Change of Plans: Financial Independence Now, Please

Generally speaking, wealth management is an attractive term typically associated with luxurious living, financial freedom and travel. To say wealth management is to conjure up images of bright, luxurious offices, where investment professionals work diligently on computers, presumably processing numbers and colourful graphs in such a way that financial independence materializes for happy clients who then buy wineries and marvel at their good fortune.

In reality, the exercise of wealth management entails a lot of grunt work. You spend most of your time reviewing, planning for and re-evaluating all the different aspects that determine how a person lives their life, and you work hard to ensure they can keep living to the same standard long after retirement. Managing debt, saving instead of spending, giving money to kids or parents and/or an ex-spouse, acknowledging how much you give to Ottawa, deciding who has signing authority for your property if you’re alive but incapacitated—hardly Camp Good Times, and believe me when I say talking about stocks is much more pleasant—but all are vital topics nonetheless.

If I had to pick the poster child for an ugly duckling sub-category within wealth management, it would be the investigation into what happens if you ski into a tree, or get cancer, and your income is disrupted for a meaningful period of time. Presumably there is a backstop that keeps your income flowing, but no one is ever entirely clear what that is. What is clear when a major health issue strikes, however, is that your status quickly switches from “Worker Bee/Earner” to “(Early) Retiree.” In the absence of planning, this maneuver is at best expensive and, at worst, impossible.

Enter long-term disability insurance, critical illness insurance and good old self-insurance (a.k.a. stinkin’ rich). One of my focuses within our Baseplan Process is to develop a clear understanding of what income backstop you have, while you don’t need it. After all, assessing ‘new’ sources of income while lying in a hospital bed would likely be a distressing exercise in an already distressing situation. It could also be a very short exercise if, in fact, there are few replacement income sources to assess. Additionally, the menu of options available after a health issue is typically quite limited, relative to the broader menu available the day before a health issue strikes.

Some of the options available through planning? You can buy more insurance coverage, or if you hate insurance, you can start accumulating a massive emergency fund. You can also play the odds and decide to carry the risk. Whichever path you choose, the goal of our process is to have reviewed your options, reflected on them and then taken action. I will not sugar coat this exercise—within your year it will fall somewhere between a prostate exam and pretending to like kale. Stocks are a nicer topic but relative to this potential problem they are kind of useless. “Beating the Index” or owning a five-bagger stock won’t bail most people out if they suddenly need to replace their income for three years, often initiating portfolio withdrawals way sooner than planned.

What’s interesting to me is the different ways people view insurance. For example, people widely accept that insuring their vehicle is a smart and sound financial decision. As a refresher, a vehicle is typically a depreciating asset that leeches off your net worth statement until it finally vapourizes, right before the cycle repeats itself. Alternatively, earning $200,000 per year over a 20-year period has a present-value price tag of around $3 million. A pretty awesome asset, which if we are honest, is holding up the whole house of cards we call your financial life. So if we’ve got insurance on the depreciating asset (the car), surely we have the $3 million crown jewel income asset insured to the hilt? Or we are self-insured and know it? Or we have at least crash-tested the income stream upon which our home, family and existence depends? It’s around here that things can get hazy, and irrespective of what the fix is, some clarity is a massive step forward.

And this is the crux of sound financial planning and wealth management. Harnessing what you have and finding the best ways to make it work for you. It’s work that, if done right, can protect that sweet investment portfolio from being subject to withdrawals earlier than planned, or that massive home equity line of credit suddenly being called on to pay for your life. Yes, wealth management largely consists of grunt work. But when it’s done well and done right, it can result in happy clients who buy wineries and marvel at their good fortune; their good fortune in finding a wealth management professional who helped them save and invest, pay off debt and made sure a health issue didn’t unwind all their progress.

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