From the June 2007 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Turn, Turn, Turn

Getting comfortable helping clients weather the changes in their lives

June is traditionally a time of transitions. For kids, it marks the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. For adults it's often the end of singlehood and the beginning of marriage. For those not contemplating nuptials, it can be the end of nose-to-the-grindstone and the beginning of let's-leave-early-and-play-golf.

It's time to consider other beginnings and endings too. Even when these changes are good, coping with them can be daunting for you and your clients. Here are some examples to help guide you in easing your clients' transition to new ways of life.

Q: I'm feeling bereft. After years of a successful partnership, my partner has received an inheritance and decided to retire early. I wish him the best, although his imminent departure leaves me envious and depressed. I don't want to go on my own, but the prospect of trying to find someone else this simpatico just overwhelms me. How can I get over this?

A: It's perfectly normal to feel sad when a close partnership breaks up, no matter the reason. Don't try to force yourself to "get over it." Instead, take the time to make a full emotional inventory of your experience in working with your partner.

As soon as you feel able, sit down and write out everything you valued about the partnership and your partner's character and personality. Try to sum up all the highs and lows, the strengths and weaknesses of your working relationship. Describe the kind of relationship you hope you'll have in the future (if you want one).

When you feel satisfied with what you have written (or spoken into a recorder, if you prefer), get together with your partner and share these thoughts and feelings about his decision to retire. You might have a ritual of closure that honors what the two of you created together.

If you make the time and space to do this emotional "homework" and communicate it fully to your departing partner, you'll eventually find it easier to envision someone new taking over at least part of your ex's important role.

Q: With the wedding a couple of months away, my client's fianc?(C)e is balking at the prenuptial agreement he insists on. The contract is basically intended to protect assets he wants to leave to the children of his two earlier marriages. She has an excellent job and is reasonably well-off, but feels a prenup is a barrier to entering the marriage in good faith. My client isn't sure how to proceed. Any suggestions?

A: Unfortunately, asking a future spouse for a prenup is like ordering a veal cutlet at a PETA convention. You're automatically a bad guy.

As this couple's advisor, you can help by making sure they see that both parties' needs and feelings are normal and understandable. Because they're deadlocked, I would suggest that your next step should be encouraging them to seek a counselor, therapist, or coach with experience in this area.

The fianc?(C)e needs to hear that your client's request for a prenup is not a reflection of his feelings about her. Instead, it has everything to do with how burned he may have felt after his last marriage came apart, and how badly he wants to preserve his estate for his children.

More than one male client in this situation has told me that his only reason for remarrying was that he loved "this woman" with his whole heart; and since she wanted to get married, it became vital for him to ensure that his kids from an earlier marriage would be taken care of. Once a fianc?(C)e gets through feeling hurt and abandoned, she is usually able to accept her loved one's need to be a good dad in this way.

I've also noticed that men in intimate relationships are likely to merge slowly over time, rather than all at once. I wager that the longer this marriage lasts, the more open your client will become to sharing assets with his wife.

Once the father's need to give to his kids is heard and honored, a therapist or counselor can help him start thinking about an arrangement that will work for him as well as his soon-to-be-wife. Then they can come back to you (with good legal support) to work out the details.

Q: After proudly watching their youngest daughter graduate from junior college, my clients have asked me to help her stand on her own two feet. Her only plan right now is to work part-time at a garden center, live at home, and hang out with her boyfriend. She's carrying several thousand dollars' worth of credit-card debt, and her parents want me to coach her about living within her means and paying off what she owes. Do you think this has any hope of success?

A: First, I think it would be a good idea for the parents to sit down with their daughter and discuss how she feels about having incurred so much debt. They can express their concern about her ability to pay it off with only a part-time job and no savings.

If she seems vague about how she's going to dig herself out of this hole, you might step in to show her how to set up her financial life more wisely. But to be honest, Mom and Dad have a lot more clout with this young woman than you do. Until she becomes more savvy about money, they might ask her to get together with them once a week to review her finances. If her spending habits are out of control, they can even make frequent attendance at Debtors Anonymous meetings a condition of living at home with them.

It's crucial, of course, that they also communicate their love for her and their respect for what she's done right so far. If they never taught her good money management skills, they share some of the blame for her irresponsibility. Sadly, colleges are full of financially naive kids who are cruised by credit card companies on the first day of college, rack up piles of debt, and then quit school to pay it off or carry this burden with them after graduation.

