“Money is not everything, but it ranks right up there with oxygen.” —Zig Ziglar

Most of us were quite young when we learned the basics of inquiry. Remember the Big Six: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

It is time to take the inquiry seriously. For all of our palavering over the years, we still have not really gotten to the core of these issues with respect to our work. We could use both clarification and perspective for the issues facing the profession.

These questions seem simple enough, but we don’t seem to be able to dance away from certain issues. The big one, of course, is whether financial planning is a sales business that dabbles in advice or an advisory profession that must occasionally engage in sales. Despite our general reluctance to get down and dirty with these questions, avoidance is not a fruitful strategy. We all just end up looking like cowards and more than a little bit stupid.

Obviously, we are not going to take on all six of the big questions in just one column. However, I can make a start. Let’s start with “What,” like, “What is our work about?”

For many years, I have predicted that financial planning would be the most important profession of the 21st century. While the likelihood of that prophecy seemed self-evident to me, it masked a functional paradox. Namely, financial planning, as we know, is being practiced within both a theoretical vacuum and operational clutter in manners that cannot coexist without eventual implosion.

Let’s understand our operational terms. “Vacuum” is essentially defined as “space that is empty of matter.” Its synonyms include such words as “void, space, emptiness, nothingness, blankness and vacuity.” In contrast, “clutter” is defined as “untidy stuff, a disorganized mess.” Its synonyms include “confusion, chaos, muddle, untidiness and disorder.”

It is my current sense that this emerging profession is being conducted within a paradox that encompasses each. Resolution of this paradox is ultimately required if the profession is to fulfill its intellectual and functional potential for serving humanity.

The “vacuum” part of our paradox consists of the intellectual/academic void for addressing our individual and collective relationships with money. There is a void where substantial theory and knowledge should exist. Our subject matter academics are missing something. Simply put, there is quite literally nothing where a discrete and rigorous intellectual discipline ought to exist. As Sherlock Holmes might have observed, the dogs should have barked. There should be a named discipline addressing our personal relationships with money and providing the intellectual rigor for our work. This discipline should balance classical economics, though it’s entirely separate and distinct from classical economics.

This is the “vacuum” part. How do we help folks understand money in context? What is our job at the end of the day? How can we know?

It is an exercise engaging inquiry and the liberal arts. If financial planning is about our personal relationships with money, should we not be asking questions about the relationships between accessing money and lives well lived? How do we plan for an extended life span at least partially dependent upon unearned income? How do we function within the freedoms enabled by money while honoring the constraints demanded by money? Are our politics in tune with our needs or are they distorted to accommodate our druthers? Are the various ladders up against the right walls?

How do we self-organize the financial aspects of families, communities, businesses and social organizations? Which financial products should we purchase and from whom? What are appropriate relationships between an individual and his or her government? Is money itself imploding? What can we do about its negatives? What should money mean to us? How can we avoid being dominated by money and materialism while accessing their finer qualities? At the end of the day, how do we understand money and work with its demands?

In other words, had all been well in our world, we would have had opportunities to study our profession’s intellectual undergirding in much the same manner as practitioners of other authentic professions. Whether they take advantage of the opportunities to fully understand this undergirding is beside the point. The simple fact is that these authentic professions exist amid abundant and resplendent gardens of knowledge. Those folks have the ability to access the bases of their underlying theory, the reasons why their professions qualify as authentic and the intellectual foundations that legitimize their work. Not so with financial planning.

Try this on. If we had the sorts of resources I am describing here, we would be able to go to a quality liberal arts college and/or graduate school for relevant training. Such an institution would house a discrete academic department housing financial planning’s garden, or body, of knowledge and theory. That department ought to teach its subject as a unique and separate course of study with its own majors, academic relationships and literature. Its work should be available to other scholars, practicing professionals and interested laypersons as well as being accessible to the private sector on consultations. Somewhere, somehow, some way, there ought to be some sort of liberal arts department generating courses of study that would help us understand humanity’s relationship with money. Alas, they do not exist.

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. Sociology orients to denominators and humanity at large. “Psychology,” on the other hand, addresses smaller numbers. It orients to numerators and individuals.
Its practitioners work with individuals as discrete clients and have primary obligations to these individuals. Given the privilege of protections against violations of confidentiality by government, these clients trust their advisors and rely upon them as fiduciaries and confidantes. Sociologists generally do not have such relationships with their clients. 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. Economics orients to denominators and humanity at large. In contrast, however, there is no subject to mirror psychology. There is no formal discipline for addressing smaller numbers in the contexts of money and commercial relationships. We have no course of study or academic traditions orienting to numerators and individuals.

This vacuum viscerally manifests in the fact that there are no words in the English language describing the functional relationships between human beings and money.

