I recently moved from condo living in downtown Chicago to a single-family dwelling in the suburbs. This included a number of life changes for me. I love being outdoors in our yard when the birds sing. I enjoy the smell of freshly mown grass. It’s comforting to hear the cicadas and see families spending time together. I have friendly neighbors who’ve welcomed us with smiles, handshakes and even home grown tomatoes. The suburbs really do seem to support quality family living.
As much as I love my new life, there are many new demands on my time. Before moving, I daydreamed about all the hours I would spend reading under the pergola amongst the honeysuckle or playing board games as a family. That dream hasn’t quite come true.
Instead, I now spend more time than I anticipated weeding the garden and attending a larger home. The visits from friends and neighbors, which I enjoy, take more time than I expected. I did not foresee standing water in our basement and the time it would take to fix the plumbing and electrical.
A comfortable home, a great career and a strong family and social life are all part of the American Dream. My colleague David Peckenpaugh recently wrote an article about this. However, I now have a better understanding of why my clients often come to me with a pressing question.
When I sit down with certain clients, particularly those with growing families who seem to be solidly living the American Dream, I often find that there is a layer of anxiety underlying their success. While they have certainly achieved much of what they set out to achieve, they also seem to cope with a high degree of stress. What is the source of that stress?
When we finally get to spend a few moments together, they often share stories that indicate they, too, are struggling to fit it all in. The challenge they face is that they have so many decisions to make, so many opportunities that interest them and so many things that are important and valuable to them. If you are struggling with trying to fit it all in, I’d like to offer some ideas here to help you.
The American Dream Is About Family
For most people, the American Dream is uniquely tied to their family. In fact, family is very important to Whitnell. We were founded by the Kelly family in 1988. Just recently, the matriarch of the Kelly family passed away. Listening to the priest speak at her wake, I was particularly moved and impressed by his words. He talked about Mrs. Kelly’s legacy.
“Byrd knew who she was and what was important to her.” He went on to beautifully express Mrs. Kelly’s preference for people and relationships over material possessions. I looked around the room as he said this – a room filled with a large, beautiful and loving family, all there implicitly expressing their deep respect, admiration and gratitude to her.
Byrd successfully prioritized her life choices consistent with her long term values. I’m sure it wasn’t always easy. Her family, the priest stated, was her legacy. She poured her heart and soul into her children and grandchildren. Most of my clients do the same thing.
So I wonder. Can you conceive of your American Dream apart from your family?
Love And Money And Dreams
When I counsel people to help them chart their course to their American Dream, I often find that we spend more time talking about their families and their hopes for them than we talk about money. Money may not buy happiness (or love), but our society and our human nature seem to have hard-wired us to express our love in ways that tend to use a lot of money.
Most people want their wealth to enable their family to live the life of their dreams. This is how they express their love. Love, money and dreams really cannot be separated all that easily. The three belong together.
So I’ll wager that when you dream of the future you want to live, that dream involves family members or others you deeply care about and it involves a feeling, a sensibility really, of prosperity – for yourself and your family. This is a great starting point for figuring out how to fit it all in.
Why do I say that? Because, in truth, you probably can’t fit it all in.
This is why I have come to think of priorities as the foundation of a great wealth management plan. When you have to rank the situations and outcomes that matter most to you, you end up with a list. Those items at the top of the list become top priorities. This means you’ll put more time, effort and planning into those priorities than into items lower on the list.
Let me give you an example. Some of my clients really want a lovely vacation home that comes with a pretty hefty price tag. This vacation home makes them feel successful. It’s also a great place to get away with the family. But when we run an analysis and compare what else they might do with that money, some clients have a difficult choice to make.
For instance, if our analysis shows that they have enough wealth to buy that vacation home or they could invest that same amount in a fund to pay for their grandchildren’s college education – then they have to weigh what matters most to them.
A lovely vacation home may bring to mind quality family time where 3 generations come together to share stories and values – and create memories. On the other hand, funding the grandchildren’s education states how much they value education, a value they certainly want to pass along to the next generation. This is a tough choice. Not every decision is binary, like this example, but some decisions are exactly this way.
Here is another example. Some people have to decide whether to place savings in a permanent life insurance plan, perhaps with a long-term care rider, or in a 401k. Much of this decision will be shaped by a person’s priorities and life experiences.
Some people have seen the impact of an untimely early death of a parent in a young family – perhaps the primary wage earner. They have promised themselves that they will never leave a spouse and children in similar circumstances. Others have felt the financial burden of caring for an aging parent. They have promised themselves that they will not be a burden for their children.
How do we help clients make these types of decisions? It all begins with priorities.
The Wealth Management Approach
Setting priorities, in the context of personal values, is the first step in an approach to building wealth that actually supports the dreams that matter to you. This is the first in a three-step process where we help clients:
- Sort through what matters to them and what they want to see happen with their lives.
- Assess their financial situation today, their available resources and then build a plan that most likely will achieve their goals.
- Refine the plan when they approach or pass through major life events: births, deaths, weddings, graduations, new-home purchases or the like.
It’s the big life changes that require ongoing updates to your financial strategy. Wealth management is not a set-it-and-forget-it event. Instead, your financial strategy needs to be a living, breathing, changing process as your priorities change.
Most people will discover that their priorities change as they go through a major life event. If you allow a disconnect to occur for too long, you will probably begin to feel as if your financial life and your real life are misaligned. This is probably the number one issue I help clients address on a daily basis. Their wealth and their vision for their life are disconnected. It’s my job to help them reconnect the two.
For instance, most people are not saving enough. I know you’ve heard this. It’s like the doctor telling you that you need to lose weight in an annual health check-up. But the doctor, too often, doesn’t really tell you how to do this or what changes you need to make. Nor does the doctor walk with you over the course of a year and help you implement the changes to your exercise routine or nutrition plan. The likelihood of success for this endeavor is very low.
You Need An Ongoing Partner
Human beings are creatures of habit. All of the best laid plans will come to nothing unless they are implemented. This is why, for you to achieve your goals, you need a partner who can help you implement the plan and get the details completed. You need a financial partner who is very diligent in follow-through, someone who can work with other professionals like CPAs and estate attorneys.
The likelihood of you achieving your version of the American Dream will depend on having a great plan and actually executing the plan. Most people will not be able to do this independent of a financial partner. That partner needs to have a deep understanding of what matters to you regarding your wealth and the technical expertise to develop and execute the plan.
But the partner also needs the flexibility and the availability to meet with you on a regular basis. You need a partner who knows you well enough that they know when major life events – those that shift priorities – are on your horizon.
You need a partner who will proactively work with you to re-prioritize your list based on what matters to you now.
If we begin with the assumption that we can’t fit it all in, and most people can’t, then we are left with the conclusion that we need a priority list. If you are feeling a disconnect between your priorities and your wealth plan, let’s talk.
The information contained in this article is provided for informational purposes only. No illustration or content in it should be construed as a substitute for informed professional tax, legal, and/or financial advice.