You might think that the most important work a financial advisor can do is related to allocating a client’s investment portfolio, or perhaps helping secure a timely insurance policy or drafting the optimal estate plan. In fact, the most important work is done when clients are in the midst of navigating life’s major transitions.
I recently experienced two of these major life events — a job change and a move — in the span of five months. Crazy, right? Who would willingly subject themselves to two of life’s most stressful changes within such a small window of time? Fortunately, I had at my disposal three keys to surviving major life transitions, and I’d like to share them with you:
Key No. 1: Flexibility
“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.” —Albert Camus
In February, I left the company I loved after seven years of life-changing work to lock arms with a national alliance of financial advisory pioneers dedicated to the practice of “building relationships by doing the right thing.” But in order to build a new and rewarding relationship with them, I had no choice but to sever some relationships with others.
I had to tell colleagues at my former company — good friends — that I was leaving, knowing that our work was the primary basis for our friendship. I also had to forgo working with some clients whose financial plans I’d helped craft, and in whom I’d invested personally.
I had to impose myself on new colleagues as I fumbled through onboarding. I had to learn new systems, protocols and personalities. I had to wonder if, at the conclusion of a probationary stretch of forgone forgiveness, my new colleagues would still want me on their team!
So much change in so little time.
You’ve heard that death and taxes are life’s only guarantees. But I’m still holding out for an Elijah-style exit, and half of Europe pays taxes little mind. No, it is only change that is a guarantee in this life, and flexibility is its only effective counteragent.
We can and should envision and plan for major life transitions, but we should also expect our path to be diverted by unknown variables. We must be willing to flex our plans in these dynamic times of change.
Key No. 2: Margin
“Everything takes longer than it does.” — Ecuadorian proverb
In the first week of June, my family moved from our beloved Baltimore — leaving behind our close-knit families, community support systems and favorite sports teams — in an experiment to see what life would look like from a different vantage point. We chose Charleston, S.C., as the backdrop for our adventure, pinpointed for its promise of a slower pace, higher quality of life and lower cost of living.
Major life transitions, however, are necessarily taxing on our time and money, at least initially. And because of the elements unique to every major life event, it is virtually impossible to accurately forecast the necessary allotment of time and money that will be required.
This can be maddening to me as a financial planner. I strive to forecast every expense one could anticipate, but change invariably costs more money and consumes more time than expected.
The only solution is to plan for the unexpected by leaving a reasonable margin of time and money — a buffer — that can be consumed by the inevitable surprises that arise. Expect that it will take 20 percent longer and cost 20 percent more. This is the only defense against heaping more stress on an inherently stressful event.
I’ll also add that our move was, in part, an exercise in the creation of margin. Despite Charleston’s great reputation as a city that offers a high quality of life, the cost of housing, especially, is still lower than in the Mid-Atlantic. We were able to reduce our overall monthly housing costs, our biggest single expense, by 20 percent.
We also added a significant margin of time to our calendars. We effectively wiped clean our slate of commitments, decades in the making, and now we get to choose exactly what, where, when and to whom we’re willing to dedicate ourselves.
Key No. 3: Grace
“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” — C.S. Lewis
Failure is inevitable, especially in the case of major life events. Grace is unmerited favor in the face of failure. This brand of grace is most often discussed from the pulpit on Sundays, but I raise the topic here more for its practical benefits than its spiritual.
The nature of life’s major transitions — specifically the changes and surprises that come with them —are a breeding ground for failure. Some are inconsequential while others come with great risks, but most come as a result of our limitations.
We err, and in order to move forward, we must extend grace to ourselves and to the others on our journey.
It must be said that not all major life transitions are equal. The benefit of my recent life events is that each of them, while taxing and stressful, led to something new and exciting. You may be facing another brand of life event — a death, a divorce, an injury or a loss not of your choosing. Your situation is different — it’s harder — but that makes the use of these three keys even more vital.
When we employ flexibility, margin and grace in navigating life’s biggest transitions, we have the opportunity to not only survive them, but to thrive in, through and even because of them.
This commentary originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Tim Maurer is the director of personal finance for the BAM ALLIANCE. He is a regular CNBC contributor and writes for Forbes.com. A central theme, that “personal finance is more personal than it is finance,” drives his writing and speaking. You can follow Tim on Twitter at @TimMaurer.