What I Have Learned From My Clients
by Andy Fishman, CFP®, MBA
Being a financial planner for the past 21 years has given me a fascinating opportunity to observe “financial planning in action.” That is, it has allowed me to see the results of my advice over time, and confirm (or challenge) the beliefs I’ve held based on my education and my life-long assumptions.
For the most part, I must say that the results of my advice have been unsurprising. If there is one dictum that I believe is key to financial success (or at least financial comfort), it is to spend less than you make. Watching people follow this concept—or not—for 21 years has definitely confirmed its veracity, but you’d be surprised how difficult this is for some people to get their heads around! Not far behind is the equally sage and well-confirmed advice: start saving early.
Talk amongst yourselves
Families that have taken the time to sit down and discuss health, healthcare, parents’ desires regarding living arrangements, and related issues have an easier time dealing with the challenges of aging. This is especially true when problems develop, such as Alzheimer’s or other dementias. While these conversations can admittedly be difficult, families that don’t wait until the last minute have a much easier time than those who put it off.
So, when should you have “the talk”? Sooner than you think. The important thing is to talk while parents are competent and capable. You certainly don’t want them to be incapacitated, or even to be wondering whether they have already experienced some cognitive slippage. Bottom line: don’t wait!
Who should have the conversation? You definitely want all the adult children to be on the same page regarding strategy and planning for how to help mom or dad, or both. But it is possible to have too many cooks—you don’t want, for instance, four siblings with access to their parents’ checkbook. Usually there is one child who steps forward to handle finances.
It’s not about you
Another lesson I’ve learned is to keep others in mind when thinking about the future, and the lesson’s important corollary: organize, organize, organize.
If you put plans—wills, trusts, any kind of estate planning—into effect, it will be so much easier for those left behind. Someone will have to clean things up if you don’t, meaning everything from your assets (think, Prince) to all those boxes of photos, kids’ art projects and 10 years worth of camp T-shirts. Even if you aren’t a hoarder, you might not be especially organized. Never fear, you can hire people to assist you, both with sorting papers and getting rid of “stuff.”
On the list of somewhat more surprising things I’ve learned is the degree to which people can change in response to new information. One example is buying versus renting your home. The boomer generation in particular is extremely indoctrinated regarding the financial necessity of home ownership. But these days, it’s possible that renting a home and investing your assets elsewhere makes more sense. I’ve found that clients listen to and seriously consider this option, even if in the end they don’t necessarily go forward with it.
Along the same lines, I’ve learned that people make changes they never imagined, particularly in response to new circumstances. People who never thought they would move may reconsider, once children are gone. They suddenly may find it appealing to consider downsizing and not having the upkeep of a larger home and yard.
People also become more conservative about their finances, even when it’s not my recommendation to do so. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s human nature to become more protective as one ages, and therefore want to be a more conservative investor. However, even if you retire at 65, you still may live 30 years and you need your portfolio to grow.
My added bonus
While it’s hard to know what personal changes I would have made simply based on my life experience, being a financial planner has definitely provided me with unique insights. I have had the opportunity to observe what happens when clients either do or don’t follow my advice.
I get a chance to have a front-row seat on how decisions are made and what impact they have on clients’ day-to-day lives. This gives me an opportunity to tell a story that may benefit or direct a client to a better outcome.