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Why Delivering Financial Certainty Is Never Enough

Money is a source of anxiety and angst for the great majority of Americans. When it comes to their money, people are often troubled, looking for assurances in a world that is unpredictable. And advisors fall into a trap of trying to emphasize certainty through math—which doesn’t get at the real root of client uncertainty. Here’s how you can provide guidance to help clients improve their relationship with money, which is vital to finding financial peace.

On this episode of Elementality, Reese and Carl reveal why there’s a need to alleviate people’s root worries about money. Uncovering client emotions about money before working on functional financial jobs clears the way for you to guide them through the changing financial landscape.

 


Podcast Transcript

Carl Richards:
Years ago, as I was traveling all over the world, giving talks, generally for financial advice… Financial advisor or financial planner audiences, but often also for clients. So a financial advisor would put together a group of clients I’d go talk. I sort of got in this habit of asking people, “If you could describe your relationship with money in one word, what word would you use?” So I took a relatively unscientific poll, but it was all over the world: South Africa and Australia and New Zealand and all over Europe, all over Canada and the United States, and the word that people almost universally used and didn’t matter where we were, was “anxious” or “anxiety.”

[music]

Jordan Haynes:
Welcome to Elementality. I’m Jordan Haynes, financial planning specialist at Elements. Each episode, Reese Harper and Carl Richards will explore the major challenges faced by financial advisors and the things they can do to manage the functional, emotional, and social jobs of delivering real financial advice to real clients. We hope you enjoy this episode.

[music]

Reese Harper:
Welcome to another episode of Elementality, everybody. Super excited to be here on a hot 100 plus degree day. We are down in the studio, is nice and cool, the AC. I get to have one of my favorite conversations of the month with the man, the myth, the legend, Carl Richards. Carl, welcome back.

Carl Richards:
Reese, thank you. Super excited.

Reese Harper:
It’s nice to have a co-host that can make my brain spin and also give me therapeutic financial advice during the episode.

Carl Richards:
It’s my job.

Reese Harper:
Yeah. [chuckle] Carl is the monk of the mountains, the mountain goat. He’s been known as St. Carl. He’s got a lot of different nicknames out there. He’s a therapeutic counselor. He makes sure and listens really well. I just really enjoy our chats. And despite the fact that we get together only once a month for recording these episodes and we try to get quite a few in, we’ve been having fun kind of getting together and talking more about all of these issues outside this studio setting, too. It’s just been fun to have more time together. So thanks, man, for all the time you’ve been putting in the last few months.

Carl Richards:
Yeah, super rewarding. I’m excited about it.

Reese Harper:
Yeah, and people are… People ask me, they’re like, “Why is Carl doing this stuff? Like why… You must be paying him millions and millions of dollars to do this.” [laughter] And I ensure them, “Yes, Carl is getting paid, but you’d be surprised how much of a labor of love this really is.” I thought you can kind of… I’d like to give you a chance to kind of explain to people what the ethos of this project have become for you, too.

Carl Richards:
Yeah. Yeah, that’s really interesting. So I just think of money as a vehicle for meaning. And I think it’s central in how we live our lives. And that’s what I’m most interested in, is how humans live their lives. Like this is just… Money is just a righteous trick for me. It’s just an entry into how can we be better humans?

Reese Harper:
Yeah.

Carl Richards:
And so the level at which you think about that same challenge has been fascinating to me. And this, the ability to be thinking really deeply about tools that will allow us to do that at scale is also very interesting to me. So that’s why I’m excited about… I mean, this is a problem I’ve been thinking about for more than two decades. How do we… How do we… “Fix” is not the word I’m looking for. But how do we get better at this relationship with money? Because from its very beginning, it’s a fraught relationship, right?

Reese Harper:
And you get some Topo Chicos out of it.

Carl Richards:
Yeah, and well, and on the lighter side, there’s always Topo Chico… [laughter] For sure.

Reese Harper:
Chilled in the fridge next door.

Carl Richards:
Yes, for sure.

Reese Harper:
So let’s talk about that today. We’re gonna kind of have a focused series of the next four episodes that are sort of around the main… This one today that… This episode today we’re gonna record is around the main problem that we kind of see. And then we’re gonna have some solution episodes that follow here. This will be a little mini-series for the next three to four episodes. I’ll let you kind of define the problem as you see it. And then I’ll follow and see if I can have anything to add to that.

