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LESSONS FROM JOSEPH C BURGER

When the caller ID read Scott Smith, I knew the news wasn’t good. Scott Smith is my brother-in-law. I can’t remember the last time he called me directly.  “Hey Bob. Hold on…here is your sister.” My dad had passed a couple of hours earlier. My response…” Wow.” This was her exact response as well.

The reason for the simple response is that I just talked with him a couple of hours earlier. She was there a couple of days earlier. He was comfortable and enjoying his new room (quieter and the nurses didn’t poke at him as often).

As I sat and listened, I realized there were many lessons taken from his life. Many of those lessons translate into a financial plan.

Lesson One. Expected outcomes aren’t always easy

The call wasn’t totally unexpected. He had been struggling with heart problems for the past three plus years. He had recently added the notice of no medicine other than comfort after his last trip to the hospital. But, I had just talked to him. He sounded better than he had on many of our calls over the past couple of years. And of course, as we all know…expecting the call doesn’t necessarily easier.

As we progress through our lives, we expect certain calls and events. Some are exciting while others… not so much. Some are exciting for one member of the family while downright scary for another. Consider the acceptance letter from a preferred (and expensive) school. Exciting for the student…perhaps a different emotion for the person writing the check.

Helping fund college costs is a common goal for those in the parenting phase of life. We expect this call or letter. It is expected. But addressing the next phase in life (both parent and student) isn’t always easy. But, with some preparation, a positive (and perhaps easy) outcome is possible and in many cases probable.

I often say, one of the greatest benefits of hiring an advisor is taking the emotion out of the equation. After this past week, I might need to change that language. Maybe it is better said…I share the potential and expected outcomes, so we can be prepared as best we can. The emotions will always be there.

Lesson Two. Prepare for the known and inevitable

Colleen (my sister) and I sat with the funeral director on Tuesday evening. My father had the benefit (if you want to call it that) of knowing the end was coming sooner rather than later. No one had a solution for his failing heart. He never wanted to be a burden to anyone, especially his family. By the way, I hear this wish often when discussing planning. He had just about everything taken care of. This was a blessing for us. There was already so much to take care of and we were both a minimum of 5 hours away in the best-case circumstances.

The funeral director shared his admiration of my dad’s preparation. He shared stories of heartbreak as heirs fought over what they wanted or what they thought the deceased wanted. My dad ensured that wouldn’t be a problem.

Of course, there are some deaths that are totally unexpected (car accidents, etc.). This makes preparation more difficult. It is a good idea to discuss your wishes with those who will ultimately be making the choices. By the way, I shared mine with Steph. I told her I don’t want a funeral. She told me to bad… “I will be in charge and I want to have a funeral.” Perhaps I should make sure she isn’t in charge!

Financial planning is preparation for the expected. Good financial planning raises questions with discussions about various outcomes. Consider the goal of funding college discussed earlier. There are many ways to address this desire and each family addresses it in their best way based on their circumstances and values. Preparation (with a plan B) is what makes a financial plan valuable.

As you consider your current phase in life, you can see expected upcoming events. Whether the next phase includes retirement, college funding, buying a new house or any of the multiple goals listed in the various plans I’ve written, you know it is coming. My job is to help you be prepared for it (and hopefully minimize negative emotions).

Lesson Three. Not all goes as expected

If everything went as expected, planning would be so much easier. But, we know things don’t always go as expected. Many financial and insurance products are based on the unexpected. Some are viable and cost-effective solutions for the unknown while others tend to be a known solution for the one selling the product (a nice commission).

My mother passed in 1980. I was 13 years old; Colleen was 12. To say this was unexpected is a huge understatement. My dad suddenly became a widowed father of two teenage children. In that time, it would have been common for him to remarry. It was uncommon for a dad to raise two children on his own. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any. There were a few divorced families with the children living mostly with the mother. This came up in talks at the wake. I always wondered how our lives would have been different… It turns out, lots around us did as well.

When considering a financial plan, we consider “what could go wrong.” We discuss the impact and choices for managing risk. This is an important part of the plan. More importantly, the discussion should focus on the risk and choices long before any solutions are reviewed. Just as importantly, these should be reviewed and discussed before buying insurance or writing estate documents. Discussing the risk without the complexity of the product (often too complex) helps us focus on what we need.

While the emotional cost is difficult (if not impossible) to hedge, we should consider the financial cost and determine if the cost is too high. If it is, hedge it (if possible).

Lesson Four. Know what is important

Many of my dad’s fraternity brothers and military partners (drafted) showed up. It was interesting to hear their stories. They saw and shared a person I didn’t know. I don’t remember much before my mother passed. It appears he made a big change after that. You might be thinking…well, duh. But, the changes he made reminded me of something…know what is important.

He retreated from many of his friends after my mother’s passing. He refocused on what was most important to him…me and Colleen. He also returned to faith after abandoning it, which is likely a reasonable response when the love of his life was taken. These were what were most important to him. That never changed.

