What is Holistic Financial Planning?

Family enjoying time together to illustrate holistic financial planning.

What if I told you that concerns about “money” don’t entirely drive our financial decisions. Instead, they stem from our life experiences and wishes, which affect our outlook and how we think and act about money. Unfortunately, much of this happens subconsciously, from a place of fear or stress, causing us to take or avoid risks, make foolish mistakes, or even ignore our finances altogether. Being aware of this is the first step in taking control of your finances, and this perspective is at the heart of holistic financial planning. 

Let’s explore the holistic approach to financial planning, what it is, how it differs from other ways of providing financial advice, and the pros and cons so you can decide what may be right for you. 

What is Holistic Financial Planning?

Holistic financial planning is the practice of attaining a complete picture of a family’s financial circumstances before developing recommendations or providing financial advisory services. First, the practitioner works with the family to understand and document each unique factor that affects their finances. Then they present their guidance in the form of a short and long-term plan that centers around actionable strategies that are in the client’s best interests.   

A holistic approach to financial planning aims to unearth what is important to clients and help them gain confidence in making prudent financial decisions. There is tremendous freedom in knowing your money is working efficiently for you. It reduces stress and empowers you to maximize your time and focus on doing the things you love. In other words, holistic financial planners will teach you how to treat money as a tool to facilitate the good things in life versus attempting to make it the centerpiece of your existence.  

To be successful with this approach, financial professionals must develop skills that go beyond standard personal finance topics, such as:

  • Retirement income planning,
  • Income, estate, and capital gains tax,
  • Insurance planning, and
  • Estate planning.

These practitioners are primarily interested in people. So, they study psychology, family history, morals, values, motivators, goals, and ethics to understand how people make financial decisions. Such knowledge allows them to develop customized plans for each client.

Too often, members of the financial planning industry adopt the stance of a salesperson – jumping to conclusions and presenting solutions without listening closely enough to comprehend the problem at hand. Unfortunately, this results in a product-focused approach that leaves both parties unsatisfied.

For example, at Golden Road Advisors, we often find that inquiries about the latest investment rage (Gamestop, Bitcoin, Tesla, etc.) are symptomatic of someone who hasn’t saved enough and feels the need to hit a home run with an investment. Those who do not apply a holistic approach to financial planning might take such an inquiry as an “order” and buy the latest hot stock. In contrast, a holistic financial planner will stop the conversation and take the time to determine what is causing the interest before moving forward.     

What Can You Expect From the Holistic Financial Planning Process?

Couple having a discussion with a holistic financial planner.

Holistic financial planning takes a top-down approach, meaning the practitioner works to understand the big picture before getting into the details. Therefore, an engagement with a holistic financial planner starts with a conversation during which they aim to gain insight into your financial life and personal outlook. They will ask you to tell them about any problems you wish to solve, what you want from your life, and your short and long-term financial goals.

Working with a holistic financial planner is like seeing a doctor who asks uncomfortable questions, like “How many drinks do you have each week?” Then, when you provide the answer you think they want to hear, they just look at you until you admit that it’s actually more. A good doctor knows they cannot be effective if you don’t tell them the truth. So they earn your trust and learn about your entire life (your family, work, and habits) to root out the source of your problems.

After the initial discussion, your planner will request the specifics (a data set that they can analyze). I would recommend that you be as forthcoming as possible, providing all financial statements, estate planning documents, tax returns, insurance policies, debts, etc., so they can get a complete and accurate picture of your financial situation. Such information helps them form a “financial starting line,” which is the economic version of an honest self-assessment.

Then they will build out your financial plan, which will often involve more back and forth as they ask questions about specific situations or clarify financial and life goals. Finally, they will paint a clear picture of where things stand with your finances now, where you would like to go, and financial strategies that can help you get there.

After discussing your plan, you will likely see a gap between where you hope to be and where you are today. The planner will make recommendations to close this gap. Then, the following steps are up to you. Some people ask the financial planner to implement the changes, while others make adjustments themselves and check in periodically for more guidance. 

The Role of Technology in Financial Planning

Image of code on a computer to illustrate the role of technology and robo-advisors in investment management.

It may be helpful to know that technological advancements allow for the commoditization of many, less complex aspects of financial planning. Chiefly, the construction and maintenance of your investment portfolio. You have likely seen offerings in the market promoting inexpensive solutions to the investment management problem using algorithms, such as robo-advisors. Of course, such solutions are not perfect, but they are a sensible way to get professional portfolio management for a low price.

However, building an investment portfolio is only one piece of a holistic plan for managing your finances and retirement planning, and it is often the most straightforward part. The hard part of investing is sticking with the portfolio in times of extreme duress or excessive optimism. A solid financial plan instills confidence that you are making the right investment decisions, even if the decision is to do nothing.

A goals-based investment plan is akin to having an owner’s manual for your portfolio. Your holistic financial planner becomes a resource who can help you make decisions proactively instead of reactively. They understand how much time and energy to invest in discussing markets (typically, very little) versus life, family, and the emotions that can lead to poor decisions and outcomes.

What Are the Benefits of a Holistic Approach to Financial Planning?