Carl Richards:
Yeah. Yeah, so it might be a couple of little stories. Years ago, as I was traveling all over the world, giving talks, generally for financial advice… Financial advisor or financial planner audiences, but often also for clients. So a financial advisor would put together a group of clients I’d go talk. I sort of got in this habit of asking people, “If you could describe your relationship with money in one word, what word would you use?” So I took a relatively unscientific poll, but it was all over the world: South Africa and Australia and New Zealand and all over Europe, all over Canada and the United States, and the word that people almost universally used and didn’t matter where we were, was “anxious” or “anxiety.” And sometimes “fearful,” but pretty close to the same word, right?

Carl Richards:
So this… If our relationship… If you’re gonna describe your relationship with money as anxious, and it’s something that we use every day, multiple times a day, we have to decide. That… That to me is the problem, is we don’t know how to interact with money. We’ve never been taught how to interact with money. If we’ve been taught anything we’ve been taught, it’s a spreadsheet and calculator problem, which you don’t use the word “anxious” to describe a spreadsheet and calculator problem.

Reese Harper:
No.

Carl Richards:
You don’t use “fear.” You don’t use “greed.” You don’t use like, “I’m losing sleep.” So it started to occur to me that money really was like an electric fence that you didn’t know was electric. Like, every time you go to touch it, you think you’re approaching a calculator and you’re suddenly in a fight. Or you’re feeling like unmoored… And the other thing that has been super interesting to me lately, even more interesting lately, is I’m having… Increasingly, I’m having conversations with people with way more money than they ever need. I’m starting to keep track, actually. Like over 100 million in net worth. And those people are saying the same thing, like anxious. That’s wild.

Reese Harper:
That’s really fascinating.

Carl Richards:
So it appears to me that this system, and I’m not talking about capitalism per se, I’m just saying the system that we’ve built around money all over the world, is… Has to be broken if even the people who have won, “won” the game are miserable, and the people who have “lost” the game or are losing the game, are miserable… Like even the people who have won are miserable. And I put “won” in air quotes, huge air quotes. So the problem to me feels like we’re not addressing the root cause.

Carl Richards:
We’re throwing… Increasingly, we’re throwing more and more fancier spreadsheets, Monte Carlo analysis. We’re going, “Oh, one decimal place in the Monte Carlo didn’t work? Let’s go three.” We’re increasingly trying to make it a physics problem. We’ve got physics MV. We’re trying to solve it, and we’re not addressing the root of the issue, which is our fundamental relationship with this thing we call money and our sense of security, our sense of certainty. That to me, is the huge problem.

Reese Harper:
So what I’m hearing, and I’m just gonna kinda restate back, what I’m hearing is at the root of this problem lives anxiety, fear, worry, people being unsettled. And implied in that is the solution that we’ve been providing is to try to convince them that they don’t need to worry.

Carl Richards:
Right, the solution we’ve been…

Reese Harper:
Certainty.

Carl Richards:
Become sellers of certainty.

Reese Harper:
Certainty is our solution, right?

Carl Richards:
Yeah.

Reese Harper:
Like, “Well, I’ll prove to you that you’re gonna be fine with more math.”

Carl Richards:
And more decimal places.

Reese Harper:
Any psychologist will tell you that that’s a dangerous place to go. When a patient says… If a patient comes in with some bias, saying, “This is the way the world is.” And they’ve got one story to tell. “My marriage is broken because of this story. My career is broken because of this story.” Most therapists, what they’ll… The goal of… And I’m not a therapist, but I almost wish that was a second career. I probably will go into that if I ever… If I was ever gonna do therapy, I’d probably want therapy for financial advisors. [chuckle] But I think that the goal of good therapy is to practice telling a variety of stories, lots of stories that are possible. There isn’t one story. The story around anxiety might be, that’s okay. It’s okay to be worried and that’s just gonna be part of life, and it’s okay. Or it might be… You could tell 10 different stories about your life, that it was successful, that it was bad, that you picked the wrong career, that you didn’t have enough money, that you had too much money, that it was the divorce, it was the lack of the divorce, you made the wrong career decision too early.

