Financial Life Focus

How to clearly navigate your financial life

The Magical Power of Biscotti

Does a cookie have the power to change families?

Sitting before me is a couple in their late 50's. They were referred by a friend who told me that they had some financial troubles and could really use a professional's ear. What I didn't realize was that they needed the eye, nose and throat too. They are in a financial mess. Their work situation is unstable and they have amassed a large amount of consumer debt. They are both working part-time-he in a job he dislikes intensely, she, as a contract worker in an industry that needs her when it needs her, which is not nearly as often as she had hoped. To put it bluntly, their situation is dire; too much debt, not enough income.

Their mood today reflects the dire state of their finances. In front of her leans a tall stack of papers enumerating each and every aspect of their financial woes. She is looking at all the numbers. He is looking at nothing. The only way I can describe his expression is: defeated.

I start the meeting the way I do each new encounter, by asking: "How can I help?" My job now is to sit back and listen. What I hear is a long and self-blaming tale of defeat and about how he single-handedly failed his wife and now grown children. He places all the responsibility for their hardship on his own head. If there was a club nearby, undoubtedly, he would have bludgeoned himself senseless. The pain and self-loathing is palpable. Anecdote after anecdote, paper after paper from his wife's stack, all validate his personal claim of infamy.

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After a solid ten minutes of listening, I interrupt his self-flagellation and ask him to pass me a plastic-wrapped biscotti from the canister in the middle of the conference room table. My request baffles him, but he hesitantly complies. I take the biscotti from him, lean forward and use the biscotti to tap him on each shoulder. Looking him in the eyes I say, "I absolve you of all your sins."

Confused, he glances over to his wife and then at me. I smile at them both, "Now that you have been absolved, are you ready to change your view from dwelling on the past to thinking about the future and possible solutions?"

Finally, they both smile.

For some people, especially those who realize that they have destructive financial habits and are laboring under debt, the weight of this realization can become a very real and physical burden. I have watched people walk into my office literally loaded down with debt, like Marley's ghost in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", dragging his heavy chains with him, wherever he goes.

While it is vital to face up to their financial reality, it is not necessary, helpful or healthy to do so while carrying around the guilt and overwhelm associated with that burden. This emotional overload can blind people to the fact that there is always a solution. It can debilitate our ability to find clarity and move to a better place. In the case of my new clients, they were so wrapped up in the idea of their failure and helplessness that there was simply no direction to move forward. They were frozen in place by their enduring pattern of self-defeating behavior. In order to get to work, their guilt and self-blame needed to be left at the door.

"Absolved? I am absolved?" he asks with a faint trace of hope in his voice.

"Yes, my son, absolved! Now, can we talk about your options and opportunities?"

For the first time since they walked into my office, they audibly exhale. It even evokes a tiny wry chuckle. I can see that my little joke has helped them realize how caught up they've been in the vortex of past mistakes and problems. It is now time to focus on solutions and a future that was debt-free and filled with choices. By the end of our meeting, we have mapped out some strategies, isolated some questions that required research and prepared a plan to end the madness.

We hug each other as they leave the meeting. They step outside knowing they have already taken the first step toward a new and much improved financial life. Ahhhhh, the magic of biscotti!

 

Michael F. Kay, a Certified Financial Planner, practitioner and a CPA, is president of the firm Financial Life Focus.

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