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In this episode Steven is joined by Christine Luken to talk about the emotional side of money, and of course taxes! Christine is a Financial Coach focused on working through the emotional areas of a client’s money including taxes and shares her experience and perspective in helping to provide peace of mind along with positive financial outcomes. Of course we would all love money to be logical and easy but real life is messy. Understanding how to address the emotional side of these issues can help Advisors elevate their client’s experience throughout the process.
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Hello everyone, and welcome to the next episode of the Retirement Tax Services podcast, Financial Professionals edition. I’m your host, Steven Jarvis, CPA, and this week on the show we’re going to take a little bit different approach and talk about the emotional side of money and the emotional side of taxes. And here with me to help do that, have Christine Luken as my guest who is a financial dignity coach. Christine, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much for having me.
I’m going to start with a question I’m sure some of my audience will have as well, which is what is a financial dignity coach?
Well, so I’ve got the trademark for Financial Dignity because to me that’s really the end result that I want for my clients. It is a practical thing. It is a numbers thing, but it’s also a deep-seated feeling for people, and so I loved that concept so much. I trademarked it. I have several programs by that name. Yes, I call myself the Financial Dignity Coach because to me that is really the end result that people, they feel good about the numbers that they see on paper, but they also feel that sense of peace and accomplishment deep inside because there’s so many people that don’t. They’ve got anxiety, they’ve got shame about their mistakes, and money is emotional, right? That’s what we’re here to talk about.
Yeah, money is emotional and my experience, taxes are exponentially more emotional than money in general and just how we’re all taught around them, our experiences with them. This is certainly an area, it’s fascinating to me when we look at taxes under the umbrella of money because it’s not the same sense of kind of dissonance when if I feel like I don’t have as much invested as somebody else, because I’m probably guessing at what I think they have invested anyways, but it’s not the same negative feeling when I feel like I don’t have as much as someone else as what will come along with if I perceive that I’m in any kind of trouble with the IRS that I had to pay extra in taxes, that I got a notice from the IRS that says I owe penalties or interest that heaven forbid I have back taxes that are due.
These are all things that evoke this terrible emotion in people that they want to hide it, they want to suppress it. They don’t want to tell even their financial professional about it sometimes. I’ll have clients come to me and all of the clients I work with have a financial advisor in their life, but especially on some sensitive tax issues, they just don’t want to even admit that that’s part of their life. They feel like it’s such a huge failure, such a bigger failure than, Hey, I wasn’t investing or setting as much aside as I wanted to. Being in trouble with the IRS is so much more powerful in a negative way for people.
Absolutely, it is. In fact, I had a whole entire episode on my Money is Emotional podcast called “Help! I’m Terrified of Taxes”. We basically just demystified the whole subject of what happens if you owe the IRS because people are just so terrified of, and I told people, I’m like, look, it’s not illegal to owe the IRS money. They’re not going to come and take your firstborn child. But we have that level of fear many people have around their taxes, and I think part of it is because taxes are very confusing. I mean, I haven’t done my own taxes. I pay somebody else to do it, and as you and I were talking, even before we started, I said, Hey, I help people with money for a living, but I got a D in tax accounting. I pay somebody else to do this for me because I have a complex financial life and I don’t want to make a mistake that’s going to cause me to overpay my taxes.
That’s one of those fascinating things to me that taxes can feel like a political debate and in my experience, they’re only political when you’re talking about someone else’s taxes. When I work with a taxpayer, regardless of their political beliefs or where they live or how they vote when it comes to their own tax situation without exception, everyone wants to make sure they only pay what they absolutely have to. Christine, I know that with this focus, especially on the emotional side of money, you work with a lot of people. I think you specifically seek out and help people who are in these maybe borderline traumatic situations as far as what their money life looks like. So I’d be curious, where do you start when a client comes to you, whether it’s a new client or an existing client, somebody comes to you and says, Christine, I got this letter from the IRS. It says I owe all of this money. What am I ever going to do? Where’s your starting point in helping somebody resolve that?
Yeah, well, first of all, we definitely want to get their tax professional involved because tax is not my specialty. Now, helping them to regulate their emotions around the taxes is a big deal. Most of us have not been taught how to properly process and regulate emotion. I mean, the fact of the matter is in society, unless you’re super happy or maybe if you’re angry and you’re in a wrestling ring, that’s really the only acceptable outbursts of emotion other than maybe low level anxiety. So when people have these very strong emotions, we’ve been taught to stuff them or ignore them, and that’s not healthy. And so one of the things that I do is I help my clients, first of all, let’s pinpoint the source of what’s making us so emotional. Let’s bring the facts to light, because many times, especially when it comes to anxiety, it’s because they don’t know what’s going to happen.