Reese Harper:
There’s just hundreds of stories we can tell ourselves, and the truth is to get settled about your situation, that in my experience, at least, is to realize that there isn’t one story that’s the right one. There’s just accepting your unique beautiful path, the each day, each choice, all that you learned from it, just really enjoying this experience that you’ve had, ’cause it truly is a beautiful thing if you allow yourself to tell yourself those stories. The stories of acceptance, the stories of this beautiful life that you’ve had, all these experiences. And it doesn’t have to be either bad or good, it doesn’t have to be elated like euphoric, great. I’ve had the best life, better than anybody. And it doesn’t have to be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m just a mess.” But it’s somewhere living with that lack of certainty, living with the uncertain, that feels like the only way to overcome what the American Psychology Association says is America’s main problem: Financial stress, financial anxiety, financial worry.

Carl Richards:
It’s so important to understand this. We think our job as a financial advisor is to provide certainty, and it turns out that by providing that uncertainty, we just continue to perpetuate the myth that it exists. That if I’d just get a better calculator and if that advisor doesn’t give it to me, I’ll just find another advisor that will give it to me. It’s just a rotating… It’s the same thing you see in… Like how many time management books do you need to read before you just figure it out, “I’ll use a 3 x 5 card and write down the three things I’ve gotta get done today.” It’s this continual search for the solution that doesn’t exist. And so becoming sellers of certainty…

Carl Richards:
Like we think for some reason our job is to provide certainty and we have to realize, no one cares. No one cares about your solutions. They care about their problems. And once we understand that there’s no way to… Like I can’t provide a financial plan that’s detailed… No amount of reassurance is enough, because it turns out we live in an uncertain world. And so, I think before we… To me, the problem is that we keep throwing… I mean, to make it really simplistic, we keep throwing prescriptions at people. “You don’t like green, that’s okay, Mr. And Mrs. Cline, I’ve got blue.” And we haven’t really taken the time to diagnose. And the diagnosis isn’t about, “Oh, your balance sheet doesn’t look good,” or “It does look good.” The diagnosis is, those are just tricks to get underneath that to help people understand like, “Hey, I don’t really know what the future is gonna look like.” It’s much more, I’m a guide in a changing landscape, not a defender of an outdated map.

Carl Richards:
We’ve spent a lot of time getting really good at drawing maps. And then when the world doesn’t turn out to look like the map, we defend it. We say things like, “If you missed the 10 best days in the market… ” We have a list of ways to defend the map. Well, it turns out, try drawing a map where the landscape is literally changing: People’s lives, the markets, the economy. You can’t. So you’re gonna make an effort to draw the best map you can. But then we need to accept the fact that we live in an uncertain world, and that lives change, and people change, and markets change, and inflation is different than you thought.

Reese Harper:
Yeah, great insight.

Carl Richards:
Right? So to me that’s the problem, is that we’re trying to be defenders of maps. We’re trying to be the best map drawers ever. Great. We’re trying to defend the maps. What we need to realize is, the toolset we need to build is more like a guide, a mountain guide in the changing landscape.

[music]

Abby Morton:
Hey, it’s Abby. Are you on the hunt for ways to grow your book, speed up your planning process, and better serve your rising star clients and prospects? Then it’s time to find out how Elements is helping advisors like you all across the country modernize their approach to financial planning. To chat with us, go to getelements.com/demo and we’ll show you how Elements can help future-proof your business.

[music]

Reese Harper:
120 million roughly households in America, and the 90,000 roughly CFPs that we’ll use as a proxy for competency. [chuckle] I know that’s not entirely… There are non-CFPs that are equally competent than there are CFPs that are equally incompetent. But let’s use that as a proxy. This certainty that we have been selling, I think it’s because most of us have a shot with the top quartile of 1%, 1% of income. We’ll talk about some statistics of who the market is actually serving, who the CFP market is actually serving in a future episode. But this… The vast majority of Americans, the definition of what certainty is for the top 1%, it’s just like not possible for the vast majority of people. And even for many of that top 1%, it’s still not possible. If certainty… If the certainty that you’re selling is, “You’re gonna be fine and have plenty of money.” If that’s the certainty.

