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THE RIGHT CONVERSATION

First, I want to thank you for the support and condolences received as my family managed my dad’s passing. Time is an interesting thing. Steph and I were flying back from the funeral just over a month ago. Only a month, yet it seems like a lifetime. As you would imagine and perhaps have experienced; this type of experience makes you question lots of things. One question I considered was whether I was having the right conversation with clients.  

…and I wasn’t the only one

A client stopped by the office earlier in the week to check on my (and his) plan’s status. He was recently “let go” by his employer as they adjusted their focus. His plan focuses on questions and suggestions he is receiving from well-intended, yet emotionally involved friends and colleagues.

I guess it is logical that someone who is considering his future after a surprise event would check on my plan. Our conversation allowed me to verbalize what I had been considering. After all, I had lots of downtime…sitting on airplanes and in airports gave me lots of time to think…not always a good thing.

Should I be recommending balance?

I admit…I struggle sometimes when I tell you to spend more today (if your plan projects success). I talk about failing retirement in a way that is rarely discussed (or at least I don’t see it discussed often). The fear and pain of running out of money before running out of time is the focus for most considering retirement. Therefore, the media and more importantly products being sold to the public are geared to solve this concern. I think having more than you want at the “end of your plan” is equally disappointing and should be considered a fail (if your goal was to maximize spending while alive).

Should I be talking about balance? Should I recommend you spend more now…while you are younger and presumably more able? As I reviewed my dad’s life…I can safely answer yes. We should consider and discuss spending earlier IF your plan projects a high likelihood of success and/or you recognize you may need to make changes in the future.

We can talk about spending more today because we have future projections (hopefully conservative). I continue to believe you can fail retirement (or college funding and other goals) in many ways. Focusing solely on one fail increases the risk of failing a different way.

Having a plan

My dad and I didn’t talk much about financial planning (at least not his) until late in his life. I think that is common. Parents often see their children as children (and the troubled teenager). Later in life, he started seeking my opinion more often.

He asked about claiming Social Security. This is not a conversation I question. I believe that if you are healthy, waiting until full retirement age is the best choice in most cases. The exception is if there are known health concerns or money is needed now. Sometimes, a joint strategy with a spouse’s claim make create opportunities. But, in most cases…I recommend waiting until full age (or later). Would watching my father’s path change my opinion?  

As he became “eligible” to claim Social Security, he asked if he should claim it as soon as possible (age 62). I suggested he wait until full age. He followed my advice. Given that he died at age 73, he may have collected more if he took it earlier which might be a reason to consider an adjustment.

This is rationale I often hear …” If I die earlier than planned, shouldn’t I take it early? I want to get my money back. Maybe I should take it early just in case.” Our planning program often shows age 73 as a breakeven point. So…should I have recommended he collect at age 62? How about age 63 or 64? How about age 63 and 4 months?

There are eight years with 12 months per year as you consider when to start collecting. If married (or previously married for 10 plus years), you might consider all the options when considering two claims (depends on age difference).

I haven’t run his details because I’ve run enough scenarios to know what his would look like. He would likely have collected a little more if he chose something between age 62 and his full age. Did I make a mistake? Did my dad miss out? Should I change my advice? The answer is no.

Although he had a weak heart for a few years before passing, he was in what appeared to be good health when we made the decision. Our goal when collecting his claim was to hedge against living long, not maximizing the payout. While he might have received “more” from Social Security; we had no way to know when he would pass. More importantly…he was able to fund his goals with a safety margin at the end. Our goal was to ensure he wouldn’t run out of money…he didn’t. If he claimed early and lived long, we may not have said the same thing.

We also talked about his investments. When considering his overall allocation, we knew he might have upcoming expenses once his heart began to fail. He wanted to preserve what he had. He was invested in all cash. Should he take additional risk? The answer again was no.

He didn’t know when he may need money. Based on some of the medical choices discussed, he may have needed it sooner (within a couple of years). Money that may fund short term cash needs should not hold market risk. His Social Security payments were covering most of his living expenses. Preserving what he had was of greater importance than building wealth. He passed with a safety margin. In other words, he didn’t need to take additional market risk.

You might argue we (my sister and I) would have benefited if he were aggressively invested. You would be correct. But it was his plan…not ours. We discussed having home care. If we went down that road, a large portion would have been spent.

Given current markets, discussing and recommending a conservative portfolio can make you question whether he (and maybe you) should take more market risk. Of course, this is easy with the benefit of hindsight. When cash flow is important, his conservative approach was the right choice for him.

Be prepared

He took care of many decsions and tasks before passing. You might be thinking it is easier to be prepared when doctors tell you your heart is failing. It is, and we don’t always get notice. But, we get a “heads up” for many of our most important financial decisions.  

