Over the past several years, the media has paid plenty of attention to the so-called "Savings Crisis", as a disproportionate number of Americans haven’t saved nearly enough to handle unexpected emergencies, much less generate sufficient cashflow in order to retire. However, there’s a flip-side called the “Epidemic Of Spending”, where retirees who have been frugal for (literally) decades and have diligently saved for their retirements suddenly start spending and even dangerously splurging… potentially to the point of no longer being able to sustain the original retirement goal they so effectively saved for in the first place. Sometimes, such tendencies can be attributed to a desire to ‘just live a little’, but other times, overspending may arise for reasons other than just being faced with the temptation to splurge – for some clients, significant life events can change long-term goals and precipitate dramatic changes in spending habits.
In our 29th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and financial advisor communication expert Carl Richards talk about ways to manage conversations with clients who may be spending at unsustainable levels and are in danger of jeopardizing their own goals, and how important it is to understand why clients may have changed their spending habits in the first place. Notably, the most straightforward path for advisors – simply telling clients that they’re being unreasonable and that they can’t continue spending at their current levels if they want their plan to work – can result in the client simply hiding their spending from their advisor in the first place.
Instead, the importance of connecting the “no” to a bigger “yes” can help clients see a path down from the ‘branches’ of emotional decision-making back to the foundational ‘roots’ laid out in their financial plans – in other words, telling a client they need to reduce their spending should tie to their bigger financial goals that they initially identified were most important to them.
However, it’s also important for advisors to conduct conversations around spending with empathy and objectivity. Because it’s possible that changes in spending behavior are not a result of reckless irresponsibility, but instead a result from a deeper reason, such as a (not-yet-disclosed) terminal illness diagnosis, or the loss of a loved one.
When the cause of erratic spending habits is unknown, advisors can use a three-step process to better understand what may actually be happening in the client’s life that is causing the behavior change. The first step is to restate the fact pattern based on observations made by the advisor and information obtained from the client (e.g., how much is being spent each month; what the initial financial plan goals are/were); step two is to identify the story from the advisor’s viewpoint (e.g., spending at this level will deplete assets by age 70, versus age 95 as originally planned for); and step three is to ask the client to help clarify what’s really happening, offering a safe space for open discussion without judgment.
Ultimately, the key point is that, when clients exhibit unusual spending behaviors, there can be a range of different explanations. And by delving into those reasons with an objective, empathetic approach with a goal of truly understanding any possible mitigating factors, advisors can help clients either get back on track with their original plan or craft new goals to accommodate whatever changing needs they may have.
***Editor's Note: Can't get enough of Kitces & Carl? Neither can we, which is why we've released it as a podcast as well! Check it out on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, and Stitcher.
Kitces & Carl Podcast Transcript
Michael: Greetings, Carl.
Carl: Michael, how are you?
Michael: I'm doing well. How are you…from London now? You have changed not just location, it's not just that the background of these recordings have changed, you have physically moved basically to the opposite side of the globe from where you were.
Carl: It's almost exactly...I think Copenhagen was the exact opposite side of the globe. So we're pretty darn close. Yeah, yeah. It's been amazing. London's amazing. I miss New Zealand and how quiet it was and the river and the people and all that stuff, and the ocean – but London's amazing. There's a lot of really cool stuff going on in our industry and our profession. Really, really cool.
How Do You Talk To Clients With Unsustainable Spending Habits? [01:39]
Michael: Very cool. I feel like today's theme is maybe an uninteresting one to talk about in the context of your globetrotting world, from being in New Zealand for a while to now being in the UK for a while. It’s this phenomenon of spending. And I think what we often talk about is a U.S. consumerism of how we probably spend more than any other country on pretty much anything that we want to.
I had this question come in for us to talk about from an advisor reader who's been following this podcast who said, "I found over the past couple of years what I'm calling an ‘epidemic of spending’ across our higher-net-worth clients. People have demonstrated fiscal restraint throughout their lives and amassed even a few million dollars and are suddenly spending at unsustainable rates on pretty much everything. Houses, cars, kids, grandkids, travel, experiences, all the monthly things that dig into the credit card. Everything, no value proposition, no decision matrix. I want a new car, I got a couple of million bucks. Life is short. I'm spending the $60,000, cash."
