When it comes to understanding clients' spendthrift ways, San Mateo, Calif., planner Marcee Yager is willing to put on waders to go where most planners are afraid to tread-into the heads of her very wealthy clients so she can understand why they don't or won't control their money. Three years ago though, when she took over the day-to-day management of Sterling Wood Financial LLC, Yager found that she didn't have the time to counsel clients about the underlying reasons for their money habits. That's when she hired a full-time counselor.
"I think it's absolutely necessary," Yager says. "We have people who make plenty, but they are still spending wildly because they simply can't master their money. Now what we do is poke around and look for the underlying reasons and attitudes that cause this behavior so we can start helping the client address it."
While Yager's methods for persuading clients to probe the reasons for overspending may be unusual, her motivations are not. She is one of a growing number of advisors across the country who are taking a less traditional approach to helping clients understand the root causes of their money woes and create spending plans with which they can live. The reason is simple: Clients from middle class to megawealthy have spending problems, sometimes chronic enough to destroy their chances of having secure financial futures.
The old-school method of giving budgets to clients and telling them to live with them just doesn't work very well, more planners are finding. "We were building fine budgets and financial plans for people, but they just weren't implementing them," Yager says. "When we started asking why, we found it was because they were our plans, not theirs."
Once a client signs up for the very holistic and comprehensive approach to planning at Yager's firm, he or she spends at least two one-hour sessions probing money issues with the firm's counselor, Denise Hughes. When clients are overspending, they will see Hughes once a week for two to three months. As their situation improves, it drops to twice, then once, a month.
Sound like a huge expense for the firm? Not at all. Clients pay for the $150-per-hour sessions. To demonstrate their commitment to wanting to change, they're required to pay as they go for each session.
Call it tough love. Although the counselor checks on clients' spending-plan progress each week, Yager's firm will not arrange to dole out client allowances and pay their bills. "That's an external solution to an internal problem, with me becoming the parent and treating the client like a child," Yager insists. Planners and the counselor help a client develop a spending plan, but it is the client's plan. "We give them the tools to empower themselves, but they must take ultimate responsibility," she says.
Sometimes the outcome of such sessions, which Yager calls financial-recovery counseling, can be quite dramatic. One new widow who had started shopping aggressively came in posing as the first-line financial person in her household, but wound up admitting that she did not know anything about her personal finances and was an alcoholic. Now, she attends Alcoholics Anonymous and has far more control of her money and life, Yager says. Another client with out-of-control spending habits admitted during counseling that the problems were causing him to think about committing suicide.
Some firms might be thrown off kilter by these admissions, but Yager says hers works hard to assist whenever possible and offers referrals when clients need outside help. The fact that some people feel so hopeless and controlled by money, she says, only confirms the need for a counseling-based approach to money and planning.
"What we see is some people who work very hard and never put their head up to figure out what it is they really want," she explains. "They don't give themselves permission to do that. They make their first real money, and the first thing they do is go out and build a $1.5 million house. In reality, they may not want a huge house at all. They may want something completely different. But until they get help, they don't know it."
Whether it's the bear market, the evolution of the planning industry or a little of both, more practitioners are creating innovative ways of helping clients deal with their less-than-stellar spending habits. Elissa Buie, president of Financial Planning Group in Falls Church, Va., had to devise her own tools to help a client stay within her $50,000-a-month spending plan. (Yes, $50,000 a month.) "She likes to buy art and jewelry and vacation at five-star hotels," Buie says. "She's a dotcommer who now has less money. So she's been struggling to live on less, when she never had constraints before."
To help the former high-tech executive rein in her spending, Buie's firm sends the client a monthly barometer and index that show her explicitly what she spent the previous month, how much money she has left and whether it looks like she'll outlive her nest egg. Buie's firm gets the client's spending information directly from the client's bookkeeper, via Quicken. "She (the client) calls them our nastygrams. But when we ask if she wants us to stop sending them, she says 'No.' Basically, it's a matter of getting the client to buy in, then setting up a system so you have access to the client's spending and can provide the client with the tools and regular and meaningful feedback they need," Buie says.
Despite being a savvy businesswoman, the client lacked the skills to monitor herself-and that's where planning firms can step in. Is the plan Buie developed for the dotcommer working? "Undoubtedly," Buie says. "She's made dramatic changes in her spending habits."
Some advisors know firsthand what it's like to spend money freely, sometimes just for the warm buzz and temporary feeling of power it imparts. After a lucrative career in the 1980s as a successful broker, Elizabeth Jetton, a partner in the Atlanta-based planning firm of Financial Vision Advisors Inc., got religion about money herself after she realized she had little to show for her high-flying income and hard work.
Today, she wows crowds of 200-plus women at money conferences in the Atlanta area when she talks about leaving the office early to hit the home and apparel discount store T.J. Maxx. "You've got your cart, and you're throwing stuff in, and you almost go into this trance. It's a great buzz. Then you get home and start unloading the bags, and already that excitement is starting to wear off," she says.
Jetton switched to the financial advice profession more than 10 years ago. Today, in addition to doing financial and retirement planning for her firm, which works with middle-class and wealthy investors, she provides "money issues coaching." At $180 an hour, the process involves helping chronic overspenders change their ways. "Let's face it," Jetton says. "If we don't address how clients handle money today, the best-laid plans for tomorrow ain't gonna happen."
While Jetton doesn't do bookkeeping for clients, she does provide them with tools, including Quicken, so they begin to exert monitor and control themselves. "They hire me for accountability, and that accountability motivates them," Jetton says. "I'm someone for them to report to every month. They're looking for a system-for someone to lessen the pain a bit-and I think we provide that."
While most clients succeed in gaining control over their spending, some don't. One couple, who came to Jetton with annual income topping $1 million, gave up before they really got started. "I think their shame and lifestyle got in the way," the advisor says.
But Jetton says the successes-the doctors, attorneys and others who have overcome their errant money ways-outweigh the failures. She recently received a note from an Atlanta physician who imagined seeing Jetton's face in a store where she went to buy an evening gown. The client laughed, put the gown back, went home and found a perfectly fine outfit in her closet.
"What frees these clients is encouraging and allowing them to draw their own picture of what success means to them," Jetton says. "Everyone has a dream, but not everyone draws it. The picture allows them to put controls and limits on their own behavior because it's something bigger to work toward."
Cicily Maton, president of Aequus Wealth Management Resources in Chicago, uses a similar cause-and-effect approach: She encourages her spendthrift clients to use their own core values to rein in their money behavior. "We isolate, articulate and write down these values-what they think is important in their lives-so they can begin to make choices about how they spend money. Often times, they'll find they spend tons on stuff they don't find fulfilling or helpful at all."
To get started, the firm encourages clients to recreate their spending during the last year. Based on what the numbers show and what clients say they want to achieve, Maton will help them identify changes that will help them reach their goals. "I had a client who wanted to fund retirement and couldn't understand where her money was going. Then we discovered that she was always running late, so she took cabs everywhere, including to and from work. When she saw this, she started taking the bus. She said it was a no-brainer," Maton says.
Maton refers clients with deeper money issues to therapists. She brings a counselor in every month to work with families who have concerns about money or spending. After years of making referrals to therapists, the law of reciprocity is kicking in. "Now, we're getting referrals from therapists who tell their clients they could benefit from money counseling and financial planning," says Maton.