MONEY financial advice

When Money Isn’t the Top Priority

Sometimes the right decision from the financial perspective is the wrong one from the human perspective.

As a financial planner, I sometimes have a tendency to look at personal finance as a matter of checking off boxes.

Emergency fund? Check. Budget? Check. Saving for retirement? No? Well there’s the hole. Let’s start right there.

There’s some value in that kind of thinking. After all, certain things are just good practice and running through that checklist is a good way to get a quick read on someone’s financial situation.

But I also remind myself to not take that mentality too far. I try to remember that good financial planning is really about helping my clients build a life they enjoy, and that money is just a tool that can help make that life possible.

Which means that sometimes the “correct” decision from a financial standpoint is not actually the correct decision. Sometimes happiness needs to take precedence.

I worked with a young couple recently who were about to have their second child. Like I do with all clients, I asked them right at the start why they were coming to me. What was it they wanted to achieve?

They told me that they wanted to make sure they were saving enough for retirement. They wanted to save for a new house with a bigger yard. They wanted to make sure they had the right insurance in place.

But what they really wanted was to see if they could make their budget work so that the wife could stay home with the kids. She felt like she was missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they thought they might be in a position to make it work. So they came to me.

As I reviewed their situation, one thing was immediately clear: From a purely financial standpoint, switching to a single income was going to be a step backwards. The wife had a stable job, made good money with good company benefits, and it was going to be more difficult for them to reach some of their long-term goals without her income.

We talked about all of those things at our next meeting. I wanted them to make an informed decision (as did they), so it was important for them to know what they would be giving up.

But I also showed them how they could make it work with just the one income. We talked about some changes to their budget that would make it easier, and we planted the seeds of a plan to get some of their other savings back on track over the next few years.

I also shared my personal story with them. My wife quit her job when we had our first child, and it was a financial hit. But it was the lifestyle we wanted, and over the years we’ve found ways to compensate.

In the end, they decided to give it a shot. They knew exactly what kind of financial sacrifices they were making, but they also knew what kind of lifestyle they wanted. And if they could make the finances work around that lifestyle, that was the route they wanted to take.

We all make decisions every day to put happiness ahead of money. We eat dinner with our family instead of in front of our laptop catching up on work. We take our spouses on dates, go out with friends, and go on vacations. These are the moments that make our lives meaningful. They are the reason we care about money in the first place.

As I work with clients now, I try to remember that my job isn’t to help them check off all the right financial boxes. My job is to help them use their money to build a happy life.

Life, not money, is the real priority.

———-

Matt Becker is a fee-only financial planner and the founder of Mom and Dad Money, where he helps new parents build a better financial future for their families. His free book, The New Family Financial Road Map, guides parents through the most important financial decisions that come with starting a family. Becker is a member of the XY Planning Network.

MONEY financial advice

The Wonderful Thing That Happens When a Financial Adviser Tells You the Truth

A tale of youthful stupidity holds the key to giving honest, genuine financial advice.

I was an 18-year-old punk with a monumental chip on my shoulder. You know, the kind of kid certain of his indestructability, sure of his immunity from the dangers of self-destructive behavior.

At 2:00 a.m. on a random Wednesday morning in June 1994, after a long day and night of double-ended candle-burning, I set out for home in my Plymouth Horizon. At the time, my car was bedecked with stickers loudly displaying the names of late-60s rock bands. No shoes, no seatbelt, no problem.

Not even halfway home, I was awakened by the sound of rumble strips, just in time to fully experience my car leaving the road and careening over an embankment. After rolling down the hill, the vehicle settled on its wheels and I, surprisingly, landed in the driver’s seat. But all was not well.

Broken glass. My right leg was visibly fractured. I had hit the passenger seat so hard that it was dislodged from its mooring. Blood dripped on my white T-shirt.

I was well steeped in the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series, so I knew what was coming next — an explosion. Naturally, I busied myself with the task of escaping a fiery death.

The driver’s side door wouldn’t open, so I climbed across the center console with its five-speed stick shift. I’d later learn I had a broken femur. And a broken pelvis. The passenger door was also inoperable, so I crawled into the back seat, now really beginning to feel the pain. Neither of those doors would open. Metal had rolled down over the doors.

I gave up, right then, right there.

Four hours later, shortly after sunrise, a truck driver spotted the car. Soon thereafter, I was being shuttled into a helicopter headed for the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The last thing I remember hearing was, “This doesn’t look good. I don’t think this kid’s gonna make it.”

That initial prognosis almost proved accurate. At the hospital, my left lung collapsed. Uncooperative even when unconscious, I fought the breathing machines. The medical staff induced a coma, where I remained for five days. My parents were told that my chances of living had fallen below 10%.

