Michael Kitces – The blog got launched in early 2008. And the shift for me — in the mid 2000s — I’m just one of those people, I love studying, and analyzing, and nerding out on things. That’s why I have alphabet soup of degrees and designations after my name. For my first seven or eight years of my career, I got a whole bunch of the degrees and designations. Then, frankly, those got boring incrementally – like the ninth designation doesn’t really teach you much beyond the first eight.
Ben Jones – Right.
Michael Kitces – So, I just started reading things voraciously, finding fairly complex situations that would come up with clients and go really deep on them. Then finally like, hey, I did all this work, I’d like to share what I found. It turned out; I was pretty good at taking the things I’d learned and sharing them. I started writing for some of the industry trade publications. I started doing a little bit of speaking for industry events, financial planning association chapter meetings and things like that. I hit this challenge in the mid 2000s. Back then, the Internet was here, it had shown up, it had been around for a little while. But all of the industry trade publications were still print first, online second. Anything that you made for a trade publication had to fit the magazine. Like literally, you get this many inches of column space, it adds up to approximately this many words. You literally can’t go more than 10 words over or they can’t crunch your graphics down enough to fit your article in there. And when I go and deep dive and nerding out on topics, that ain’t going to fit in a two-page glossy magazine article. So my stuff kept getting cut way, way down. I got really frustrated. It’s like okay; you’ve my content down to the point that I’m not really adding anything unique beyond a lot of other relatively shallow articles on the topic. The unique I think I do is I can go deeper and really figure out the nuance rules, the special planning strategies, the stuff that most of us don’t think about until you really go deep on it. Well, this is ridiculous. We have the Internet now. There is no column length on the Internet. You just keep hitting page down. So, I’m going to make a website, blogging was kind of a thing by then; it had been out for a few years. Like I’m going to stand on my own little corner of the website and I’m going to write my articles there because we don’t run out of room. I can just add more pages or you can keep hitting page down. That was really the genesis of it was frankly sort of spite and aggravation over the limitations of print magazines to say this is the digital world, we don’t have to be so constrained. I launched the blog. I launched a newsletter service at the time called the Kitces Report and started doing a little bit more speaking. Went back to our advisory firm and said hey, love what I do here, love the work that we do with clients. But I’ve got this itch I just need to scratch around taking all the stuff that I learn and trying to share it out there a little bit more. Can we re-configure this role a little, I want to dial my work down the advisory firm so I can dial up this outside thing and kind of have one foot in, and one foot out. And God bless, they said yes.
Emily Larsen – Michael’s ideas maybe well-known but our goal for today is to share some actionable advice from Michael that listeners have never heard from him before. Michael’s deep detailed style of analysis might get you to change the way you think about your financial planning software decision. Whatever software you choose, it will be a foundational part of your tech stack and mode of communication with your clients. Ben asked Michael for a framework to start thinking about how to make this choice.
Michael Kitces – My own thinking around this has evolved a bit over the years just as my career has evolved, my work as a financial advisor. When I started out early on, I was the nerdy technical dude who wanted to go really deep. I want some financial planning software that went really, really deep. I wanted to analyze out every single number, every single cash flow. So, I lived in a world of software like NaviPlan which back then was legendary for the depth of cash flows, Moneytree which was very good on flexible cash flows and really detailing all this stuff out. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that and that framework. I think there’s still a lot of value that we get to add as advisors by just literally doing better analysis than a client could have done alone to come up with a better, more accurate, more technically valuable answer. The caveat to that that I would add is twofold. First of all, as we’ve all forever experienced, I can do the super deep analysis. I can plop the 50-page plan down for the client. We all know now the spine of that thing is never going to be cracked, as soon as they leave your office, you’ve got to be pretty good in that plan presentation just to even hold their attention and try to go through a long plan. I found even in my own experience for the way I use planning software has shifted a bit. That I still like doing that depth of analysis because I do think there’s a value to be created in literally analyzing coming up with better insights than what they could have done on their own. But all of that plan output to me is increasingly the technical appendix that goes at the back-end of what’s a much simpler front-end that really focuses on executive summary, observations, action items, and recommendations. The second piece that I would add to this that I think has really been a shift over the past five to seven years or so is historically planning software was our super-secret calculator tool. You come to me, you pay me some dollars and give me some information, I go down the hallway to my office, I enter things into my super-secret calculator that no one else has. I print out the output; I bring it back to you. I say see, here’s the special analysis I’ve done that nobody else can do for you that you can’t get on your own. The software output was the value. The fact that I had this calculator tool that no one else was the value. And that now becomes a challenge in a lot of ways. There’s more and more tools online, financial planning software is more ubiquitous than it was before; there’s a decent chance someone else has basically the same software or literally the same software. But the other challenge is there’s a limitation