October 25, 2014

Life Planning Part 2: Just a Few Years Left

Heart with Fortunes

George Kinder, a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors and a fee-only financial planner, founded the Kinder Institute of Life Planning. He helped popularize the concept of financial life planning, which begins with the idea that financial advisors should understand their clients’ life purpose and structure their finances accordingly. In other words, they should begin with the end in mind. This is both obvious and genius.

Kinder is probably best known for his now famous “three questions” that seek to uncover those goals and values most central in our lives. Number one is “If you had all the time or money you needed, what would you do?”

The response to this question typically provokes a long list of all our desires that money can buy. But with reflection it goes deeper, stirring the longings of our heart. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give.”

Our materialistic culture seduces us into believing happiness can be packaged as a commodity and taken home in a shopping bag. As a result, we spend money on goods and services that at best provide fleeting satisfaction and may jeopardize long-term goals that could have brought us real fulfillment.

We may be tempted to judge our well-being not by the quality of our lives but by how we compare with others. Today’s borderline poor live as well as the upper middle class did a few decades ago. But they still feel deprived. As we become accustomed to a higher standard of living, luxury quickly loses its luster. We always want more. Kinder’s first question gets all these desires out on the table, at least partially, so we can move past them.

Kinder’s second question, which can be encapsulated by the phrase “Just a Few Years Left,” probes those values that money can’t buy. “Imagine that you visit your doctor, who tells you that you have only 5-10 years to live. You won’t ever feel sick, but you will have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life and how will you do it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited funds.)”

Take the time to explore this question periodically. A personal five-year plan isn’t the sign of an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Systematically moving toward our goals is simply living intentionally.

If you have young children, your answer may focus almost exclusively on them and include few, if any, of your own personal goals. Certainly parenthood is a consuming responsibility. But it is only for a season of our lives. And even during that time, parents can often integrate some of their own dreams.

Kinder unfolds all of these ideas in his book “The Seven Stages of Money Maturity: Understanding the Spirit and Value of Money in Your Life.” Many of us hesitate to take this personal journey. I regularly get letters questioning what spirituality and values have to do with financial planning. I believe these detractors miss the whole point.

Beth Nedelisky and I teach an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course each spring, “Financial Planning for Success and Significance in Retirement.” In the first class we explore finding meaning in retirement and defining success. A few participants are disappointed that they have to wait until later for the spreadsheets and income projections. But most are glad to talk about why a complete retreat from the working world followed by 24/7 recreation and a shrinking social circle is an impoverished environment for our souls.

We shouldn’t shortchange the process of wrestling with the meaning of our lives at any age. Deep down many of us probably know what would be a more satisfying life, but we are afraid to contemplate the implications. Change can be intimidating. The alternative, however, is to keep living a life that in our own eyes may seem unimportant.

Even without small children, significance stems heavily from family and other close relationships. Loving others demands risking and being willing to change and adapt in order to connect deeply. At the end of life, people often regret the risks they didn’t take. For many of us, it takes something drastic, like a serious medical prognosis or a near accident, to push us out of our comfort zone.

Often it requires getting older to find the wisdom and the grace to accept people as they are. The virtues of forgiveness and forbearance are necessary to live harmoniously. Relationships can be messy, but they are generally worth the effort. And it helps to remember that what is most important is being the right person, not finding the right person. We can learn to accept people without necessarily approving of their choices.

Once our personal relationships are healthy, many of us want to connect with the outside world and give back to others. Even small efforts to help others can make a significant impact on our communities and change the course of people’s lives.

A second realm where people find significance is authentic spirituality. This is more than simply being religious, which is often expressed through practicing a specific tradition. Authentic spirituality often involves the totality of our life in which we seek to have our very identity renewed and shaped.

Compartmentalizing spiritual considerations into a small subset of our lives lacks authenticity. We long for a more meaningful life. At times these issues demand our attention and contemplation. We can start by relying on our spiritual traditions, but outward practices can only take us so far. Authentic spirituality is an odyssey of discovery and personal growth such that the truths learned change the way we live each day.

The third sphere where people seek a deeper and richer life is in the arena of beauty. Many people enjoy exploring their creativity, perhaps through music, the visual arts, or personal writing.

For others this sense of beauty is found in a reverence for nature. Places in the world like the redwood forests of California have a magical quality. Or we may find a special connection with urban locales like Central Park or the back alleys of Venice.

These three realms, righteousness, truth and beauty, are the three areas where most people find meaning and significance. They categorize what is most important to many of us.

I asked George Kinder about people’s life goals and he said, “Sometimes I wonder why it is that so many of us make foolish decisions around money. Even with good advisors at our side, it seems. And then I reflect that perhaps the reason is that we have never really figured out what money is and what it’s about. We think it’s about spreadsheets and bank balances and rates of return and stock markets and buying things and getting into debt. Or at least those are some of the categories that might come up for us.

“But money really is the great facilitator of what is most meaningful for us in the world. It’s meant to help us put together a life that best expresses our own individual genius, our brilliance, our creativity, our compassion, our values, our integrity, our spirit, our mission in life, what is most important of all that we realize and become.”

Some thoughtful responses to these life planning exercises can help us set goals that are both meaningful and deeply personal and help us truly value our lives. Take the time to reflect on what you would like to do or be to live life to its fullest. Next week we will move on to the third life planning exercise.


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About David John Marotta

David John Marotta+ is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management, Inc. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. Favorite number: e (2.7182818...)

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