Family and close friends were notified.

Obviously, I made it. But I suffered immensely with how to knit this incident into my life’s narrative. This wasn’t just some random, tragic occurrence. It was a natural outcome of poor decisions. I couldn’t reconcile why I’d been spared — a punk kid who didn’t care about anyone but himself.

I spurned physical therapy. I didn’t submit to psychological analysis for more than 12 years, until, after a series of panic attacks, I was diagnosed with symptoms of PTSD. There was simply no ignoring or escaping the shame of the most embarrassing event in my life.

But that chapter had to become part of my story.

I began working in the financial industry long before I learned to welcome this reconciliation, and I found myself right at home. Everyone seemed to be in the business of pretending. And it seemed to touch on everything.

How to dress, what car to drive, where to go to the gym. I was even taught how to answer the question, “So, how are you doing?” I couldn’t be entirely honest, of course.

I was just scraping by, in relative poverty, trying to convince the well-off to rely on me for financial advice. So, to salve my conscience, my sales manager had instructed me how to respond to that most common of questions in a way that was, as all the best lies are, partially true: “I’m doing…unbelievable!” Indeed.

I thought to myself: If I appear smart enough, educated enough, credentialed enough, experienced enough, then they will trust me. Believe me. (Pay me.)

Unfortunately, while the financial industry has built its case to the collective client by projecting a façade of impenetrable eminence, it has ignored the opportunity to build trust the way its built best. By being who we are. By being something most financial advisors are taught to never be — vulnerable.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage,” writes Brené Brown in her book, Daring Greatly. (If you haven’t seen her inspiring TEDxHouston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” treat yourself and join the 18 million souls who have.)

Perhaps the financial industry could exhibit more truth, financial regulators more courage, and advisers more vulnerability?

One financial adviser put vulnerability to the test on the biggest stage possible.

Carl Richards, one of my friends and colleagues, had reached every outward milestone of success. He was running a thriving independent advisory firm, writing for The New York Times, and working on his first book. But he knew there was a piece of him — a big piece — that he hadn’t yet reconciled with his personal story.

So he did the previously unthinkable. This financial adviser shared the story of his biggest financial mistake. In the Times.

What happened next was both fascinating and frightening. Richards, who wrote about losing his over-mortgaged house when the housing bubble burst, was strongly supported by some people in the financial world. Others, however, decried Richards as a professional heretic. Some even called for his credentials to be stripped. How dare he acknowledge financial fault and crack the public’s perception of our profession as perfect?

That stung, but the broader impact of Richards’ authenticity was remarkable. I asked him recently, “Now, three years since publishing your biggest financial mistake for the world to see, how much of an impact has that step in vulnerability had on your work and life?”

“A massive impact,” Carl said. “The surprising side effect has been what I’ve learned about the vulnerability of the human condition. None of us are immune. People have been willing to share with me because I’ve shared with them.”

My experience has been similar. The degree to which I’ve been willing to reconcile my worst moments with those I’d prefer that others see, the more I’ve been able to facilitate genuine relationships — genuine trust — with family, friends, clients and co-workers.

Of course I’m not suggesting that financial advisers should rely solely on anecdotal authenticity. Education, experience, credentials, a fiduciary ethic, and practicing what we preach are imperative. But they are a starting point. As Brown implores, “What we know matters, but who we are matters more.”

And who knows, vulnerability may even offer a competitive advantage as an adviser. While everyone else is trying to appear perfect, you can just be you.

———-

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

The Most Important Money Mistakes to Avoid

iStock

Smart people do silly things with money all the time, but some mistakes can be much worse than others.

We asked three of our experts what they consider to be the top money mistake to avoid, and here’s what they had to say.

Dan Caplinger
The most pernicious financial trap that millions of Americans fall into is getting into too much debt. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get exposed to debt at an early age, especially as the rise of student loans has made taking on debt a necessity for many students seeking a college education.

Yet it’s important to distinguish between different types of debt. Used responsibly, lower-interest debt like mortgages and subsidized student loans can actually be a good way to get financing, helping you build up a credit history and allowing you to achieve goals that would otherwise be out of reach. Yet even with this “good” debt, it’s important to match up your financing costs with your current or expected income, rather than simply assuming you’ll be able to pay it off when the time comes.

At the other end of the spectrum, high-cost financing like payday loans should be a method of last resort for borrowers, given their high fees. Even credit cards carry double-digit interest rates, making them a gold mine for issuing banks while making them difficult for cardholders to pay off once they start carrying a balance. The best solution is to be mindful of using debt and to save it for when you really need it.

Jason Hall
It may seem like no big deal, but cashing out your 401(k) early has major repercussions and leads you to have less money when you’ll need it most: in retirement.