in how planning gets done when you do it that way. We’ve all had those moments where you’ve gather some information from a client, you’re presenting a plan, you get a little ways into the plan and the client says something like well, what if I retire a few years later. This plan is looking a little bit too stressed, I don’t want my Monte Carlo probability of success to be that low, what if I retire a few years later. And you go, crap, I didn’t print that scenario. You said you wanted to retire at 62, I made you a plan where you’re going to retire at 62, I didn’t make one where you might retire at 64. Suddenly, this whole meeting essentially is trashed because you wrote all these action items about what they’re supposed to do based on a retirement age of 62 because that was what they said originally. But now they’ve shifted to 64 and you don’t have that in the plan. Now, I’ve got to go back to my office afterwards and do follow-up planning stuff, and send you follow-ups. And this process stretches out and becomes very time consuming. The fundamental shift I think is happening now is the planning software is moving. It comes out of our offices and it goes in the conference room where the client is. We can get ginormous, beautiful TV screens for ludicrously cheap now. You put a 60 inch screen on your wall and you start doing the planning with the client live on the spot. And the whole dynamic begins to change. First of all, you don’t literally hit just these process roadblocks. If a client says, well, what if I retire at 64 instead of 62, you don’t have to say well, I’ll go back to my office after our meeting and analyze that, and send you a follow-up next week. Instead, we can say, well now, let’s see. Pull up the planning software and change the retirement age, and move it from 62 to 64 and see what happens. Do you like that, and if they say no, then okay, well, what if I move the slider to 65. Do you like that? We can just figure it out on the spot. The second thing that happens is it becomes literally much more engaging for the client. It’s no longer us talking at them, which feels good for us, I was very proud for a long time of my ability to do this spiel through our long plan and this great plan presentation I was so proud of. It took a while for me to accept it’s probably still a little bit boring from the client’s side. When you put the planning software up, now it’s engaging with them. They’re doing it directly. They get to be a part of building this plan. Some people call it collaborative planning, co-creation planning. Sitting across from clients, doing this, it is engaging to them and connecting to them at a whole other level. To me, increasingly, what you’re looking for in planning software now is this combination. I need the technical chops to be there. There’s been a trend for some planning tools towards we’re just going to make it simpler so it gets faster, and I don’t think it works. Your answers just end up getting wrong. I’m as cognizant as anyone that you do a 50-year projection, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s in there that’s going to be wrong because we don’t really know what’s going to happen for the next 49 years. But you have to at least start with a baseline that is technically accurate in the first place. Tools that do things like taxes are hard to project so I’m just going to assume an average tax rate through retirement. Are you really saying that for my affluent client, they’re going to have the same tax rate at age 69 as they will at age 70 when their multi-million dollar IRA starts making required minimum distributions. That’s just factually not true. We don’t know exactly what tax rates are going to be in the future but I’m pretty sure when a $200,000 RMD comes out, the tax bill is probably going to be higher that year. I might want a plan around that tax rate. There is a relevance to technical accuracy. I’m not actually a fan of the trend that’s out there of planning software getting simpler but I do think we have a need for more interactive. For creating those opportunities where clients actually engage, they get more buy in to the plan, they really connect to it more. At the end of the day, you get people who are much more likely to follow through on the recommendations. Because you didn’t tell them what to do, you figured out with them what they should do.
Ben Jones – Okay, so the first consideration in selecting the tool is also related to the client experience you want to deliver. How interactive is your current process and planning tool? How could you engage your client more in that process? I should note that if you were hoping that we’d end this episode with XYZ is the best planning tool; you’re going to be incredibly disappointed. The reason we’re having this conversation is because there is no best solution. There are lots of different ways you can approach and use financial planning software. It’s about finding the best fit for you. I promise, if there was one best tool, we would just tell you. Let’s go a little deep on this topic because there are different philosophies for these planning tools that underpin the way that they’re designed. I think there’s too basic but they’ve kind of got a little bit squishy now. You mentioned NaviPlan already – that used to be a very cash flow type approach, think about the accountant that wants to double entry account for every dollar that comes into the client’s business. And then you’ve got the goals-based approach or goals-based planning which has become incredibly popular I think, especially the last decade. That might be something like MoneyGuidePro. But now they’re getting closer to the middle I would think than two different philosophies. Just walk me through; can you describe maybe the cash flow approach and the goals-based approach just at a high level?
Michael Kitces – So the purest essence of the cash flow approach was I’m going to start with the client’s household income, now in the typically still working years if we’re still working with accumulators. X dollars come into the household, X dollars go out, whatever is left over is saved. If you wanted to do a plan for a client, you basically needed to account for all the income sources coming in and all the cash flows going out so you could figure out what was left that was getting saved so you could do the rest of your planning process.
Ben Jones – That also assumes the client was doing a reasonable budget to begin.
