Don’t penalize me for being punctual, and don’t insult me for not having a million dollars

You've heard the saying: "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Well, that may be true, but I can tell you for a fact that there is such a thing as a free dinner.

My lovely wife, Charlotte, and I know about free dinners all too well, as we're both at the age where investment and retirement planning companies want our business so badly that they're willing to feed us — often quite nicely, thank you very much — in the hope that we'll hire them in some sort of financial management capacity.

Sounds like a cushy gig, getting free dinners just to listen to well-dressed and smooth-talking money managers for an hour, but (remember my nickname is "Cranky Frankie" after all) it's not all wine and roses. One event in particular stands out.

This dinner was to take place in a town a quite a way from home at 6 p.m. on a weeknight. I work full-time and my wife works part-time, so weeknights are busy as you can imagine. That night, we got it together enough that we were seated at the restaurant about five minutes before the dinner was to start.

I should tell you right up front that I'm a punctual guy. If you tell me the party is at five, I'm there at five. Being "fashionably late" has no appeal to me at all; in fact, it annoys me very much, but I must be in the minority since everyone seems to do it.

Considering that this event was being put on by a financial-management company, a company that would like nothing more than the very serious and important job of managing my family's retirement savings and investments (what little we have), you'd think they'd be punctual as well. So now we're sitting at an elegantly decorated table in a fancy restaurant.

I had just put my napkin on my lap when a nicely-dressed company rep gets up and says, "Since we're still waiting on a few folks, let's wait about 10 minutes before beginning." Huh?

Let me get this straight. You agree to buy my wife and I dinner at a fancy restaurant, just to have us sit there and listen to you try and convince us to let you manage our investments. We hustle and race, both of us working people, on a very busy weeknight to get to a restaurant in another town by 6 p.m. and then, just because a few others haven't yet arrived, we are supposed to sit and twiddle our thumbs for 10 minutes?

To me, it's all about first impressions; if you truly want to be my financial manager, you should have started the program on time. Then, when the stragglers show up, you can offer to stay later if they want to question you on anything they may have missed (and since the beginning of these things is all schmoozing anyway, they wouldn't have missed much).

I really, really think it sends a bad message to the many folks who went out of their way to do as we were told and show up on time to make us then sit there and wait, effectively penalizing us for being punctual.

Am I wrong about this? I really don't think so. I have always favored those who are on time, dependable, and honest, and I always will.

So the event starts with schmoozing and small talk while we eat; then, when the meal is done, the PowerPoint part of the presentation starts. This is where they pull out all the stops and try to prove to you that they can manage your money better than any other firm can or even you yourself can.

All kinds of charts and graphs are displayed in the hope of convincing you that this is complicated and important stuff and you better let them handle it. Over and over, they use examples to try to make their point, examining things like inflation, the consumer-price index, etc., in the hope of making things clearer.

This is fine, but here is how this particular presenter prefixed all of his examples: "Let's say you have a million dollars...."

Now here I am, sitting at an admittedly nice restaurant in Schenectady on a Tuesday night, with a group of people who look very much like my wife and I — ordinary working-class folks who may or may not be close to retirement at a free dinner put on by an investment company seeking our business.

As this guy keeps saying, over and over, "Let's say you have a million dollars," I'm sitting there thinking, “Jeez, I know I don't have a million dollars, and everyone here looks about like me and my wife, so they probably don't have a million dollars, either. In fact, if any of us did have a million dollars, we'd probably be on a beach or a cruise or getting our nails done or something!”

I started to feel very bad for myself and the others the more I sat there and he kept repeating it ad nauseum.

Here's the thing: He needed a nice and easy number as an example in the many calculations he was using to illustrate various retirement scenarios and projections. It's also true that, if you add up your house and your cars and your savings and the money hidden under the mattress, it's probably more than you think.

But when he kept saying "Let's say you have a million dollars," and I know I don't, it made me feel like some kind of a failure or loser. I mean, if he kept saying this over and over so cavalierly, maybe it's not uncommon for regular working folks in Schenectady to have a million dollars?

If that's true then I must be reading the wrong newspapers and watching and listening to the wrong news shows. All I hear about is the terrible economic recovery, the lack of good-quality jobs, the many taxes that are killing us, the struggle to pay for basics like food and rent, affordable heath care and prescription drugs, and trying to find a way to  send children to college without going broke.

Do all those people, our many hardworking friends and neighbors, "have a million dollars?" I don't think so.

The next evening, I was still stewing about all this when the phone rang. Believe it or not, it was Million Dollar Man asking for feedback about the meeting! Oh boy, was he in for an earful.

First I complained about having to sit there and wait 10 minutes for the stragglers to show up, even though most of us were there on time. Incredulously he had no idea that this would be a big deal to some of us.

Remember the expression "Time is money?" Here's a financial-services guy who apparently has no conception of that time-honored maxim.

Then I told him how uncomfortable it made me feel when he kept prefixing all his examples with "Let's say you have a million dollars." He told me he just wanted a round figure to make the calculations easy.

When I told him it made me feel like a failure in life to be sitting there, knowing I don't have a million dollars, he was genuinely taken aback. We actually discussed this for about 20 minutes.

I truly believe, if you were sitting there and didn't have a million dollars, you wouldn't feel good about yourself when he kept using this (to me) very high number in his many examples. I think I got my point across but I don't know for sure. He (surprise, surprise) hasn't invited me to any more free dinners, so I guess I'll never know if he's cleaned up his act.

Listen, I know some people have a lot of money. I really do. Even some ordinary-looking people may be loaded.

When I was a bank teller in Manhattan, I had a customer who looked like a homeless lady. She came in pushing a handcart filled with random shabby things, she wore ragged clothes, and she was all hunched over.

Guess what, this was back in the '70s, and, when she pulled her bankbook our of her bra, it had a half-a-million dollars in it, I kid you not. So I know some people, even though they may not look like it, might have a lot of money.

I just know that, when you get a bunch of working people together on a Tuesday night in Schenectady, and you keep saying, "Let's say you have a million dollars," not everyone is going to have that much and you take a big risk of alienating them by reminding them of it over and over. Really.

Look, I'm very grateful for the free dinner, but you have to ask yourself, why is it that investment companies and timeshare companies and buyers’ clubs and things like that have to buy you dinner and give you all kinds of freebies just to peddle their products?

If their offerings were so good, would they really need to do that? I don't see my furnace-repair guy or my car mechanic or my doctor buying me dinner, because they don't have to. Something to keep in mind for sure.

There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but there are free dinners — if you can stand them.

Navigation