I heard from multiple people…” I didn’t know about that.” He volunteered for Meals on Wheels, Hospice, taught confirmation classes at the local church and attended classes at the Seminary. I was told he was offered the status of Deacon. He said no for one important reason. If he accepted the role, he could never remarry. He never did remarry, but he didn’t want to close that chapter in his life…just in case. This brings me to the lesson.

He always knew what was important to him. He never lost focus. There would be easier solutions, but they came with a cost…typically the time he needed to be there for me and Colleen.

As we build or update plans, I think it is important to truly discover what is what is most important. In today’s world of constant distraction, it is easy to lose track of what is REALLY important and replace it with what seems important in the moment.

Lesson Five. You will change. Accept it.

The stories and conversations reminded me that we change and grow. Luckily, most of us don’t have an event that shifts our direction quickly. Instead, we tend to slowly move in a new direction. His college days were very different from his later years. He never saw action in the military. Some of his friends were not as lucky. There is a story there that I won’t share.

I often use the phrase… “financial planning is a process, not an event.” We are always changing and hopefully evolving. Therefore, it is important to monitor and update a plan and why simply selling a product and assuming it is the right solution forever is a mistake. Our responsibilities change. Our focus moves to what is most important based on what is known today.

I had two primary changes. My decision to leave the comfort (and challenges) of Buffalo and of course, the birth of Stephanie. My dad knew it was best to leave the environment in Buffalo. He told me so many times. He also said Stephanie turned me 180 degrees… for the better. Perhaps, my story isn’t that different than his.

Lesson Six. Listen and accept advice, but do what is right for you.

Scott delivered the eulogy. Both Colleen and I felt we were too close to do it. Scott shared his thoughts and asked for input. We discussed the previous point…he did it his way. But, he always accepted input. This was an interesting point as we discussed it further. As Scott said in the eulogy, he was in most cases right, which was very frustrating for the young man who married his daughter.

But, he always openly accepted varying viewpoints. He might have the right answer, but he was always learning from different perspectives. In today’s world of differing opinions on so many topics, I am going to spend time focusing on this lesson. Most importantly, I must remember that when I am writing a plan, it is not my plan. If it were mine, I may choose a different option. But, that is the point… it is not my plan. It is your plan. My job is to share ideas, potential outcomes and to provide a sounding board (he would have been good at this). It is not my job to make decisions for you.

The Phoenix Child

For those who have read this post for a while; you may be wondering whether Stephanie came with me and if she did, how did she do? After some consideration, I chose to take her back with me. Watching the “Phoenix child” in Buffalo in December added entertainment.

We began with a gradual descent into Buffalo. She mentioned we stayed in the clouds for a long time. When we landed, she understood why. She hadn’t witnessed the overcast conditions. The clouds looked like they hung from the sky to the ground. Welcome to a Buffalo storm. But, her focus quickly shifted…there was snow on the ground. It was relatively fresh. It wasn’t yellow or dirty…

While we waited for our Uber ride, she ran across the street where there was untouched snow. She quickly balled some up and ate a natural “snow cone.” When we arrived at my dad’s house (grab his car), she grabbed a bowl and filled it up (spoon in hand). “Can we stop at a store and get some snow cone syrup?”

By the time we got to the hotel, she asked… “does it have to be this cold to have snow?” It was in the low forties and was raining. I broke the news…this was not cold by Buffalo standards in December and the rain was going to melt the snow. She didn’t like either answer. By the time we git into the elevator, she acknowledged she couldn’t live here…it was too cold. I laughed…

Her final adventure happened as we entered the brunch after the funeral. She heard about putting salt on the roads, but didn’t quite get it. She kept thinking about table salt. The restaurant had a bucket of salt. I pointed it out to her. “Can I go throw some on the sidewalk?” Sure. As people walked in I shared that she was a “Phoenix Child.” They laughed.

On a more serious point, she was a nice buffer for me. My focus was on her which softened the emotions (until I got home). She read a verse from the New Testament from the podium at the funeral. Her cousin read from a passage from the Old. She was happy to read the new because the language was “weird.” She was a pall bearer between me and Scott. She spoke with many of my dad’s friends. The most enjoyable for me was her discussion with my dad’s friend Terry (Uncle Terry and my godfather). He was impressed. We agreed to continue the conversation later. He lives in Orlando. I am sure there are a few places Stephanie would be willing to go to in Orlando.

Final Lesson. Family and Time.

The most important lesson of the trip is that time passes way too quickly. I looked around the room and realized I hadn’t seen most of the people in the room in 25 or more years. This included cousins and neighbors. That is simply too long. It is sad to think I will likely never have conversations with most of my dad’s friends I “met” at the funeral and wake.

The most important lesson…take time for family, friends and even acquaintances. That means being present, not just in the same room. I can’t think of a better time of year to share and remember that message.

Speaking of which, I should stop writing and check in with Steph. She is awaiting the arrival of her uncle and aunt (Patty’s brother) from California. They will bring their dogs with them, so it will be a lot of fun for her. I am not sure whether I am supposed to stop by tonight or just head over tomorrow morning.

Thank you for letting me share. Have a Merry Christmas and remember…be present and enjoy your time with loved ones (even if they annoy you most of the time). They are family.