My uncle passed away last week. He was a US Navy sailor and bought me a little-guy sailor costume just like his real larger-than-life hero uniform when I was just five. He was more than an uncle, actually a father figure and the big brother I never had. He took me to work on his chain-link fence truck when I was very young, and taught me about the meaning of hard work and doing a good, quality job for our customers.
He was a blue-collar philosopher. I spent my entire youth in that truck and putting up fences in frigid cold and blistering heat while talking about spiritualism, religion, what comes after death, aliens, history, and similar topics. I later went off to the military myself, then to college, but never forgot those lessons. And we continued these discussions each time we saw each other.
The news of his passing upset me very much, and it was just before we were leaving for vacation (yes, we did go to the funeral in the middle of vacation). I stopped by the Bethlehem Public Library to pick up some financial books for light reading on the beach, and my wife asked for a book on dreams. I went to that section and noticed the book After, by Bruce Greyson, M.D. sticking out a bit from the others. Intrigued, I put it on my pile. Maybe my uncle gave it a nudge forward, since we had discussed the topic so often.
What does this have to do with money and personal finance? The book was written by a physician–a skeptic and atheist who was raised by his scientist father to never accept anything without indisputable empirical evidence and data. His life changed when he was personally confronted by evidence of afterlife experiences that he could not dispute. He then began a lifelong study of the subject, interviewing countless subjects in a rigid scientific manner. The case studies are hard to argue, even for a closet atheist (gasp! OK, maybe not, read on…), former engineer, science-believing, fact-driven anti-religion person like myself.
A strong line of commonality in persons who had near-death experiences was that they realized that the small things we stress about in our day to day lives don’t matter. Many reported some sort of life-review, where their actions through their lives, and the effects they had on others (good and bad), were shown to them. Almost every subject said that after experiencing the bliss of eternity, and the embrace of everyone they had loved and lost there, they didn’t want to return to their bodies.
The book moved me. A strong take-away is that the way to acceptance is to spend your life loving, giving, tolerating, helping others. That’s not surprising–it’s the fundamental “Golden Rule” of all organized religions–Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. If you are Christian, it’s directly in line with what Jesus taught. It is in the Old Testament as well.
Subjects in the studies spoke of a realization, or actually being told in the afterlife, that organized religion and the strict dogma that most demand are not required, that God hears your thoughts and you can pray or speak to God simply by thinking. That won’t go over well with the religion-for-profit crowd, I bet!
After reading the book, this led me to a review of a few major world religions. Partly because of my life experiences, I’m not a member of any. I’ve hinted at the reasons in some of my fiction (written under the pen name of Billy DeCarlo). However, the principles of Buddhism resonated with me in this light. It’s not really a religion, it’s more a philosophy and way of thinking and living your life. The founding principles are:
(1) to lead a moral life,
(2) to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and
(3) to develop wisdom and understanding.
That’s pretty cool. Oh, wait, it sounds kind of “woke,” doesn’t it? Putting others first, rather than stepping on their necks to succeed in a zero-sum f-your-feelings king of the hill contest? Imagine if everyone in the world embraced it! No wars were ever fought by Buddhists. I’m the first to admit I haven’t always led a moral life (see the aforementioned fiction). But somewhere along the line, I had an epiphany, mainly driven by my self-hatred, that I was living a life in contrast to the core altruism that was built into my DNA–my true nature. Until I lost my way, I had always been a good kid, following the rules, working hard to please others. I saved myself by that realization that I wasn’t being true to myself.
Which brings me to the final point–the fiduciary standard in personal finance. As defined in the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, the fiduciary standard says that an advisor must put their clients’ interest above their own. Although I wasn’t an “advisor” yet, this core principle is what led me to becoming a financial coach/counselor in Dave Ramsey’s network. Even though I was a closet atheist at the time, I was drawn to their altruism and the goal of helping people that needed the help most. I loved helping pull folks back from the brink of financial disaster, and putting them on a path to financial independence earlier than they had ever dared to dream.