Michael Kitces – Well, and that became part of the challenge around the cash flow based approach. You have to reconcile all the dollars. If you’re like well, I’m not quite sure where their spending is on these last two categories, you can’t leave it unaccounted for or it just ends up being a surplus and it ends up being saved. Then you look at their savings accounts, they’re not actually saving that much. You’ve got this gap. You would have to reconcile it and some of us would then back into it by saying well, I’m going to take how much money comes in your house, I’m going to take how much goes to taxes, I’m going to take how much goes to savings so I can see those line items. Then I’m going to subtract those from the gross and assume all the rest of that is spending and not even try to figure it out and itemize it. We started getting stuck because it gets hard to account for all the cash flow sometimes. So if you put that in context that was planning software of the 90s, NaviPlan, Moneytree, and the like. They were all spreadsheet-based or had just come out of the spreadsheet world because that’s what we had in the 80s, financial planning and Lotus 123, and QuatroPro. We went to the spreadsheet style approaches; track all the dollars coming in and all the dollars coming out, but it was a pain in the butt to track all the dollars because not everybody knew where all their dollars would go. So, it was in that context that MoneyGuidePro came forward. To me, the essence of MoneyGuidePro, and what we ultimately dubbed or what they very successfully branded as goals-based planning was say look, if at the end of the day, we’re doing all this cash flow planning and tracking because we’re trying to figure out and get to are you going to have enough for retirement. At the end of the day, whether your restaurant budget a week is $100 a week or $200 a week or $10,000 a month because you love to live it up, I don’t actually care. What I care at the end of the day is how much gets saved after you do all of that. And so the idea for MoneyGuidePro was to say look, if what we’re really shooting for is we’re trying to get to retirement goal and you’re going to get there by saving certain dollar amounts towards that goal, let’s just track what you’re saving towards the goal. And not spend all our time on the rest of the cash flows. Let’s just tie the dollars that actually relate to the goal. Yes, ultimately, if it turns out to get there, you’ve got to save $2,000 a month and you’re only saving $1,500 a month, we will have to have a conversation at some point about where you’re going to find the other $500. But I don’t necessarily have to dissect that up-front and I don’t literally need to model out all those cash flows. That basically was the origin of goals-based planning. Let’s just look at the cash flows that tie to the goal which is essentially what am I saving in now, and what am I going to be drawing out later. And get rid of the other cash flows that are kind of superfluous to that analysis and in the process, gets a little faster, gets a little simpler; we can get through it a little bit easier. That created a divide for the better part of 10 to 15 years in planning software of the ones and the advisors that said no, darn it, there’s value to be added in going through each of these individual cash flows. And to be fair, for some clients, there is. That level of scrutiny helps and you find other planning opportunities. And those that just said look, at the end of the day; we’re really kind of focused on accumulating for retirement goal. I manage retirement portfolios which is where I’m focused. It’s a whole lot easier if I just focus on that goal and the cash flows that tie to that goal, and off went goals-based software. There’s a couple of different interesting convergences or shifts now that are starting to happen in planning software. One, as we got more sophisticated in our planning, we had to go beyond the simple one bucket retirement goal. Now you can get a bunch of calculators online to do that. We have our calculator goal, and then we have an additional vacations goal, and we’ve got a weddings for the kids goal, and we’ve got some college goals that are layered in there. We’ve got the second home goal. By the time you put enough goals in there, you basically are recreating cash flow software now. Because there’s so many different goals with different timings that really we just have a whole bunch of year by year cash flows with big lumps in some years and smaller things in other years. We’ve reverted back to cash flow. So there was this shift to some extent that as the goals-based software got more complex, we started shifting more towards cash flow-based. The cash flow software, in the meantime, tried to figure out how to get leaner, and meaner, and more efficient in input and what we’re putting in, and of course even on a cash flow basis. We’re still ultimately trying to get the goals so the goals became a little bit more prominent. There’s kind of been this convergence but I think particularly over the past five years, where these things are starting to look more and more similar. The distinction between cash flow-based and goals-based is not the same as it once was — down to newer generation software, like RightCapital, where it’s literally just a toggle witch in the software. Like, would you like to be “cash flow-based or goals-based”, and the only difference is: Do we track the excess surplus of the client’s household cash flow beyond dollars coming in and what you already knew was coming out? If you want to track the balance and figure out where it’s going, you check the cash flow box, and if you just want to ignore the balance and focus on what you know is going into the savings account, you check goals-based. But it’s literally just down to a toggle switch how much detail do you want to go into. It has become a drill-down factor as opposed to a differential planning philosophy.
Ben Jones – So if there’s an advisor out there that’s saying: How do I decide if I should be a goals-based focused planner or a cash flow-based focused planner, what would be your advice?
Michael Kitces – I would really argue they’re not distinct anymore. For where planning software has come, I can pretty much tie out some relevant goals in any of them. I think there’s maybe a little bit of an asterisk, but if you don’t really want to go super deep into cash flows, there are some very cash flow-intensive platforms, like NaviPlan, that may slow you down a little. But even platforms like NaviPlan have made it easier to not go super deep if you don’t want to go super deep, and they’ve largely converged. What I find instead — so there are some secondary affects that come from detailed level cash flows that I think actually are becoming more relevant. So one of the indirect affects that you get is, you don’t really track the cash flows in detail. You can’t do things like detailed tax projections because you don’t know what all of the cash flows are. They’re going in and out, so you’re not going to be able to do a very effective tax projection. Well tax planning is increasing becoming part of a value add. Right? It’s one thing to say: Hey, we’re going to do this plan. You will so thank me in the 2040s when you see how this turns out. In 20 or 30 years. Not the most rewarding thing for clients. But, hey, here’s a strategy, your tax bill is $1,000 less now. I’d like that now. That feels good now.
Ben Jones – It’s more tangible.
