MONEY Financial Planning

The Real Purpose of Financial Planning

A chat about retirement, Italy, and The Golden Girls illustrates how financial planning can help a person uncover and achieve her deepest passions.

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.

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?”

———-

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.

MONEY behavioral finance

A Financial Planner’s Most Important Job Isn’t What You Think It Is

holding hnads in comfort
PeopleImages.com—Getty Images

Helping people who are panicking about money is more important than a particular plan or a piece of investing advice.

In the past few years, many of us in the financial planning profession have been coming to terms with a difficult truth: Our clients’ long-term financial success is based less on the structure of their portfolios than it is on their ability to adapt their behaviors to changing economic times.

An increasing number of financial planners are awakening to the fact that our primary business is not producing financial plans or giving investment advice, but rather caring for and transforming the financial and emotional well-being of our clients. And at the very foundation of financial and emotional well-being lies one’s behavior.

I’ve come to understand this over my own three decades as a financial planner, so I was pleased to see the topic of investor behavior featured at a national gathering of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors in Salt Lake City last May. One of the speakers was Nick Murray, a personal financial adviser, columnist, and author.

“The dominant determinants of long-term, real-life, investment returns are not market behavior, but investment behavior,” Murray told us. “Put all your charts and graphs away and come out into the real world of behavior.”

This made me recall similar advice from a 2009 Financial Planning Association retreat, when Dr. Somnath Basu said, “Start shaking the dust off your psychology books from your college days. This is where [the financial planning profession] is going next.”

Most advisers will agree that, while meticulously constructed investment portfolios have a high probability of withstanding almost any economic storm, none of them can withstand the fatal blow of an owner who panics and sells out.

This is where financial advisers’ behavioral skills can often pay for themselves. Murray, who calls financial planners “behavior modifiers,” reminded us that we are “the antidote to panic.”

Murray said most advisers will try everything they can do to keep a client from turning a temporary decline into a permanent loss of capital. He wasn’t optimistic, however, that the natural tendency of investors to sell low and buy high will stop anytime soon.

His final advice was blunt. “Think of your clients who had beautifully designed and executed investment portfolios that would have carried them through three decades of retirement, who started calling you in 2008 wanting to junk it and go to cash. How many of these people have called you since then and tried to do it again?”

I myself could think of several.

“How many times have they gone out on the ledge and tried to jump, and how many times have you pulled them back in?” Murray asked.

By now I could see heads all over the room nodding.

Then he delivered a memorable line: “I am telling you as a friend, stop wasting your time on these people.” The heads stopped nodding. “Save your goodness and your talents for those who will accept help from you.”

I have certainly learned, often the hard way, that helping people who aren’t ready to change is futile. Yet I disagree to some extent with this part of Murray’s advice. If clients have gone out on the ledge more than once, but have called me and accepted my help in pulling them back in, then together we have succeeded in modifying their behavior.

This is a far different scenario from that of a panicked client who refuses help by ignoring a planner’s advice. If planners see our role as “antidotes to panic,” we need to realize that, for some clients, the antidote may have to be administered more than once.

———-

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 president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY financial advice

Advisers Are Trying to Sound Less Like Robots

Thesaurus and Dictionary in stack
RTimages—Alamy

Some impressive-sounding financial-industry buzzwords simply turn people off, according to research with high-net-worth investors.

Advisers are rethinking the words they use with clients to avoid off-putting terms that can sound a little less than human.

For example, the term “risk tolerance” is giving way to “comfort level.” “Financial freedom” is also passé, especially after the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Now, it’s better to use “financial security.”

Thank Invesco for the impetus. In 2007, the investment giant’s consulting arm hired maslansky + partners, a global marketing strategist to do for Invesco’s wholesaling business and ultimately, the financial services industry, what maslansky once did for conservative politicians. It was maslansky’s co-founder, Dr. Frank Luntz, who morphed the phrase “estate tax” into a more unappealing “death tax.”

Maslansky’s trademark: “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

The ongoing initiative by Invesco and maslansky involves recruiting mass affluent and high-net worth investors with assets of at least $250,000 to test how they perceive advisers’ messages.

