life planning

Directing Positive Change

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We humans are not perfect, have you noticed? Many of us have aspects we would like to improve in order to make life better.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear illustrates three layers of behavior change. We may seek to change an outcome, or the process to get that outcome, or our identity. Let me explain.

The outcome is the obvious thing, what we want to end up with. I’m reminded of comedian Steve Martin’s advice on how to become a millionaire. “First, get a million dollars.” Lose weight, get a degree, or get in shape are other examples of outcomes.

The process or systems you use to get to a desired outcome are a better focus for our efforts to change. If your goal is financial independence, you might begin contributing to a retirement plan, start a Roth IRA, begin a monthly automatic deposit to a savings account, find ways to earn more money, or monitor your expenses more carefully.

It seems like a process orientation – how we get to our desired outcomes – is a better place to focus than on the outcomes. But there may be a more powerful layer to effect change.

A recent news story indicated that a large fraction of pre-retirees believe they will struggle financially in retirement. If part of one’s identity is they will end up broke, it may be difficult to make process improvements stick. “What’s the use, if I am going to end up broke anyway?”

If identity becomes “I am a person who will always be able to get along financially,” then doing the things that are necessary to make that true become easier, if not automatic. But can our identities be changed?

James Clear says that what we do affects what we believe about ourselves, our identity, just as our identity affects what we do. So taking those steps to improve our processes, combined with a thoughtful approach to what we want to become, may actually shape our identity over time.

Consider the difference between “I’m trying to quit smoking” and “I don’t smoke anymore.” The first version is from a person who still identifies as a smoker. The second version is from someone who believes that smoking is now a part of their past, not their present identity. You know which one is a more effective way to look at it.

Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Goldilocks the Burglar

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The story of Goldilocks might be a lesson in moderation, but it’s also a story of breaking and entering.

We prefer to find more reasonable and socially acceptable ways to get our needs met. We talk a lot about helping clients put words to their dreams, but dreams need not be lofty. Here are a few guidelines that have proven helpful.

“The right amount is best.” In her book Lagom, writer Niki Brantmark describes this Swedish principle of the same name. Not enough is not enough. Too much of a good thing can be a good thing, but often is not. The right amount is best.

Social comparison, or “keeping up with the Joneses” can corrode happiness or financial health, if we aren’t conscious of our emotions and purposeful about our responses and reactions. It helps to focus on our own needs, rather than what others have. (I’ve met the Jones, and they don’t care what you have anyway.)

When working on goals, it sometimes helps to define three outcomes: minimum acceptable levels, reasonable targets that feel within reach, and ‘stretch’ goals that require creative thinking and approaches to get to. This may help you be more aware of options and possibilities.

Clients, if you would like to talk about your goals or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

 

Financial Planning and Fortune Tellers

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We recently reviewed a financial planner’s article about strategies for claiming Social Security. They had software to do a complex analysis. The software required inputs of some raw facts: estimated Social Security benefits at different ages, household cash flow requirements, financial balances.

But the software required inputs, answers to questions about the future:

How much will investments earn in the future?

What will tax rates be in the future?

What will inflation be in the future?

How will household cash flow needs change in the future?

Many software planning tools even ask for the answer to the ultimate question: what will the date on your death certificate be?

The problem is we can’t know the future. So calculating that financial balances would be a tiny amount higher 30 years from now if one course is chosen versus another is probably about as reliable as consulting a fortune teller. Especially when it comes to trying to guess when your retirement will “end”!

But when it comes out of a computer, with charts and graphs and year-by-year tables of numbers, presented by a well-dressed person with initials after their name, it seems real.

At the dawn of the computer age, a phrase was used to describe the analytical version of “you reap what you sow”: “garbage in, garbage out” (or GIGO).1 We might do well to remember it.

Clients, if you would like to puzzle through any financial issue, we would be happy to use real life dialogue to sort out how the alternatives might work out. Email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

 

Your Life In Three Acts

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Life is a three-act play.

Act One is where you came from. What are you, what shaped you, how did you get here?

Act Two is the present. This is a part of the story you begin writing anew, each day when you wake up.

Act Three is the future. It includes your hopes, dreams and plans.

When we think about our collaboration with you, it begins when you tell us your Act One. This helps us understand you in your most fundamental characteristics.

As our collaboration with you goes along, you keep us informed about pertinent things that are going on in your life. This is Act Two, and it is mostly about you. Sometimes we pitch in. If you are living on your capital, we help arrange the details of how you finance Act Two. Or if your situation changes and adjustments need to be made in your plans and planning, you get us involved.

Act Three, the future, we work to help you script that part. Sometimes there is arithmetic to do, or investment plans to implement. The future is where your plans meet reality. We believe you can make the future you want more likely, by planning it.

It seems we are never done with any part. The longer we know you, the more we learn about your Act One. And Act Two, the present, continuously unfolds day by day. Act Three is ever-changing too, as tomorrow become today. The future shrinks, the past grows, while we live in the present.

The present is where we turn the future into the past. We love striving to help you make the most of it!