Michael Kitces – More tangible. We all love our tax dollar savings. So we’re seeing sub-sets like tax-centric planning become more relevant now. That gets really hard in goals-based planning software, so MoneyGuidePro, you’re great on the goals-based side, but it has never been great on going deep on the tax side. With NaviPlan, because it was very intensive on cash flows, was really good at going deep on taxes. Newer midpoints like RightCapital just came out of the gate and said: We’re going to get good at taxes. So RightCapital, when you project out that financial plan into the future, it’s basically calculating pro forma tax returns every single year just so you can figure out exactly where will that client land. Like, how much interest and dividends are going to come off of that portfolio? How much in RMDs is going to be coming out? Is Social Security going to be coming in? How much of that’s going to be taxed? And that will inevitably be off a little bit because tax loss change and the trajectory of wealth changes, but now I can start fundamentally capturing things like: Your tax rate is going to be really low in your 60s because you haven’t taken Social Security yet and there’s no RMDs. Your tax rate is going to be really high in your 70s because there is RMDs and it’s going to stack on top of your Social Security. Hey, maybe we should do a partial Roth conversion now while you’re 64 years old and your tax bracket is really low, and then I’ve got a bigger Roth bucket, a smaller IRA, and smaller RMDs in the future, let’s hit the button and see what happens to your financial plan. Holy cow. I’ve increased your long-term wealth by $100,000 of tax-favored compounding over time that I can’t model in pure goals-based software because we never get the tax analysis in there. So it’s not necessarily about cash flow versus goals-based to me, but there are other things that you get off of that that I think are becoming more relevant. My ability to do tax sensitive financial planning. I get it. For a lot of us, we’re not CPAs, I cannot give formal tax advice, and I’m certainly not tax doing returns, but a growing number of advisors are. It’s particularly off cord if you do their tax returns and you can’t even give a tax-intelligent financial planning projection. It just becomes a value add opportunity for all of us. I don’t have to be a detailed CPA to figure out if you’ve got a ginormous IRA in your 70s, those are going to be unpleasant RMDs, and if we do a small Roth conversion now when your tax rate is 12, that’s probably going to turn out well for you. Tax sensitivity, I’m finding, is becoming more relevant. Again, while detailed cash flows aren’t necessary the driver, being able to model how retirement distributions are happening — like, am I taking the money from the brokerage account first or the IRA first? That has a material financial impact thanks to the compounding of tax-preferenced accounts, being able to model where dollars are coming from, being able to model if you’re using annuity products, where the annuities actually fit in. A lot of that, to me, is now what’s becoming the frontier edge of financial planning software when you’re working with retired clients in particular. When you’re on the younger end, some of the cash flow stuff is actually starting to come back to the table because when you’re working with people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, the truth at the end of the day is their financial success is not determined by the growth rate on their portfolio. The financial success is determined by whether the in-flows are higher than the out-flows and there’s anything left to save in the first place. And giving them advice about how to list their income, so job and career and business advice, and how to manage the expenses in their household has way more of a magnified affect if 10, 20, 30 years of compounding savings opportunities then what you’re actually doing for their retirement account at that point that may still be modest. That’s bringing a level of, call it cash flow planning, but really more of a bit of budgeting household cash flow analyses, kind of the mid dot-com-style stuff brought into the financial planning world is now starting to come to the table, as well.
Emily Larsen – There are still appreciable differences between cash flow and goal-based financial planning software. From Michael’s perspective is that the decision may come down to secondary nuances, such as how your software model’s tax projections or retirement distributions and annuities, for instance. There are many more less obvious factors to consider.
Ben Jones – Now, I want to shift to the client experience. You’ve already brought this up; you clearly understand that this has moved from a back office tool to a front office tool. It used to be we had a printed report, we gave the client a binder, they felt like they got something tangible out of this —
Michael Kitces – That’s why we made it leather-bound, absolutely.
Ben Jones – Today, planning is much more agile, as it should be. It needs to be flexible and adaptable due to a client’s changing situations. And it seems like the leather binder now today is still there, but what it contains is the estate plans, a copy of the wills and trusts, their passwords to digital assets. Tell me how this is done collaboratively in the conference room, and how one would pick tools based on this? There’s the visual aspect of: How good does it look in front of the client? There’s the function aspect of: How easy is it to manipulate with the client and collaborate on these things, and kind of model those what-if scenarios? Walk me through how an advisor should think about this, and what tools they might chose based on that.
Michael Kitces – So there are, I think, a couple of factors that come up here. The first is just clarifying how you’re going to do your planning process. Starting point for virtually all of us in planning is the data input. Like I have some data in there so I can do some number crunching and things. The first question is: What does your data input process look like? Because we’re finding a couple of different paths that advisors increasing are going down that are sort of diverging. Some of us do, what I’ll call the traditional approach, send my clients a questionnaire. Might still be physical paper, might be a PDF they enter stuff into, but I send my clients a data form, they fill out the data form, and then someone in my office takes that data and punches it into the software. I can do that. I can pretty much do that in any of the planning tools. Some of us, though, are starting to shift. We’re saying, well, maybe I’ll just let the client enter some of the data directly. Like, if they’re going to enter stuff, why am I having them enter it into a PDF that I then re-key into the software instead of just sending them an actual interface of the software, and let them enter it there. Or even connect their accounts directly. Companies like eMoney, I think, are particularly strong in this area. Hey, I’m just going to send the portal directly to my clients and let them punch this stuff in, connect their accounts, turn on the account aggregation, and then I’m never going to have to key in the account value again because all of the data is just flowing automatically. Some of us like to do the data gathering in person. It’s part of the discovery process. This is an area where I think MoneyGuidePro is particularly strong. So I can put up on the screen now with the client, sort of a data gathering and data input process, where we’re going to ask questions as we go, and the client has an opportunity to kind of see their data get punched in as we go. Okay, tell me your ages. Tell me your account balances. Alright, here’s an image of like 16 different goals, you tell me which ones you want to drag over into the plan, and we’ll use those and not the rest. And the actual data gathering process is built to be more interactive with the client on the spot.
