MONEY Love and Money

3 Money Questions Every Couple Must Answer Before They Marry

bride and groom wedding toppers on top of heap of cash
Malerapaso—Getty Images

An open-ended conversation about finances is a crucial step on the road to marital bliss.

Marriage season is in full swing. Countless couples will step up to the altar this spring. Most will spend a lot of time imagining their blissful life together. Some will make an effort to see how they can communicate better. And a few brave folks will tiptoe into a discussion about each other’s finances.

If these couples knew that many of the fights they were going to have throughout their marriage would be rooted in money and their financial choices, they all might take time to discuss and foster financial compatibility right now.

Since spouses are going to share money choices and the consequences of their actions, it’s important to be on the same page. I’ve been fortunate to be in a lovely marriage for over two decades, but money has been at the core of many of our biggest disagreements.

We aren’t alone. Our firm has worked with thousands of families to help them with their financial lives. One lesson we’ve learned is that the way a couple makes financial choices tells whether their marriage will thrive or not.

Good news: It’s never too late to have an honest conversation about money.

There are three things you should absolutely discuss before you are married. (It won’t hurt to chat about them after the wedding, too!) But when you do, remember these important rules for talking about money. Don’t judge your partner. Don’t state your opinion as if it’s a fact. Try to see the other person’s perspective. And, most important, keep your emotions in check.

Here are the three questions you must ask one another:

1. How do you like to spend money? There is no right or wrong. It’s simply about preferences. But we can all have differing perspectives that can become frustrating over a lifetime together. Early in our marriage, my wife organized a ski trip for us for my birthday. I thought it was an odd present, given that she had given me something that was for both of us. I had grown up thinking a present was a material thing that was given to you. You can imagine she was put off by my tepid response! Some of us like and get more enjoyment buying material things — clothes, maybe, jewelry, or some new technology. Some prefer to spend on experiences, such as dinners or travel. The way you like to spend money will be a huge part of your joint life together.

Like most people, my tastes have changed over time. Today, I’d rather spend on experiences than things. In your marriage, you will both evolve and adapt, but having a healthy way to talk about your preferences will make your life easier (and make you feel more appreciated).

2. How do you feel about debt? How you view and use debt throughout your marriage can completely alter your future. Debt allows you to spend tomorrow’s earnings today, but it also reduces your financial flexibility once you have it. I grew up in Africa to parents who struggled, and I watched my mother drowning under bank debt. That has given me a massive (and perhaps not logical) aversion to debt. My wife grew up in California and was surrounded by people who borrowed; she herself has had a credit card since she was a teenager. When we had less in savings, I wouldn’t consider borrowing a lot to buy a nicer home, and I’d only buy cars I could pay for in cash. She wasn’t thrilled that for much of our marriage we lived in homes that were not as nice as we could probably afford. When you are entering a relationship you should clearly understand each other’s perspective on debt. It’s the one thing you will both have to be responsible for, together or not.

3. How do you feel about saving? Saving is all about delayed gratification; there is no immediate payoff. That sits well for some folks, but others really dislike it. For me, saving is like a security blanket: I like to know that I can pay off my house, lose my job, have a modest catastrophe, and we will still be okay. My wife assumes we don’t need to worry so much about bad things happening. Truth is, I do worry too much about things that are very unlikely to occur. It’s also true that saving more today means spending less now. You need to discuss how important building a safety net or saving for a new home is to each of you, compared to spending and enjoying that money today. Saving requires sacrifice, so you need to agree how much deferred gratification you can put up with.

Discussing money and what we do with it can be a touchy subject, and you will probably both have strong feelings. But being respectful of each other’s perspective and working together is necessary for a healthy and vibrant financial life. A discussion about money is the starting point (and most important part) of any real financial plan that works. These conversations should be the beginning of an “I do” that lasts forever.

Read Next: A 3-Step Plan for Avoiding Money Arguments

Joe Duran, CFA, is CEO and founder of United Capital. He believes that the only way to improve people’s lives is to design a disciplined process that offers investors a true understanding about how the choices they make affect their financial lives. Duran is a three-time author; his latest book is The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.

MONEY Financial Planning

The Danger of Mixing Politics and Investments

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) makes a point to Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York October 15, 2008.
Jim Bourg—Reuters U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) makes a point to Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York October 15, 2008.

