Ted Sarenski, CPA/PFS

President and CEO of Blue Ocean Strategic Capital LLC in Syracuse, N.Y.

Ted Sarenski, CPA/PFS
Photo by Heather Ainsworth/AP Images

'Talk about how to address it today ...'

A CPA/PFS for the middle class: Upstate New York isn't known as a high-net-worth area. It's mostly small business owners and hardworking people. They don't get approached by many financial planners because they don't have a lot of money. However, they're quite an accepting audience — they haven't had people talk to them about subjects like tax, retirement, estate, risk management, and investment planning. They have fewer zeroes, but they still have the same concerns about their personal finances. I think it's important that CPAs offer this kind of advice and own the role of financial planner with their clients. Financial planning is a natural fit for CPAs, and it's a way to expand the services they offer.

Structuring services: We serve about 200 middle-class families — that's about half of our total client base. About 15% of our clients are high-net-worth, and the remaining are lower to middle class. We begin our relationship with each client by preparing a financial plan, which involves three to four meetings in total. We charge a fee for the financial plan. If they want help managing their assets, we include annual checkups on the planning portion in their fee. If they are not looking for investment management, we have a retainer schedule where they pay us a monthly amount, which covers any questions they have throughout the year as well as modest changes to the financial plan.

The "life planning" side of retirement: I think the life planning side of retirement planning is the exciting part. Sometimes you ask a couple what retirement looks like, and they say opposite things — one wants to travel, and the other wants to relax on the beach — and they realize they've never discussed it. Sometimes they have no idea because work has been their whole life. I talk to them about hobbies and interests. Saving for the future is great, but if all you're doing is working, it may be time to start thinking about how you'll enjoy yourself. Getting a life while you are working, I think, is another part of the discussion.

Having the difficult conversations: It's important to bring up topics like unforeseen illness and disability when everyone is healthy and clear-minded. When you're first meeting your clients, that's the time to talk about those things. Tell stories about situations that you've seen where the client didn't address it ahead of time, and give illustrations of what could happen if a person becomes disabled, needs nursing home care, or dies. Show them how their retirement plan could fall apart, and talk about how to address it today so that it doesn't fall apart in the future. It's very difficult if they wait until the last minute.

As told to Lea Hart (lea.hart@gmail.com), a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.

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