And as she puts it, even though we're trying to talk about spending and cash flow and budgeting with these clients, we usually don't even hear about the recent purchases until after the fact and “I'm 0 for 50,” in her words, in convincing these people there's even much of an issue, much less correcting it.
And so I find this an interesting phenomenon. I've seen this with some of our clients as well. I think of it in sort of two splits. There's one group where they've been fiscally responsible. They're naturally frugal, they're good at spending less than they make. That's how they accumulate significant wealth. And then when they hit retirement, they're stuck in that mode. They still keep living frugally; our challenge with them is they spend 1% or 2% of their wealth, and we can't even get them to a 4% spending rate because they're just so wired for the frugal, they can't unhinge. Do you realize you actually saved a lot of money?
Then there are the people at the other end that I think, we'll call her Dana, that Dana is talking about here, where Dana has these clients that spend all this time, all these years, all these decades being frugal and then finally say, "I'm retired." Maybe they have a glimpse of mortality by the age that they’re at and say, "You know what? I don't have a ton of time left but I do have a bunch of money now. We're spending." And not always at the healthiest rates. There's a difference between “Let's enjoy the money,” and “Let's send it up in smoke.”
So when you get these clients that are having these kinds of spending issues, you're sitting across from them as an advisor and saying, "This is clearly unsustainable." How do you start having that conversation, Carl? How do you deal with that?
Carl: Yeah. So I think the context is super-important, right? Because I'm on a kick lately of, we need as a – whatever we're going to call ourselves – I'm going to just use the word “profession”. As a profession, we need to be giving people advice on how to spend better. Spend your money. I just rented out way more than what we're calling Dana's problem on excessive spending. Not Dana's problem. Dana's problem with clients.
Michael: You tend to see the other one; they were so frugal they don't know how to ‘unfrugal’ themselves.
Carl: Well, even I'm on a spending kick right now. Just sort of understanding that freedom and enjoyment now is really, really important. I realize it comes at the expense of later. Whatever; that's a whole different discussion.
Let's assume here that context is important. We're answering one specific question and the one specific question is, is it unsustainable? You calculated somehow – and we'll leave all that aside – you did some work, you figured out it's unsustainable. Let's just grant all that; that's the fact pattern. It's all good.
Michael: And Dana says, "What conversation am I supposed to have because I can see it's unsustainable and they are undaunted by that reality?"
To Get A Client To Say “No” To Overspending, You Have To Connect Them To A Bigger “Yes” [06:13]
Carl: Yeah. So the only chance you have, the only chance we have in any of these things, all you have to do is think about this. You're basically trying to get somebody to say “no” to something that they really want to do, and to do that repeatedly, right? "I want to buy a car." "No." "I want to..." "No."
When you're trying to get somebody to say no, you have to give them a connection to a bigger yes. The old Stephen Covey saying. We've got to give them a connection to a bigger yes. It sounds like Dana's doing an amazing job and sometimes it doesn't work. I don't think we help the matter when we try to guilt people into it. I don't know that scaring them into it works, either.
Now, all of these are different than being direct, right? But you can be direct. And the question is, what are we being direct around? And that's what I'm saying, you've got to give them a bigger yes. And what is that bigger yes? It's got to be a connection to a set of longer-term goals, right?
Now, here's the dilemma. We know from academic work that we relate to somebody 20 years...we relate to ourselves 20 years from now. The emotional connection we have to ourselves 20 years from now is the equivalent of the emotional connection we have to a stranger.
Michael: Yep. It's so distant, it's so far. If you try to envision yourself in the distant future – we've read these studies as well – you actually feel like you're talking about a stranger. It's such a distant, alien world. You feel no connection to your distant future self.
Carl: Totally. So what I would do and have done in a couple of cases, I can remember one and I can remember his name actually and we'll just call him Jay because that is not his name, but I remember with Jay and his wife sitting down and just having this really direct conversation and these conversations normally started with me saying, "Hey, you may fire me for what I'm about to tell you but you should definitely fire me if I don't."
