Investing & Economy

Preparing for Good Times and Bad

At least half of Americans do not have a written financial plan. However, those who do have a plan say documenting their goals and strategies helps them better weather the current challenging economic climate.

Research by Charles Schwab found only 25 percent of people have a written financial plan, while an AARP survey indicated only 40 percent have a will or living trust. Fidelity’s Market Sentiment Study, released in May 2020, found 51 percent of those surveyed have savings and investment plans in place. However, 90 percent of those with a plan said it gave them greater peace of mind during times of financial uncertainty, Fidelity noted.

Having a holistic financial plan that covers a broad range of financial considerations is critical to helping families handle tough times and prepare for the future. Doug Gjerde, CFP®, managing partner and wealth advisor at Heritage Financial Partners in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said his firm’s PLAN Driven Investing™ system uses checklists and other guides to create a detailed plan. The approach allows advisors and clients to better address investment, tax, retirement, estate, and related considerations.

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Gjerde said this is the third economic crisis he has been through, including the bubble and the Great Recession. He said helping clients through the pandemic-driven downturn has been less difficult than the other periods because his company has proven systems and processes in place to help guide their customers.

“It’s a lot easier if you've put the time and effort into making sure your clients have a thorough and solid holistic plan and that they are educated on potential risks and threats to their plan. Also, if they are investing, that their plan is modeled against past market and economic crises, so they have a good chance to make it through future ones.”

With its previous experience with economic uncertainty, the firm also understands that planning opportunities may arise in any environment. As Gjerde and his colleagues check in with clients, they also review planning opportunities, such as the recent changes allowing retirees to waive required minimum distributions. Gjerde added he believes that leading with opportunities rather than focusing on negative news gives people pro-active options during a period when many feel helpless.

A former B-52 navigator who flew 11 combat missions in the Gulf War, Gjerde learned first-hand the importance of planning, coordination, and training. Whether the mission involves bombing a target or saving towards retirement, success depends on having the right processes and systems to handle complicated situations.

“That's why we created a process that we go through with all our clients. We systematically make sure that we're touching on everything. That helps them understand the situation, and keeps things from falling between the cracks. It's important to make sure all their concerns are addressed.”

Heritage Financial Partners has several tools to help their clients plan ahead. One is the Family Estate Organizer. Clients use it to store legal documents, estate planning materials, information on insurance and assets, and a list of their advisors. The firm also provides a form where people can list their important online accounts (including usernames and passwords), making things easier for family members if they become incapacitated or die. They also encourage clients to work with their attorneys to make sure other parties can legally access and close down accounts as needed.

truenorth400x600“We tell our clients the reason for an estate plan isn't just preparing for estate taxes and avoiding probate,” Gjerde added. “It's making your loved ones’ lives a lot easier after you pass away. They’re already grieving for you. It’s more complicated when they have to petition courts and hire attorneys to take care of things. You don't want to leave that to your loved ones.”

Gjerde said nearly all the firms’ clients were referrals from existing clients. Heritage Financial did no marketing or advertising for 23 years, although it did start using videos and blogs in 2019. The firm takes a team approach to tax, income, estate, and risk management planning, and their ideal client is somebody who can benefit from its holistic planning services.

“Someone who is only focused on investments is not a good fit for us,” Gjerde said. “We really want to dive into the planning. We can't figure out somebody's best investments without knowing about their taxes and estate plans, and their goals and desires.”

Education is an important element in helping those clients. Some clients want to know all the details of their investments, while “others just want a 30,000-foot view,” he said. But regardless of how financially literate a client may be, the hardest issue for most people is understanding industry terminology.

“We’re making the complex simple,” Gjerde said, “explaining things in a way that doesn't make clients feel uninformed, or like they're being talked down to. Being technically oriented, it would be easy for us to dive down into the weeds. We have to constantly avoid using jargon and make it as understandable as we can. The weeds just get people stuck and overwhelmed.”

Planning for retirement is another area that benefits from educating clients as advisors learn about their spending habits and cash needs. Building a retirement income plan means identifying cash flows over several decades, then factoring inflation and taxes, Gjerde noted. Planners also need to determine how much money will come from Social Security and pensions, and how much needs to be generated by investments. Gjerde said he does not believe anyone can create a set of investments for client retirement without knowing all the financial details contained in a comprehensive plan.

box400x400Longevity is another significant issue in retirement planning, presenting a major risk that can be difficult to handle. The Social Security administration indicates that for a 65-year-old couple, there is a 50 percent chance one of them will still be alive at age 90. Set your planning expectations below that target, Gjerde suggests, and the client’s risk of running out of money is roughly equal to flipping a coin.

Those plans also need to consider the needs of the surviving spouse.

“People don't like to think about retirement in terms of a solo journey,” Gjerde continued. “There's one person; expenses aren't much lower, taxes are higher; and incomes are generally lower. That really has to be planned out.”

Long-term care is another issue that presents a major risk, however, many people prefer to ignore it. For most Americans, it would be difficult to finance long-term care at a nursing home for more than a couple of years. Yet, according to Morningstar only 11 percent of adults 65 and over have long-term care insurance.

“The people that bring it up to us during planning are the ones that have already had a parent or loved one go through it, and have seen the value,” Gjerde said. “We've been talking about long-term care since the 1990s.”

Gjerde said the seed that set him on the path towards financial planning was planted when he was 14 years old. After his father died, life insurance only covered the funeral costs. His mother had not worked outside the home in more than 20 years, and she had never balanced a checkbook.

“As a 14-year-old, I had to jump in and learn about taxes and Social Security and mortgages, and to help her apply for Social Security survivor benefits,” Gjerde said. “I made a vow that this wasn't going to happen to people I cared about again. If I can avoid more people going through what my mother and I had to go through when I was 14, that’s the evangelical calling for me.”

For more information on Heritage Financial Partners, visit


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