How many people unknowingly choose money over their lives by
the way they conduct their lives.

Many of us are old enough to remember the great comedian, Jack Benny. His "shtick" was to give his audience the impression that he was very cheap (he wasn't in real life). One of his most loved skits saw a robber approach Jack on the street and demand, "Your money or your life." He did not respond and the thief repeated his request. Jack answered, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking!" While this made us all laugh, I wonder how many people unknowingly choose money over their lives by the way they conduct their lives. Moreover, how can we, as financial planners, help to guide our clients to decisions that balance the need for money with the need for life?
I am reminded of a client who first hired our firm when he was 62 years old (we'll call him Frank). He owned a profitable contracting business with his brother, but he was the driving force behind its success. He was recovering from bypass surgery and told us that he planned to take advantage of a buy-out agreement with his brother and retire in two years because he no longer enjoyed his work and the stress was contributing to his health problems. Moreover, his doctor encouraged him to retire. He had been very frugal over his lifetime and our projections indicated that he had virtually no chance of running out of money, even if he simply walked away from the business. When he turned 64, the proposed time for his retirement, he told us that he wanted to wait until he was 65. There was no financial reason for doing that, we assured him, but he insisted on working as hard as he ever did. His reason was that he believed his brother incapable of running the company. In addition, while Frank was a saver, his brother was the opposite, and Frank was concerned that he would not get the value of the business if he retired. He worked long hours and was tired of the work, but he insisted on continuing, despite our advice and the advice of his physician. He was still working when he was 68.
At that time, he had another episode and required a second open-heart surgery. After his recovery, we met to discuss his future. Once again, he expressed his concern about not getting fair value for his business interest if his brother failed to continue its successful operation. I reemphasized that he had accumulated enough money to retire with no money worries, but he did not want to take the risk of walking away from a business that he built and receiving little or no value for it. I needed to get his attention and offered to him what seemed to me to be a clear choice. "Retire now or risk your health and your very life for money that you don't need."
"Are you asking me to walk away from all of the work I have done and get nothing for all of those years?" he asked.
"What you have for all of those years," I replied, "is the substantial assets you have in your portfolio. It is enough to do all of the things you want to do in your life and leave a substantial inheritance for your children, even if you never earn another penny from the business. Why do you want to risk your life for money that you do not need?"
Finally, after several more conversations, he agreed to retire and execute the provisions of the buy-out. As it turned out, his fears about his brother were unfounded and the business is continuing its successful operation. That was five years ago, and Frank is enjoying his retirement. What would have happened if I supported Frank's decision to remain in the business because of the money? Of course, there is no way of knowing, but it certainly looked as if he was on a collision course that was unnecessary for him to take to achieve his goals.
As financial planners, we are faced with situations that require us to give advice that goes beyond how to invest money or save taxes. Sometimes, the health or life of our clients may be at stake. Jeff Lambert, an advisor who works in Sacramento, tells a story of how he may actually have saved a client's life. "A client came into my office and told me his goal was to get a higher return on his portfolio so that he could retire earlier," Jeff said. "His plan was to contribute a lot more toward his investments by working longer hours at his medical group."
This didn't sound like a goal to Jeff, but a means to an end. After some probing, the client confessed that he wanted to get out of medicine, because he felt like the stress was killing him. There was some evidence to back up this diagnosis: his blood pressure was sky high. His recent meeting with his cardiologist had him in a panic. "He believed that unless he retired as early as possible, he might never be able to retire," says Jeff. "He would be dead of heart disease."
Jeff was the only counselor that this man had seen about these issues, and so it was left to him to point out the obvious: that the doctor's fear of stress was creating much more stress. At Jeff's suggestion, he decided to implement a lower-stress life immediately. He went back to the office and asked his radiology partners for permission to work half-time and to reallocate his portfolio slightly more conservatively, which also reduced stress in his life.
His blood pressure has since come down; he is enjoying work more and no longer dreads the prospect of working a few more years in the medical group. Jeff wonders what would have happened to this person if he had done the traditional thing, and simply focused on working harder and creating a more aggressive portfolio. Odds are he would never have made it to retirement.
Many times, we are not aware of the impact we have on our clients' lives. At a review session about a year ago, one of my clients, a retired oncologist, shocked me when he proclaimed, "If I didn't hire you to manage my finances 18 years ago, I seriously doubt that I would be alive today." Now I am not one to diminish the work financial life planners do for their clients. As I have often said, I believe that we truly improve the quality of our clients' lives, but I never equated the benefits we provide to be a matter of life and death.
Yet, that is exactly what my client was telling me. I was so overwhelmed by his remark that I did not know how to respond. I simply acknowledged it without any further probing. However, at our next meeting, I asked what he meant by that statement. He reminded me that he was recovering from cancer when we first started working together in 1987.  He told me that he knew people (including many of his cancer patients) who felt stress over money and other issues in their lives that led to relapses, failed responses to treatments and even death.
"You are the first person I have ever met in my life who has been able to relieve me of the stress I had felt about money almost all of my life," he told me. "I am not sure my cancer treatment would have been as successful as it was had I not had you to relieve me of that stress." Since he was an oncologist, I assumed he knew what he was talking about.
Because of the training most of us receive, we tend to weigh only the financial implications of decisions that face our clients. However, if we are to be the holistic planners that so many of us say we are, we need to consider the life issues, as well. Often, these matters involve the health of our clients. That was clear to me when I was faced with providing advice to Frank, the owner of the contracting business. At other times, we may be unaware of the positive impact we have on the well-being of our clients, not only their portfolios. Such was the situation with the oncologist. We need to be diligent and recognize when our clients may be choosing paths that may lead them to serious health problems. We can help by making it clear that may find themselves with the same dilemma as Jack Benny: their money or their lives. 

Roy Diliberto is chairman and founder of RTD Financial Advisors Inc. in Philadelphia.