And once we find out what’s going to happen, that almost immediately dials back the anxiety because then we can actually do something about it. So that’s really the first step. And many times people say like, oh my gosh, well, if the worst-case scenario happens, that’s terrible. And I’m like, well, look, in any situation, there’s a spectrum of how things are going to play out because we don’t have control over the whole situation typically. And so we say, all right, what is the absolute worst thing that could happen? And if that happened, what would we do? Well, anything else that happens in between the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario, we’ve already emotionally handled it. I mean, in our head we’ve rehearsed, okay, this is the worst-case scenario. This is what we would do. Anything else that happens that’s better than that, perfect.
Right? We already know that we can handle the worst-case scenario, and I think the thing that it’s really important for financial professionals to understand is that we cannot take emotion out of our money completely. It’s biologically impossible, and a lot of people don’t understand this, but the seed of our emotions is in the same part of our brain where decisions are processed. So if we say to a client, just take emotion out of this decision and do the logical thing or actually ask them to do something that’s impossible. However, we can learn how to let our emotional volume come down so that it’s not drowning out the voice of reason. So one of the analogies I like to use is you can imagine your voice of reason is kind of like the classical music station that’s playing. It’s real low and soft and it’s always in the background.
It’s always there, but then your emotions are like that top 40 station right? There can be a headbanger song on one minute and then some soft, sweet, sad love song on the next. It’s really got this fluctuation. A lot of times I’ll tell my clients, when you’re about to make any financial decision, check in with your emotions and ask yourself, where is my emotional volume? Because if our emotional volume is loud, we want to wait for that to come down so that we can hear both the voice of reason and our emotions. So it’s not about shutting the emotions off because you and I both know there’s been situations where on the surface, logic would tell you this is the right decision, but you had this feeling in your gut that something is off and something’s not right, and I don’t know about you, but every time I ignore that, something bad happens.
So it’s not that we should turn off our emotions entirely, but we want to make sure the volume comes down, and even if it’s positive emotions because we know you can walk into your favorite store and all of a sudden your emotional volume is loud. I mean, it might be really positive, right? Like, oh, look at all this awesome stuff that’s on sale, but whenever our emotions are loud, that’s when we kind of need to have that caution. So even just having that conversation with your clients to say, check in with both your emotions and your logic and make sure that you’re consulting both of them.
Yeah, really great perspective in there, Christine, one of the things that stood out to me in how you describe that going back just a minute to helping clients understand ranges of outcome, it can be really easy as a financial professional when you see situations all of the time to discount how emotional they really are. So I see IRS letters probably more often than I would like to. I’m always happy to help my clients. I wish the letters would go away entirely. So for me, it’s not the same emotional reaction when I see that IRS letter because I know what the range of outcomes are, but I always have to remind myself, okay, when I’m talking to this client, I have to make sure that I am acknowledging and helping them understand the same things that I already know. For a lot of people, especially if they’ve never received a letter from the IRS before, that is an anxiety-filled moment, their mind probably immediately goes to, oh, I’m going to jail.
I’m going to lose my house. My firstborn child is being taken from me, whatever that might look like. In fact, just within the last couple of months, had a relatively new client come to me and they had just gotten an audit letter from the IRS for a previous year that we hadn’t worked together on, and we were on a video call. I could tell there was a lot of emotion that was going on, and it wasn’t because of the dollar amount involved. It was very high-earning clients. Ultimately, they could even tell that it looked like they were going to owe some taxes, but this wasn’t an issue of, oh, can we afford it? It was in their mind there was some terrible outcome that was possible, and so before we got into any of the details, I said, Hey, let’s just take a second to acknowledge what is and what is not possible from this.
I said, this might sound silly, but no one is going to jail based on anything that’s in this letter, and I could see this wave of relief that sure, it was probably only a really small part of them that was actually worried about that, but they had never had this happen before and they’ve seen movies or they’ve heard it online or whatever it is where it’s possible that people go to jail from tax evasion. And so we talked about that for just a minute. We didn’t spend a ton of time on it. We didn’t go deep on it. I said, but hey, in this situation here, I said, you tell me if I’m interpreting this wrong. I described back to them what it looked like had happened. They said, oh, yeah, you’re spot on. There’s absolutely something we need to correct. So no one is going to jail.
No one’s getting fired, no one’s losing their house. I said, worst case outcome here is that you’re going to have to pay some back taxes and there’s going to be some penalties and interest. This isn’t a permanent mark on your record that affects your ability to vote or anything like that. Even over the top, a little bit silly about it because it just helps relieve some of that tension and then we can talk about what actually might happen. I haven’t used that analogy before, but I really like it. That helps us turn the emotional volume down so that we’re not distracted by these worst-case scenarios that aren’t even possible, but when we’re new to a situation, they can feel very real, and if no one acknowledges them for us, they’re still going to fester in the background.
