MONEY Financial Planning

4 Things You Need to Change Your Career

Want to change your career or launch a new business? A financial planner explains the four things you need.

A few years ago a client, Peter, came to me and said, “I’m doing all the work, but my boss is making all the money. I could do this on my own, my way, and make a whole lot more.”

Peter was an instructor at an acting studio. He was working long hours for someone else, knew the business inside and out, and felt stuck. He wanted a change.

We talked through his dilemma. Peter wanted to know what he needed to do to venture out on his own and start his own acting academy.

Many of us find ourselves daydreaming about making such a bold life change, but few of us do it. So what is stopping us from taking the leap? Why don’t we have the courage to invest in ourselves?

Peter and his wife, Jeannie, sat down with me to chart out a plan. We determined that they needed four major boxes to be checked for Peter’s dream business to have a real shot at success:

  1. Support from the spouse
  2. Cash reserves
  3. A business plan
  4. Courage to take the leap

Let me break these down:

1. Support from the spouse: Peter and Jeannie had to be in full agreement that they were both ready to take on this new adventure together. In the beginning, they would have significant upfront investments in staffing, infrastructure, and signing a lease for the business. Money would be tight.

2. Cash reserves: Peter was concerned. “How much money can we free up for the startup costs?” he asked. We discussed the couple’s financial concerns, reviewed financial goals for their family, and acknowledged the trade-offs and sacrifices they would need to make. We determined a figure they were comfortable investing in their new business. Then we built a business plan around that number.

3. Business plan: It has been said that a goal without a plan is just a wish. Peter and Jeannie needed a written plan in place so that their wish could become a reality. Their business plan would serve as a step-by-step guide to building and growing the acting academy. It included projections for revenues, expenses, marketing strategies, and one-time costs.

Once we wrote the business plan, we had one final step remaining: the step that so many of us don’t have the courage to take. Peter and Jeannie had to trust in themselves, believe in their plan, and…

4. Take the Leap: Regardless of how confident we are, how prepared we feel, and how much support we have, this is a scary step. We have to walk away from our reliable paycheck, go down an unfamiliar road, and head out into the unknown.

I’m happy to share that Peter and Jeannie’s story is one of great success. They faced obstacles and bumps along the way, but Peter persevered and succeeded in accomplishing his goal. He is now running a thriving acting academy with multiple instructors and a growing staff. If you decide to invest in yourself, you will need to take the four steps too.

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Joe O’Boyle is a financial adviser with Voya Financial Advisors. Based in Beverly Hills, Calif., O’Boyle provides personalized, full service financial and retirement planning to individual and corporate clients. O’Boyle focuses on the entertainment, legal and medical industries, with a particular interest in educating Gen Xers and Millennials about the benefits of early retirement planning.

MONEY College

How to Decipher a Financial Aid Letter

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The financial aid letters that colleges send accepted students are often confusing. Here's how to figure out how much a school will really cost.

When colleges start releasing their admissions decisions toward the end of March, it’s easy for applicants and their parents to figure out the end result: You’re in, you’re out, or you’re on the waiting list.

Unfortunately, when those same schools release their financial aid decisions for accepted students, the results aren’t quite so clear.

Over the years that I’ve worked with families as an independent college admissions counselor, I’ve learned that the financial aid letters that arrive in the mail can be terribly confusing. Parents’ sweat turns icy cold as they try to figure out which college offers the best deal. It takes some work to decipher exactly how much help a family is being offered.

The first step for families trying to assess financial aid packages from different schools is to separate “family money” from “other people’s money.” This process helps focus the mind — and the budget — on forms of financial aid that truly reduce the overall cost of a college education.

Each college provides a total Cost of Attendance — the educational equivalent of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The COA includes tuition, fees, room, board, a travel allowance, and a bit of spending money that is somewhat randomly determined by the director of financial aid.

Generally, I find these estimates a bit low, so I encourage families to think about these variable expenditures — things like travel, pizza, cell phones, and dorm furnishings — and come up with a more realistic figure. Then I put these figures into a spreadsheet so that we can see how the starting price tags of similar colleges can vary widely.

Then we tally up the “other people’s money” in the financial aid letter — grants and scholarships with no strings attached. OPM reduces the bottom-line cost of a college education.

