Levin: Avoid deal breakers by identifying your calico cat pillow

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN
  • March 10, 2014 - 5:53 PM

One of my friends was describing a complicated divorce. They’d finally resolved issues regarding property, kids and monthly maintenance and were set to sign the paperwork. That’s when one of the spouses brought up the calico cat pillow. The pillow argument almost destroyed their agreement. So, what’s your calico cat pillow?

A calico cat pillow is something that you’re holding onto that represents something else — something that matters more but that you’re avoiding.

On a recent property sale, the inspection report came back with all sorts of minor things that were requested to be fixed or updated. The initial client reaction was irritation — the buyers were not buying a new home, so they can fix those things on their own. Besides they got a good deal on the property. Shouldn’t the buyers be grateful about the home rather than pick it apart? To the sellers I say, “This is your calico cat pillow.’’ The fact that most of the problems could be fixed inexpensively shows that the reaction was not about the inspection report. Should a seller walk away from a several hundred thousand-dollar transaction that was basically a fair deal for both because of the calico cat pillow?

Think about your typical real estate transaction — a buyer hopes to buy a place where they will create lasting memories from a seller who had created their own memories there. Both parties are excited and vulnerable. A home inspector responsibly ticks off what’s wrong, thereby diminishing the buyer’s and the seller’s excitement and increasing each party’s insecurities.

It doesn’t have to go this way. The seller could focus energy on making the home as welcoming as possible. The buyer could ask the seller to only fix items that could be a deal breaker or else let the seller know that none of these items will impact the sale, but that they could receive what the seller thinks would be a fair allowance for repairs. We may not operate like this because we think about what we’re giving up instead of what we’re getting.

A couple were in our office who disagreed about their spending. The calico cat pillow was the amount spent on items that one partner deemed unnecessary. The issue was not about money being spent but rather on a fundamental disagreement between experiencing today rather than preparing for tomorrow. Once the discussion moved to family background around money and discomfort with uncertainty, we could develop a cash-flow plan making both parties more comfortable. Peter Block writes in his book “Stewardship” that partnership “does not mean that you always get what you want. It means you may lose your argument, but you never lose your voice.”

The biggest calico cat pillows that we confront with our clients involve family cabins. Parents want to keep the cabin for their adult children, but often the children feel differently. Maybe all the kids are not in town so it would not be used equally. Maybe the siblings are not enthusiastic about having to deal directly with one another. Or maybe the children are not in comparable financial shape so the inheritance of the cabin creates a burden rather than a blessing. Unless there is a family meeting where family members can share their expectations and their trepidations, the cabin becomes the ultimate calico cat pillow.

If the parents don’t lead an open discussion, then they are irresponsibly choosing their own wishes over those of their children. If the children are not candid with their feelings and concerns, then they lose their sovereignty over their lives. Block writes, “Whatever we think we sacrificed, it was a choice we made. It is up to each of us to reclaim what we gave away.” Money is almost always just a calico cat pillow. Don’t allow it to interfere with the real issues.

Spend your life wisely.


Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is

© 2018 Star Tribune