When Susan John did a detailed review of her practice six years ago, one fact stood out: The average age of her clients was 72 ½ years old.
“Most practice metrics are not too happy when you have an average age north of 70,” says the fee-only planner, who was recently elected to the board of directors of the CFP Board of Standards.
“A lot of 40-year-olds” later, the average age of clients at Financial Focus of Wolfeboro, N.H., has inched down to 66.
But John, the firm’s founder and president, who is 67, says that she isn’t too bothered by the fact that her clients skew to the mature side.
“That’s where you can really add a lot of value,” she says. From finding ways to pay for long-term care, to tapping community resources for clients’ day-to-day needs, John frequently finds herself involved in deep discussions about health, family relationships and bucket lists. Solutions may not be the norm.
John has converted old annuity policies into long-term care coverage for clients who couldn’t otherwise afford it, found caregivers and companions for clients who want to stay at home but need day-to-day help, and has the phone numbers for grocery stores that deliver, as well as nonprofit groups that pick up for clients who no longer drive.
When a client seems a bit off, she has pre-approved contacts she can call to alert family members. Evaluating continuing-care facilities for clients thinking about next steps has become something of a specialty.
“In medicine, the motto is, ‘First do no harm,’ ” John says. “In financial planning, it should be ‘Leave no stone unturned.’ ”
DEMANDING A DIFFERENT APPROACH
As a practical matter, having predominantly older clients also demands a somewhat different practice. Where much of the fee-only industry charges based on assets under management, that structure would almost guarantee stagnant or declining revenue in a practice dominated by retirees.
Fortunately for John, the AUM model is one that has never particularly appealed to her. When she started her own practice in 1995, she charged by the hour, but hourly billing proved vexing, she says.
“It drove me crazy because it was so difficult to be proactive for clients,” John says. “I had people who wouldn’t call me because they didn’t want the meter to run. Then you had to keep track of your time, review your time, justify your time.”
Financial Focus has two fee structures: a flat fee for planning services and an AUM fee for clients. John emphasizes that the firm is all about planning, with plenty of clients who get planning services but forgo asset management.
No clients are accepted for asset management alone, she says.
“I don’t think it’s possible to give the best asset management advice without understanding what all the working parts are, what the goals are and when the money is going to be needed,” John says. “And as life changes, the target moves.”
Fee-calculation worksheets are given to each client, explaining how their charges were figured. There is no minimum investment requirement for clients, just minimum and maximum fees.
SMART START PROGRAM
Most clients pay between $4,000 and $40,000 annually. But the practice does offer one bargain rate: $2,000 a year for its fledgling Smart Start program designed for so-called HENRYs (high-earners, not rich yet).
The program is mostly used by clients’ adult children or grandchildren who are relatively new to the workforce. Often, the advice is more about careers and how to go about financial decision-making than it is about saving or investing.
One young client, for example, came to John to talk through two job offers. A newly minted MBA, the woman had been offered a consulting position with a hedge fund that paid a lot but didn’t offer security or benefits. She had also been offered a more traditional entry-level job with a CPA firm, which came with benefits and the promise of educational support to get her CPA designation.
John’s role was to explain the responsibilities of being self-employed, including paying FICA and Medicare taxes, and to calculate the value of benefits. The idea was to equalize the offers before her client picked a path.
Comfortable working for herself, the client ultimately took the consulting position with the hedge fund. The client has yet to start a savings program because she doesn’t have any discretionary income, which is pretty typical for John’s Smart Start clients.
“A lot of them are paying rent for the first time, living in the big city and they have a bunch of debt,” she says. “They’ve been in school forever, have jobs that are going to pay them a lot of money but have no training on how to make financial decisions.”
Still, as the average age of her clients suggests, most of John’s time is spent with issues related to aging. Her elderly clients want to live independently, close to longtime neighbors and friends, but some have lost the ability to drive, shop and cook.
“Sometimes all they need is a little bit of help, but if they don’t get that little bit of help, they decline really fast,” John says. “It might be a matter of having someone come in for a few hours a day to make sure that they get up, eat, take their medications and get a shower, so it costs $20 or $40 a day,” she says. “That’s a lot less than a facility.”
When clients’ longer-term plans include moving to some sort of continuing-care facility, often in a warm-weather climate far from bucolic Wolfeboro, Financial Focus does the due diligence.
These care facilities promise everything from socialization to a level of skilled nursing care, but they vary widely in terms of services, attractiveness and cost, John says.
Clients typically consider a particular facility because of a combination of wanting a warmer climate and following a relative or friend. But after digging into the details, John may find that some continuing-care facilities simply don’t measure up.
Financial Focus has a checklist to look at costs, its financial soundness and standing with Medicare, and a variety of social issues, ranging from how the facility handles transportation, to religion and access to community services.
Clients may still be set on moving to an area even if they don’t like what they hear about the care facility they originally chose, so it falls to Financial Focus to find a viable alternative.
John says that is when she particularly appreciates the contacts she has made in the planning community. As an active member of the FPA and a former chairwoman of NAPFA, John has come to know planners in almost every state.
“One of the great things of being involved in FPA and NAPFA is you can almost always find someone in the [targeted geographic] area who knows more,” she says. “This profession has been incredibly good to me.”
Kathy Kristof, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Los Angeles, also contributes to Kiplinger’s and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter at @kathykristof.
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