So, one word, what does financial planning especially address and engage?"
"Sorry, I haven't got the energy. Enlighten me."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean where you, I and everybody else will live until we are not, then our descendents."
"Oh. Okay. The essence? What about making money? What about dreams and hopes? What about preparing for disasters?"
"They all engage the future, no?"
"Sure. Your point?"
"These are parts but our work's essence is the future."
"Because we are in the financial planning business!"
"What do you think we are planning for?"
"Forgive me, but I thought it was just how we made our living. You know, address people's concerns, think about their issues, sell them stuff they need, "relate" (finger dittos), set expectations for the next meeting, shake hands and get on with life."
"Well, you might try being just a bit more thoughtful."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, take it to the next level. Think about clients, people, and our collective futures. Look at the implications. We are talking about money, which constitutes the most powerful and pervasive secular force on the planet. We are talking about financial planners -we are uniquely qualified to play a formative role."
"The future? (scorning emphasis added) You know, I just don't have time for that kind of esoteric mumbo jumbo. I got a nut to crack and kids to feed today."
"Great attitude. Ever think about why you do this work?"
"Not sure I grasp your point. I do it to eat. Today. I am too busy to think about next year."
"Not just next year, but next decade, next century, next millennium. Even next eternity. Because what we do now will affect the future for time hereafter. We can waste or we can plant seeds and grasp what might sprout. We can think about what might happen 20 or 30 or 50 years from now, because these years are the sources of our clients' deepest fears and needs. Whatever our choices, our work will affect trillions of people's lives."
"'Future.' 'Trillions.' Such pretension. Such words. They literally choke me."
"I understand. But we are talking eternity here, and eternity is a long time. We are doing important work profoundly affecting individuals and our current communities, both now and with repercussive effects through the generations."
"Look, man, those are a lot of big words. I am just trying to make a buck."
"I hear you. I do. Trouble is, the seeds are planted anyway, seeds with extraordinary implications affecting many people. It is just that they will be better if you do it with a sense of perspective and accountability. Think about all those lives that will be impacted by what you do...?"
"Only if I have to."
"That's all I am saying. Let's just think it through. Because we are in the planning business, the planning for people business."
"So? You think financial products aren't part of planning?"
"Where did that come from? Of course they are. Don't be silly. But, truly, they are just a small part of the deal."
"Small? It's how I earn my living."
"And a good living you do, my friend. No doubt. You help a lot of people. It is just not the whole shebang. Please don't take it personally."
"Why shouldn't I take it personally? This is my rice bowl."
"Relax. Don't be silly. More than likely, grasping the future will make you more money. Last I heard, capitalism was about finding needs and filling them. FutureThink forecasts needs. The trick is filling them. Honestly, selling financial products is honest work. But financial planning is not financial product sales."
"Is there a difference? I am doing financial planning. I look at goals and objectives and figure out what financial products will achieve them. Then, I relate."
"I am only trying to say that financial planning could be about so much more than product sales."
"What do you mean by "product sales?"
"I mean anything that is manufactured by a financial services company for sale to the general public. You know, insurance products, checking accounts, loans, money markets, mutual funds and other investments ..."
"You think "investments" are product sales?"
"Yes. If they involve products available to the general public."
"Assets under management?"
"What do you think?"
"I am more concerned with what you think, to tell the truth."
"I think planning is profound. And I think it is more verb than noun. By definition, plans, as nouns, plural, mean "tactics, strategies and devices" addressing the plan's objectives for the future. Often times, that means we need some products. No quarrel. I think they fall within the "tactics" and "devices" slots.
"However, "plan" is also a verb-and this is where our work shines and the thesaurus gets intriguing. Here, it gives us words like "arrange, set up, prepare, design, intend," etc.
"All of these are words of the future. Nouns, verbs, it is all process for getting a client to the future. Guy Cumbie reminded me awhile back of President Eisenhower's observation: "Plans are nothing; planning is everything." Cumbie went on to suggest a range of takes on "planning" that are well worth some study. Truly, they all come back to working with the future within a definable, accountable process ...
"When we plan, we must take the future into account, placing importance on understanding it as best we can even as we try to grasp how our current actions are likely to impact it. It is more than spreadsheets and Monte Carlo. Different scenarios, grasping how clients are feeling and thinking about the future, grappling with the demographics, trends, dangers, opportunities, these are properly within our world."
"I think I am following you but help me out, how does this relate to finances?"
"Well, obviously, our work engages money. However, it is generally not about money today but money in the future. This is more demanding because there is no formula. Unknown risks, unanticipatable opportunities, the abyss of the future ... it really is different this time.