Yeah. Well, and I love that you said that. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. You know they’re thinking it, and many times financial professionals, they don’t want to address that elephant in the room, whether it’s the fear of taxes or whether it’s the obvious tension between couples over something. Many times as I’m starting my coaching sessions, especially when I know there’s something that we’re going to be talking about that can be stress invoking, certainly the first time or two that I meet with people and they know, okay, I’ve got to get financially naked with you and show you everything, and I’m really freaked out about that. I’ll say, you know what? This first meeting can be a little anxiety-provoking. So what I’d like us to do is let’s just all close our eyes and we’re going to take three deep breaths together, and I walk them through taking three deep breaths together, and then when we’re finished, I’ll be like, okay, all right. Let’s get to it. And you can just see that that negative emotional volume has immediately come down just by taking those three deep breaths.
I like the proactive step because especially when we talk about taxes, when we talk about some of the examples we’ve been giving, these all can feel very reactive, but there are always proactive things that we can do as well. Not that we’re going to guess, I can’t tell my client, Hey, in 2025, you’re going to get audited by the IRS. We’ll be ready for that. That’s not what I’m talking about. I say I’m being proactive because you’re talking about having them take 3 deep breaths before you actually even know their full situation. This is just an anticipation that these can be difficult conversations, and so what I work with clients, the reality is most of my clients will never hear from the IRS and even with the IRS hiring tens of thousands of people, it’s still the rare exception that you’re going to get audited, that you’re going to have any kind of communication from the IRS, but I still set that expectation that that is possible.
I’m not trying to scare my clients, Hey, in the unlikely event that the IRS reaches out to you, I’m going to be there for you. So I’m letting them know that this is possible so it’s less surprising or less shocking when it happens, and they immediately know that the next step is, oh, Steven wants to be involved in this. So now they don’t have to sit there and decide, should I call Steven? Is this something that he’s going to do for me? I’ve set that expectation ahead of time, of here’s what’s possible and what we’re going to do about it, and I’ve had clients tell me that that made such a difference when they actually had that experience because so much of the anxiety that the volume never even got turned up, maybe it got turned up a little bit. We were not emotionally void people, but it got turned up a little bit and not to 10, it’s okay. We know what comes next.
Yeah. Well, and I love that you say that because I think many times people put financial professionals on a pedestal thinking that these people are so smart and they never make any mistakes with their money. Being transparent about our own struggles and feelings about money helps to bring us to more of an equal footing. Of course, we know more about money than they do. It’s our profession, but it doesn’t mean that we’re better than them. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfect or that we’re infallible. I have a habit of being transparent with my clients. I talk about it all the time on my podcast. I wrote an entire book on my own money mistakes as I crashed and burned financially in my mid twenties, which is what led me to financial coaching. But I also love that you use humor as well because I think that is a really good way to build bridges with our clients and just to kind of say like, Hey, yeah, Guido is probably not coming for your finger if you get this IRS letter, I know it kind of feels that way in your body, but I promise you that’s not going to happen.
There can be that perception of, Hey, I’m going to work with a professional because they’re perfect to know everything, which again, whether it’s the overall relationship or especially on taxes, when we get into specific areas, we’re not trying to scare clients, but there are tax strategies that we often talk about in this podcast that are often applicable to clients that while the strategy is perfectly valid, there are things that can tend to go wrong, whether it comes to IRS reporting or what the custodians do or the movement of money or whatever it is. And so this is again, where I think there’s a tremendous amount of value from the overall client experience. You talked about peace of mind earlier, those are all things that come in addition to any tangible tax savings or tangible investment returns or whatever it might be that we’re working on together, and so being able to set the expectation up front to say, Hey, Christine, we’re going to work on this strategy together, and in our experience here are some of the places where we might get questions from the custodian.
We might get questions from the IRS, just so you know, we’ve been through this countless times with our clients, and even if a question comes up, we’re going to be here for you the whole way. So again, I am seeding that this might not go perfectly, but I’ve got your back, and this isn’t a way to try to make excuses for yourself or give yourself a get out of jail free card. We’re trying to set our clients up, not just to have the end result that we want, but to have a good experience getting there. I try to reinforce as often as I can to advisors I work with to my end clients that part of what we’re trying to deliver on top of tangible tax savings is that peace of mind, is that sense of certainty that I have someone on my team who’s going to take care of me.
