Financial Planning 101: Know What You Want

If you are thinking about a financial plan, start with some soul-searching.

Simple automated retirement calculators are everywhere these days. Just run a quick Internet search, and the tools might just convince you that financial planning is all about filling in the blanks.

“I want to retire by age ___ and have $____ in monthly income.”

All you need is two little numbers, and retirement planning is easy as pie!

In reality, there is much more to the financial planning process than coming up with two numbers. In trying to connect your money and your life, it is best to begin with the end in mind.

What does that mean in practical terms? For one, a surprise for some of you when you discover that your first step towards a financial plan will not involve bank statements or investment choices. Instead, the conversation will focus on you as a human. A good financial advisor is a fiduciary, which means that he or she is legally required to get to know you before any investment recommendations can be made. If you are headed into that meeting, get ready for some soul-searching.

The origin point of the financial plan is in your core values

That may come across as “fluffy”, and I may have lost some of my readers at “soul-searching”. However, I encourage you to be patient. A financial plan that isn’t deeply connected to who you are and what money means to you is just a glorified budget. It will gather dust in a desk drawer and never get a chance to change lives (which is what a great financial plan can do).

What’s the magic? At its core, the financial planning process must help you articulate your true values and motivations. Once those are clear, we can determine your goals and objectives. Core values are then applied as a filter to help you make money decisions. 

Straightforward as this is, it is difficult to accomplish.

Many advisors have discovered that simply asking their clients questions like “What are your core values?” or “What are your life goals?” is just not effective. Blank stares and canned responses are much more common than true insights. In our experience, most clients are not in the habit of reflecting on their life values regularly. The easiest thing for them to do when faced with a direct question is to fall into the rut of “I want a peaceful and worry-free retirement”. That answer may check the box, but it does nothing to connect to what actually matters.

Getting to core values may take some work

Most of our clients are busy professionals with full lives. If meditating on the meaning of life is not your thing, how can you get to clarity and tap into the power of connecting meaning and money?

As with most things, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. I can offer three exercises to try. I have seen all of them produce major shifts and understandings for our clients. Choose one that looks most impactful or most difficult. Create a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted, and assume that no one will ever see what you come up with.

Consider George Kinder’s “Three Questions”

George Kinder, a Harvard-educated financial planner and a Buddhist teacher based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recommends that clients reflect on a series of three questions. In the interest of time, I offer a short-hand version of the questions here. If you are curious about Kinder’s work, check out his website at www.LifePlanningForYou.com.

  • Question One: Imagine that you are financially secure, now and for the rest of your time. How would you live your life? What would your days look like?
  • Question Two: Imagine that you have been diagnosed with an incurable disease that has no painful symptoms but will kill you in about 10 years. What will you do with your remaining time? Which aspects of your life would remain the same, and which ones would change?
  • Question Three: You find out that you have exactly one day left to live. What do you wish you got a chance to do? What is your gratitude and regrets?

This theoretical exercise can initially raise resistance and objections. The most common one is that most of us cannot afford to live every day like there is no tomorrow! However, the point of the process is to help you connect to what makes your life meaningful, what brings you joy, and how you want to fill your days. Some individuals may list bucket list items that are important to them, others might reflect on the importance of time and space to connect with their loved ones. There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions, so do your best to stay true to who you are and be honest.

Write your obituary

Another way to get at the big “meaning of life and money” question is by writing your own obituary. If writing an obituary sounds too morbid, consider turning this into a lifetime achievement award speech.

This exercise is meant to remind us all that life is finite. It is also a way to focus on how you want to be remembered. Think about your work, charities that were better for your involvement, tangible and intangible things that would not exist if it were not for you. Consider your life lessons and people that were touched by your life.  

Take 15-20 minutes to complete the exercise, and try to write honestly and boldly without filtering. Resist the urge to judge, analyze, overthink or edit. This is not the time to assess whether you have accomplished “enough”. If you are struggling, consider this opener: “Because I am, _______ is.”

Draw your money lifepath

Those who like to connect stories and pictures may get a lot of value out of creating their own money lifepath diagram. The idea is to map out your relationship with money over the course of your lifetime. Everyone has ups and downs depending on the circumstances they are born into, as well as their life choices. The money lifepath exercise allows you to find those turning points and visualize your relationship with money.

Below is an example of a 45-year old female client who was born one of 4 kids into a lower-middle class family. She went to college on a scholarship while working part-time, encountered some money difficulties while raising her own family, and ultimately got out of credit card debt and set out to build her net worth. No matter what your “money line” looks like, use this as an opportunity to validate what happened and get insight into your personal history with money. Remember that no matter what the picture looks like right now, your intention, clarity and solid professional advice can make it better.

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Financial Planning 101: Begin with “Why”

For financial planning to make a difference in your and your family’s life, it must be relevant and personal. Canned and lazy answers won’t do. If you want a meaningful start to a financial planning process, you must let go of what you think you are supposed to say and do the hard work around understanding your core values, goals, and your relationship with money.

An experienced holistic financial planner can facilitate the discovery process, although there is no reason why you couldn’t carve out a half hour and go through the exercises on your own. However, keep in mind that getting to clarity on values is only one part of the puzzle. Once you understand what matters and where your want to go, you will need to assess where you are and map your path from A to B. That is where the help of a professional is invaluable, as he or she can guide you around obstacles, suggest creative solutions, and hold you accountable.

Ultimately, that effort will connect to your savings plan and investment decisions, but that is a big subject for another article.