Carl Richards:
Yeah, yeah, and that’s just…

Reese Harper:
I’m not… That is one…

Carl Richards:
I know, but it’s really important to unpack that just a little bit, because what’s interesting is even talking… And I’ve been keeping track of these conversations and I’m super curious about it. Again, I’m just using 100 million as some ridiculous number, right?

Reese Harper:
Yeah, yeah.

Carl Richards:
But it’s true. I’ve had more conversations with people… They have more than $100 million net worth, that are worried that tomorrow is the day they’re gonna end up under a bridge.

Reese Harper:
Yeah, yeah.

Carl Richards:
So certainly…

Reese Harper:
It’s still not possible.

Carl Richards:
Does not solve… More money does not solve the certainty problem.

Reese Harper:
0:16:21.7 RH: No, but it’s kind of crazy that even in that scenario where you’d think…

Carl Richards:
Right. Of course it would.

Reese Harper:
That there would be some reduced anxiety around money, I personally… My experience has been anecdotally very similar. But I think the people that tend to come to the St. Carls of the world, right? Are the ones that are also really struggling with that emotional job of confidence, of presence. They’re looking for that therapeutic counselor. I do think there’s some objective like, “reduction in stress” we’ll call it, as people’s liquidity rises, but I tend to… My anecdotal experience had been the same as yours. I don’t feel like the conversation with someone with 10,000 is much different than the person with 10 million. They’re…

Carl Richards:
Sure.

Reese Harper:
They’re very similar, but we are… The only thing we have been showing people visually is a map of, “Plenty of money is gonna make it all better.”

Carl Richards:
Yes.

Reese Harper:
That’s all we’re showing. We’re not showing anything like in front of our clients, medium income, low income or a very high income, that’s any different. We’re just showing them that our whole orientation here is to make sure that one day, you have plenty of money.

Carl Richards:
Yeah.

Reese Harper:
I’m a wealth advisor, right? I’m a… The word “wealth” is so loaded and so intimidating, who even thinks they have wealth? Even the $100 million person will be like, “I don’t have real wealth. I’m not a billionaire.” No one thinks they have wealth. And we’re wealth advisors, and we’re showing the future at some point down the road, “When you have a lot of money, that’s when you’re gonna be happy.”

Carl Richards:
Yeah.

Reese Harper:
“And I’m here to help you get there.”

Carl Richards:
Yeah.

Reese Harper:
I mean, it’s just the whole orientation is like… It’s got to be increasing the anxiety, that there’s no wonder they’d be… All of the… I don’t know if it’s the 90% of the CFPs, but like the vast majority, they are in business to show that that’s the place we’re trying to go, where you have plenty of money. And it’s like…

Carl Richards:
Yeah. “And you’ll get there one day.”

Reese Harper:
And we’ll get there one day. And so every at-bat, like every client meeting, I just happened to meet barely with a 75-year-old couple that I just met with last week. I met with ’em like four months ago. And they saw from this Charles Schwab ad on TV that there was this calculator that showed you, if you sell the house here then it does that, and if you invest your money this way, it might be worth that. And they’re like, “Do you have like some kind of a calculator or a tool that shows me exactly when I’m gonna run out of money and how it’s gonna work?” And I didn’t give ’em this idea ’cause I was very much in this Elements framework [chuckle] of like… I’m not gonna put that in front of them because it didn’t matter.

Reese Harper:
I put that in front of them one time, I put a simulation in front of them, to just respond to their request, and it was so interesting because this happened prior to the… I guess it’s been more than four months now, because it was like a week or two prior to the market decline, back in the 1st of January, it was probably like… And right around the end of the year, and as soon as we got down to that, even though their model and their simulation, it actually showed a very positive state, they’re not exceptionally wealthy, but there’s just no scenario in which they’re gonna run out of money.

Reese Harper:
They left that conversation after getting sold certainty, essentially, I incorrectly or I responded to their request of selling some certainty and I gave them some certainty. As soon as the market was down 15%, 20%, even though they’re probably only 30% in equities, it was like a really heavy burden of… “I wanna relook at that thing and I want you to re-show me and make sure I’m okay again, ’cause it couldn’t possibly be okay after all that’s happened in the last three or four months, was their… ” That was there feeling. And it was so interesting, ’cause I… As I went to that meeting, I was like, oh my gosh, I could just do this again and again and again and again, or I’m gonna go back and readdress what I’ve addressed with them over the last seven, eight years, which is like, “You’re not gonna be able to have that certainty.”

