Oftentimes folks ask me what their financial plan should look like. It turns out that this question touches on a little bit of a religious debate within the investment community. For that reason, I thought I would explain the various viewpoints and then share the approach that I think works best.
The religious debate can be summed up with this question: Is financial planning a product or a process? In other words, is a financial plan a document that you can print, bind and put on your shelf or is it an ongoing activity? Here are the two opposing viewpoints:
Supporters of the “it’s a product” view are usually dyed-in-the-wool financial planners. Not surprisingly, they believe that financial planning should result in a physical plan – an exhaustive, detailed document full of analysis and projections.
Meanwhile, supporters of the “it’s a process” philosophy are usually people whose DNA leans more toward investing than to planning. They prefer the action and excitement of the stock market and see financial planners as bean-counters who spend too much time fine-tuning their spreadsheets. These folks believe most financial planning can be done on the fly and that the best plan is simply to find winning investments. To be fair, they might produce a chart or two, but then it’s off to the races with investments.
So which group is right? Like most religious debates, each side makes some valid points, but I also believe each is too extreme. The ideal solution, in my experience, blends both product and process. Others have made the analogy to a military battle plan: You certainly wouldn’t rush onto a battlefield without a plan. But, once you’re there, you need to be flexible because, in the real world, things never go exactly according to plan. In the end, as long as you achieve your objectives, it’s okay if your ultimate path deviates from your original plan. To me, that approach represents the ideal blend of product and process.
When it comes to your finances, how should you apply these principles? It’s three steps: Plan, Prioritize and Proceed.
Step 1 – Plan: This is the “product” part of financial planning. As a first step, I always start with the “Big Four” — that is, your assets, liabilities, income and expenses. If you can get those basics on one or two pieces of paper, you’ll be off to a great start. Continuing with the military analogy, the Big Four tell you which way to march.
Step 2 – Prioritize: Managing your finances is hardly your full-time job, so you want to focus first only on your most urgent priorities. These will be different for each person, but examples include: an asset allocation that carries too much risk (or too little), life insurance that would be insufficient to pay a family’s bills or a potential estate tax that would outstrip a family’s liquid assets. In my experience, if you can address these kinds of tasks right away, you’ll sleep easier, and then you can tackle the longer list of lower-priority items down the road.
Step 3 – Proceed: This is where financial planning becomes a process. As life evolves, certain events will unfold just as you had hoped: getting married, having children, building your career, sending your children to college, celebrating at their weddings, retiring. But many events will be unexpected. Some will be positive: professional success, a lucky investment or perhaps a large inheritance. And some will be negative, such as an illness or career setback. Because everyone will experience some mix of the positive and the not-so-positive, the most important thing is to make sure your plan is built with a margin for error and that you revisit it regularly.
How regularly? In my experience, you want to update your plan at each life event – that is, when any of your Big Four change materially. And you’ll also want to mark your calendar to take certain steps in every tax year. Depending upon your stage in life, this might be an IRA contribution or distribution, a 529 contribution, a charitable gift, exercising stock options or chipping away at a large, concentrated position in an investment.
Look at your financial plan like a field guide, not an encyclopedia. Yes, it’s a product, but it works best when you keep it in your back pocket and feel the freedom to mark it up with changes as you go.