The Build-A-Bear Experience

When my younger son Kevin was just a little guy (he’s sixteen and six-feet tall now), he absolutely loved stuffed animals.  More specifically, he loved stuffed dogs.  He had dozens of them, which we called his “buddies.”  On special occasions such as birthdays, the family would visit the Build-A-Bear Workshop store at the local mall to shop for a new buddy.   The Build-A-Bear store allows children to follow an assembly line and create their own personalized stuffed animals.  Kids select an animal, fill it with stuffing, and choose outfits, accessories, scents, and sounds.    At the end of the production line to complete the Build-A-Bear experience, the child gives the new friend a name and even creates a birth certificate!

Kevin never really wanted to go through the entire build-a-bear process.  He just wanted the stuffed animal!  He would invariably choose a dog (never a bear) already on the shelf.  He selected the type of dog, the color, texture and size, and sometimes he even bought an accessory, such as a tiny skateboard or a hat.   The other kids no doubt enjoyed the “process” and were happy with their purchases.  That said, Kevin also got exactly what he wanted - he got it quickly and he was just as happy as the other kids.  

The build-a-bear experience reminds me of the difference between “traditional” financial planning and my methodology.  Not all adults want or even need the customary financial planning process.  The experience is not pleasant for everyone.   There is data to gather, meetings to schedule and attend, homework assignments, to-do-lists to complete, and serious issues to contemplate.   If mistakes have been made in the past or if you are faced with unpleasant realities, the requisite topics can invoke negative feelings.   Further, the spreadsheets, charts, and graphs encountered can cause your eyes to glaze over (unless of course you are an engineer).   Let’s face it, the standard “financial plan” rarely gets read (although it can be used effectively as a door stop). 

Some people may want “the experience” in addition to the results.   You might like having greater involvement in the nuts and bolts or following a structured routine.   You might even be willing to pay more for the experience.   More commonly, I find that people want answers to questions and solutions to problems.  Much like preparing their tax return each year, they are focused on a necessary task at hand and are willing to undertake whatever is necessary to get the job done.  Even so, they are not looking to make it any harder than necessary.  They want to get it done and they want help from someone with knowledge and experience to formulate a game plan.    

For these reasons, I’ve designed a streamlined process to deliver the same benefits of “traditional” planning but with less of the “experience”.     The plans that I develop are customized to the client, but they take much less time.    The client’s unique lifestyle goals drive the process and the client is still the ultimate decision maker.   My job is to create an environment and a decision-making framework to get the desired result.     This self-directed methodology does not mean “do-it-yourself.”  Self-directed means that “you” maintain fully responsibility and control over your financial life.   

My philosophy is centered on doing the things that matter most, so we don’t spend time on things that don’t add value to the client’s financial plan.   I don’t attempt to predict unpredictable events or ascribe a level of precision to planning that doesn’t exist in the “real world.”   The challenge of making decisions in an uncertain world is not helped much by financial models so I don’t spend timing inputting data into a forecasting software program.  Nor do I use a risk tolerance questionnaire, when I can get the same result by just talking with a client. Further, I’m not interested in budgets that have as much chance of success as the typical diet.  Planners tend to dwell on many areas where the time spent has questionable value.   In contrast, my plans are strategic action plans that focus on the key activities that will drive long-term financial success. 

Making the planning process as painless as possible is both the objective of my methodology and its by-product.  Another by-product is a speedy solution to problems.  From the initial inquiry to the final results, my clients get solutions in a few weeks rather than a few months.    This can save money as well since the cost of unbiased professional advice is a function of time.  A lengthy process naturally will be more expensive.   

Please understand that I am not against traditional financial planning.   The benefits of any type of financial planning are enormous, no matter which approach is used.  Financial planning brings peace of mind knowing that you have taken steps to achieve your most important goals.   The exercise also optimizes your resources by protecting your assets from potential financial catastrophes. In turn, it also increases future choices by reducing expenses and taxes which hinder wealth creation.   I would love for anyone, who is so inclined, to seek the help of a fee-only planner.    

Surprisingly, like Build-A-Bear Workshops, “fee-only” financial planners are not plentiful.   There are only a couple thousand fee-only planners nationwide and only a few hundred who work on a “fee-for-serve” basis.   The best places to look are the Garret Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com) and the National Association of Personal Financial Planners (www.NAPFA.org) both of which I am a member.  Most of the Garrett and NAPFA members follow the traditional approach and are highly qualified.  

Like the kids at the Build-A-Bear Workshop, you can choose to work the production line and I’m pretty sure you will be happy with the outcome.    In fact if you prefer such an experience, I would encourage you to use a traditional planner.   Though, if you are like my son Kevin and just want the “bear”, you can step quickly to the end of the line and get what you really wanted.   Just like buying a stuffed animal, when it comes to “build-a-plan” financial services, you do have a choice.