Reaching the Podium

Justin Thomas, CFP®

Aug 4, 2020

The first time my triathlon coach saw me swim, he wasn’t very optimistic. “You look like an electrocuted frog,” he said. Obviously I had some work to do. But that was okay, because I had a plan.

In 1999 at the start of my professional triathlon career, I set a goal. Within five years, I wanted to be on the podium at the XTERRA Triathlon World Championships. I knew that performing at that level required serious commitment. So, the first thing I did was hire a coach.

We reviewed my current strengths (running and mountain biking) and weaknesses (frog-like swimming) and discussed my goal of getting on the podium. Once my coach knew what he had to work with and where I wanted to go, we worked together to implement a long-term training schedule that supported competing at the highest level.

With time and a commitment to the plan, I achieved my goal in 2003, placing third at the World Championships.

When I made the transition to finance and working one-on-one with clients, something clicked. In many ways, the process of setting and achieving financial goals matches the experience of an athlete setting an athletic goal.

When you work with an advisor, you’re building a relationship. It’s comparable to an athlete working with a coach. You’re working with someone who can help you create a plan that gives you the best shot at reaching your financial goals.

Step 1: Identify the Goals

When I meet with a prospective client for the first time, I ask two questions:

•   What’s most important to you?

•   What do you want out of life?

These questions may not seem like the most obvious ones to ask because they aren’t directly related to dollars and cents. Instead, it’s a discussion about someone’s most important life goals. When I set my goal to reach the podium, I also had a date in mind. In the same fashion, you’ll want to consider the goals that matter the most to you and the dates you want connected to those goals.

The answers to these questions will ultimately provide the quantifiable dollar goals that an advisor will build a plan around. The other thing you need to keep in mind is that you’ll be setting and working towards intermediate goals along the way.

I knew that reaching the podium wouldn’t happen overnight. So to help me

move forward and measure my progress, I also set some intermediate goals. For instance, by setting and achieving the goal of winning a race at the national level, I knew I was that much closer to reaching the ultimate goal of the podium at the world championship.

With the help of an advisor, you’ll want to set intermediate goals with events and dates that move you along the path towards the bigger goals. They may be as simple as saving a set amount of money each month, but their purpose is to

help you stay focused and enjoy success along the way. It keeps the big goal from seeming so impossible and out of reach. Plus, it gives you a way to measure if your plan is working or if you need to make adjustments.

Step 2: Pick a Coach, Set a Plan

My athletic success came in large part because I chose to work with a coach. He offered another set of eyes that gave me valuable perspective on my training, racing, and lifestyle. His objectivity, combined with his background, experience, and knowledge helped me move forward efficiently. But even more important, he held me accountable.

He carefully reviewed my logs, watched me train, and assessed my performance. Without question, he kept me on track and never let me forget my goal and what it would take to achieve it. I believe the same logic applies when working with an advisor to achieve financial goals.

When I work with clients, I help them stay accountable to their plan. Just like my coach did for me, it’s my job to provide an honest assessment for my clients. One of the main reasons I can be honest, and objective is because I work independently on a fee-only basis. So when you’re seeking an advisor, I recommend finding an experienced,  credentialed, fee-only advisor that serves other clients like you.

You want someone who understands where you’re coming from and who has experience helping people reach similar goals. I suggest having several discussions with the advisor and asking what he or she recommends for a long- term plan. Then you can make a decision whether this advisor is a good fit.

Does the plan make sense to you? Does it account for the goals that you said mattered most? And, perhaps most importantly, do you see yourself working with this person for a long time, hopefully the rest of your life? Once you work through those answers, you can decide whether to move ahead with this “coach” or if you need to find someone else.

Step 3: Training

Without fail, both athletes and investors struggle with the same thing: what happens in the middle. We’re pretty good at benchmarking where we stand today. We also do a decent job of figuring out where we want to go. But then comes doing the actual work to get there.

