Meaning Money and a Question: You have 5 Years to Live, What Do You Do?
Updated: Jun 28
Financial Planners Bridget Sullivan Mermel CFP® CPA and John Scherer CFP® talk about how they use (and don’t use) a classic financial planning question: what would you do if you knew you had 5 years to live?
They talk about how it helps inform couples and individuals figure out what brings most meaning and happiness into their lives. They talk about when the question works, how it works, and when it doesn’t work. John shares his client who blurted out—life wouldn’t seem complete without big game hunting.
Credit to George Kinder for his work developing questions to ask clients.
Meaning Money and a Question: You have 5 Years to Live, What Do You Do?
John: What would you do if you only had five years left to live? And what the heck does that have to do with financial planning? We'll answer those questions on today's episode of Friends Talk Financial Planning. Hi, I'm John Scherer, and I run a fee fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Bridget: And I'm Bridget Sullivan Mermel, and I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois. John, I know that you and a lot of financial planners ask that question a lot: "What would you do if you only had five years to live?" Why don't you tell me, why do you ask that question?
John: Yeah, that's a great question -- your question is a great one, Bridget. So I do use that in circumstances trying to help people to figure out what their goals are. So one of the things that I think that we really provide as holistic financial planners is not just tax advice, investment advice, insurance advice, but helping people to figure out what their goals are. It sounds kind of like a silly thing. I want to retire, and I want to do these things.
But really digging into "What does that mean?" is not always evident to people. And so one of the ways that I help people to figure out for themselves what their goals are is asking that question you just said. And it's -- I think it's thought provoking.
What would happen if you found out you got some kind of crazy disease, you're going to live for the next five years happy and healthy, and then just one day, it's over. You've got a limited time frame. And you start to think about, oh, interesting, would you keep on working the way that you would? How would your home life be? What's on your bucket list? Those sorts of things. And how I explain it for people is that for most people it's not like you can just quit your job tomorrow, right? The reality is you're probably going to live for another 30 - 40 - 50 years, but I think that it can help people in framing their thought process, and you ask the question,
Bridget: What do you listen for? What do you ask?
John: And it's sort of funny that I'm not even sure that... I don't listen for anything. And the answer is sort of like it's not even that important. Whatever it is, it's the thought process and having things sort of percolate in your mind when you have that conversation [that's important], and, if you're in a partnership, what your spouse is thinking.
And sometimes things come up that I don't know as an individual. "Oh, I never realized! When I think about it, here's how I feel." Or, "Jeez, you feel like this...I didn't realize my wife felt like this." Those are the things that are really important from this thought process. So that's what I get out of it. It stimulates that thought of what's really important when you have that tight time frame, when you bring it in and say, "Listen, I've got -- you know, I don't have forever. I've only got a few years, and what are the important things?"
So I guess, interesting question from you. I've never really considered why that's useful, but I think that's where it comes to for me, and so that's what I do with it, and I know just in our are talking that you've used that question, that was part of your regular process, and then that hasn't been the same, you've changed over the years. I'm interested to know what that evolution was for you, and why you did use it, and why you don't anymore.
Bridget: Well, it's interesting, because as you talked about how you use this question and what you're looking for, it's given me insight into why I stopped using it, actually, because you're talking about how what somebody says is actually less important. That's not what you're really paying attention to more than their total reaction. So it's like very active listening, really taking everything in, of what's people's body language, how do they seem around this question? And I was actually asking it on the phone for people like in an initial call, and so I actually felt like everybody was saying the same thing, that they'd quit their job and travel a lot, and I really kind of got sick of hearing that answer.
Bridget: And so that's one of the reasons why I quit, because I felt like I was asking somebody... I was asking people a question that people had a cliché in mind for what they would say, and that I wasn't getting at any underlying thing. And so the other thing that I hear when I'm listening to you is that we want to figure out how people figure out what their values are...
Bridget: ...and help them live congruent to their values and make goals out of their values.
Bridget: So you might have somebody that says, "Oh, I'm doing something really important at work, and I would just really focus on trying to get that done and trying to pass it along." Now, I never heard that. I never heard that! Unfortunately.
Bridget: Everybody that I was talking to was quitting their job and going to Tahiti or something. And so it could be different. It's like, how are you... It forces people... Also, one of the things, I think, that we learn as financial planners is that for most people the relationships are where they get most meaning, even though that can be hard.
So relationships, like a family picnic, is meaningful, but it might not make you happy, because you might not get it along with some of the people that are there. But you do find great meaning in it.