Believing that the country is headed in the wrong direction doesn't always translate into a good investing strategy.

Looking at a chart of the S&P 500’s performance from 2007 until now gives you a totally different perspective on the market decline of 2008-09. What an opportunity that was, right?

In hindsight, it’s easy to recognize that March 2009 was a bottom. I won’t bore you with stats on how much the market has gone up since then, because you already know it’s a lot.

We financial professionals find it easy to recall historical market data, but how often do we recall the politics that might have contributed to the decline in the first place?

Not too long ago I had the pleasure of meeting a man who had traveled extensively but was considering settling down given his advanced age. He had asked that I take a look at his portfolio because he was considering changing his “investment guy.” He mentioned that he had taken a significant hit in 2009 and that he had not fully recovered, so he wanted me to review his portfolio and advise him on what he should do now in order to have enough during retirement.

Soon after we started talking, it became apparent that he was of the belief that the country had been heading in the wrong direction since 2008. His portfolio appeared to have been built around an assumption that the market would collapse beyond its 2009 low.

Whether or not it was a good investment decision at the time would depend on a number of factors. In hindsight, however, it wasn’t a good strategy after March 2009.

Did his “investment guy” share his political views as well, continuing to believe that the country would come to an end? I don’t know. What is certain is that the client’s portfolio suggested that he was expecting a significant decline.

I recall having a similar conversation soon after 2009 with a couple who made it clear to me that they were not confident that American capitalism would survive. They shared with me their displeasure about the political environment at the time and felt that the country was in decline.

I began telling them they should ignore news reports and turn off their television because in the long run, that information would have no bearing on their investments

They looked at me as if to say I was misinformed, and politely walked out of my office.

As financial professionals, we all have our own political views, because we’re human. Some are in alignment with our clients’ views, and some might be to the left or right. But does that mean we should allow our political views to dictate our financial planning advice?

Over the years I’ve learned that my personal political views have very little to do with the advice I extend to my clients. Regardless of whether or not I agree with clients or potential clients, my goal is to remain neutral and apolitical. I focus on just the facts as best as I can.

Bottom line, my political views are irrelevant when it comes to planning and providing advice that would allow my client to navigate the financial noise.

———-

Frank Paré is a certified financial planner in private practice in Oakland, California. He and his firm, PF Wealth Management Group, specialize in serving professional women in transition. Frank is currently on the board of the Financial Planning Association and was a recipient of the FPA’s 2011 Heart of Financial Planning award.

MONEY Aging

A Sad Lesson From My Mother’s Decline

senior woman staring out window
Getty Images

A diagnosis of dementia spotlights the importance of protecting against devastating outcomes.

Lessons of financial awareness and self-sufficiency began early for me. I was just 13 and my sister was 11 when our father left us. My mother was 35 at the time and had no work experience and only a high school diploma. She had dedicated her married life to our family and supporting my father’s career.

She never had access to our household finances, ever. In the blink of an eye she was faced with having to learn how to provide for the three of us. She found a retail position, making little more than minimum wage. My sister and I did what we could to help, both working full-time in addition to going to school.

When my mother was 53, I was 31 and married with two young children. My sister and I started to notice Mom’s increasingly odd behavior. She got lost while driving familiar places, acted like a child, and forgot to bathe and wash her clothes, among other worrisome behavior. We thought perhaps she was dealing with depression and we sought professional help. She was prescribed antidepressants and went to counseling. Over the next year she continued to decline, and lost her job as a customer service representative.

Shortly thereafter, she was a target of a financial scam. She initiated three outgoing wire transfers totaling nearly $30,000, her life’s savings. To her, in her increasing confusion, it was great news! She had won the Mexican lottery! We only learned of it from a bank teller who was suspicious of the wire instructions. (If a loved one is exhibiting early signs of dementia, it’s very helpful to get to know the local bank branch staff and title accounts so they can alert family if they notice odd or uncharacteristic behavior by a longtime customer).

She soon could not pay her mortgage and we were forced to sell her home. She moved in with us. I was able to find an adult daycare to care for her while my husband and I were at work. So on we went day by day. I’d drop my kids off at school and mom off at daycare, at my expense.

