I want to tell you a funny story. A few days ago, I was speaking with a client. She told me they had just returned from their vacation home after being with children and grandchildren. While playing Monopoly, a grandchild was trying to decide whether or not to put hotels on certain properties. Her husband said: “You better call Mia first. We never make decisions like that without her.”
We both chuckled when she told me this story. But after thinking about it a while, I recalled how long it took me to build trust with this client. My name came up because I had guided them in making so many important decisions, none of which involved play-money. I took this as a compliment, a sign that I was doing my job.
Many years ago, they came to me with big dreams, quite a few resources but also many tough choices. I helped them build their financial plan and stick to it over time. It wasn’t easy. There were quite a few tradeoffs. But they were committed to achieving certain dreams for their family. Their dreams have come true because we aligned their wealth with their dreams. That’s not as simple as it sounds, yet it is very possible. If you’d like to do the same, here are some of my best ideas to help you.
The Three-Phase Process
In many ways, our lives are defined by the tradeoffs we make. But how do we know which tradeoffs to consider, or if we’ve been making the right ones? Unfortunately, one of the biggest misconceptions out there is that your dreams will come true if you do everything right—earn a high income, realize good investment returns and work with a proactive CPA.
I could tell you countless stories of families who had all these factors in place, yet their dreams did not come true. The situations that caused them to miss the mark were unique to each family. But they had one thing in common. At a critical moment in time, decisions were made, or were not made, and the consequences of those moments were irreversible.
I really don’t want to see this happen to you. After advising affluent families for more than 25 years, I have come up with a three-phase process that I recommend.
- Phase One: Find an Advisor with the right methodology
- Phase Two: Uncover what’s important to you with a trusted Advisor
- Phase Three: Stick with a relationship that holds you accountable for the long run
Phase One: Find An Advisor With The Right Methodology
To align your wealth with your dreams, you’ll need to find an advisor who understands and practices the right methodology. This should include a comprehensive approach that addresses these common concerns of affluent families:
- Investment management
- Tax mitigation
- Asset protection
- Estate planning
- Charitable giving
Investment management is crucial to ensuring you realize reasonable rates of return in line with your risk tolerances and goals. The best investment plans properly allocate and diversify your financial assets to most likely achieve your desired returns.
Tax mitigation allows you to keep as much as possible of what you earn. Asset protection ensures your wealth is not unjustly taken by unscrupulous individuals or insufficient insurance. Estate planning ensures your wealth goes where you want it to go in the most efficient manner possible. Charitable giving allows you to make an impact on causes and organizations that you believe in.
These five concerns may seem obvious. However, many financial advisors focus primarily on investment returns. That’s not nearly enough. Why? Even if you do everything right with investment management, it won’t matter if you pay out huge portions of the gains in taxes. It won’t matter if you’re sued and lose your wealth or are underinsured and have a major medical event. Or how would you feel if your wealth passed to someone other than loved ones?
My point is simply this. Good investment returns alone are no guarantee that your wealth will enable you to live the future of your dreams. You need an advisor who can look at everything that potentially can grow or diminish your wealth. Your advisor needs to have the technical skills and the team behind them to build a custom plan that is unique to your goals.
However, if I’m being honest, technical skills and a good methodology are not the complete picture. I think of these as table-stakes. There are lots of advisors available today with these skills. For you to achieve your dreams, you’ll need the right relationship with your advisor, a relationship based on deep mutual trust.
Phase Two: Uncover What’s Important With A Trusted Partner
At the end of the day, you only have so many years to work hard in life and produce your desired financial outcomes. Ultimately, you work hard and take risks to ensure that things go the way you want them to. This is what motivates most people. Finding someone you can share those motives with—someone you can, will, and do completely trust—is the key.
Phase One is about finding someone who has the right methodology and is therefore worth trusting. Phase Two is about developing, stress-testing, and putting that trust to work to build a financial plan you believe in. This is not as simple as it may sound.
