When Life Throws A Curveball
Posted by: Joseph Kuo | November 3, 2020
After years of hard work and being careful with money, Ben and Debbie had been contemplating retirement for the past few years. Ben was a senior partner at a law firm, and Debbie had worked almost 30 years for the city. Once retired, they planned to travel to Europe and Asia. It had been their dream to spend time in quaint, picturesque towns and to immerse themselves in local cultures while experiencing the seasons together. Their descriptions of walking hand-in-hand through village town squares always brought smiles to their faces.
While the couple had amassed a good amount of savings over the years, Ben was not sure that he could really afford to stop working. There was a lot of fear and uncertainty as he thought about having no income. As Debbie neared her 30th year of service with the city, she convinced Ben to hire me as their financial advisor. The goal was to design a financial plan to Ben’s satisfaction so he would feel safe retiring.
It wasn’t lack of resources that held Ben back; he wasn’t emotionally ready.
As I reviewed the financials with Ben and Debbie, it soon became clear that they had more than enough money to retire. And, as I worked with the couple to uncover their values and goals, it became apparent that Ben had a difficult time thinking about retired life. He didn’t want to keep working, but he didn’t know what else to do either. While he looked forward to traveling with Debbie, he couldn’t see himself traveling for the next 15–20 years. Ben just didn’t have a compelling vision of a future in retirement.
He realized that his career meant so much more to him than money—it was a significant part of his identity. While working, he had routine and purpose. In fact, work was his primary source of social interaction with others. As he thought about leaving his firm, he felt strong emotions of loss and sadness.
This situation is not unique to Ben. More and more researchers are pointing to boredom and isolation as serious problems as people retire. In addition to negative psychological impacts, senior isolation also leads to poor health and habits.
Seeking a window into his view of the world, I started having conversations with Ben about his life now. We explored what he looked forward to or found fulfilling in his daily activities. In these conversations, he realized that he enjoyed mentoring younger employees.
Mentoring is a way for him to leave his mark in the world and to make a difference.
In the past few years, he had become the “go-to” person for new attorneys and other young people in his life. His mentees benefited from his support and enjoyed his humor. In the meantime, he had a lot of fulfilment and fun cultivating the next generation of lawyers. As we brainstormed ways for him to experience fulfilment during retirement, he saw that, once retired, he could still mentor employees at his current firm. He could also volunteer to mentor young people in other organizations. In fact, he was quite excited about these opportunities.
Finally, with this plan in hand, the couple decided that they would both retire once Debbie reached her 30th year with the city and qualified for the maximum pension. They also started planning trips and mapping out where they would go. Debbie had been looking forward to visiting some seaside towns in Europe as she’d always wanted to live by the water.
Unfortunately, with three months to go, Debbie was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer.
Just when they thought they had things figured out, life threw them a curveball. Try as we might, we can never know what will happen in the future. No one foresaw the coronavirus or the seriousness of the California fires. When these unprecedented events happen, what do we do?
As the initial shock of the news wore off, the couple met with me to figure out what to do next. They explained that they wanted me to not just help change their plan, but to be a thinking partner and provide an even-minded perspective. They asked me to help them sort out between what was truly meaningful to them versus what they were “supposed to do”.
By approaching financial planning as a means of leveraging wealth to elevate quality of life, this is something that they have already been doing.
Over the course of the next few meetings, we figured out what needed to be taken care of right away and what could wait. For Ben and Debbie, their priority became Debbie’s treatments. Ben would take a leave from work so they could travel to various medical facilities to get Debbie the best care possible.
At the same time, they wanted to move closer to water. Now that their travel plans might be on hold indefinitely, they wanted to create some of those experiences closer to where they live. Since they were busy with Debbie’s treatment, that’s where I stepped in to help.
Over the next 60 days, I found, vetted, and worked with realtors, a mortgage broker, and insurance agents to sell their current home and buy their new home. Throughout the process, I gave Ben and Debbie regular progress reports, and they made all the decisions. With me focusing on the details and doing the legwork, they were able to focus on her treatments with the peace of mind that their plan was moving forward.
In a particularly touching moment, I helped facilitate their meeting with an estate planning attorney to update their estate planning documents. There were no dry eyes at the meeting when Debbie articulated her visions for her family and her cats. While the process was very emotional, Debbie completed the revision feeling good about what would happen if she were to lose her battle against cancer.
Thankfully, Debbie responded well to her treatments and is now in remission, although she will need some time to recover.
They are still hopeful that they can go on international trips in the future. In the meantime, they refocused on their values and what is most important to them. They crafted a new vision of life together that will still bring them joy and fulfillment.
It’s not the plan itself, but the self-awareness that we uncover through the planning process that is so vital to navigating uncertainty.
Most of us constantly live with competing priorities in life. We weigh the trade-offs between getting what we want now versus investing for the future. Planning may seem pointless at times because we cannot know what the future will bring. However, I believe that it is precisely because the future is unknown that planning is so important.
I encourage you to take the time to clarify your own values and find your whys. This self-awareness will help you find alignment as you reach for your dreams while enjoying life today.
[Names and all relevant details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.]