Your Money, or Your Life?
The promise of a more fulfilling approach to personal finance
When financial planner George Kinder ’70 sat down with new clients, he cared little about Roth IRAs, index-fund yields, or which life insurance to buy. He wanted to know what turned them on. “Our job,” he asserts, “is to keep the flame of true desires alive.”
Make no mistake. Kinder is a keen mathematician and entrepreneurial moneyman—talents first revealed through a boyhood paper route: one brother, who didn’t like asking people for money, worked 30 days delivering the goods; then Kinder spent two collecting the cash. But he is far from a stereotypical number-cruncher. He meditates for a couple of hours every day and says nothing in life is as real as the passing of each moment in time. He is devoted to the ancient Greek philosophers and English literature. And he has read The Divine Comedy many times over; he finds the descent into hell before entering heaven appealing. Some would say Kinder has found his own paradise in Hana, a remote Hawaiian town of “lush jungles, beaches, waterfalls, rainbows, and indigenous people,” where he and his family have a second home. “Once I’d discovered it,” he says, “how could I not live there?”
This rich existence is the direct result of “life planning,” a growing movement within the financial-services industry that Kinder has pioneered and promoted for about 15 years. Inspired by the ideas in Money and the Meaning of Life, by philosopher Jacob Needleman ’56, the early life planners gathered in the 1990s through an informal think tank called the Nazrudin Project (cofounded by Kinder and named for the Sufi holy trickster). Kinder and the movement rated their own chapter in Lee Eisenberg’s 2006 bestseller, The Number, which described Kinder as a “gaunt, somewhat bookish fellow with wispy hair and wire-frame glasses...a financial planner beyond category.”
In essence, the movement aims not to connect clients with the typical commission-driven financial products and conventionally acceptable aims, but to meld their “deepest human aspirations for a life worth living” with rigorous financial goals. “Many of us are so used to our dreams being brushed off,” he explains. “If you say you’ve always wanted to play the guitar like Eric Clapton, for instance, many people will laugh and say, ‘Oh, yeah, you want to play like Clapton…Now, back to the real stuff—retirement, educating the kids, getting a house and a car.’ But in that case, the planner is doing a disservice by covering over the client’s deepest wishes to be creative.”
Kinder eschews practiced sales pitches in favor of three deceptively simple signature questions. “What I’ve found through these questions over the years is that people’s dreams, at heart, center around family, creativity, spirit, community, and the environment—‘a sense of place,’” he says. “In answers to the third question, which speaks to mortality, to legacy, you never hear about a Mercedes or big, expensive homes. Because in the end, life is about personal dreams of freedom.”
At a recent workshop for planners, Kinder spoke of a former client who wanted “more than anything” to buy an investment property in Massachusetts, on the North Shore: “It was a great building, the man was very enthusiastic.” They talked about returns to be expected and what steps were required to earn enough extra money during the next decade or so to bring the project to life. And then Kinder posed his three questions, which must be answered one at a time, in strict order.
Assume you’ve got all the money you need. What would you do with it? How would you live?
You just found out you have only five to 10 years to live. How will you live those years?
The building—a tangible, respectable goal—figured into both answers.
Kinder then asked the last question.
You’ve just found out you have 24 hours to live. What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?
The man thought hard—and the building disappeared from the list of desires. What he really wanted was “an authentic, better relationship with his six-year-old son.”
Kinder, a skilled, theatrical presenter of stories and ideas, let the weight of this response hang in the air. “Then I told him, ‘How would it be if, from a financial viewpoint, I got you five extra hours a week to spend with your son? Would that do it?’ And the man just brightened up and said, ‘Yes, that would be very good,’” Kinder reported. “Now, if I had gone and gotten him the building, being a good financial planner who ‘gets people what they want,’ it would’ve been as good as selling him a product, and it would be mis-selling. It would’ve taken him at least five hours a week, probably more, in order to fund the cash flow for the building...I would’ve taken him further away from where he really wants to be as a person and a father, which is closer to his son.”
Kinder is clearly on to something. He has been named “most influential planner” in the financial-industry press, “a visionary” in dozens of mainstream articles and on talk shows, and sometimes called the father of the life-planning movement. Its mission and methodology are outlined in his 1999 book, Seven Stages of Money Maturity: Understanding the Spirit and Value of Money in Your Life, a “cult favorite among financial advisers,” he says. It presents his own personal practices and philosophy, drawing heavily on Buddhism, William Blake, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Dante. “This work is about sparking transformation in the client,” says Kinder, who began his career as a tax accountant in Cambridge in the mid 1970s. “A 20 percent return rate is good. But what’s really sexy is finding what people want out of life and how to help them get it.”