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.

———-

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.

———-

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.

———-

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

The Downside of Financial Jargon

141104_ADV_Jargon
Robert Nicholas—Getty Images

If you focus too much on charts, graphs, and asset allocation, you can end up overlooking what's really important about someone's finances.

Sometimes our clients’ simplest questions are the ones that we overlook.

Not too long ago I started prepping for an annual meeting with one of our clients. As is the case with most financial planners, our process involved collecting data from various sources so that we would be prepared to discuss not only our annual agenda items but also any questions our client might raise about her overall financial plan.

Our annual meetings are an opportunity for us to discuss with our clients their life changes, re-focus their goals, and address any other external events that might have an impact on their overall plan. So we made sure we were ready to discuss portfolio performance and allocation, even if we didn’t intend to spend much of the meeting going over performance. We also made sure to review various benchmarks, mutual fund performance reports, and any other information that might bear on our client’s ability to achieve her goals. Suffice it to say, I felt it better to be overprepared than underprepared.

Meeting day arrived, and I was ready. I glided through the agenda items with my client while highlighting the areas that I thought needed addressing. Of course, I showed her colorful pie charts in order to highlight her portfolio’s diversification and performance. As I concluded the agenda, I noted that since there were no major life changes, I didn’t see a need to alter the portfolio.

I thought our hour-long meeting had gone well — until, that is, my client looked at me and said, “Frank, I just want to know if I’ll have enough money to continue living my current lifestyle.”

I was floored. All of my prepping for the meeting was to highlight that she was on track and that everything was moving along as we had planned. The problem, however, was that the information was in a language that made the answer to her question obvious to me but not to her. My charts looked pretty to me, but didn’t address her question.

I thanked her for her question, and I made a commitment to change how I would address that in future meetings. In other words, I would make sure we discussed her current spending as well as other aspects of her financial life within the context of how her lifestyle might be affected.

After our meeting, I continued to ponder her question, because she was right. My meeting agenda was filled with language and jargon that I understood but not my client.

I reflected on whether we as an industry overcomplicate concepts that can be easily communicated in a way that more directly addresses our clients’ basic fears. The answer for me was to question my assumptions about my client communications in general and re-evaluate how I would communicate moving forward with all my clients. I made a commitment to listen more for their fears and address them more directly — free of industry jargon whenever possible. I would not assume my spreadsheets and pie charts said it all. In other words, I would keep it simple.

———–

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 advisers

Flesh-and-Blood Advisers Face Threats from Robots

Robot Lost in Space with Will Robinson
©20th Century Fox—Courtesy Everett Collection

Fidelity and Charles Schwab will be offering automated financial advice that's low-cost or even free, pushing other advisers to be tech-savvy to compete.

Last month, both Charles Schwab Corp and Fidelity Investments unveiled so-called “robo” advice programs that offer free or very cheap algorithm-driven portfolio management to investors.

That strikes fear into the hearts of many financial advisers who typically charge 1% or more of assets under management to offer personalized advice to investors.

Some, such as Ritholtz Wealth Management, are responding in kind. Earlier this month the firm launched Liftoff, a digital portfolio management tool aimed at young would-be clients with under $100,000 to invest who want account oversight but don’t need complete wealth management. The new offering aims to give investors easy and inexpensive (0.4% of assets per year) access to the firm’s investing strategies and to keep those clients in the fold as their wealth grows, said CEO Josh Brown.

Upside, the San Francisco-based startup that provides the technology behind Liftoff, is also working with other registered investment advisers to offer a way to compete with the direct-to-consumer “robo” offerings from such firms as Betterment and Wealthfront, which offer consumers digital-only access to low-cost ETFs and automatic portfolio design and rebalancing through algorithms.

On Oct. 27, Charles Schwab announced it was moving into the automated advice space with a free product.

Fidelity said on Oct. 15 that it would refer its advisers who wanted a low-cost automated investment offering to Betterment, one of the largest of the new robo-advisers.

Still a Small Space

Advisers who fear their business will be undercut by products like these should remember that the current competitive threat is tiny, accounting for less than $5 billion in assets, said Sophie Schmitt, senior analyst at Aite Group, a research firm. So, panic isn’t necessary, though it’s probably a good time to make some moves.

“The traditional financial services world is waking up to the reality that clients want to consume financial information digitally, and 2014 is a pivotal year,” Schmitt said.

