Financial Planning Center of Greater Washington is trying to make something new of a very old industry populated by lawyers and accountants, stockbrokers and insurance agents: Take financial planning and make it accessible and useful for every income bracket.
"The wave of the future is financial planning," Walter Seager, the year-old firm's president, said. He points out that the success of Money Magazine shows the interest is there. The challenge is in the approach and making it work for all income brackets.
Large accountancies and stock brokerages -- a separate financial-planning house is new in itself -- use centralized planning. Their clients, usually rather rich, can provide relatively complex information such as how much cash in today's dollars they want to have available when they retire. The information is fed into a computer, "and then they spit out this financial plan," Seager said.
"That's not a manner in which I can work," the stockbroker-turned-financial-planner said, "because when I do a financial plan for someone, I practically have to live his life." He left the stock brokerage formerly known as Loeb, Rhoades and Hornblower because he didn't feel close enough to his clients. For Seager and his two associates, the plan is a six-week process in which they get to know the person and his financial objectives.
They want to know how people feel about sending their kids through school. For some clients, a child has to make it by itself, an object lesson of independence and self-reliance. For others, the object is to give a child everything the parents didn't have. The financial road map is different for each.
Another question is whether the client feels comfortable with a child taking legal control of assets at age 18. If so, FPC will recommend using the Uniform Gift to Minors Act to split a client's income.
"It's really nice to think he's going to be real serious at age 18," Seager said. But, "he might be a dope addict at age 18." It's a question rarely asked of richer clients who use their stock brokerage, attorneys, or insurance agents for financial planning, he said.
The personal touch leads to a financial plan that allows for personal foibles. Of a lawyer who came to him, Seager said, "One of his criteria is that he maintain $100,000 in a savings account in a bank. He came from a poor family and will not be comfortable unless he has money which he can put his hands on at any time," even though the low interest paid on such accounts means losing purchasing power to inflation.
Seager also personalizes the financial plan by calculating how much inflation the family actually faces. He figures that fraction of prices that go into the consumer price index, such as housing, which are fixed for the family. He finds that the average family that owns its house actually is facing only about three-quarters of the rise in the consumer price index. Using his thumbnail of a 10 percent long-term inflation rate, he plans for 7.5 percent inflation each year for most of his clients.
"People are so hyper about inflation now," he said, "much more than they should be."
The client pays $150 to cover the cost of the plan. The center makes money off commissions from the "products" -- stocks, annuities, bonds -- that are recommended. According to Seager, taking commissions makes the service affordable, but it has the potential for conflict of interest. FPC steers clear of the problem by peer review, he said. Each financial plan is reviewed by all three associates.
And, he added, "Even if you don't recommend a product which puts dollars in your pocket from that individual, they will send their friends to us."
Having their shop in McLean, he said, they see many levels of income from the lower-middle to upper-middle. The average income for the three clients a week Seager sees is $50,000, but, he adds, he sees at least one case a month that he takes for free.
Seager seeks out such cases, who don't pay for the plan and rarely are given product recommendations, because "when you're working with someone up to his ears in debt, you've honed your skills in the budget area." Those skills, dealing with cash-flow problems, usually are ignored by most financial planners when working with wealthy clients, Seager said, "but shouldn't be."
He said he has approached churches and marriage counselors to get referral of people in financial distress who could use the center's services, but he finds they think communication, not money, is the root of most family's problems.
Seager is convinced there are many cases where "all the talking in the world isn't going to solve their problem. They have to get themselves on a decent financial road to get the problem solved.
Inflation and recession are good for business, because both aggravate money troubles in all families, Seager admits. Because the office is so young, though, he can't tell how much more business economic anemia is bringing in.
Another business Seager runs out of the same office, a discount stock brokerage called Broker's Exchange, also brings its clients who may be interested in having a financial plan done.
Seager is also president of National Financial Planning Centers Inc. He describes the national entity as a "dream" of a "loose fraternity of financial planners" from offices similar to his who can share costs of some large budget items such as advertising and computer services.
So far, one office in Manassas has been brought under the national umbrella. Additional associates are not expected for another year, however. Until the center develops the computer capability and advertising budget, Seager explained, National Financial Planning Centers Inc. won't be able to offer the necessary services.