According to a Fidelity Investments study, more than one-third of workers under 50 have cashed out a 401(k) at some point. Given an average balance of more than $14,000 for those in their 20s through 40s, we’re talking about a lot of retirement money that people are taking out far too early. Even $14,000 may seem like a relatively easy amount of money to “replace” in a retirement account, but the real cost is the lost opportunity to grow the money.

Think about it this way. If you cash out at 40 years old, you aren’t just taking out $14,000 — you’re taking away decades of potential compound growth:

Returns based on 7% annualized rate of return, which is below the 30-year stock market average.

As you can see, the early cash-out costs you dearly in future returns; the earlier you do it, the more ground you’ll have to make up to replace those lost returns. Don’t cash out when you change jobs. Instead, roll those funds over into your new employer’s 401(k) or an IRA to avoid any tax penalties, and let time do the hard work for you. You’ll need that $100,000 in retirement a lot more than you need $14,000 today.

Dan Dzombak
One of the biggest money mistakes you can make is going without health insurance.

While the monthly premiums can seem like a lot, you’re taking a massive risk with your health and finances by forgoing health insurance. Medical bills quickly add up, and if you have a serious injury, it may also mean you have to miss work, lowering your income when you most need it. These two factors, as well as the continuing rise in healthcare costs, are why a 2009 study from Harvard estimated that 62% of all personal bankruptcies stem from medical expenses.

Since then, we’ve seen the rollout of Obamacare, which signed up 10.3 million Americans through the health insurance marketplaces. Gallup estimated last year that Obamacare lowered the percentage of the adult population that’s uninsured to 13.4%. That’s the lowest level in years, yet it still represents a large number of people forgoing health insurance.

Lastly, as of 2014, not having health insurance is a big money mistake. For tax year 2014, if you didn’t have health insurance, there’s a fine of the higher of $95 or 1% of your income. For tax year 2015, the penalty jumps to the higher of $325 or 2% of your income. While there are some exemptions, if you are in a position to do so, get health insurance. Keep in mind that for low-income taxpayers, Obamacare includes subsidies to lower the monthly payments to help afford health insurance.

MONEY #financialfail

“I Made $6 Million at Age 26—and Lost It by 28″

Dave Asprey
Dave Asprey

Dave Asprey, bestselling author of The Bulletproof Diet, confesses his greatest #financialfail: Not walking away from a losing investment

Not only is Dave Asprey the author of the recent New York Times bestselling book The Bulletproof Diet, he’s also a Silicon Valley investor and tech entrepreneur. His biggest financial fail, he admits, was being too greedy in his 20s and failing to get professional help with investment decisions. “I made $6 million when I was 26,” he says, “And I lost it when I was 28.”

Here’s how it happened, as told to me on my new podcast, So Money:

My career accelerated quite a lot at that time. I was the youngest guy at Exodus Communications, a $36 billion company.

I was in charge of due diligence for our mergers and acquisitions department. So, when we wanted to buy a company, I was the guy who’d go in and say, ‘Is this technology going to work for us? Yes or no?’

I attended board meetings. And because of that, I knew all of the upcoming acquisitions. So, I was blacked out [of trading stock he had received as part of his compensation]; it was illegal.

When those stocks started to teeter, what I should have done was quit my job, sell all of my shares and retire. Instead, I said, ‘I can’t do that. I might lose an additional $4 million in uninvested equity or something.’

So I stayed at the company. And the stock dropped from $60 a share to $5 a share.

In retrospect, I should have thought, ‘I have enough money. I can do whatever I want. I should just walk away today.’ I could have done that. But for six months, I didn’t walk away.

Every day, I was worth less and less in the bank account. And that was a grinding down, horrible feeling.

And there’s another thing. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this: I was with some online broker—going back 15 years. It was a very cutting edge broker that let me do options and all this stuff.

Based on the reports it seemed like I had a couple hundred thousand grand in the account, at least enough to take care of my basic expenses. But there was a margin on that account that I didn’t even know about because I wasn’t managing the stuff tightly. I was too stubborn and fearful to hire someone to help me manage it. The margin ended up consuming most of the account before I even noticed.

Today, the advice translates to: Hire a professional to pay attention to the stuff that you’re not paying attention to.”

Every day, MONEY contributing editor Farnoosh Torabi interviews entrepreneurs, authors and financial luminaries about their money philosophies, successes, failures and habits for her podcast, So Money—which is a “New and Noteworthy” podcast on iTunes.

More by Farnoosh Torabi:

MONEY Financial Planning

Why Won’t People Guard Their Wealth?