Ben Jones – So that kind of enhances the experience of: Tell me what you want to do with money, time, and planning.
Michael Kitces – Yeah. I think it’s a powerful thing to discover, but to each their own around their discovery process. I will kind of advocate — I think the whole send the clients the paperwork, the fillable PDF, have them fill it out and punch it in is probably going to go away. At some point that front end is going to be the planning software. And even if your planning software can’t do it today, there are now tools like Precise FP that creates a data form that maps to your financial planning software so you can give the clients a thing that will go to your planning software, even if your planning software doesn’t have the interface that you want.
Ben Jones – Also, in the days of cyber security, it might actual be just a little bit more secure than e-mailing PDFs back and forth.
Michael Kitces – Yeah, e-mailing PDFs back and forth or trying to cram into the Vault the client’s not used to yet. The distinction here, though, and part of it I would say there’s not necessarily a right or wrong around: I’m going to have my client punch the data in and have it port to the planning software versus doing it in the meeting in like a MoneyGuidePro style because ultimately there’s kind of two parts to a data gathering process with clients. Well call it the hard data and the soft data. The hard data is just, I do need me some numbers, ages, account balance, Social Security estimates, pension estimates, all of that. Right? There are some just factual dollar amount numbers that I need, and it’s not a trivial number of data points, so it may take a while to collect them. But then there’s all of the soft data stuff. It starts with: When do you want to retire? Then it gets to: Why did you pick that age? Why not a few years earlier? Why not a few years later? Oh, you said it because you need $1M. Well, if we show you in the plan that you could actually retire fine with $800,000, would you retire earlier. Okay, well, cool, then let’s move your age right now. If it turns out you could retire three more years earlier by just doing part-time consulting back to your industry and sort of gliding retirement down as opposed to just doing a hard stop, would you want to do the glide-in approach? Well, actually, yeah, that sounds good. Great. So five minutes into the conversation, I’ve moved your retirement nest egg goal from $1M to $700,000 and your retirement age back by five years just by explaining to you some possibilities that you didn’t even know exist. Now, I can’t have that kind of possibilities discussion until the data is, and if I spend a whole meeting gathering the data and punching the data in, we don’t have time to get to that, so now I need a second meeting to talk about the soft data stuff because the first meeting took all of the hard data stuff. So the facts of getting all of that together takes time means we really are seeing advisors kind of divide this of: I’m going to have my clients punch in the data because I want my first meeting to really be that possibilities discovery meeting, versus others that say, no, I’d like to actually take my clients through the whole thing. I learn the client’s data by when we key it in together on the collaborator experience. I get really familiar with the data. If they key it in themselves, I’ve got to take time before the meeting and look at all of the stuff in the software just to figure out what the heck their numbers are because I wasn’t there for it. That, to me, is more of a style preference issue, and what ultimately just becomes part of a planning process: Are you going to do hard data as a pre-meeting and the soft data in the discovery meeting? Or are you’re going to do hard data and soft data in one long meeting? Are you’re going to do hard data in meeting number one and soft data in meeting number two? There’s really no right or wrong answer to that because it just becomes a matter of: Who are your clients? What do you think their preferences are? What do you want that experience to be like? Where are you trying to add value in the process? Retired clients may be totally fine with the two-meeting process. They’re retired, they don’t have a whole lot of else going on, they’re good with this. My business owner executive clients, I’m going to be lucky to get that person to show up at one meeting because they’re super busy running their business. They ain’t coming to two meetings.
Ben Jones – That’s why they hired you, right?
Michael Kitces – They hired me to —
Ben Jones – They’re delegating.
Michael Kitces – Right? So people that want that collaborative interactive thing, that’s great. People who are delegating, I may want to give them a collaborative interactive thing, but they’re fundamentally delegators and time savers, so I have to treat that process differently. At some point there’s this combination of advisor preference, plus client preference, but the software handle these differently. EMoney is a bit better, I think, on the gather the data up-front, RightCapital has moved in that direction, as well, MoneyGuidePro is built a lot more for let’s kind of gather the hard data and go through the process here on the spot. MoneyGuidePro, I think in general, is also just a little more hard coded to a process and experience that they have. So if you’re not sure how you want to do this, they give you a great thing out of the box. Just kind of go through their process, you’re going to have a pretty good conversation with clients. If you like your own conversation with clients, though, you’ve got your own thing, your own style, your own niche that has their own issues that may be a little bit more challenging. That, again, may take you out to something like eMoney or RightCapital because you want to control that experience yourself a little bit more.
Ben Jones – Now, speaking about controlling things, there’s assumptions —
Michael Kitces – Yes.
Ben Jones – — that go into the planning software, and these projections can be widely different. Right?
Michael Kitces – Yes.
Ben Jones – You mentioned the client, like he goes and interviews three financial advisors and he wants to choose the one that says you’re going to retire with success, and all they have to do is fiddle with the back end and, amazingly, voila.
Michael Kitces – It turns out to work. Yeah.
Ben Jones – Doesn’t mean it’s right.
Michael Kitces – Yes. Give me enough time with the assumptions, I can make any plan look good.
