate to a trust for their heirs.

And maybe, just maybe, these steps will encourage their grandchildren, Sylvia jokes, to “turn off PokemonGo and think about their financial future.”

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