“Begin where you are and such as you are, without aiming mainly to become of more worth, and with kindness aforethought, go about doing good.” —Henry David Thoreau
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”—C.S. Lewis
On a dark and rainy morning in Cincinnati I found myself in heavy traffic heading downtown for an appointment with the owner of an investment company headquartered in my city. I secured an appointment with him on a thinly stretched referral. Everything rode on the back of the first few seconds when we shook hands. I had rehearsed what I was going to say and how I was going to say it.
Suddenly, on the right berm, there appeared a woman who stood beside her car looking at a flat rear driver’s side tire. She held an umbrella over her head, but to no avail since the sweep of passing cars caused moisture to swirl around her.
Looking at the time, and knowing the importance of my imminent appointment, I easily rationalized not stopping to help. On the other hand, “Look at her,” I thought, “She is in trouble.” I pulled over, urged her back into the car, removed the spare tire from the trunk, jacked up the car, replaced the flat, and had her going in less than 20 minutes.
My white shirt wasn’t. My tie looked like a washrag. I was now going to be late for the appointment.
The woman expressed sincere appreciation and we parted. I drove into town, parked the car, stopped into the bathroom off the lobby of a proximate hotel, cleaned the charcoal-colored grease from my hands as much as possible, and headed up the elevator to the prestigious offices of the investment company.
There, at the receptionist desk, sat a woman with a familiar face. It was the very woman whose tire I had changed!
Needless to say, upon hearing about the encounter she and I had that morning, this successful man in the corner office cleared his calendar so we could meet right then and there.
Then and There
“Here and now.” We throw these words about like toast crumbs we whisk from the breakfast table. But should we?
Look again at the two quotes above. “Begin where you are.” “Start where you are.” These are formidable words! All independent financial professionals will do well to carefully consider these four words, and then incorporate them into the advice that their clients need.
Let’s review these four words, Begin Where You Are, one at a time.
The Cambridge Dictionary1 defines begin this way:
- “To start to happen or exist.”
- “To start to do something.”
- “To do or be the first part of something that continues; start.”
When we are pressed into writing something—an essay, a letter, a note—the blank page before us is intimidating.
When we are working with people who have experienced bankruptcy, mounds of debt, disastrous investment results, reduction in income, or other financial woes and obstacles, we are likely to hear them say, “I don’t know where to begin.” At that moment all of their financial future rises up like so much looming blank paper.
- College Funding:
- Question: “My children are now ages ten, eight, and six. How will I ever afford to send them to college?”
- Answer: “The best advice I can give you is to begin now, to start a college savings fund, to make regular deposits, perhaps even by payroll deduction.”
- Retirement Planning:
- Question: “My wife and I are ages 54 and 53. We have exactly $49,000 saved for retirement.”
- Answer: “The best advice I can give you is to begin saving more now, to make sacrificial investments each month, and to consider accepting more risk now because time is limited.”
- Business Continuation Planning:
- Question: “We have a Buy-Sell Agreement that states that when one of us dies or retires, that the Buy-Sell is triggered. The problem is my business partner is now 59 and looking to retire in five to six years. I have nothing set aside for the buy-out!”
- Answer: “The best advice I can give you is to begin now, to start funding a permanent life insurance policy to accomplish both the living buy-out, and to prepare for the event that a buy-out becomes necessary due to death.”
Every person we meet is somewhere in their life “between the forceps and the stone.”2 They are at a place in their life that they reached through either effort, or neglect, alone or with assistance, on purpose or accidentally.
The word “where” denotes location. All clients should be asked to consider the “where” of their lives. These are helpful questions:
- You are somewhere right now. Can you describe it for me?
- Notice the reality of the space around you. What is happening?
- How did you get here?
- Is there a purpose for you being right here?
When we encounter people for the first time, we see only the snapshot of their lives. Their habits and routines, beliefs, principles, preferences, prejudices, and practicalities must be properly assessed if we are to help them succeed financially. We discover what we need to know by asking questions.
