Having Tough Conversations with Tom Wall

To be a good advisor, do you need to have tough conversations with your clients? Tom Wall talks about getting down to what matters when it comes to money!

Apr 5, 2024 | Blogs, Podcast

About the Episode

We focused on having tough conversations, how the financial services industry has changed and evolved, the role mass media has played in its evolution, what it takes for financial professionals to do a good job for clients, the role boring insurance products play in retirement income, who they’re a good fit for and who they’re not, and how to evaluate carriers, with Dr. Tom Wall, speaker, author, and President of Whole Life Masterminds.       

Listen to hear a difference-making tip on developing the super skill of listening and being emotionally intelligent!

You can learn more about Tom at PermissionToSpend.com, WholeLifeMasterminds.com, and LinkedIn.

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George Grombacher

George Grombacher


Dr. Tom Wall

Dr. Tom Wall


Episode Transcript

george grombacher 0:02
Tom to get us started. Give me two truths and a lie, please.

Tom Wall 0:07
Two Truths and a Lie. I started a profitable internet company at the height of the.com. Bubble. I have stayed in 1500 Hotels over the course of the last 20 years or so. And I am a scratch golfer.

george grombacher 0:29
Those are excellent, huh? Wow. Height of the.com started a company 1500 hotels, and you are a scratch golfer. Those are all believable. I’m going to say that you’re not quite a scratch golfer, Tom.

Unknown Speaker 0:46
You got me? Yes.

george grombacher 0:51
But But I bet that you’ll get there.

Speaker 1 0:53
That’s the goal. At least we’ll see if I can build my own financial security enough to get there. Yeah.

george grombacher 0:59
How many hours a week do you think it would take on the golf course or the range to get there?

Speaker 1 1:05
I don’t know. I think it’s measured in years. Not not hours. Yeah.

george grombacher 1:08
Yeah. Okay. So 1500 hotels? How’s that? Is that good or bad?

Speaker 1 1:15
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been very blessed to see a lot of the country and travel a lot for work in various roles. It’s actually what I do still to this day, and haven’t gotten sick of it yet. I don’t sit still well. So it’s been a been a blessing and a curse in some ways, I guess to?

george grombacher 1:30
Yeah, like most everything in life. So all right, appreciate that. Well, Tom, what is top of mind for you right now.

Speaker 1 1:39
You know, I think top of mind as I continue to build out, you know, the work that I’m doing is really financial security in, in retirement income planning. Where that comes from is it’s funny, I’m a keynote speaker throughout the industry, I’m probably on a stage every week or two. And the most common thing that I hear from firm presidents, firm leaders, people that are, you know, managing 100 advisors and their firms and things like that is that their advisors and their clients, frankly, have shifted toward investment management, investment planning, everyone wants to talk about building their portfolio and maximizing the growth. And it’s almost at the expense of what real financial planning is, which is talking about hard things like life insurance and disability and, you know, guaranteeing your income for life. You know, it’s it’s the unsexy side of the business. But frankly, that’s, that’s what planning is, you know, the investments are fun stuff, and it’s good work. But, you know, I think if you just show up with investments in retirement, you’re gonna be worried about a lot of things that you probably could have taken off the table. That’s the core of of the work that I do really.

george grombacher 2:43
Is that a ship that that you saw happening over time away from having those tough conversations about unsexy things towards the shiny objects? Or is that recent?

Speaker 1 2:55
No, I think I mean, I’m, I’ve been in this career, 21 years, I think I’ve seen it the entire time. You know, it used to be it used to be the big life insurance companies were driving a lot of these conversations. And then there was the investment side, there was the Wall Street crowd, there was the Morgan Stanley’s and the money managers. And over time, all of those worlds have merged together. And I think a lot of advisors who are managing a lot of money, you know, those, those tough conversations get crowded out for a couple of reasons. One is they’re making too much money on the fun stuff, like, you know, their investment business is producing so much revenue, they almost don’t have to have the tough conversations to survive and get those sales. But also, I think, on the client side, it’s just, it’s just mass media. It’s, it’s, I’ve heard it called financial porn. I mean, you, you go on, you go on TV, and you see everyone there, the latest stock tickers, and the news headlines are about the stock that just went up 50% yesterday, and I think people get addicted to that, especially after some of the stuff that came after the pandemic with, you know, the roaring kitty and the Gamestop and the NF T’s and now now the crypto again, you know, all these things, they’re, they’re great to talk about, and they’re just fun, and they crowd out the the real conversations, which is, which is what planning is.

george grombacher 4:11
Yeah, I appreciate all that. It is I think that financial porn is probably a great a great way to describe that and mixed in social media and everything else. Those foundational blocking and tackling is not the most exciting thing that’s going to get clicks necessarily. What are some of those tough conversations?

