By Chad Smith
December 22, 2014

Our meeting started with an engaging description of her latest trip to Italy.

She had come in to see how her situation looked retiring now instead of two years from now, as we had originally planned. Approaching her late 60s, she no longer felt like dealing with her new manager, who was making work a little less tolerable than it used to be.

But in our first fifteen minutes, the focus was on the delicious food she tasted and beautiful buildings she toured while overseas with her travel partner.

By listening closely, we planners can learn a lot from the small talk at the beginning and the end of our meetings. Some of the most important parts of our job are to learn the true desires of our clients and to calculate whether their resources will be sufficient to make those dreams come true. But when asked to come up with their life’s goals, many people struggle to articulate what they are or even write down a few possibilities. This is where listening helps us; we can get insights by observing what people get most excited about.

As we began discussing the possibility of her retiring now, my client mentioned her desire to spend more in the early years while her health still allowed her to enjoy traveling. That’s a common theme among early retirees.

Analyzing that scenario, we determined she would need to lower her overall spending a bit each year or generate additional income for her plan to have the best odds of success. So we spent time brainstorming options that would prevent her standard of living from declining significantly during her retirement.

The first thought on her mind was to leverage her knowledge and experiences of Italy by starting a niche travel business that would take first-time travelers on adventures to her favorite places. She also expressed a passion for teaching English as a second language. She hadn’t had the time in the past, but felt this would be a more rewarding way to spend her time than continuing in her current job, even if her income dropped.

It became quickly apparent that this line of thinking had sparked excitement in her about the possibility of doing things she’d always wanted to try — dreams she hadn’t pursued because of her current job.

She next talked about downsizing her home as she got older. Unloading her home would allow her to join a group of girlfriends that all wanted to eventually move in to less expensive, cottage-style dwellings closer to one another. She called this plan her own version of The Golden Girls.

This story reminds us that we don’t always know what we want until we are forced to think deeper about how and why we want it. We spend so much time in our daily lives focusing on what the world measures as success that we too often overlook the things that could truly make us happy.

But when the probability of adjustment is introduced, we gain a clearer perspective of the things that really matter to us. In that mindset, we have the freedom to be creative, as we are forced to embrace the idea of being flexible in the face of potential sacrifices. We begin to prioritize with purpose.

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Furthermore, realizing that our money is a tool to help us experience the things we are most passionate about can take our financial planning to a new level of fulfillment. In doing so, we are experiencing the real purpose of financial planning – answering the question, “Will I have enough to do the things I want and love to do?”

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Smith is a certified financial planner, partner, and adviser with Financial Symmetry, a fee-only financial planning and invesment management firm in Raleigh, N.C. He enjoys helping people do more things they enjoy. His biggest priority is that of a husband and a dad to the three lovely ladies in his life. He is an active member of NAPFA, FPA and a proud graduate of North Carolina State University.

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