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Michelle Arpin Begina: One Difficult Lesson Away from Financial Independence

Michelle is a Managing Director and Financial Advisor, a role in which she uses her passion for financial literacy, married with the science of wealth management and the art of financial therapy. Michelle’s childhood informed her career path: Growing up “yacht poor,” she was surrounded by the trappings of wealth but knew her family wasn’t far from catastrophe. Michelle questioned her financial story and realized that she needed the synergy of knowledge, skills, and emotional composure to be financially literate.

She got her start in financial planning with American Express Financial Advisors, where she counseled high net worth individuals to manage their wealth and build their legacy. She’s served as District Investment Specialist for Northwestern Mutual Life, New York City District Financial Planning Specialist for Merrill Lynch, and Vice President – Wealth Management for Smith Barney/Morgan Stanley before finding her home at Snowden Lane. In 2020 she launched MichelleAB, a lifestyle platform that provides financial education, tools, events, and emotional intelligence on money to women around the world.

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: What was your One Away moment that really was the seminal point for you in your career?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: I’ve heard this expression that we all face a moment in our life where we realize that we’re on our own. We’re it. We’re going to have to make it happen. I didn’t see that moment for what it was at the time but in retrospect, I can see that after I had graduated from high school, after growing up being told, “You’ll be the first to go to college. You’re really smart. We’ll support you.” Being taken on college campus tours and then standing at a dock at a marina at the age of 17 with a brand new yacht in the water and being told, “We don’t have the money to send you to college.” It was that moment for me, in a non-cognitive instant, my entire body internalized the message, “You’re on your own.”

When I think back to that moment, it literally felt like my internal organs had all turned chalk white. That’s how terrifying that moment was for me. What’s interesting about it, when I think back, is I didn’t react at all when my father told me that. He was looking me in the eyes and shrugged his shoulders and said, “We don’t have the money to send you to college.” I didn’t react. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t express any anger. I didn’t cry. I was stoic. That was because my brain literally – the wheels started cranking and I was standing there staring at him thinking, “College costs a lot of money. I don’t have any money. How am I going to get some money? Got to get a job.” I literally went into action mode.

What I think is kind of remarkable about that is I listened to an interview where Hugh Jackman, the actor, was being interviewed. He grew up in Australia. At the end of his college career, he realized that he majored in the wrong thing. He really should have majored in acting. He finished his undergrad and then applied to acting school. In Australia, your education is paid for. When he applied for the acting school, he never thought that he might  get a bill to go to that school and he did.

He got his acceptance letter and at the end, he owed them $3,000 to be able to attend the school. When he saw that, he threw the letter in the garbage and said to himself, “I don’t have the money. I’m not going.” As the universe often does, the next day, he received a check for $3,000 from an inheritance from his grandmother. I love how the universe works.

To me, what’s really remarkable in comparison to me is my roles got turned to, “I don’t have any money. How am I going to get the money?” Which was very much my upbringing around the things that you have to pay for in life. In education, in the United States, it’s something you have to pay for. Whereas, in Australia, an education is not something you have to pay for. Just the mindset difference of I don’t have the money, in both situations, but how one person can react differently than another person in the exact same circumstances. 

BRYAN WISH: That must have been heartbreaking. I can totally see your mind going into overdrive. Like what am I going to do? I’d love to know when you finally were able to process the event emotionally and when that came? What was it like growing up? Were you always having to pay for stuff? Did you live very frugally? 

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: My parents were what I call high performance defiant. There are a lot of us out there which basically just means how you do one thing is not how you do everything contrary to popular belief. My parents were very good hearted people, hardworking, ran a great business, were very successful. Successful in lots of different realms of life but not with money. Particularly my father, the more money that was earned in the household, the more that got spent. The way that I grew up is very hard to relate for most people. I grew up with having private airplanes. You name the sports car and we had it in our driveway at one point. Ultimately, this yacht. What outsiders didn’t know was that every single time my parents bought a big ticket item, we were literally down to our last five bucks.

