MONEY financial advisers

How to Be Nosy About Your Financial Adviser’s Finances

magnifying glass looking at new $100 bills
LM Otero—AP

You probably want to know how rich your financial adviser is. Here are some better ways to pry about his or her money.

What’s your net worth?

We financial professionals think nothing of asking clients this question. If the tables were turned, though, and clients or prospective clients asked the same question of us, how would we respond?

Every now and then this issue comes up in conversations among financial planners. Some advisers think their net worth is none of their clients’ business, any more than doctors’ cholesterol levels are any business of their patients.

Others are concerned that a single number like net worth is incomplete information and can even be misleading. Knowing a financial professional has a net worth of, say, $5 million doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a trustworthy or capable financial planner. Net worth tells prospective clients nothing about where the money came from. The planner may have inherited it, won the lottery, made it through a business other than financial planning, earned it from commissions on poor investments, or even obtained it illegally.

Nor does net worth reveal anything useful about someone’s understanding of money or knowledge of financial planning. I’ve worked with plenty of multi-millionaires who were horrible money managers and inept at investing. There are also many brilliant young planners who haven’t had the time to accumulate a large net worth.

I suspect that most clients who want to know about their planners’ net worth actually have several deeper questions in mind. Some may be asking if the professional actually follows his or her own advice. Imagine how troubling it might be to find out your financial planner doesn’t have a retirement plan, is a habitual over-spender, or hasn’t gotten around to making a will.

Another reason for the question may be a concern whether the planner is financially stable and will be around in the future. During the Great Recession, many financial professionals saw their revenues fall by 30% to 40%. Some who did not have a business emergency reserve had to resort to laying off staff, cutting services, or in some cases closing their doors.

Still another concern may be whether the planner is familiar with a potential client’s particular financial issues. This is especially true of high-net-worth clients. They need to know a planner can relate to the complexities, responsibilities, and emotional challenges of managing wealth.

All of these are legitimate concerns. Knowing a financial planner’s net worth, however, doesn’t address those concerns. It would be more useful for clients to get answers to questions like the following:

  • Do you follow the same advice you give clients? Give me some examples.
  • Do you have six months’ living expenses in an emergency account?
  • Do you invest your money in the same manner you will invest mine?
  • If I were to run a credit report on you, what would it tell me?
  • What are some of the things you have learned from your financial mistakes?
  • Tell me what your company has in place for emergency planning and succession planning.
  • Tell me why you can relate to someone with my net worth and the issues I am facing.

Very few prospective clients are likely to ask questions like these. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to know the answers.

Planners who want to provide exceptional service to their clients might consider providing such answers freely and transparently, without waiting to be asked. We expect clients to trust us with their financial information. One way to build that trust may be to share some information of our own.

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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.

MONEY financial advisers

Dealing With the ‘Personal’ in Personal Finance

Two people shaking hands above restaurant table with laptop
Tom Merton—Getty Images

To really help people, financial planners have to delve into the the feelings and emotions that drive their clients' financial decisions. One planner explains why that's so hard.

While most of us financial advisers want to do the best for our clients, we often struggle at the task.

The main problem, as I recently wrote: We don’t know our clients well enough. We may say that a client’s values and goals are important, but most of us don’t adequately explore these more personal (a.k.a. “touchy-feely”) parts of a client’s life.

Why is this?

One reason we avoid deeper discovery with clients: No matter how we’re paid—whether by commissions or fees—most of us don’t get compensated until the financial planning process has neared its end.

Let’s use the six-step Certified Financial Planner model as an example. The information-gathering stage, when we have the chance to really understand who our clients are, is the second step. But most advisers don’t get paid until step five, when clients implement our recommendations.

Advisers, therefore, have an inherent economic bias to get to step five as soon as possible.

The second reason we don’t dig deep: Having in-depth conversations with clients can be uncomfortable—mostly for us. We, as advisers, may feel underqualified or inadequately trained to delve into the beliefs, feelings and emotions that drive their financial decisions.

