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A Day in the Life of a Financial Planner

In this episode of Friends Talk Financial Planning Bridget and I talk about our professional journeys as Certified Financial Planners. We share what skill sets and strategies supported our success and how our day-to-day has evolved. If you’re curious about what a career in financial planning might look like for you, you’re in the right place.


    Bridget: What's it like to be a financial planner today? John and I are going to talk about a day in the life of a financial planner. We've got decades of experience, and we'll talk about how we got going, and what it's like now. Hi, I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel, and I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois.

    John: And I'm John Scherer. I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin. Before we get to a day in the life of a financial planner, we want to remind everybody to hit that subscribe button. That helps other people find this content on YouTube. So with that, let's talk about a day in the life. This is going to be an interesting conversation.

    Bridget: Yeah, well, I think we're going to structure this as what it's like in the beginning and what it's like now because the day in the life is radically different when you're starting out than when you are established. And I've had my financial planning practice since 2008, so that's over 15 years. You've had yours at least 20. And John had insurance experience, and I had tax experience even before that.

    John: Hard to think back on some of those things.

    Bridget: Exactly. Get the cobwebs off.

    John: I keep thinking about…what's that movie? Office Space, I think it is. What do you do here? I just kind of sit around. And what do I do all day long? I have to think about this one. This will be interesting.

    Bridget: Yeah, well, it’s interesting when you think about it from the beginning of the financial planning practice. First of all, the reason we're starting about it at the beginning is because if we talk about what our lives now, they sound pretty darn great, and people will think, “Great, I want that.” But that's not actually what it was at the beginning. The key is getting through to that. And you don't start out with what we have now. And so, when we were starting out, I would say I tried to spend 80% of my time on marketing, which was hard because I was still trying to learn financial planning and set up my business. So I was pretty obsessed with learning it all and particularly learning how to communicate about what I was doing.

    John: Those three things, really, that's the hard part we're talking about with starting your own business. I think they’re three components. You've got the technical component. How do you deliver good advice to people and know what's going on? That's huge. But then if you don't have anybody to give that advice to it's no good if you have all the knowledge in the world, but you don't have any customers that will take your advice. So you got to go out and do the marketing to get people.

    And then you're also running a business too, so you got to get set up, whether that's compliance or the administration. You need a website. I mean, all these sorts of things, all the stuff that needs to get done. And I think when somebody's starting off, it can be easy to focus on any one of those areas at the expense of the others. And just imagine, right, if all you do is marketing, but you don't have any technical skills, that doesn't go very far. And if you've got all kinds of technical skills, but nobody wants to pay you for that, that doesn't go very far either.

    And if you have those two things, but you're running a shoddy business operation, that's also not a recipe for success. So it is some balance, but I don't know if 80% was the right number for me, but certainly north of 50% because hey, in the beginning, you got to go out and find people to work with and start to get used to having that communication.

    For me, I had my CFP. I knew the financial planning stuff, but how do you communicate with folks and make it effective? You have the knowledge, but how do you deliver that knowledge to people once they come in? It's a skill. Communication. The fourth part of that stool is how you communicate with people. And balancing those different skill sets and developing them as you move along.

    Bridget: For me, at the beginning, I would try to go to networking events. And I'm a little bit introverted. Actually, when I take a test, I'm right in the middle. But I would go into a networking event; not my favorite thing to do. So, I would go to a networking event, and I would have a list of what my goals were for at the networking event, like meet three people I don't know, talk to somebody I do know. And I wouldn't try to do an elevator pitch or anything like that. I would just try to talk to people I know, tell them what I'm doing, and try to tell them that I liked what I was doing, but that was about it.

    And that was a success. Okay, I did it. But just getting out in the community and letting people know what I was doing was important. Nobody is coming to your office and storming your office and saying they want to work with you. You have to get out there and tell people. And the other thing is that it's such a long game. You don't immediately get results at all. So it really takes five years before all of this gels, I would say, before you can say, “Okay, I have my clients. I know what I'm doing. This is good. I'm going to have a business here.” And so that's a long time frame. Yeah, that takes a long time.

    John: Overnight success after five years, right?

    Bridget: Yeah.

    John: It's interesting as I think about that and as you're describing that, I remember thinking back when I was starting off, if I just had enough clients that all I had to do was come in and do the financial planning work. That's the part that I really loved about it. If I just had enough clients where I could be busy all day working on plans and working on tax planning and those sorts of things, that would be awesome.

    And then I got to a stage where I was able to do that, and maybe that's a good segue into what it looks like today. Then it got to be, “Geez, I've done that for a long time now. I don't want to do all that detail stuff anymore.” For me and the business now it's still about marketing, about putting messaging out there in the world on things, but it's more about being a thought leader and really providing advice to clients. And now, both of us have people who do more of the financial planning for us and sort of developing that side of things.

    Bridget: Yeah, well, and it's drawing on all this experience, especially because both of us have been in the industry for a long time. It's really a wisdom industry. And so, the experience that we've got back to the Stone Age or whatever.

    John: Right.

    Bridget: It actually helps because you've seen it before, and that stuff comes into play. And sometimes I'll tell people who are older and career changers. They'll be complaining about age discrimination in their industry, which is totally real and totally a thing, but in our industry, it's the reverse age discrimination. I would say the younger people are discriminated against and the older people are more listened to. And so great. It works for me right now.

    John: Right. It’s a lot better now that I have less hair than I did twenty years ago.  

    Bridget: Yeah, exactly. Going gray, no problem.