I also grew up with our home being within an inch of being foreclosed on and my mom using the envelope system in a shoebox doling out cash to be able to have grocery money for us. Money was super tight but yet super big at the same time. It was all extremely uncomfortable. They say our money behaviors were motivated by spending for power, love, freedom, or security. Power was a very big dynamic, a very different dynamic between my parents. The philosophy growing up was, “He or she who makes the money has the power.” My mom was complicit in a lot of this but also didn’t step into her power regardless of how much money that she made. My father had this habit of asking for pretend permission. For example, when I was 10 years old, he spotted a Jaguar that he really wanted. This guy was selling it and it was a great deal. My mom happened to be out of town. He called her and asked her, “I really want this car. Is it okay if I get it?”

She said, “No.” My brother and I happened to be home with my father for the two weeks she was away. He bought the car anyway and put it in our garage and swore my brother and I to secrecy which made me feel like a crumb when my mom would call that I knew there was this car in the garage that she was going to come home to. At the same time, I used to think, “Dad, do you think she’s not going to notice this car?” This pattern of pretend permission kept coming up and coming up. I witnessed this kind of behavior go on between my parents and I felt the fallout of it. It was like breathing secondhand smoke; the tension that was in the house between my parents but it didn’t have a direct hit. To use a boat analogy, it was like getting hit with a torpedo after being promised, “We’ll support you to go to college” and literally, my father bought a boat. It was the first time it was a direct hit to me. It took me 32 years to process what happened at that marina.

When I say 32 years, what I mean is it’s not that I didn’t think of it. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it. It took me 32 years to speak the truth of it. To actually tell the story. It took me that long. I used to always use this expression that I threw myself into busy to cope with it intentionally. We use that term “crazy busy” all the time and I was crazy busy on purpose because it saved me from any sort of social judgment that I was fearing around what would people think of who we are and what would people think of me that my parents made a choice to buy a boat instead of sending me to college when they very well knew that was the path. It took a long time. It was the depths of shame and it was the vulnerability that pulled me out of it. 

BRYAN WISH: Let’s take a minute to process all of that. You grew up  with this completely misaligned and inauthentic childhood to the outside world. Did you show up in school and with friends and feel this sense that you had to hide the truth within the house?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: Yeah. No one knew. It misaligned. I have two children of my own. As I’ve watched them grow up and have thought about the different things that I witnessed or knew about, at the same ages that my own children have gone through, it’s not reliving it again but it really reinforces the magnitude of learning things too ahead of your time when you’re not ready for them as a kid. It can be very damaging. I’ve made lemon out of lemonades with my life from this. It was a deep, dark secret. Family didn’t know that we lived this way. Friends didn’t know. No one knew. 

BRYAN WISH: You said it took 32 years to come to processing the shame and the way you were able to do that was through the vulnerability of sharing. How did you start to process this total misalignment? 

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: This is a little bit circular, the way I’m going to describe this. I had picked up on a story about Megyn Kelly, the newscaster. It was a story about how she went from being rejected from a communication school. I think it was Syracuse. To then becoming a lawyer and then ultimately entering mainstream media. In that story, she talked about managing her career and her family, husband, and three young kids. The reporter got her to really open up about how she felt about money. She literally said, “I lie to my children about how much money we have. If I have money, what makes them think they have money?”

I was reading this and was really fascinated by this. What I’m fascinated by is the disconnect between our status and our state of mind. They are often not one. There’s a lot of people with misaligned status and state which I grew up completely opposite. The reason I’m telling that story is I actually was using my network to try to meet Megyn to work with her on that issue because I don’t know her but I venture to guess she has an accountant, a lawyer, a couple of other attorneys working for her. She’s got advisors. I call that missing the financial forest for the trees. It’s a very common problem. 

