“Are you happy now?”

That’s the number one question Dr. Carolyn McClanahan, an M.D. and CFP, is interested in hearing a client answer, as the response will help her chart a financial plan that increases the client’s satisfaction with life today, not at some point in the future.

And life satisfaction is the real job of a financial planner, McClanahan said as she presented the opening keynote speech at Financial Advisor magazine’s 2024 Invest In Women conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., in March.

“You have to remember I was in the ER,” she said of her previous experience as a doctor before she became a financial planner and launched Jacksonville, Fla., firm Life Planning Partners in 2004. “People there would be dying before they were supposed to die. Or they’d be diagnosed with serious illness that would forever change the trajectory of their life. Or they’d lose a spouse. Or they’d lose a child.”

Life, she continued, is not predictable—yet too much of building a financial plan is about trying to make predictions.

Instead, McClanahan leans into the work of Joshua Cooper Ramo, who wrote The Age of the Unthinkable, a book about a future that can’t be guessed at.

“These are fantastic stories about how bad we are at predicting everything from earthquakes to financials to anything,” McClanahan said. “And [Ramo] argued that we should spend more time trying to create resiliency for whatever life is going to throw at us and quit spending so much time, money and energy trying to predict the unpredictable.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean abandoning financial planning, she said, but rather redefining what good financial planning includes. It’s not just about the numbers; it’s also about the purpose. And the purpose is happiness. Client happiness.

“Our job as a financial planner should be to help people position themselves for greater life satisfaction in the present and at the same time create resiliency for untoward events,” she said. “Poop is going to happen in life, and our job is to help them be prepared for the poop.”

Three Categories
The things advisors need to do to help clients with life satisfaction can be lumped into three categories, McClanahan said: There are things advisors should be doing, things they could be doing, and things they should get help doing.

The first category includes the “bread-and-butter” of a financial planner’s role, which is making sure client expenses are in line with their income and goals. “When we look at client spending, we actually break down all the spending, even with clients who have plenty of money,” she said. “We want to make sure that their spending is bringing value to their life.”

And with savings goals, instead of focusing on “this ephemeral retirement,” McClanahan focuses on satisfaction goals, which means making sure the client is having meaningful experiences.

For example, McClanahan described a client of hers in Vermont who lived with advanced multiple sclerosis. The client’s motorized wheelchair could not be accommodated on a plane, yet she was desperate to visit her sister in a hospice in Vermont.

“So we investigated how much it would cost to get a charter flight. It was $25,000, and that was within her financial means,” McClanahan said. “She went with her husband, daughter and two caretakers, and it was just a fantastic experience. They talk about it to this day.”

That memory of a lifetime is something planners should help their clients create for themselves and their families, she said.

Acts of kindness should also be included in the first category. Many clients don’t give away money because they don’t know how much they can. That’s something a financial planner can help them understand.

The second category, what financial planners could be doing, includes helping clients control how they spend their time, especially when it comes to work.

If clients are challenged to balance work and life, advisors can encourage them to reduce their hours if they can afford it—or job share with another professional with a similar career, or take a sabbatical, if possible. Or change careers through a new certification or retraining.

“So instead of this focus on retirement, when people are in jobs they don’t love, we should focus on career change so they can do a job they love for a longer period of time,” she said.

For example, when a client says they’ve been working 80 hours a week, McClanahan said her favorite question is, “Tell me more about that.”

“It lets them know you’re actually interested, and that you really want to hear what might be a big reveal,” she said.

Health is another area advisors could be helping with. McClanahan argued that health issues should be a line of inquiry among all planners in their client discovery phases.

“You should be planning differently for a client who has diabetes and hypertension as opposed to somebody that’s totally healthy,” she said. “They have totally different life trajectories.”

And just as you pose discovery questions to workaholics, you should also ask for more information if a client reveals that they engage in some sort of unhealthy behavior.

“I can tell you as a doctor, if someone tells you they’ve been drinking a little too much, they’re actually drinking way too much,” McClanahan said. “Don’t ignore it. Validate it. ‘Wow, that’s a big thing. Tell me more about that.’”

The third category is things the advisor should help facilitate by bringing in other professionals—help with issues such as couples counseling, therapists and mental health counselors.

Financial planners must remember that helping clients with happiness is something achieved over time.

“Addressing life satisfaction is not a one-and-done thing. It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “You have to state up front to the client that life is not predictable, and your job here is not to help predict the future but to help you obtain resiliency so that you can have a good life and be prepared for whatever life throws your way.”