A lesson a client taught me

Not that long ago I received this note from a long time client:

“I was accustomed for 50+ years to expect to make a decent income next year, and the year after that, etc.. But after retiring, I realized that I will never again earn any income from my work. That is quite a scary feeling to adjust to. Post retirement, my sole source of feelings of safety is reliance upon you as my advisor, to look out for my interests.”

I’ve been thinking about what he said — and, most importantly, the meaning behind those words ever since;

because while he may not have been consciously aware of it, it’s my belief that my client was talking about more than money.

Rationally, intellectually, he knows he’s okay financially, more than okay, in fact. He knows we’ve prepared for this time, he and I — carefully, thoughtfully, methodically and strategically — and we’ve prepared well. And not to be overlooked is the important fact that he’s worked hard and saved diligently for years so he can have a successful retirement.

But emotionally, that’s a different story.

This new chapter of his life brings with it a new reality. He’s entering a new phase of his life. His incoming earning days are behind him, his nest egg is what it is and that’s what he’s got for the rest of his life — and there’s a finality to that. It’s not surprising that he might be feeling the loss of control over his financial destiny.

No doubt a lot of retirees feel the same way

It’s normal human behaviour and, in our own way, each and every one of us will go through it — to a lesser or greater degree when we reach his stage in life. I just finished a book (highly recommended by the way) — The Geometry of Wealth, by Brian Portnoy, Ph.D., CFA — that describes it perfectly:

“… this emotion is intensely felt by those at the end of their working lives. The shift from employment to retirement, from accumulation to decumulation, is hardly just the next stage of financial planning. It is also an existential reorientation, one in which people are confronted by a change in purpose. Motivations like competing, winning and control yield to settling and accepting. Retirement parties and gold watches notwithstanding, this is a time in life which research has shown is fraught with sadness. This shows that we are programmed to strive for more, not to sit quietly and enjoy what we have.”

While my client was earning a living he had control over his destiny, at least to some degree. Now that’s gone. And, as Brian Portnoy also points out in his book, “it’s more than a paycheck … more than a loss of income and all that means … it’s a loss of identity and pride, a sense of self-worth. What we do in life is a deep source of meaning. It defines us.”

So what’s the lesson I learned?

When I say that my client taught me a lesson, here’s what I mean: He’s reminded me of the business I’m in — which isn’t just the planning business, or the investment business.

I am in the “people” business. And people, clients come with emotions. Fears. Doubts. Traits. Misconceptions. Pre-conceived notions. Predispositions. Previous experiences, good and bad. Human nature, in other words.

And in taking the time to understand what he may be thinking, experiencing and going through — at every stage of our relationship, not just this one — to let myself feel what he’s feeling, I can be better equipped to have a more meaningful, more relevant, more comprehensive, more beneficial conversation with him.

It’s not just about the numbers. It never is. And that’s an important lesson for all of us to learn.

Alan Friedman is an Investment Advisor with CIBC Wood Gundy in Toronto. The views of Alan Friedman do not necessarily reflect those of CIBC World Markets Inc. CIBC Wood Gundy is a division of CIBC World Markets Inc. a subsidiary of CIBC and a Member of the Canadian Investor Protection Fund and Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada. If you are currently a CIBC Wood Gundy client, please contact your Investment Advisor.

2 thoughts on “A lesson a client taught me

  1. Wise and well thought! For us who find ourselves still working, whether by choice or necessity way passed our retirement deadline, one word, “aw”. I am in complete amazement that I can still do what I do at this age. Along with that comes tremendous gratitude! Of course I wish I would have planned it differently but, no doubt, to that Force bigger than me that did the planning, thank you for giving me the right set of tools!


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