Several years later, when she needed around-the-clock care, we looked for a facility that approved Medicaid, since she had no resources to pay for long-term care. This was a painful, difficult lesson – and one that I share with my clients: The time to purchase long-term care is when you don’t need it. My mother would hate knowing that my sister and I are paying out of pocket for preventative care and day-to-day expenses.

Dementia may have a long life cycle. Today my mother is 68. She has not recognized my sister or me for over six years. We have seen firsthand how 13 years in long-term care facilities can devastate a family both financially and emotionally.

There was a time when we had resources to purchase protection again these risks, and we didn’t. Dementia or other disabilities can happen at any age, and the lessons have been painful on many levels. A proud woman, my mother never expected to be financially dependent on anyone. It is a painful lesson for all of us. But if there is a silver lining, it’s this: As a financial adviser, I have been able to help others avoid making a similar mistake.

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, some estimate that as many as one in three individuals will suffer some form of cognitive dysfunction, from mild impairment to full-blown dementia. Our family wasn’t ready for this. Is yours?

———

Margaret Paddock, who oversees U.S. Bank’s wealth managers and financial advisers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market, is quick to advise her clients to make preparations for catastrophic care and provisions for situations that are hard to envision, but which can come to pass.

MONEY Careers

A Good Reason to Tap Your Roth IRA Early

Concentrating surgeons performing operation in operating room
Alamy

You shouldn't always wait until you retire to pull money from your retirement account.

The Roth IRA is a great tool for retirement savings. But here’s something not as well-known: It’s great for developing your career as well.

Many of my young clients in their 20s and 30s struggle to balance current spending, saving for the next 10 years, and stowing away money for retirement. With so many life changes to deal with (weddings, home purchases, children, new jobs), their financial environment is anything but stable. And their retirement will look completely different than it does for today’s retirees.

To my clients, separating themselves from their current cash flow for the next 30 years feels like sentencing their innocent income to a long prison term.

They ask, “Why should we save our hard-earned money for retirement when we have no idea what our financial circumstances will be in 15 years, never mind 30? What if we want to go back to school or pay for additional training to improve our careers? We might also decide to start a business. How can we plan for these potential life changes and still be responsible about our future?”

The answers to those questions are simple. Start investing in a Roth IRA — the earlier you do it, the better.

There is a stigma that says anyone who touches retirement money before retirement is making a mistake, but this is what we call blanket advice: Although it’s safe and may be correct for many people, each situation is different.

The Roth IRA has very unique features that allow it to be used as a flexible tool for specific life stages.

Unlike contributions to a traditional IRA, which are locked up except for certain circumstances, money that you add to a Roth IRA can be removed at any time. Yes, it’s true. The contributions themselves can be taken out of the account and used for anything at all at any time in your life with no penalty. And, like the traditional IRA, you can also take a distribution of the earnings in the account without penalty for certain reasons, one of which is paying for higher education for you or a family member. (Some fine print: You’ll pay a penalty on withdrawing a contribution that was a rollover from a traditional IRA within the past five years. And you’ll have to pay ordinary income taxes on an early Roth IRA withdrawal for higher education.)

Although you shouldn’t pull money from your retirement account for just any reason, sometimes it’s a smart move.

Let’s say you graduate from college and choose a job based on your major. This first job is great and helps you get your feet wet in the professional world. You’re able to gain some valuable real-world experience and support yourself while you enjoy life after school. And this works for a while…until one day, 10 or 15 years into this career, you wake up and begin to question your choices.

You wonder if this career trajectory is truly putting you where you want to be in life. You think about changing careers or starting a business, but you need your income and have no real savings outside of your retirement accounts.

Now, let’s also say that you were tipped off to the magic of a Roth IRA while you were in college and you contributed to the account each year for the past 15 years. You have $75,000 sitting in the account, $66,000 of which are your yearly contributions from 2000 through 2014. It’s for retirement, though, so you can’t touch it, right? Well, this may be the perfect time to do so.

I recently spoke to a someone who did just this. Actually, his wife did it, but he was part of the decisionmaking process.

The wife has been working for years as a massage therapist for the husband’s company. Things were going quite well, but she had other ideas for her future. She wanted to go back to school to get her degree as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. The challenge was that this education was going to cost $30,000, and they did not have that kind of money saved.

