Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Financial Planning versus Financial Preparedness

This past year I began incorporating financial planning into my practice. For years I had been more of an investment manager and financial advisor but never a planner. To clear up the jargon, an investment manager evaluates and selects securities to construct a portfolio for clients. A financial advisor gives advice on an array of investments and coaches clients through good and bad markets. A financial planner helps individuals set objectives and create a plan to achieve their goals.

In day-to-day life I am not much of a planner. I kind of like to fly by the seat of my pants. When my family travels to a new city, I never map out where we are going or what we are going to visit. I prefer to wander and see where we end up, which usually leads to a fight and the five of us lost in some obscure part of town. Don’t believe me—ask my wife about our trip to Montreal a few years ago.

When it comes to college or “retirement” planning, you can’t really afford to fly by the seat of your pants. You have to save, and you need a plan to manage your assets accordingly. Hoping that you’ll have the funds to pay for Junior’s first year at Michigan is not a good plan. Maybe your daughter surprises you with news that she’s getting married. It can be extremely challenging to fly blind.

My problem with financial planning is the assumptions it makes. We run numbers and scenarios through computer models, and they spit out a plan. Fortunately or unfortunately, life is not like this. Markets don’t go up 5% a year, interest rates go down, you lose your job, Junior decides he wants to go to medical school after he gets his MBA, and the inheritance you think you may receive doesn’t pan out. Mike Tyson said it best, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Another wise person once said, “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” The statement easily applies to financial planning, but instead of calling it that, can we call it “financial preparedness”? Planning assumes static inputs with a predictable outcome, but things are never that neat and tidy. I like my new phrase, financial preparedness. Being prepared is being ready for what might occur down the road, nimble enough to turn on a dime, but also honest enough to admit we never know what’s around the corner.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Golden Road

Away from the hamster wheel of noise about Greece and the falling Chinese stock market, I find myself thinking about the Grateful Dead. In case you were away or checked out, the Grateful Dead performed 3 shows last weekend in Chicago commemorating the 50th anniversary of the band. I was never a Dead Head and never even appreciated their music growing up. I probably was anti-Dead, favoring the music of Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Kiss. Dead Heads were “hippies,” and for some reason that had a bad connotation for me.

As I have grown older and wiser, I have a newfound appreciation for hippies and what they stand for. Believe it or not, having the hippie aura has actually made me a better advisor, and here are some of the reasons why:
  • If you think the news and papers were overloaded with stories about Greece, you should have been in my seat. The amount of whitepapers and webinars that hit my inbox was staggering, every money manager espousing the same analysis. Every firm had the same reaction to the action. My inner hippie advised me to tune out and turn on to continuing to live my life the way I have been doing. A pebble on the road is not going to derail me from my own personal financial goals
  • When thinking about your financial goals, be a free thinker. Don’t worry about what your neighbor or office mate is doing. Live your life, reject the mainstream, and stay focused on what is important to you and your family.
  • Don’t trust the man, the man being conventional Wall Street “wisdom.” Wall Street is not interested in your well-being; Wall Street is interested in its own well-being and how much it can extract from your pocket. Proprietary products, hedge funds, and structured notes are chocked full of hidden costs and fees you would never know about even if you read the myriad of disclosure pages. Keep it organic and simple.
  • Caring about investing with companies that make a difference in the environment and workplace is a good thing. Being kind and generous always help. In your financial plan, think about philanthropy. There are great benefits not just in the feeling that giving produces but also possibly tax wise.
  • When it comes to financial planning, and I have written about this numerous times, the easiest way to ensure more successful outcomes in the future is to keep your overhead down. Of course it makes sense to save and invest, but if you spend less, be less of a consumer, the better your chances of achieving financial freedom.

I’ll finish by quoting the poet Robert Frost, who I don’t think was a hippie or financial advisor but thought independently:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.