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Dick Wagner and the Need to Understand Clients’ Attitudes About Money

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I have to admit to being hooked by the headline of Emily Zulz’s April 14 ThinkAdvisor story, “How to Tell Your Deadbeat Partner to Earn More.” As the title suggests, Emily’s story is about difficult financial conversations in relationships, as explored in a recent survey by Consumer Reports that asked 2,800 people about money conversations with relatives. “It’s hard to remove the raw human emotion from financial decisions,” Consumer Reports wrote, noting that 49% of people who told their spouse they weren’t bringing home enough money found it uncomfortable.

No kidding: 49%. I can’t imagine this comes as much of a surprise to anyone. In fact, the only thing that I’m surprised about it that 51% apparently didn’t find it uncomfortable. Now, I’ve been married twice and had a few other “serious” relationships, but even I know that telling one’s spouse (or significant other) that they aren’t making enough money is not only an uncomfortable conversation, it’s a conversation you shouldn’t have at all. I mean, you might tactfully talk about the things you want to do as a couple — send your kids to college, move into a bigger house or better neighborhood, or put your parents into a nursing home — in hopes that the conversation will come around to how we can bring in more money. But to tell your husband or wife that they need to make more money sounds like a recipe for problems to me. And I seriously doubt the survey’s prescription for “handling” difficult conversations would salvage this one: Meet in a neutral place, focus on one topic, listen actively and be respectful, etc.

Reading Emily’s story brought to mind the column I wrote last week for the May issue of Investment Advisor magazine, in which I interviewed a number of prominent financial planners about the impact that the late Richard “Dick” Wagner had on their careers and the industry as whole. Dick had been president of the ICFP (a forerunner of the FPA), a founder of the Nazrudin Project, which was the catalyst for today’s “life planning” movement, a prolific writer on the profession of financial planning, and mentor to dozens of successful and prominent industry leaders. One of Dick’s lifelong interests was the role and meaning that money has in people’s lives, which he believed was broader and deeper than most people realize — and consequently, should be an essential part of a financial planner’s study so they can better understand their clients.

One of the planner interviews that I had to cut from the Wagner column (the problem with hardcopy is that you’re working with a finite space) was with Lois Carrier, who is president and CEO of Carrier, Maurice & Webb Wealth Advisors in Johnson City, Tennessee. Lois is a charter member of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning, a charter member of the Nazrudin Project, and a charter and founding board member of the FPA. She told a poignant story about applying the skills she learned from Dick about listening to clients.  

“I joined the Nazrudin Project because of Dick,” she said. “At my first retreat, the discussion about understanding clients and the impact of money in their lives started something in my head and my heart: It put me on the road to learning to listen and ask questions without projecting myself. It changed how I approached financial planning and the way I related to people. Dick Wagner helped me — and many other financial planners — understand that we all have attitudes about money that most of us aren’t even aware of. He has touched lives through us that he would never have believed he could have reached.”

(Related: What HNWs Want That Advisors Aren’t Doing)

Lois told me that Dick and some of the other Nazrudins changed how she approached financial planning. “And that changed the way I related to people,” she said. “For instance, we had a couple who worked at large local company who were getting older and in the process of retiring. The wife was retired, but the husband was still working. We had a meeting with them, and talked about how much they could live on if he retired, too. They had saved diligently and lived modestly, so it wasn’t going to be a problem. So, they decided the husband would retire, too.

“But then he didn’t retire, even though his wife wanted him to. This went on for a month or so, and the wife was getting angry: She wanted to travel and spend more time together, but the husband just wouldn’t stop working. After a couple of months, I started thinking to myself, why not? Why didn’t he retire?

“So, in our next meeting, I gently asked him a few open questions about how he was feeling about retirement and what it meant to him. After a little hesitation, he started opening right up. Turns out, his father had left his mother and him when he was young. They didn’t have much money, and he picked up and sold pop bottles to help out. But each time, when he would give it to her, she would take it shaking her head and say, ‘It’s not enough.’ He said he’d never gotten over the fear of not having enough money.

“He and his wife held each other and cried. We just watched them open up to each other like they never had before,” Lois said. “We went over their finances again slowly, and made sure that he knew how much they had and what it meant. He retired within the week, repaired their relationship, and they have been traveling widely since. We all have attitudes about money that we aren’t even aware of it. He was locked up all those years.”

That was the kind of impact that Dick Wagner had on countless financial planners and, in turn, their clients. And I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that he never counseled anyone to tell their spouse that they needed to make more money.

— Read Men Likelier Than Women to Seek Financial Advice on ThinkAdvisor.