So, they brainstormed the various options, one being to tap into his Roth IRA money. They determined that this would be a good investment for their future. Once the wife became a CRNA, her annual earnings would rise an estimated $20,000 — money they could easily use to recoup the Roth IRA withdrawal (though the 2015 Roth IRA contribution limit is $5,500 for those under 50 years old).

This decision gave them a sense of freedom. The flexibility of the Roth allowed them to choose an unconventional funding option for their future and gave the couple a new level of satisfaction in their lives.

And, that’s what it’s all about. We have one life to live, and it’s our responsibility to make decisions that will help us live happily today, while still maintaining responsibility for tomorrow.

Whether your savings is in a bank account or a retirement account, it’s your money. Although many advisers will tell you otherwise, you need to make decisions based on what is best for you at various stages of your life. The one-size-fits-all rule just doesn’t work when it come to financial planning. There is no need to rule out a possible solution because society says it’s a mistake.

———-

Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock, where he works virtually with professionals in their 20s and 30s, helping them use money as a tool to live a life they love. Through personalized coaching, Eric helps clients organize their finances, set goals, and invest for the future.

MONEY financial advice

What I Learned in India About Financial Advice

150408_ADV_India
Stephen Wilkes—Gallery Stock Mumbai

One thing that crosses international boundaries is how people misunderstand the cost of financial advice.

In the airport shuttle taking us to our hotel in Mumbai, I looked out the window and thought, “We’re not in South Dakota anymore.” At midnight, the streets of India’s largest city seemed as full of people, vendors, and traffic as Times Square at noon.

I had no real comparison, though, for the garbage strewn about, the beggars going from car to car when traffic stopped, the people sleeping on the sidewalks, the ramshackle condition of most buildings, and the roaming packs of stray dogs. The third poorest county in the US — just 60 miles from my home — is no match whatsoever for the real ghettos of Mumbai, where 55% of the city’s 16 million people live.

Given these great dissimilarities in economic status as well as political, religious, and cultural views, I expected to find striking differences between the Indian and U.S. financial adviser communities and their clients. Here I was surprised.

I traveled to Mumbai to meet with a group of Indian financial advisers. The country’s financial regulators are actively encouraging advisers to change from charging only commissions to charging fees. My role was to offer suggestions for making that transition.

After spending several days observing and listening to the struggles of the Indian advisers, I concluded that 95% of the obstacles they face in promulgating client-centered, fiduciary planning are the same as the ones planners face here in the US.

The most frequent complaint I heard was that consumers just won’t pay fees. They would rather pay a high commission they don’t see rather than a low fee they painfully do see. I find the same behavior in US consumers. It seems irrational, but it makes perfect sense when we understand the delusional money script of avoidance that says, “If I don’t see the fee, then I must not pay a fee.”

Just as in the US, Indian advisers struggle to help consumers understand the math behind hidden commissions and visible fees. While most advisers can quickly calculate the amounts, consumers still find it hard to accept the numbers. There is great resistance to writing a check, even when a planning fee is half as much as an unseen fee or commission. In my experience, most consumers have great difficulty emotionally understanding that writing a check for $10,000 for advisory fees on $1 million represents a $15,000 savings on a 2.5% wrap fee they don’t see and for which no check is written.

Another similarity is that those most willing to pay fees for service are the wealthier clients. At first blush one might surmise that of course the wealthy are more open to paying fees because they have more money. That isn’t the case. The fees paid are roughly proportionate. In fact, usually smaller accounts that go fee-only save proportionally more than do larger ones. The difference is that affluent or wealthy clients tend to be business owners or professionals who are familiar with employing fee-for-service consultants, like accountants and attorneys.

The transition to introducing fees is slow, requiring a lot of education on the part of advisers and willingness to listen on the part of consumers. Similar to where the US was in the 1980s, India has only a handful of pioneering fee-only planners. Most advisers wanting to switch from pushing financial products to doing comprehensive financial planning have rolled out a fee-based model first. They hope consumers will eventually embrace the advantages — lower costs and fewer conflicts of interest — inherent in a fee-only compensation model.

In my career, I have watched and participated in financial planning’s growth as a profession in the US. It’s a privilege to be able to see it develop in India as well.

———-

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 Planning

Online Financial Planning Is More Popular Than You Think

piggy bank connected to computer mouse
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

Who needs to meet a financial adviser face-to-face? Not millennials and Gen Xers, who are often happier Skyping.

Hi, my name is Katie, and I’m a virtual financial planner.

