The nice thing about this still being December is that we haven’t broken any resolutions yet. Plenty of time for that next week. But Amber Miller, a certified financial planner with the Maple Grove-based Planning Center, hopes we’ll take the final days of 2019 to ponder a big question: What do we want to do with the rest of our lives and how will we accomplish it? Miller’s clients include women in science and engineering and executive leadership, LGBT couples and millennials, but she says everybody, no matter our age, stage or bank account status, can benefit from a candid conversation about money, life and legacy. Miller, 39, talks about her work and financial philosophy, and why it’s essential to budget for fun.
Q: “Life planning” is bandied about a lot. What does it mean to you?
A: Traditionally, financial advisers have focused on the numbers: budgeting, investments, taxes and insurance. Life planning shifts the focus onto a client’s life goals first. As a financial life planner, I help clients clarify and achieve the life goals that are most meaningful to them and ultimately build a financial plan where the client’s financial resources support their goals.
Q: What is life planning not?
A: It’s not looking for the next best or hottest new investment opportunity. It’s not going to a meeting and solely discussing quarterly market returns or which insurance product to sell to the client. It’s making decisions for a long life — one with long-term goals and vision for this and future generations.
Q: What are life-planning questions we might ask no matter how old or young we are?
A: What do you want to accomplish so that you feel like you’ve had a life well-lived? And, if you had more time or money, what would you do? Questions like these start to get to the heart of what matters to each client — answering why it is all-important.
Q: You specialize in working with young professionals. Why do they think they need your help?
A: In my experience, it is the younger generations who are the most interested in financial and life planning. They are asking questions and seeking help because no one teaches us this stuff. They have seen pensions disappear and have questions about taxes, insurance, their work benefits and complicated compensation structures and budgeting and they’re not afraid to ask for advice.
Q: What’s a question you wish they would ask themselves more?
A: Every day, we’re faced with thousands of mini-decisions about how to spend our time and money. Mary Oliver wrote a poem with a quote that I keep on my computer desktop to remind me of this: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The question I wish everyone would ask themselves more is, is this decision before me helping me build my one wild and precious life?
Q: What’s something you wish clients would stop asking?
A: What’s the right ratio between needs, wants and savings? There is no Golden Rule about saving or spending, only that our future goals are being considered and planned for while living our best lives today. And this looks uniquely different for every person and couple.
Q: Many young people are not “professionals” in the traditional sense. They’re gig workers, piecing together one, two or three jobs. What advice might you offer when there is no way they can save?
A: Pay attention equally to the big picture and the details. Find the ways that you are building toward the big picture. If your goal is to work one job, explore what you’d like it to be and look for part-time work in that field. And find ways you can celebrate the small wins, even if that’s paying your student loan bill each month.
Q: How does college debt impact the modern life-planning conversation? Do young people fear they’ll be paying off debt forever?
A: I do have some clients who come in and say similar things about their college debt, yes. Although it’s typically because they don’t have a plan to tackle the payments and they haven’t seen the analysis of when those payments will end. One of the things that I have focused on with these clients is building that plan. Most clients have been surprised to see they will be able to pay off the debt far earlier than they ever thought possible with a few simple tweaks to their payments.
Q: What has your work taught you about the money-happiness ratio?
A: We have a saying at my company that “money isn’t the most important thing in life, but it affects what is.” This is exactly why I focus my conversations with clients first about their life vision and goals — because when it comes down to it, once those life goals are achieved or we’re working toward achieving them, the rest is just details.
Q: Has your work changed the way you live your life?
A: Most specifically, I think about my spending and saving totally differently. I make sure to plan and save for my future goals while spending a certain amount on my weekly fun (without guilt), knowing I’ve planned separately for my vacations, holiday gifts or my own retirement. I go through all of these same life-vision exercises and conversations with my family on a regular basis. We are consistently checking in and iterating our future life goals. This way, I’m spending both my money and my time on the things and the people that are the most important to me.