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Helping Clients Find a Deeper Meaning for Their Money

Derek Hagen CFP®, CFA, CFT-I™, FBS®, CIPM February 21, 2023

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As a financial professional, would your clients be able to answer this question: What is your money for?

Financial professionals can be doing much more to engage with their clients’ overall wellbeing, and while many are moving in this direction with the emergence of values-based advice, many clients still struggle with the why underlying their financial plan.

A great way to help your clients live their best life is to help them pinpoint sources of meaning and pursue a plan that’s in alignment with those sources of meaning.

Understanding What Comprises Meaning in Life

As a financial therapist and former planner, I have a deep appreciation for the industry’s increasing focus on values-based advice. But I like to speak in terms of ‘meaning’ instead of values, and I would encourage other advisors to do the same, as I find the term to be more holistic.

In my opinion, financial professionals are in a great position to help their clients live a more meaningful life, but it’s important to first understand the different components of a term as complex as ‘meaning’ before you can help anyone achieve it.

The 3 Components of Meaning

To help clients in pursuit of a more meaningful life, you should understand the three primary components of meaning:

  • Purpose: Do clients have a meaningful way to spend their time? Do they have something to look forward to? Purpose is generally forward-looking, referring to the what and why behind clients’ daily activities. Purpose doesn’t need to be grand. Work is the obvious answer for most people, but purpose is unique to each individual and can be derived from anything including cleaning up your local community, helping your neighbors, or being the best parent you can be.
  • Significance: While purpose is forward-looking, significance tends to be focused on the present. This concept refers to whether or not someone feels like they matter, like they’re valued, and that life is worth living. Significance often comes in the form of relational sources of meaning—close, caring relationships with friends or family members.
  • Coherence: Perhaps the more existential of the three aspects of meaning, this concept refers to the narratives we create about our life. Does life make sense? Does my past make sense to where I am now? Do I have a worldview that matches what I perceive? It would be difficult to extract meaning from a life that’s entirely chaotic or unpredictable.

These concepts together comprise a basic definition of what would constitute a meaningful experience or meaningful path in life. While a financial professional may not directly be speaking with clients about whether or not life is worth living, an understanding of these concepts can help you prompt clients to consider what will be meaningful for them, which we’ll cover shortly.

Shallow vs. Deep Sources of Meaning

One more critical distinction when it comes to meaning is the distinction between shallow and deep sources of meaning.

Shallow sources of meaning are sources that, when you get all of the meaning you can from the source, it’s still not enough. These typically include the external, hedonic things in life. Moving into a big new house may feel great for a few months, but eventually, a client will get used to it. The same goes for getting a promotion, achieving higher salaries, or getting the newest Tesla.

On the other hand, deeper sources of meaning will contain some combination of the three components of meaning mentioned above. They will be fulfilling, lasting sources of meaning that define our life. In many cases these are found in the relations we have with those around us—family, friends, mentor/mentee relationships—as well as the way we choose to occupy our time.

Clients who have the tools to identify deep sources of meaning in their life and incorporate ways to pursue those sources of meaning will live a better life.

It’s important to note that it’s ideal for clients to diversify their sources of meaning. If they get a deep sense of meaning from their work, that’s great while they’re working, but what happens when they retire? Having diverse sources of deep meaning is the key to living a meaningful life before and after retirement.

Should Advisors Steer People Towards Deeper Sources of Meaning?

Money plays an important role in finding meaning in life. Anybody could take the money they’ve accumulated, move to the cheapest part of the world, and survive for the rest of their years. But not many do that, which means we want something more from life.

Financial professionals are in a perfect position to help clients find that something more and use money as a tool to achieve it. In no way should a planner ever tell a client what they should value, but they can get them thinking about what has truly given them meaning in life.

Take for example an individual who’s a surgeon. Say they became a surgeon because they wanted to prove to their parents that they could do it. Then, once they became a surgeon, they obsessively pursued shallow sources of meaning in life like new cars, nice houses, and expensive clothes.

The typical values-based narrative would have an advisor work with the client to reduce their lifestyle expenses in order to retire comfortably. But what if this individual could afford this lifestyle?

All the expensive, external things are truly what this individual values, for one reason or another. But just because they value these things and can use money to fulfill their values doesn’t mean that they’ll be happy or find meaning in life. In fact, the research is quite clear that trying to keep up with the Joneses is not a path to happiness or fulfillment.

You can’t tell a client their values are wrong. But the example above shows that values aren’t always enough. You need to get clients thinking about deep sources of meaning.

Three Exercises to Lead Clients Towards Their Deepest Sources of Meaning

If you want your clients to live the best possible life, and get the most out of your planning services, you can help them discover what’s important to them. Again, it’s not about passing judgment on their values, it’s about getting them to consider what is truly, deeply meaningful to them.

Here are three quick exercises you can easily implement in your practice.

1. Ask About Meaningful Experiences in the Past

To start a conversation that goes deeper than financial desires, ask the client what their most meaningful experiences in life have been. You can frame this by saying it’s an exercise you do with every client. In most instances, people will gravitate towards the hot emotions: getting married, the birth of their children, graduating from school—nobody will tell you it’s when they got their convertible. Then follow up by asking them what was so meaningful about it. This is a gentle way to dig deeper into their experiences. It’s also a great way to pull people away from shallow things and get them thinking about deeper sources of meaning.

2. Point the Finger at Someone Else

If clients could benefit from a hard lesson, you may have better success getting the message across by pointing the finger at someone else. If your clients are overspending, for example, consider telling them that you’d like to show their children how to spend their money more mindfully. They’ll still get the lesson but it’s not directed at them, which may make it more palatable. This is a subtle way to prompt clients into thinking about their financial behavior, their motivations, and what they actually want to do with their money.

3. Inspiration Homework

Another easy exercise is to have clients do a little homework. Tell them you’d really like to get to the heart of what’s important to them and that you’re excited to see their answers. That for your next meeting you’d like them to bring in their most inspiring quote, most inspiring movie, and their most inspiring song. It could be a book or a poem too. Then when they complete the exercise, simply ask them what is so inspiring about each one. This will give you a tremendous amount of insight into what the client finds meaningful and kickstart a conversation around that source of meaning.

In each of these instances, it’s important to note that you are not limiting options for the client. You’re not giving them a checklist of values to mark up. When you do that, you’ll only hear what the client thinks they should value and things that will impress you.

The above exercises purposefully allow clients to open the discussion where they’d like, so you can work to probe a little deeper.

What Is Your Money For?

Getting clients to think about deep sources of meaning can help them answer this question: What is your money for? A simple question that’s profoundly difficult to answer.

Most financial professionals today are aware of the connection between money and values, but I would encourage people to think in terms of ‘meaning’. Understanding what meaning is, and how to encourage clients to think about deep meaning, will help you truly steer clients toward their most meaningful path in life.

Image of Derek Hagen CFP®, CFA, CFT-I™, FBS®, CIPM
About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFP®, CFA, CFT-I™, FBS®, CIPM is a financial psychology expert specializing in meaning in life and helping clients who feel stuck. He supports financial health, mindset change, and intentional living by helping people understand their beliefs, values, and thinking patterns to help them live a life of meaning and purpose. He writes about the psychology of money and meaningful living using simple sketches on his Meaningful Money blog. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Nerd’s Eye View, Standard Deviations Podcast, Human Side of Money Podcast, Business Insider, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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