As you build wealth, you need to protect it using LLCs, trusts, and other entities. Here's what gets in the way.

Divorce, bankruptcy, lawsuits: These are the most common threats to a person’s assets. As we financial planners help clients build wealth, we also need to help them protect it. Unfortunately, sometimes they won’t let us.

A basic strategy for asset protection — an often-overlooked aspect of comprehensive financial planning — is to put property beyond the reach of legal judgments.

Yet when I suggest asset protection strategies to clients — for example, owning assets in limited liability companies — they often respond with ambivalence or reluctance. I now realize these reactions may be tied to the beliefs clients hold about money and wealth. It isn’t enough for us planners to understand asset protection; we also need the skills to help clients reframe the beliefs that may keep them from protecting themselves.

I’ve encountered several different common beliefs, or money scripts, that clients have pertaining to asset protection. Here are some of them, along with my responses:

  • “Liability insurance is all you need.” While liability insurance is a good start, it protects you only if (1) the claim doesn’t exceed your insurance coverage; (2) your policy is in force; (3) your insurer doesn’t deny the claim; and (4) your insurance company doesn’t go bankrupt in the middle of a lawsuit. Well, three of those four exceptions have happened to me.
  • “If you are ‘lucky’ enough to have a lot, it’s petty and selfish to want to protect it.” Asset protection isn’t just about the owner of the asset. It also safeguards others, such as employees, tenants, or family members.
  • “Asset protection is only for the very rich.” A client may have a small investment portfolio, some rental property, or a small business. That may not represent great wealth, but whatever they have is all they have. For that very reason, asset protection may be especially important for those without a lot of wealth.
  • “Asset protection is shady and unethical.” Many people associate asset protection with hiding assets illegally. This is not what any reputable professional will advise clients to do. Planners need to be prepared to discuss the ethics as well as the strategic value of the approaches they suggest.
  • “People in general can be trusted, so asset protection isn’t necessary.” Just ask anyone who’s ever been through a nasty dissolution of a partnership if they fully trusted their partner when they went into business — and how strong that trust was at the time of the breakup.
  • “You won’t be sued unless you do something wrong.” In an ideal world, this would be true. In the world we live in, it’s surprising how often people of perceived wealth are the targets of frivolous lawsuits. Most cases are without merit and are eventually dismissed or decided in favor of the defendant, but it takes a lot of time, energy, and money to defend against them. Plaintiffs hope to gain a settlement from a defendant unwilling to go to that trouble and expense.
  • “It’s wrong to prevent people from collecting damages if they have been hurt.” If you have genuinely injured someone, of course you have an obligation to make that right. Strong asset protection includes provisions, like adequate liability insurance, that allow clients to take care of legitimate obligations without bankrupting themselves.

It’s important to make clear to clients that ethical asset protection strategies are not a way of avoiding responsibility. Asset protection is not intended to protect clients from the consequences of their own wrongdoing. Its primary purpose is to protect clients from the wrongdoing of others.

And the first phase of implementing that protection may be to help clients get past their own money scripts about asset protection.

———-

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

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Secure Your Finances When Reality Doesn’t Bite

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 22-year-old college grad with a six-figure income and minimal student debt. I have no car and live with my parents. Is there something I should do now to lead a secure and fiscally responsible life? My father gave me the name of his planner but he was of little help — Timothy

A: Given your age, healthy salary, low expenses, and minimal debt, you’re financial situation is pretty straight forward. “There is a time and a place to work with a financial planner, and now may not be one of them,” says Maggie Kirchhoff, a certified financial planner with Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver.

If you still want some guidance, you may have better luck getting referrals from friends or colleagues. “A planner who’s a good fit for your parents may not be a good match for you,” she adds.

In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can be doing to improve your financial security. The biggest one: “Save systematically,” says Kirchhoff. If you start saving $5,500 a year, even with a conservative 5% annual return, you’ll have nearly $600,000 when you turn 60. “That assumes you never increase contributions,” she says.

It sounds like you’re in a position to save several times that amount now that your expenses are still low. Make use of your current economic sweet spot by taking full advantage of tax-friendly retirement vehicles, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. You can sock away up to $18,000 a year in such a plan, and any contributions are exempt from federal and state taxes. If your employer offers matching benefits, contribute at least enough to get the most you can from that benefit.

Your 401(k) plan likely offers an allocation tool to help you figure out the best mix of stocks and bonds for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Based on that recommendation, you’ll want to choose a handful of low-cost mutual funds or index funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in the United States and abroad. “You can make it as complicated or simple as you like,” says Kirchhoff.

If you want to keep things simple, look at whether your plan offers any target-date funds, which allocate assets based on the year you expect to retire (a bit of a guess at this point) and automatically make changes to that mix as that date nears. Caveat: Don’t overpay to put your retirement plan on autopilot; ideally the expense ratio should be less than 1%.