Advisers can start to compete with these automated products by offering clients online access and beefing up the technology tools they use themselves when working with clients, she said.

One case in point is Merrill Clear, launched earlier this year by Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, which allows advisers to help clients plan for retirement, and prioritize goals on iPads.

Flesh-and-blood advisers who use digital tools have an advantage over algorithms because they can “marry technology and human behavior,” said Daniel Satchkov, president of Rixtrema, a firm that offers software advisers can use to demonstrate portfolio risk to clients.

Brian Eddy, a Beverly, Massachusetts, adviser, said he agrees. His firm, PortfolioFix, offers online access to their accounts and automated portfolio rebalancing. But he also talks to them in person, on the phone and via Skype, the teleconferencing program.

“There’s always going to be a market for someone who’s available to the client on a one-on-one basis,” he said.

MONEY Gold

What I Tell Clients Who Want to Buy Gold

Stacks of gold bars
Mike Groll—AP

Sometimes people want gold because of greed, sometimes because of fear. Here's what you should know before you buy it.

“Okay,” the client said at the end of our meeting, after I had recommended my investment strategy, “I’ve just got one more question.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“What about gold?”

“Why gold?” I asked. I’ve found that the reasons people give me really vary. When they say they want to buy gold, there’s some deeper issue we need to get at. “What is it about gold that appeals to you?”

“It’s low right now. You believe in buy low, sell high, right? I want to earn more than I can from bonds. There’s always a market for gold, no matter what happens.”

Hmmm. The client is expressing both greed and fear. It’s usually one or the other.

So I tried to explain:

You don’t invest in gold; you speculate on gold. Gold grows in value when someone else will speculate more than you did when you bought it. Perhaps it rises and falls with inflation. An exhaustive 2013 article in Financial Analysts Journal concluded that’s not really true. The authors found that the price of gold rises…when it rises. The price of gold fall…when it falls.

There’s some evidence that gold has kept its value in relation to a loaf of bread. The problem is that this comparison goes back the reign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BC. For most investors, that time frame is way too long.

Some people want gold in case all hell breaks loose. It makes them feel safer than boring bonds. I can understand where they’re coming from. Bonds are almost purely conceptual because most people don’t ever even get a piece of paper saying they own them. These people want gold so they can make a run for it if necessary. Like I said, I understand: I like feeling safe, too.

If you’re in this camp, you could use 1-2% of your portfolio to buy some gold. Take physical custody of it. Put it in your safe at home.

Remember the practicalities. Small coins will probably work best; you don’t want to be stuck trying to get change for $1,000 gold bars when the banks have closed. Gold weighs a lot so just buy enough to get you over the border. You don’t want your stash to slow you down when you’re sneaking away in the night.

Still not feeling secure? To take the next step down this road, add the following to your safe: guns, ammo, water, and copy of Mad Max or other favorite movie of this genre. The Book of Eli was okay and 2012 was even better.

However, none of these movies features a post-apocalyptic gold standard. According to them, if and when all hell breaks loose, you’ll want guns, ammo, gasoline, and perhaps a jet.

———-

Bridget Sullivan Mermel helps clients throughout the country with her comprehensive fee-only financial planning firm based in Chicago. She’s the author of the upcoming book More Money, More Meaning. Both a certified public accountant and a certified financial planner, she specializes in helping clients lower their tax burden with tax-smart investing.

Read next: Dubai’s Kids Now Worth Their Weight (Loss) in Gold

MONEY Out of the Red

Have You Conquered Debt? Tell Us Your Story

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iStock

With patience, you can pay off large amounts of debt and improve your credit. MONEY wants to hear how you're doing it.

Have you gotten rid of a big IOU on your balance sheet, or at least made significant progress toward that end? MONEY wants to hear your digging-out-of-debt stories, to share with and inspire our readers who might be in similar situations.

Use the confidential form below to tell us about it. What kind of debt did you have, and how much? How did you erase it—or what are you currently doing? What advice do you have for other people in your situation? We’re interested in stories about all kinds of debt, from student loans to credit cards to car loans to mortgages.

Read the first story in our series, about a Marine and mother of three who paid off more than $158,169 in debt:

My kids have been understanding. Now I teach them about needs and wants. The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.” If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.

Do you have a story about conquering debt? Share it with us. Please also let us know where you’re from, what you do for a living, and how old you are. We won’t use your story unless we speak with you first.

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