Ben Jones – So some of these softwares allow for behind-the-scenes assumptions built in.
Michael Kitces – We hired some super smart people that did some super deep analyses, and he is their best views about what reasonable assumptions were.
Ben Jones – But other advisors want to use their own capital market assumptions. It’s part of who their DNA is as an advisory firm, they might have unique clients, say for example pilots who start their career late and are forced out early, so there’s unique planning needs for them. Tell me a little bit about how much an advisor should place on their ability to model assumptions, and are different tools better for one or the other?
Michael Kitces – So there is definitely some variability just around assumptions, flexibility of assumptions. Some of the newer platforms, like RightCapital, are a little bit more flexible. EMoney, a little bit less so. MoneyGuidePro, a little bit less still, particularly when you’re getting down to how are the retirement assets projecting, compounding, and what are the return assumptions. If you’re going to do multi asset class portfolios on a Monte Carlo basis, you actually have to start plugging in correlations. So now eMoney not so flexible on their correlation matrices. Which, if you’re really doing that level of analysis, like you’ve got to actually put some assumptions in. I think you noted it well in how you led in with the question that not everybody cares about that. That’s fine. That relative preference becomes a driver around software. If I want to be really flexible around assumptions, I might be looking at something like RightCapital, if I just want somebody to do the nerdy analysis stuff because I’m not an investment wonk. Grab eMoney. It’s got some assumptions built and they’re off the shelf, and you can just be on your merry way and spend your time in other areas. So who cares about assumptions kind of becomes the driver. Just like, do you care about assumptions? Some advisors do because they just said we have our views around capital market assumptions, we have our own views around where the future is going. For a lot of larger firms, I find they’re interested in taking more control of their assumptions simply because they want to tie the assumptions in the retirement plan back to their systematized investment process. Here’s our capital markets view for the portfolio we run for you. So it’s kind of weird if you say, well, right now we’re overweighting bonds and underweighting stocks because we’re concerned that valuation is high and there’s a reduced equity risk premium. So we’re going to invest your portfolio more conservatively because we think stock returns may be reduced, but we’re running a financial plan where stock returns are full value. Just starts feeling weird and your sharp clients will notice it and say, what the heck is going on? So I want a little bit more control over it. Increasingly, I find that’s actually the driver, is: I’ve got to make sure my planning software is aligned to my investment process in the first place, especially in the RIA world, where we are increasingly building systemized investment processes around models that we manage with re-balancing software. So it’s a very standardized approach. You start putting some parameters around it if only because I have to look in your investment policy statement and I don’t want to mismatch between my IPS and my financial planning software.
Ben Jones – That’s makes sense. Alright, now, there’s a lot of other goals now than just retirement. And depending on if you focus on a younger generation of client or an older generation of client, these things might vary widely from gifting and philanthropy to college student loan repayments and funding your kids’ college, buying a house. Some basic financial decisions early in life. How do different systems allow for kind of tracking these different modules or priorities?
Michael Kitces – So it really becomes system-by-system at this point. Some platforms have really tried to go deep and make their mark on this. RightCapital has a student loan module. It’s not the most robust. Like, they have got a thing there; none of the others have anything around dealing with student loans. RightCapital has done a little bit more around cash flow and budgeting tools for clients, eMoney has some tools around cash flow and budgeting, MoneyGuide historically didn’t. They’re just starting to try to roll some out now that Envestnet owns them and is pulling data in. To me it’s kind of a very haphazard — if you’ve got a particular client issue specialized module call that you need, you’ve just got to go through the individual tools and see: Can they do the thing that you do? If you’re really deep into using annuity products of various types, whether it’s like the variable annuities with guarantees, or just good old fashioned plain vanilla single premium median annuities, the new generation of longevity annuities and QLACs. There’s a new financial planning software called JourneyGuide that specifically pulls in real-world annuity products and says: Here’s how that company’s actual annuity product would fair in your clients plan. Not like a hypothetical annuity that may or may not match the thing you’re going to buy. They’ll pull in an actual annuity product. So if you like doing portfolio-based retirement plan and you don’t use annuity products, not a terribly helpful feature. Nothing wrong with them, just this is not a useful feature. If you are actually using annuities as part of the solution, this is hugely valuable. You can show real products and really how they project out. Some companies, I think, you’re going to find in the next few years will try to use these kinds of modules to make their mark because one of the challenges that’s out there, it sort of even comes forth from our conversation, the big players, our big three out there are still eMoney, MoneyGuidePro, and NaviPlan. RightCapital is now coming up quickly as a fourth. It’s kind of hard to figure out sometimes which one to use. That’s the point. They’re not really as differentiated as they once were. Data gathering processes are a bit different, tax modeling assumptions are a bit different, flexibility around how detailed you do retirement distributions are different, assumptions parameters are different. That’s what we’re down to now because a lot of the high level stuff, like are we goals-based or cash flow-based, alright, well, they all do some of that. Do they have pretty output? Alright, all of them have output that’s recently pretty. You might have a particular graphical style preference, but they have all hired designers to make things look pretty. So if it looks pretty isn’t really a driver anymore. We’re down to these more nuanced areas. Particularly for new companies now coming in. God bless, marketplace always has some innovation and opportunities for new competitors to come in and compete, they can’t compete on goals-based versus cash flow. It’s hard to compete on assumptions. You can at least be good enough on tax modeling to model the taxes, but it’s hard to really be better at tax modeling. It’s all the same numbers. Tax rules are the same; everybody plays the same game here. So as companies come in and they’re trying to figure out what’s the next generation of planning software, I think frankly what you’re going to find over the next few years is a whole new realm of differentiates that start coming up because, in essence, the old ways we differentiated in planning software aren’t that different anymore. They all kind of copy each other and morph together over time, and that’s kind of the point. It’s harder to compare them than they used to be.
