Aligning money goals with values


Last year, Sunil Ahuja divorced, sold his home and got a fledgling life-coaching business off the ground after spending most of his career in engineering.

Facing this tidal wave of change, the 57-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., man called upon an acquaintance who wasn't a therapist, psychologist or a career coach. He called Mary Zimmerman, a financial adviser who specializes in life planning.

"Mary helped me clarify my relationship to money, digging deeper into my values than I'd done before," Ahuja said. The pair talked about Ahuja's goals for financial security, even as he launched his business. Subsequently, he dialed down the number of single stocks he owned and focused on a more conservative investment portfolio.

He's investing the proceeds from the sale of his home and renting an apartment while he sorts out the next steps.

Zimmerman, a certified financial planner and a tax preparer, took courses in life planning from the Kinder Institute, a Littleton, Mass., training organization. It was founded by financial planner George Kinder and offers workshops aimed at helping planners to improve their listening skills and have clients talking about what really matters in their lives.

Essentially, the approach boils down to asking clients three questions:

If you had enough money to never have to worry about money again, what would you do with it, and how would you live?

If the doctor said you have five years to live, how would you live them?

If the doctor said you only have 24 hours, what did you not get to do?

Why focus on these touchy-feely questions when Americans' retirement accounts stand at alarmingly low levels? Precisely because of it, practitioners say.

Affecting future

"People have a very hard time understanding that spending too much now will affect their future," said Michelle Maton, a Chicago financial planner who uses the techniques with her clients.

Tying financial goals to a client's big-picture dreams grabs their attention and makes them more likely to follow through with a financial plan, Maton said.

During the training sessions, Maton asked herself the third question and realized she had been putting off taking her mother, Cicily, on a two-week trip to Machu Picchu in the Andes.

"This is about inspiring people to live the best lives they can live," Maton said.

Life planners who know what they're doing, however, make sure the exercise doesn't become a call to spend everything as if we will die tomorrow.

"The three questions can be dangerous in the hands of the wrong person," Zimmerman said.

Instead, the conversations are aimed at helping people to zero in on what's most important and what purchases can be let go.

How does one find an adviser who looks into your soul before crafting an asset allocation strategy?

You can locate potential planners from a directory on the Kinder Institute's Web site ( or at Money Quotient (www.moneyquotient .org).

Ask prospective life planners to describe in detail how they work with clients and whether they have any special training in life planning.

Check training

Don't forget due diligence. Anyone can claim to be a life planner, so investigate the underlying training in financial planning and certifications of any adviser you interview. Learn whether the adviser is registered as a transaction-oriented broker, for example, or as a fee-only planner, and find out to which regulatory agency the adviser reports. Then go to that agency and look up any disciplinary history.

Two organizations to start with are the NASD (, a securities industry self-regulatory group, and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (

Unless your adviser is also a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional, don't substitute life planning for mental health help. At its heart, this is simply a way to help people better focus on saving and investing money; it doesn't cure serious underlying problems that may happen to involve issues about money.

Finally, don't be shy about asking advisers for specifics on how the life-planning approach changed their own lives. You may get some insight into where they're coming from. If you hear stammering, head for the exits.

Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.

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