I get it. About seven years ago, I decided that I needed to give and get more out of client interactions, not merely through questions at opportunistic times, but by a deliberate process.

On the day I decided to implement this new strategy, I saw I had a data-gathering meeting on my schedule. Perfect. I was ready to jump right in.

I had met the woman in this husband-and-wife household before—she was a human resources executive at a large company—but not the man. And he turned out to be a “man’s man.” His shoulders were so broad that he had to turn sideways to get through the doorway to my conference room. Scowling, he extended a bear-sized arm and squeezed my hand hard enough to send the clear message that he’d rather be anyplace but there.

“Really?” I asked myself. “I’m going to ask this guy about his values and goals? About his history with money and about the feelings and emotions evoked by his personal financial dealings?”

After I could delay no longer, we got down to it. My assumption that this guy would recoil from an introspective conversation was completely wrong. In fact, my nonfinancial questions clearly set this visibly hesitant client at ease.

The truth is that we’re all capable of communicating more meaningfully with our clients. We do it with our family and close friends all the time. Aren’t we capable of simply getting to know someone?

To claim lack of expertise is a cop-out. There is plenty of help out there for gathering information about intangibles. Here are three resources I’ve found extremely useful:

  • George Kinder: Kinder is a Harvard-educated financial planner who is often dubbed the “Father of Life Planning.” Personally, I find the term “life planning” problematic. It seems to brand intangible data-gathering as something apart from good financial planning, which lets the rest of us off the hook. Kinder’s work, however, should not be discounted. Kinder’s book, The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, effectively started a movement that continues to grow as new generations of planners look for more personally rewarding practices. Another of his books, Lighting the Torch, provides planners with a practical methodology to incorporate into their process.
  • Rick Kahler, Ted Klonz, and Brad Klontz: Kahler, a financial planner in South Dakota, teamed up with psychotherapists Ted and Brad Klontz on two projects that have immeasurable value to the financial planning community. The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge is a short, easy-to-read volume that will help both advisers and their clients examine the motives behind our financial decisions, successes and failures. I had the privilege of studying with Ted and Rick immediately following the release of their second collaboration, Facilitating Financial Health. Written for the serious practitioner, it’s one of the most highlighted books in my library.
  • Carol Anderson and Amy Mullen: Last, but in my opinion the most important, is what I believe to be the ideal resource for financial advisers who truly want to institute more meaningful conversations with their clients. With Money Quotient, Anderson and Mullen have created something very special: a nonprofit devoted to providing advisers with tangible tools designed to elicit intangible information from clients. Various degrees of licensing allow advisers to merely dabble with some of Money Quotient’s tools or transform their entire practice in a way that puts client values and goals at the center of their process.

Acknowledging that personal finance is more personal than it is finance is a great beginning. But the light-bulb moment is only valuable if it leads to the application of the associated theories and concepts.

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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 retirement planning

3 Smart Moves for Retirement Investors from the Bogleheads

The Bogleheads Guide to Investing 2nd Edition
Wiley

A group of Vanguard enthusiasts offers sound financial advice to other ordinary investors. Here are three tips from one of their founders.

Wouldn’t be great to get advice on managing your money from a knowledgeable friend—one who isn’t trying to rake in a commission or push a bad investment?

That’s what the Bogleheads are all about. These ordinary investors, who follow the teachings of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, offer guidance, encouragement and investing opinions at their website, Bogleheads.org. The group started back in 1998 as the Vanguard Diehards discussion board at Morningstar.com. As interest grew, the Bogleheads split off and launched an independent website. Today the Bogleheads have nearly 40,000 registered members, but millions more check into the site each month. (You don’t have to be member to read the posts but you must register to comment—it’s free.)

