Financial Life Focus

How to clearly navigate your financial life

A Hard Left Turn from Paradise

Dealing with financial realities can be eye-opening and frightening.

I recently concluded two weeks off; two wonderful, sun-laden, relaxing weeks, all part of the prescription for a balanced life. Two weeks without snow, without ice, without driving on roads with banana peel traction, has been wonderful and rejuvenating. Two weeks without phone calls, meetings, emails and spreadsheets has allowed an inner peace to descend over me like a mojito on a 90-degree day. The weather has been spectacular, beaches pristine and drinks with multi-colored umbrellas plentiful. But alas, the "real world" rears its head on Monday morning. The unanswered emails and client meetings will resume at full force, but I will endeavor to bring the sunshine back with me to the colder climate of home. Time to get my attitude straight.

The way the waves roll in, and especially their foamy finish, reminds me of the constancy of life. Life is an endless flow - it just keeps coming, sometimes calm and peaceful, other times violently pounding us in whatever direction it chooses. All this is true - but it's not all about the currents of life. So much of our experience depends on our outlook and attitude: we either go with the flow or fight the currents and wind up being taught a lesson in respect. Our approach to life helps shape our outcomes for better or worse.

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"The Company I represent just cut my compensation by sixty percent. They didn't even have the courage to tell me face to face; they basically had a secretary tell me. I guess I will just retire."

So says one of my clients. In his words I understandably hear anger mixed with fear, sadness, confusion and regret. "I should have been creating relationships with other firms and told these people to get lost all along. But I guess I was too comfortable," he adds, shaking his head. The more he said, the angrier he became - mostly at himself. There was nothing to do but listen. After three or four minutes of unrestrained and unpublishable invectives, he put his head in his hands and studied the conference table surface.

"What would be helpful, right now, John? What are your options?"

John picked his head up slowly and looked up at some unknown point on the wall behind my head. "Well, I guess I could look to retire, but I don't think I can afford to buy the place in Florida that I really want and still keep our place up here." He looked over at his wife, Sharon, then threw out his arms. "Or I could try and find work, although I think that's a waste of time. My industry is decimated. I'm fifty-eight years old. I wouldn't even know who to talk to...."

I felt for him - who wouldn't? But it was time to turn the pity party around. "I hear you John. So, what would make you happy?"

"Happy? I feel like I've failed Sharon. After all these years of working and promising and planning, I can't even buy that place we saw in Palm Beach. I'd be the poorest one there and I'd be way too uncomfortable to try and keep up with them."

Sharon stared at John, her jaw agape. "John, I don't care about that place - you know that. If anything, you're the one who wanted that place."

"Yes, because I thought it would make you happy."

Sharon shook her head, "Do you think it would make me happy if you were miserable? I think you're reading into something that I never felt or said. Yes, I would like to be in Florida and yes, I would like a place up here, near our grandchild, but we don't have to stay in our home. We could rent an apartment or something; that would be fine for me. I just want you to be happy and content."

Instead of making him feel better, her words seem to upset him even more. He throws up his hands. "I just don't know what I want! I see obstacles everywhere. I don't have enough money and even if I did, I don't know what I'd want to do with it. Michael, what do you think?"

I considered his question and what answer would be most impactful.

"John, have you heard what Sharon said? She wants you to be happy and isn't demanding or asking for anything beyond your comfort. The fact is, you and Sharon have accumulated a good amount of funds. You have no debt and your expenses are within a very reasonable range. The question is, what is your next step. You have a lot of issues at play here, and a lot of hurt. This goes beyond my role as a financial advisor and honestly, I am concerned about any step you might take without first considering these larger issues. My advice is to work with a qualified therapist to help you address some of these questions that need to be answered before sound financial decisions can be made."

John was back to studying the tabletop. Slowly he lifted his head. "I hate to say this, but I think you're right. I am so miserable about so many things right now, trying to make a financial decision is irresponsible. I need to sort out some things first. Then we can see what's next. I can't afford to make any serious mistakes that I will regret later."

I smiled at John and Sharon, acknowledging the giant leap from rage and confusion to a logical next step. They needed to experience this transition with the help of someone qualified to guide them through their difficulties. So much of one's progress depends on their frame of mind and attitude; certainly, in the throes of anger and frustration it is nearly impossible to make sound and productive decisions.

Today, my first day back at work, I remember John. I remember our next meeting and how his improved attitude allowed us to take a giant step towards creating a plan that really would meet their needs and dreams. This memory is like sunshine on a snowy day and I already feel my own attitude shifting. It may be freezing outside; I may have skidded three times on the way to my car; there may be hundreds of emails and voicemails beeping for my attention; but I'm happy to be here all the same. Rejuvenated in both body and spirit, I'm ready to dig in and get things done!

 

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

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