Now, just as important as investing for retirement is making sure you protect that nest egg from its biggest threat: you. Build an emergency fund so you won’t be tempted to dip into your long-term savings — and owe taxes and penalties — if you lose your job or face unexpected expenses.

“A general rule is three to six months of expenses, but since his expense are already so low, he should aim to eventually save three to six months of his take-home pay,” says Kirchhoff, who recommends keeping your rainy-day fund in a money market account that isn’t tied directly to your checking account.

With the extreme ends of your financial situation covered, you’ll then want to think about what you have planned for the next five or 10 years.

Is graduate school in your future? What about buying or renting a place of your own? Once you get up to speed on your retirement savings and emergency fund, you can turn your attention to saving up for any near-term goals.

You might also consider eventually opening a Roth IRA. You’ll make after-tax contributions, but the money will grow sans tax, and you won’t owe taxes when you withdraw for retirement down the road. (Note: You can save up to $5,500 a year in a Roth, but contributions phase out once your modified gross adjusted income reaches $116,000 to $131,000.)

A Roth may not only save you more in taxes down the road, it also offers a little more flexibility that most retirement accounts. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase, without tax or penalty, if you’ve had the account at least five years. Likewise, you can withdraw contributions at any point, for any purpose.

What about the student debt? Depending on the interest rate and whether you qualify for a tax deduction (in your case probably not), you could hang onto it and focus on other financial priorities.

That said, if you can make large contributions to your 401(k) plan, build your emergency fund and pay off your student debt at a quicker pace, says Kirchhoff, so much the better.

MONEY Financial Planning

4 Financial Habits of Highly Successful People

multiple hands holding lightbulb
Joos Mind—Getty Images

Farnoosh Torabi shares some of what she's learned in reporting for her new podcast.

Stephen Covey, author of the wildly successful book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote, “Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.”

It’s true. Habits—the healthy and consistent ones, that is—can make all the difference in helping us go from good to great in any area of life, especially our finances. (Bad habits can be just as powerful…in the opposite direction.)

For my new podcast So Money, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some fascinating entrepreneurs, authors and financial pros, each of whom has generously shared his or her personal financial habits with my listeners. Here are four of the best:

They Flex Their Idea Muscle

Entrepreneur James Altucher, bestselling author of Choose Yourself, says one habit he practices multiple times a day is generating ideas—exercising what he calls his ‘idea muscle.” He believes ideas are the “currency of life.”

And the key is to share your ideas freely with others.

“I’ve been amazed how many times I’ve given out free ideas, and abundance has come back to me not just in the form of money, but in the form of contacts, connections and future opportunities,” says Altucher.

For example, he recently was invited to speak at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle after submitting several ideas to the head of business development on how the company can improve its publishing (a connection he made via “a friend of a friend of a friend”). “I got to meet, essentially, all the people running their self-publishing division and they all showed me what they’re working on,” he says. “I didn’t get paid for it, nor do I expect to get paid for it, but who knows what future opportunity I’ll have when I self-publish my next book.”

They Tuck Away More than 10%

Forget the standard savings rule of thumb that says to save 10% of your paycheck for a rainy day.

Melinda Emerson of @smallbizlady Twitter fame and author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 Months says she habitually—and automatically—saves 20% of every paycheck.

“I also have an emergency saving account for my business for rainy days when people don’t pay on time,” she adds. “I put safeguards in place so I’m never ‘broke.’ Ever.”

They Set It, But Don’t Forget It

Setting up a savings and payment system is one habit highly successful people practice to keep their financial house in order. They automate their bill payments and money transfers.

But they don’t turn a blind eye once they set up the system. They know it’s important to still maintain awareness of where their money’s going. “I check my bank accounts every week just to keep a good pulse on where things stand,” says Shama Hyder, bestselling author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing and an international keynote speaker who’s been invited to share the stage with President Obama and the Dalai Lama.

Financial planner and founder of Financially Wise Women Brittney Castro chimes in. “One of the biggest tips I can share with people is to do a weekly money date…a time where you check in with your money every week. You’re reviewing your spending and maybe your budget. It just brings this whole new level of awareness.”

They’re Not Just Go Getters. They’re Go Givers.

Over 20 years ago, New York Times bestselling financial author David Bach heard self-made billionaire John Templeton speak. He said that people in life are taught to be go-getters, but instead should be “go-givers.”

