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What Do You Do When Clients Just Won’t Change?

October 13, 2017

This time we hear from Jenna Biancavilla, founder of Pearl Capital Management, located in Phoenix, Ariz. She recalls how she learned to work with a client who didn’t take her advice.

At one point in my career, I had a client who described what he called his “horrible financial situation” during our very first meeting. He and his wife were using about half of his monthly income to pay off debt, which included $30,000 owed to credit cards.

The first thing I tackled with them was the credit card debt. This client was an engineer, and he was great with spreadsheets. We collaborated closely on a plan to decrease their overall debt and pay off the credit cards. I was thrilled to hear that they implemented the plan and paid off the cards.

Then, a year later, the credit card debt was back to up to $30,000. The first time this happened, I was completely surprised. I had expected that going through this difficult process would surely change his behavior. So we reorganized, used their safety-net account to pay off the debt, and started fresh again. The next year, they were back up to $30,000 in debt. When I asked them, “How did we get here again?” they both shrugged their shoulders and didn’t have a clear answer.

After a very candid conversation, I realized that ultimately they felt comfortable carrying $30,000 in debt. Though it may sound counterintuitive, they believed it compelled them to be more financially responsible: when they didn’t have any debt, they felt great about their financial situation and would go on vacation or buy a new car with their credit. Then as soon as they got to $30,000 in debt, everything would change. They would spend drastically less money and agree they needed to save and budget — something I could never get them to do when they were debt-free.

Jenna Biancavilla

I was at a loss about how to solve this situation, so I turned to peers, mentors and other professionals for advice on how I could encourage them to make better financial decisions. I found out that I wasn’t alone. Many financial professionals told me about clients they work with who just won’t change.

I realized that, rather than trying to fundamentally transform how this couple handled money, I needed to learn how to be a good advisor to clients while understanding that some of them weren’t likely to ever change. For clients like this couple, for example, having a plan to hurry up and pay off their debt was actually detrimental. Instead of watching them go up and down the roller coaster of accumulating debt, paying it off and accumulating it again, it was better to have them carry their $30,000 in debt at the lowest rate possible.

I use this example with other clients, because I have seen others whose financial lives follow a very similar pattern. I will ask them, “Do you feel comfortable with this debt? If we pay this off, do you think you’ll get back into this amount of debt?”

Having this conversation during the planning process helps clients understand their relationship to debt. The majority of my clients make a commitment to staying debt-free, but there are some that admit, “If I don’t have any debt, I’ll probably go ahead and use my credit card and get into debt again.”

I always try to help my clients have a better relationship with money and change their negative financial behaviors, but there are going to be clients who are just not willing to change. For these clients, I need to change my advice and gear our planning toward addressing their specific behaviors — finding a way to work with them as they are, not as I wish they would be.