The Human Side of Financial Planning: George Kinder Talks About Dick Wagner

As a follow-up to my last blog, “Dick Wagner and the Need to Understand Clients’ Attitudes About Money,” and a prequel to my upcoming column in the May issue of Investment Advisor (both of which are based on my conversations with prominent financial planners about the impact that the late Richard “Dick” Wagner had on the profession and their careers), I was finally able to catch up with George Kinder.

Those of you who know him will also know that’s no easy feat: As the founder and driving force of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning, George divides his time between Massachusetts, Hawaii, the U.K. and traveling around the world. When George slowed down long enough to have a telephone conversation, he was in Spain conducting a mindfulness retreat. In his spare time, George wrote “The Seven Stages of Money Maturity,” “Lighting the Torch: The Kinder Method of Life Planning” and “Life Planning for You”: All three books are considered classics in the field.  

In case you’re new to the industry, life planning is about using sound financial planning to help people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. As the Kinder Institute website puts it: “Life planning connects the dots between our financial realities and the lives we long to live.” At present, there are some 2,500 trained life planners in 30 countries.

“I don’t think that life planning as we or I know it would exist if it weren’t for Dick,” George told me. “Coaching and psychology would have brought something to financial planning, [but] nothing like there is now. His passion for creating a profession, as spelled out in his famous Journal of Financial Planning article, ‘To Think Like a CFP,’ influenced people not only all over the country, but all over the world. What’s more, Dick played the political game in ways I never did. Without that presence on committees and at the top of organizations, the word wouldn’t have gotten out.”

Wagner had served as president and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the old International Association for Financial Planning, was a national committee member and president of the old Institute of Certified Financial Planners, and served on countless other committees at both organizations and their successor, the Financial Planning Association.

“Back in 1993, someone had talked me into going to huge conference in Washington, D.C.,” George continued. “I was shy at conferences, and Dick was the chair of the ICFP at the time — and always surrounded by people. But I saw him separate from the group, and with anxiety, I introduced myself. I mentioned how much I liked Jacob Needleman’s work on the philosophy of spirit and money. And Dick said: ‘That’s the book I’d wish I’d written.’ We really bonded there. He saw that I had a lot of ideas about the human side of financial planning and that I wanted to make it the most important part.

“Then he said he was organizing the speakers at the upcoming ICFP retreat in San Diego, and asked me to give a presentation on what [he] called ‘Money and Human.’ I didn’t even know what a retreat was, and I didn’t really like talking to larger groups. And it was such an awkward title, so I almost passed. But then I just blurted out that I’d do it if he would do it with me.”

In those days, ICFP retreats were organized with each presentation given three times over three days so that attendees could see all the presentations they wanted to see. I was at that retreat, and I remember that their first presentation was pretty sparsely attended: maybe half the room was filled. But the planners who were there created such a buzz about the George and Dick show that the second day the room was almost full. On the third day, it was standing room only with people listening from out in the hallway.

“We just clicked together,” George said. “We felt like Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines in [the movie] Casablanca [in which Bogey famously delivers the last line; “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”] We were a ‘marriage’ made in heaven and were very close for the next 13 years. We took road trips together, listening to rock and roll, and talking about all kinds of things. He could be challenging, and even [brusque] at times, but he was also big hearted and kind. He loved communities and bringing people from different worlds together. He brought me into the ICFP and the IAFP, and together, we created the Nazrudin Project [a group that continues to explore the ‘human’ side of money]. I realized that Dick had mastered the politics of financial planning, so he could advance the idea of the human side in ways I never could.

“He was the spark who said financial planning is all about the clients: Not the money, not estate planning etc.,” George said. “Today, the profession cares about people in a way that it didn’t in the beginning. And, his legacy includes all of my legacy: It’s everything in the communities I travel in. ‘Seven Stages’ would not have been written, and the Kinder Institute wouldn’t exist [without him]. I owe everything to Dick.” 

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