My brother-in-law was divorced over a decade ago, sold his business and retired to a quiet life in the North Woods of Wisconsin. He called recently to say that he met someone in a master gardening class. While he wasn’t looking for a relationship, his chances of finding someone with similar interests were increased as he pursued those interests.

It seems that we are always talking about what we want from our financial planning, but how are we increasing the likelihood of getting what we say we want?

Clients who are planning retirement often want to spend time making sure that their asset allocation is comfortable. Most writing is about how much to have in stocks rather than bonds. How much you want to spend and how long you will need to spend it, though, has a far greater influence on whether you are going to live comfortably. Think about it this way: if you needed only $1,000 a year to live, how you invested your nest egg is irrelevant. Similarly, if you keep working until you are 90, your mix of stocks to bonds won’t make much difference.

We spend too much time on investments — the less important aspect of meeting our objectives (and maybe the one over which we have the least control) and too little on things that increase the probability of retiring successfully — cash flow and longevity. One of our clients built a nice portfolio because of how modestly he lived. As he explored how much he needs in retirement, it became apparent that the next twenty-five years of his life will be working on actively incorporating philanthropy. Since he has no heirs, he was planning on leaving his estate to charity; but as his income needs are somewhat modest, we were able to create a more aggressive current giving schedule so that he can better see the results of his generosity.

Giving ourselves a better chance to be comfortable with our money happens long before retirement. We were talking to another recently divorced client about her spending. While a budget is an interesting exercise, it is only useful if it comes close to reality. We found that this client has periods of overspending and discovered that she spends when she feels lonely. Better budgets would not increase her probability of following them. Instead, we are working on alternative behavior that would be useful when she has those feelings. Trying to better align our spending and resources increases the odds of making us feel better long-term about our choices. The lesson is to spend freely, but to spend on things that you can afford and that bring you meaning; spend carefully on everything else.

Another area where you want to increase your likelihood of success is in helping your children. We have clients who give to their kids at the expense of their own financial futures. This serves neither — the children never develop an appropriate connection to their money and, ironically, the parents may be creating a long-term liability for their kids. The probability of family success first comes through ensuring your own solvency. Spending according to your values, driving down fixed costs, and creating a personal saving/investing plan will improve your ability to help your children.

You can increase your chances for a good outcome from a home purchase by focusing less on the features of the home itself and more on the benefits from the community in which you are choosing. Many clients who rent smaller places as they go through remodeling comment on how surprised they are about how little space they actually need. Yet many are sold on trying to get as much room as they possibly can. Research shows that we habituate to the things within our home that we originally valued. Instead, focus on where you want to live based on people with similar interests, access to things that are important to you, and avoiding areas that can cause dissatisfaction - such as long commutes.

When you try to increase your likelihood of success, you tend to realize that decisions are often more good than bad, rather than right or wrong. Since this is the case, you also want to be careful with irrevocable decisions. Life often changes in unexpected ways, so decisions that don’t allow you to respond to those developments can be problematic. This is why if you are going to lock up money in investments that are either not liquid (limited partnerships, for example) or not flexible (like annuities), you want to fully understand what you are giving up for what you are getting. A few potential dollars of incremental income is probably insufficient.

You can increase the likelihood of getting what you want as you weed out the things that don’t fit and grow the number of things that do.


Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina.