Life is expensive. Especially the last part of it for many people, when their big earning years are behind them and they’re at risk of outliving their savings. Depending on how you want to spend your final years in this world, you might have to earmark a lot of cash towards that lifestyle.
But money is only part of it. And it might not even be the most important part. We are emotional creatures, and few topics are more emotional to us than the end of our lives.
Susan Michel (pronounced like Michael) is the founder and CEO of Glen Eagle Advisors, a financial firm headquartered in Kingston whose motto is “Faith, Family, Firm.” Firm comes last for a reason, Michel says: because without faith and family first, the firm wouldn’t be able to stand.
Michel will one of three panelists at the Mid-Jersey Chamber’s “It’s Life: Navigating the Journey of Elder Care” forum on Thursday, November 2, from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., at the Conference and Event Center at NJHA, 760 Alexander Road. Joining Michel will be Betsy Kreger of Stark & Stark and Linda Mundie of the Gardens at Monroe. Cost: $55. Visit www.midjerseychamber.org.
Michel grew up in northern New Jersey and earned her bachelor’s in education at the College of St. Elizabeth. She married a West Point graduate and became a teacher within the Department of Defense while her husband was stationed overseas.
When the family got moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, in the 1980s Michel took a six-week course in financing and loved it enough to start a new career as an independent financial advisor. As she worked with people who were not financially prepared for retirement, she soon realized how important it was for clients’ emotional well being to have plans in place.
In 1988, back home in New Jersey to be closer to family, Michel became a financial planner at the Investment Center. She held that job until 2003, when she started Glen Eagle.
Michel knows well that few people like to talk about end-of-life matters. And because of the emotion inherent in planning for your own demise, people often simply avoid talking about their last decades. But Michel understands something a lot of people don’t acknowledge:
“People should realize,” she says, “the conversation is going to take place.” That conversation, of course, is what to do with you and your assets — your investments and properties and even your business. It’s just a matter of whether you’re a living participant in it or someone whose survivors will be left to figure out what you’ve left behind and what to do with it — a process that can be emotionally draining for them, not to mention costly and, possibly, contentious, if heirs or business partners can’t agree on what is to be done.
One reason that conversation so important to have these days is that people often live a lot longer than they used to, Michel says. Retirement age was set at 65 when people could not count on seeing 70. But it’s increasingly common to see people living well into their 90s, which means assets have to stretch further than they did before.
Michel’s father is one such person. At 95, the old-school entrepreneur is still going and still active at his church. He has always been “super-intelligent,” Michel says; a guy who bought an organ and taught himself how to play it; who sold real estate and sold the business to retire at 65 — only to start another business that he sold at 80.
Michel’s mother was a nurse, and “the most compassionate person I know,” she says. Into her 80s Michel’s mother was still lending her nursing skills to her parish. When she died the family had “the conversation.” But because there had been some planning ahead of time, the conversation went as smoothly as that kind of conversation is going to go.
Dealing with the finances and emotions behind her mother’s life and death, however, was not Michel’s “a-ha moment.” That came when she was part of a meeting for a business owner who was thinking of retiring. He was upset that his children didn’t want the business.
A thought struck Michel: “I said, ‘Isn’t this a gift that you’re having this conversation while you’re still here?’” she says. The conversation people have when someone dies is often a reactive one, with the main subject of the discussion nowhere around.
This business owner’s children, it turned out, had no idea what their father had done to build a business. They only knew a successful one, she says, not the part about him cashing in his retirement money to help make payroll for his employees. Certainly not the sacrifices he had made to get the business off the ground and make it the successful enterprise they came to know.
“By the end of that weekend, the mother and father and the kids worked out what they wanted,” she says. That’s a desirable ending to this particular scenario, but it often doesn’t go that way. And what Michel has come to understand is that in that fog of emotions that makes end-of-life planning seem morbid are other emotions that need discussing.
Trust. Trust is the first of what Michel calls “the three Ts,” trust, transparency, and triumph. The first step in end-of-life planning is that you have to trust the person you want to facilitate your wishes; someone who will make sure those wishes and plans are seen through.
With trust established, the next step is to be transparent with your wishes, Michel says. Address questions like “Where do I want to live?” and “What type of lifestyle do I want?” Do you want to age in your own home, for example? Live by yourself? Be part of a retirement community surrounded by peers and clubs and activities? Do you want to live out your days in the country? Close to others?
It’s important to address these questions, Michel says. You don’t need to know every answer yet, but you need to get the ideas out there. And you need to get them out there before your ability to make decisions is compromised.
“These decisions are often made in crisis mode,” Michel says. “You’re not emotionally or physically at your best to make these decisions.”
Phases of (end of) life. Another thing to prepare for is the three-phase arc of your retirement years. Michel refers to the “go-go, slow-go, and no-go” years after career and business wrap up. New retirees, in their 60s and 70s, tend to indulge in the assets they worked so hard for, she says. They travel, shop, visit family. This is followed by a slower pace in the 70s and 80s, when a person is still getting around, but might not be inclined to, say, get on a plane for 22 hours to see Asia. Then there are the no-go years, in the 80s and 90s (and beyond) when the desire, and possibly ability, to travel and try new things is diminished, replaced by just taking things day-to-day.
The thing is, Michel says, people know about those phases yet infrequently plan for them. As travel and leisure expenses are replaced by medical and health expenses, it’s important to know how to budget your money and for how long you plan to have it.
Her background as a teacher and as a woman in a field typically seen as sterile and male, she says, has taught her how to best present these ideas to people.
And no, no one can plan the exact path of their lives, beginning, middle, or end. It’s not about that, Michel says. It’s about preparing and guiding towards more likely and expected outcomes. And it’s about paying attention to your own a-ha moments that will tell you things you really need to know.
“There’s going to be a lot of a-ha moments in life,” she says. “You just need to listen. I often wonder how many I missed because I wasn’t listening.”