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Economist Sherry Cooper on the Greatest Legacy of all: Taking Care of Loved Ones

Named “the megawatt celebrity economist” by Canada’s national newspaper and repeatedly cited as one of the most influential women in the country, Sherry Cooper served as Chief Economist and Executive Vice-President of BMO Financial Group from 1994 to 2013. She retired last year to consult, write and speak all over the world.


The research I did for my most recent book, “The New Retirement,” taught me that a sense of purpose and legacy is essential to happy, healthy aging.

By definition, leaving a legacy requires advanced planning that evolves over every stage of life. For me, by the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew I wanted to do something path breaking – something that women weren’t traditionally expected to do. I found that “something” in my first economics course when my professor told me I ought to become an economist. Frankly, at the time, I had no idea what an economist did, but I knew it was not a “pink-collar” job and it encompassed my love of numbers, finance and intuitive analysis. I also knew, even then, that I wanted a career that would be lucrative. Simply put, I wanted to make serious money.

[bs_lead]Finding Financial Independence[/bs_lead]

At the height of the late-1960s Women’s Liberation Movement, I knew that financial independence was essential to my personal
liberation. I achieved that in spades by getting a fellowship to graduate school and, after years of very hard work, a PhD in economics. While most of my family and friends did not discourage me, no one thought it was necessary or even desirable.

But I was driven by the need to make it on my own. Leaving a legacy for me was to achieve financial and business success, which would allow me to pursue my passions and provide for my loved ones. I’m a very goal-oriented, focused person so setting specific, measurable goals each year came naturally to me. My financial goals began with saving 10 percent of my gross income, automatically paying myself first. I maxed my retirement contribution each year and put the remainder in dividend-paying stocks with automatic dividend reinvestment. I also, slowly, paid down my mortgage and never held credit card debt. I also worked my butt off to assure that my compensation would continue to grow. That was not without roadblocks and disappointments, of course, but the more nervous and fearful about the future I felt, the harder I worked.

[bs_lead] A Single Mom With A Widowed Mother [/bs_lead]

My son was born when I was 29, a much-loved and muchwanted child. I had difficulty conceiving and lost four other pregnancies over the following 10 years. My marriage ended when Stefan was five. Being a single mom for three years only confirmed my need for financial independence.

Over the same period, my dad took ill and was unable to work, forcing my mom to get her first paying job at the age of 50. Dad was a self-employed lawyer, with no formal pension and little life insurance. When he died a few years later, my mom would have been in financial straits had she not precipitously (in my view) married a year later. She was forced to sign a pre-nup (I knew nothing about it), which resulted in her getting nothing from my step-dad’s estate after taking care of him for 15 years.

[bs_lead]The Rewards of Financial Discipline[/bs_lead]

It has been extremely gratifying to me to be able to help my Mom financially, making it possible for her to live the past 10 years in a beautiful condo in Florida. As well, I paid for my son’s tuition to Harvard College in what was then 62-to-80-cent Canadian dollars. Needless to say, I was passionate about giving my son the best education possible and hope to do the same for my grandchildren as well.

Over the years, my work has enabled me to help people assure their own financial security. My sense of purpose and legacy comes from bridging disciplines to interpret global issues through an economic lens – engaging and inspiring decision-makers to understand their worlds and see the opportunities ahead. I am also passionate about women’s issues and actively mentor many young women. I am a major donor to the causes I cherish: education, health care, helping women and the arts.

But most of all, I am proud that my financial discipline and hard work has allowed me to assure the future for my family and generations to come.

Inspired by Sherry’s story? Share with us on twitter @DRSherryCooper and @WomenofInflnce