Lessons From the Cockpit: The Importance of a Financial Planning Checklist

by Benjamin Beck, CFP® Benjamin Beck, CFP® | April 30, 2024

In a recent advisor team meeting at Beck Bode, I drew a parallel between financial planning and my experience with pre-flight checklists for helicopters. I am a student helicopter pilot, and my dad was a decorated pilot who served in Vietnam, a story I have shared in several blogs here.

Imagine you are a helicopter pilot, or training to become one. Your instructor will teach you that before taking off, you meticulously go through a very, very long checklist, checking every gauge, every system, ensuring everything is in order. It's intense, but necessary. You would not want to fly the skies before making sure that you had reviewed everything carefully.

In contrast, compare that process with hopping into your car to take a trip down the road to pick up your kid from school, or to pick up some milk from the supermarket. You won’t be going through an extensive checklist, there’s no long process to follow. You get in the car, buckle up, and drive. Every time you get in the car, it’s that simple.

What kind of protocol did you go through when you got in the car? It’s easy, right? Because everything is more or less automated, and you have learned the things you need to do before you set the car into motion. And even if something did go wrong down the road, say something with the battery or the engine, probably the worst that's going to happen is you would have to pull over and call a tow service.

Are you flying with or without a plan?


The Dangers of Flying Without a Plan

Back to the helicopter, though; what if you decided to skip the pre-flight checklist just because everything's been smooth sailing so far? You might get away with not following the checklist, but at some point, that lack of oversight may come back to haunt you. What if you said, “I don't really need to go through the safety protocol. I’ve flown many times before, nothing really bad has happened, and if something happened, I would be able to adjust for it.” 

Confident that you would be able to manage on your own without going to the pre-flight checklist, you fly 10 times without it. You may even go up another 10 or 20 times. You may fly that helicopter every day for the rest of your life without going through the checklist and nothing bad happens … or maybe you're on the 67th time and suddenly the electrical system quits. Now you're in a free fall.

That’s pretty scary.


Why Skipping the Financial Checklist Could Crash Your Retirement

I compare that to how many folks — someone my own age or a little younger — probably approach financial planning. 

Say you’re in your 40s or 30s and you’re working. You’re making a good income; you’ve got all this stuff going on in your life, like kids and a house. Increasingly, as your cash flow strengthens, you go on vacations and you may consider additional goals. You’re contributing to your retirement account; you’re putting money away. Maybe you have someone who is advising you on your finances, but you yourself are not really, really paying attention. You don’t really have an idea as to how much you need to accumulate to facilitate a successful retirement, let alone stay comfortably retired.

How is that any different to flying the helicopter without the pre-flight checklist? If you continue that path, when is your 67th flight when the electrical system fails? And if that does happen, is it too late? What if at that point, the reality is you're not going to be in the position of financial independence that you thought you would be, and now you're in your 60s and you really don't have a lot of options.

That’s also pretty scary.


Navigating the Temptation of Short-Term Gains

But what if you did have a financial plan? What if you were flying and you indeed had a pre-flight checklist that you followed? But then one day, you doubted your pre-flight checklist, and you decided that maybe you should be looking at other gauges and levers, not necessarily the ones on the checklist?

In the financial planning analogy, you could have been doing just fine, sticking with your plan, and then one day you hear from your co-worker, or your boss, your neighbor, or your brother-in-law that the S&P is up X percent, and you look at your investments and you think, “Oh my gosh, I’m doing something wrong, maybe I should jump to a different fund, maybe I should move to a different strategy, or even change my advisor.” That, too, could potentially lead you down a path from which you may not recover easily.

We're so fixated on short-term gains, on outperforming benchmarks, that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Investing isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. It's about finding quality companies, sticking with them, having a solid sell strategy, and trusting the process.

I've seen it time and time again — people get caught up in comparisons, in benchmarks, in the fear of missing out. And it's understandable. We're bombarded with headlines touting the latest market highs, the hottest stocks, the biggest gains. But what we don't see are the years of patience, discipline, and yes, occasional setbacks, that go into building true wealth. It's not about chasing the next big thing; it's about staying the course, even when it's tempting to jump ship.


Stay Grounded to Your Financial Plan

So, here's my advice: have a plan, a strategy that you understand, that is time-tested and repeatable. 

Financial success is not about beating the market; it's about achieving it on your terms. If you ever find yourself doubting your approach, just think back to that pre-flight checklist. Are you sticking with it, or are you distracted by what’s going on around you? Because when it comes to navigating the skies — or the markets — discipline and focus is key.


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.


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