What ended up happening was on the way to meeting Megyn Kelly, I met a former CEO of a major publisher who said, “You have such original ideas. You need to write a book.” It was the process of writing the book that I had to decide, for myself, how much of my story am I going to put in this book or not? Originally, I wasn’t going to put any of my story in. I came around to people are going to want to know why you’re interested in this or how you got interested in this or how you got good at helping people marry their status and state together. I ultimately decided, “I’m going to tell my story.” It was the process of writing.

There was probably a two week period where I was journaling. I was forcing myself to journal and really go back and relive everything that had happened from the moment on the dock forward until I was probably 32 or 35 years old. I didn’t just write it in a way of the events that happened. As best as I could, I went and actually relived all of the emotions and wrote all of that out. That was a big breakthrough for me in being able to do that for myself. I then decided to take a one day public speaking course. I hadn’t done any public speaking in a while. I decided to take a refresher. It was right around the time that I was journaling. I made a little vow to myself that if I had a chance to tell my story, during this public speaking class, that I would. Again, the universe delivered. The very last assignment of the day was to get up and tell the class any story from your life that you wanted to and you had two minutes to do it. I panicked so much. I thought I was going to have a stroke.

The coach in the room, we side barred outside, and I explained the situation to her; the promise I had made to myself and why I was having such a hard time. She literally looked me in my eyes and held my hands and said, “Just tell me your story.” As the tears would come up, she’d just say, “Just don’t push them down. Let them come up.” She listened to my story through my jerky tears. I got it out. Then she said, “Do you think you can walk into the room and tell the story.” “Yeah, I think so.” And I did. It’s not a point of if I did or I didn’t cry when I did it. I didn’t cry because just telling that one person had given me so much healing that I was able to do it. 

The thing that I didn’t know that was waiting for me on the other side of this – because for me, there was a life before my actual going to that class and there was life after telling my story. What was waiting for me was an inner peace that I had never experienced. It’s kind of ironic that from the outside looking in, Michelle looked like she had it all going on which I did. Successful family. Good kids. Great career. Good friends. Healthy. Yes, I was having a great life but I was missing the state of mind. It’s not that I was a nut. I was missing that inner source of peace that is like the linchpin that gives you all that alignment. That’s the part that I was missing and I didn’t even know that I was missing it. 

BRYAN WISH: That’s so profound. You said it was like the missing link that brought you into alignment. You said that with your parents, with the yacht, it was the first time you realized you were on your own. From that point forward until 32 years later, it was this sprint to kind of complete yourself in a way through all these external things. Maybe when you took a look inside, there was still this huge, missing hole. Did you feel when you were able to go share with that one person and publicly you were able to create an inner completeness within yourself because now you were fully revealed?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: You’re so perceptive. I don’t think I really realized it at the moment. Thinking back on that day, I think it restored my sense of belonging. If you think about we live our lives in relationships with other people and the need to belong is innate as human beings. To surgically remove a part of myself was always going to limit my full sense of belonging in the world. There were pockets of belonging in the places it wasn’t necessarily to be completely vulnerable but in the most important relationships of my life, to just put it out there that this happened, this was my experience, this is who I am, and this is where I came from just really gave me that sense of belonging that I had been longing for but yet had never fully experienced and really didn’t even know what that experience was like. That’s what it did for me. 

BRYAN WISH: You had to hide a part of yourself for so long. 

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: That’s the trick. We think we have to. It’s a trick. We don’t. It doesn’t make it easy to step into it.

BRYAN WISH: Thank you for your incredibly vulnerability. This is fascinating. You’re one person but you have extensions of yourself. You have kids, marriage, work, and these pieces that you bring your full self into. How has this experience shaped you with how you parent and how you developed your career path?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: I’m going to go with career path first. I was thinking about a regret I had after I did start to tell my story. By the way, what was remarkable about what happened that day is I thought I was ready to tell my story. Clearly, when the moment came, I really wasn’t. I hit the lottery in that the right person was there to support me. That was luck. Another thing that was very interesting is you have to be healed enough to tell your story but yet you also receive healing from someone else in telling your story. It’s a two-way street. There’s this super vulnerable moment of, “Am I making the right choice with the right person here to tell? Because I need this person to receive it in a way that they’re not going to crush me any further. They’re going to help me to soar.”

