More Than Money
Issue #15

The Human Side of Investing

Table of Contents

“Claiming Your Power”

We are both professional financial planners. Our journey to this work began with the personal challenges of inherited wealth, the confusion and dislocation of finding oneself with more than others. We soon recognized that learning about financial decision-making would be part of facing our issues around wealth. We've never forgotten what it feels like to be on that side of the desk, but we have also been stunned by what we observe from this side of the client-advisor relationship. From these experiences, both personal and professional, we see two factors that inhibit wise investing: fear and power.

Fear. Time and again, people pay us to help them work out strategies which we later find out were never implemented. It seems that in the face of financial decisions, many otherwise-capable people become as immobilized as deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing car. They are terrified of making a mistake.

If this sounds like you, know that you are not alone. For many, the fear of losing money is intense, even when it's only numbers on paper and won't affect your quality of life at all. (According to one recent study, people experience the loss of money two and a half times more intensely than they experience the same amount of gain.) Create reasonable standards for success. Just as baseball players know that hitting the ball 30 percent of the time means that they're having a good year, experienced investors know not to play the stock market for a perfect score. Allow yourself the right to make mistakes.

While it is true that you can't control everything, you can control your personal goals. You can be clear about what return is essential to you, what is merely desirable, what level of loss you could sustain without any loss of life satisfaction, and what your time-frame and cash-flow needs are. Getting a handle on these variables can affect your financial success as much as, or more than, uncontrollable market fluctuations. A trusted advisor can help with this, but they can't figure it out for you. Developing your own vision of where you want your money to take you is the best antidote to fear and uncertainty.

Power. When you work with an investment advisor, observe the texture of your working relationship. Do you have an "investment advisor as wizard" assumption and expect your advisor to possess super-human knowledge in the face of random market moves? Do you secretly view your "investment advisor as servant," because money is dirty and thinking about it crass, so a servant is needed to attend to the distasteful tasks? Sometimes the two attitudes even blend into a wizard-servant combo, akin to the fairy-tale counselor who can tell the king what to do but can also get his head chopped off.

Notice, too, your advisors' attitudes about their fiduciary role (which simply means their legal and ethical responsibilities to act in your interest). The phrase carries unfortunate connotations from other fiduciaries: executors, who act on behalf of someone dead; conservators, who manage property for the mentally incompetent; and parents who handle custodial accounts for their children. Are you dead, incompetent, or a child? If not, remind your fiduciaries of this fact if they treat you as if you were.

Even if you did not earn your assets with your own labor, they are yours. You pay taxes on them. If you believe that you're just a conduit to the next generation--as so many inheritors do--it's just saying that you are not important. You are. This stuff is yours, and you're making choices about it. We have seen people do more research and soul searching about what brand of TV to buy than they do when buying $200,000 worth of stock! Even abdicating your power (by letting your advisor manage the money without your input) is still a choice.

As a first step towards claiming power over your money, figure out exactly what assets you have and calculate your net worth (assets minus debts). Sometimes it also helps to write the story of how the money came to be yours. Think deeply about what the money means to you.

Notice whether you simply don't yet understand investments, or whether you don't believe you can understand--especially if you are a woman. If you believe that you can't understand investment decisions, if your eyes glaze over as soon as you see an investment statement, then you have to debunk the mystery. Know that you are absolutely capable of understanding the issues involved and participating in the decisions. Financial professionals can offer some additional information and help frame a systematic approach, but we use no magic.

- anonymous authors  

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