Once upon a time, money morphed. The world and its citizens witnessed mutations of money’s nature and roles in the world on scales rivaling geology’s Cambrian explosion. What had been an ordinary medium of exchange, storehouse of value and tool of accounting was transformed virtually overnight into the most powerful and pervasive secular force on the planet. In the process, money’s mastery became a 21st century survival tool for individuals, businesses and governments of all sizes. People structured their most important decisions around its perceived demands. Between work and worry, it dominated the post-World War II world.
People did not know what to make of this. Recovering from 15 years of economic horror and lifetimes of blissful economic ignorance, they were bombarded with information. People heard from all sorts of media, pundits, experts, “leaders” and common gossip. It all seemed like it should be important—but virtually nobody actually grasped it. Transitory economic news was portrayed as so very important. “Spinning” became an art form; clarity was discouraged. Ordinary humans were expected to grasp the nuances and distinctions for issues that had not even existed just a couple of generations earlier.
Trouble is, almost none of us really got it. We rooted for our favorite political teams, but these had little to do with the actual stakes. Virtually everyone was baffled by all of the concepts running around and about, so-called “experts” included. How could we tell advice from a sales pitch? Let’s face it, too much of it just felt like pretexts for patent rip-offs. We needed trustworthy help.
Fortunately, there is good news to go with this—but only if we take ourselves seriously and see ourselves accurately. As all of this activity generated the aforesaid Cambrian explosion of mostly high-quality financial products and services, it also spun off a brand spanking new advisory profession, now known as the “financial planning” profession. This profession did a lot of things right in a very short period of time. It developed certain aspects of its garden of knowledge for helping people deal with money intelligently, functionally and substantively. It developed a cadre of trustworthy professionals through the creation of a meaningful brand that stood for significant standards, including the professional’s achievement of substantial education and experience requirements, a commitment to a rigorous code of ethics and passing an exacting test requiring mastery of financial planning’s comprehensive craft. The best of these professionals were dedicated to doing things the right way.
To the profession’s credit, “The Test” became increasingly rigorous and multidimensional, testing for real-world deliverables as well as the more traditional memorization and nuance. Nonetheless, “The Test” remained firmly rooted in the financial services industry crafts of 1970.
This was good stuff. Really. There is nothing wrong with it as such. Unfortunately, it is partial and incomplete. It is missing both cohesiveness and theory and a strong articulation of mission, purpose and scope. Why does the profession exist? What is function? What is its proper purview? Who are its close allies who should be affiliated with profession? Perhaps most importantly, what is its appropriate relationship with financial services industries? What functions are appropriately within its scope?
These are not idle questions. Rather, they go to the essence of financial planning’s reason for being and the nature of its soul.
What are the proper depths and breadths for financial planning? Should these simply be confined to what’s on “The Test”? Or do they potentially include the entirety of the individual human experience with respect to money and finance? Is financial planning just X’s and O’s with replicable formulae scratched out on our computer monitors, yellow pads and whiteboards, or is it the stuff of a learned profession?
Financial planning product and craft are certainly important, but it is doubtful we should ever be considered an authentic profession if we simply serve as sales arms of the financial services industries. Until we tie sales and craft with the intangibles that wend their ways into human lives and our relationships with money, we fall short of our potential. This means wisdom, perspective and judgment. These, in turn, require studies of the sorts enabled by broad academic theory and the liberal arts.
First, we need to acknowledge that the money/human interface is exceedingly complex with literally billions of variables affecting each life. The trouble is, “The Test,” without more, does not play well with such complexities. Tests want replicable answers, not creativity.
Most money issues are not replicable. Our relationship with money is a lifelong dance that takes us from the most macro of sociopolitical realities to those relationships of exceeding intimacy—those with ourselves, our spouses/partners, our families and, especially, our personal notions of the divine and its role in our lives. From these perspectives, our relationships with money are cognitively expansive and trans-disciplinary, simultaneously mysterious and challenging.
Consider Joe and Emily. Like all of us, they live amid the money forces. As our natural world faces both the benefits and ravages of earth, wind, fire and water, i.e., the natural forces, so, too, do modern humans face life in the middle of the money forces. Without particular awareness, we live our lives in a sea of money. It has been all around us and all that we hold dear. Decisions about work, residence, children and child care, travel, family issues, diet, health care, elder care, passions, recreation and entertainment—they are all there 24/7, with money laced throughout.
In our times, everything about the way individuals live reflects money’s awesome powers. As all aspects of Emily’s and Joe’s lives are touched daily by their choices and consequent requirements, all aspects are lived within the maelstrom of the money forces.
The thing is, all of this is tied together in the economic singularity that is an individual human—otherwise known as a “client.” An ancient Chinese proverb asks, “What do fish know of water?” And so it is with Joe and Emily—they need help from the resources of an authentic profession where the relevant expertise and intellectual wherewithal spans a huge green of relevant subject matters.
This is not to suggest that all financial planners need to know everything with a financial connection, but in fact we need our garden of knowledge to be far more expansive than financial product. Modern society requires individuals to be money wise and money functional.