Throughout the college selection and application process, I like to help my families zero in on those schools that will be most generous. Assuming all has gone well, a good student may receive 50% or more off the price of tuition. That can be a good chunk of change.

Once we’ve subtracted the OPM from the COA, then we look at the part of the financial aid award that’s dressed up as “aid” …but is really just the family’s money in disguise.

This gussied-up aid comes in two forms. First is work-study aid, which is merely an expectation of a kid’s sweat equity in the coming years. Work-study aid is family money that doesn’t yet exist.

Then there are the loans. Generally, I won’t let my clients borrow more than the maximum that the government will lend to the student directly. These are the federal loans that max out at $27,000 for a 4-year undergraduate education.

Armed with all this information, we then create a spreadsheet to line up the different COA prices and subtract the OPM. That helps us arrive at a total cost of the education to the family — including both the immediate costs and the subsequent costs in the form of either future employment or loans that will have to be repaid.

And if we really want to get down and dirty, we can add the cost of interest over the life of those loans to illustrate exactly how much that college education will cost.

Unless the family has front-loaded the process by picking schools that are likely to maximize the grants and scholarships, I’ve found that most families are taken aback by the cost of college.

But with strong planning and a realistic look at the numbers, families can make wiser long-term financial decisions.

For example, a family I worked with a few years back made the painful but smart decision not to send their daughter to Notre Dame, which offered her nothing in scholarship aid, but to choose Loyola University of Maryland, which with a lower COA and hefty scholarship saved the family over $100,000 for her bachelor’s degree.

The family had money left over to buy their daughter a nice used car, cover expenses for a great summer internship in New York, and subsidize a spring-break service trip to New Orleans. And the young woman graduated from college debt-free.

As parents of college-bound seniors suddenly realize this time of year, a college education is not priceless. A cold, hard look at the numbers makes the price very clear, and enables a family to make the most reasonable financial decision possible.

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Mark A. Montgomery, Ph.D., is an independent college admissions consultant. He advises families around the country on setting winning strategies for both admissions and financial aid. He also speaks to schools and civic groups nationwide about how to choose, and get into, the right college. His firm, Montgomery Educational Consulting, has offices in Colorado and New Jersey.

MONEY Love and Money

11 Financial Clues That Your Spouse Wants a Divorce

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Certain changes in financial behavior and conversations about money are sure-fire signs that your spouse is preparing to split up.

Over 25 years, I’ve worked on the financial aspects of more than 1,300 cases of divorce. Rarely are both spouses in sync when it comes to filing; one spouse is usually laying the groundwork before the other.

In hindsight, most people on the receiving end of the filing have their “aha!” moment. One homemaker told me that her husband began plying her with gifts and vacations; he also launched all kinds of projects to fix up their house so they could sell it and move to a smaller place. It was all totally unsolicited, much appreciated, and done with loving attention.

Six months into all this thoughtful behavior — as the the couple closed on their new vacation timeshare, downsized to a beautiful condo, and planned for their next vacation — he popped the zinger one Saturday morning: “I want a divorce.”

For another client, the signs were a little more obvious: The bank called her husband to let him know that his mortgage was approved — the mortgage he was co-signing with his girlfriend.

Divorce is an emotional, legal, and financial combat zone. There are actually websites devoted to secretly planning for divorce, in order to “win” the best one possible. Divorces can have win-lose, win-win, or lose-lose outcomes. Preparation helps your case. And the earlier you recognize that divorce is imminent, the better you’ll be able to prepare.

Over the years, I have come up with a list of sure-fire financial indicators that your spouse is heading toward divorce. Changes in behavior about money — some subtle, some not — can be tell-tale signs of a split in the offing.

Most of the time, changes in financial behavior accompany classic non-money signs of marital trouble: lack of communication, stress, physical separation, arguments, and isolation. But it helps to be on the lookout for financial signs on their own. And here’s a good list:

Your spouse…

  1. Argues about money.
  2. Seems to be hiding money.
  3. Has no explanation for why money is missing.
  4. Has stopped direct deposits to your joint bank account.
  5. Puts you on a budget and demands an accounting of all of your spending.
  6. Makes large cash withdrawals.
  7. Pays for his/her own credit card bills — or better yet, has his/her mail sent to the office.
  8. Goes on more business trips than usual and has greater travel and entertainment expenses.
  9. Blindsides you with gifts and trips.
  10. Reduces contributions to savings or retirement. Excess cash is now spent or socked away somewhere else.
  11. Takes out loans because it is a “smart” financial decision during times of low interest rates.