Worse, classical economics debases the individual human being by asserting the oh-so-flawed “homo economicus” as its base model for its theory. Of course, “homo economicus” is a mere filament of a human being—after all, he/she exists only to maximize his or her “utilities.” The message is simple: Individual human beings are not worthy.

Finally, classical economists assert that money is “value neutral.” Those of us working with individuals and money know for a clear certainty that money is, in fact, values laden.

Granted, there are some good and valid reasons why macroeconomists need to use these assumptions in their work. Importantly, they need to limit the numbers of moving parts in their mathematical assumptions; these assumptions help with that. Nonetheless, it is hard to regard money with intelligence and perspective when we don’t even have the words needed for intelligent conversation, much less when its human elements and values propositions are distorted beyond comprehension.

Financial planning is ideal for academic exploration. In many respects, it touches on the entirety of human endeavor, especially when we remember that we are preparing clients for futures that may be decades away. Now I really do not expect a financial planner to master the sum total of human knowledge, but honestly, I think it would be great to have planning-savvy academics in our midst who could take down a fair amount among them. Ideally, we need to have a grip on everything from history, to the social sciences, to science itself, to religion, to philosophy to—well, just take out a liberal arts college course catalogue. How much relevance can you find to your financial planning practice?

That is the vacuum. It is a problem. We simply do not have the intellectual structure to allow us to optimally evolve.
Now the clutter. What can we say about a profession divided? Are we advisors in a profession where some of us sell and/or manage complex financial products? Or are we salesmen attempting to provide quality advice along with the sale but with the primary motivations being to maximize transactions? There is nothing wrong with either but, you know, at the end of the day, it is just kind of a mess. Animal? Vegetable? Or mineral? Salesman or advisor? You can take all of your 20 questions and still not reach a conclusion.

We all know the jokes. Who is the real financial planner? This work is too important for jokes.

To this mess, add a multitude of conflicting regulatory schemes and uncertain governance. Ranging from the financial services industries that see this work primarily as a sales tool, to various regulatory obligations, to overlaps with established professions, to psychology and sociology, to public policy, to sketchy business models, to historic anthropological developments, to notions of taboo, to the development of money itself, to the aforementioned orphan status within academia, to the organizational growing pains and rivalries inherent in any new profession, financial planning has emerged in disarray.

Rub your eyes and read once more: Amid vacuum and clutter, financial planning is the most important profession of the 21st century. At least it ought to be. What work is of greater significance to our species or our planet than helping people competently address their relationships with money?

Whether we are really “Number One” is not particularly significant. After all, this is not a BCS bowl. What is significant is that we take stock of what we do, grasp who we are and understand why we are called to do it. Perhaps most importantly, we must respond to an urgent call to step into the world and assume our rightful place among the authentic professions.
The “vacuum” part exists because economics has entirely forgotten the individual and our human parts.

Financial planning is the most important profession of the 21st century because money is the most powerful and pervasive secular force on the planet, and also because money is humanity’s most profound creation, done right. “Done right,” means doing it with skill and vision. “Done right” generates a mature, educated and responsible financial planning profession.

We work with a force that has become essential for surviving and thriving in the 21st century. As with physical health; basic security; access to food, water and shelter; and other such mandatory aspects of our daily existence, money skills are 21st century survival skills for both individuals and our various combinations of families, communities, social institutions and businesses. Bottom line, we help people negotiate the money forces with knowledge and perspective. That’s a pretty big deal.

In the process, we ideally operate as fiduciaries in the best interests of the individual client with respect to this intangible. We are committed to a strict code of ethics and professional responsibility that communicates innate trustworthiness and professionalism. Theoretically, we are educated and continue to get more educated about financial matters and how they impact folks.

This is important, critical work. Money issues are at the center of the 21st century social contract and vital public policies but, for our purposes, money ultimately boils down to the individual and his or her competencies with it. An individual’s most crucial life choices must generally contain significant elements of his or her relationships with money.

Some skills do not come naturally to human beings. When it comes to money, human beings tend to do stupid stuff. We consistently practice self-destructive personal behaviors and engage in organizational dynamics that mirror Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Financial literacy is not enough. At best, financial literacy gives us an ability to talk to an advisor intelligently. People need advisors who can respond to the facts of the matter. That’s us.

Money is a lifetime proposition. Yet most folks have difficulty thinking in terms of the decades that constitute lifetimes. Not survivalist ants but trueborn grasshoppers, we tend to prefer the joys of instant gratification and midrange myopia.
As a species, we need help individually and collectively. As a profession, we’re in a position to provide it. We are potentially the cavalry that has arrived just in time.

Why is financial planning the most important profession of the 21st century? Because we’re the ones holding the keys for unlocking the great taboo that is money and for helping folks understand the future and its demands upon the present.
Once open to money’s mysteries, we can help people deal with it intelligently and skillfully. Nonetheless, we need to address the vacuum and clutter. To reach our potential, we need to evolve our theory and academics even as we clean up the environment in which we function.

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.