Yeah. Well, and I think also the willingness to pull other people, other financial professionals together into a situation, and so that is something that I do regularly because I don’t handle taxes, I don’t handle investments. There’s a lot of times where I am meeting jointly with my client and their tax advisor or their financial professional because I’m primarily working with them. Yes, on the emotional side of money, but also on the practical side of their day-to-day, personal finances with the budgeting, the debt reduction, the savings goals, et cetera, and so just knowing that it’s like, Hey, my goal is that we do the best thing for you. The goal is not that I protect my ego as the expert because I’m always growing. I’m always evolving, I’m always learning, and I’m going to bring my best self to this relationship with you, and I don’t know it all, but I know people who know. And so for me, it’s always about the collaborative approach. I have a lot of financial professionals that refer clients to me because they see their clients are struggling with the emotional side of things, and they honestly don’t have the bandwidth or the knowledge and experience to help them to the level that they really need with that portion of their finances, and that’s perfectly fine. It takes a village. Right.
Christine, you mentioned sitting down with the clients and their tax professionals. The tax industry is not particularly well known for its willingness and ability to effectively collaborate with other financial professionals. I get questions all the time from advisors of how do I come to the table and have these effective relationships? So I would love to hear from your experience, what have you found to be effective? What are challenges you’ve been able to overcome as you try to come to the table with your client and their tax professional?
Well, first of all, I proactively build relationships with both financial advisors and tax professionals because sometimes when my clients come to me, especially in divorce situations, they have lost their financial professional in the divorce and they’re looking for new people. When I come to the table and I’m talking to these professionals and I let them know, look, I am not stepping on your toes. I am handling the portion that you don’t want to handle. You don’t want to help your clients set up a personal finance. You don’t want to dive in and figure out what they’re spending on Amazon or where all their Venmo charges are going. You don’t want to be the one to talk about, Hey, you really shouldn’t be lending your 30-year-old son who is chronically unemployed money. You don’t want to get into those sticky discussions with your clients. Those are the things where you’re like, yes, please just let me do the tax return and you can handle this stuff, and I don’t handle any of those things. My firm doesn’t handle any of those things. So I think that also lets them know like, Hey, I am staying in my lane here and I don’t want to do what you do. I just want to make sure that we are supporting the client from all angles so that they’re making the best decisions for them both financially and emotionally.
So a lot of that comes back to just working with our clients of setting clear expectations, making sure we’re dispelling any preconceived notions that might be in there, and discussing ranges of possible outcomes there. I like that from a relationship building standpoint, Christine, this is obviously an area that you spend a lot of time on, both with consumers and financial advisors. We always, anytime I’m talking about a topic, I like to give people actions they can take to make sure they can do more, and so talk generally about how you see the progression of people learning about and then applying the emotional side of money and then share some of the resources and ways that advisors can follow up and follow along with what you’re doing specifically.
So I think just being open to the fact that whether or not you really want to dive deep into the emotional side of money with your clients, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the emotional factors because there’s a lot of things that are going on under the surface and behind the scenes, both things that happened to your clients when they were growing up. They could have had a parent who actually did get convicted of evasion or had something like that in their past. I have a client who, she had a parent who was basically a scam artist and was in prison multiple times, and so going to jail for financial misdeeds was an actual very real visceral fear for this person, even though this client was always doing everything above board, but there was still this shadow of fear there that it’s not apparent on the surface. And so just learning about these kinds of things, I always say there’s a story behind every number.
Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it.
So just that willingness to do that and just finding resources to help your clients. My podcast Money is emotional, is great for that. We cover a lot of different topics, so if you’ve got clients who are, they’re not good savers or they’re arguing with their spouse about spending or they are that financial enabler for their grown child, you can just take that episode and send it to your client and you don’t have to be the one that gives them the lecture, so to speak. You’ve got this trusted third party who is giving them the talking to, so you don’t have to.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s the emotional side of money is the name of your podcast.
It’s called Money is Emotional.
Money is Emotional. Thank you for correcting me there. We’ve always got to make sure we get the words in the right order, but for my audience, this is something they’re used to hearing and sometimes it can feel like it’s less connected, but I feel like one of your comments early on reinforces again, my constant refrain of even though we’ve been talking about the emotional side today, we’ve got to get into the real details. If you want to help somebody with their taxes in any way, even if it’s a small capacity, you’ve got to be looking at their tax return. You’ve got to help them, especially since money is so emotional, taxes are so emotional, it makes it hard for clients to accurately and objectively relay the reality of their situation. And so it’s not that it’s not well-intentioned, it’s not that there’s an integrity issue, it’s that when you lump all this together with the emotional side of things, if you’re just asking for people off the top of their head to say, oh, well, what was your tax situation? Or How’d that get reported? You’re not getting the reality of the situation. You’ve got to get into the details. That’s why they’re coming to you. That’s how you’re going to be able to help them get past these emotions and get to being able to take effective action and improve their situation.
Absolutely. Yeah, the numbers definitely tell the story.
Absolutely. Christine, I really appreciate your time coming on the show. Thanks for being here.
Thanks so much for having me. It was fun.
And to everyone listening, until next time, good luck out there and remember to tip your server, not the IRS!
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