As you would expect given their name, the Bogleheads favor the investing principles advocated by Bogle and the Vanguard fund family: low costs, indexing (mostly), and buy-and-hold investing—though the members disagree on many details. The Bogleheads are led by a core group of active members, who have also published books, helped establish local chapters around the country, and put together an annual conference. Their ranks of regular commenters include respected financial pros such as Rick Ferri, Larry Swedroe, William Bernstein, Wade Pfau, and Michael Piper.

For investors who prefer their advice in a handy, non-virtual format, a new edition of “The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing,” a best-seller originally published in 2006, is coming out this week. Below, Mel Lindauer, who co-wrote the book with fellow Bogleheads Taylor Larimore and Michael LeBoeuf, shares three of the most important moves that retirement investors need to make.

Choose the right risk level. Figuring out which asset allocation you can live with over the long term is essential—and that means knowing how much you can comfortably invest in stocks. Consider the 37% plunge in the stock market in 2008 during the financial crisis. Did you hold on your stock funds or sell? If you panicked, you should probably keep a smaller allocation to equities. Whatever your risk tolerance, it helps to tune out the market noise and stay focused on the long term. “That’s one of the main advantages of being a Boglehead—we remind people to stay the course,” says Lindauer.

Keep it simple with a target-date fund. These portfolios give you an asset mix that shifts to become more conservative as you near retirement. Some investing pros argue that a one-size-fits-all approaches has drawbacks, but Lindauer sees it differently, saying “These funds are an ideal way for investors to get a good asset mix in one fund.” He also likes the simplicity—having to track fewer funds makes it easier to monitor your portfolio and stay on track to your goals.

Another advantage of target-dates is that holding a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds masks the ups and downs of the market. “If the stock market falls more than 10%, your fund may only fall 5%, which won’t make you panic and sell,” says Lindauer. But before you opt for a fund, check under hood and be sure the asset mix is geared to your risk level—not all target-date funds invest in the same way, with some holding more aggressive or more conservative asset mixes. If the fund with your retirement date doesn’t suit your taste for risk, choose one with a different retirement date.

Don’t overlook inflation protection. Given the low rates that investors have experienced for the past five years—the CPI is still hovering around 2%—inflation may seem remote right now. But rising prices remain one of the biggest threats to retirement investors, Lindauer points out. If you start out with a $1,000, and inflation averages 3% over the next 30 years, you would need $2,427 to buy the same basket of goods and services you could buy today.

That’s why Lindauer recommends that pre-retirees keep a stake in inflation-protected bonds, such as TIPs (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) and I Bonds, which provide a rate of return that tracks the CPI. Given that inflation is low, so are recent returns on these bonds. Still, I Bonds “are the best of a bad lot,” Lindauer says. Recently these bonds paid 1.94%, which beats the average 0.90% yield on one-year CDs. If rates rise, after one year you can redeem the I Bond; you’ll lose three months of interest, but you can then buy a higher-yielding bond, Lindauer notes. Consider them insurance against future spikes in inflation.

More investing advice from our Ultimate Retirement Guide:
What’s the Right Mix of Stocks and Bonds?
How Often Should I Check on My Retirement Investments?
How Much Money Will I Need to Save?

MONEY financial advice

Where to Go for the Best Financial Advice

Wall of paint chips
Carolyn Hebbard—Getty Images/Flickr Open

Seeking help with investments or retirement planning? Here's how to sort through the overwhelming number of options you face.

The financial advice business is changing dramatically in every aspect, from how advisers spend their time, to what they charge, to how they label and promote themselves.

The result? Further confusion for consumers who probably sought help to find clarity in the first place.

“Brokers” who used to pick stocks and sell mutual funds at firms like Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Merrill Lynch are now more likely now to call themselves “financial advisers” and manage portfolios for fees instead of (or in addition to) commissions.

Independents who used to offer comprehensive advice are now more likely to focus on investment management and call themselves “wealth managers.”