If this sounds like a support group meeting, sometimes I feel like it should be. When I tell other financial planners that I work with clients across the country, they say, “But clients always value the face-to-face meetings that my firms provides.” So I ask them, “What is the average age of those clients?” The answer is usually in the 60s.

I started my own financial planning firm last year because I wanted to focus on clients under 50, in a way that lets me deliver advice without selling financial products. That doesn’t sound too complicated, does it? One of the ways I do this is by offering my services to people not in my immediate location. We either have a phone call while using screen-sharing software like JoinMe, or we use Skype or Google Hangouts to conduct meetings.

Since I’ve been in the industry for 10 years and always previously met with clients in person, I was a little apprehensive about the idea of not meeting clients face-to-face.

You know what? They don’t care. At all.

The clients I work with are well-educated, busy Gen X and Gen Y professionals. They use technology on a daily basis for work and personal reasons. The married couples I work with are usually both working in high-intensity jobs while juggling the demands of a family. Taking time out of their day to drive to a financial planner’s office, have an hour-long meeting, and drive back to their own workspace would easily eat up two to three hours of valuable time.

When we have a call or virtual meeting, we have a set agenda, the appointment is on their work calendar, and we are able to accomplish everything in 30 to 45 minutes. When we do this, my clients don’t need to spend a bunch of time away from the office, get a babysitter, or drive around town.

Another advantage to my clients (and me!) is that I am able to keep my financial planning prices down. Because I don’t keep an office in an expensive part of town, my overhead costs are lower. I can pass that savings along to my clients. I also have a lot of flexibility to conduct business even when I’m out of town for a conference.

What does a planner need in order to work with clients virtually?

  • A phone, and preferably a phone number that isn’t tied to a particular office space.
  • Comfort with screen-sharing tools.
  • Enough organizational skills to have the topic decided on beforehand — and enough flexibility to be able to answer other questions as they arise.
  • Financial planning software that clients can access online, or a secure client vault for sharing documents back and forth.

That’s it!

Clients that fit best in a virtual relationship are those that are comfortable with technology, somewhat self-sufficient, and aware of why this setup benefits them.

I’ve found that members of Gen X and Gen Y actually like working with a financial planner virtually because they are already comfortable with technology, they’re used to communicating this way, and they like the time-saving convenience. As an added benefit, those clients get to choose an adviser because the adviser specializes in their specific situation, not because the adviser happens to live near them.

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Katie Brewer, CFP, is the president of Your Richest Life, where she works virtually with Gen X and Gen Y professionals, helping them create and stick to a financial roadmap to live their richest life. Katie is a fee-only planner, a founding member of the XY Planning Network, and a member of the Financial Planning Association. She is also proud to be a Fightin’ Texas Aggie.

MONEY Financial Planning

Why I Want Clients to Get Emotional About Retirement

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Chutima Chaochaiya—Shutterstock

Digging deep into clients' emotions helps one planner uncover what they're really thinking.

I like to delve into clients’ emotions and feelings. People may tell me one thing initially, but upon further questioning may see that their first response wasn’t emotionally true.

One example of that came up in a recent meeting with a couple who were getting ready to retire. Of course, they had worries about what they should do.

They wondered if they should move all their money into conservative investments. They floated the idea of moving everything into an annuity — an option they believed carried no risk.

When I asked them about longevity in their blood lines, I learned they each had at least one parent in their mid-90s. I then explained to them how we are in a low-rate environment and talked about the danger that their annuities would be capped at very low rates of return that likely would not keep pace with inflation or taxes.

That’s where my emotional questioning began. Let me summarize our conversation:

Question: The chance of your living another 30 to 40 years is extremely possible. How do you feel about that?

Answer: That we won’t have enough money.

Q: How does that make you feel?

A: Afraid and very uncertain.

Q: When you started work and got married, what were the rules?

A: Save money in a retirement account, have children, and make sure they get good education.

Q: What are the rules in retirement?

A: We don’t know of any other than just making your money last.

Q: If all of us are living longer, and you know that certain health care costs and taxes are going up, why would you not want to grow your money? Why would you want to buy this financial product that is not designed to keep pace?

A: That’s just what we were told. And that’s what we thought you did as an adviser.

Q: Well now that you are here, how do you feel about this happening?