I’ve spent years sitting across from affluent couples who are thinking and feeling their way through what matters to them when it come to their wealth. It can be a rather complicated process and it takes time. Here are my observations about this process.
First, creating alignment between spouses requires patience, good communication and trust. I’ve seen moments when couples look at each other with surprise – as if to say – is that really what you want? This happens even to couples who have been together for many years. Why? Life is busy and people don’t get a chance to talk about money as much as they should, especially with a trusted advisor in the room. These conversations are crucial because they uncover what really matters to you, as a family.
Second, no matter how much wealth you have, financial resources are limited. Whether you have a million dollars or ten million dollars, you may not be able to do everything you want to do. This is why we talk about what matters to you regarding your wealth. This allows us to create a priority list of what must happen, what you’d like to have happen and what would be nice to have happen.
Third, because resources are limited, you need to make tough choices. This is the hard part. Will you retire at 55, 60, 65 or never? Will you buy a vacation home in another state, in the tropics or even in Europe? Will you pay for children and grandchildren going to a state school, private school or even ivy league? How much do you need to save and invest every year and how does this impact lifestyle now versus in the future?
Fourth, the choices you make should be informed by empirical data whenever possible. I don’t like to play bad cop and tell my clients that they shouldn’t make certain decisions. That’s not fun for me. This is why I try to bring as much clarity to the process as possible by using hard data. I like to model the potential outcomes of numerous decisions and show my clients how the choices they make now will impact their desired future.
Fifth, your choices need to be instantiated into a plan that is executable, measurable and flexible. Plans change and priorities change. However, you need to start this journey with some clear goals in mind, clear responsibilities about who does what and some tools to measure your results. But the plan also needs to be flexible enough to change as your situation and goals change.
Phase Three: Stick With A Relationship That Holds You Accountable For The Long Run
All the best laid plans in the world will have no value unless they are implemented. I wrote another article called You Don’t Need A Financial Plan – You Need Financial Planning. In that article, I made the argument that financial plans which are not implemented and which do not keep up with changing priorities will not help you achieve your financial goals.
I have come to believe that I deliver three primary benefits to my clients:
- I ensure that the details of their plans are executed.
- I work with my clients to update their plans as their priorities and life situations change.
- I hold my clients accountable to stick with their plans over time.
Good financial plans have many moving parts, especially for affluent families with complex financial lives. I think of myself as the financial quarterback for my clients, the person on the field executing plays to ensure a win.
Think about the complexities of your financial life right now: investments, taxes, assets, insurance, estate plans and charitable gifting – let alone retirement, college funds and elder-care. If you are like most of my clients, at the end of a busy day or week, you don’t want to think about these details.
You probably want to spend quality time with loved ones and enjoy the fruits of your labor. It’s my job to give clients that quality time with peace of mind, knowing that the details are being managed by a competent expert who knows them deeply.
It’s also my job to keep my client’s financial plan updated as their situation changes. This requires ongoing communication and regular check-ins. There are many situations that might bring about a shift in a financial plan: births, loved-ones passing, marriages, divorces, graduations and retirement, to name a few. If your financial plan doesn’t stay up to date with your changing situation, you’ll eventually have a sizable disconnect.
But the most challenging, and maybe most important, part of my role is to hold my clients accountable to focus on their goals and stick with them over time. Affluent individuals have no end of opportunities to buy things. Whether it’s world travel, a new sports car, a vacation home in the Alps or something else, temptations abound to set the plan aside and just go for it.
But will you have regrets? How will the choices you make now alter the future of your dreams? Who is helping you sift through your options and using hard data to show you the impact of your decisions? Who do you trust to guide you through some of the most important decisions you’ll ever make?
What Are You Looking For?
My name came up during a Monopoly game while my clients were on vacation. I chuckle about that, but it reminds me of the relationship I’ve built with this family. They trust me so much that they won’t make major financial decisions without my input.
The three-phase process I’ve outlined here works to align my clients’ wealth with their dreams. I believe it can work for your too. If you’re not comfortable that your wealth and dreams are aligned, let’s have a conversation.
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.