Charles Schwab, the online brokerage that made its name catering to do-it-yourself investors, now is pushing its own stable of are “financial consultants” and preaching the value of face-to-face (or at least Skype-to-Skype) connections.

New to the scene are “robo-advisers” — algorithmically driven online money management firms that will automate your investment decisions.

Further complicating consumer choice is the fact that most firms have a variety of ways in which they offer financial advice to clients.

At Vanguard, for example, a firm which promotes simplicity in investing, there are nine different advice platforms. They vary, based on whether a client is investing through a retirement account or directly, how much advice a client needs or wants, and how much money the client has to invest.

How can someone seeking financial advice navigate their way through this complex field and make sure they get the right advice? Here are a few things you should know now:

Needs Assessment

Assess your own needs. The first step is to figure out what you want a financial professional to do for you. Do you want comprehensive investment management? A whole-life plan that includes everything from how to pay for college to tax reduction to retirement planning? Just a reality check on your retirement readiness?

Pay for What You Eat

Once you know what you want, it’s easier to find the right adviser. For a spot check or limited amount of planning, consider hiring a by-the-hour adviser — you can find one through the Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com).

Want a comprehensive soup-to-nuts life financial plan? Look for a fee-only certified financial planner through the CFP Board of Standards (www.cfp.net) or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).

Learn the Lingo

“Fee only” means that the adviser is not paid to sell products and, if that person is a certified financial planner, it also means she doesn’t even own a small share in a financial company that does sell products.

“Fee-based” is a meaningless term of art, typically used by advisers who charge fees and reap commissions.

Watch Your Wallet

There’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of fees advisers charge.

At Vanguard, investors willing to stick with Vanguard funds can get basic fund choice advice for free and a comprehensive financial plan for 0.3% of the assets they invest with Vanguard.

Traditional brokerage firms will offer broader portfolios and go fee-only but at costs that can top 2% a year.

In the middle are most independent financial advisers, who tend to charge fees near 1% of assets, more for small accounts and less for bigger ones.

An extra percent or two, pulled from an account every year, can cost a long-term investor hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of the day, so fees do matter.

Consider Generic Advice

A lot of lip service is given to selling the idea that everyone needs personalized and customized financial advice.

That’s true for people who have ultra-high net worth, with businesses, estates, tax issues and the like to manage. It’s also true of people who have very special situations, such as handicapped children who will need lifelong care.

But it may not be true of the average Joe and Jane, who simply need tips on how to invest their 401(k) or IRA fund.

Companies like T. Rowe Price, Vanguard and Fidelity will give you basic fund guidance for free, or close to it.

Remember the Robots

Companies like Wealthfront, Betterment and Hedgeable will invest your money for you in diversified portfolios regularly rebalanced and managed, if you need that, to minimize taxes.

They will charge pennies on the dollar of what a face-to-face individualized money manager will charge, and in some cases offer that for free.

They offer a reasonable solution for investors who know how much they have to invest, don’t need hand-holding, and are comfortable turning their finances over to an algorithm and sticking with passive index-linnked investing.

Here’s encouragement: Over long swaths of time, those passively-managed portfolios tend to beat the active investment managers.

MONEY financial advisers

A Young Financial Adviser Is Hard to Find

Only 5% of U.S. brokers are in their 20s, and training programs at large firms aren't getting any bigger.

Wall Street faces a mass exodus of retiring financial advisers over the next decade, so small brokerages are beefing up their training and presence on campuses to woo future employees.

Some 25,000 brokers and brokerage firm advisers will retire over the next three years, a trend that is expected to continue for more than 10 years, according to research firm Cerulli Associates. Within 10 years, roughly one-third of U.S. financial advisers will retire, it estimated.

Not enough young financial advisers are available to take their place. Only 5 percent of the 308,000 brokers and advisers at U.S. firms are younger than 30 years old, according to Cerulli.

