A few days ago, I was taking a walk with my 3-year-old daughter. As we approached a crosswalk, hand in hand, I looked at her and said in a playful way, "Stop, look and listen!" She immediately repeated these words in a singsong way as she acted them out. She loves to be silly with her daddy.
She doesn't realize it now, but my hope is that she'll eventually adopt this routine herself and continue to proceed carefully when she's not holding my hand — not just at crosswalks, but as she approaches any new situation. Someone did that for me along the way, and it continues to impact my thinking to this day.
It's often said that it's the combination of knowledge and experience that creates wisdom. While I generally agree, there are fortunately some things that I don't think we need to experience personally to be able to make wise decisions about. The consequences of not being cautious and alert when crossing the street would be one example. Deciding how and when to retire is another. Fortunately, when it comes to the latter, comprehensive financial planning forces us to "Stop, Look, and Listen," giving us a better chance of making it to our desired destination.
Stop. Where are you today? Where have you come from? Where do you want to go? Having a solid understanding of your position and your surroundings will give you an awareness that is vital to anticipating future risks and needs.
Look. Once you know where you're starting from and what direction you want to go, look closely at your time horizon and what resources are available to you. If you're aiming at retirement, are your expectations realistic? Have you thought about the implications, pragmatic and sad as it may be, of potentially deteriorating health later in life? Do you know what Social Security benefits are available to you? What's the appropriate amount of risk for you to take with your investments? The cumulative and compounding effect of small course corrections can mean the difference between reaching your goals and not. Otherwise, if you don't start thinking about retirement until you're 65, your options are going to be very limited.
Listen. Most importantly, seek out and listen to wise counsel. For instance, most people have no particular skill at investment management, nor should they. It's a technical field that requires extensive training, which most doctors, lawyers, and engineers don't have, don't claim to have, and would rather not undergo. Americans also work more than our counterparts in any other industrialized nation, including Japan. Having so little free time makes it difficult to develop and implement a plan on our own, especially if gratification is delayed.
Bottom line: Whether it's crossing the street or moving into the next phase of your life, be alert, plan ahead, and proceed with caution.