Participants watch a spiel by an actor who plays an adviser and turn dials up or down according to how positively or negatively they feel about the message they hear. An audience observes the investors’ reactions real time.

“We find there are definitely words to use and words to lose,” said Scott West, who heads Invesco Consulting.

Invesco, which manages $790 billion, and maslansky are now focusing on the language of alternative investments. Preliminary findings show that advisers should describe alternatives in terms of “goals-based strategies” rather than “risk-based strategies,” said David Saylor, executive director of Invesco Consulting.

Investors who took part in the focus group were not motivated to learn about new investments so they could “lose less” money. But the dials jumped in response to presentations that led with how alternative investments could help clients’ attain their personal goals while minimizing losses, Saylor said.

Buzz about the benefits of humanizing sales pitches has drawn interest from other firms. Portfolio management firm Loring Ward first tapped maslansky’s expertise in 2012.

That is when Steve Atkinson, the firm’s head of adviser relations, first saw how negatively investors perceived advisers’ pitches. It felt like “a slap in the face,” Atkinson said. Advisers tended to use too much jargon, such as “volatility” and “small cap.” They also occasionally boasted too much about methods and past successes, including “Nobel Prize-winning research.”

Don Hershberger, president of Paramount Wealth Management in Jackson, Mich., immediately hired a consultant to redesign his firm’s website after sitting in on a focus group organized by Loring Ward and maslansky in 2012. The firm replaced offending jargon with a feel-good message to clients about family.

Client feedback showed the change resonated, Hershberger said. Now he is always careful to emphasize only clients’ needs and feelings — not the intricacies of specific investments — in conversations with clients and in the main messages on his website,

“We had to confirm that they were hearing what we wanted to say to them,” Hershberger said.

 

MONEY Financial Planning

3 Questions That Will Put Your Finances — and Life — on the Right Track

Backpacker on mountain trail
Backpacker on mountain trail Getty Images

Financial planning guru George Kinder has a powerful tool for helping people set priorities for their money...and their lives. Here it is.

Few things seem more diametrically opposed than managing money and spiritual enlightenment. But not everyone sees it that way. Some very influential people in the financial advisory community have dedicated their lives to helping advisers assist clients deal with the more personal elements in personal finance.

Consider George Kinder, the Harvard-trained economist-turned-philosopher-turned-CPA. He managed to evolve his tax practice into a comprehensive financial advisory offering, with supporting methodology, while on the successful path to becoming a Buddhist teacher based in Cambridge, Mass. and Hana, Hawaii.

Within the advisory community, Kinder is almost universally known as the “father of life planning.” To many advisers, his work is the seminal, much-needed missing link between life and money. He originally articulated his views in his book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity. Many more advisers, however, envision Kinder playing the ukulele on a magic carpet — just a little too “out there” for mainstream consumption and practical application. Having moved from the camp of skeptics to the camp of adherents myself, I invite you to consider what could become one of the most valued tools in a financial planning practice: George Kinder’s Three Questions.

Most advisers believe it’s vital to know a client’s answer to the following two questions: “What are your goals in life?” and “What are your values?” Unfortunately, most financial planners simply ask them verbatim. The responses they receive to those starkly boilerplate questions are largely generic. Clients answer with what they think they’re supposed to say, not with a measured evaluation of what’s actually most important to them. Kinder takes a different route, beginning with his first of three questions.

Question One: I want you to imagine that you are financially secure, that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. The question is, how would you live your life? What would you do with the money? Would you change anything? Let yourself go. Don’t hold back your dreams. Describe a life that is complete, that is richly yours.

If Kinder lost you at “Let yourself go,” go back and refocus on the first part of the question. Better yet, simply answer the question yourself. What you’ll likely find in your answer is a more complete, genuine, and interesting response to our traditional question, “What are your goals in life?” You see — there’s a method at work here.

The second question goes deeper.

Question Two: This time, you visit your doctor who tells you that you have five to ten years left to live. The good part is that you won’t ever feel sick. The bad news is that you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining to live? Will you change your life, and how will you do it?

