A woman I’d worked with in my past life recently reached out to me. She wanted to talk about how I might help her with her financial challenges. And out of the gate, she wanted to know what my financial planning philosophy was.
I know what my investment philosophy is. Don’t you? Mine is on my website. I’m sure your philosophy is on yours.
I know what my financial planning process is. Don’t you? Mine is captured in my CRM, and I talk clients through it at the beginning of any relationship.
But my financial planning philosophy has remained unconscious and undefined. Until now.
It turns out that explicitly thinking about and stating my financial planning philosophy helps both my firm and my clients, just as being clear about my investment philosophy, my niche, my services, and my fees do.
My Financial Planning Philosophy
I don’t imagine my philosophy is going to startle anyone in the XY Planning Network. But let’s write it down anyways, shall we?
1. There is no “secret sauce.” The value is really in the personalization of the advice and the attention you give to the client.
Sure, fancy technology, a fancy process, fancy boxes of chocolates as client-appreciation gifts...these might strike you as “special sauce,” but all these things can be replicated, and usually easily.
What can’t be replicated is how you tailor your financial planning knowledge, your experience, and your communication to your client’s specific needs.
2. It’s a process, not a deliverable. You start by getting a comprehensive understanding of the client’s life and then can adjust individual parts from there. And you keep on adjusting because those parts keep changing.
This isn’t revelatory. Everyone in the XY Planning Network network, at least, is sold on this idea.
3. Simplicity is worth paying for. And I don’t just mean “Pay a financial planner to manage your finances. See, simple!” (Although, hey, not a bad idea.)
The simpler your client’s finances, the more likely they are to understand them. The more likely they are to make the necessary changes and make better decisions. The mental hurdle to change is smaller the simpler your client’s financial life.
4. Optimize the whole, not the parts. Like a set of gears, or project management (which my clients in the tech industry can easily relate to), a client’s financial life is a collection of different but interlocking pieces.
You can’t touch one without affecting the others. Optimizing one doesn’t necessarily optimize the whole (paying the fewest taxes often results in an inappropriate portfolio, for example), and the goal is an optimized whole.
5. Impartiality is important. As trained professionals, we planners can more easily provide an impartial perspective than a client’s spouse or friend can, and certainly more easily than a client can provide to herself.
But we’re not immune to bias. We all have our idiosyncrasies, our “money scripts,” as it were.
I myself am fairly risk averse (I mean aside from having my husband quit his job to look after the kids and me launching my own firm that won’t support us for a couple years. Whee!)
I’d rather focus on lowering expenses than earning more. I have to be careful to not impose those values on my clients.
6. Accountability and discipline is essential. I’m sure there exist people out there, somewhere, in a place I haven’t visited, who have enough drive and self-discipline to keep making the hard financial decisions throughout the year, every year, without outside help.
More likely they might find that support in a spouse, a mom, or a friend. Most likely of all, frankly, is that they could find it in a financial professional.
Why Bother with a Financial Planning Philosophy?
I’m all wordy and stuff, so it makes sense to me to have an explicit financial planning philosophy. But why do I think it’s good for all financial planners?
For Your and Your RIA’s Sake
I have bought the “niche” argument hook, line, and sinker since before even starting my firm. It has been a godsend.
It has enabled me to make decisions about, well, darn near everything in my business with speed, efficiency, and confidence(-ish): where to market, how to market, what to write about in my blog, which industry publications to read, which software tools to use, how to shape my client process, how to communicate with my clients.
I focus on working mothers in high-tech. You can probably see how that would naturally feed into those categories: I use social media mostly on Facebook (that’s where da moms are), I read publications like FastCompany and TechCrunch, I write about college planning and stock options, I allow for clients on every other Saturday and late into the evening 3 days a week, and I need to be willing to use almost every videoconferencing tool under the sun.
Likewise, when I started thinking about my financial planning philosophy, I realized it had already been shaping how I’ve built my business, my client process, and the advice I give to clients.
I gladly “give away” my expertise on financial planning whenever the opportunity arises, and I try to do so every week on my blog -- because there is no secret sauce.
I don’t fear it hurting my business at all. It is the rare someone who has the time, interest, and discipline to do it themselves; and if they, more power to them! Happily, I see this dynamic all over the fee-only profession.
I also start my engagement with clients by doing a comprehensive financial plan because I believe in the process, not a single deliverable.
But I pick only the two most urgent recommendations and encourage the clients to do them now. I schedule the remaining recommendations throughout the year.
My client service calendar shows clients that we’ll touch on every part of their financial life throughout the year, every year.
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And because I believe simplicity is worth paying for, I usually recommend that clients roll over an old 401(k) to an IRA even if the 401(k) is awesome, and I usually recommend they keep their cash in their stupid, practically-no-interest bank account instead of shuttling it all around the internet of banks to eek out an extra 1% interest or so.
I think we all are better served to pay an extra $20 in fees annually in an IRA or forego that $50 extra annual interest in order to have fewer accounts to remember, manage login credentials for, get tax returns from, and link to Mint.com.
For Your Clients’ and Prospects’ Sake
Clearly, the more intentional our practice of financial planning, the more our clients benefit. The better we convey why we do what we do, the more likely a client is to pick the planner who’s right for them.
It’s the same dynamic as with clearly stating your niche and your investment philosophy.
If I clearly state that I work with working mothers in tech, the college professor and her stay-at-home husband probably won’t want to work with me. If I clearly state that I passively investment in low-cost broadly diversified funds and rebalance to a static asset allocation every year, then people trying to beat the market won’t want to work with me.
And in either case, they shouldn’t.
I don’t expect many prospects to look at my financial planning philosophy and think, “Pish! She thinks accountability is essential! That’s ridiculous!”
But I wouldn’t be surprised if someone thought, “But I want to get some top secret service that my friends can’t possibly understand and therefore I am fancy!”
If someone leans in that direction, I don’t expect them to become my client. And that’s better for both of us.
Do you and your firm have a financial planning philosophy? Have you written it down? How has it helped (or might it help) you define your service and your value a bit more effectively and efficiently to your clients and prospects?
About the Author: Meg Bartelt is the President of Flow Financial Planning, LLC, a fee-only virtual firm that provides financial guidance and support to working mothers in high tech. Learn more on her website and on her blog