- Estate Planning:
- Question: “We bought our lake home for vacations and as a family retreat, but what will happen to it when we die?”
- Answer: “Well, our planning must begin with questions:
- Who actually wants it?
- Who’ll pay for upkeep?
- What’s the best form of ownership?
- What’s the end game?”
- Longevity Planning:
- Question: “If people are living longer, what does that mean for our retirement income needs?
- Answer: “Well, our planning must begin with questions:
- What does financial stability in retirement look like to you?
- What do you wish you could afford to do in retirement? Do you have a plan to meet that goal?
- How many months or years’ worth of your income have you saved?
- How many years beyond retirement age should you plan for?”
The common denominator for nearly all human beings is trying hard all our lives to be other people when in fact we were designed to be ourselves. This is particularly impactful in financial planning.
Founded by Bola Sokunbi, Clever Girl Finance® is one of the largest personal finance media/education platforms for women in the U.S. and enjoys the reputation of being one of the best finance websites for women. I discovered a helpful article there regarding the dangers of comparing ourselves with others.
“Knowing how well we are doing compared to other people isn’t helpful at all.”3
- Enough is never enough. “If we see someone who has something better, suddenly the things we have just don’t seem good enough. The problem with this cycle is that it doesn’t end. When we compare, we are forever searching for more.”4 What each of us needs and wants is peculiar to us and we need to block the temptation to compare.
- Comparing our financial wellbeing with others will only make us proud or unhappy. “Comparison is a liar. It tells you that you will be happy if you compare and then get what others have. But often, it’s the opposite. The higher we climb on the comparison ladder, the unhappier we may feel.”5
- No one anywhere, at any time, is exactly like you. “The idea of wanting everything that others have, or more than they have, is actually pretty silly. Why? Because everyone is different! You can’t compare what isn’t the same.”6
- Legacy Planning:
- Question: “We know people who are leaving their children and grandchildren significant wealth. How can we do that?”
- Answer: “Are your children expecting something you cannot provide?” A better legacy than leaving loads of money is passing on the attitude of gratitude. Teach your children to be grateful for what they have. Then, anything you bequeath to them will be a surprise.
- Real Estate Investments:
- Question: “How much home can we afford?”
- Answer: “Whose needs are you trying to satisfy? Be excited about your own life. It’s difficult to purchase the right real estate for your own life when you are looking at someone else’s life and lifestyle.”
The word “are” places us in time.
- We were not always in existence.
- We have a past. We will have a future. We are here now.
- We are right here where time touches our lives.
- All our living takes place in the present.
- What will we do with the now?
Every person’s financial present has echoes of a financial past and will prove a precursor to a financial future. Past decisions led to indebtedness, and prior lack of self-discipline led to the shortage of current liquid funds, savings, and/or investments. Failure to apply sound financial principles in the present will cause a similar ripple effect in the future.
- A full financial review requires asking the right questions,7 like these:
- What are some of your proudest financial accomplishments so far?
- How did you get where you are today?
- What plans do you have for your money?
- What would you like to accomplish?
- Do you feel like you are on track for where you want to be financially?
- How do you feel about your spending habits? Do you maintain a budget?
- Why are you here? Why is that important to you?
- Who are you financially responsible for?
- What is really important to you that we didn’t discuss today?
For independent financial professionals (IFPs), nothing can be more important than helping clients grasp the context of their lives, clearly ascertain the trajectories of their financial habits, and make present-day adjustments to help them accomplish their dreams or get back on track. Perhaps there is no better tool than these four simple words: “Begin where you are.”
Caution: In order to be effective, the IFP must see the client clearly, individually, and not impose assumptions, apply techniques, or suggest action steps incongruent with who the client truly is.
As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelets.”8
- Joni Mitchell, © March 19, 1976; Crazy Crow Music (as “Traveler”), renewed November 5, 1976, with additional lyrics (as “Hejira”).
- Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis, Mariner Books; First edition (November 4, 2002).