Along with these changed behaviors, there’s a whole other set of red flags to look out for: a noticeable turn for the worse in how your spouse talks about his or her earnings, workplace achievements, or business prospects. He or she starts complaining a lot about money — how business is bad, how jobs are at risk, how this year’s bonus is in doubt.

If your spouse is suddenly and remarkably gloomy about his or her ability to make money, this might be premeditated strategy to lower your financial expectations in a divorce. Attorneys even have a name for it: RAIDS, for “recently acquired income deficiency syndrome.”

On the bright side, if you are familiar with your spouse’s business, customers, and performance reviews, it will be hard for your spouse to paint a credible picture of unexpected gloom. So keep your eyes set on financial reality and do your homework if your spouse complains in detail about the following:

  1. His/her earnings potential is at its peak and is at risk.
  2. Bonuses are reduced or nonexistent.
  3. Company layoffs are imminent or overdue.
  4. The employer has declining revenues and sales.
  5. Clients are deserting the company.
  6. His/her sales territory has been cut despite solid job performance.
  7. It’s the economy, stupid!
  8. His/her age is a negative factor in the business, and he/she is at risk of being fired for being too old.
  9. Our family spending is rampant and unsustainable with probable loss of income or job.

If you start hearing these complaints, it’s time to organize your financial wits and get a handle on your financial lifestyle. If you’re surprised to have a spouse who seems to be premeditating divorce, empower yourself and hire a divorce financial planner. A divorce financial planner will cut through your emotional tangles to track your financial issues and provide a foundation for you to advocate your needs, when and if you should hire an attorney.

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Vasileff received the Association of Divorce Financial Planners’ 2013 Pioneering Award for her public advocacy and outstanding leadership in the field of divorce financial planning. Vasileff is president emeritus of the ADFP and is a member of NAPFA, FPA, and IACP. She is president and founder of Divorce and Money Matters, serving clients nationwide from Greenwich, Conn. Her website is http://www.divorcematters.com.

 

MONEY Financial Planning

The Real Risks of Retirement

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Acknowledging all the financial risks you face in retirement can be an empowering experience.

When you’re planning for retirement, you think about how much money you’ll spend, places you’d like to visit, what health care will cost. But do you think about risk? And do you think about the right risks?

By that, I mean, have you considered any risk other than running out of money?

There are other risks to face.

No generation before today, for one, has ever looked at such a long retirement with largely themselves alone to rely on.

And we’ve seen two market crashes in a decade — 2000 and 2008 — only to raise our heads up and go through a global economic slowdown. Thanks a lot. What’s next?

Some risks you can actually control, however.

You can’t predict where the markets will be be six or 12 months from now. But you can tell yourself you’re going to get a handle on the other things that have as much of an impact on your retirement as your portfolio’s performance.

These are non-market risks that often arise within your own household.

Here’s my list of the special risks faced by current and future retirees:

  • Living a very, very, very long life
  • Having too much of your wealth in your house
  • Not saving enough
  • Having to take care of your parents
  • Having to support your adult children
  • Paying oversized college costs
  • Not having control of your budget
  • Forgetting about inflation
  • Persistently low returns in the markets and low interest rates
  • Ultra-volatile market swings just as you stop working

Oh, and, timing. All of these things could happen around the same time.

A silly little step you can take toward addressing these risks is to drop the word “risks” and substitute “issues.” If these are “issues,” maybe someone can do something about them. Maybe that person is you.

I find that some clients don’t realize that they themselves are the ones who determine that their financial plan won’t work. Hoping that your portfolio grows to the sky so it can support you isn’t really much of a defense against overspending. Overspending is something you control.

Or maybe it’s not you. Having your elderly parents to take care of, to worry about, to help financially, is not exactly a choice.

