“Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”
Those words of early personal development sage, Dale Carnegie, spun around in my brain, and then it hit me: This is the reason financial planning stresses people out.
So much of financial planning is unknown, even unknowable. It has such a future orientation that it’s hard to feel settled with it in the present.
- My income is stable today, but who knows what the future holds?
- My investment portfolio went up today, but with these headlines, it has to go down soon.
- I can live with today’s tax rates, but I have no control over where they’ll be when I no longer have control of my income in retirement.
- What about health care costs? The viability of Social Security in 20 years?
- And now you want to talk about my death—life insurance and estate planning?—great!
- And what about the stuff that I don’t know that I don’t know!?
Ok, three deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
I get it.
I’ve been in this business for 26 years and felt the weight of anxiety from hundreds of financial advisors serving thousands of clients through (at least) three major financial crises and countless corrections.
Yet I find peace. And you can, too. Here’s how:
1) Always start in the present. From the simplest to the most complex financial planning, it all begins with building a household net worth statement and a cash flow statement. The former is a comprehensive snapshot of what you own and owe; the latter is a simple spreadsheet articulating your income from all sources and expenses, fixed and variable.
2) Next, reflect. Are you further than you expected you might be at this point in life, or do you feel behind? Upon what were those expectations based? Does your net worth statement exhibit financial wisdom to date? Does your cash flow statement put you in a strong position to improve tomorrow through financial discipline today? This step of reflection can be emotionally charged. While I encourage you to process those emotions, I invite you to emerge from this second step dispassionately, enabling you to objectively determine the next steps required to move you forward financially.
3) Now it’s time to analyze. We’ve established where you are with net worth and cash flow statements. Now it’s time to determine where you want to be in the future and what it will take to get there. You could well-frame your analysis by considering a) the income required to live comfortably today, b) the growth of your assets required to replicate your income in the future, c) the risk management required to protect your family, lifestyle and property, and d) the tools and strategies required to give to the people and causes that are important to you. And yes, this is where a financial planner can be very helpful, guiding you through the analysis and making the unknown known. Lest you think that’s a convenient bias of someone employed in the advisory business, I believe advisors should have their own advisors (and I do) because personal finance is more personal than it is finance.
4) Prioritize. One of the greatest challenges with financial planning is its expansive breadth. It’s one of the reasons a perpetual approach to financial planning succeeds where extensive, comprehensive financial plans fail—because hundred-page plans with scores of recommendations often erect an unintentional impediment to implementation through their heft. You will often accomplish more in your financial planning if you commit to achieving less. Consider no more than one major to-do per quarter, and only focus on one task at a time with an explicit next action. For example, “Call estate planning attorney to set meeting to update will.” And while every financial plan will be as unique as the people it represents if you lack help and direction in your prioritization, here is a default list of The Top 10 Places Your Next Dollar Should Go.
5) Habitualize. Financial planning is a process, not a product, so your financial house remains properly ordered through the creation of rhythms and rituals. . For example, consider conducting an annual, over-arching financial plan review (including updating your net worth statement), give your portfolio a quarterly glance, reconcile your cash flow statement monthly, and review your household spending weekly. If this sounds like tedium, remember that it is often the unknown in financial planning that causes the most stress; therefore, it is through the creation of good financial habits that you remain cognizant and retain control of your financial circumstances. It’s brushing and flossing for your finances.
6) Shorten your time horizons. The answer to the question, “Why don’t people do a better job saving for the future?” is “hyperbolic discounting.” While financial planning requires future forecasting, the further we imagine into the future, the less connected to that future we feel (and the less likely we are to optimally fund said future). Therefore, we can improve our planning through the shrinking of time horizons . Where do you hope to be in five years? And what do you need to accomplish over the next 12 months to help you get there?
7) Course correct and flex. Mistakes don’t break your plan. In fact, financial planning is an exercise in mistake management. Therefore, we will optimally navigate the inherent uncertainty of financial planning through our willingness to course correct and flex.
In all the above, one of the keys to reducing our stress in personal financial management is to discern the difference between those elements we can control (like our spending) and those we can’t (like the stock, bond, and housing markets)—and then apply our time and energy accordingly.