When I began my financial planning career 14 years ago, my Orthodox Jewish faith was obvious to most people because I always kept my hair covered with a "snood," which is like a cloth scarf. I explain specific Jewish practices when people ask me about them or it seems appropriate to the discussion, but otherwise keep my conversation to values that are universally shared. Eighty percent of my clients are neither Jewish nor strongly religious, but I believe many have been drawn to me because they feel I stand for something.
The recession has awakened many people to value saving and to stop spending on things that they can't afford. Now is a great opportunity for all financial advisors to step up and begin real conversations about why responsible financial behavior is good for the family, society in general-and for the soul.
As a person of faith, I have learned not to worry that opening a conversation about values means asking questions that will be intrusive or uncomfortable. Don't be afraid. There's no need to convert anyone to your personal beliefs about G-d. (It is our custom not to write out G-d's name in full.) Whatever your own beliefs, as an advisor I believe you can focus on common values, not the small differences between religious practices.
I didn't come to this sense of purpose overnight. First I had to feel confident about my practical financial planning skills. Then, over the years, I realized that many of my clients stayed with me because of the way we talked about their lives, not because I chose the best-performing mutual funds.
I spent more time with clients who wanted to talk about how they think and feel about money, how they spend it and the obstacles preventing them from living peaceably within their means and saving for the future. I began seeing myself as a guide as clients learned to use money with awareness as part of their spiritual development.
A VALUES-BASED APPROACH
Every religion I know of offers wisdom and tools most clients respect-how to find purpose, embrace self-discipline, recognize one's connection to others and understand that our blessings are never solely the result of our own efforts or only for our comfort and pleasure. There are some distinct Jewish values that influence the way I relate to clients in my practice. They include:
* Being a mensch. A "mensch" is the Yiddish word for a human being who contributes something by his presence to the world he lives in. As an advisor, I always try to be upright and ensure that I do what I say.
* Tikun olam. This Hebrew phrase is translated as "healing the world." Every person has innate talents that can make the world a better place. Each one of us is needed to uplift and transform our world into a better version of itself. I encourage clients to find their unique contribution to this process.
* Kavod ha'briot. This Hebrew phrase conveys the idea that all of G-d's creations deserve respect.
* Tzelem elokim. This Hebrew phrase contains the thought that we are all created in the image of G-d. Remembering tzelem elokim helps me to be compassionate and empathize when clients fail or struggle with changes. My respect for their efforts helps to keep me on track, remembering the importance of their task.
I have a few clients who, from an outsider's point of view, would look like they were not really tackling the changes they needed to make. In fact, one couple recently expressed to me that they were incredulous that I continued to work with them in spite of their slow progress.
Yet each couple told me about small changes they were taking on-bringing lunch every day instead of eating out, taking public transportation to work to make use of an employer subsidy rather than paying high daily fees to park, and limiting their meals out by paying in cash instead of putting it on the credit card. Slowly but surely, they were building cash reserves where there had been none.
I told them that I saw them as working hard to change their financial behavior and that I had deep respect for their efforts. The important thing was they were becoming conscious of how they spend their money and were trying bit by bit to contain overspending.
* Shomrei adamah. In Hebrew, shomrei adamah is a reminder that we are meant to tend and protect the beautiful world G-d created for us. I have a real aversion to all kinds of waste-of money, talent and environmental resources. We are supposed to look after our world, not just use things up to suit our selfish needs.
Many of my clients came to me because they wanted to invest their money responsibly. They sought investments that would do little harm and could enhance the world.
Criteria for this kind of investing ranges from how companies treat their workers to not wanting to invest in companies that profit from tobacco and armaments. But they all easily fit into the concept of shomrei adamah or trying one's best to look after the world G-d created for us as best we can.
And on a more personal level, living within your means, avoiding debt and taking responsibility for your spending habits is an essential way of showing deference to the G-d that created the world for us and that is ours to protect.
Nearly all of my clients reacted to this recent recession with relative calm. As many expressed to me, they felt comforted by their cash reserves, control over monthly expenses and that they had a comprehensive financial plan to get them through good times or bad.
* Teshuvah. We achieve teshuvah, repentance, only when we change our behavior. Wanting a change is simply not enough.
This idea has had a strong effect on my practice. My job is to be encouraging and consistently supportive and to help clients keep their eye on the goal, not to berate them about failures.
* Tzedakah. The literal translation of this word is "justice," not charity. It is right and just that we share some of what we have with others-money, time or even kindness. Even the poorest person has this obligation. Tzedakah does not divide the world into takers and givers because we all are takers sometimes and givers other times. If you are just a taker, you create an imbalance in the world.
The long tradition of tzedakah includes the idea that those who need help will not take more than they need. They will be motivated to become self-sufficient so that they don't drain society's resources. As financial planners, it reminds us to inspire and guide clients to be responsible, live within their means and save for retirement so none of us will be a drain on our families or future generations.
MY TURNING POINT
The most significant change in my practice came when I launched my first tzedakah campaign in 2006 near the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a time when we try to reflect on ourselves honestly. We strive for teshuvah, repentance, so that we may improve.
In a letter to my clients, I defined tzedakah as being just and fair, not a matter of personal generosity. I asked every client who was actively working with me doing financial planning or who had assets under management to name a charity, and offered to contribute to it.
If the client agreed, when I made the contribution I wrote the charity that the gift had been chosen by my client. At the end of the campaign, I wrote all the clients listing the charities the group supported. I usually donate around $2,000 in these tzedakah campaigns, which became a yearly event.
That first letter was the first time I had spoken of my faith so directly in my practice. My clients loved it. Every one expressed appreciation, and talked to others about my campaign. We bonded in a community venture that expressed the higher purpose of money.
I remember one client in particular who became fascinated by the tradition. He began studying it and learned about the Eight Degrees of Tzedakah, which outlines the different levels of giving.
He and his wife were not overtly religious. I have no idea if they attended services, but they were absolutely committed to helping those around them and the importance of having a community. He spoke to me about tzedakah many times after that. I believe the experience affected how he gave to charity in his own life.
I think this yearly campaign changed my self-image as well as how my clients saw our work together. I had bonded with them on a deeper level. I had never felt comfortable with conventional ways of showing appreciation for clients with gifts or dinners in restaurants, baseball games or golf outings.
But giving money to help others was meaningful to me. So now I had a client appreciation event that inspired my clients and reflected my own sense of purpose. I also had expressed my tradition in my professional practice in an appropriate way that my clients loved.
If you are a person of deep faith, don't be afraid to bring your beliefs to your advisory practice. I chose to focus on universal principles that are shared by all faiths. I believe that conversations about finances as a tool to be an upright person and to do good in the world are sorely needed, and in my experience, your clients will respond.
Dena Frenkel was a planner with Ameriprise Financial/American Express Financial Advisors, a position she held for 13 years. In 2010, she sold her practice to open Financial Mentoring Services, a fee-only business. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.