“The issue isn’t that the seniors are leaving. It’s that the industry doesn’t have many freshmen or sophomores to replace them,” said Craig Pfeiffer, founder and chief executive of independent training program Advisors Ahead.

Training can be costly: about $250,000 to recruit and train a rookie adviser in a four-year program that only one out of four will complete, Andre Cappon, president of research firm CBM Group, said.

Though traditional brokerage firms like Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo can recruit more rookie advisers because of their size, these so-called wirehouse firms are not expanding their training programs the way small firms are. Larger firms can be more successful at hiring established advisers and have been fine-tuning their training programs to focus on certain niches.

Morgan Stanley does not plan to increase the 1,000 trainees it annually accepts into its program in the near future, spokeswoman Christine Jockle said. Wells Fargo, which adds 600 to 900 participants per year, is trending toward the lower end of that range to “focus on quality,” Tom Allen, learning and development manager, said.

Smaller firms cannot easily poach experienced financial advisers from bigger firms, so they use training programs to build up their workforce.

“(Our increased training) stems from the need for building and investing in talent in the near future,” said Kimberly Thekan, director of talent acquisition and integration for Robert Baird’s private wealth management business. Baird is accelerating recruitment on college campuses and helping to develop a wealth management and financial planning track at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s business school.

Regional brokerage Edward D. Jones Investments has 400 recent college graduates in its current group of 3,000 trainees. The company, which spends $250,000 on each new adviser over two years, plans on increasing enrollment every year to accommodate growing customer demand for advisory services, said John Rahal, principal and financial adviser for talent acquisition at the firm.

Raymond James Financial will triple the 100 participants annually enrolled in its Advisor Mastery Program over the next three to five years, said Tash Elwyn, president of the firm’s private client group. He said he intends to use the program to replace the company’s retiring financial advisers on a one-to-one basis.

MONEY College

Why Your College-Bound Kid Needs to Meet Your Financial Planner

Parents showing jars of money
Jamie Grill—Getty Images

Sheltering children from tough money choices now can lead to unhappiness later on.

When I schedule a meeting with parents to talk about college costs, I always ask if the student will be attending the consultation.

About 80% of the time, the parents say no. Their usual response: “He’s too busy,” or “We would rather not include her.”

That’s a big mistake.

What I do is help estimate the final costs that the parents will be facing, taking into consideration projected financial aid, merit awards and the family’s current resources. Those costs can vary widely, from $5,500 a year to attend a community college while living at home to over $70,000 per year to go to a private college such as New York University.

Students should be involved from the start, so they can understand the financial issues that their parents will be facing. Students need to see the great disparity in cost outcomes among the different colleges on their wish list.

When I meet with the whole family, we can narrow down the types of schools that would be affordable to the parents as well as meet the academic and social needs of the student.

That way, we can avoid a situation in which a high school student, ignorant of any financial implications, pursues whatever college he is interested in. Then, in April of his senior year, when all of the acceptances and awards arrive, his parents review the options and say, “We can’t afford any of these.”

At that point, the only choices are for the student to attend a school he’s not happy with (such as a local college commuter school), or for the parents to go into deep debt in order to finance an education they cannot afford.

So I try my best to convince the parents to invite their student. Perhaps the parents are trying to shield their finances from their children. Eventually, however, the kids will be part of the parent’s estate planning. The earlier the children know about the parent’s financial situation the better. If a family limits the college search to the types of colleges that meet all needs (financial, academic, and social), then the only outcome in senior year will be a happy one for both the parents and the student!

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Paula Bishop is a certified public accountant and an adviser on financial aid for college. She holds a BS in economics with a major in finance from the Wharton School and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley. She is a member of the National College Advocacy Group, whose mission is to provide education and resources for college planning professionals, students and families. Her website is www.paulabishop.com.

MONEY Aging

As You Age, You Need to Protect Your Money — From Yourself

Piggy Bank Locked Up
Andy Roberts—Getty Images

A financial planner explains why he couldn't stop his client from making irrational decisions.