Michael: Well, that just amps up the stakes which I think is the point, right?
Carl: Yeah, and you're like...
Michael: You're paying attention to this conversation now as a client.
Carl: Yeah, and I think it gives you permission to say, "Look, you should definitely fire me if I don't. It's part of my job to tell you this is not going to work." And so, hopefully you've got something to base that on. It sounds like Dana's done the work here, right? So she can say, "Look, here's what you told me. Here's what you told me when we were sort of..." Part of the dilemma is that we're trying to pull them out of the branches of these emotional and spur-of-the-moment decisions back to the roots.
So, again, out of the no and back to the yes. And the yes would be, “When we first met, you told me that…” I'm going to make something up. I'm thinking of Jerry. One of my clients, Jerry, who told me, "The most important thing about money to me is that it’ll let me never be a burden to the kids." And I said, "Okay, cool. Let's define that a little bit. What would that look like? And after we put a little definition, Jerry, can we...after we put a little definition around this, would it be okay if we called that a goal?"
Now, notice how different that is than saying, "Jerry, what are your goals?" Jerry doesn't know what his goals are, right? So Jerry says, "You know what? Basically it would be $5,000 a month in my mailbox..." He didn't even know this but I said, "Yeah." And we adjusted it for inflation, but $5,000 a month. Okay, so let's assume you've had that conversation with Jerry and then Jerry comes in and Jerry is spending $10,000 a month. When you add in the trip and the car and the whatever.
Well, then you have something to connect him to. "Jerry, you told me when we first met that not being a burden to the kids and never running out of money was important to you; you even went so far as to say that if it were possible, you would also like to leave some. Remember that conversation? Has that changed?" Right?
Hopefully, we get a, "No, no, it hasn't changed." So we start with sort of, I think of it as purpose.
Carl: I think you call it values. Purpose is a better term for it. Purpose. And then on top of that we build sort of this set of goals. We can move up to the goals and say, "Remember how we said that meant never being a burden to the kids? Maybe even leaving something? It was $5,000 a month in your mailbox – those were the terms you used, remember? And even though we could wire it to your bank, we set it up as a check because you wanted it as a check."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I remember."
"Has that changed?"
"Okay, well, then we've got to talk about this, because you've been spending twice that. Let me just show you what that does, and it'll be up to you. I can help you maximize the next 12 years, and maybe we'll get 15. Maybe we'll get 10 and maybe we'll get 15. But that's the path we're on and if that's what you want from me to help you maximize just until you run out of money, I'm here for you.”
Or you can be sort of Nick Murray, which I am also a fan of and you can say, "Tell me where to send the money because I don't want to play on this team anymore."
Michael: Meaning, "Jerry, if you're going to spend your money straight down to zero, we're going to have to end this relationship. You're going to have to find another advisor. I can't be here while you self-immolate yourself."
How Conversations Can Change When A Clients Bigger “Yes” Shifts Course [11:38]
Carl: Yeah, that's an option. I would prefer to have a conversation around like, "Hey, maybe your values have changed.” Maybe they’re like, "Hey, man. You know what? Forget that. I'll deal with that in 12 years. I want to enjoy things right now." We have to keep our values off somebody else's plans.
If, whoever we're calling this guy now, Jerry says, "Hey, no, no. You know what, Carl?” Maybe...what if this happens? “One of my best friends just died, Carl. I was at his funeral and I was thinking about all the things that I've postponed. I don't want to do that anymore, right? So for the next 12 years, I don't know. Maybe it'll last a year or two. I don't know. But for now, I'm just going to go after it a bit. There are things I want to do. And if I end up there, I'll have to figure it out. So, yeah, my purpose has changed a little bit."
"Okay. I would love to help with that. Jerry, I'm here for you, brother. Let's see what we can do." That's a different conversation than, "Dude, you're overspending, you're overspending."
So that's how I would try to connect to a deeper yes and then understand if that deeper yes has changed, and if it hasn't, maybe they don't understand. And, again, Dana sounds like they do understand the consequences, but the only chance you have, the only chance – I don't think people like to be scared into it, they don't like to be guilted into it – the only chance you have is to connect them to a deeper core yes that you've been planning for. That's my take.
