Is financial planning a "set it and forget it" process?

Staying in touch with friends, no matter how dear, is talked about more often than it’s tackled. Once convenience and opportunity finally merge, though, the hours enjoyed catching up simply fly by. The feeling can be bittersweet when the time comes to say goodbye. We realize while we may have caught up on the broad strokes of each others’ lives, there was little time for the details – the nuances that cement strong relationships to help them endure time, distance, and circumstance.

One and done?

As financial advisors, you know how critical addressing the details is to helping clients reach their goals.  Tax circumstances, beneficiary designations, cash flow – these details often only emerge when communication is consistent. Simply meeting at years’ end to review account status is no way to satisfy projected needs and actively pursue financial goals. Doing so helps you check the “client touch” box, but it’s no way to build a practice of deeply serviced clients.

Aztec Calendar

Aztec Calendar

Continual account management

Creating an initial plan is essential to identify things your clients can do to best meet their goals and objectives right now. But what many advisors fail to do is proactively review the plan according to new data collected as time goes on.

By consistently gathering client data, you’re able to keep lines of communication running freely to stay on top of ever-changing issues like:

  • Cash flow: How are your clients spending money? Are they consistently cash flow positive? Or are they living beyond their means? For retired clients taking portfolio distributions, are the distributions enough to cover their expenses? Are they supplementing their distributions with credit cards or lines of credit and not telling you? Are they paying any interest or penalties on credit cards?
  • Taxes: Are your clients, especially those who are self-employed, paying enough in taxes to avoid underpayment penalties? Are they paying too much and loaning money interest-free to the IRS? Will any additional year-end income cause the client to cross over deduction or credit income cut-offs, causing them to lose out on tax savings? Should medical payments be accelerated before year-end after the 7.5% of AGI threshold has been exceeded?
  • Inflation: How does inflation affect your clients? Retired clients no longer commute, so they’re less sensitive to gas prices as filling up their car makes up a small portion of their spending. But clients with long-distance commutes and frequent travel are impacted significantly by price increases. Conversely, medical insurance premium increases have a big impact on retired clients versus those who are younger and physically fit. So how do you identify and apply inflation estimates for these clients?

Ongoing data access

Account aggregation is no longer exclusive to a handful of service providers. More tools are available today that are capable of aggregating bank, credit, and investment account information without requiring ongoing user intervention. Core aggregation services from Yodlee and Intuit make sites like Mint.com, Bundle, Mvelopes, and Blueleaf able to provide this proactive insight into daily financial activity.

Elephant in the room

If you’re not using these services, is it because you haven’t figured out how to do it efficiently and make the process scalable across all your clients? Maybe you think your clients aren’t comfortable sharing this level of detail on their personal spending with you. Why is that? Have you openly talked about the value they might receive through your proactive monitoring and planning? Are you prepared to demonstrate how you might adjust their financial plan based on insight you gain from their data?

Have Data, Then What?

Streamlining the ongoing data gathering process is a solvable problem, but it’s what you do with the data once you get it that matters.

Here is where the industry falls short on integrated solutions.

Data alone isn’t valuable. Insights are.

Seeing which clients are spending or saving requires considerable effort on your part to package the data into meaningful information. Want to identify a client’s personal rate of inflation? That may take a custom spreadsheet with twelve months of cash flow figures to calculate. And viewing interest and penalty payments? You’ll need some kind of custom alert to point out that needle in a haystack.

I think you’ll agree that proactively reviewing client financial data allows you to identify more relevant planning strategies for clients. Obtaining the data is easier today than in the past, but figuring out what to do with the data remains a challenge. I haven’t identified one catch-all solution that satisfies the need for useful, consolidated data in a user-friendly environment.

Have you?

Bill is a CFP® professional and is a technology consultant to financial advisors. He writes the monthly technology column for Morningstar Advisor, provides technology commentary for the Journal of Financial Planning, and blogs at his own website, FPPad.com