Many of us financial advisors remember what drove us to enter our line of work.
Some of us are very conscious of what impacted us earlier in life that eventually led us down this road. Others may need to think about it a bit more. Having given a good amount of thought to this question, I do remember a specific moment in my life that has —however consciously or unconsciously — affected my path.
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What comes to me with clarity is a memory of when I was about six or seven years old. I was walking into the kitchen in the house in Maine in which I grew up, heading to the fridge to get something to eat. As I stepped through the doorway, I noticed my parents seated at the kitchen table with a man. This man was Bob, their account representative from MetLife, as I would later find out.
Bob’s back was to me. As he sat across from my mom and dad, I could see their faces. I wasn’t really listening to what Bob was saying, I remember it more like the sound of a trombone or trumpet, like Charlie Brown’s teacher speaking in the classroom (if you remember Charlie Brown). It wasn’t a real voice, just the low sound of someone going on and on about something. Bob from Metlife’s voice was a monotone sound that I could not understand at six or seven years old.
What I do remember, though, as I was rummaging through the fridge and moving around the kitchen getting my snack, was the look on my parents’ faces. I didn’t know what it was then, though I realized it much, much later. I saw that same look, many years later after I got into the financial business, on the faces of some of the people seeking financial advice. On my parents’ faces, the look wasn’t angry or sad or anything like that, it was more a glazed-over look in their eyes. Tired, I would say today if I had to find a word to describe it.
And that has stuck with me.
It’s a memory that is present with me in every meeting that I have with clients today. While I have no way of knowing what my folks were feeling, I can imagine what it may have been. It was a look of helplessness, or better said, one of confusion. They were nodding along, and even though the look on their faces signaled confusion, they weren’t stopping Bob to let him know when they didn’t understand something — probably everything — that he was saying. There was no back and forth in the conversation. There was no conversation. There was Bob talking, and my parents just listening, with this vacant look on their faces.
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When I say I bring this memory with me into every meeting, I don’t mean to say that our clients are helpless — of course not. We work with a lot of people and every person that I've ever met in my life is certainly capable. But what I came to learn about my parents’ situation when I got into the business 20 years after that incident in the kitchen, when I saw their account statements and they asked me to be their financial advisor, was that Bob had put them into variable annuities. They were both schoolteachers and it’s not like they had a ton of money, but it was all in variable annuities. And those variable annuities contained over 50% fixed income instruments, like bonds.
Remember, this was early in my career and my parents were maybe in their late 50s at the time. Twenty years ago, when I was first starting out, it didn’t strike me as unusual that they were heavily invested in fixed income. Or that their investments were wrapped into a variable annuity, an instrument that is designed to provide a guaranteed stream of income for the rest of your life (regardless of what the market does). Never mind that they had easily 20-30 years of life expectancy, and they were being shielded from the opportunity to grow their nest egg in retirement.
My parents aren't helpless people, but when it comes to finance and when it comes to their ability to make a financial decision in their best interest, I’d say that they didn’t understand what they were doing. In this context, I’d call them helpless.
So that is a thought that’s present for me at various levels every time I’m in a client meeting. I know I am not meeting with a helpless person, but I do know that I am meeting with an emotional person. My parents trusted Bob because they were concerned for their future, they wanted to do the right thing, and they certainly didn’t want to lose any money. Bob, presumably, steered them into something “safe” and directed them to a variable annuity. He didn’t confront them with the fact that they still easily had 30-plus years to live. Three decades for their money to grow. He just felt their concern and appeased their need for something supposedly “safe.”
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While this is a story about my parents, it could be a story about you, or your parents, or your friends.
What’s evident to me as a financial advisor is that the greatest value we bring is not in managing an investment portfolio, it’s not in creating a financial plan, it’s not in all the continued education we pursue, or the letters after our name. No, the biggest value we bring is our willingness, our discipline, and our ability to in fact save our clients from making horrendous financial mistakes. Mistakes like choosing the “safety” of fixed income instruments overexposure to equities even when we have decades left to live, mistakes like going to cash during expected and temporary market declines.
The biggest value we bring as financial advisors is in continuously being a presence in our clients' lives, understanding their goals, and bringing those goals step by step, year by year, closer to reality. We do all this by supporting our clients in managing their emotions around money.
As a financial advisor today, I put myself back in that kitchen almost 40 years ago, when I was six. I hear my parents saying, “We certainly want to build for retirement, but we don’t want to lose any money … we don’t want to take too much of a risk ….” What I know for sure is that my response to that concern is considerably different from what Bob said and did for them.
Ben Beck, CFP® is Managing Partner & Chief Investment Officer at Beck Bode, a deliberately different wealth management firm with a unique view on investing, business and life.