The Truth You Need to Hear: The value of a Dutch Uncle

Contributed by: Timothy Wyman, CFP®, JD Tim Wyman

Recently, during a preliminary meeting with a new client, he told us that what he really wants us to be is his Dutch Uncle.  I vaguely recalled hearing the term before, but I asked him to clarify -- just to be sure we were on the same page.  The gentleman, in his 70’s, shared that what he really valued most was to work with someone who would give him frank advice, challenge his assumptions on some important financial issues he was wrestling with, and tell him what he needed to hear rather than what he wanted to hear – and do it with compassion. 

The interaction left quite an impression on me. I am glad that I asked for clarification, because if I would have just waited to Google “Dutch Uncle” after the meeting, I may have only seen definitions that address, “frank, harsh, blunt, stern and severe.” I might have missed out on the “with compassion” part; which is very important.

Frank, Candid & Compassionate

A few years ago I read “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.  First, if you haven’t read it, get a copy now. Along with a box of tissue. Second, if you have teenage or adult children, get them a copy too. Third, if you’d rather watch the video, it’s here on YouTube with over 17 million views. You won’t be disappointed. Randy was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he gave his last lecture titled Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” That was on September 18, 2007. He passed away on July 25, 2008. One of Randy Pausch’s experiences included a man he referred to as his Dutch Uncle. One day, this Uncle took him for a walk to share the truth that he needed to hear (that Randy’s arrogance was getting in the way of his long term success) in a frank, candid and compassionate way and it became a turning point in Randy’s life.

Sales vs. Advice

The Dutch Uncle analogy can also be used to illustrate the difference between sales and advice -- or perhaps, those acting in your best interest and those that do not.  An advisor, or someone interested in your wellbeing, will provide candid and frank feedback; because they want to see you succeed.  In my profession and from my perspective, this is the true litmus test of an advisor: Are you willing to lose a client relationship because you act as their Dutch Uncle (compassion included)?  If you are worried about losing a client because they might not like what you have to provide, share or recommend in your learned professional opinion; then you are really acting in a sales capacity and not an advisory role. Which is fine, just don’t refer to yourself as an advisor.

Nowhere is there a need more for a Dutch Uncle than in financial planning and investment management. Our brains, frankly, are wired to make the easy or wrong decision too many times.  Here’s one familiar example: Buy low and sell high.  But how difficult is this mantra to follow?  Studies suggest it’s extremely difficult. Can you think about what you were feeling and hopefully not implementing in March 2009 during the Great Recession? I bet a Dutch Uncle was pretty valuable.  Or, how about the question can I retire now? Sometimes the correct feedback is you are ready to retire – unfortunately your money isn’t!  A Dutch Uncle might suggest some tradeoffs such as continuing to work but at reduced hours, trading time for income. A Dutch Uncle might also say, sure, go buy X and accumulate additional debt; but also acknowledge that this action will have an impact on your financial independence.  It’s still your choice, but the funds need to come from somewhere.

If you don’t have a Dutch Uncle perhaps it’s time to seek one out – your success might just depend upon it.

Timothy Wyman, CFP®, JD is the Managing Partner and Financial Planner at Center for Financial Planning, Inc. and is a contributor to national media and publications such as Forbes and The Wall Street Journal and has appeared on Good Morning America Weekend Edition and WDIV Channel 4. A leader in his profession, Tim served on the National Board of Directors for the 28,000 member Financial Planning Association™ (FPA®), mentored many CFP® practitioners and is a frequent speaker to organizations and businesses on various financial planning topics.

This material is being provided for information purposes only and is not a complete description, nor is it a recommendation. Any opinions are those of Timothy Wyman, CFP® and not necessarily those of Raymond James.