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Life Health > Life Insurance

Involuntary Simplicity

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This may have been a mild reces-sion, but try to tell that to the father of three who’s been cut back to part-time, or the working woman who’s been laid off for the first time in her life. All their best-laid plans look pretty shaky. And even though they’ve been told there’s “nothing personal” in this corporate belt-tightening, feelings of fear, anxiety, and failure may still haunt them.

When this happens to your clients, here are some ways you can help them cope, and maybe even find a silver lining in their forced simplicity.

My client’s husband was laid off a few months ago, and she’s been trying to support him by economizing until he finds a new job. However, her wealthy mother insists on giving her money so their two teenage daughters won’t be “deprived.” Although these gifts are galling to her husband, my client enjoys being able to afford a better lifestyle with her mother’s help. She has asked me whether she should tell her mom to cool it. Help! Spend some time listening to your client about her conflicted reactions to her husband’s layoff. Is she sad for him, angry with him, worried about the kids? Maybe she’s feeling financially deprived herself.

After you explore her feelings, ask her about her husband. Does he feel depressed? Angry? Humiliated? Many men (and, increasingly, women) feel their self-worth is directly tied to the money they make and the work they do. Even if he knows rationally that the layoff was not his fault, he may still be fighting irrational feelings of failure.

As the next step, urge your client to find a time when she and her husband are both relatively unstressed and can sit down together to ex-plore their feelings and options. They need to balance several opposing needs: the husband’s need to not feel shamed by or dependent on his mother-in-law’s financial gifts; the wife’s need to not feel that she and the children are being unduly deprived.

In a compassionate discussion, the couple may be able to reach a compromise that honors both parties’ needs and wants. In the final analysis, it may not hurt the girls to learn that they won’t always be able to have everything they want.

No matter how this decision plays out, encourage the couple to spend more quality time together while the husband is job-hunting. This can go a long way toward neutralizing stress-related irritability and conflict.

A retired client of mine has always enjoyed the good life, dining lavishly and taking his grandchildren on Caribbean cruises. Unfortunately, he insisted on keeping his portfolio heavily weighted in his former employer’s stock, which recently tanked. He’s too embarrassed to tell anyone, but some lifestyle changes are clearly necessary. How should I suggest he handle this? When people feel ashamed or embarrassed, it’s because reality is at odds with their idealized picture of themselves. They fear that others would lose respect for them if they knew. Ironically, the only thing that resolves shame is to risk sharing your failures or imperfections with others, and to see that they accept and embrace you (and may even have similar struggles themselves).

So once you have sympathized with your client’s feelings about his financial loss, encourage him to talk openly to family and friends about the new choices he will have to make. By hunting for less expensive alternatives to cruises with the grandchildren, for example, he could open up a valuable avenue of inquiry and discussion with his family. He might even discover that going camping or on nature walks would please the youngsters more. If they are disappointed, he will still serve as a role model in how to rise to the occasion–perhaps a valuable life lesson for his children as well as his grandkids.

For this client and others in his situation, the most problematic response to financial difficulty is to pretend that nothing has changed. By being open with others about his new situation, he could end up with emotional rewards that his lavish spending might never have inspired.

A client couple who worked together both have been laid off by their company. The wife, who seems to welcome the necessity for a simpler life, talks about becoming a photographer and living in a trailer. In contrast, her husband is quite shaken and longs to restore the lifestyle they have enjoyed up to now. At present, their relationship is very stressed. How can I get them in sync on their plans? When they come to see you together, listen patiently to each one’s feelings about this major change in their life. You may find that the wife feels excited and liberated, while the husband is traumatized and depressed. See if you can empathize with both partners.

Once you have done so, consider asking each spouse to meet with you separately to tell you his or her dreams about “the road not taken.” For instance, if the husband has ever dreamed of being less encumbered by the need for a lot of money, discuss this with him. Perhaps you can tell him about couples who chose voluntary simplicity and now are happier than ever. When you meet with his wife, help her explore dark corners where her idyllic fantasy may not be totally realistic, considering the level of comfort she has enjoyed until recently.

When you bring them together, the exploratory process you’ve been through will hopefully help them find common ground in the middle. The wife needs to see that her more traditional husband may not be happy with the simple life she envisions, unless it has elements of more traditional stability and comfort. And he needs to consider downsizing their lifestyle in ways that take their new financial situation into account. Not an easy task, but it is possible.

A client who works for an energy trading company has just been cut back to part-time at a lower salary. To make matters worse, his investment in company stock is down to a fraction of its earlier value. He still hopes to send his son to an Ivy League college, while paying private-school tuition for his young daughter. When I explained to him that this meant a choice between going deeply into debt or raiding his retirement savings, he looked devastated. I think I could have handled this better, but what should I do now? For a client like this, nothing is more destabilizing than to have his work life and financial life crumble unexpectedly and simultaneously.

It’s important to make sure he knows he has your full support. Focus on building up his self-esteem by reminding him of his talents and strengths, and assure him that you understand what he is going through.

Then help him explore more financial choices. What if he steers his son toward a state university? How about the possibility of grants, student loans, and other financial aid? Because of the change in his situation, his daughter might be eligible for a scholarship at her school, too. What lifestyle changes could he and his family make to free up more money for the children’s education?

You may also want to inspire your client to keep looking for full-time work. The possibility of having a larger income than his new downsized salary will make him feel less trapped and desperate.

If it still seems necessary to tap his retirement savings, help him develop a plan to restore the funds when his situation improves. Encourage him to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. With luck and effort, these dark days will eventually be behind him.

A client who started her own business with her husband’s grudging tolerance has realized that the business is failing. She wants me to help break the news to him, saying, “I can’t handle his gloating or telling me ‘I told you so’ right now.” She has also asked me to help her explore ways to maintain their current lifestyle. This is a tall order. Any suggestions? You can help dissolve these tensions in several ways. First, listen empathetically to your client’s angst about her business failure. Help her explore what she wishes she had done differently and what events were out of her control, so that she can learn from this experience without needless self-recrimination.

As the next step, encourage her to brainstorm bearable ways to downsize her lifestyle. (Fewer lattes grande? Less frequent housecleanings? Shorter vacations in less pricey hotels?) Armed with these suggestions and less defensive about her business’s lack of success, she’ll be in a better position to level with her husband.

Consider volunteering to talk with him first about what has happened, in order to make the process less emotional. If he can’t resist saying, “I knew it!” at least he will be saying it to you and not to his wife. You might take this opportunity to tactfully urge him to be more compassionate with his spouse, who already feels like a failure.

If your client ends up being the one to break the news, suggest that she ask her husband to withhold comment until she has laid out the whole story of what happened and why. She can acknowledge that he warned her against the venture, but explain why she felt it was important to try it. If he’s still unable to resist gloating, you might suggest that they seek couples counseling to decrease the emotional tension in their relationship.

Though none of us welcome having to simplify our life when the choice and timing are someone else’s, sometimes these challenges can lead to new possibilities. (I’m reminded of the financial planner whose divorce induced him to work less and spend more time with his kids, and who is blissfully happy about his new lifestyle.)

During this period of lingering economic contraction, you have an opportunity to help liberate downsized clients from our “keep up with the Joneses” cultural norm. Despite their newly limited finances, they can create a rich new life by connecting with their inner resources and hidden dreams. Urge them to reflect on the question of “How much is enough?” which most of us don’t ask unless circumstances force our hand.

If you do your job well, clients will find they’re enjoying more quality time with family, friends, and peers. And over the longer term, I’m confident this coaching will reward you with loyal clients who stay with you through the ups and downs of their financial fortunes.


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