The first time I read this question, I approached it entirely too literally. Most clients, I retorted internally, can’t just decide (or afford) to live life as though they knew they were going to die within the next 10 years! But again, the point of this query is to evoke a better answer to the question, “What are your most deeply held values?” Here you’ll receive a lot of answers about family, relationships and bucket-list items.

Another purpose of question two is to prepare you for the third question.

Question Three: This time, your doctor shocks you with the news that you have only one day left to live. Notice what feelings arise as you confront your very real mortality. Ask yourself: What dreams will be left unfulfilled? What do I wish I had finished or had been? What do I wish I had done? What did I miss?

If a client really engages with this third question, you’ll now get beyond superficial answers and start to learn about what really drives this person in front of you. You’ll discover what makes them unique, what they long for, and what should likely be reflected in your planning to avoid making more recommendations that will only fall on deaf ears.

I have seen numerous advisers employ Kinder’s Three Questions and vastly improve their insight into a client’s values and goals. For fully dedicated Kinderites, this is just the beginning. There’s an entire planning methodology found in his book on practice management and in his courses.

George Kinder has provided some much-needed yang to the financial industry’s yin. For your practice, for your clients — and even for you — his Three Questions should be informative. And who knows? They may be transformative too.

Consumers can get a free, self-guided version of Kinder’s EVOKE life planning process — including the Three Questions and other exercises — at LifePlanningForYou.com.

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Financial planner, speaker, and author Tim Maurer is a wealth adviser at Buckingham Asset Management and the director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance. A certified financial planner practitioner working with individuals, families and organizations, he also educates at private events and via TV, radio, print, and online media. “Personal finance is more personal than it is finance” is the central theme that drives his writing and speaking.

MONEY Financial Planning

Why a Safe Space Makes for Better Financial Plans

mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows
Barbara Stellmach—Getty Images/Flickr Open

To really help their clients, financial planners need to create an environment -- both physical and conversational -- that's comfortable and reassuring.

Nicole walked up the driveway wearing flip-flops. It was that kind of day.

We held our meeting outside in the garden — one of the perks of my having a home office. I’ve heard repeatedly how meeting outside takes away the stress of difficult financial conversations, and sometimes even goes so far as to make them a delight.

When Nicole had first hired me, she was blunt. “I’m blowing through my trust fund, and it’s going to run out,” she said. “I need you to help me learn how to make it last, but don’t put me on a cold-turkey budget because that is going to backfire.”

At this and other meetings, we explored the narrative of her life. Part of what we uncovered was that her job was a bad fit. She needed a change, something where she made a difference and where she could get outside instead of working indoors at a desk all day.

I’ve come to appreciate over the years how a big part of what I do is hold the space for conversations like ones I had with Nicole — conversations about issues people know they need to face, but ones that are oh-so-easy to postpone.

When I say “holding the space,” I mean that I’m creating an atmosphere in which people can feel safe. Part of that is designing the physical space to create a more relaxed atmosphere. At my home office, my clients leave their shoes at the door, come into my kitchen as I prepare tea for them, and then they choose where we sit — inside (at the dining table or in the living room) or outside (on the porch or in the garden.) I’ve seen similarly relaxing physical environments in commercial office spaces, where the ‘conference room’ looks more like an inviting living room and the financial planner’s dog greets clients with his welcoming, wagging tail.

While the physical space sets the tone, it’s the conversation that follows which is most important. Holding the space means people feel they can move through whatever they need to move through, knowing that they’re not going to be judged by me. It’s where clients state what’s holding them back from doing what they know they need to do. It means that I name what I see, and sometimes that means saying out loud what isn’t being said. It’s asking evocative questions to understand more deeply. It’s where couples can talk to one another about money. When a client has a decision to make, I identify trade-offs and give equal weight to the non-financial component. We brainstorm what it’ll take to get them one step closer to being where they want to be. And we pause to look back and celebrate all the steps forward.

This story had a nice, happy ending for Nicole. And it was rewarding to me, too. When Nicole talked about just how unhappy she was with her work, I worked up a five-year transitional cash flow plan which provided her time to explore and find a more suitable job while she also made gradual lifestyle changes.