    John: And it's interesting, as you think about what we do, I think we're probably similar where it's looking and thinking about things, thinking about solutions for clients. Doing the research to figure out what's the next deliverable that we can do more so than the individual planning, but we've both got people working with us who do that planning. And so, as we talk about what's the day in their life is sort of in between the idea of starting off a business and having to build up all the client base.

    Now they come in and they've got the client base, so they can really focus on some of those technical skills and those communication skills. So it's sort of in that middle ground of things. They don't have to do the strategic planning for the business that we do. They don't have to do the marketing, but they can really focus on that communication and skill part of those things. And so, there's a different place for things. When I first started, and I think the same was trust for you, there weren't many places that were hiring people that did that sort of work.

    I would love to just walk in and do the financial planning, and it wasn't there. Today, I think there are a lot more opportunities. I know people are looking for folks to come in and do that financial planning stuff. And for me, it's those things that I've been there, done that. I can still do it, but it's not as much fun for me compared to the other more vision type things, like helping people decide what they're going to do with their lives, helping them set what their goals are, and how to get there.

    And then having somebody else asking, “All right, what are the nuts and bolts of getting there?” But there's a different opportunity, I think, today for that middle ground where you don't have to spend 80% of your time marketing, and you're also not at a level where you can say, “Hey, I've been there, done that. Here's a solution to things.” But it's that middle ground, I think.

    Bridget: Yeah. And so, I've got three types of days. I've got buffer days, which are admin days, I've got client days, and I've got marketing days. On my buffer day, I'm meeting with my team and figuring out, okay, what's this week going to look like? We might be doing strategic planning. I might be going to a conference to learn more. I might be meeting with my peer group. I might be doing coaching. Those types of activities. One of the things I think it's important to understand about the industry is that there's an emphasis on what do you really want?

    What do you want your life to be like? And again, this is not at the beginning. This happens after five years, when you say, “Oh, what do I want? Oh, now that I've got a foothold, I can get things going.” So we got admin days, again, might do coaching, but most people in the industry, I think, are big proponents of coaching, so a lot of people get coaching, a lot of education. The client days are just client meetings where I'm trying to be one-on-one with clients. These are my favorite. I love these days.

    John: Yeah.

    Bridget: Just talking to clients, communicating. I try not to do too much. Another part of the industry, especially for experienced advisors, is that everybody's happy when I'm happy. So that sounds good, right? I'm happy when I'm happy, too, but that's actually a responsibility. So that means for me, I can't try to do too much. I have to pace myself, so with client days, I've got to make sure that I pace myself. And then marketing days, super fun. Do things like this, do things like this, work on getting the word out there, because both John and I don't actually need to do a YouTube show, but it's coming from a deep desire to be able to take my knowledge, and I think you feel the same way, and share it with a broader know.

   John: It's fun.

    Bridget: Yeah, it's fun. So. Exactly. And we picked this format because we find it fun. I find that fun. At this stage in my career, I am really trying to fine-tune what do I find most fun. How can I do that more and more and more? Where am I most valuable? What can I do more? And again, at the beginning of my practice wasn't like that. When I'm talking now, people say, “That sounds great,” but it takes a long time to get there.

    John: It's interesting hearing you talk about how you segment your days, which I think is really awesome. We do client-focused days, too. We try to block them into a couple of days in a row, because you really get focused on helping clients, and you talk about similar things with everybody. And so, it gets a really good rhythm. And then I've got the other workdays where we sort of combine, whether it's marketing or team meetings or implementing new systems here in the office. But then I take a real focus on what I call off days or free days, and I think that ties in with what we do for financial planning. And it's not investment advice necessarily.

    That's part of it. But when most people say they're a financial advisor, what they mean is that they're working on collecting people's assets and putting them into an investment strategy. And that's about the extent of the financial planning advice. And so, when Nick first started working here, he had been working for somebody else, and when we came, I said, “Listen, I really want to work on these things.

    This year our focus is on some of these systems we have in the office.” And he said, “Boy, it's really refreshing where the goal is not how many new clients can we bring in this year and how much more money can we gather in.” It was about how we deliver services to clients, provide value to people. So it's just a little bit different. For me, those free days are a lot of times when I'm off doing nothing in the office, but that's the time when I'm thinking about this client situation and that, and how do we solve this problem?

    Sometimes it's about investments, but probably 90% of the time it's about this tax strategy or that goal that they said they had, or how do we think about this way of passing money on to their kids in a meaningful fashion? All those sorts of things that have nothing to do with investments but everything to do with their financial success. For me, being away helps free me up to do some of those things, which is, again, something I didn't have the luxury of 20 years ago, but now I'm in a spot where it provides real value.

    Bridget: Yeah. And I would say the same. My free days are my creative days where my brain can just come up with great things to help clients or even new programs that I want to implement in my practice. So it's an interesting thing. And again, free days are actually vital for the happy advisor that helps all this go. So when I had my tax practice, there's an ethos of like, it's okay if you're miserable, everybody expects you to be miserable. Just work really hard, work as hard as you can, and then that's success. But it's a different situation here. If I'm burnt out, clients don't want to see me.

    John: You're not doing your best for them. That's just the fact of the matter. You can’t do your best for them.

    Bridget: Yeah. That's not what anybody wants. And so, it's a whole different mindset, which I like. It's great. It's made me happier. So with that, I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel. I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois.

    John: And I'm John Scherer. I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin. Both Bridget and I are members of the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners. So if you like what you hear on our show here, check out acplanners.org to find an advisor in your area. And please subscribe.


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