Clients, if you would like to talk about any of the parts of your life, please email us or call.

Peak Experience

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You know we are endlessly fascinated by the search for investment bargains, the interplay of human behavior and the markets, and economic cycles. We enjoy talking with you, and collaborating on your plans and planning. But the pinnacle of our work is in a whole different category.

Once, a life-long friend of a close client had not been able to solve the question, “Can I afford to retire?” Mrs. S had raised two children on her own after being widowed at a young age, and was working at a job that had become onerous as she approached retirement age. For two years she had pursued the answer, but could not find it.

She needed to gain the confidence that she could retire. The resources were there, through her lifetime of diligent saving. We were able to explain the meaning of her wealth, how it could help her work toward where she wanted to go, in terms she could understand.

A year and a half after that, she called to ask another question. Would it be possible for her to own a home, or was that a pipe dream? She had spent thirty years in a modest rental duplex. Some time later she began her home search.

These questions, and others like them, are the reason we are in business. Our real work is not about making money. It is about helping clients make decisions that could change their lives.

Mrs. S was never our largest client. She never paid us the highest fees. But the personal satisfaction we felt from our work was vast.

Many will never need that much help. They come to a comfortable understanding of the meaning of their wealth without our context and perspective. We are still very happy to play a role investing their resources, and answering those financial planning questions that do arise.

Clients, if you would like to talk about these things or anything else, please email us or call.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

 

Case Study: The Life of Mr. S, and Working to 92

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Long ago, I met a man in his late forties. He had just resigned one position and accepted another. Needing a place for a 401(k) rollover, he agreed to do business with me. Our methods and access to investments were quite limited then (I was still in my twenties!), but I did the best I could.

Through the years his life evolved and changed; like all of us, he had his share of joy and pain. His wife began to suffer a chronic illness. His industry consolidated which caused some moves from town to town. But his children all ended up in successful marriages and careers, and grandchildren came. I advised him on wealth management throughout, helping him manage challenges from family health expenses and other things.

At sixty-six he retired, fearing he had not saved enough. The size of the fruit crop he needed each year seemed too large for the orchard he had grown, so to speak. We devised a plan that gave him a chance for things to work, although without any guarantees.

Of course, through these years, our knowledge and experience and confidence and capabilities flourished. We grew together.

Mr. S is pushing eighty-one years old now; poor Mrs. S had her disease go from chronic to acute and she succumbed a short while back. Mr. S stays busy helping with grandchildren and keeping up his home.

His retirement finances have worked out well, although this is not evidence of anything to anyone else. Good fortune played a role, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and all that. But I still want to tell you what happened so far.

Over fifteen years, Mr. S has withdrawn more than he retired with—and he also still has a current account balance that is larger than when he started. He tells us it is like the endless coffee refills they have at the café.

I call Mr. S when I need a pick-me-up; his gratitude is boundless. This, friends, is why I want to work to age 92.

That gives us a little more than thirty years to help many more of you get to eighty with more confidence than you ever thought possible. If you are fifty or older now, we will do our best between now and then to earn your gratitude when you turn age eighty. Clients, if you would like to talk about this or anything else, please email or call us.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

This is a hypothetical example and is not representative of any specific investment. Your results may vary.

The Problem with Goals

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Scott Adams, creator of the wildly successful comic strip Dilbert, is a man of big ideas. Some of them are fantastic, some of them are questionable, a few of them may be literally insane. However, for all his eccentricity it’s hard to argue with results: over the past three decades Adams has managed to parlay his workplace doodles into a multi-million dollar franchise.

Among his many ideas, there’s one in particular that he credits his success to: he doesn’t believe in setting goals for himself. Instead, he believes in building systems to work towards what he wants. The idea is simple. Most peoples’ goals depend on factors outside their direct control, which leads to frustration. By focusing on what you’re doing to manage those goals, though, you can build a system or framework for trying to achieve what you want. This way, you’re only concerned about the things that you control yourself, rather than worrying about goals that are outside your immediate reach.

For example, suppose a freshly minted high school graduate wants to be a doctor. That goal will take an enormous amount of dedication and training, and no amount of passion or talent is going to replace that. At any given moment, they’re an entire decade away from reaching their goal—it will take them five years of school before they even reach a point with any kind of real hands-on training. When faced with such a distant goal it’s easy to despair of ever reaching it. But while they can’t just up and be a doctor, they can always work on their system for trying to become a doctor. By focusing on their immediate day to day studies instead of their long-term goal, every day is a success. They simply use their system.

We think this makes great life advice in general, but it’s particularly important when it comes to investing. Our goal is to grow our portfolio over time, but what the market does day to day is entirely beyond our control: we can’t force our portfolio to go up. What we can always do, though, is work our system. In our case, this means practicing our three core principles: avoid stampedes in the market, look for the biggest bargains we can find, and own the orchard for the fruit crop. We can’t push a button and make your portfolio grow. But we can practice our investing discipline every day, even when the markets don’t cooperate.