Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Financial planning for dummy

These are the notes I took during a recent biennial meeting with our financial planner.

The horizontal figure at the top is an idea for yet another plan to brand the group of misfits who endeavor to swim cold Lake Natoma year 'round: I had been trying to get the feet right, and had panicked a bit that I forgot how to draw feet. No better moment than a financial planning meeting to solve such an urgent problem.

The leaf is from the giant plant in the corner of the financial planner's office, just behind the planner's left ear. You can also see the vestige of an airplane window that relates to a blog post from earlier this month, and a figure struggling out of the muck, which was just another unfinished idea for that same post. The hand with a raised finger is just that — I made a squiggle and wondered what it could become, which is the evolution of most of my doodles, beginning from somewhere in the bogs of my brain, advancing likewise.

Interspersed are actual words about the actual meeting for which I was sometimes present.

(By stark contrast that should surprise no one who knows us, my wife's notes are detailed, copious, lifesaving. They are checklisted throughout with action items, soon steadfastly acted upon because my wife makes sure it is so. 

Here I publicly acknowledge how amazing my wife is: Besides working so hard at her day job, a constantly demanding position at which she excels, she then comes home and works even harder to make sense of all we face. The difference between us is that she does not let life's complexities vex her. She stands with a sword in the face of the tsunami. Add to all that, she chooses to stay married to me.

Equally yoked, we are not.)

I'm a big fan of financial planning in principle. One shouldn't waste one's money, but think of his/her future and the future of his/her progeny. Spending bad! Saving good!!

But these meetings resemble something I call, "This is Your Inadequate Life! Featuring a Parade of Poorly-informed Decisions that Will Light You Down in Dishonor to the Latest Generation!"  Each such spectacle is sponsored by all the people who now possess our money.

These events don't look anything like the television commercials for financial planning firms, the tone of which is that clients state their wishes and dreams regarding the rest of their lives, and the financial planners harness their clients' money to turn dreams into reality. All smile.

Though I admire the restraint in most of these commercials (they don't so much portray clients  eventually sailing the seven seas in their retirement, or golfing 24/7 any more — those hoary chestnuts — as  show clients living their later years in dignity and some comfort, just not looking so worried), our meetings are still exceeding strange by comparison.

The running theme of our meetings is, "If only you made more money, I could do such great things for you with it. Darn!"

(Which is the same illogic that bankers lend you money only if you can show you don't need it, and the employers now only give jobs to people who already have them, because jobless people must just not be able to keep steady work.)

The secondary theme is, "Oh, but you make a little too much to take advantage of this particular strategy. Double darn! We'll just muddle through somehow."

The whole process began badly many years ago, when we sought the planner's consultation just as I had decided to go into business for myself as a freelancer. The TV commercials all seem to lionize financial planning clients who know what they want and blaze their own trails. They celebrate the independent spirit.

Not so here. The financial planner told me, "That's a bad idea. These are your prime money-making years, and you're not helping yourself. Is there any way you can go back to what you were doing?"

Gee, go back to the job that was killing me from the inside out? Hmmm, lemme think about it. What about instead we deal with what is, rather than wishing for better? I hate to conjure Donald Rumsfeld — ever — but it's like he almost said, "You go into life with the money you have — not the money you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Nor did it help that the planner used to send us holiday cards that featured photos of the planner's family on vacation on a discontiguous continent. Since I had not been overseas since I was an infant Air Force brat, and camp within California for almost all our vacations, I couldn't help but wonder on whose dime these adventures abroad were conducted.

So we muddle. We reveal our numbers, to our chagrin. They are paltry, undernourished numbers. Brittle-boned, they nonetheless underpin the planner's proposal for what to do with them, and based on what we can understand of the proposal, we make our plans from it. The paltry numbers become dollar figures, and are shuttled to this or that fund or bond, each of which promises a different benefit for a different dreamy purpose. It's tacit among all of us in the meeting that the numbers won't become those dreams, not fully, but doing nothing would be worse. On we muddle.

Don't pay attention to what the money's doing day to day, the financial planner usually tells us in parting. It's better to let the money take the long ride, and trust the fund managers to do their work. Set it, the planner says, and forget it.

Which we do. We're good at that part. So good, unfortunately, that the markets tanked while we were laissez-faire-ing all over our money, and we ended up having to pay extra to have the planner right our little ship.

Now we are engaged in preparations for a macabre race toward death, the object of which is to cache Mason jars of money along the race route that will sustain us until our dying day. We have picked out our ages of death — in other words, we decided based on anecdote and shoulder shrugging and no science or reason whatsoever, how long we'd probably live, and are planning our finances backward based on those expiration dates. What could be stranger?

Our plan now is to help our kids through college — yet another race that we're willing as patiently as we can to proceed. We want to do all we can to make sure they get the optimum education, no less and no more (the latter would be on them to pursue). In the process, we have begun talking about cutting ballast — smaller house, selling stuff, living leaner long-term — in order to reach that finish line and die debt free. Find me a financial planning commercial touting that scenario; you'll die trying.

My mom and dad, who died far sooner than I thought fair to them, managed to bestow that gesture upon their kids, living lean (though given their spare upbringing, still comfortably) and leaving a modest benefit, without burden.

We hope to do as least as much by our kids, dropping the ballast before they must take it out on their journeys into the world. Without grand plans for retirement (I'll probably work until I kick, though I'd like to help fulfill whatever my wife wants to do), I guess we'll plan our work and work this leaky plan.

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