After three decades as a financial planner, I’m seeing more and more clients reach, not just retirement, but their final years. An issue that becomes especially important at this stage of life is how to help clients protect their financial resources from an unexpected threat — themselves.

One of my saddest professional experiences came several years ago when one of my long-time clients, a woman in her late 80s with no family and few close friends, abruptly fired me. Because Mary had no one else, I had helped her in many ways beyond the usual client/planner relationship and even reluctantly agreed to serve as her trustee and power of attorney in case she became incapacitated.

At what proved to be our final quarterly review meeting, Mary initially seemed confused. I was able to reassure her about the stability of her finances, and she seemed clearer by the time we finished. Three weeks later, I received a handwritten letter from her: “You have my finances in a mess. I can’t get to my money. You are fired.”

I was stunned. Yet ethically I was required to comply with her wishes by moving her holdings to another broker.

Several subsequent conversations demonstrated that Mary was suffering from periodic memory loss and delusion. Had she been disabled by a sudden accident or a stroke, I could have stepped in. Yet, because her decision to fire me was made at a time when she was arguably still competent, my hands were tied.

In theory, I could have gone to court with my power of attorney or in my position as trustee and petitioned to have Mary declared incompetent. But that posed a problem: Essentially, I would have been telling a judge, “Mary fired me as her adviser. I’d like to have her declared incompetent so I can re-hire myself as her adviser.” There was no way I was going to ask a judge to do that. I had a clear conflict of interest.

Since this experience, I have confirmed the wisdom, given the potential for conflict of interest, of never serving as a trustee or power of attorney for a client. With the help of suggestions from several other planners, I’ve also learned some strategies to help protect clients from themselves.

One tool is to ask clients to sign a statement authorizing a planner concerned about possible irrational behavior to contact someone, such as a family member or physician, designated by the client. While this would not prevent a client from firing an adviser, it would provide a method of discussing the issue and also involve another person in the decision.

Another possibility is to put clients’ assets into either an irrevocable living trust or a Domestic Asset Protection Trust (in states that allow them) and naming someone other than the client or the planner as trustee. While the client, as the beneficiary, would have the power to fire the trustee, concern about a trustee being fired irrationally could be mitigated to some degree by having a corporate trustee. In addition, with a DAPT, the beneficiary client would not have the power to amend the trust without the agreement of the trustee. This would give some protection against self-destructive choices by a client who was gradually losing competency. One disadvantage of this approach is cost, so it isn’t an option for everyone.

Perhaps the most important strategy is to work with clients to create a contingency plan in the event of mental decline. It could include arrangements to consult with family members or other professionals such as physicians, social workers, and counselors. For clients without close family members, the plan might authorize the financial adviser to call for an evaluation, by professionals chosen in advance by the client, if the client’s behavior appeared irrational. This team approach might alleviate clients’ fears about being judged incompetent by the person managing their assets.

The possibility of mental decline is something no one wants to consider. Yet it’s as essential a financial planning concern as making a will. Helping clients build financial resources for old age includes helping them create safety nets to protect those resources from themselves.

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Rick Kahler 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 Planning

What My 3-Hour Lunch Says About Good Financial Advice

Women at a lunch meeting
Colorblind—Getty Images

Financial planning isn't about investing for retirement or saving for college; it's about turning your vision into reality.

It was Suzanne’s birthday. I really wanted her to have the next best thing to a day off. So I, the adviser, and Suzanne, my client, scheduled our meeting at Guglhupf, a lovely local restaurant.

In 2005, when I formed my company, I was sitting at one of Guglhupf’s upstairs tables when I came up with the tagline of my firm: “Driven by a Vision.” Now, years later, spending a sunny afternoon on Guglhuph’s patio with Suzanne, I had a powerful moment of living that ideal.

