Opinion: These basic life-planning tools can ease your money and retirement worries

Published: Oct 12, 2019 3:12 p.m. ET

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Where there’s a will — plus a financial plan, advance directive, and power of attorney — there’s a way

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By

LeeWeinstein

While facilitating a life-planning workshop in Portland, Ore. last summer, I asked for a show of hands: How many of you have a will? How many have a power of attorney document? An advance directive? What about a financial plan?

I expected a weak response to some of these questions, but I was surprised at how few of these educated, professional people had arranged for even the more commonplace documents — for example, only four of the 18 participants had a financial plan. While I view these tools as vital to guiding my life, it became clear that not everyone sees them as essential. 

Recently, DHM Research — a research firm my company works with — offered me the opportunity to ask questions in one of their surveys. So I posed the same queries I’d asked the workshop participants, but this time to 625 people in a scientifically conducted online survey. Here’s what I learned:

Item Respondent Has in Place

Percentage of Respondents

An advanced directive (legal documents that allow you to spell out your decisions about end-of-life care ahead of time)

19%

A will (a legal document that coordinates the distribution of your assets after death)

26%

Power of attorney (a document that gives on your behalf the authority to act for another person in specified or all legal or financial matters)

15%

A financial plan (a comprehensive overview of your financial standing and goals)

30%

A life plan (a document that maps out the things you want to achieve in life and when and how you will attain them)

13%

None of the above

44%

Don’t know

1%

The survey confirmed what I had glimpsed in the workshop: few people use these tools that are so important for successful lives. As the survey indicated, the most commonly used of these tools is the financial plan — but in my experience, it can be a difficult to plan for your financial future when you don’t know exactly what you’d like to accomplish. 

Read: These 16 money wasters are why so many Americans can’t save for retirement

Plus: 4 secrets to getting what you want out of your life

I experienced this 20 years ago, soon after my wife and I married, when we met with a financial planner for the first time. “What do you want to spend money on?” was his very first question. It’s a legitimate question, but it’s one that should come eight- or 10 questions later in the conversation. The questions that might come before the money one would be around our hopes, dreams, and goals. From there, we could zero in on the financial plans necessary to make them happen. 

Following that thinking, I believe in the importance of an “intentional life plan“ to generate a framework for what we’d like to accomplish in our lives. One respondent in another survey put it well: “Even though wealth management professionals routinely create financial plans for their clients, most have never considered creating a life plan for themselves. It’s a new idea … [but] most people spend more time planning a one-week vacation than identifying what outcomes they want to see in the major areas of their lives.”

The first step in assembling an intentional life plan is to ask soul-searching questions including: What’s your philosophy? What do you view as your purpose here on earth? What makes you happiest? What do you lack that you think you still need? Where do you want to be five-, 10-, 15-, 20 years from now? What fascinated you as a kid, and what did you dream about being and doing as an adult? What is your definition of a successful life?

Next, determine how many years you will live. According to the Social Security Administration, a woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.5; a man until age 84.0 (and more of us are living past 90). There are many excellent life expectancy calculators online. While it can be a bit daunting to contemplate our death date, the reality is that it will happen eventually, so we may as well make the most of the time we have. 

Next, you will put together your written intentional life plan timeline, ideally composed of a long sheet of butcher paper, with the current year on the far left and your expected death date on the far right, with every year numbered in between and decades delineated. You can read more about the complete process of putting together the plan here.

The other instruments highlighted in DHM’s survey –– wills, power of attorney and advanced directives– – also need to be put in place, ensuring that once you’ve lived that intentional life, it can be settled efficiently. 

Want to buy a house? Send your child to college? Live in Amsterdam for a year? Not leave your relatives wondering if you’d want life support extended? Making these plans now — for your intentional life, your financial future and beyond — will help you accomplish your dreams and ease the burden on your loved ones.  

Lee Weinstein is president of Weinstein PR and author of “ Write, Open, Act: An Intentional Life Planning Workbook .” The DHM Research survey was administered scientifically online to 625 Americans aged 18+ between February 26, 2019, and March 2, 2019. Demographic quotas and statistical weighting were used to assure a representative national sample. The survey’s margin of error is +/- 3.9 percent at the 95% confidence level.

Read: If you’re dreaming of living somewhere better, here’s how to make it happen

More: Why you should embrace a minimalist retirement

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