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Be It Resolved

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Thank goodness for New Year’s resolutions! This seasonal exercise allows us to look back at the past year, resolve to do better in mastering weaknesses and taking on old demons, and devise new plans to energize and direct us in the months ahead.

However, clients as well as advisors often carry around old habits, grievances, and regrets that keep their resolutions from becoming real solutions. If you’re looking for ideas that can help you keep moving forward when old baggage gets in the way, consider these situations.

My client told me several months ago that he wanted to spend less and save more for his and his wife’s retirement. Now he explains sheepishly that his extravagant holiday spending was the “final binge” before tightening his belt. Knowing this tendency of his to rationalize every expenditure, how can I help him reach his savings goals? It’s common for many overspenders to have good reasons for their last act of self-indulgence, or to see it as a final feast before they begin a spending diet. Understanding this, empathize with your client about the difficulty of sticking to his spending limits at this time of year. All the “shop till you drop” holiday hype is often compounded by an urge to avoid seeming stingy compared to others or to last year. To make matters worse, overspenders tend to enter into a trance state when they shop, making rational behavior almost impossible.

As the next step, remind him of his desires for his and his wife’s retirement. Give him a realistic estimate of the amount of savings they will need to make this happen.

The third step is to help him learn more about his spending habits so he can modify them. Encourage him to keep a spending diary for two weeks. In this diary, he should write down every penny spent, what he spent it on, where, why, how (cash? check? credit card?), and the way he felt immediately afterward.

By reviewing this diary with him, you may be able to help him spot “points of temptation” or “slippery places” where he tends to overspend. Are there certain days (e.g., payday) or times of day (lunch hour?) when he should be particularly wary of temptation; or certain stores, catalogs, or Web sites he should avoid?

In follow-up meetings, you’ll be able to monitor whether he’s avoiding spending binges and working toward his goals. But even if his progress is slow, don’t chastise him too harshly. After all, you can’t make him change; it’s up to him.And if he feels judged, he may go on more binges to rebel against your “parental” authority.

Last year I promised myself to do more coaching and life planning work, but so far I’ve made very little progress toward that goal. I’m tempted to quit portfolio management cold turkey and open a coaching practice to “walk my talk.” My wife is afraid that we’ll go broke if I do this, but I’m sick of postponing my dream. How can I make her see this? Good for you for resolving not to settle for less! But I agree with your wife that a “sink or swim” approach is too extreme and may be financially dangerous.

Maybe the first thing you need to do is forgive yourself for your lack of progress to date. What slowed you down? Was it client commitments, fear of change, family issues, or perhaps losses you experienced during the year? Write down these impediments, and be gentle with yourself.

Then–perhaps with the help of a supportive colleague or a coach–create a step-by-step plan for taking on more coaching or life planning, with realistic goals and timelines. Try to explore a variety of options, such as adding it to your existing services, making it a sideline, or offering it only by phone or online. Interview some life planners to find out what worked for them and what didn’t, and what kind of income you can realistically expect.

Once you do all this, you’ll feel more grounded and much clearer about the best way to move forward. And I’m willing to bet that your wife will be far less reluctant to support you in living your dream.

While I was discussing long-term care insurance with a client of mine, she told me that one of her New Year’s resolutions is to have a heart-to-heart talk with her father, who lives alone and is in denial about his declining health. She has asked for my help. How should I respond? I would suggest that your client begin by writing a letter to her father about how much she cares about him, and how concerned she is that his wishes about the future will be honored. As a starting point for asking him to share his situation with her, she could reveal details about her own finances, estate planning, or preferences for the end of life.

When these thoughts and feelings are set down in a letter, a parent who is reluctant to face painful discussions about aging, dying, and death can read it again and again and let them in slowly, at his or her own pace. If you have articles about the importance of parents discussing these matters with concerned adult children, your client may want to include them with this letter, too.

Assuming her father agrees to talk about his situation, consider inviting him to meet with your client and yourself in a neutral setting. Make sure you understand your client’s areas of concern, so you can build bridges between the two.

No matter what comes of this discussion, your client will feel at least partially relieved by having expressed her concerns to her dad. And by being willing to facilitate the matter of an adult child worrying about an aging parent, you may well earn a grateful client for life.

Last year, I was so busy holding clients’ hands and helping them cope with 9/11 and other losses that I never did anything I meant to do to help empower them, like holding educational seminars. How can I make myself follow through on this commitment in the coming year? I’m still as busy as anything. First of all, let yourself off the hook. Remind yourself why it was so difficult to carry out your intentions, and let go of any feelings of guilt or self-blame.

Then open up a calendar for the new year. With your anticipated busy times and down times in mind, write in the dates for the seminars you want to offer. This should set your mind at ease right away, and you can begin planning these events with a minimum of stress.

By the way, have you considered co-producing seminars with a colleague, or alternating your own programs with those of another planner whose work you like? This kind of collaboration could give your clients twice as much educational benefit for half as much work on your part.

Since the bear market has significantly reduced our firm’s revenues, I’ve been under a lot of pressure to bring in more clients and more assets. All the extra hours make me feel my kids are growing up without me. But when I try to bring things home to work on, my wife complains. How can I balance my life better in the new year? You really are in a difficult situation. I think the first step should be to ask for your spouse’s help in thinking up solutions to this dilemma. (Arrange for a babysitter so the two of you can get away to discuss this critical topic in a calm, distraction-free setting.)

The best way for super-busy people to ensure enough quality time with family is to institute regular rituals or “dates.” For example, you could decide that you’ll spend an hour every evening reading to your youngest child and playing a game or doing a school project with an older child. Make dates with your wife to spend quality time together, at least once during the week and again on the weekend.

If your job is so demanding that you have to take work home, try to keep every other night free to allow this vital family time. Most important of all, carve these rituals in stone. If immovable job commitments intrude on a particular family “date,” reschedule it quickly.

Also, talk with your boss. Mindful of your firm’s need to generate more business, bounce around some ideas about ways to maximize your efficiency. Explain your need to balance work and family, without harping on it. If you and your superior have this challenge in common, you might ask for suggestions on how to schedule family time without skimping on your work responsibilities.

Perhaps the best guideline is simply to try to be 100% present at work and 100% present when you’re with your family, and forgive yourself for not being able to do everything perfectly.

The zest seems to have gone out of my client’s life since his recent retirement. When I sat down with him to review the past year and discuss his goals for 2003, he seemed listless and apathetic. Is there a way I can help him envision the future in a more positive and exciting way? Many people derive much of their self-worth from their contribution at work. When they retire, it feels as if they are about to disappear or don’t exist any more.

So first, be sympathetic to how disoriented your client may feel. Talk with him about his past interests and roads not taken to connect him with areas he might consider exploring. Other possibilities to help revive his pleasure in life may include volunteering, community service, or spiritual or religious leanings. If he still seems lifeless, you may need to suggest counseling or medical attention for depression.

The father of a certain client of mine used to ask him, “What did you do today to justify your existence?” My client took this question all too literally, as yours may have. By acting as a therapeutic educator, you may be able to help this retiree build a life based on self-nurturing, new forms of giving and connection, and new sources of meaning.

A new year’s beginning is a time for all of us to let go of our old burdens, pains, disappointments, and personal flaws, and reconnect to sources of energy, hope, and healing. Pause now to revisit your goals and resolve to move toward them, and help your clients do the same. With compassion and support, you can create a more positive future in a world fraught with uncertainty.


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