Financial Life Focus

How to clearly navigate your financial life

What Matters

When rounds of golf and fancy lunches aren't enough!

He couldn't have looked more non-committal. It was as if he has seen it all before - which, I discovered soon after, he had. Almost.

It was our first time meeting. He was in his late sixties and came to me via a recommendation from his CPA. He was pleasant enough but was so casual in his manner it made me wonder if he was taking our meeting seriously.

"How many brokers have you worked with over the last thirty years?" I asked.

"Seven," he announced firmly. "I just moved from one broker to another. Each and every broker promised to provide great investment opportunities and to keep me posted on my progress. Thirty years later, I've made a lot of mistakes and lost a lot of money."

I listened intently as he told me about his financial relationships with national brokerage houses, medium-size regional firms and small boutique offices. The lunches, golf outings at the country club, and fancy wood-laden offices portrayed trust, wealth and success but did nothing to bring him happiness or increases his net worth.

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"I just don't know what to do anymore. I don't really know what the difference is between what you do and those brokers, but my CPA recommended that I meet you."

I smiled. "How can I help?"

"I just don't know what to do. I feel dumb as hell, sitting here, telling you that I've worked with seven brokers. You must be thinking I am one stupid son of a bitch."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Mr. Jackson, I don't think you're stupid. But I would like a clearer picture of what worked in those relationships and what motivated you to change. Would you share that with me?"

"Sure. Why not," he shrugged. "The relationships all began pretty much the same. I'd get a phone call, listen to their offering, arrange for a lunch and then we'd meet. They'd talk about their successes and how they would construct my portfolio to grow. I'd tell them that it all sounded so good, but would have to think about it. Soon, I'd get an invitation to golf or some other dinner or talk. They were very attractive and that made me feel special."

"That sounds really nice. Tell me about the portfolios and how that worked out"

"You know, it was nice - at least, the golf and dinners were. As for the portfolios, I really can't tell you much. They bought and they sold. Sometimes I made a little money, sometimes I lost. Sometimes, I lost a lot."

I nodded; a picture was beginning to emerge. "What motivated your decision to change brokers?"

"Well, sometimes, it was because the losses began piling up and my accountant was berating me for their poor performance. Other times, I'd receive a call from another broker whose pitch was appealing and convincing and the cycle would begin again. To tell you the truth, even I wonder what the hell I was thinking."

I smiled.

"Everything I hear from people is that these firms offer top notch research and really know their business," he went on. "One of the brokers I used to work on with is a regular on one of those cable news business shows and another one has a weekly radio show." He paused. "I guess none of that stuff really matters."

"So what does matter?" I asked

"You mean with brokers or in general?"

"What matters to you in your life?"

Silence replaced conversation. It lasted a full three minutes. Finally he shook his head.

"To tell you the honest truth, since my wife died more than twenty five years ago, not much matters to me. We never had children and I inherited a decent amount of money from my parents. I don't have much in the way of close family. So, I hate to admit this, but there isn't much that really matters."

He didn't look sad about this, just resigned. I allowed his words to settle.

"Mr. Jackson, I don't know if the solution is in portfolio creation or operation. Either way, I believe the solution begins with discovery of what matters. As a financial life planner, I can ask all the pertinent questions. I can offer you strategies, suggestions or validation that your current portfolio is working. We work successfully with many clients; we create financial life plans that are attuned to their specific life dreams. I would very much like to help, but until you tell me what is important to you, I don't know if we can truly bring you value."

He looked surprised. I gave it another few moments before continuing.

"Take a couple of days and think about our conversation. We can get together again, if you wish to share your thoughts. It would be very easy for me to tell you that we can help, invest your assets for you and add you to our client roster. But I am afraid that this cycle will continue until you are able to consider and articulate what's truly important to you."

The non-committal look was gone. For the first time since entering my office, Mr. Jackson looked like he was actually present in more than just body. He left the meeting a bit more exposed than when he entered, and I hope my words encouraged him to look beyond numbers. One thing's for sure - he definitely got more from me than a free round of golf.

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

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