What would you do?
Michael: So, what strikes me about situations like these, it's one thing with a new client we're meeting with, a new prospective client we're meeting with and they've never had fiscal restraints in the first place. Maybe they only have the money because there was a liquidity event from a business or they won the lottery, they inherited something. They have known and established spending problems. I'm going to put those aside for a moment. Maybe we can talk about those later because I think we've dealt with those, but Dana's situation to me is a little bit different and one that I think in some ways is potentially more solvable when you reflect on what's going on.
So, what strikes me hearing a situation like this, and I can actually think of a similar client situation with Aileen. I won't say Aileen's last name. Aileen actually had a similar phenomenon with us. She had spent very frugally for a long, long time. Suddenly, she started spending a whole lot and when we had a review meeting with her we asked, "What is going on?" I think the conversation literally at some point just basically came down to, "Aileen, just help me understand. You have only ever saved so frugally. You are spending with abandon now. What is going on? What's changed?"
And the response was literally, "I just got diagnosed with cancer. I'm dying."
Carl: Right, right.
Michael: And she hadn't told us. She basically hadn't told anyone. She was still processing the news. It was a degrading 18- to 24-month prognosis, so it wasn't completely visible to her yet outwardly for health. But she had received the diagnosis and so what we saw was, "Oh, my gosh. Aileen's going off the deep end and what is going on with her spending?"
And the reality was, in the generic planning sense, yeah, her time horizon just went to less than two years. So you can pretty much do a 50% spending rate if you want. Getting technical for a moment. But from the pure end, and just the piece that hit me the hardest about it is, it's one thing when you have clients that have never learned a fiscal responsibility skill. Maybe that's an education issue. Maybe that's a hard wiring issue. Those are conversations for another day.
But the people who have behavior changes, these kinds of situations that Dana is talking about – clients that accumulated wealth because they were good with managing their spending and now suddenly they're not, whether it's Aileen going off the cliff, Jerry coming in like, "Dude, you spent $5,000 forever. Suddenly you're spending $10,000. What's going on?" To just reflect that people don't change just out of the clear, blue sky. Not with habits they've ingrained for 30 or 40 years.
The takeaway that I had from situations like Aileen's, and the first question that comes to my mind when I see someone go through a significant spending change is, "I feel like something may have changed in your life since we started our process together. Is there anything going on that we should be talking about?"
Carl: Look, all I can say to that is amen, right? I think that approach of just making an assumption that they're smart, intelligent people and there's something that doesn't make sense here, could we talk about it? Right? The words you just used, words that come out of my mouth would be, "Hey, you my fire me, blah, blah, blah. Here's where we started out. Here's where we are now. I'm a bit confused. Help me understand, what's going on?" Softly, like humans.
I think we both pointed at examples where you're like, it's almost a little bit like the Stephen Covey example of being on the subway and the kids, the dad with the kids yelling and screaming and they're annoying everybody and the dad has just got head down and Covey looks a little annoyed and the dad looks up and notices and the dad says, "Oh, sorry, man. We just came from the hospital. Their mother just passed away."
If you just make an assumption, I know we got a little heavy here, but if you just make assumptions that something's going on here. Ask if you can understand. It may just be, "Oh, my gosh. I didn't know that we were going to run out of money." Or it may be, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I've got a... I just saw a friend pass away," or whatever. Maybe all those things.
Michael: Yeah, and that's why I make this distinction. Look, there are folks that are not particularly good with money and basically never have been. And so, that's a different issue. That's a different dynamic. When you get clients like what Dana is describing, I have this affluent client. They've been frugal for so long, that was literally how they accumulated their wealth. They made good income and they spent less and they saved it and they created this wealth and now they're retired and suddenly all the spending is different and I can't figure out how to talk them back.
My default assumption is always now, they are smarter than you are, than I am, because they know their life better than I do and so either A, they're just suddenly idiots, which is generally not the case unless there's literally like a sickness, disease issue going on, which is a possibility, right? It's like quick check for Alzheimer's behavior or cognitive decline. Outside of that, if there's a sudden behavior change, something has changed in their lives that they know about and I don't know about.
