How Life Planning Can Transform Your Finances

Senior man meditating by lake

Transform Your Finances with Life Planning

What exactly is “life planning” and what does it have to do with our money? In our personal lives, we see doctors who are specialists for our eyes, hearts, lungs, head, feet, and teeth. But we see a general physician to make sure these specialists aren’t ignoring the whole by only focusing on one part of the body. 

The same is true for our finances. 

We see specialists for insurance, investment, taxes, real estate, but who’s looking at our entire financial life? Who’s helping us objectively decide if and how we should own real estate, if and how we should transition from the work world to retirement or something else? Who helps us find meaning and purpose for all the money we earn and save? Who makes sure our giving transmits our values today as well as to our heirs tomorrow?

When I became a financial advisor in 1988, every advisor I met was focused on investing and following the herd. 

Why? Because investing was (and remains) a very lucrative path. 

But what about all the other areas that go into a healthy financial life? The effort and care that goes into financial planning – paying for college or retirement, prioritizing taxes, fine-tuning cash flow, creating a philanthropy strategy, or helping someone buy a home – are far more time consuming and may not earn the financial advisor as much money. 

This is why many commission-based financial advisors may be biased towards their clients selling a business or obtaining a mortgage – the average advisor wants more cash for investing because that’s where the advisor earns the most fees.

To contrast, Abacus is a “fee-only” firm, meaning the only fees we collect are directly from the clients we serve. Refusing all kickbacks and sales commissions means that we can focus 100% on our fiduciary responsibility of serving our clients’ best interests.

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The Fire That Changed Everything

In 1989, a year after starting my career as an advisor, a fire alarm went off in the middle of the workday and my office on Independence Square in Philadelphia was evacuated. Along with 1,500 others, I waited for fire officials to let us back inside. But the fire was significant and as the city’s firefighters poured more than 12 million gallons of water onto the blaze, we went home and let them do their job. 

I awoke the next morning and panicked. All my files were at risk. My whole life was on the line if I didn’t get into that building and save everything. As the fire was being extinguished, somehow I convinced the fire marshal to let me enter the building. I waded to my office, up to my knees in water. It was dumb and dangerous, but I was oblivious to the threats around me as I reached my desk and grasped my livelihood in my hands. 

My computer was worthless and all my files were illegible from water damage. Later that day, as I was fruitlessly drying out papers, a deep realization hit me: I was afraid. I was afraid that I had lost something more valuable than my life. 

Transforming Old Beliefs Through Mindfulness

Should any computer or amount of money be more important than health or life? This was the moment I realized the belief I inherited from my father – that money is more important than anything – had been overriding my common sense.

I saw some research suggesting that mindfulness was a tool being used to transform harmful beliefs causing suffering. So, I signed up for a meditation course. Meditating was new to me and it was challenging to sit still and quiet my mind, but I could feel the benefits almost immediately. I kept at it and after months of dedicated practice, my core belief that money was the most important thing, finally started to loosen. 

From there, my world began to open and I started seeing things very differently. One thing I noticed was the unhealthy money beliefs in my clients, and I sensed that rather than me fueling this obsession with money, perhaps the most powerful thing I could do for them was to help them see another way. This finally led me to George Kinder.

Life Planning with George Kinder

George Kinder is a financial advisor who retired from advising to become a full-time teacher for other financial advisors. He is known as the father of Life Planning.

Life Planning means caring for the overall well-being of a client, not just maximizing the returns on a client’s portfolio. It includes having conversations about what values you wish to pass on to your heirs, what beliefs are in the way of more success and joy, and what we really want to accomplish with our money. For advisors, it’s about learning how to listen to the subtext of what clients say so their money represents their unique values and aspirations. 

When I heard about a life planning program in Maui led by George Kinder, I immediately signed up. At the retreat, I met many like-minded advisors, one of whom became my close friend and future business partner, Brent Kessel. 

Brent was also investigating money beliefs and what leads us to be more philanthropic while investing with our values. He had immersed himself in meditation as a way to help himself and his clients resolve the suffering we all experience with money. It was no accident we had a mutual interest in George Kinder!

Brent and I (and our families) became fast friends. After a year of friendship, we said to each other: I want a true colleague, I want a partner as a sounding board, and I want to work with someone I enjoy. When we brought the idea to a merger and acquisition consultant, he said, “It doesn’t make economic sense to merge a Los Angeles firm with a San Francisco one. It’s not efficient.” And we said, “What if maximizing profits isn’t our only goal? What if we’re motivated to work more creatively and longer with each other as a partner?” Basically, we did Life Planning on ourselves!

How Buddhism and Financial Life Planning are Connected

Buddhism, like life planning, is very much about seeing the whole. The practice of Mindfulness allows one’s self to be guided by intentions that create spaciousness, lessen suffering, and make the world a better place. When Brent and I were combining our firms and creating the blueprint for Abacus Wealth Partners, we decided to focus on four core, aspirational values:

1. Listen Deeply and Speak with Care

This value is naturally aligned with life planning and Buddhist practices. In meditation, for example, you gain an acute awareness of your sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This provides insight, like the realization that my life and health are infinitely more valuable than my money. As financial advisors, we aim to listen without bias. Buddhism calls this ‘listening with a beginner’s mind,’ a mind that can hear a client without the clutter of judgments. When we speak, we do so in words that make sense to the client, making sure we affirm their values and preferences regardless of how they differ from our own.

2. Serve Others

Buddhism and life planning aim to put the needs of others, our clients, our team, and our community above our individual desires. We know from studies on happiness that focusing on the wellness of others actually does more for us than focusing on ourselves. The cultivation of generosity benefits everyone.

3. Bring Genius

We want our clients and employees to do things that channel their highest skills. When we spend our time on our best skills, we work more effectively. This value is also about bringing our best selves to each meeting and leaving our fears and insecurities at home. As a life planner, our job is to bring out the most joyful and purposeful life for each client.

4. Enjoy

Joy is often missing from the financial world and its relationships, but it’s essential to sustaining a financial advisor’s career and it’s what our advisors strive to bring to our clients. A life planner and a Buddhist practitioner help others find their true purpose and enjoy their lives as much as possible. Joy is a precursor to intelligence, generosity, kindness, and many other beneficial qualities.

I believe a key attribute that supports us in cultivating these four values is humility (another Buddhist quality). The average financial advisor is often trained to know-it-all, whereas the life planner trusts the client to have the answers to their complex life decisions. It’s our job to help guide them to their own answers, while being a trusted sounding board for them. This is a skill that takes time to develop, but mostly it requires patience, trust, and an open heart.

Life Planning in Practice

A traditional financial advisor might spend 90% of the meeting time using confusing financial jargon, obsessing over investment returns, and highlighting their forecast of the coming 12 months. Yes, investing is one of the most important things we do, but for a life planner it’s not the only thing. 

Contrast that with a life-planning advisor who is likely to spend 90% of the meeting asking their clients questions about their goals and values, listening to their responses, and crafting a holistic plan that supports their dreams and leaves them feeling seen, heard, and empowered.

In the end, it’s about your relationship with your advisor. This is someone who you should trust and also enjoy working with. Life planning is a wonderful solution for those looking to deepen their relationship with money and grow out of old and harmful money beliefs into a place of ease and possibility. 

If you’re interested in expanding what’s possible with money, schedule a free, 15-minute call today.


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