But when you factor something like caring for an elderly parent into your retirement plan, you can start to walk around this issue, take its measure, and begin to see ways to cope. Or begin to see that you can’t cope with this responsibility. You may have to find other resources — speak to other family members, seek out public programs, look for nonprofit groups that help with such things as respite care.

Coping with the issue can mean raising your hand, saying you can’t really handle it all, and asking for help.

Or it can mean that you did your research and you didn’t find a solution for every conundrum. Coping with the issue can mean you realize it’s a pothole and you’re going to hit it.

Okay, so you might live to be 100 or close to it. Did you set a portion of your portfolio aside for very long-term growth? Or did you consider delaying Social Security benefits until age 70 — and by doing that, pump up your check for the rest of your life, no matter how long?

Or, let’s say you figure you will have to live with low returns for a long while. Have you allocated enough to cash or short-term investments to handle your spending needs? Or did you divide your portfolio into buckets for different purposes? And then did you come up with an income strategy for one bucket so that you don’t have to dip into your other buckets?

When you strategize like this in the face of risk, it’s easier to see the actions you can take, even if you can’t make the risk go away.

As financial planners, we don’t often discuss these non-market risks. The one risk we do talk about with clients all the time is market risk, because we know quite a bit about that. Markets are difficult and ever-changing. While that may seem impenetrable to the client, it doesn’t really intimidate us.

But the real risks to the client’s retirement? Many of them lie out there, beyond investments. They may be outside a financial adviser’s perfectly organized financial plan, but they still exist. And clients have to steer around them.

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Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of GSK Wealth Advisors, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning for clients and manages their portfolios. Before going into the financial services industry, she was an award-winning journalist who covered Wall Street. Her background includes stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.

MONEY College

Don’t Be Too Generous With College Money: One Financial Adviser’s Story

When torn between paying for a child's education or saving for retirement, parents should save for themselves. Here's why.

Saving money isn’t as easy — or as straightforward — as it used to be. Often, people find they have to delay retirement and work longer to reach their financial goals. In fact, one of the most common issues parents face these days is how to save for both retirement and a child’s college fund.

Last month, for example, I met with a couple who wanted to open college savings funds for each of their three children. They were already contributing the maximums to their 401(k)s with employer matches. I applauded their financial foresight; it’s great to see people thinking ahead.

Then I gave them my honest, professional opinion: Putting a lot of money into college funds isn’t going to help if their retirement savings suffer as a result. Sure, they’ll have an easier time paying tuition in the short term, but down the road their kids may end up having to support them — right when they should be saving for their own retirement.

The tug-of-war between clients’ retirement and their children’s education can lead to difficult conversations with clients, and difficult conversations between clients and their children. Who wants to deprive their children of their dreams and of their top-choice school?

I try to be matter-of-fact with my clients about this sensitive subject. I start with data: If you have x amount of money and you need to put y amount away for your own retirement, you only have z amount left over for your children’s college.

I also talk a little about my own experience — how my parents were able to write a check for my college tuition. But college was less expensive then, and costs were a much smaller percentage of their salary than they would be today. Times have changed.

As much as we all want to be friends with our children, we have to put that aside. I tell people that if they don’t know whether they should put their money in a 529 account or their retirement account, they should put it in their retirement account. Financial planners commonly point out that you can get a loan for college but you can’t get one for retirement.

I don’t think people realize that. I think that they just want to do right by their children.

After I talk about my own experience, I move on to my recommendation. I tell clients that one way to approach this issue with their children is to make them partners in this venture. Tell them that you’re going to pay a portion of the cost of education. Set a budget for what you can afford, then work with them to find a way to fill in the gaps. Make a commitment, then stick to it.

I explain to my clients that choosing their retirement doesn’t mean that they can’t help your children financially and it doesn’t mean they are being a bad parent or are being selfish. It does mean that they should prioritize saving for retirement.

When clients tell me that they feel guilty for putting their retirement first, I ask them this: “Where is the benefit in saving for your children’s college but not for your own retirement?” Without a substantial nest egg, I tell them, you could end up being a burden on your children when you’re older.

And there’s an added bonus, I tell them: If your kids see you putting your retirement first, it might teach them about the importance of saving for their own retirement. That could end up being the best payoff of all.

