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Getting clients out of debt

Matt Pais

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Lord expands his practice to a thriving new area: helping clients get ahead of overwhelming liabilities.
Bill Truslow

AN EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTOR and an attorney earn a combined household income of $425,000. Yet they cannot afford to pay their bills.

The couple is saddled with $380,000 of student loan debt, not to mention $35,000 of annual daycare bills for their two young kids. That’s where Andrew C. Lord, CLU, ChFC, comes in. In the last two years, the 31-year MDRT member from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has emphasized debt management as a part of his business, and the approach has changed both the lives of clients and the health of the practice.

The idea sparked from a conversation Lord had at the MDRT Annual Meeting with Gino Saggiomo, CFP, a 12-year MDRT member from Fortitude Valley, Queensland, Australia, who considers the impact of clients’ debt as part of his work. The concept provided a great opportunity for Lord to resolve concern about the future of his practice, which specializes in financial planning for an aging population of middle-class families.

By connecting with clients’ adult children and being referred to other families dealing with student loan and credit card debt, car leases and more, Lord established a new offering for a younger demographic frequently overlooked by advisors more interested in clients with stronger assets.

The service — for which clients pay a flat retainer fee — is managed by a staff member Lord calls his “debt maestro,” in conjunction with a goals-based module of financial planning software that allows clients to track how they manage their debt.

“It’s just like you would use a subscription with a nutritionist or a fitness instructor,” Lord said. “Yet this service is so unique and so needed that the growth is almost unmanageable.”

In the first quarter of 2019, that meant 42 unsolicited referrals, resulting in Lord bringing on a new advisor. Lord calls the clients HENRYs, an acronym for High-Earners, Not Rich Yet. “And the clients like that,” Lord said, “because they would like to be rich.”

For the aforementioned family facing $380,000 of student loan debt, Lord’s practice and its software helped determine what to pay off and when, and outsourced the college loan issue to a firm that specializes in the area.

“The clients are thrilled; they feel like they have tamed the beast,” Lord said. “Planning is amazing, and it takes away a lot of anxiety, stress and pressure.”

That is a subtle component of these relationships: the fear and guilt some clients may feel and reluctance to bring an advisor into a highly emotional situation. Clients may have bankrupted themselves paying for children’s education and need help dealing with debt to plan retirement, or each half of a couple may have a different approach to their finances.

When Lord encounters couples in which one person grew up with financial difficulties and the other never worried about money, he frequently sees conflict about the role of debt in their relationship moving forward.

“It’s usually not pleasant; they’re panicked,” he said. “I’ve changed my initial meeting to open with a discussion about how people may be nervous in the initial interview, but there is nothing to be embarrassed about.”

As a result, Lord has seen clients better understand his process and let down their guard, though he is careful not to act as a relationship consultant. If discussing what money was like in people’s households growing up leads to disagreement or argument, Lord asks if the clients would like him to leave the room or if they’d like to step out and talk privately among themselves. (He also mentions that his sister is a successful therapist and jokingly asks if they’d like a referral.)

Additional fact-finding tools have also increased efficiency before and during the client meeting. This includes sending a video to explain what to expect during the interview and get ahead of any disputes about, for example, whether or not they will be fully funding their kids’ education or leaving them with debt.

Lord recognizes that some younger couples struggle to take action on debt planning because retirement is so far away, and some simply are not ready to take action. A woman with no debt who married a man with $87,000 of college debt has not followed through with the planning they discussed with Lord.

“I’ve tried to adjust my attitude,” he said. “I just stay in touch and gently nudge them with information and resources so they will have what they need when they’re ready to deal with it.”

 

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