Reese Harper:
This couple has a pretty big difference in age more than, I think it’s 12 or 13 years age gap, and so the older spouse is feeling like there’s just a lot of uncertainty around how much they should spend now, and should we take a vacation now, should we really enjoy life now, should we… Is it time for us to really just… Can we even keep golfing… Can we keep going on trips together? There’s just so much underlying anxiety. And so we just addressed the inability that we’re gonna have to ever really know. I just said, “Yeah, I could show you this model again, and you’re gonna see that it’s just fine, but I can also show a scenario where it’s not okay.”

Reese Harper:
And it was just so hard for them to not want me to prove that to them one more time, but the conversation was a lot more fruitful when they accepted the idea that we’re just not gonna be able to have a 100% certainty. You’re gonna change your behavior today because of that reality, and I don’t know, it’s the first time in a while when I’ve had to actually address somebody at that stage who’s not perfectly wealthy and doesn’t have the exact amount they would think they need, and it’s kind of on the edge.

Reese Harper:
But it’s like it didn’t matter. They wanted permission to feel okay. In either conversation, it was the same outcome, and they needed that from me, but the tool that I showed them back before the market decline caused them to start to index on the tool really heavily, really quickly, and I was just like, “Man, I probably shouldn’t have… ” Who knows? I mean, it’s not a bad experiment, but I learned some things from that exchange.

Carl Richards:
Well. Yeah, I think it’s… So we know for a fact that as soon as we get to the place where we know we’re going to be okay, we will move that goal post. That’s not… Nobody listening to this is gonna be surprised by the fact that it’s never enough. If what you’re focused on is having enough, you can never have enough. You can only be there, you can never arrive at enough. So I think if we circle back to this problem idea… Well, this story just reminds me of one quick story, I remember I had clients… And we’ll just call them John and Jill. John and Jill came to me, they had young kids, they were one of my favorite clients, they actually happened to be neighbors and we were good friends, and their kids were the same age as our kids, and this was young… I think their oldest was eight, and then they had some younger ones too.

Carl Richards:
And John was an ER doctor, and he came to me and said, “We think that everybody gets this wrong, this idea that I’m just gonna work, work, work, work, work, work, work, for the first 15 years of my kids lives, so that I can have some time later.” And the words he used was like, “By the time they’re that age, they’re gonna have nose rings and purple hair.” Not that there’s anything wrong with nose rings and purple hair. That was just what he said. And that was a metaphor for they’re gonna want nothing to do with me. He’s like, “I’d like to take some time off now. I’d like to go on a sabbatical now, and could we take six months… I’d like to know could we take six months to work from… Basically travel and homeschool our kids, visit all our family along the way, do the whole United States tour, come back?”

Carl Richards:
And I remember, I knew the answer. I knew the answer was like, “Well, I can certainly paint a picture that says this won’t work,” But it doesn’t… I remember saying in my head, I remember thinking, it’s not stupid. It’s not imprudent, is probably the word that I would have used with the client, but before I calculated it, I remember saying to them, “Well, yeah, before I go run the plan, let me ask you a question. If it says that it’s not imprudent, would you do it?” And they both looked at each other like, “Oh no.”

Carl Richards:
And they were like, “Yeah, I think we would. I think we would.” So I pretended like, “Okay, go away. It’ll take me a week.” Like righteous trick, I’ll run all the numbers and the calculations, I’ll print out 200 pages to tell you, “I can’t promise you that this is gonna work, but it doesn’t seem like a dumb idea to me.” And they went and I still have postcards from that event. So all I’m saying is, I think if we think about the problem, the problem is we are focused on delivering something we can’t deliver, like we think our job is to deliver products and solutions that provide certainty.

Reese Harper:
Strategy, like immediate wealth creation, exceptional Alpha…

Carl Richards:
And we’re gonna get you there and you’re gonna arrive someday. And look, all the tools and techniques we used to do those things are important. I’m not downplaying the ability to run those projections and run the… You should be the best calculator in the problem…

Reese Harper:
Or even source good product.