When I look back, there was a job that I was interviewing for. The interview process, I met like 12 people over six months in the interview process. There was this one person who I met with. We were sitting at a big, New York City office. He has my resume on the desk. He’s looking at me. He looks down at the resume. Looks at me. Looks down at the resume. Then he says, “I don’t get it.” My resume, to me, reflected an 8-year journey of hobbling different jobs together of consistent employment while I was getting my degree.

This was a person who was used to seeing resumes of someone who goes from high school directly to college and then maybe it’s the first or second job that the person is interviewing for. If I were in that position today, I would have explained myself of why my resume looked the way that it looked. There would have been such power in that but I didn’t have it in me at that moment to do it. There would have been such power and it would have said everything this person needed to know about me in terms of my tenacity and my grit and my perseverance which is what everybody is looking for in an employee. 

BRYAN WISH: I’m curious about your parents and their upbringing. It seems they were always trying to buy to complete themselves. You’re saying you didn’t realize the power and value that you had by doing all these jobs. Did they never help you see how special and valuable you were?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: I had such a dichotomous upbringing. On the one hand, my parents always told me, “You can grow up and do anything that you can put your mind to.” I’d hear, “You’re capable. You’re smart.” I got really positive messages. Not only being told that I’d be the first to go to college and they’d support me but also that I’m capable of this was the message that came through. I think what helped me in the moment that arrived on that dock was my identity already was that my path would include going to college. I saw a career for myself. I always saw that growing up, that that was going to be my path. 

I didn’t have any other vision for my life. In that way, my parents did help me. I certainly could have seen that event very differently. It could have changed the course direction. It was definitely a fork in the road because there was no visibility on how I’m going to make that happen. We didn’t really talk about this but I’m a believer in the will but we always use that expression, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” What I believe is the will is the way. What I mean is if you study the will, there’s strong-will, good will, skilled will, transpersonal will. I always hear about strong-will and good will the most. Strong-will is usually associated with being stubborn.

Strong-will really is just being grounded in your conviction on what you want. What I think lifted me out most of all of the four elements of the will was the transpersonal will which is a belief in something that is much bigger than you at the moment. I had that belief. I think it did come from what I was raised to believe was possible. I really also was raised to believe that anything is possible. I definitely live my life that way. I throw out these hair brain ideas. You know the t-shirt, “Underestimate me. That will be fun.” That’s kind of the fun I have with stuff. 

BRYAN WISH: I love that. There’s always a spiritual or greater purpose that you can’t see in front of you but you know is coming to keep you going. What made you not be able to see the value or the power of the value that you had by this windy path of supporting yourself that you were going down?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: You’re really hitting on the tough stuff today. I did see it in myself. I remember thinking to myself in that moment, with this gentleman, it was like, “Can’t you see that I never had a break in employment? That I have worked hard.” If you look at the dates of when I attended school and when I was working, you can clearly see there’s this successive increase in responsibility of the different jobs that I was taking. Obviously, he didn’t see it that way. His point of view was something more traditional. It was my job to articulate that. The truth of the matter was it intimidated the living daylights out of me to do that. That was also part of what I struggled with. I knew who I was inside and I struggled with articulating who I really was to someone. If I had a do-over on that, I would say, “Let me clear that up for you.” Maybe I’d tell the boat story, maybe I wouldn’t. It would have been my job to explain the path of how I ended up there in that office with him. It wasn’t the college path. It was what brought me to this destination of sharing this space and this oxygen with you. 

