Gary Kirkham and his wife Chea
photo by Allan Janssen

This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Advisor’s Edge magazine. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Gary Kirkham

City: Cambridge, Ont.

Age: 59

Occupation: Playwright, author of Queen Milli of Galt, Falling: A Wake, and Pearl Gidley.

Earnings: You don’t go into the arts to get rich. My wife, Chea, and I both do piecemeal work: her in bookkeeping, me in theatre. In terms of earnings, no two years are ever the same. Fortunately, we enjoy a simple life, so our needs are modest. We easily make what we need through investment income and royalties on my published plays.

Assets & Liabilities: A home in Cambridge worth about $700,000; an investment portfolio large enough to ensure neither of us has to work again if we don’t want to; five years’ worth of our annual household budget in a high-interest savings account, and a maxed-out TFSA for big purchases and travel.

Getting started on the right foot

When we bought our first and only home in 1988, the interest rate was 14%. We knew that could trap us financially, so we made a real effort to pay the mortgage off as quickly as we could. By 1993 we were debt-free, which took all the pressure off. After a few years of renovations, we had a wonderful home that was perfect for our lifestyle, both inside and out. I was free, at 31, to pursue my passion for theatre, while Chea continued to work a few more years to get us ready for retirement.

Early investment success

Our first experience with investing worked out great on one hand. Working with a financial advisor, we borrowed money to buy mutual funds. This was just after a severe downmarket, and the fund skyrocketed during the recovery. It was a great start. On the other hand, dealing with our financial advisor was very uncomfortable. He didn’t like it when we asked questions. His attitude was, “I’m the expert. Just shut up and trust me.” He never spoke directly to Chea, even though she was doing a ton of research on funds and stocks that interested us. He only spoke to me, which we took to be a sexist attitude. When he refused to buy some funds that we were particularly interested in, we knew he was more interested in his management fees than our financial success.

Learning the ropes

We decided to steer our own financial boat. We left our advisor and started a self-directed account. Chea threw herself into learning as much as she could about buying great stocks at a great price. That meant reading a lot and watching the markets carefully. Whenever markets started to sputter, she would search for deals. She also set alerts for when an investment hit an all-time high. That was our signal to decide if it was time to capture earnings, or hold on tight. Since 1991, she has managed a 14% annual return on our money.

Finding the right advisor

The hardest thing about self-directed investing was diversifying our portfolio, both in terms of sectors and regions. The biggest help was from an acquaintance at Chea’s local bank branch. When that person became an advisor, we followed her to a different firm. She now manages our portfolio as we approach our golden years. Decumulating was a new concept for us. She and her team have been a great help. It is such a change from our first advisors, who gave us mediocre returns, poor communication and self-interested recommendations. We just didn’t trust them. And when it comes to investing, trust is everything.

Up close and personal

I didn’t grow up in a wealthy home. It’s fair to say my parents struggled financially their whole lives. Chea also grew up knowing great poverty, as well as great wealth, in turns. She grew up in Cambodia, where her father was an entrepreneur. He started with nothing, made a lot of money, and then lost everything in the Cambodian civil war, with the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. They fled to Vietnam with nothing and started over, eventually becoming wealthy a second time. She has made all our important financial decisions and they turned out very well, so clearly she inherited her father’s good money sense.