"For example, many of us think in terms of futures that resemble our past. I don't think this will be our reality, though we need to think that through, too. (As Joseph Schumpeter observed: "We always plan too much and always think too little.")
"So I ask: Will money be there to do necessary jobs, whether tragedy, good fortune or something in between? Can we attempt anticipation of different futures and plan/advise accordingly? For example, most people's most valuable financial asset is their ability to earn money. We talk about disability insurance but how about inability insurance? How can we help them understand the world in which they will be trying to work?
"Currently, there are millions who are either unemployed or unhappily employed because they did not anticipate the future.
"What myths have we simply swallowed without question? Are education choices likely to be sufficiently remunerative and flexible to meet the future's demands?
"What about the switch from machine models to biological models? Different management structures? Implications of technology? Weaknesses of technology? Interior skills of all sorts? Improving cultural livability? Grasping resource/money connections like those between illness, medical care and death?
"As life needs change with social needs, what are the possible scenarios? The answers will not always come up as "more money," but will address other aspects of the money forces.
"Accordingly, planners must attempt to anticipate the future and understand it. Most especially, this means grasping that the planning process is different from a sales process. The intent is not to create a sense of urgency and a desire to buy. Rather, planners try to understand the whole within the future and help someone make sense of it."
"Really? Whoa. That's a lot to ask."
"Offering to help someone address their money in terms of possible futures is a lot to promise."
"Because, at the end of the day, it seems to be that we are in the "future from the perspective of the money" business. From exterior to interior, from this moment to eternity, from all of us to all of our various contexts, we are talking about our future. All of them. For each of them and us. No matter how we define "them." Or "us."
"Seriously, that sounds like a lot of responsibility."
"I am not sure I signed up for that."
"I will grant that this is a sobering proposition. Be careful of your promises."
"What will it mean?"
"I think it takes us back to those scenarios."
"There are countless cuts on this. Possibilities range wide. There are observable demographic trends, such as the aging of America and its implications for work and public support systems, including Social Security and Medicare."
"Then there are the economic issues like the vulnerability of the dollar, corporate unilateralism, globalization trends that are sending some good jobs overseas, especially as jobs within this country tend more towards services and away from foundational wealth creation demanding discrete skills like farming, mining, manufacturing and fishing. There are the switches away from the clerical and towards the extremes of cerebral or mindlessness.
"We can probably anticipate big changes in health care, education, security and distribution systems. Ecological concerns don't seem to be going away. And what about those disaster possibilities? Water. Terrorists. Hoo boy!? Government's role seems to be in some sort of transition. We really don't know, but we can think about it and get a sense of how we should be preparing.
"Remember, money is our stuff. Money is what we do. Not money in the sense of the financial services industry, but money in the sense of its interplay within the lives of our clients, money and our relationships with it. No matter how far we extend our FutureThink scenarios, they all have money in them, together with people's relationships with it. If these scenarios have money in them, if we are financial planners, we have to think about what they might mean to us. Such meaning will range from demands to opportunities. Big parts, obviously, will be of our control. Often times, big pieces of a situation will be outside of our expertise. We may need to more aggressively network. Yet, various scenarios may play big in their reflection of our conscious choices about how we are going to play in it.
"Then, will money itself even be the same? Remember, money is about agreement and belief. There is no money in nature.
"One thing is for certain: It won't be like it has been."
"Yikes, again. This is scary. What are you really telling me?"
"For one, it means understanding money and our world as it is. Mere mechanics are insufficient; it is time to grasp the interior. What forces are in play? How did we get here? History. Religion. Sociology. Psychology. Business. Demographics. Major social structure decisions.
"How do we make collective decisions? How come we don't count air, water and other environmental impacts? What are our cultural presuppositions and are they still valid?
"What don't we know? Are we afraid to admit fault or accept blame? Are we in balance with our money issues?
"So let's look at a couple of issues.
How will we see money?
How will we be conscious of money?
Will we begin to price the irreplaceable? The ineffable? Can we "green" our values, then bring that understanding to money?
How will we see people? Objectively? Subjectively? With labels? Through the peculiar lenses of our personal value systems? How are important money decisions made?
How will we view different classes of people? Our collective obligations to ourselves as individuals?
What about interest rates?
Healthcare and aging? Can we begin to value and/or address the interior? Culturally? Personally?
What happens if the world flips the dollar?"
"Yep. Are you up for them?"
"Seems I have to think about the future."
"I'll see you there."
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver. He is the 2003 recipient of the Financial Planning Association's P. Kemp Fain Jr. Award, which recognizes a member who has made outstanding contributions to the profession.