This reinforces my focus on planning first. While most in the financial business focus on investments first and in many cases…only. The fact you reviewed your plan means you are prepared for what is coming (or at least preparing).

Most life choices are known long before they need funding. If you have a teenager in the house, you know college and/or the next step in life is coming (and can estimate the cost). If you are “further along” in your career, you know you are getting closer to retirement. The exact expense may not be clear, but preparation can begin. You can make informed assumptions.

This reminder reinforces my decision to “push” marketing so that we can help more people. Too many believe financial planning is reserved and only needed by the “wealthy.” Understanding and preparing for what is likely to come and surprises along the way is financial planning. Selling the “right” mutual fund, annuity, insurance, stock or bond without reviewing the entire situation is not financial planning. It is sales. Nothing wrong with sales…if you need what is being sold and you understand what you are buying.

Value experiences

I find many clients focus on experience over accumulation (please share this with Stephanie). Their goals often include traveling when they retire (and before). They want to spend more time with family and friends. Rarely, do I hear goals of buying more stuff (although we all buy lots of stuff). I might not see it directly because “the stuff” is included in the living expense.

I walked around my dad’s house (many times) and realized most of the things in his house were going to be donated or tossed into a dumpster. The donations will help people, but how sad that we accumulate things and in the end, they end up in a dumpster. I know you all recognize this at some level. For me, it was a reminder. The things I kept are not based on the item per se. Instead, I kept things that reminded me of an experience and the associated emotions.

I have a complete copy of the last print of The Courier Express. It was discontinued while I was still delivering papers. By the way, a great job for young people that has been transitioned to adults. As we cleaned out the house, I couldn’t part ways with it.

It has little to do with the paper itself. It has everything to do with the memories of him helping me deliver papers on Sundays (the big day). We (my dog Max also joined us) covered three streets, delivering over 100 papers. Lots of memories there. The paper made its way to Phoenix. I have no idea what I will do with it.

Emotions

I often tell prospective clients the reason to hire a financial advisor is NOT to pick the best mutual fund or stock. The reason to hire a financial advisor is because we review numbers rather than emotions. My dad’s passing reminded me of the emotional side. I am reminded of the importance of the “end of the plan” discussion. We don’t want to consider the end, but we should be prepared because it is inevitable.

Of course, there will be emotions attached in almost all financial decsions. What I found interesting was how different people revealed emotions at different times. What was an emotional event for one wasn’t for someone else. I found it interesting that we follow other people’s emotions. I suppose this is like sneezing. When Steph was sad, I became sad. This is important when building and reviewing plans. We all look at things differently. We are all tempted to follow a herd mentality. We are taught to act a specific way at a specific time. But, we are all different. We manage emotions in different ways.  

Steph valuing experience and learning respect

With this being the first Christmas without Santa, I shifted my gifts from “stuff” to experience. Among her new experiences is horseback riding. We are headed out today to lesson number four (one a week). She is VERY excited.

I like animals and believe learning respect for them is an important lesson. That might be why I like watching her horse riding lessons so much. They are teaching horsemanship as much as riding. She doesn’t get to show up and jump on a horse. She brushes the horse, cleans its hooves, gets the saddle ready, and puts the bridle in (I imagine there is a better term, but I don’t know horses). Before she leaves, she repeats the process and take the horse back to its stall. And if the horse poops…guess who gets to shovel…NO, not dad!

In many ways, she is following the steps listed above. She finds balance between school and play; follows a plan; learns how to adjust for the known (and unknown); and because she follows a plan, she enjoys the experience.

The picture above is from her first lesson. The horse’s name is Cowboy. The funniest part of the lesson…when she stopped Cowboy but continued to hold the reins. Cowboy began walking backwards (I thought Cowboy heard Michael Jackson and began doing the moon walk). I didn’t realize horses had a reverse gear.

Her coach told her something obvious to many aspects of life. If the horse is doing something you don’t want it to do, change what you are doing. In this case, relax the reins. Another interesting lesson…sometimes the horse needs a little “kick” to say…”it is time to get moving.”

Better planner

As I look forward, I know this experience will make me a better financial planner. It reinforced many of the beliefs I felt were important in a plan. It also reminded me that people see and react to events differently.

So yes, I am back in Phoenix in front of my computer. I am quickly catching up. I am also looking into hiring someone to help me as I realized the weakness of a one-man shop. I have someone in mind. I will let you know when/if she gets up to speed and decides she wants to work with me long term.

Again, I appreciate your support. I look forward to getting back into my normal routine. I am still working through my father’s estate. That is a topic for another day. I plan to interview an estate attorney I work with after I am done and share her opinion of my situation so that when you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll be prepared. It would have been so much easier if my dad lived in Arizona. New York state can be complicated.