I didn’t plan to be a financial planner.
When people ask about what I studied in college or where I started my career, they’re often surprised to find out I was originally a news reporter and anchor for a local TV station. Inevitably, the question they ask next is, “How did you get from THAT to THIS?”
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The answer is simple: When my mother passed away unexpectedly at the age of 52, I figured out the hard way that people need help managing money. I was 24 at the time—not an age at which you'd expect to get that phone call.
I had just returned from spending the weekend at home with my parents. We had taken my two-year-old niece to her first play, and had eaten at a new café my mom had been excited to try.
The Phone Call No One Wants to Get
As I made the four-hour drive back from their place, I was thinking about what a great weekend we’d had, and how I almost hadn’t come home because I was too tired from a long week. Less than 24 hours later, my dad called me at work to tell me my mom had had a headache and passed out at work, that they were taking her to the hospital.
I jumped in the car and started driving; luckily, I hadn’t even unpacked the carload of laundry I’d taken home. Unfortunately, in the end, it didn’t matter how fast I drove; my mom died of a brain aneurysm before I got there. "There's nothing anyone could have done," the doctors told us.
I never had time to grieve. The next few days were a whirlwind. My dad was in shock and unable to handle any of the details on his own. As the oldest child, it was my job to step in and take charge. I don’t remember a conscious decision ever being made about this—it just sort of happened. I chose a funeral home, arranged the service, made call after call to our friends and family, and eventually had to deal with the “tackier” details: claiming my mom's life insurance and dealing with all of the financial decisions that had to be made, like consulting an estate planning attorney once we realized my mother hadn’t written a will.
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Talk about confusing. The attorney helped us figure out what my mother’s share of the community property estate was and suggested we create a trust. It seemed like the easiest way to allow me to manage the assets for my father and distribute income as needed. But hold up a minute: You might be wondering why that job fell to me.
My dad is an amazing man. He worked as a police officer for most of my life, and I always looked up to him. But he’s just not a money guy. I remember how my mom would send him off to work with one blank check folded in his pocket. When he used it, she’d give him another one. That’s just how it was done in my family. I was actually the only one who even knew where my mom kept all her financial documents.
Finding My New Calling
I didn’t study business in college. I actually avoided the business school like the plague, only taking two basic classes in my entire four years. Yet, seemingly overnight, I was deemed the most capable person in my family to make decisions about the mutual funds (huh?) and limited partnership (what?) in which my mom had invested.
I paid her broker a visit. "I'm so sorry for your loss," she said, followed quickly by, "don’t worry about any of this, I’ve got it all taken care of. You don’t need to understand any of this.”
I felt like my mom's broker didn’t want to take the time to help me understand the investments she'd made. I also got the distinct feeling my mom hadn’t understood them either.
Excuse me? I thought. I felt it was my job to understand what was going on. Granted, the sum we were managing wasn't a fortune, but it was all we had. I felt like my mom's broker didn’t want to take the time to help me understand the investments she'd made. I also got the distinct feeling my mom probably hadn’t understood them either. This woman clearly had already earned her commission on the sale of the investments, and now that there wasn’t any more new money coming her way, she wasn’t about to waste any of her precious time on me.
I felt so hurt and disgusted. I mean, come on, I was a Phi Beta Kappa college graduate! Surely I could understand what was going on if she would just have taken an hour or so to explain things to me. Yet I signed the paperwork she thrust in front of me, transferring all of our assets to the trust. Only, when I went to withdraw funds a month or so later, we got hit with $1,600 in penalties that apparently could have been avoided if we'd drawn the money out as a death distribution. Ouch.
The angst I felt at being dismissed so easily stayed with me over the next few weeks. I had left my job, not knowing how long I would be needed at home, so I had plenty of time on my hands. I decided I needed to take control of the situation, so I went to the bookstore and bought every book I could find on money management and investments that looked like they were reasonably easy to read. Then I spent hours on the couch eating “funeral casserole” and reading about classes of mutual funds and annuity pitfalls.
I started to realize there was a lot I had never learned about money management, but I felt empowered by my discoveries.
Me, a Newly Minted CFP®?
On a weekend trip back to my apartment (after all, rent did need to be paid!), I stopped at a friend’s wine bar to catch up on what had been happening in my absence. I ran into an acquaintance whom I knew to be a successful financial adviser and decided this was a great opportunity to see if I was on target with my money management plans. He was kind enough to discuss the situation with me. “You know, you seem to have a really good handle on all of this," he told me. "Have you ever thought of doing it for a living?” I hadn't. His question stunned me.
I had always thought that I would eventually go to law school. I’d been covering court trials as a reporter and had even taken the LSAT that spring. As I thought back to how I had felt going through the process of handling my mom’s affairs, I realized I had a great opportunity to help others who might find themselves in my place. Three weeks later I was in a training program to become a financial adviser.
That was more than 13 years ago, but I still think about my mom nearly every day. When I work with a young woman who doesn’t know how to set up a retirement account or figure out her credit score, I think back to my 24-year-old self and how I'd wished I had someone to help me. I feel like being a financial planner is my personal tribute to my mother. I know she would be proud of me.
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