Suzanne is a visionary, an entrepreneur. She first came to me as a client because she wanted to be sure that the various ventures she had underway didn’t encumber too much of her wealth — that her assets wouldn’t all be at risk and that she would have enough set aside for her family’s future needs and her own retirement.

At its core, financial planning is helping people realize their vision. And for my entrepreneurial clients, I’m helping them navigate some very complicated waters at a time that’s emotionally charged due to hope, desire, exhaustion, and frankly, being stretched too thin.

These conversations can’t happen inside financial planning software, and they don’t happen on the pages of a financial plan. They aren’t about “Do I have enough money to fund my financial goals?” These conversations are about figuring out how to make those goals come to life.

And this is without my being a business consultant. I don’t know the trades of the businesses my clients start. What I do know is that there are risks associated with what they’re doing, and that likely their venture’s cash flow isn’t going to be as healthy as the projections project. I expect that there’ll be a need for another capital infusion. All of these things are going to impact their other financial planning goals: paying for their child’s education, for example, and being financially independent one day. They know all this too.

However, I believe that when a person has a strong vision for a world they want to impact — their community, their life’s energy making that impact — that inner urge trumps saving for retirement. It doesn’t trump it to the point of being reckless and blinded by today’s enthusiasm, but we recognize that they’re standing at the center point of the see saw, one foot on either arm, finding that balance between today and the long-term tomorrow.

I’ve never snuffed out their flame by saying, “You can’t do that.” I think that’s because I know what it’s like to be driven by a vision. It is my role to identify the risks I see, offer suggestions of how to look at it from another angle, ask them to name a Plan B, and beat the drum of the importance of managing cash flow. Then, I support them in their new venture, in whatever way reasonable.

At this meeting with Suzanne, there was an extra-special payoff. While I do try to stay out of the specifics of my clients’ businesses, over the course of our three-hour lunch we brainstormed about how she might finance one of her new ventures. I realized I knew some people who might be interested in funding it, and I promised to put Suzanne in contact with them. I later did, and they ended up providing money to Suzanne for this project.

So this meeting epitomized my work: My clients are driven by a vision, and I am driven to help them achieve that vision. And if we can enjoy a decadent dessert together, that’s even better.

MONEY financial advice

How Listening Better Will Make You Richer

140724_HO_Listening_1
Ruslan Dashinsky—iStock

A financial adviser explains that when you hear only what you want to hear, you can end up making some bad money choices.

Allison sat in my office, singing the praises of an annuity she had recently purchased. She was 64 years old, and she had come in for a free initial consultation after listening to my radio show.

“The investment guy at the bank,” she crowed, “told me this annuity would pay me a guaranteed income of 7% when I turn 70.”

I asked her to tell me more.

Allison had invested $300,000 as a rollover from her old 401(k) plan. She was told that at age 70, her annuity would be worth $450,000. Beginning at age 70, she could take $31,500 (7% of $450,000) and lock in that income stream forever.

“And when you die, what will be left to the kids?” I asked.

“The $300,000 plus all my earnings!” she said.

Suddenly my stomach began to sour.

Allison, I was sure, had heard only part of what the salesperson had told her.

I followed up with another question: “Besides the guaranteed $31,500 annual income, will you have access to any other money?”

“Oh yes,” she answered. “I can take up to 10% of the account value at any time without paying a surrender charge. In fact, next year I plan to take $30,000 so I can buy a new car!”

This story was getting worse, not better.

It was time to break the news to Allison.

I asked her to tell me the name of the product and the insurance company that issued it. Sure enough, I knew exactly the one she bought, since I had it available to my clients as well.

That’s when the conversation got a little tense.

I explained that if she withdrew any money from her annuity prior to beginning her guaranteed income payment, there was a strong likelihood she wouldn’t be able to collect $31,500 per year at age 70. Given the terms of the annuity, any such withdrawals now would reduce the guaranteed payment later.

She disagreed.