She no longer felt guilty or alarmed when spending her trust fund because she saw how she was using it intentionally, while also taking concrete steps to use less of it over time. She committed to the process, finding meaningful work along the way, and reaching the place where the remainder of her inheritance truly became long-term money.

My experience with Nicole taught me how much I enjoy working with her demographic: Young people, overwhelmed by money, who want to do something meaningful with their lives and want to use their money to help them achieve that goal. And it’s by holding the space for these conversations that, together, we accomplish just that.

MONEY financial advisers

Your Investment Adviser Needs an Annual Inspection

Car inspection
Abel Mitja Varela—Getty Images

Your car needs to be checked every year to make sure it's not a danger to yourself or others. Why shouldn't the person handling your money get the same treatment?

In most states, automobiles must be inspected annually to make sure they meet minimum safety standards. This inspection is typically paid by the car owner. And while these inspections may not catch all vehicle problems, they help prevent cars with a range of safety violations from getting back on the road. That provides significant benefits, including peace of mind, to the driving public

Now imagine if cars were inspected on average only once every 11 years and that 40% of cars never get inspected. Would that affect your confidence to drive in your city? How wary would you now be of the car next to you? Would you consider changing to public transportation to avoid other cars on the road? My suspicion is that many of us would change our driving habits to one degree or another. I myself am not sure I’d feel comfortable driving at all.

This, unfortunately, is the situation with investment advisers: They’re inspected or audited on average only once every 11 years, and 40% have never been audited at all.

Do you think that if this information were widely known by the public, consumers would have less confidence in investment advisers? I think they would. Let’s say you’re an investment adviser: Could that impact your own practice, even if you play by all the rules? I think it could.

The management of life savings is a very personal and emotional decision for many investors. An effective investment adviser listens very carefully to a client’s personal situation, crafts a customized investment policy statement for that client, and then abides by this directive to manage the client’s portfolio by executing it and monitoring it to make sure the client is well served. The media has reported widely over the years on egregious cases in which investors have been taken advantage of by investment advisers who clearly were not placing their client’s interest first.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which is primarily charged with examining investment advisers, has its hands full. Even with the best of intentions, the SEC cannot always perform examinations with the regularity that it wants to. Funding issues are no doubt part of the problem.

To better serve the public, shouldn’t we making sure that checks and balances are adhered to and to monitor this by doing more regular examinations of investment advisory practices?

Is there a better way to ensure that the frequency of an examinations goes up to the point where all investment advisers are audited at least every three or four years?

Perhaps, similar to the requirement that cars be inspected once a year, investment advisers should pay a nominal user fee that is dedicated to regular examinations of those registered by the SEC. It’s difficult for us advisers to argue against this concept, because we’re the ones who benefit from the privilege to be able to work in this profession — just like people benefit from the privilege of driving on a road with a reasonable degree of safety.

There is a bill already before the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1627) that supports this approach and has bipartisan support. This bill has wide industry support, too, from organizations including: AARP, Consumer Federation of America, Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Financial Planning Association, Investment Adviser Association, National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, and the North American Securities Administrators Association.

So while it’s true that such an approach should probably have been adopted years ago, we have a notable opportunity to move this trajectory in a positive direction. If we succeed, the public is better protected and served, and we all as investment advisers can benefit from greater confidence in us and in the work we do.

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Stuart Armstrong, CFP, is a member of the Financial Planning Association Board of Directors.

MONEY financial advice

Tony Robbins Wants To Teach You To Be a Better Investor

Tony Robbins vists at SiriusXM Studios on November 18, 2014 in New York City.
Tony Robbins with his new book, Money: Master the Game. Robin Marchant—Getty Images

With his new book, the motivational guru is on a new mission: educate the average investor about the many pitfalls in the financial system.

It might seem odd taking serious financial advice from someone long associated with infomercials and fire walks.

Which perhaps is why Tony Robbins, one of America’s foremost motivational gurus and performance coaches, has loaded his new book Money: Master The Game with interviews from people like Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett, investor Carl Icahn, Yale University endowment guru David Swensen, Vanguard Group founder Jack Bogle, and hedge-fund manager Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates.

Robbins has a particularly close relationship with hedge-fund manager Paul Tudor Jones of Tudor Investment Corporation.