When I realized that there were plenty of great financial coaches/counselors, but a strong dearth of truly fiduciary advisors and planners, I decided to move into that area. I knew about the fiduciary standard and couldn’t understand why nobody seemed to be following it. I saw only advisors/planners that were putting themselves first, charging ridiculous asset under management (AUM) fees while doing little work, pushing funds with high loads, commissions, and expense ratios and horrible insurance products like bad annuities and permanent life insurance policies (see my other blog posts). The overwhelmingly standard practice of charging a percentage based on the assets managed seemed to be in direct conflict with the fiduciary standard. In most cases, it means “I’ll charge you more for the same work if you have more assets.” Imagine going to the doctor for a procedure, and they ask your net worth before quoting a price! AUM fees are the gift that keeps giving though, as opposed to a one-time procedure, and they come out of the investments, meaning clients typically have no idea what they’re paying. To be fair, a rare few advisors cap their AUM fees or charge flat fees. Is yours one? Are their fees clearly visible on their website and in their contract?
I understand it from a pure profit motive–that’s where the money is. It’s the best way to provide for your family (and buy all those status symbols to show you’ve “made it”), because it’s hugely profitable. But what about those folks who came to you needing help so badly? Many advisors/planners won’t even work with leads who have less than $500k. Those are the people that need help the most. It makes me sick to hear or read big names in the industry brag about how many millions of assets under management they have. Every podcast or article featuring an advisor seems to start out that way. It’s the measure of the advisor’s success, not the clients they are trusted to help! Oh, Susie the advisor is just killing it with $XXXm AUM! The dirty secret is that it’s not that hard to invest the right way, and once set up, requires very little work. Investing the right way is simple. There are also great, inexpensive planning tools like Pralana Gold and New Retirement available to the public.
The public is trained to look for the labels “fiduciary,” “fee-only,” “trusted advisor” but the terms have all been corrupted. I’m part of a new wave of truly altruistic advisors/planners and we like to use the term “advice only” to avoid those corrupted terms. We only charge for our time, meaning we have no inherent bias to selling you something to further our own good. It’s also the reason I wrote my new book, Kiss Your Money Hello! For a few bucks (mostly going to Amazon, Apple, B&N, or whoever you buy it from) I believe it contains all you need to know to dig out of debt, invest properly, and plan the rest of your financial life.
I’m not trying to sell you anything. My wife says I should register Emancipare as a 501(c), because it’s essentially a non-profit organization. I don’t need the money, I just enjoy helping people that need it the most, as do my peers in the advice only movement, led by Sara Grillo (founder of Transparent Advisor Movement) and Cody Garrett. I feel for my brothers and sisters who are younger, though. It’s hard to get our message of Truth out, because of the massive multi-billion dollar ad campaigns by the insurance companies and hugely profitable, non-fiduciary entities in the financial world who work hard to convince folks that their “trusted advisor” has some sort of magic formula that can beat a well designed portfolio of inexpensive index funds over the long haul. It’s bull, and historical, empirical evidence proves that factually. If you want to help, share this post widely!
To wrap up, a key principle taken away by those who have had near-death experiences, and also of Buddhism, is that the reckless pursuit of ridiculous wealth and material things will only bring unhappiness. It’s OK to seek financial independence and relieve that stress from your life, to ensure you’ll be OK, your partner will be OK, your kids will be OK. But more money, more things, often brings more unhappiness after a certain point. As they say, more money tends to make you more of what you are. I’m not anti-capitalism, it’s wonderful as long as there’s real competition (which also seems to be on the decline due to the Citizens United decision, deregulation, mergers, and acquisitions). It’s OK to seek wealth if it makes you happy, as long as it’s not at the expense of others. Warren Buffett has said he’d trade every penny of his wealth to be young again. So there, you likely have something even one of the richest people on the planet can’t buy! Enjoy it. Treasure every day. Use it wisely.
I’m no longer sad about my uncle passing. In fact, I’m extremely happy for him. Now he knows the answer. I can’t wait to see him again! I no longer fear death, and it’s liberating. I don’t fear the death of those I love.
Alright, well I’m back from vacation, enlightened and invigorated. As I hinted earlier, I am no longer an atheist after reading the book After. I’m convinced there is more, something else after this life. As someone whose heart stops regularly when sleeping, due to a medical condition, I’ve had my own experiences, which is why the book resonated so much with me. I had already committed to the core concepts of Buddhism long ago, without knowing about them, as part of my own transformation, and as a core concept of my earlier business Money Coach Group, and my current one Emancipare. I’m still not a fan of organized religions, I feel that leading an altruistic life has to be enough to buy my ticket to paradise. Maybe I’ll head out and grab some incense and a small Buddha statue to keep those concepts top of mind while I help people to be happier and at peace, at least financially.
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