Read Next: Don’t Save for College If It Means Wrecking Your Retirement

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Sally Brandon is vice president of client services for Rebalance IRA, a retirement-focused investment advisory firm with almost $250 million of assets under management. In this role, she manages a wide range of retirement investing needs for over 350 clients. Sally earned her BA from UCLA and an MBA from USC.

MONEY

Keeping Calm When the Market Goes South

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A financial adviser shares tips for easing anxiety in a rollercoaster market.

“It’s been too good for too long,” my client said.

She had every right to feel suspicious. With the markets appearing to be at an all-time high, she was justified in having that waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop instinct. I understood her desire to tread cautiously.

The majority of baby boomers are at a crossroad in their lives: They want to retire, they should retire, and it’s time to retire. But they are extremely nervous nowadays about the markets’ record-breaking levels.

Over my many years of experience working with clients in this situation — they’re ready to retire, but they can’t quite pull the trigger — I’ve seen how scary it can be to make that potentially irrevocable decision. What if markets go down? Should they have waited? What if this, what if that?

It is human nature to question ourselves at times like these, but then again, times are always a bit uncertain.

I have found that the most important step in keeping clients calm in a volatile market is to have an investment education meeting regarding their risk level and market volatility at the start of our working relationship and routinely thereafter. Our clients are actively involved in assessing their own risk tolerance and choosing a portfolio objective that suits their long-term goals.

We also want to set the right expectation of our management so our clients know that we never sell out of the market just because things are starting to go bad. Market timing has not proven to be a successful growth strategy, which is why we work with our clients upfront to establish a portfolio and game plan they can live with.

Unfortunately, the inevitable will happen: The markets will go south, and clients will panic. How can financial planners ease clients’ anxiety? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Discuss defensive tactics. Show clients the dollar amounts they have in bonds and other fixed income. Translate that into the number of years’ worth of personal spending that is not in the stock market. Have an honest conversation about if that number will be enough over the long-term.
  • Leave emotion out of it. Talk to them about the danger of selling at the wrong time and illustrate how emotional decisions tend to do more harm than good. Remind them of how quickly markets can turn around after a big drop. It’s been known to happen on more than one occasion, so share your knowledge of these experiences. Let them know that you don’t want them to miss the upside.
  • Look at the positives. Reinvesting dividends and capital gains? Are clients making monthly contributions to a 401(k) or other investment accounts? Remind your clients that when markets are down they are buying at lower prices, which can work well for their strategy over the longer term. A down market also often makes investing easier and less frightening to buy, so that might be the time to purchase any equities they once worried were too expensive.

The markets will always have some level of volatility. As an adviser providing regular guidance and support, you want to do everything you can to help clients not overreact to the daily news, hard as it might be. Urge them to continue to think long-term. It may not always be easy to see, but today’s bad news may just be a client’s big buy opportunity, and they won’t want to miss that!

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Marilyn Plum, CFP, is director of portfolio management and co-owner of Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors, a registered investment adviser in Lafayette, Calif. She is also a registered representative with LPL Financial. With over 30 years of experience in the financial advisory business, Plum is well-known for financial planning expertise and client education on wealth preservation, retirement, and portfolio management.

MONEY Aging

Handling Family Finances When Dad Is Losing His Grip

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When the person in charge of family finances has dementia or Alzheimer's disease, a difficult transition is required.

A client’s daughter told me recently that she was beginning to notice her father having difficulties with memory and comprehension.

I had known that her father’s health had deteriorated somewhat, but he still seemed relatively sharp mentally up until the last conversation I’d had with him, around Christmas time.

The client’s wife has never been very involved in the family finances, and his son lives out of town. The daughter has been playing caretaker for some time. Now it seemed we needed to have a more in-depth conversation with everyone involved regarding family finances, longevity and what happens after the patriarch has passed away or can’t function as financial head of the household.

The loss of a loved one is unbearable, but far worse is losing a loved one to cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. These decisions may cause personality changes. In some cases, a client may become belligerent or paranoid, especially when dealing with financial issues.

It is always preferable to have a client himself or herself acknowledge that something is wrong, but this may not always be the case. For this reason, financial advisers need to have a plan in place to address situations such as this one.

