Financial Planning

3 Unexpected Financial Planning Lessons From My Dog

Given the right training, dogs (and their owners) can do almost anything. Here’s what my dog, Gopher, helped me learn about finances.

What does a dog have to do with financial planning? As a proud dog owner, I can confirm that animals are often far more effective teachers than books, classes and neighbors combined. Their lessons include the importance of choosing wisely, being patient and understanding that we all start out as beginners – all of which applies to financial planning.

Three years ago, I was visiting my family in rural Minnesota. It was October, frigid and lacking any big-city entertainment. One day, I decided to go look at puppies. There I was: freezing, without Internet, and thinking that I have been considering getting a dog for some time now. The stars were aligned.

The outcome of that day was entirely predictable. If you are looking at puppies, chances are you will get one. In my case, the winner was a 3-pound ball of fuzz and energy, an accidental mix of cocker spaniel and pincher. Given his Minnesotan roots, the name “Gopher” fit him perfectly. With some food, a leash and a carrier, the pup was ready for his trek to the sunny shores of Southern California.

I adored my new puppy. They say that pet owners take more pictures of their pet than their family members, and that certainly applied to me. Along with my pet duties, I also had a demanding job. The two factors combined to produce the perfect storm. In retrospect, it is clear that I had set myself up for a no-win situation. At the time, all I could do was shut my eyes and keep moving forward.

I was at work all day. Little Gopher did not know what to do with all his spare time. A bored puppy in an empty apartment was a recipe for disaster. One day, he chewed off the window blinds. Over the next few months, I went through eight phone chargers. I was at a loss for what to do. Giving the dog up was never an option, but I had to wonder how many more sets of blinds and chargers I would have to replace.

Eventually, I enrolled Gopher in obedience classes. Fitting weekly training sessions into my packed calendar was tough, but the effort paid dividends. Our trainer, Lynn, opened the first day of training with a bit of advice. "We as humans would do so much better communicating with our animals if we just shut up," she said. I took that to mean actions speak louder than words, so Gopher and I got to work.

Taking the trainer’s words to heart, Gopher surprised us with his progress. I always knew he was a smart dog, but he really blossomed through training. We completed the basic obedience classes, then the “Canine Good Citizen” training course. Currently we are doing agility training. I cannot imagine stopping. Our bond is stronger than ever, and my blinds and phone charges are safe at last.

Now what does this story have to do with financial planning? I learned three critical lessons from Gopher that are rather applicable in our own financial lives.

Choose wisely (whether it’s your dog or your financial adviser)

Remember the risks of looking at cute puppies? Chances are, you will get one. The situation parallels your search for a financial adviser. Plenty of professionals will try to "sell" you, so it’s important to be clear on your wants and needs.

People who work with dogs for a living often put a puppy or an adult dog through an assessment prior to adoption. Is this dog motivated by treats or toys? Is he calm and friendly with strangers? Does he show aggression? The goal of the assessment is not to label the dog as “good” or “bad” but to help evaluate a dozen of parameters that describe him. What is his temperament, prey drive, degree of focus on the handler? There is no “right” or “wrong” dog, but there are better and worse fits for everyone’s situation. A Navy Seal K9 candidate will be far different from your standard family pet.

Just as there are dozens of pups in your local rescue shelter, there are dozens of financial advisers in your area. Some specialize in a niche, while others offer broad expertise. Each adviser has a unique mix of communication style, approach to planning and personality. Knowing what you need is critical for finding your perfect fit.

Take your lessons to heart (leverage an experienced specialist)

An apartment safe from puppy teeth, Gopher’s “Canine Good Citizen” award and our stronger bond were all made possible by our amazing trainer. She took stock of our situation, found a way to teach us better habits and inspired us to be better versions of ourselves. I cannot thank her enough for her contribution to the relationship between Gopher and me.

A financial planner can have the same impact. Your relationship with money is meant to be mutually beneficial, yet so many of us are terrified to open credit card bills and don’t keep good saving habits. An independent professional can point out your blind spots, tune your spending patterns and help put you back in charge of your financial situation.

Patience is a virtue

Our trainer was wonderful, and still Gopher and I had to start with the simplest of basic steps. Sit. Stay. Leave it. The lack of instant progress was downright frustrating. In a way, early training days with Gopher were very similar to working toward a major financial goal, like saving for a vacation or retirement.

The lesson to learn here is that everyone starts out as a beginner. Some start earlier than others, but no one gets to skip the basics. As you master the first steps toward financial independence, you can expand your habits and make your way to the top. We all want to be comfortable with money, and it’s important to remember that big goals take patience along with time and effort.

What dog training has taught me about financial planning

I believe that animals can be our best teachers. My dog taught me about the importance of making good choices, hiring the right professional and being patient – without saying a word.

As with obedience training, financial planning is all about creating the right outcomes. Approach your choice of financial planner thoughtfully. Through good advice and a foundation of constructive habits, our trainer worked a miracle for Gopher and me. Imagine what the right financial planner could do for you!

About the Author

William Rassman, CFP®

Vice President - Wealth Adviser, Centric Capital Advisors

William Rassman is a Certified Financial Planner™ and Vice President – Wealth Adviser for the independent investment and insurance firm Centric Capital Advisors. He began his career in NYC at Smith Barney in 2008.

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