BRYAN WISH: That’s powerful. What you’re doing today very much lines up to helping your younger self in a way. Tell us about getting into the field that you’re in and where you find the most fulfillment and joy. 

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: Where my life’s work really stems from is that I watched my parents who made their mistakes. What happened to me on the dock was pretty cruel. That doesn’t make them horrible people. It’s a horrible situation. They were successful in different realms in their life. Like we all bring different roles or play different roles, there are different context to different parts of our lives. We have different relationships in different parts of our lives and we want something different from the relationships and our office life versus our home life. My parents were just defiant when it came to money. What I remember thinking, as a kid to myself, was, “You guys have all the ingredients for this to be a phenomenal aspect of your life?”

I remember 8, 9, 10, 12 years old thinking this to myself. “And you just can’t get out of your own way. If only you could get out of your own way.” I’d see my parents do stuff and my head would go, “If only you two could get out of your own way.” I didn’t have the power or authority. I didn’t have the skills but I desperately wanted my parents to be happy and whole. That is the core of why I ended up doing what I do. I started and still have a career in financial advising and have now branched out into really teaching people how to talk about money by understanding the psychological and behavioral aspects of money which was what I was trained in first. Before I knew what a stock or bond was, I certainly was well educated in the fact that we have emotional connections with our money. I was living and breathing that. That’s where it all stems from. There’s a younger part of me that I give to every single person that I come in contact with that wasn’t able to give that to her parents. It puts a smile on my face to even say that. I think it’s a beautiful thing when you take the lived experiences that you know could be better in the world and you’re trying to do your part to leave something better.

BRYAN WISH: To be 8, 9, or 10 and have that awareness is so profound especially with what you were going through. It was probably traumatic without realizing it. It’s neat that you aligned your work with helping people. You’re doing work that’s aligned to your core and your own story. You can show up so authentically in those moments. It’s remarkable. I grew up where I my parents enjoyed what they did but I wanted to find an even deeper connection with the things about myself and my work and integrating that even deeper. You have tried to do that for yourself. 

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: I do feel like my values are very integrated. We don’t have one set of values for one area of our life than another. Seventeen and looking at a yacht and trying to figure out your college, that will send you into a tizzy. Part of what that did, for me, because I really had to figure it out, I became really serious about it. I don’t think it’s unusual for a teenager going into their 20s to really be asking the questions, “What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Am I supposed to be going to school? Am I not? What should I major in? What does my career look like? Do I want to get married?” All of the really big questions.

When I think back on it, I feel like I was on overdrive in trying to answer those questions. It felt like a quest. I’m not so sure my experience is so different from a lot of people trying to answer those same questions at the same time. It’s sort of a right of passage kind of a time. In that process, I was definitely very grounded in meaningful relationships and meaningful work. That was sort of a guidepost for me. Relationships and work, at the end of the day, I feel had meaning for someone else which would also be meaning for me. I knew that was going to make me happy. That was always the filter I was looking at my career through. 

BRYAN WISH: What stands out is that yacht event. I think a lot of people have those questions but they don’t face those questions until 4-5 years out of college. A lot of my friends, from college, it took them 3 or 4 years to realize they were going to be miserable in their job. You had an event that maybe expedited your process of asking those big questions. You’ve had to face them a little bit earlier. Then you did face it pretty head on. Without that event, maybe you wouldn’t have tackled those questions at the time that you did. How has this experience influenced how you raise your kids? I think you said, on the first call, your son read The Parachute Book as well. How did what you learned growing up has influenced how you’ve raised a family?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: Where money is concerned, I’m responsibly open about it. Things were shared with me that I wasn’t ready to know at a young age. I thought really deeply about that. I think there was a situation in the household where only the four of us knew what was going on: my parents, my brother, and I. To release some stress, it wasn’t like my mother could go call her mother. No one knew. I think I became a way for my mother to talk about how she was feeling because she needed relief from  her stress. It was never intended to hurt me but it was inappropriate because I was too young to handle that. That’s why I call it being responsibly open. I stay very keenly aware of quickly checking in with myself if I’m going to share something with my kids. Am I sharing in a responsible way where this is ag appropriate? That’s always on my mind. 