I explained that, with this and most other annuities, if she started the income stream as promised at $31,500, she would not likely have any money to pass on to the children.

She told me I was wrong — and defended the agent who sold her the annuity. She said that she bought a guaranteed death benefit rider so that she could protect her children upon her death.

I encouraged her to read the fine print. As expected, she reread the paragraph that stated that the “guaranteed death benefit” was equal to the initial investment plus earnings, less any withdrawals. When I told her that her death benefit in all likelihood would be worth nothing by age 80, she quickly said, “I need to call my agent back and check on this.”

I have conversations like this a lot, and not just with annuities. When it comes to investments, whether they’re annuities, commodity funds, or hot stocks, people often hear only what they want to hear. At various points in his sales pitch, the annuity salesman had probably said things like “guaranteed growth on the value of the contract,” “guaranteed income stream,” “can’t lose your money,” and “heirs get everything you put in.” What she had done was merge the different parts of the sales pitch together and ignore all the relevant conditions and exceptions.

When people hear about a product, there’s an emotional impact. “I want to buy that,” they think. They focus only on the benefits of the product; they assume the challenging parts of the product — the risks — won’t apply to them.

This story has a happy ending. Before Allison left my office, I asked when she received her annuity in the mail. “Three days ago,” she said.

I reminded her of the ten-day “free look” period that’s given to annuity buyers as a one-time “do-over” if they feel that the product they purchased isn’t right for them.

She called me back within two days. “The agent doesn’t like me very much,” she said. She had returned the annuity under the “free look” period and expected to get a full refund. The annuity salesman had just lost an $18,000 commission.

And I once again saw the wisdom of something I tell my clients every day: Prior to ever making a financial decision, it is absolutely critical you evaluate how this decision integrates into your overall financial life. That’s what’s important — not falling in love with a product.

———-

Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

MONEY financial advice

Why Financial Advisers Have a Failure to Communicate

tin can toy telephone
James Porter / Alamy

Investment pros try to impress their clients with jargon, but the message isn't getting through.

Here’s a little quiz:

With each pair of phrases below, which do you think resonates more positively with everyday people? Which of the two sounds better to a client sitting across the desk from a financial adviser?

  1. Investment Strategies | Investment Solutions
  2. Straightforward Fees | Transparent Fees
  3. Financial Security | Financial Freedom.

I’ll get to the answers below.

I took this quiz myself recently at a presentation by Gary DeMoss from Invesco Consulting, a subsidiary of the money-management firm Invesco. The subject of the presentation: How financial advisers can better connect with clients by using the right words. The takeaway: We financial advisers are so familiar with investing jargon that we assume our clients understand it. But many don’t.

One study DeMoss’s group did with investors was to give them dials connected to a monitoring system and then have them listen to pre-recorded explanations of various financial and market topics. As the investors listened they moved their dials one way or another to rate if they liked what was being said or not. The consultants could then see which words made people react more positively or more negatively.

At one point in the presentation to this group of very experienced financial advisers, we were given a small deck of cards with words on the front and back. We were asked to guess which side we thought had resonated more positively with the investors tested.

Most of the advisers sitting around me — and me, too — got more wrong than right.

As for the three pairs of investment terms above, the first of each rated higher.

As DeMoss pointed out, it’s is not what we advisers say that matters, but what the client hears. I think many of us are guilty of trying to impress clients with our knowledge. We don’t realize that we need to speak in clearer, simpler terms. The specific words that we use make a difference.

We have to choose our words carefully and use less investing jargon. We should encourage clients to stop us whenever they don’t understand what we’re saying.

This will help us get our information across in a less intimidating manner — and serve our clients better.

———-

Raymond Mignone has been a certified financial planner and fee-only investment adviser since 1989, with offices in Boynton Beach, Fla., and Little Neck, N.Y. He is the author of the book RINKs – Retired, Independent, No Kids. His website is www.RayMignone.com.

 

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