What do you gain from working with a holistic financial planner? For a start, peace of mind, but I realize that’s a cliched answer when you lack context. So let’s look at the specific benefits:

A Tangible Representation of Your Life’s Work

Day-to-day responsibilities can sometimes feel like a pointless grind. But when you work with a holistic planner, you get a tangible representation of your life’s work – a documented financial plan. It helps you see how your work manifests over time, affecting your financial life today and projecting into the future. Such insight makes it easier to stay focused on your goals.

A plant growing out of a container of coins to represent the growth and your life's work.

For example, imagine that you are in your forties and want to retire at sixty with enough money to travel and put your children through college. A financial plan can help you be pragmatic about these goals. It will enable you to look at the situation realistically, spot holes in your thinking, and develop and implement strategies to address any problem areas. This clarity is invaluable as it provides a sense of purpose and peace around your finances.

The Ability to Make Confident and Satisfying Financial Decisions

When I work with clients, my mission is to help them gain the financial confidence they need to live the life they want to live. When you are fearful that you are falling short on your financial responsibilities, it can eat away at you, affecting your happiness. A solid financial plan can help you form short-term strategies for resolving cash flow issues while also meeting your retirement planning requirements. 

When you have more clarity, it becomes easier to make impactful decisions. For instance, would you enjoy a vacation more if you saved the money and paid cash or threw the whole thing on a credit card, hoping to pay it off later? The same part of your brain that knows the answer to this question nags you when you fail to get life insurance or put off executing an estate plan. Yet, we often ignore our intuition when the path forward is unclear, opting instead for instant gratification.

Accountability and Oversight 

When you work with a holistic financial planner, you get a partner who will hold you accountable for knocking those “adulting” tasks off your checklist. While it may sound painful, my clients often tell me that they feel a tremendous sense of relief instead because they gain focus. 

A good financial planner will also sleuth out any mistakes you have made with your investments, insurance, taxes, or borrowing. For example, my partner and I have seen someone who put money into a 401k for nearly 20 years, believing they were doing a great job of saving for retirement. Imagine their surprise when we told them (in their forties) that they had invested their savings into a money market fund that had not grown much. A properly allocated portfolio would have likely seen the account grow to triple its size today. 

Such mistakes are more common than you would think, and they compound over time. But, unfortunately, few people get the financial training they need early in life, so the sooner we recognize this and do the work, the better.

What Are the Drawbacks of Holistic Financial Planning?

Financial planning is deeply satisfying. However, like any worthwhile endeavor, it does present some challenges. To that end, here are a couple of things to keep in mind. 

Financial Planning Requires a Lot of Up-Front Work

Putting together an accurate financial plan and implementing the recommendations isn’t easy, but it is necessary if you want to achieve your goals. If you have ever started an exercise regimen or tried to change your diet to improve your health, you know what I mean. No one really wants to do it because sustainable results require hard work and commitment. Sometimes the only thing that keeps us motivated is the knowledge that people depend on us, and we cannot let them down.

Reality Isn’t Always Pretty

Perhaps the most challenging part of this work is that it forces you to look in the mirror and thoroughly inventory your financial situation. Sometimes this reality isn’t pretty. 

At Golden Road Advisors, we call this “embracing unpleasantness.” And since we know what our clients are facing, we do everything possible to make the process enjoyable. For instance, we pride ourselves on explaining things simply and being mindful of our client’s attention span. 

Person watching the sunset to illustrate the tension release of planning for your financial future.

We also know it is a big step to call a financial planner. It requires that you invite a virtual stranger into your private financial life, so you may put this off for some time and feel anxious. That is normal, but once people engage and realize that we’re in it for them, the tension melts away quickly.  

How to Find a Holistic Financial Planner

When seeking a financial planner, it is crucial to look for someone with the appropriate training, such as the CFP® designation. To earn (and keep) this designation, finance professionals must complete coursework, pass a test, and commit to putting your interests before their own. You can learn more about the requirements and find a list of certified professionals on the CFP Board website. 

If you prefer a personal recommendation, ask your accountant or estate planning attorney for an introduction. They will have connections within the industry and can pair you with someone suitable for your situation. 

Then, ask for an introductory meeting with a few promising candidates. Ask what types of services they provide and pay close attention to the questions they ask you

A holistic financial planner will show an interest in your background, relationship with money, and goals. And they will be willing to ask uncomfortable questions to gain insight into your financial hangups and motivations. For example, a good practitioner will aim to unearth disconnects between spending habits developed when you were young and your current financial situation with questions like:

  1. What were your family’s financial circumstances when you were a kid?
  2. Did your parents pay for college, or did you have to work your way through?
  3. When have you felt vulnerable due to financial circumstances? 
  4. When have you felt powerful due to financial circumstances?

How Much Will it Cost?

The cost of holistic financial planning advice can vary, depending on your needs. For instance, if you want a plan you can implement yourself, it will be less costly, but you must commit to doing the work. If, however, you want someone who will stay engaged, it will cost more but can save you money in the long run. 

Holistic financial planners are usually fee-based vs. commission-based. Rates average around $300 per hour, with simple packages starting at approximately $3,600/year. And most firms set investment management fees based on the portfolio’s value. For instance, a 1% annual fee is a customary starting point, with price breaks as your portfolio hits certain thresholds.

The Bottom Line

Holistic financial planning involves working with clients to understand their financial circumstances and outlook before developing a plan and giving advice. So, it is critical to find someone you can trust. At Golden Road Advisors, this is core to what we do. I’d welcome you to explore our services to learn more.

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