Carl Richards:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a critical part, you should be the best map builder on the planet and feel really confident in building a defensible map, whatever that looks like to you. And it doesn’t matter, unless we can get to this underlying thing. So all of that map building is righteous tricks to help slowly guide people through it.

Reese Harper:
I’m just gonna put a bullet on this conversation I had with this client too, ’cause I was really proud of about a year ago, the one spouse is retiring prematurely in order to spend time with their spouse who’s retired, at some personal risk to both of them, and that was a really big risk because the younger spouse was a… Well, I would consider, like Russ Alan Prince’s methodology, an accumulator personality: Super conservative, very worried about money, very concerned about every penny, and getting them to just take that leap and move on and just say, “Guys, like, we’ll never know if it’s gonna be enough, but like I just… ”

Carl Richards:
I think you’re stupid.

Reese Harper:
It’s not stupid. Right? [laughter]

Carl Richards:
Yeah.

Reese Harper:
And then, when they came back after I showed them that model [chuckle] in December, after they came and then we just recently met, I asked that same question that you asked to your client, which is like, “Guys, if I put this in front of you again, and I show you that it does put your overall plan at risk, you’re going to run out of money at some point in 10 years plus from now… ” I’m showing them their Elements and they can look at their years and they’re like, they know what… They have enough certainty from just that to make some kind of intelligent decision.

Reese Harper:
I said, “Would you go back to work right now? Would you go back to work right now and not go to… Not go on this vacation that you’re about to go on, and spend these next couple years together?” And they’re like, “No, we’re going, no matter what.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know. So why are you putting yourself through this torture? Yeah. Be reasonable, be frugal, try to be thoughtful about this trip. But if I were you, this is what you’ve been working for, for your entire life. Love every minute of it and just enjoy this thing.”

Carl Richards:
Totally.

Reese Harper:
And I bought ’em a cold brew. And then they were off to the races, just happy as could be. And it’s ultimately like, that was… It was just another illustration for me of like, even if you model the pain that might be there, your client will determine, through their own internal values, like what choice they’re gonna make next and…

Carl Richards:
Super important. Super important.

Reese Harper:
It’s really beautiful to see people take the permission to sort of live the life that they wanna live. And that’s, I think, what we’re trying to do, within some level of prudence.

Carl Richards:
No, I think that like, just…

Reese Harper:
The prudence does have some… There is some rational prudence.

Carl Richards:
No, I agree. Like look, I still feel like I can go toe to toe with anybody with my 17B. I know how to use a car… Is it 17B? [laughter] 12B?

Reese Harper:
You’ve got your 10T…

Carl Richards:
I’m not [0:28:55.6] ____.

Reese Harper:
You’ve got your 12C, there’s plenty of options.

Carl Richards:
I’m not a [0:28:58.9] ____. I think it’s 17B. I still feel like I can go toe to toe with anybody. Like that stuff’s important. And what people really want is after all the calculations, after all, like, I wanna be able to look you in the eyes and say, “Look, based on everything I know about you and then I can grant you permission to go do the thing.” And to me, that’s the most beautiful part of this job. And yeah, that’s the most beautiful part of this job.

Reese Harper:
Alright. Carl, great episode. Thanks so much, man.

Carl Richards:
Yeah.

Reese Harper:
Looking forward to doing it again.

Carl Richards:
Amen, Reese.

Jordan Haines:
Next time on Elementality.

Steven Jarvis:
What we are doing is focusing on what works, when I sit down across the table from a client, or I get on my Zoom call or I send something to the client, what are the scripts? What are the approaches that prompt my clients to take action, that help enable my team to do this effectively and efficiently? I mean, you brought up the point with working with centers of influence of, well, what if there’s 50 of them? How do I do that? I definitely get that pushback from advisors of, “Hey, you talk about getting a tax return for every client every single year, but what am I supposed to do when I get 100 tax returns? I don’t have time for that.” And so it’s a combination of narrowing the focus to say, “Here are the things that are gonna have the biggest impact. Here’s what you should focus on. And also here’s how you can put a system in place to make this more effective.”

Abby Morton:
You can learn more about the Elements financial monitoring system at getelements.com/demo and schedule a time to talk with one of our friendly financial planning experts. Elementality’s executive creators are Reese Harper and Carl Richards. Elementality is produced by Abby Morton and directed by Jordan Haynes. Have a good one.

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