The first step is to get the family involved. Most of the time, the spouse or children will already be aware of the issue.

In this particular case, I could not discuss financial details with the daughter without a financial power of attorney. Fortunately, we were able to schedule a time for father, mother and daughter to meet and discuss family finances.

What if someone refuses to admit that he is losing his mental acuity? We dealt with this a few years back with another client. He was going through a divorce at the time — a process which may have either contributed to, or resulted from, his mental decline. We ended up being a part of an intervention involving the client, his children, his business partner and his pastor. The pastor referred him to a psychiatrist; luckily, the client pursued treatment that helped.

The key to handling many of these situations is having a ready stable of referable professionals in all aspects of life. In addition to the colleagues we deal with on a regular basis, such as lawyers and accountants, it is helpful to have contacts in the arenas of medicine and psychology.

Solid and consistent documentation is a standard in our industry, but it becomes absolutely imperative when dealing with cognitively questionable clients. Keeping communication records protects everyone involved and can go a long way to explaining client actions to family members if they are unaware of the problem.

Things don’t always go so smoothly. In some situations, you must fire the client. We have had to have these tough conversations in the past. It would be nice to say that we are always able to help facilitate a changing of the guard, but many of these personality issues are beyond our control. When cutting ties, it is important to do it with an in-person meeting. We’re honor-bound to do what’s best for the client, but it is also important to protect our practice. If we are unable to make progress, it may be best for clients to find someone who can better help them.

I’m very thankful the daughter came to me, rather than my having to reach out and have what could have been an unpleasant conversation. At this point we have now gathered financial powers of attorney and reviewed updated wills and trusts, coordinating with the family attorney. The mother and daughter are much more aware of the family financial situation and are not nearly as fearful about the future. I expect the daughter will take a more active role in the management of the family’s finances. We want to make sure that everyone involved is aware of, and on board with, the transition.

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Joe Franklin, CFP, is founder and president of Franklin Wealth Management, a registered investment advisory firm in Hixson, Tenn. A 20-year industry veteran, he also writes the Franklin Backstage Pass blog. Franklin Wealth Management provides innovative advice for business-minded professionals, with a focus on intergenerational planning.

MONEY Financial Planning

Financial Advice Is Good, but Emotional Well-Being Is Better

On the surface, good financial planners help you manage your money. Dig down deeper, though, and they're improving your emotional life.

On the surface, comprehensive financial planners provide advice and services in areas such as investments, retirement, cash flow, and asset protection.

We need to drill deeper, however, to get at a planning firm’s core purpose. After exploring this question over recent months, my staff and I have agreed that our core purpose is to transform the financial and emotional well-being of people. That’s the part of our work that gets us out of bed in the morning.

Here’s a closer look at the three key words of that purpose:

  • Transform: To achieve long-term financial health, people often need to transform their relationship with money by making permanent changes in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. An example of transformation might be someone learning to reframe a money script that has blocked their ability to save for the future.
  • Well-being: This is a multidimensional word that includes financial, emotional, and physical aspects of people’s lives. Our purpose focuses on both the financial and emotional aspects. Since some 90% of all financial decisions are made emotionally, separating financial and emotional well-being is almost impossible.
  • People: By referring to “people” rather than “clients,” we acknowledge that, in order to foster transformation and well-being for our clients, we also need to be concerned about the well-being of all the members of our staff.

Once a firm has defined its core purpose — the “what” — the next step is to create a framework of principles to accomplish that purpose. This is the “how” that guides the operations of the company. The principles might be something like the following:

We…

  • Put clients first.
  • Guide people to reach a destination in an unfamiliar area.
  • Give sound advice and creative solutions.
  • Constantly educate ourselves.
  • Practice what we preach.
  • Are serial innovators.

Finally, behind the “what” and “how” of what a firm does is the “why.” These are the core values, the touchstone that brings everyone in the company together and forms the basis of the company’s culture. These values are non-negotiable. Even though a company’s purpose or principles may change over time, the values will stay the same. Core values might include:

  • Trust. Our work and personal interactions are based on real, unquestionable evidence, reliability, and trustworthiness.
  • Unbiased Advocacy. We are defenders, supporters, and interceders on behalf of our clients and one another.
  • Well-Being. Everything we do is in support of achieving and maintaining, for our clients and one another, a state of being happy, healthy, and prosperous.
  • Continuous Improvement. We focus on improving our processes, our client experience, and ourselves.