“That had a huge impact on me,” says Bach, who is now vice chairman at Edelman Financial Services. “Since then, the bulk of my life has been focused on, ‘How can I be of the most service?’ with the belief that if I’m of the most service good things will come back to me—that life is a giant circle of karma, and that the more you give out the more it comes back. And that’s really been true in my life. Even when I’m overworked or overstressed or things aren’t going the way I want, [I remember that] I signed up for this attitude that I was going to live my life in service.”

Jacki Zehner, the first female trader-turned-partner at Goldman Sachs and now the Chief Engagement Officer at Women Moving Millions, echoes Bach’s sentiments. “Give generously,” she says. “I’m spending a lot of my time now, and I continuously challenge myself to think about at any point in time, how generous can I be, not only with my money, but with my time.”

Want to learn more financial habits of highly successful people? Money contributing editor Farnoosh Torabi has a new podcast called So Money that features intimate interviews with leading entrepreneurs, authors and influencers. Visit SoMoneyPodcast.com to listen to the show’s inaugural interviews with Tony Robbins, James Altucher and Jean Chatzky.

MONEY financial advice

When Hugging It Out Was a Bad Idea

An awkward moment with a client teaches a financial planner not to jump to conclusions.

“We fight about money all the time,” said Zelda. “Ever since we inherited money from the family business, it’s been a source of tension.”

Stan shook his head. “What do you want from me?” he asked.

It was a good question to be asking as we sat in my office. What did Zelda want from Stan, and what did he want from her? The couple, who had come to see me for coaching, were constantly arguing about their wealth. Before, when they hadn’t had enough to pay the bills, they worked as a team. Ironically, now that they had become millionaires, they were no longer so supportive. They had lost sight of how to soothe each other about the family finances.

“Stan,” I asked, “what do you think might help Zelda when she gets upset?”

He pondered for a minute and then quietly said, “A hug?”

“Perfect,” I responded. “What do you think?” I asked, turning toward his wife.

When our eyes met, it was evident that “perfect” was not the word she would have used.

Quickly I backtracked. “Zelda,” I said, “I am sorry I spoke for you. I can see from your reaction that Stan’s idea is not a good fit. Instead of a hug, what do you need from him?”

“I don’t know,” she exclaimed, “but certainly not a hug!”

This client meeting happened a few years ago, but the memory of Zelda’s stare is etched clearly in my mind. It is a painful reminder that for advisers, curiosity is a key skill and jumping to conclusions is never prudent. While I recovered by apologizing and asking questions to gather more information, it remained a difficult meeting.

Making assumptions and losing curiosity are common mistakes made by all helping professionals, even skilled ones. You get busy or distracted.

It is vital that before each client appointment you remind yourself to focus on understanding your clients’ perspectives and metaphorically stepping into their shoes. When done well, clients feel understood and heard. When done poorly, you hit bumps in the road like I did with Stan and Zelda.

How can you maintain an open mind in client meetings and not let your own ideas get in the way? Here are three techniques to get started:

1. Identify your money mindset. A money mindset is a set of thoughts and beliefs about money and its purpose in the world. This mindset is made up of individual “scripts” or automatic thoughts that impact your saving, spending and investing habits. You money mindset is formed between the ages of 5 and 15 by watching your parents and other adults interact with money. Because most of the beliefs are formed in a child’s mind, these scripts tend to be overly simplistic when it comes to managing finances as an adult. Making matters more difficult, most of us don’t consciously know what our money mindset is. Until we identify the mindset, it impacts our financial habits without our consent. This lack of insight can be problematic in client meetings if we operate from our mindset without taking the time to discover our clients’ perspective.

By identifying your money mindset, you can notice potential blind spots and triggers for you based on your own history. In this situation, I unconsciously tried to protect Stan from Zelda’s harsh judgment. This tapped into an early childhood experience in my own family.

A bettter tactic is to teach couples about money mindsets and how curiosity about your partner can defuse financial tension. As an adviser, you can role-model this work for your clients and use it to help couples resolve differences — or at least increase mutual understanding. As with most couples, Stan and Zelda’s arguments often stemmed from having very different money histories and mindsets.

2. Uncover your conflict mindset. Talking about money is still seen as a taboo topic; therefore, most of us don’t have a rulebook on how to fight fair financially. As an adviser, it is vital for you to uncover your automatic thoughts and beliefs about conflict and learn how to help couples resolve financial disagreements in a healthy way. Whether you grew up in a home that resembled the Sopranos, where fights were loud and overt, or were reared by parents who rarely raised their voices, your upbringing influences your work with couples.