Bottom line? A well-educated financial planner must have access to the sorts of wisdom, skills and training that can take CFP craft into the liberal art. Pick any high-quality liberal arts institution and take a gander at its course offerings. You will see a broad blending of literature and the humanities, social sciences and the hard sciences. Money touches everything; ours is the ultimate liberal arts profession.
For all of this, money itself remains strangely elusive. Like the fish/water metaphor, we can’t even name our primary relationships with money, much less any nuances. There are simply no words in the English language to describe them. Not surprisingly, there is no unique field of study for it. Much less can we name the tools available to help us meet generated issues head-on. Obviously, money subjects span the liberal arts. It may be articulately argued that “finology” ought to have existed for the past 150 years. Yet it did not.
As a former lawyer, I know the importance of jurisprudence to the practice of law. It is what holds it together. Now, with over 30 years’ experience in the financial planning profession, I have become ever more acutely aware of my profession’s shortcomings with respect to comparable theory. That fact alone makes appropriate development of the financial planning profession overtly problematic.
Thankfully, many individual advisors have begun to explore other aspects of the human/money relationship. Unfortunately, these efforts remain painfully few and lonely. For too many self-described financial planners, their client relationships are about financial products, sales and “production.” Moreover, even those efforts that are being made to expand beyond the product realm are singular and disconnected. Too often, they are simply house brands designed to advance the interests of their sponsors, not the profession. I don’t mean to be overly critical here; there is a place for these efforts. They simply do not fill the void of missing theory.
What is missing is a theory that gives wisdom, beauty, texture and substance to authentic professions. I suggest it is time we begin to fill this mysterious intellectual and scholastic vacuum. If I may be permitted a brief commercial announcement, I am making a run at it through a partially completed manuscript entitled Finology to broadly cover issues involving our personal relationships with money. I regard the word in much the same manner as the words “psychology” and “sociology” constitute established containers for their subjects.
1) The study of human value exchange.
2) The study of money and human value exchange.
3) The study of the relationships between human beings and money.
4) The study of minds, brains, customs and behaviors with respect to money and the money forces.
5) The study of money and the forces it generates.
6) The theories or systems of “finology.”
This robust new word lays the groundwork for an array of perspectives on money and its roles in modern society. The book expands “finology” into an ostensibly legitimate university department complete with curriculum, faculty, majors and productive relationships with other university departments.
Finology addresses money’s roles expansively. For example, economics as we know it has mostly been about the big numbers. Typically, economics is not viewed from the perspectives of other disciplines. Humanity is lost amid its sheer size and intellectual marginalization. In contrast, finology addresses our individual relationships with money; it is about discrete subjects. It is about “numerators” as distinctly opposed to the “denominators” of modern economics. Here, using designer seeds, we are breaking new ground hoping to harvest bumper crops of words and theory.
As of now, you will not find “finology” in the dictionary or Wikipedia. Rather, finology represents a unique new academic subject as well as linguistic catalyst. Hopefully, it serves our quest for theory as well as challenging the narrow perspectives of current economics.
Finology enables us to look at our individual and collective relationships with money using the potent tools and approaches of the liberal arts. This sort of human/money study has not existed before now. Rather, money itself has mostly flown under the radar of academics and think tanks. This is a shame. It is easily argued that there is nothing more important, or universal, than issues of money and our personal relationships with it.
For understanding, we can look to economics’ close cousin, sociology, for guidance. Within academia, sociology is balanced by psychology. The first deals with large numbers and describes macro systems of human behavior. Sociology orients to denominators and humanity at large.
Psychology, on the other hand, addresses smaller numbers and describes individualized human behavior. It orients to numerators and individuals. Its practitioners work with individuals as discrete clients; they have primary obligations to these individuals. Given the privileges of confidentiality, these clients are able to trust their advisors with their secrets, relying upon them as fiduciaries and confidantes. Sociologists generally do not have such relationships with their clients. Though they have markedly different theories for their approaches to human behavior, sociology and psychology coexist quite nicely.
Economics may be compared to sociology. It, too, deals with large numbers and engages macro systems involving money and commercial relationships. Like sociology, economics orients to denominators and humanity at large. In contrast, however, there is no money subject to mirror psychology. We have no courses of study or academic traditions orienting toward issues engaging money and individuals.
Why not? Perhaps it is just an accident of history. Maybe money wasn’t as important in the 19th century as it has become in the 21st. Perhaps it was the absence of academic giants like Sigmund Freud or Emile Durkheim. Perhaps it was the fact that money has traditionally been taboo, effectively banned from conversation. Maybe it’s just that money as we know it is relatively new and very scary. In any event, academic institutions inexplicably failed to address the human/money relationship.
As we mature, we are planting the seeds of finology. As they take root, strengthen and grow, they will generate theory and help us understand relationships with money—both our clients’ and our own. Ideally, as finology’s gardens of knowledge expand and mature, it will help us be better and more effective advisors. As money is humanity’s most profound creation, finology’s flowering should herald theory to match.