Speaker 1 4:33
Well, I think a good advisor, you know, will have conversations around, you know, what are your hopes and dreams obviously, that’s kind of the bare bones but they start to lay out scenarios of Alright, so just imagine for a moment that tomorrow, you know, Mark gets hit by a bus, you know, what does that mean for you? So what does that mean for the kids like, I can actually tell me financially what that means, like, let’s play this. This this out. Instead of just giving them a calculator. Those conversations I think are are what the best advisors do. And I think that’s the value of the role. I sometimes I’m on, I’m on stage in front of 200 advisors. And I’ll I’ll open by saying, your clients don’t need you. They can open any trade account, they can buy their insurance online, they can read Money Magazine and get some of their basic planning in place, they can call an attorney and get their documents done. So why do millions and millions of people work with financial advisors? And my answer is leadership, they’re looking for someone to be their leader, you know, they’re looking for somebody to be their coach their leader to make them aware of things that they’re not going to find on their own. You know, the same way you can’t just read WebMD and, you know, self diagnose, you know, you work with a physician who’s has seen it all and can see into your future, but to coach you in the right direction.

george grombacher 5:49
That makes a lot of sense, as technology. I mean, it used to be it wasn’t super easy. You if you wanted to buy a stock, you had to call up a stockbroker, if you wanted to buy insurance, you had to work with an agent. But to your point, all these walls are now down. And I can go on artificial intelligence, this that the other thing and it can tell me lots of stuff can give me lots of financial information. So what role Am I playing? As an advisor? Am I taking on a leadership role in their life? And answering those hard questions? What happens? If?

Speaker 1 6:22
Right? No, I think that’s the thing, if that’s the key, and I think the other part of it, too, is, you know, there, I think the real value of an advisor is it helps, it helps folks have a conversation there. They help folks to have a conversation with their future self, you know, of themselves 10 or 20 years down the road. So they’re making the decisions today, that future them will wish they had made. And that goes way beyond just blindly throwing money into a retirement account and hoping it grows to what you need it to.

george grombacher 6:54
How well do you think people understand are talking about that future self? It’s really hard for me to imagine myself as an older version of me, but God willing, I’ll be that older version of me. So I have a hard time thinking about that. But then I have a hard time putting myself in the shoes of what’s it going to look like when I’m 6570 years old? And I start using the money that I took out how well do you think people understand the consequences of taxes and where their money is?

Speaker 1 7:27
They don’t they don’t understand it all. I mean, I think for most most folks, you know, the good ones are the the good. The good savers, you know, the responsible folks, they’re, they’re living below their means they’re, they’re maxing out their 401k, they’re saving for their kids college education. They’re doing all those things. But it’s actually the opening of my book, I read a book called permission to spend, which is really it’s basically retirement planning 101. It’s meant for it’s meant for client use. But it finishes with talking about, you know, the role of annuities and life insurance and guaranteed actuarial products in there to give you permission to spend and it opens with the line, you will be afraid to spend. And you could even put yourself in their shoes today. Even if you’re in your 40s you could say, you know, imagine that you AI to AI took over and white collar jobs no longer exist, right? And all the all the blue collar jobs are filled to So fortunately, you have $1.5 million, or whatever that number is. And now you have to live off that for the rest of your existence on this planet. Will you be afraid to spend would you be terrified of over overdoing it? Yes, you know, you’re not gonna that’s the situation a 65 year olds in you know, at retirement, whether whatever their number is 2,000,003 minute, whatever, that whatever their net worth is, unless they’re ultra high net worth, they’re going to be terrified to spend that money because they’re not going to make any more. And if you know, a bomb goes off somewhere across the globe, or there’s a major market crash or there’s a long term care, you know, health event that comes up or more people just start living to 130 because of the medical advances like people will be terrified to spend that money. And I think that’s, that’s the role of just the unsexy. I actually kind of think it is sexy, but, but, but, you know, guaranteed products that have been around for, you know, they predate pretty much anything else out there, you know, products that have been issued for hundreds of years, you know, those are the ones that are really the cornerstone of a good financial plan. And it’s, they take the place of guarantees that used to be there for a lot of American workers like pensions and like, and like some of those programs that are just becoming harder and harder to come by as as people shift the risk to employees.

george grombacher 9:38
So people are still buying annuities and still buying life insurance.