It’s hard to make good decisions from beginning to end, particularly if we get focused on the wrong things. For example, you might think that endurance athletes who work out the longest or hardest will naturally rise to the top of their sport. While athletic success definitely takes hard work, what differentiates the top 1% of athletes from the rest depends on how they’ve structured their training.

The goal isn’t necessarily to work out the longest or hardest, but the smartest, while maintaining consistency year over year. The best athletes have learned that the way to avoid injury and illness requires both rest and recovery in their training cycles. It may seem counterintuitive but training all the time may actually prevent athletes from reaching their goals.

In the same way, you want to make financial decisions that are smart and efficient to help you reach your goals without hurting you in the process. Two of the biggest factors that contribute to financial success are how much you save and how consistently you save. So even though it may be tempting to focus on performance or the rate of return (ROR) of your assets, it benefits you more to focus on those things that make it possible to save more and save consistently, like paying off debt, earning more money, and living within your means.

I liken focusing on ROR to the athlete that works out too hard, risking injury or illness. When you make ROR your primary objective, you may be tempted to take unnecessary risks or lose sight of what actually helps you the most. Instead, we should focus our energy on the things we have control over.

When you’re working with an advisor, there will be many opportunities to discuss your progress and make needed adjustments, keeping you on track to reach your goals. During my competitive career, I touched base with my coach almost every day. We changed workouts to fine tune my performance, and my coach had the objectivity to see signs of overtraining or fatigue.

To keep me moving in the right direction, he knew when to pull me back from the edge without losing the competitive advantage of consistent training. You can experience a similar give and take with your advisor.

As you share information about your changing circumstances—new child, new job, unexpected illness—your advisor can help you adjust. Maybe there’s six months where you need to keep more cash on hand and can’t save as much. Your advisor will help you get through that period and adjust your plan to still reach your goals. And remember those intermediate goals we talked about earlier? They’ll also help you assess your progress and determine if changes need to be made.

Step 4: Maintaining Balance

When you train for a triathlon, it can be tricky. You’re training for three different sports and maintaining balance and consistency across all three can prove challenging. You often worry that focusing too much training time on a particular discipline can compromise your performance in the other two areas come race day. But that’s where it helps to have a coach.

When you’re working with a coach who knows your plan and understands your goals, they can review your training logs and race results to see where gaps exist. With their help, you can fine tune the training to improve your performance without fear that you’re too focused on one area.

This logic also applies to reaching financial goals. For example, I try to meet with my clients as often as two to three times each year to review our progress and adjust the plan. In those meetings we review disciplines, or factors, that we have some control over:

  1. How much we save
  2. How much time we have
  3. How much risk we take in our portfolio

These factors directly impact each other. For instance, if you’re willing to save more, then you may need less time or risk to reach your goals. If you’re not willing to save as much, then you may need more time or risk in the portfolio. By working with your advisor, you’ll have an easier time balancing these factors and determining where gaps exist so you can perform at the level that gives you the greatest probability of reaching your goals without taking undue risks.

Step 5: Reaching the Podium

When I started training, it would have been easy to get discouraged when my coach compared my swimming style to an electrocuted frog. How could I compete and win if I couldn’t swim well? Luckily, the race isn’t won based solely on the swim.

All I needed to do was to make sure I wasn’t too far behind the leaders. At my best, losing one minute to my main competitors was a big achievement. The same logic applies to setting and reaching your financial goals.

The process of setting a financial goal and working towards it doesn’t need to be perfect. Your process does need forward movement with benchmarking and course corrections. Too often I see people walking away from their financial goals because they seem too big or too difficult. Just like I didn’t need to be the best swimmer to win, you don’t need to be the biggest saver or risk taker to reach your goals.

The reality is you do have a path to financial success. It’s rarely a straight one, and sometimes you’ll have to make adjustments. Remember: the goal isn’t perfection but progress. The process I’ve outlined—identifying your goals, choosing a coach, building and following a plan while maintaining balance—will serve you well if you’re serious about achieving your financial goals. It’s how I reached the podium, and it’s how you’ll reach your most important life goals.

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