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Is financial planning an ‘impossible task’?

A reader who is a divorced mother of two is retiring soon and feeling confused about where to turn for help.

For the past few years, “Sue” has thought about finding a financial adviser to coordinate with her accountant, but she was uncertain about her estate plan. She had a will and a revocable trust, but were the assets properly titled? In addition, she faced a decision about moving: Should she stay in Connecticut or move elsewhere?

While Sue has substantial assets and a good career, she is aware that she lacks knowledge of basic financial and investment principles, especially when it comes to retirement planning.

As an example, Sue told me that she was not aware that she could use her IRA to make charitable contributions (“qualified charitable distributions” for people over 70-1/2). “If I hadn’t read about it in your book, who would have been the person who would have told me that this is possible?” asked Sue.

Indeed, for things financial, there is a lot to know. The trap everyone faces is “not knowing what you don’t know.” If Sue is like 50 percent of the divorced women surveyed in a 2017 Allianz Study, she may find that “financial planning seems an impossible task.”

I don’t believe that gender determines financial decision-making ability, but experience does. Sue’s questions indicate a desire to plan. What she lacks is knowing how to go about the process in a practical way.

There is another element. According to “Not My Type: Why Affective Decision Makers Are Reluctant to Make Financial Decisions” by Jane Jeongin Park and Aner Sela, a paper published in December in the Journal of Consumer Research (doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucx122), there are reasons people are uncomfortable with financial decisions:

“(P)eople perceive financial decisions — more so than decisions in many other equally complex and important domains — as compatible with a cold, analytical mode of thinking and as highly incompatible with feelings and emotions. Consequently, the more people perceive themselves as inclined to rely on affect in their decisions, the more they experience self-concept incongruity with financial decisions (i.e., feeling that financial decisions are ‘not them’), and consequently show an increased tendency to avoid such decisions.”

Since Sue is faced with retirement decisions now, she is poised to start. However, what she wants (finding an appropriate adviser) is NOT the starting point. Instead, Sue needs to begin by assessing her own knowledge, skills, interests and goals before hiring someone.

First, she should explore her strengths and weaknesses. While Sue is an educated businesswoman, she is not ready to go boldly forward without assistance. Sue wants help in developing a plan and to coordinate financial, tax and estate considerations. Homework is involved.

Second, Sue needs to make a list of questions that she needs answered (for example, “Should I move?”). Then she would make a list of desired outcomes (live in wine country in California). Finally, she needs to consider the consequences of delaying planning (no change of residence) and of making bad decisions (moving without realizing she can’t afford to stay there).

Third, she must assess her vulnerability. There are certain times in life in which decisions are more momentous than others. Divorce, the incapacity or death of a spouse, selling a business and retiring are examples. In Sue’s case, she wants answers from advisers, but will she be able to distinguish good advice from bad advice?

Also, she must understand if she is likely to trust too early in the relationship with advisers. She should withhold trust until it is earned.

Fourth, in more complex personal situations, such as those involving real estate investments, pension plans, 401(k) accounts, stock bonus and option plans and other benefits, Sue will want a team of investment, tax and estate planning experts. One adviser will not be enough. Someone will need to lead the team. That will either be Sue or a member of her team.

Is financial planning impossible? Hardly, but everyone who hasn’t done it before will need some guidance. Knowing yourself comes first. Finding experts to work with comes second.


Julie Jason is a personal money manager at Jackson, Grant of Stamford, Conn., and an awardwinning author. Contact her at readers@juliejason.com.


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