Speaker 1 9:44
They still are but what’s what’s interesting to me is that sales actually have been slowly declining over the last decade or so if you look at numerous studies, even on an inflation adjusted basis, sales have gone down a little bit, you know, in the permanent life insurance space For the last decade, and I think beyond that, and I think it’s part of how we started the conversation, people are focused a lot on, you know, we’ve had massive bull markets and swings and technical, technological advances. And I think people are not really focused on that. Probably just out of ignorance, they just don’t, they don’t know about, they don’t know what they’re going to care about when they’re in their 60s and 70s. And I think it’s up to advisors to have those tough conversations and paint that picture, and put them and put them in that scenario.

george grombacher 10:30
In terms of the evolution of these, of these financial of these insurance products that are helping to give people confidence and giving them permission to spend, that are based on actuarial data and analysis and projections, those products have changed, and those products are still there. And now there’s all kinds of for lack of a better term fancier financial products, what do you think about that evolution? Kind of the state of the industry?

Speaker 1 11:02
Um, it’s a great question. It’s a, it’s a big question, because there’s a lot, there’s a lot out there. You know, I think there’s in the permanent life insurance space, there’s really two camps, there’s kind of the whole life world, you know, these are the products that have been time tested, you know, they, they’re, these major mutual companies have been paying dividends to civil war times, you know, that’s kind of the tried and true true guarantees. There’s a lot of flavors out there, though, usually in the Universal Life space, where, you know, it’s tied to, it’s either invested in the market directly, or it’s tied to an index. And those are dangerous. It’s not that they can’t work. And it’s not that anyone’s selling them, you know, to be unscrupulous. It’s just, they’re overly complex, and there’s no guarantees at all, you know, the accompany company basically has control over all of the expenses, all the fees, they can charge you whatever they want, they can lower their guarantees, if they’re offering one today, or they’re lowering their rates, if they’re offering it today. And that’s, that doesn’t make any sense to me, you know, you can invest very tax efficiently, very cost effectively. Anywhere else, you know, even on your own with ETFs. With managed managed accounts, there’s, there’s a lot of great ways to invest, effectively. So some of these newer designs, I think, are problematic, because they’re sold as some kind of better investment, which, if you’re really understand that that’s not really possible, it can’t possibly, it’s the same strategies you could invest in elsewhere. But now you add in, you know, mortality costs and expense charges of companies. And if that company is struggling, it’s on you, you know, so I think that’s the evolution that I’ve seen over the last, you know, I’ve studied this a lot, it really started about 40 years ago, in the high industry environment of the early 80s, when they started to engineer these products to take advantage of, of the market at the time, versus, you know, investing over very long periods of time and kind of averaging that out. So, I think my take on it is, sometimes it creates a lot of opportunity. Now, now that these new flexible products are available. But it’s definitely a buyer beware situation. These require heavy management. And usually at the end of the day, you know, your best case scenario, and most of these is going to be what you get in a true guaranteed mutually issued whole life policy. So what’s the point? Why why expose hundreds of 1000s of dollars, if not millions, to that kind of risk? When when you have something that’s guaranteed to work? With true upside? If, you know, if, if interest rates rise, you participate in all that?

george grombacher 13:36
Why would anybody do that?

Speaker 1 13:39
Yeah, well, I don’t know. I don’t. And frankly, you know, there’s so for some advisors, it’s easier to sell it’s, you know, it’s it’s, you can you can sell a lot of flexibility, you can talk about downside protection and upside potential. And there’s a lot of a lot of, you know, Buzz phrases that get thrown out there. But when you really pull out the pricing of how the actuaries build these things, you know, your upside potential is actually pretty dismal relative to what you can get elsewhere with none of that risk.

george grombacher 14:07
So this is one of those tough conversations that is really difficult to have, from my perspective, that it’s like the best of both worlds, theoretically speaking, oh, it’s it’s the benefits of permanent life insurance with the sexiness and upside of the markets. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, I don’t think it’s ever going to look like the illustration of the hypothetical thing that the person shared with you. And to your point, it might get really, really, really ugly, down the road when you’re 90 years old, and you’re taking money out of these products, and is it going to work the way you expected it to and do you know what’ll happen if it doesn’t? Those are a lot harder conversations to have.