Ben Jones – More than anything, it bears repeating that you need to consider the specifics of your practice when choosing the right software for you. Who are the clients that you serve? What is the client experience you want to deliver? What is your firm’s investment philosophy? How does your financial planning software integrate with the rest of your tech stack? When it comes to choosing the best solution for your practice, understanding these nuances will allow you to make a better decision. Applying too broad of an analysis may lead you to miss the differences and an opportunity to better serve your clients’ needs. Now let’s shift our focus to the future. Michael and I discussed the potential evolutions of these tools and how they may impact the future of financial planning. Is there a point where the data gathering goes away and it’s just aggregation? You just give the portal access to — here’s my bank account, here’s my investment accounts, here’s my college accounts —
Michael Kitces – Yeah, I absolutely think there’s a point in the, frankly, foreseeable future. Like we’re not going real distance here. Where most of the hard data gathering goes away — the soft data stays. But most of the hard data gathering goes away, I start linking in investment accounts, I’ve got all of the investment balances, I start linking bank accounts. The key is, not only do I get bank account balances, but I link bank accounts and I start doing an x-ray on the cash flow for the past three, six, nine, twelve months. I know your spending, I know your savings, I know where the dollars are going, I know how much you’re putting in your 401(k) and the rest because I’m going to start deconstructing it from connecting to your W-2s on payroll, connecting to your bank accounts from where the money is going. At some point, I’m going to bet planning software built integration to the IRS, I’ll just auto-download your tax return.
Ben Jones – I mean, you get to that point, AI really does start to play a big role.
Michael Kitces – Yeah. At least to find some of the planning opportunities. Right? The soft data conversations, I’ve still got to be there for. It’s why I really — even with rise of AI, I have no concern about our ability to be successful and run businesses and offer value as advisors. I do think it’ll shift.
Ben Jones – I think the value really is that that intersection of life and money because there’s choices and AI can’t make those choices for you.
Michael Kitces – Correct.
Ben Jones – But they can enhance how those choices are executed.
Michael Kitces – Correct.
Ben Jones – Alright, so as these tools evolve and get better and easier to use, how is it that they don’t just become the TurboTax or the Intuit. What they did to the CPA market for at least people who don’t have that complex — I mean there are a lot of people, mass affluent and below, that just don’t have that complex of a planning situation. Any thoughts on this?
Michael Kitces – First of all, I’d point out that, yes, we’ve had the rise of TurboTax and the like, and we talk about how tax prep software is obliterating the CPA market. Well, do you know any CPAs? Yeah, a lot. Are they employed? Yeah. They send us referrals. Well, great. So apparently that software didn’t put them actually out of business. We sort of gloss over this — yeah, TurboTax and all of the rest killed the CPA business, except all of the CPAs still have jobs.
Ben Jones – Well, they’re serving different clients, right?
Michael Kitces – Right. So it shifted in two ways: They’re serving different clients and they do different services. That, for the most part, I would argue are higher value and do more for the clients. Like, yeah, it’s a real shame CPAs had to stop doing basic tax returns and started doing advanced tax planning, and they had to stop doing simple returns and start doing sophisticated returns for people who have high-stakes problems where you can add a lot of value. Like why exactly is this a bad thing? Now, I get it. If you were an individual CPA or a non-CPA tax preparer that did not have a lot of training and knowledge beyond how to fill in the boxes, this was not good for your business. So there is an affect that when the technology shows up — like if you want to be the human being that stays ahead of the technology, you’ve got to up your game, which is why I’m such a strong advocate around CFP certification, what I call post-CFP designations. I think you’re going to find in five to ten years CFP ain’t enough to differentiate and deliver value and get paid. It’s the entry level point. Then you go get something that actually gives you more specialization to get paid. It’s the same thing if you look at the medical world, who gets paid the worst, the general physician practitioner, who gets paid best, the ones that go get Board certificate in neuro surgery or orthopedics or something else. It’s the same thing in law, and it’s the same thing in accounting. The future becomes specialization, so you’re not even one step ahead of the software; you’re two steps ahead of the software. At that point, the software just makes your life easier by simplifying the things you didn’t want to spend time on anyway so you can spend time on the real parts that are value adds. The second piece I would add to this, this particular split around: But does it at least simplify it so much for young people that there’s no work left to do for them. I think this is, frankly, one of the greatest myths that’s out there in the advisor industry right now. We see it a little bit first hand at XY Planning Network. Literally, the purpose of the network is financial planning for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. So gen X and gen Y, that’s why we came with XY Planning Network as a name. We’ve got 1,100 advisors now who all specialize in gen X and gen Y. And if you talk to them, you say: What do you do for your clients? What are their challenges? Nobody says it simple. Just imagine if you are in your 30s or 40s, or think back to where you were in your 30s and 40s, and say: Describe for me your life as a 40-year old financially speaking. I don’t know anyone who describes their financial life as a 40-year old as simple. That is not the word that comes out of anybody’s mouth. I’ve got job, career, second career, want to start a business, my spouse wants to go back to school, we’ve got two kids and a third on the way, we’re trying to decide on private school, college is staring down, my folks are getting sick, I’ve got to help them with the nursing home transition. Nobody in that area says their life is simple. What they do have, though, are different complex problems. Right? My problem is not how do I invest my ginormous portfolio because I don’t have one of them yet. It’s how do I advance my career. Because if I can get another $30,000 raise for the next 20 years that I’m working, plus inflation adjusted growth, that’s a $1M swing. It’s my cash flow, it’s what’s happening with my household dollars because I’ve got like 17 different competing demands and I only make X dollars, and I have to figure out how to allocate those resources efficiently. That is a hugely difficult complex problem. If budgeting was easy, we’d just make a website that says earn more and spend less, and we’d also have less financial situations.