Carl: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Michael: So I need to find out what that is. Is that Aileen who just got a cancer diagnosis? Is this Jerry who just had a close personal friend pass away and is just having moments of mortality himself? Trying to figure out what has changed, or just outright ask the question, "Look. I'm concerned about you. We've worked together a long time. You've had a certain pattern about how you spent. It's been very, very different over the past 6 months or 12 months or whatever it is. Just help me understand, has something changed recently that we should be talking about?"
Carl: Really good. Really, really good. Here's the pattern somebody taught me once. And so this is like real work, real communication work. This isn't just Carl's made-up stuff. Number one, repeat the fact pattern. Here's what's going on. We've been worried. So number one, you can say that.
Michael: Because they may not be aware or they may not be entirely sure…
Carl: Or you may have the facts wrong or you may be wrong.
Michael: Yeah, or you have the facts wrong.
Carl: Whatever. So you can just say...
Three Steps To Hold A Client Conversation Around Unexplained Spending Behaviors [21:04]
Carl: Whatever it is, right? So number one, here's the fact...And these are literally the words I use, “Can I review the fact pattern? Here are the facts as I see them, right? Tell me if I'm wrong. Here are the facts as I see them.” So number one, review the fact pattern.
Number two, the language I like to use is acknowledge that you've now told the story around the facts. So, acknowledge the story. And I just say, "Here's the story I tell myself about that."
And number three...
Michael: Meaning the story of the fact pattern or...?
Carl: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I like to say...
Michael: The story of the fact? “So I just told you this story about how you're spending more,” or am I assembling the story, "So I've told you the story about how your spending is on this dire, unsustainable track?"
Carl: I think you can say, "Look. We agreed that you were only going to spend $5,000 a month. You've been spending $10,000. Based on every sort of calculation I could run, that puts us at 12 to 18 years out, but you've got 30 years of life expectancy. That's the fact pattern as I see it. There are things here we could play around with, but I'm giving you ranges. The story that I tell myself about this –what goes through my mind here – is that this is unsustainable. I'm not quite sure exactly what the story is, I'm a little confused and concerned.”
And then number three would be, “Help me understand,” the words you used. “Help me understand,” right? So now you've opened the idea, okay, maybe there's a discussion about the fact pattern. Number two, you've acknowledged that you've just got a story here. They may have a different story and you've opened that door like, "Hey, I realize this is just, I'm only understanding one side so I want to have a conversation with you." And now you've asked them to participate by saying, "Help me understand."
That's the pattern. I think you can use that any time there's conflict. Any time. My wife knows. She's like, "Are you doing that three-part thing to me?" "Yeah.” Kids, wife, anybody. Any time. I think that's exactly what we've been pointing out, which is so good.
And let me just point out one thing real quickly. Go back, if you're listening to this or watching it, go back and just watch what happened when Michael was talking about Irene.
Carl: Aileen. I just want us to note for a minute, what is that worth, to have somebody that can have that, you're Aileen and you have a place to come and have that conversation. Right? And then to have somebody on the other side that puts the spreadsheet and the calculator away for a minute and acts like a human, right?
So now we've got the science of our work and now you've got the emotional piece of our work that will never be replaced by the cool kids with their robo-toys. Right? Where we can set that aside and go, "Oh, my gosh. Wow." You know what I mean? A, can we cry a little bit together? And B, how can I help? Amazing.
Michael: Yeah. And I think it's worth acknowledging for a moment the flip side of what comes from this as well. Or what comes from these conversations when they maybe don't go as well. I think they become a version of what Dana communicated in the first place. I'm not trying to beat Dana up about this. I understand she is entirely well-intentioned.
I'm seeing my clients have these challenges. I'm trying to communicate to them and tell them what they're doing isn't going to work and it's unsustainable but what struck me, she made this point as she was sharing the story. I'm talking to my clients about spending and cash flow and budgeting but we keep hearing about these recent purchases after the fact.
Michael: And what strikes me about that is, it means Dana may already be at a problem point with some clients because what the client now has heard is, "When I tell Dana what I'm going to do, Dana always says no so I'm just not going to tell Dana until after the fact, and then she can't tell me no anymore."
