Imagine if every American had the benefit of consulting with a financial planner. Even in such a nirvana, people would still certainly make poor choices and advisors would still give some clients faulty advice. But a better understanding of saving and investing strategy would likely create an unprecedented economic geyser, a tantalizing concept amid the economic torpor.
However worthy an ideal it may be - advisors teaching people, at a minimum, how to avoid foolish mistakes, regardless of how many people still made them - planning will likely remain a privilege for a minority of Americans. But this imagined nirvana should not be the enemy of the good.
Certainly, the winners of this year's Financial Planning Pro Bono Planner of the Year Awards (indeed, all of those nominated) understand just how vital sharing this knowledge is.
As Financial Planning senior editor Ann Marsh, who writes this month's cover story spotlighting the winners, tells me, "For obvious reasons, high-net-worth clients are the prize quarry of every ambitious advisor. So it's both surprising and inspiring to encounter planners who've turned their talents and skills toward the opposite end of the spectrum to help people who cannot afford to pay for help they desperately need. They are coming to the aid of families with critically or terminally ill children and helping them survive the economic devastation that often follows in lockstep after a diagnosis and staggering treatment costs. They are helping wounded veterans plan financially for futures without limbs, with serious head injuries and with post-traumatic stress disorder. They are teaching financial literacy to the next generation in blighted neighborhoods."
And amid a never-quieting din of stories of professionals in the world of finance abusing their clients or the notion of justice, these planners are giving the profession a good name. My planning nirvana is fantasy, but imagine if the myriad planning associations made volunteering - say one day per quarter - mandatory in order to be a member of the group. Instead of dense estate plans or tax-strategy sessions, planners could spend time emphasizing the benefits of 401(k) plans or guiding seniors on when it may be best to start Social Security payments. Consider the potential of the gift of planning.