The first step is to become aware of your conflict mindset and identify its strengths and its challenges. In this example, it is clear that I prefer that conflicts be resolved quickly — hence my rush to provide the tidy solution of a hug. Had I not picked up on Zelda’s body language, I may have assumed that I helped the couple find an answer. But really, what I had tried to do was use a Band-Aid to make myself feel better, not guide Stan and Zelda toward a meaningful resolution. When I took a step back and asked them more questions about their experience, I was more effective. The discussion was not tied up in a pretty bow by the end of the meeting, but it didn’t have to be.

3. Practice curiosity. As an adviser, curiosity is your best friend. When you go into each client meeting with a healthy dose of wonder and use this to ask powerful, open-ended questions, you learn more about your clients’ motives, money mindsets, and values. This information helps you design financial plans and strategies that are more successful in the long run.

The best part is that the process fosters trust. While the meeting with Stan and Zelda was far from perfect, it was a turning point in our adviser-client relationship. For the first time, they saw that I was not just an expert but a human being who could apologize, and that I was truly curious about their experience of receiving this new-found wealth. Sometimes the most difficult clients appointments teach you and your clients the most.

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Kathleen Burns Kingsbury is a wealth psychology expert, founder of KBK Wealth Connection, and the author of several books, including How to Give Financial Advice to Women and How to Give Financial Advice to Couples.

MONEY Love and Money

The 3 Most Important Things to Do Before Announcing You Want a Divorce

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Jeffrey Hamilton/Getty Images

Ready to call it quits on your marriage? A little early planning can go far in helping you protect your finances

With “new year, new you” resolutions in full swing and the holidays finally over, January is one of the hottest months for divorce filings.

“Last year I saw a 10 to 15% increase in consultations in January, peaking at a more than 40% increase in March,” says Lisa Decker, a certified divorce financial analyst in Kennesaw, Ga. “I refer to January as the beginning of ‘Divorce Season.'”

If you’re among those who’ve decided that 2015 is the year you’ll go from married to single, make sure you’re ready for the financial toll that the divorce process can take by making these key move before announcing you want out.

Gather Key Docs

“Once a divorce has been initiated, financial information can disappear or become difficult to access,” says Carl Palatnik, a divorce financial analyst in Melville, NY.

With that in mind, begin gathering copies of any documents that verify assets, liabilities, income and expenses, including recent bank, brokerage and retirement statements, tax returns, and real estate deeds—and the prenup, if you have one. This step can take three to six months, depending on how accessible the documents are, adds Decker.

Having a paper trail saves stress, time and money. “You won’t be captive to your spouse, hoping he or she will provide things to you,” says Decker. Nor will you have to pay your lawyer to go after this information.

Stash Some Cash

Ideally you want to have a year’s worth of basic living expenses in a personal account prior to filing.

If all your money’s co-mingled and you have no way of opening your own account and making deposits without raising red flags, open a credit card with a low or introductory 0% interest rate, says Decker.

This step is important because divorce proceedings could take six months or more, during which time you may lose access to spousal support. Plus, you’ll need to lay out another $10,000 to $20,000 for an initial retainer if you plan to work with an attorney and/or financial advisor, says Decker. (If you earn significantly less than your partner or have no income a retainer could get a lawyer to petition to have your spouse pay ongoing legal fees.)

Sever Credit Ties

Finally, to prevent what my friend experienced, try to separate shared credit card accounts, says Palatnik.

If your spouse is an authorized user on one of your cards, ask the issuer to remove your spouse’s name. If you’re joint users, freezing the cards may be your best bet.

But wait to do this until right before making the big announcement. Otherwise, jig’s up as soon as your spouse swipes.

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money magazine and author of the book, When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women.

More by Farnoosh Torabi:

MONEY Debt

7 Ways to Free Yourself From Debt—for Good!—in 2015

How to pay off debt
PM Images—Getty Images

These smart and easy strategies can get you back in the black before you know it.

If you’re in debt, getting out may seem impossible.

One in eight Americans don’t think they’ll ever pay off what they owe, according to a survey by CreditCards.com.

But it’s a new year and a new balance sheet. And the seven steps here can help you put hundreds more towards your bills every month—while still living the kind of life you want.

Can you taste the freedom?

1) Know What You Owe

It may sound easy, but this can be the hardest part, says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation of Credit Counseling. “A disturbing number of people come to our offices with grocery bags filled with bills,” she adds.

After you’ve tallied up your total debt, make a “cash-flow calendar” to track how much money is going in and out of your accounts, and when, Cunningham says. When do you get your paycheck, and how much do you get net taxes and benefits? When is each bill due every month, and what is the typical cost? How much do you spend on each of your other expenses, and when?

The more you want to procrastinate on this step, the more you need to do it.

“People resist doing this,” Cunningham says. “I think that’s because they’re afraid of what they’ll find. There’s nothing like seeing your spending staring back at you. That could force a behavioral change.”

