I Lost a Client and Learned a Lesson

I lost a client this week. I don’t mean lost like I can’t find her. And I don’t mean lost like she left our firm for another advisor. Luckily, that doesn’t happen very often. No, I mean I lost her because she passed away. And now, reflecting on her passing, I’ve learned a lesson, and maybe you can too.

Her passing was a surprise but not a total shock. She had been diagnosed with cancer several months ago. She endured a couple of months of treatment, which included chemotherapy and radiation. The doctors felt that they had controlled the spread of the cancer and wanted her to have surgery to remove the tumor. She had the surgery two weeks ago. She seemed to come through it well, and the doctors thought the surgery was a success.

She wasn’t the healthiest woman and had not taken good care of herself over the years. Her relatively poor health was a big part of why she developed pneumonia as she recovered from the surgery. Her body wasn’t strong enough to fight back, and her organs shut down. She passed last Tuesday.

So, what is the lesson I learned that can help you (and me) with our financial futures? First, I need to share a little background about Jane (not her real name). Jane retired about two years ago after spending several years as an administrative assistant. She saved a little, and when her mother passed away a few years ago, Jane inherited a modest sum of money.

Jane had been a client for less than a year before she left her job, so we had not had a chance to do a lot of retirement planning. In fact, I learned that she had retired after she had already done so. She was having a bad stretch at work and decided that she needed out. She felt she had enough in savings to make it through her retirement years. I wasn’t so sure.

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I felt that Jane had enough assets that if she budgeted wisely and her investments were managed properly, she could make it work. I shared that thought with her, and she said that she would try her best. She promised to call me anytime she planned to make a large purchase. And call she did. She had to have that new fence. She had to have that new car. She felt she deserved a trip to New York on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop in Times Square. It went on and on.

Whenever she called me, I let her know that it was her money and that I couldn’t stop her from spending it. But we had several spirited conversations about whether she could afford her latest indulgence. I felt that it was my job to make sure her money would last for years.

As a fiduciary financial planner, I work to help clients make sure that they have enough money to live out their retirement years. I’ve often said that planning would be a lot easier if we only knew when we were going to pass away. Since we don’t know, we build the plan on the assumption that we will live a long time. We typically plan for the money to last for several years beyond a normal life expectancy. We don’t want to run out of money in the last years of our lives.

Not long ago, while attending a financial planning conference, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion on retirement planning. One of the biggest takeaways I had from this session was that, as planners, we are so focused on making sure that our clients have more money than breath that we might be doing them a disservice. What if we had told them that they could have retired a year or two earlier? Or that they could have funded that family vacation with their kids and grandkids?

It turns out that Jane was right, and I was wrong. She could afford her new fence, her new car, and her trip to New York. She could have afforded more had we known. But we don’t know.

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My lesson? It’s really something that I already knew. And you do too. While we need to plan for the future, we can’t forget to live in the present. What good is a pile of money at the end of your life if you haven’t enjoyed life along the way? I try to help clients design a financial life that leaves them with no regrets. Jane helped me realize just how important that can be.

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