Speaker 1 14:53
Yeah, the way I actually boil it down into three categories, so the thing that permanent life insurance does better than a other things is it gives you better risk, access and taxation. So we’ll cover those three, we’ll go backwards. So taxation, you know, life insurance is great, because you can basically fund it on an unlimited basis, as long as the carrier will give it to you, and multiply your money by money by many times over the course of your life and never owe the IRS a dime. Because it all pays out via permanent death benefit, income tax free, so you can 10x your money and not owe the IRS a dime. It’s one of those amazing tax advantages. The other ones access, you know, you can get pretty good tax advantages in Roth, or other other types of accounts. But there’s limitations on how much you fund it. There’s also limitations on when it comes out, you gotta wait till 59 and a half, there may be required minimum distributions. EPO, so there’s usually no major limitations on the access, you know, in those kinds of accounts, because they’re for a specific purpose, even a 529, it’s for a specific purpose. With life insurance, you can use it whenever you want. So we see a lot of business owners using it as their preferred vehicle because they can grab money from it for opportunistic things along the way. But the third one is risk. So with with like, for instance, whole life insurance, dividend paying participating whole life insurance, it’s generally backed by a big portfolio of bonds at the insurance company. And that all the all that performance of that big bond portfolio with some extras flows through to the policy owner via the dividend that’s that’s how it works, it’s essentially just kind of an average of what bonds have done for the last 15 years or so. But the contract guarantees the cash values must rise every single year and will eventually equal the death benefit. So you have all this guaranteed floor in there, plus all this upside potential based on the dividends that had been paid since, like I said, civil war times for most of these big ones. With the variable ones, or the universal life, or even the Indexed Universal Life contracts, you’re essentially investing in the same thing you can invest in elsewhere, right, you can buy mutual funds and ETFs. And you can even buy a call option spread, which is, which is how they price the IUL is and all this stuff. But there’s no guarantees, right? There may be a one year guarantee or something like that on performance. But over time, there’s no guarantee that after 30 years, all that money you’ve paid in won’t go to zero. And it’s because of all those rising mortality costs and the company’s ability to to, you know, hamper your performance because they’re not performing as well as they wanted to. So I think that’s the difference is you can actually get a better bond at a whole life, you can get a better risk adjusted return, you can get bond like returns over time, but none of the risk that is inherent in bonds, and probably more pronounced today than it has been in 40 years because of the rate environment. Whereas with these variable options that are tied to the market and sound really sexy, you’re gonna get the same performance as elsewhere, but with a lot more charges and fees and volatility and potential for loss. So I think I think that’s the takeaway for me is, let’s go to the better risk adjusted return. That’s what the that’s what the quants on Wall Street are trying to figure out. How do we how do we for the same level of risk, get better returns or for the same level of return, minimize the risk, and then take and then shoot for the stars in the market elsewhere outside of these insurance contracts, where you can probably get a lot better performance over time, manage fees, and taxes better? Stuff like that.

george grombacher 18:12
I love it. Those are three compelling reasons or features, whatever the term is, who is it for? And who is it not for whole life?

Speaker 1 18:24
Well, I think I think most of the executives in these companies would want me to tell you, it’s for everybody. I don’t think so I think it’s it’s generally for the folks, you know, the six figure incomes and above. You know, for you to buy a meaningful death benefit, meaningful size contracts, and these you’re typically looking at at least several $1,000 a year that you’re paying into it for it to make a big difference in your financial picture. What’s really interesting, moreover, is it’s not a need, it’s a want like term insurance, if you love your family is kind of a need, right, you can buy a lot of death benefit for cheap. And if you’re if you’re the one in a million that dies that year, then your family’s taken care of right? I think in these sales, or in these cases, I should say it’s more about a desire. You know, for me, I’ve got two boys, I’m not looking to make them multimillionaires, but I want to leave them better off than I am, you know, my my spouse in retirement, I’m going to want to make sure that she’s taken care of that, to me, that’s an obligation in my mind, but that may not be the case for everybody. So I think it’s for people that want to make sure that certain things happen. And for me, I want to make sure that there are legacies that are paid I want to make sure my spouse is taken care of. So with that in place this is the whole concept is it gives me permission to then spend annuitize you know and live off of the decades of saving and investing that I’ve that I’ve put in versus needing to essentially be my own insurance company and hoard wealth. For those purposes. When that could be mine. When that could win that could be something that I can spend it enjoy so I think it’s that I mean, that’s the crowd it’s for it’s don’t have to be wealthy, but it’s kind of them the mass affluent crowd and above the ones that are going to have probably a seven figure net worth total, including home and everything in retirement, which that used to be a big number. But you know, a million bucks today as your total net worth isn’t, isn’t what it used to be.

george grombacher 20:18
No doubt. In terms of the carrier, or the company that’s marketing these products, how does one make sure they’re buying from the right one? A good one?