“I really wanted to blow up some financial myths. What you don’t know will hurt you, and this book will arm you so you don’t get taken advantage of,” Robbins says.

One key takeaway from Robbins’ first book in 20 years: the “All-Weather” asset allocation he has needled out of Dalio, who is somewhat of a recluse. When back-tested, the investment mix lost money only six times over the past 40 years, with a maximum loss of 3.93% in a single year.

That “secret sauce,” by the way: 40% long-term U.S. bonds, 30% stocks, 15% intermediate U.S. bonds, 7.5% gold, and 7.5% commodities.

Tony’s Takes

For someone whose net worth is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and who reigned on TV for years as a near-constant infomercial presence, Robbins—whose personality is so big it seemingly transcends his 6’7″ frame—obviously knows a thing or two about making money himself.

Here’s what you might not expect: The book is a surprisingly aggressive indictment of today’s financial system, which often acts as a machine devoted to enriching itself rather than enriching investors.

To wit, Robbins relishes in trashing the fictions that average investors have been sold over the years. For instance, the implicit promise of every active fund manager: “We’ll beat the market!”

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of active fund managers lag their benchmarks over extended periods—and it’s costing investors big time.

“Active managers might beat the market for a year or two, but not over the long-term, and long-term is what matters,” he says. “So you’re underperforming, and they look you in the eye and say they have your best interests in mind, and then charge you all these fees.

“The system is based on corporations trying to maximize profit, not maximizing benefit to the investor.”

Hold tight—there’s more: Fund fees are much higher than you likely realize, and are taking a heavy axe to your retirement prospects. The stated returns of your fund might not be what you’re actually seeing in your investment account, because of clever accounting.

Your broker might not have your best interests at heart. The 401(k) has fallen far short as the nation’s premier retirement vehicle. As for target-date funds, they aren’t the magic bullets they claim to be, with their own fees and questionable investment mixes.

Another of the book’s contrarian takes: Don’t dismiss annuities. They have acquired a bad rap in recent years, either for being stodgy investment vehicles that appeal to grandmothers, or for being products that sometimes put gigantic fees in brokers’ pockets.

But there’s no denying that one of investors’ primary fears in life is outlasting their money. With a well-chosen annuity, you can help allay that fear by creating a guaranteed lifetime income. When combined with Social Security, you then have two income streams to help prevent a penniless future.

Robbins’ core message: As a mom-and-pop investor, you’re being played. But at least you can recognize that fact, and use that knowledge to redirect your resources toward a more secure retirement.

“I don’t want people to be pawns in someone else’s game anymore,” he says. “I want them to be the chess players.”

MONEY stocks

Stocks Go Up. Stocks Go Down. Deal With It.

The best tool for addressing anxiety about the stock market is information. Unfortunately, that isn't always enough.

Like some of our investment advisory clients, I fear the market sometimes. The way I combat that fear is with information. Markets go up, markets go down. Here’s what’s normal. Here’s where we are.

Last month, in conversation with one of my more nervous clients — when I had finished my list of market facts and cycles, when I had emailed my short and long-term charts — she replied, “And I’m supposed to be content with that?”

Essentially, yes. That’s the answer most financial professionals would have, if they’re honest.

I suppose you may find it strange, but that’s the kind of challenge I’m up for. It’s a challenge to try to keep clients calm when markets are anything but calm.

In 2008, many of my friends who are financial advisers were deeply affected by the trauma that clients experienced as markets worldwide experienced the worst decline since the Great Depression. They remain affected by it. Trauma is not too big of a word.

Today, I don’t fear the downturn. I speak.

In a downturn, people’s attention is most focused on sliding markets. They may hear what you have to say, but they may not listen to your various messages: Markets are risky. They go up and down. If you don’t take market risk, you limit your potential for capturing the gains when they do come. If you do take market risk, you’ve got to be able to see that downturns are a part of the deal. Shall I get out my trusty charts now and show you just how common it is for markets to fluctuate?

Probably I’d bore you if I did. What you probably want to know is what’s a good strategy for dealing with a volatile market.