And ultimately that deep, resonating feeling is what people are going for. And that's what we're trying to help people get into, at least I know that you and I are. So that's the entree into "How do we get people in touch with those concepts?" You know, we're wired for "I'm hungry." "My butt hurts." Not "What are my long-term goals."
John: That base level. Right.
Bridget: And every morning it's hard to wake up thinking, "I'm thirsty," you know, that that type of thing, and what short-term thing do I need to respond to?
Bridget: Not, "What are my long-term goals?" And so that's one of the things that we do when we're talking to people is just try to remind them. Every meeting we'll talk about "Okay, here are your goals." And I think people get kind of sick of it, maybe, but that's the reason. I don't ask people if they're hungry. I expect them to know that.
Bridget: But I don't have to ask them that.
John: Well, it's that deeper level of thinking, right? It's long-term goals. But you said it before. It's like "What's really important?" And life is so busy, right? I mean hungry, or work things, or family. And to have that time to pause and to say, "Oh yeah, that's right. This is really important."
I've got two things as you're talking. That idea of everybody says, "I'd quit my job and travel," and I don't, maybe because I ask it deeper into our relationship with things, but if somebody says that they'd travel, then one of the areas that I would explore is, well, okay, how much traveling are you doing now?
And what you say is important, or what is important to you, are your actions congruent? I use that word congruent. I love that. It's like, okay, you can't quit your job and just travel now, right? But can you do some of those things to help you get closer to what's valuable to you and what's important to you?
And, along those lines, I'll just share, you made me think of a story early in my career, a long, long time ago, I had a meeting with a client, and I was kind of friends with them, so I knew a little bit of their background. And then the next meeting they came in, and they sat down, and the wife said, "Well, we booked this trip." And I was like, "Okay..." But, you know, "What is going on here?" I said, you know, "Explain..."
And she said, "Well, you asked us the question, and one of the husband's responses was, 'I've always wanted to go on a big game hunting trip. That would be the one thing that, you know, that's like my biggest regret if I didn't get a chance to do that, and in the conversation I go, "Okay, whatever, taken note," and she said, "You know, I have never heard that all the years we've been married. I knew, but I didn't realize what a burning thing that was. And after we left, I'm like, 'Well, if something happens to you, I'd never live with myself if we didn't... We can afford this goal that you wanted to have, and it's so important to you that we went home and did this.' "
And I thought, "Wow, how neat is that!" That doesn't happen very often where it's such a tangible thing. But that sort of concept of, like, "Oh no!" If you have resources that you can, and you could reach these goals, and it would be so important to you, that thinking about it, that thoughtfulness and getting deep, that's one of the takeaways that I have from, like, "Why do you use it?" "What does this have to do with your financial life?" It's really the opposite. Your financial life serves your goals, right? But when you're trying to put food on the table and save for retirement pay for education, it doesn't always feel like that, right? So to help think about that longer-term picture, that's where that is important, I think.
Bridget: Yeah! I love that big game hunting metaphor, like, if that's what you want to do, get it. For a lot of people, that's reachable. That's a goal you can do, but you're not going to necessarily think about it.
John: And that's what's so different about how we approach things, I think, is that holistic planning. It's not about making sure you -- I mean it is about making sure you never run out of money, right? But it's about, "What are your goals?" and spending money when it's appropriate. It's like giving permission, like you've done these things over your life to afford whatever it is, a big game hunting trip.
John: Then do it, right? That's the important part about financial planning. It's not about piling up money; it's about what you do with it.
John: So as we think about wrapping up the episode here, that maybe is the one takeaway. It's to think about: What would you do if you had five years left to live? What is it? What feelings does it bring up? What is it for your spouse, if you're in a relationship? And then how does that help you prioritize what your financial goals are?
Bridget: Sounds great, John. So a couple things to remember at the end of the show: Subscribe!
John: That's right.
Bridget: We've got a subscription button at the bottom. And also, we're both members of ACP, or the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners. You can find more about us at acp.org. And some of the information that we're talking about, I think, was originally developed by George Kinder.
Bridget: I have a little bit of exposure to him, and so I think that's where the source is for that.
John: Yeah, he's a great resource for thing.
Bridget: So with that, let's wrap it up. Thanks, John!
John: All right. Yeah. Thanks, Bridget!
At Sullivan Mermel, Inc. we are fee-only financial planners located in Chicago, Illinois serving clients in Chicago and throughout the nation. We meet both in-person in our Chicago office and virtually through video conferencing and secure file transfer.