2) Follow the 10×10 Rule

If you want to create a debt-repayment plan you can follow, you need to set reasonable and sustainable goals. Curb rather than cut your spending, advises Kevin R. Weeks, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

“Just like a New Year’s resolution to get in shape, it’s very difficult to go cold turkey and say, ‘I’m going to do all this, this week, or today,'” Weeks says. “People bite off more than they can chew, with good intentions.”

Start slowly by following Cunningham’s 10×10 rule: “If you could shave $10 off 10 disposable spending accounts, you’d never miss it, never feel it, never feel deprived—and you’d have another $100 in your pocket,” she says. “Little money adds up to big money.”

3) Spend Cash

Researchers have found that when people shop with credit cards and gift certificates, they are more likely to make impulse purchases on luxury items because they feel like they’re using “play” money. If that sounds like you, cut up the plastic.

And force yourself to feel the pain associated with spending real money by going on a cash-only diet.

“People who live on a cash basis typically save 20% over their previous spending, without feeling deprived,” Cunningham says. “It’s because using cash creates a heightened sense of awareness. You are more contemplative, and you realize you’re going to have to pay for things with hard-earned cash. Something clicks in that allows you to feel better about not buying the item.”

4) Tackle Christmas First

There are two possible ways you can go when it comes to prioritizing your debts: You can pay off your highest interest-rate balance first to cut your financing charges the most or you can pay off a small debt first to build confidence and momentum.

To decide which path is best, you need to know what drives you, Weeks says.

Whichever way you choose to go, Cunningham recommends beginning with a goal of paying off all your holiday spending debt by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

“That will keep you from dragging that debt along with you all the way through 2015,” Cunningham says. “You’ll be back to where you were debt-wise before the holidays.”

No matter what, expect a series of small steps. “It’s going to take time,” Weeks says. “If you’re looking to lose 50 pounds, you should focus on losing the first five and then you move yourself forward. It’s the same thing on the financial side.”

5) Reduce Your Rates

Don’t do all the work yourself. Get your lender to cut your interest rates.

One way to do that is a balance transfer. Many credit cards offer promotions of 0% interest for a year or more if you transfer your debt from an old card and pay a small fee.

You can save $265.48 on a $5,000 debt with a typical balance transfer, according to a new report from Creditcards.com. That’s assuming a 3% balance transfer fee, a 12-month 0% intro APR, and the debt being paid off within the year.

You could do even better than that if you used Money’s pick for a balance transfer card, the Chase Slate, which currently offers a 0% APR for 15 months, no balance transfer fee in the first 60 days, and standard APR of 12.99% to 22.99% after the promotional period.

If you won’t be able to pay off your debt in the promotional period, however, this might not be the best option. You don’t want to move your debt only to possibly get stuck with a higher APR than the one you already have. A better choice: Move your debt to the Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa, which has no balance transfer fee and an ongoing APR starting at an ultra-low 6%.

Or, simply call your issuer and request that your APR be reduced. In another report, CreditCards.com found that two-thirds of people who asked for a lower rate got it.

6) Stop lending so much money to the IRS

The average household got a $3,034 tax refund last year. In other words, every month, an extra $253 was taken out of your paycheck and loaned to the IRS interest free!

Sure, you’ll get it back after you file your taxes, but don’t you need it now?

“I don’t want anybody to receive an income tax refund—that $250 a month can make a major, life-changing difference,” Cunningham says.

Rather than paying interest on your debt every month while the government gets your money, you should be funneling that cash toward your balance. On a $5,000 debt at 16%, adding $250 a month to a payment of $200 a month, you’d save $675 in interest and get your debt paid off in just over a year vs. two and a half.

You can put your money back in your pocket by adjusting your withholding on a W-4 tax form.

Of course, you don’t want to owe money at tax time, so use the government’s withholding calculator to figure out exactly how many allowances you should take. File your new W-4 with your human resources department and give yourself a raise.

7) Ask for help

If you can’t stop taking on debt or are really unable to make payments on what you owe, you may need professional help. Credit counseling can be especially useful if you’re struggling with student loan debt or medical debt, not just credit card debt.

Find a nonprofit credit counselor through the National Foundation of Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Financial counseling should be free, though agencies can charge an enrollment fee for a debt management plan, which will consolidate your debt into one payment with a more reasonable interest rate, Weeks says.

If you don’t need professional help, but you need someone to keep you honest, ask a friend to be your accountability partner, Cunningham suggests. Share your debt repayment plan and check in periodically about how you’re doing. Leverage the positive power of peer pressure.

“People don’t want to let somebody down,” Cunningham says. “They don’t want to have to admit that they weren’t as committed to their plan long-term.”

More on paying off debt:

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