I’ll tell you a funny story. As you can imagine, when both our boys were born, I practically left the hospital room to go open up their 529 accounts. College funding was high priority for me for them. I didn’t quite leave the hospital but shortly after. I’ve shown them. I’ve talked about it. I never shared my story with the kids until they were ready for it. Like early teenage years. I was showing my younger son the account statements. Yes, I still get paper statements. I do that on purpose because I actually want to show my sons the statements. It’s tangible. From a behavioral standpoint, receiving something in the mail is going to remind me versus me having to go remember to look at something. I was showing him the statements.

They’re 3 ½ years apart. I was showing my younger son that day and there’s a discrepancy in the account value. My older son has more money just because there’s been more time to save and invest in that account. I tried explaining that to him and compounding of money and the cycle of when you start investing your money versus another. It might actually work in your favor where it gives you more of a tailwind than another period of time. None of that was flying. He looked at me and said, “If you loved me, you’d top mine off.” Meaning you’d make sure these are equal. We’ve had some really funny moments.

The way I parent is I’ve made education a high value of mine. That doesn’t come from just the experience I had. It literally comes from one of my strengths of being a learner. I’m a lifelong student. I blow dry my hair reading books in the morning sometimes if I’m really into something. Education has been important. I don’t want to say that I’ve expected that my kids are going to go to college. What I’ve expected is that they’re going to get an education to be able to live their life. I’m totally open to how they get that education.

It looks like they’re going down the college path but if they said they wanted to do something different, I’m a big believer that they’re on their path just like I was. I think my role as a parent is to support them to help them become who they’re meant to be. They’re going to have their own dramas and traumas in life. I try to minimize any of the drama and trauma that I might cause them. I feel it’s my job. But for money, I’m an open book. I’m also a big believer that when kids ask questions, they’re ready for answers. The trick I always use is if they ask me a question and I answer and they don’t keep asking me for more information, then I’ve scratched the itch. If they keep asking me for more, I think they’re ready for more. They’re asking for more information to understand their initial question is usually what happens.

My kids have asked me, “How much money do you make? How much money do we have? What’s in my 529? How did you do this?” I’m open about that. I try to equally be open around process which is something that you can be open about without actually talking about numbers. For example, if you’re buying a new car. You can be really open around what your budget is in round numbers but you also could be open in the type of car you’re looking for and the features you’re looking for and the features you’re not looking for.

What I think that opens a child’s mind to is the decision making process, the tradeoffs, and the pros and cons. All of that relates to sound money management. Both an initial purchase and on an ongoing basis. Opening up how one makes decisions, I try to make that part of what I show with my kids. 

BRYAN WISH: That’s remarkable how you’ve taken your life lessons and built them into every aspect of your life. What a cool way to raise your kids. I’m sure they’re super appreciative of their mom. This was a pleasure today. So fun and heartfelt. If people wanted to reach out and find you, where can they do that?

MICHELLE ARPIN BEGINA: The two best places are LinkedIn and my website michelleab.com. On my website, on the homepage, is something that I put together called the success formula guide. What it guides people through is looking at successes that they’ve had in different areas of their life, not just money. It guides them through a process of seeing the method of their madness. When you start to look at different successes, you start to see patterns of how you accomplish something from point A to point B.

I’m a very big believer that the successes that we have in other areas of our life all create transferrable skills that we can use when it comes to our money. What people end up with at the end of that guide is like a 30,000 foot view to their own ways that they are resilient or persistent or how they use their social capital as much as their financial capital or other forms of capital that we have. 

BRYAN WISH: Thank you for showing up, Michelle. This was wonderful. 

One Away Podcast
Bryan Wish

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