A Lesson In Turbulence: Trust Your ‘Financial Pilot’

Matthew Cuplin |

It was early in the morning June 25, and I was leaving Madison, Wisconsin, headed to join my family on vacation. They had a head start on our trip while I was home working. I couldn’t wait to see my wife and my three girls. The only thing that stood in my way were a couple routine flights, starting with a 45-minute “puddle jumper” to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, and then on to my final destination in Orlando.

Despite an overcast and rainy sky, the airport in Madison seemed calm, and the airport staff was busy helping passengers all focused on getting to their final destination, their goal for the day to arrive safely and get to the other side of their journey.

There was a little turbulence leaving the airport in Madison, but one of the pilots let us know to expect it and that it would be over soon. That felt reassuring, and shortly after that, the turbulence had passed. It was smooth sailing until we started our final descent into O’Hare. There were storms coming in off the coast of Lake Michigan, and we were about to go through them. The pilot shared that with his staff and the passengers, and I assumed it would be over quickly like at the beginning of the trip.

But minutes after the captain said we’d once again feel bumpy air, it happened. And believe me, this time was different. Suddenly the plane was being pushed around, and you could hear and feel the engines trying to keep up. At times, the bottom felt like it fell out from underneath us. I thought to myself that if I couldn’t see out my window because of all the clouds, how could the pilots see out of the plane? I began to get a little uneasy but remembered that the pilots rely on trusted instruments, great training and knowledge, a team of support in the air traffic tower, and a well laid-out flight plan to get passengers through moments like this.

The further we went, the more I worried as it was getting very turbulent. But clearly, it was too late to turn around, and jumping out — literally and figuratively — wouldn’t have been in my best interest even if all I wanted to do was get off that ride. I had to trust the plan the pilots laid out. After all, they understand things like this happen. And they knew we could get through it. Their staff looked calm, too, and that gave me some peace of mind. I needed to trust them. To trust their plan. To trust their team.

After what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes, we landed safely. At that moment, it hit me: I bet this is how my clients feel in times of market turbulence. They all want to arrive at their goal or destination, and sometimes the ride isn’t smooth. Sometimes they want to “jump out” even if they know it’s not in their best interest. But what they need is a good pilot who has a good plan to get them to their goal and a team of calm people to help them along the way. The ride might not always be smooth, but in the end, advisors and their clients have to trust that even if they can’t see the other side, the planning they do and sticking to it will get them there. It’s been proven time and time again to do so.

The benefits of having a financial plan in action have been evident a few times over the past 20 years. Throughout all of it, what history shows is that getting out of a well-laid investment plan when the markets are down (selling low) and then trying to time the perfect spot to get back in after they’ve recovered and feel “safer” (buying high) does not work. It’s simply guaranteeing you’ll lose money.

Understandably, sticking to a financial plan when markets are turbulent isn’t easy. It goes against every pre-wired and programmed urge in one’s body. It’s in humans’ DNA that to survive, they need to run from danger. So, fleeing the markets in a time of great distress is a natural urge.

However, that is where having someone to help you see the bigger picture or guide you through those challenging times is vital — because you need it. People are not wired to do it on their own, so having a financial “pilot” to help you navigate tough times and keep you on course when you most need it is probably the most important job they have. When the skies are clear and it’s smooth sailing, the plane can very adequately fly itself. But when the air gets choppy and the end destination cannot be seen clearly, having an experienced pilot to help you land safely on the other side is a great bet.

There are many great financial pilots. The important part for you is to make sure the one you work with has your best interests in mind and has a well-laid-out and documented plan for your trip. You also need to feel that when the air gets rough they will calmly use all they have at their disposal to land you safely on the other side.

I had never thought of myself as a “financial pilot,” but maybe that day, I earned my “wings” by sitting in a similar seat as those my firm helps serve. From there, my trip carried on uneventfully, thankfully, from that point forward until landing in sunny Orlando. On that flight, I wrote this article to capture what occurred. Because for as long as I’m a “financial pilot,” I’ll never forget the lesson I learned on that 45-minute flight.

The information provided here is not investment, tax or financial advice. You should consult with a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.