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Jean-Luc Bourdon
Jean-Luc Bourdon
 

Money, Advice and CPAs

How to make the word association obvious to everyone.

July 12, 2010
by Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS

Money is a wonderful and deceivingly simple convenience. Though individuals run quickly into situations benefiting from a CPA’s expertise, many of them find it difficult to seek and take advice. Quirks of modern life do not make it any easier.

Money Starts Off Easy

In a barter transaction, value is exchanged: say apples for a haircut. Money is simply a symbolic place-holder that splits barter into two transactions: (a) the creation of value and (b) the use of value. For example, apples for $15, and then $15 for a haircut.

The fission of barter seems innocuous enough. Yet, it unleashed a chain reaction of atomic scale, which mushroomed into a financial world continuously struggling to contain its own complexity. Case in point, the recent financial meltdown showed that many consumers, sometimes (mis)guided by professionals, could not make an essential financial decision: choosing a suitable mortgage.

“In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see [that it] is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time — literally — substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it,” said Peter Druker, well before the recent financial crisis.

The Advice Needed Is Available

Managing personal financial choices requires more than just information: It takes potent advice distilled from a blend of knowledge, perspective and experience. Certainly, the kind of advice CPAs dispense.

CPAs aren’t the only ones offering financial guidance, but we hold a unique position as the profession with the long-standing legacy of serving the public interest. In contrast, the hotly debated financial regulations illustrate the industry’s struggle to better align itself with consumers’ interests.

CPAs came about to bring order to a world in which money was only the first step towards complex financial systems (see CPAs, It’s Complicated). Today, CPAs are involved in a variety of ways in providing the financial guidance Americans need (see Being a CPA Is So Cool). Yet, for many individuals, advice is not only hard to implement (see CPA Advice’s Missing Link), it is hard to take.

Advice Is Hard to Heed

Of course, the difficulty to take advice has countless reasons. However, it is worth noting a few obstacles distinctive to our times.

  • The Internet combines two elements that make the best counsel unattractive. On the Web, anyone can find exactly what they want to hear. Secondly, it is available for free. As a result, some consumers do not see the point of paying for an opinion, which may not validate their own.
  • Technology provides the false hope that it can reduce any amount of complexity to a simple and relevant answer. For example, none of the hundreds of helpful financial calculators at dinkytown.com offers an opinion based on experience, judgment, perspective or knowledge of who you are and your circumstances.
  • Pop-star advisors handle complex money problems with sound bites. In time for a commercial break, some of them provide a resolute quick-fix to multifaceted problems. Providing counsel as entertainment passes over the value of thorough understanding and analysis.
  • The walls that separate the public from professionals keep growing as the regulatory and legal environment pushes all to pursue an increasingly defensive agenda. Small prints are everywhere, from the bottom of this article to our e-mails. CYA went from being a cute acronym to a national agenda. Because many professional relationships lack candor, some individuals forgo expertise and settle for straightforward advice from family, friends and peers.

Making It Obvious

To make the wise counsel CPAs provide obvious to everyone, we have to continue overcoming our deep-rooted aversion to promoting ourselves. Until 1978, Rule 502 of the AICPA’s Code of Ethics prohibited advertising. Only subtle types of promotion, like yellow page listings, were allowed.

Today, much has changed, except maybe for habits and need. Most CPAs do not need to drum up extra work. Yet communicating that Americans count on CPAs can simply be done in the public interest or to express professional pride. The AICPA Marketing Toolkit makes it easy to promote your practice and the profession. It offers media communication information, logos, brochures, online-marketing resources, a Marketing 101 education series and much more.

The specialized communities within the AICPA also offer specific resources important to promote the various roles CPAs play. For example, the Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) offers a social media toolkit and the Personal Financial Planning (PFP) section features its own marketing and media toolkit. Another way to communicate the value of CPAs is to volunteer for financial literacy. Again, there are an array of resources just a click away.

Conclusion

More than ever, money seems simple to handle, but quickly gets complicated. The growing number of difficult choices required to manage personal finance in this century leaves society unprepared for them: credit cards, insurance, mortgages, retirement planning, investments, education savings, taxes and more. Although the financial sector will always struggle to rein itself in, it is making slow progress towards placing the public’s best interest first. Meanwhile, many individuals find it challenging to seek, get and trust financial advice. CPAs, of course, are ready to help. I do not mean to preach to the choir. I am just suggesting we all sing loud enough for everyone to hear.


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Jean-Luc Bourdon, CPA, PFS is a wealth manager with Walpole Financial Advisors, LLC (WFA) in Goleta, CA. His opinions and comments expressed within this column are his own and may not accurately reflect those of WFA. This information is being provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment or tax advice. Nothing in these materials should be interpreted as implying the performance of any client accounts or securities recommendations. Bourdon volunteers as financial literacy advocate. He also currently serves on the UW-Platteville’s Distance Learning Alumni Advisory Board. All members of the AICPA are eligible to join the PFP section. For CPAs who want to demonstrate their expertise in this subject matter apply to become a PFS Credential holder.