At some point, if there was a driving force more powerful than your advice, right? My friend died, I have a terminal diagnosis, whatever it is. If there was a driving force that was so powerful it can make me change 40 years of habits, your advice is a small speed bump in me ramming right through that to do whatever it is I'm going to do.
And if you keep putting speed bumps up, at some point I'm just going to drive around them, which to me is the other reason why I have now started going the opposite direction any time I see these situations to say, "Look, if they could change a 40-year habit about saving and frugality, me pointing out to them what they're doing as irresponsible is not news and is not going to slow them down if the 40-year habit couldn't slow them down. I want to know what changed."
Carl: Totally. I want to understand. And I love the fact that we have so many people listening and watching that volunteer for us to sort of dissect and we realize that we don't know all the nuance and all the backstory. We've just got this little slice and so Dana in this case represents all of us in terms of these problems. Here, this is just time for a reset. I love these meetings. I love those meetings. I love...Hey, can we just check in? Hey...And you can just go, look, and take responsibility, that's what I would always do. Hey, this is my fault. I understand. I'm sure I missed something here. Can we just back up?
Carl: Right? And you just go through what we already talked about. Reset, figure out what the bigger yes is, connect them to that and say, "What's changed?" Fact pattern, story, help me understand.
Identifying The Bigger “Yes” For Long-Time Clients – When You Don’t Already Know [26:45]
Michael: So, Carl, one thing as we wrap up this conversation. Some of us I know came to these deeper planning conversations a little later in our careers. They're not always conversations we had with every client, particularly if the client has been with us for a long time.
Back when I didn't know about having these conversations, they came in to buy a mutual fund with me and opened their first IRA and that's what I did and that was the ground we started out on and my client conversations don't always keep pace with every client relationships as it evolves.
So if I find myself in one of these situations where, for better or worse, right or wrong, I don't have these conversations, let's connect back to the purpose we talked about originally. I don't know. The original purpose was, "Help me open my IRA. Help me do this rollover thing. I need some life insurance because I had a baby." We don't have the anchoring, so we have to find it out of the gate.
Michael: So what is your one go-to question, or framing, when I have to re-open this with a client. So reopen/open for the first time. “Hey, we've worked together 10 years and I've never had this conversation with you and now I have to have it.”
Carl: Yeah, yeah. I get that question all the time.
Michael: How do I start this conversation so that I can then start going down the, “Okay, well, let me look at the fact pattern,” and the rest, and “Help me understand.”
Carl: Hopefully, it's clear how important that is...I don't even know how you give advice if you have...But I had plenty of these. I didn't start this way, right? You know what I mean?
I was in a big brokerage firm with a bull as its symbol owned by a bank, right? So it's not as scary as you think. It's just simply this. I think you just take responsibility and you just say, "We've been working together for 20 years. Remember when we first met? I helped you open your IRA. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I think I know you really well. I think I know you, Michael, really well and I think I know the answers to the questions I'm about to ask you but it's so important that I just didn't want to assume anymore. So, just for a minute, let's put this stuff away, the performance reports and stuff. We'll get to those in a minute. Let's just back up for a second because I realized we've never had this conversation."
So it's not like I’m suggesting that I'm doing anything differently, that I've changed. None of that. All of my other clients, you're the only one. None of that. Just, “Hey, we know each other really well. I think I know the answer to these questions, but I don't want to assume.” And I would just dive into whatever your favorite question is. I'm not a question zealot, but I love Simon Sinek mashed up with Bill Bachrach. So I just say, "Michael, let's just back up. Why is money important to you?" It's my favorite one but you could use Dan Sullivan. “If we were meeting three years from now, what would have to happen?” Dan Sullivan has some great questions.
George Kinder is off the charts, right? So, whatever your favorite question is, but the setup I think is what you're asking. Don't be scared. The setup is, "Hey, we've been working together for a long time. I think I know the answer. I know you really well, I think I know but I don't want to make any assumptions so let's just back up for a minute." Boom, question.
Michael: Awesome. Well, thank you, Carl, for joining us today.
Carl: Very cool, Michael. That was really fun.
Michael: Thank you.