Ben Jones – Lots of people have made those websites.
Michael Kitces – Yes. And struggled to get adoption — Because cash flow spending decisions are really hard. They’re very personal. There’s all sorts of behavioral biases around, there’s all sorts of habits, there’s all sorts of money scripts in our heads. I would argue that’s actually some of the hardest most complex financial planning work that you could do. We end up with sort of a self-selection bias for most of the advisory community. We largely work with retirees and affluent folks, which are basically people who were naturally gifted at that stuff enough that they don’t have a lot of spending and cash flow problems. They’re really good at being frugal and saving. That’s how they ended up giant portfolio that end up being our clients. We only happen to work, historically, with the easiest of the easy clients. If you actually move down to people in their 20s and 30s and 40s, you’ve got to deal with all of them, including the ones that have a lot of complexity and a lot challenges. And for most of the advisors I know that work with clients in that realm, including these ones that came from – we’ll call it traditional advising for retired folks — the young ones are more complex than the older ones. Not just because they’ve got all of these different dynamics that are even more personal around where does their money go, but — look, for most of my retired clients, I’ve only got like two or three big transitions. Someone retires, someone has a major health event, someone passes away. Those are pretty much my big transitions for my retirement clients. I get, like, 30 years for those few items to play out. You’re working with younger clients, like someone’s getting married, they’re having a child, they’re having another child, they’re starting a business, they’re leaving their job, they’re getting divorced, they’re having a second marriage, they’re starting a business, parents are sick. There is like a life transition event basically even 12 to 24 months continuously for about 20 years. Classically, a lot of the best value that we get to add as advisors is when people have life transitions. Right? When life goes through transition, money goes in motion, as the Japanese says; a lot of opportunities come on the table. If I choose like what’s simpler, people who have three life transitions in thirty years or people who have three life transition every five years continuing for decades, the ones that have the continuous life transitions I would argue actually have more opportunities to create value and more complexity around which to create value. But they are different complexities. They are different complexities.
Ben Jones – Michael makes a compelling case for not needing to worry about software making your role obsolete. A creative thinking emphatic human being can be an invaluable guide through the tricky gray areas at the intersections of life and money. Now, I want to extend a big thank you to Michael for making time to sit down with me for this discussion. I hope you found Michael’s deep dive into these tools as interesting and valuable as I did. You can find more of his deep dives into various topics at his blog, and we’ll link to that in our show notes page at bmogam.com/betterconversations. You may also enjoy taking a look at Our Road to 100 Episodes infographic, as well. We’d love to hear from you what your favorite episode is from our first 100. Simply shoot us an e-mail at [email protected]. Now I asked Michael for one final thought before we close out this episode.
Michael Kitces – I think the last thought I would leave everyone with is just maybe to encourage a little bit of a reframing around how a lot of advisors think about technology or the threat of technology. We have all of these examples out there, like what TurboTax did to CPAs, what the Internet did to travel agents, what ATMs did to bank tellers, and the fascinating thing that you actually find when you look at virtually all of those businesses is that after the technology shows up, businesses actually grow. What happens in every industry is that the technology doesn’t actually kill the human jobs; it becomes a new platform that the next generation of human jobs are built on top of, and add even more value on top. Which I view as a huge opportunity, but it puts all of us at this crossroads: Either you invest in yourself and move yourself up the line to add value on top of the technology, or if you just stand still the technology will replace you. To me it’s a different way of looking at technology than just saying what happens if we all become robots down the road or we all get replaced by the robots. The human gets to stay one step ahead, but you have to actually make sure you stay one step ahead.
Ben Jones – Yeah, it’s a great reminder. I think it’s a great way to leave this in that we don’t need to be Luddites and pick up the pitchforks and go destroy the looms, but in fact when we create these new technologies, it creates more high-paying jobs, in many cases, than were around before.
Michael Kitces – It does. But you’ve got to step your game up enough to be worth the new higher-paying job. That’s kind of a hard thing for some of us, to look in the mirror and say that honestly, but when the technology automates all of the stuff that you do today, what value will you add on top? Because I can think of a lot of value adds we can add on top, but you’re going to have to do some of them because the technology will increasingly do what we do today.
Ben Jones – Thank you for listening to Better Conversations. Better Outcomes. This podcast is presented by BMO Global Asset Management. To access the resources discussed in today’s show, please visit us at www.bmogam.com/betterconversations.
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