Speaker 1 20:32
That’s the hardest question, honestly, it’s hard, I think it’s very hard for a consumer to know where they’re getting their advice from. I have found working with 1000s of advisors in my career that their biases and the advice that they give tends to be tends to rely heavily on where they were born in the business. So you know, for me, part of the reason that I have this this angle is because I was plucked right out of college by one of these big Mutual Life Insurance Companies. So I was taught that financial security first and then we’ll go talk about the fun stuff. Whereas if you were born into an investment house, you might not have ever had those conversations about death and dying and long term care. And you may just be gathering assets and talking about, you know, the Sharpe ratios on your portfolio, if that could have been your, your upbringing. So it really depends on where they came from. So for me, you know, it depends on what you want. If you just want an advisor to optimize your portfolio, you know, go to one of the big investment houses, you’re gonna find people that can do a really good job for you there. If you want more holistic planning, where you actually want to talk about generational transfer of wealth, and, you know, putting protections in place and you’re more conservative or distrusting of just putting money in markets, then I think you probably want to lean towards somebody that’s affiliated with one of those big, big old Mutual’s and fortune 100. Companies, you know, MassMutual, Northwestern Mutual, New York Life penduduk, there’s tons of them out there, there’s not there’s no shortage of and there’s probably about a dozen really good ones that I would direct people to. But I think where you’re where your advisors affiliated is very much going to, I think, dictate the kind of advice that yet and hopefully they may be capable of giving.

george grombacher 22:11
Love it? Well, Tom, we’re ready for that difference making tip, what do you have for us?

Speaker 1 22:18
Difference making tip, um, I think that conversation with your future self is the important one. I think if you if you if you fast forward in wherever you are in life, whether you’re just approaching retirement or you’re, you’re much younger, it is, it is pretty much up to you to put in the work and make sure that you’re carving out a PC, your paycheck and saving enough. But where you put the money is just as important as how much money you save. And if you can begin with the end in mind and define, you know, what, what you want retirement to look like what level of income, you want to be predictable, versus just probable market based, you know, what kind of legacy you do want to leave to your kids, or I always call it children’s church and charity, you know, whatever, whatever kind of legacy you want to live or leave, and what kind of obligations to your spouse and the fact you can, to the extent you can define that and start building in some of those guarantees and other buckets of money early on, you’re gonna be better off than the folks who are scrambling to do it at Advanced ages, when some of those options may be off the table at that point.

george grombacher 23:27
Well, I think that that is great stuff that definitely gets come up. I love it, having a conversation with your future self, the reality that where you put your money is just as important as how much you are saving, and creating a predictable stream of income or financial situation versus probable. I think that that is definitely preferable. So thanks. Thanks so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? How can individuals engage? And more importantly, potentially, how can how can financial professionals engage with you?

Speaker 1 24:01
Yeah, so I think for individuals, best place to start would would you can follow me on social media, Tom Walton, you know, Tom wall talks, you’ll find my handle elsewhere, permission to spend.com would be a place that you can grab a copy of my book for free, all I got to do is pay shipping. It’ll kind of get you there and get your contact contacted with me. For advisors, I actually host a group called Whole Life masterminds, which is really focused on you know, carrying the torch for that protection. First part of our industry, you know, folks that are looking to get better at helping clients understand where this fits get better at their language and explanation to the clients, their technical ability working through it. So it’s a group that I operate that introduces folks to top 1% advisors through our space, and my 20 years of experience and and academics. So that’s a whole life masterminds.com If you want to check that out.

george grombacher 24:54
Excellent. Well, if you enjoyed as much as I did, show time, your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who all So appreciates good ideas, certainly, for the financial professional in your life, send this along to them as well. If you are interested in learning more about everything we’ve been talking about, from a consumer or personal standpoint, go to permissioned. Permission to spend.com. Pick up a free copy of the book, I think that you’ve got a good feel for Tom the way he communicates information, and it’s easy to understand, and I think it makes a lot of sense. You can find them on social media as well. I’ll link all those in the notes. If you are a financial professional, check out whole life masterminds.com And learn how to do a better job of talking about these important concepts and helping people find that financial security and whatever their financial situation is. Thanks again, Tom. Thank you, George.

Unknown Speaker 25:46
Appreciate it.

george grombacher 25:47
Till next time, a friendly reminder. It’s never going to be anybody more interested in your financial success than you are. So act accordingly.



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