Luck surrounds us in March, as garlands of lucky shamrocks festoon shops and saloons. To be sure, many of us without a drop of Celtic blood wish we could claim the “luck of the Irish” at any time of the year. Yet this is the Age of Reason. We’ve cracked the atom, decoded DNA, and sent men to the moon. How come we still believe in luck?
In pagan days, Fortune was a goddess whose favor was earnestly sought with prayer and sacrifice. Today, although we sometimes carry lucky tokens or follow rituals (knock on wood), we’re more likely to invoke “luck” to disclaim personal responsibility for something that happens.
When it comes to financial matters, clients may think or act in seemingly irrational ways due to their fear of bad luck, their hopes for good fortune, or a belief that a certain outcome has resulted solely from chance. If you encounter such situations, here are some ideas on how to handle them.
Q: Before starting to work with me recently, a client told me she’d “had good luck” in investing money on her own. When I outlined a new portfolio strategy for her, she said, “Let’s hope we have luck with it.” I said that success would depend more on judgment, training, and research, but I’m afraid it sounded pompous and self-serving.
A: Women are more likely than men to credit their investment success to good luck. This is often due to a lack of self-confidence, which may make a woman reluctant to take ownership of her investment decisions.
In the case of your client, an overinsistence on luck may not only undermine her confidence but also limit her opportunity to grow. It will certainly make it harder for you to encourage her trust in your professional expertise.
Try to explore her experiences and the money messages she heard growing up. Once you understand why she places so much emphasis on luck, help her build a bridge from this “magical” universe to a place where she feels more in control. Encourage her to become knowledgeable about the investment process, so she realizes which aspects of it can be influenced and which cannot.
Q: I have several otherwise sensible clients who keep putting off making a will. After talking this over with an attorney friend who sees the same behavior in his clients, I wonder if these folks believe it’s bad luck to plan for what will happen when they die, as if it opens the door to the Grim Reaper.
A: This fear certainly does affect some people. To debunk it, I’d take the bull by the horns with a will-averse client. Say, “Some people worry that making a will can somehow bring on their demise. Is that a concern for you?”
Just by bringing the issue out in the open, you’ll help some of these worriers to answer “no” and mean it. They may then be willing to move forward in their planning.
If a client replies “yes,” see if you can find out why. Perhaps a close friend keeled over with a heart attack right after signing his or her will. Or there may be a family history of wills being prepared only when the testator is at death’s door. Once you join your client in talking out the superstitious fear of “inviting in” death, you may be able to counter with stories about people who not only lived for many decades after making out a will, but enjoyed the peace of mind of knowing their affairs were in order.
As a next step, you might ease resistant clients into thinking about their personal legacy by inviting them to sum up the most meaningful aspects of their life and share dearly held wishes for their loved ones’ future. Once they go through the process of communicating what they want their family to know about their values, their experiences, and the influential people and events in their lives, these clients may feel better prepared to create a will that spells out their financial legacy.
Q: A portfolio my client recently inherited from his father includes a stock that’s been doing poorly for some time. When I recommended selling it, he said, “What, and have Dad curse me from the grave?” He laughed sheepishly, but was clearly serious. Help me talk to him about this.
A: When clients are mourning a parent’s death, they are experiencing the stress of a powerful loss and life change. In this often semifunctional condition, they’re more prone to superstitious and irrational thoughts and feelings. Your client, for example, may be in a regressed state where selling the stock feels like an act of disobedience that could cost him his father’s love.
To wean him away from this belief, you’ll need to get him talking about the loss of his dad. See if you can discover the nature of their relationship. How did his father deal with differences between the two of them? Does he feel that things were left unresolved when his father died? What life lessons did he learn from his dad?
Advisors I respect say that it may take as long as a year before a bereaved client is ready to take rational action with an inheritance. The more familiar you are with your client’s feelings about his father and the dynamics of their relationship, the better you’ll be able to help him think through and accept the wisdom of selling the stock in favor of a more suitable investment.
This slow process may require considerable patience on your part. But if you keep an empathetic dialogue going on, at some point you should be able to say, “I bet your father would be pleased that the money he left you is growing nicely for [XYZ goal],” and find that your client is on board with this more rational course of action.
Q: After quitting his first job years ago, a 35-year-old client of mine has been living off his trust fund. When I warned that he’ll have nothing left for retirement if he keeps spending at his current rate, he brandished a lottery ticket and said, “This is my retirement fund.” I can’t get through to him about the danger of trusting his financial security to luck. Any ideas?
A: I’d ask him point-blank why he says he’s banking his future on the one-in-a-gazillion odds of winning the lottery. Does he really believe he’ll win?
If so, he may be an inveterate gambler who isn’t happy unless he takes risks with impossible odds. In that case, you might suggest that for the sake of his future security (and his family’s), he should consider seeking counseling or joining Gamblers Anonymous. If he’s simply convinced that winning the lottery is a cheap and easy way to live large for the rest of his life, remind him that most “lucky” winners become impoverished within two years, while their relationships with family and friends go to hell in a handbasket.
On the other hand, your client may be so lost and depressed (or such a dogged money avoider) that the lottery ticket ploy is just a way to get you off his back. He doesn’t really believe he’ll win; he just wants you to stop pushing him to be more responsible with his money.
I think the way to begin is to interview him in some depth about his life, the choices he’s made, and his views of the future. Is his current behavior likely to block him from reaching an important goal or realizing a heartfelt dream? See if you can help him understand why he isn’t open to being more proactive and adult with his money.
By exploring questions like these, you’ll acquire a better understanding of where he is emotionally. This may help you lead him out of his money fog to a more mature and enlightened state of mind.
Q: A colleague referred a woman with a sizable inheritance to me. The hitch is that she’s devoted to Tarot cards, and believes implicitly in whatever a reading reveals. She sold recently purchased stock because a reversed Seven of Coins foretold a bad investment and financial loss. Another time, when I was urging her to adopt a tax-saving strategy, she refused to act because the cards warned her of material trouble, destitution, and loss. Is there a way I can get her to behave more rationally?
A: The best-case scenario would be for your client to learn to separate investment decision-making from the Tarot-ruled rest of her life.
You might be able to open this door by inquiring where her attachment to the cards comes from and listening patiently to her stories about when they served her well. If there’s any area of her life that isn’t subject to Tarot card analysis, you can suggest that investing might also fit that category because of the skill, experience, and oversight that goes into the process.
If the cards are central to every part of her life, consider asking respectfully if they have ever steered her wrong. If she admits that they mislead her now and then, you can offer to help her learn more about how she can determine the outcome of important financial decisions.
She may insist that the cards never lie. In this case, your best hope might be to tell her about situations where people who used cards, Ouija boards, or other divining tools were repeatedly led astray.
Whenever clients display blind or irrational behavior based on their belief in good or bad luck, take time to see where this notion comes from. Once you understand their history, their dashed or fulfilled hopes and dreams, you may be able to help them escape from the world of chance and unpredictability to a more rational universe of wisdom, moderation, and trust in planning their future.