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A Question of Values

Jessica Lanning

Financial planning really starts with who you are. That sounds deeply philosophical, and maybe it is. But ultimately, money is about providing ourselves with the sustenance to go out and be the human beings we are meant to be in the world. That starts with values. If you don’t know what your values are and how they relate to how you spend your money, you’ll always be a slave to your finances. That’s a hard way to live — I find people who have a stronger relationship with their money are a lot happier.

If I don’t get to know people and who they are, I can’t possibly help them figure out whether they can achieve their financial goals. So I invite each prospective client who comes into my office to play a game of time travel (I adapted this idea from Dan Sullivan’s Laws of Lifetime Learning). I ask them this:

If we were sitting here three years from today, what has to have happened for you to feel good about your progress personally, professionally and financially?

I ask this question for these reasons:

  1. It gets people thinking about who they are and what they want in life. Most of us find it pretty easy to talk about ourselves, and we typically don’t have to think very hard.
  2. It gets everything out on the table, such as:
    • People’s goals and desires
    • Possible job changes or other potential increases or decreases in income or assets
    • How they relate to money themselves and how they work with their family members around it.
  3. It helps me determine whether we’re a good match personality- and philosophy-wise.

When they seem to run out of answers and pause, I simply ask the question again.

My experience teaches me that most folks can see about 3-5 years into the future, and then about 20-30 years out (i.e., retirement). The middle is quite murky. There’s nothing wrong with that. If we can build them a strong foundation in the next 3-5 years with the idea of what life will look like 20-30 years out, the murky middle will take care of itself. That sure takes the pressure off.

One of my greatest satisfactions is watching clients’ anxiety levels plunge when they get clearer about what they want and then watch it happen through the financial planning process. This is particularly true with women. Many of us secretly fear we’re going to end up living under a bridge in a box, even though this is not even a possibility given our financial reality. When my female clients see the numbers and how things project for the future — even with all their “guilty” spending on clothes or makeup or travel or whatever — they tend to breathe a huge sigh of relief. But neither my clients nor I can connect those dots without starting with their values.

So, if you were sitting here three years from now …