A: We are very uncertain and really don’t know what to do!

Q: Has anyone worked with you to put together a plan that is balanced with investments and also has an income component that is adjustable for you?

A: No

Q: If you could become more educated on a balanced plan and how that may help you navigate the next 30 years, how would that make you feel?

A: It would make us feel like we have a chance to succeed.

When clients say that they do not want to lose any money, my response is, “Okay, but how do you feel about not making any money?” They don’t like that idea either.

In today’s marketplace, “no risk” equals minimal return and loss of purchasing power.

It is very important to educate clients on current economic conditions and teach them that calculated risk is worth taking. The average retiree who has a net worth of, say, $500,000 to $1 million either falls prey to annuity salesman or is so shell-shocked from 2009 that he or she only trusts CDs.

There is a real need to educate clients on how rates work and why the market have been the place to be for the past six years. Retirees also need greater clarification on annuities in order to understand their income and growth restrictions.

Asking questions to gauge risk is key to financial success. More importantly, it is key to building a sound relationship between adviser and client.

I always ask my clients, “In the next one to two years, what do I need to make happen to assure you that you have made a good choice in working with me?” These answers vary, but generally speaking, clients want to know that they are staying on the right path and are not falling behind. Keeping in touch with clients and knowing how they feel emotionally is paramount to them feeling good about their adviser.

———-

Matt Jehn, CFP, is managing partner of Royal Oak Financial Group, which offers small businesses and individuals in Columbus and Lancaster, Ohio a complete financial solution through professional accounting, tax and wealth management services. Jehn, who earned a degree in family financial planning from The Ohio State University, enjoys helping his clients grow their businesses by educating them on the meaning behind the numbers.

MONEY

I Don’t Need a Financial Plan, Because the World Will End in Two Years

apocalyptic sky
Michael Turek—Getty Images

If someone believes we're in End Times, how do you convince that person to fix her finances?

As a financial planner, I’ve had a number of clients and potential clients who have felt comfortable enough to express their views about religion, politics, and society in general.

Sometimes their views have coincided with my own, and sometimes they haven’t. I don’t know who said you should never debate religion and politics, but my guess is it was someone who did.

Sometimes, however, these sensitive subjects are unavoidable, like in a conversation I had several years ago with a potential client.

We were in my office having a wonderful talk. This woman was extremely polite. She had a nice smile and a warm disposition. In fact, she could have easily won the award for World’s Best Grandma.

As our conversation moved along, I started explaining the importance of having a financial plan.

She politely allowed me to finish. Then, in a very nice voice, she told me that the reason she did not have a financial plan, nor want one, was because we were in End Times. She said that she believed in the Rapture and that it was near — within the next year or two.

I swallowed hard and thought, How do I respond to this?

At that moment it didn’t matter whether or not I shared her beliefs, because they were hers. I had to respect her and her right to believe.

I don’t remember the exact words I used after hearing her explain why she didn’t believe in financial planning, but I do know that I spoke with extreme caution. My response was along the lines of, “I completely understand what you’re saying, and I’m not disputing your belief. But my role is to help you plan for the what-ifs. In other words, what if your timing is off just a little?”

I knew if I pressed the point, I would be essentially trying to change her views about her belief in the future — a future she proceeded to describe in detail for me.

Our conversation ended cordially.

This woman did not become a client, but the experience was a lesson for me. My views about religion are unimportant when it comes to planning for my clients. What’s important is what they believe, and how their beliefs affect their outlook on the future.

As a financial professional, it’s easy to point a finger and judge others for their irrational behaviors and beliefs when it comes to finance. The reality is, however, that we are all subject to moments of irrationality.

Yes, this woman, it turns out, was clearly wrong in her forecast. After all, we’re still waiting for the Rapture.

But she’s not such an outlier. Someone who says he knows which way the stock market will go in the next year or two is not much different from a woman who says she knows the world will end in a year or two.

The difference is I’m not going to engage in a debate with a client about the timing of the world’s end. The ability to predict the markets? Now, that’s something I’m willing to argue about.

———-

Frank Paré is a certified financial planner in private practice in Oakland, California. He and his firm, PF Wealth Management Group, specialize in serving professional women in transition. Frank is currently on the board of the Financial Planning Association and was a recipient of the FPA’s 2011 Heart of Financial Planning award.

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.

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