If worse comes to worst and your clients' daughter is unwilling to help herself by getting full-time work or returning to school, they can put a time limit on her stay at home. (Not all parents are capable of doing this, but it's a good option for some.) Whatever rules they set, they need to be prepared to stick to their guns in order to help their daughter become more responsible. They're better able to provide tough love and compassion than you are.

Q: A couple I've worked with for years are headed for an acrimonious divorce. As a parent myself, I'm concerned about how their bitterness is affecting their preteen children. While I'm working with the couple on a division of their finances, is there a way to offer advice without feeling like I'm stepping over the line? I hope they'll both remain clients after the divorce.

A: Divorce is hard enough on kids as it is. When spouses use their children as pawns to get back at each other, it's a case of blind narcissism and selfishness triggered by the parents' regressed, wounded state. If divorcing couples would step back and choose therapy, then mediation, and finally a non-adversarial legal process, the fruits of their farsighted co-parenting can benefit their children for a lifetime.

For example, my ex and I separated when our son was 18 months old. For our child's sake and the sake of our old friendship, we went through therapy and worked with a divorce mediator. The process was so successful that when we told the judge we wanted joint custody (at a time when it was not that common), he complimented us on innovating a "good divorce." Our son, now 26, still benefits from my close co-parenting relationship with his father.

Try to collect stories like these so you can persuade hostile spouses of the value of a similarly sane divorce. By learning how to divorce well, they can avoid handicapping their children with their own negative emotions. The more successfully you can educate these clients, the easier it will be for them to come back to their rational adult thriving mode.

I wish we could lobby the legal system to make divorce counseling mandatory. In its absence, we need to encourage clients to find non-adversarial solutions that they can live with over the long term. That doesn't mean avoiding all conflict or giving away the store. It involves taking care of yourself and your needs, while putting your children's well-being above your own desire for justice and revenge.

Q: I'm looking for practical advice to help newlyweds set up their finances. Clients of mine tell me that their soon-to-be-married daughter and her fianc?(C) can't decide whether to combine paychecks or have separate accounts. Saving is a priority for them both, so they want an arrangement that will help them get off on the right foot. The parents are concerned about preventing money quarrels that damage so many marriages. What works best?

A: If only every couple were astute enough to discuss this before the wedding! I believe there are four things that marriage-minded people should do:

First, open up to each other about that old taboo--money. Lovingly and respectfully, they should inform each other of their history with money, any financial secrets or blind spots, and their present financial situation (what they own and what they owe).

Second, each one should generate a list of goals for the short, medium, and long term. It's best to go through this process several times to see which goals keep coming up. They should compare what they've written and try to develop a list of shared goals, especially for the long run.

Third, they need to agree on joint expenses that they will share, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, and savings. Once they come up with a monthly "nut" they feel comfortable with, I recommend that they fund it by kicking into a joint account in proportion to their income.

The rest of their money should be kept separate. I believe that for women, separate money is a positive symbol of a healthy self from which to merge and connect. For practical reasons, wives also need to have a credit-card account in their own name, not just a courtesy card on their husband's account.

Finally, regular money talks are important. Couples should be advised to use the rules of respectful, empathetic listening and communication: beginning and ending with an appreciative remark about your partner, no attacks, no interrupting, and using "I" messages ("I feel bad when...") instead of the more aggressive and accusatory "you."

As a wedding present, you might offer the couple a consultation that could help steer them in the right direction for the future. Now is the time for them to fill in any gaps in their financial education, and start taking advantage of the power of compounding to move toward their goals.

When clients are struggling to cope with a new season in their life, take time to listen to them empathetically. Let them honor the power of the event, and monitor their stress reactions as you help them move from mourning, fear, hurt, disorientation, or longing to a more rational and healthy adult thriving state of mind. Once they know they can trust you to guide them on this journey, they'll keep coming back to you whenever a new beginning or ending looms in their life.


Olivia Mellan is a speaker, coach, and business consultant, and is the the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at www.investmentadvisor.com. She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors, therapists, and coaches. E-mail Olivia at moneyharmony@cs.com.

Reprints Discuss this story
This is where the comments go.