In defining the core purpose for a comprehensive financial planning firm, it’s essential to appreciate the importance of both financial health and the well-being it supports. One can’t have well-being without the financial means to support physical health and emotional happiness.

This is why our firm defines its purpose as transforming people’s financial and emotional well-being. This core purpose is based on the belief that comprehensive financial planning goes beyond building financial independence. It also helps clients and staff members change destructive money behaviors, clarify goals, and achieve the dreams that represent happiness to them. In the broadest sense, real financial planning offers investment advice that supports people’s investment in their own well-being.

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Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the former president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY financial advice

Even a “Fiduciary” Financial Adviser Can Rip You Off If You Don’t Know These 3 Things

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After years of fits and starts, the move to require brokers and other financial advisers to act as fiduciaries—essentially making them put their clients’ interests first—seems to be gaining traction again. Witness President Obama’s recent speech at AARP on the topic. Whether a fiduciary mandate eventually comes to pass or not, here are three things you should know if you’re working with—or thinking of hiring—an adviser bound by the fiduciary standard.

1. Fiduciary status doesn’t guarantee honesty, or competence. The idea behind compelling financial advisers to act in their client’s best interest is that doing so will help eliminate a variety of dubious practices and outright abuses, such as pushing high-cost or otherwise inappropriate investments that do more to boost the adviser’s income than the size of an investor’s nest egg. And perhaps a rule or law requiring advisers to act as fiduciaries when dispensing advice or counseling consumers about investments will achieve that noble aim.

But you would be foolish to count on it. Fact is, no rule or standard can prevent an adviser from taking advantage of clients or, for that matter, prevent an unscrupulous one from using the mantle of fiduciary status to lull clients into a false sense of security. As a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff had a fiduciary duty to his clients. Clearly, that didn’t stop him from ripping them off.

Fiduciary or no, you should thoroughly vet any adviser before signing on. You should also assure that any money the adviser is investing or overseeing is held by an independent trustee, and stipulate that the adviser himself should not have unrestricted access to your funds.

2. Your interests and an adviser’s never completely align. There’s no way to eliminate all conflicts of interest between you and a financial adviser, even if he’s a fiduciary. If an adviser is compensated through sales commissions, for example, he may be tempted to recommend investments that pay him the most or frequently move your money to generate more commissions. An adviser who eschews commissions in favor of an annual fee—say, 1% or 1.5% of assets under management—might be prone to avoid investments that can reduce the value of assets under his charge, such as immediate annuities. Or, the adviser might charge the same 1% a year as assets increase even if his workload doesn’t.

My advice: Ask the adviser outright how your interests and his may deviate, as well as how he intends to handle conflicts so you’ll be treated fairly. If the adviser says he has no conflicts, move on to one with a more discerning mind.

3. Even with fiduciaries high fees can be an issue. Much of the rationale over the fiduciary mandate centers around protecting investors from bloated investments costs. But don’t assume that just because an adviser is a fiduciary that his fees are a bargain, or that you can’t do better. Advisers can and do charge a wide range of fees for very similar services, and fiduciaries are no exception. So ask for the details—in writing—of the services you’ll receive and exactly what you’ll pay for them. And don’t be shy about negotiating for a lower rate, or taking a proposal to another adviser to see if you can save on fees and expenses.

A fiduciary may have a duty to put your interests first. But that duty doesn’t extend to helping you find a competitor who may offer a better deal. That’s on you.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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Proposed Retiree Safeguard Is Long Overdue

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Jan Stromme—Getty Images

The financial-advice regulations pushed by the Obama administration will save retirees, on average, an estimated $12,000.

When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?

That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term “fiduciary standard.” Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.

The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.

The president’s decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.

“The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.

Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.

“Most people don’t know the difference,” said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.

The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.

The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.

The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account’s value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.

What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants’ best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.

The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their “advisers” ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.

The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.

How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.

Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.

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