You could move some money out of equities, of course. Or we could layer into the portfolio some exchange-traded funds that continuously move out of the most volatile stocks and into the less volatile ones. Both these moves will limit returns, but will also make the trends less upsetting.

But even if we lessen the throbbing uncertainty, we cannot eliminate it.

No one has overcome market cycles yet, no matter what they promise. Cue the charts.

And here’s the flip side: For all the confidence the clients might have in us, we can’t tell them when the markets will tumble. We can’t tell them when to run for the hills. Because no one can.

I feel I have gone down this road to every end I can find, looking for the analytics, the portfolio theory, the guru, the portfolio construction expertise, the economic underpinning, the macro-down and the bottom-up way of selecting exactly what would be the best globally diversified portfolio. I’ve made my own deal with risk and return. But none of that work changes the simple fact markets do go down periodically. Personally, I am content with that.

But for that client, this is not a comfortable fact.

It’s humbling, really, to have a discussion in which you cannot provide something which is very much wanted.

But it’s a smart discussion to have.

The client told me that when the market goes up again, I have permission to say, “I told you so.”

The market is up nearly 10% since we had that conversation, so I might. But when times are good in the markets, it’s the same as when times are bad: Clients don’t listen.

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Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, 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 financial advisers

What Is a Fiduciary, and Why Should You Care?

Your investments are at stake, explains Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown (a.k.a. The Reformed Broker).

MONEY financial advisers

My Client Is Making a Terrible Financial Choice. What Do I Do?

Wallet being protected by little green army men
John Lamb—Getty Images

When panic drives someone to make a self-destructive money decision, it's the financial adviser's job to protect the client from himself.

Suppose one of my clients has his heart set on using half of his retirement account to buy each of his grandchildren a new car. Or a client in a panic over falling markets wants to sell all her stocks and buy gold. What is my responsibility as their financial planner? How far should planners go to try to keep clients from making serious financial mistakes?

It’s important for planners to respect clients’ competence and ability to make their own life decisions. Client-centered planners also need to remember that the goal is to help clients get what they want, not what the planner might want or think the client should want. On the other hand, should a planner stand idly by and watch someone walk off what the planner perceives as the edge of a financial cliff?

Part of the answer to this dilemma stems from a planner’s legal obligation. Most advisers who sell financial products have no fiduciary duty and are not legally required to put their customers’ interests first. Fiduciary advisers, which include those who are fee-only, do have a legal obligation to act in their clients’ best interests.

What is the legal responsibility, then, of a fiduciary planner who believes clients are about to do themselves financial harm?

Let’s say I have a client who is about to do something that may be viewed by a court of law as “extreme” or “imprudent.” (An example would be putting all his money into one asset class like gold, cash, or penny stocks.) At the minimum, I would need to protect myself by carefully fulfilling my legal responsibilities. This would include making certain I emphasized to the client that, given the research and data available, his actions could hurt him financially. I also would want to be sure the client fully understood and took responsibility for his actions.

In terms of the broader aspect of what financial planners owe to their clients, meeting this legal obligation is not enough. In my view, fiduciary planners’ obligation to put clients’ interests first includes an ethical responsibility to do no harm. Sometimes this ethical and legal responsibility requires planners to give clients information they may not want to hear.

As we focus on the clients’ goals and help them carry out their wishes, part of our role is to make sure they have all the information they need. This gives us a responsibility to educate ourselves so the advice we offer is as sound as we can make it. We also need to do whatever we can to help clients hear and understand that advice.

Clients who are hovering on the edge of a financial cliff are typically about to act out of strong emotions such as fear. They often can’t take in financial advice until they are able to move through that fear. It only makes things worse if financial advisers shame clients, bully them, or abandon them to their fears. The challenge for planners is to help clients reach a more rational place so they can gather additional information and make decisions that will serve them well.

With the right kind of support, clients are almost always able to get past the fear that is pushing them to make imprudent decisions. Providing such support by working with clients’ emotions and beliefs about money, perhaps with the help of a financial therapist or financial coach, is well within a financial planner’s ethical responsibility. Our role is not merely to do no harm. It is also to use all the tools we have to help clients act in their own best interests.

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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 president of the Financial Therapy Association.

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