I invited our daughters and co-workers to participate in “The Streak” with me. We are committed to getting a run in every day from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. This has not been natural for me. The only way I can do this is to lay out my running clothes the night before so that when my alarm goes off long before light, I get dressed, throw on my facemask and gloves, hook up our dog and take off. This works because I don’t think about it.
But this is generally not a good financial planning strategy. At times, automatically doing things works perfectly — monthly investing in your 401(k) or your children’s 529 plans comes to mind — but for most issues, we should closely look at what we are doing.
The problem is that we often avoid the things that we most need to scrutinize. When we are avoiding money things, it is usually because they don’t fit with the perfect picture that we want to have of ourselves.
A client couple was having difficulty with their cash flow management. One was spending too much in areas that were preventing them from investing in areas that they felt were important to them; the other was dealing with this contrast punitively. They ignored their differences. But because of this denial, they had a sense of unease that was inescapable.
We decided to create a spending policy (rather than a budget) to align their spending with their values. This included compromises on both sides. While there will be cracks in the new approach, they can no longer be in the dark about it.
Another area where clients may choose to remain in the dark due to imperfection is around work. Work/life balance is a terrible term because it makes things seem as though all aspects of your life should be perfectly equal. But they often can’t be.
So rather than balance, think harmony. There are going to be periods where work may be dominant and other times where the needs from home rise to the forefront. Harmony encompasses this reality.
One of our clients is in a very intense job in a field that he loves. He keeps thinking that things will get easier and he will have more time. This doesn’t happen with his type of career. Shining the light on how he may handle his down time can improve his chances of harmony. Turning his cellphone off at night and mostly on weekends allows him to be present with his family. This helps him stay connected to his family and avoid job burnout.
Another area on which you can shine some light is around giving. Charity is always a personal choice, but it is not always done intentionally. Clients who make giving a part of their financial plan do so most successfully when they are clear around what causes matter most to them and what percent of their income they wish to give to those causes.
Clients who don’t take the time to define these things end up giving less than what they wished or more than they are comfortable giving. Shining the light means making choices; there may be some good causes that you choose to not support because they are not reflected in areas that are most significant to you. The light not only illuminates decisions you have made, but it helps clarify them.
May you ring in 2014 with your eyes wide open.
Spend your life wisely.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is email@example.com.