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Ones and zeros aren’t always heroes

Shutterstock_161746904In 1984, an entire profession that had survived more or less intact for 600 years found itself facing a monumental, earth-shattering change. It was that year Apple Computer released the Macintosh. Laughably underpowered by today’s standards, it nonetheless represented the literal future of computing with its graphical user interface (something the consumer market had never seen before) and suite of creative software.

Quickly following its release, industrious programmers took advantage of the available printing abilities of the machine—robust for its time—and created the first desktop publishing software. Just like that, businesses, government agencies, churches and even families who once turned to professional print houses to design, typeset and print everything from flyers and post cards to catalogs, were able to bring at least the design portion of the equation in-house. Suddenly, everyone was a “designer.” It was a game-changer for markets, but it also led to a lot of truly awful design and typesetting, perpetrated by amateurs with little to no training in visual arts.

In that same vein, today’s technologies have made planning tasks such as investing and doing taxes as simple as clicking a few buttons and answering a few questions. “Define your risk tolerance!” “Tell us about your business income!” And then minutes later, the tablet or phone or desktop will crank out a very official-looking plan or return. Congratulations, you’re an expert!

Only no. No, they aren’t. Also, they might just have put their finances in severe jeopardy. And that stings a bit more than misspelling Aunt Vera’s name on the family reunion invitations they printed at home.

Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t to say these programs are bad. The efficiency, speed and control individuals can take in helping plan their own finances is good in many ways. The problem that creeps in is the lack of oversight by trained professionals.

“Oh, I do my own taxes on the internet,” and “I bought 50 shares of company X at noon and sold them that same afternoon for a profit,” are common things to hear around the watercooler or at parties. Leaving aside that people are unlikely to brag they’re being audited or lost money they didn’t have on a bad investment. There are innumerable silent ways their unguided tinkering could cause damage. The mistakes or poor decisions amateurs make when handling their personal finances might not be bank-busting horror stories. They could be as simple as failing to properly protect income and assets, not strategically planning around a life transition such as divorce or retirement or paying too much income tax due to lack of smart, proactive planning. 

As a CPA, your familiarity with your clients’ personal and financial status can help you provide that added guidance. Your clients enjoy the feeling of control these technologies give them, and there’s really no reason to steer them away completely. Instead, let them know the value you can add to what they’re already doing.

As sophisticated as finance programs have become, they cannot alert users to the consequences of their choices. They don’t often suggest options, alternatives, or take into account factors such as goals, life stage and upcoming transitions. Those remain in the realm of trained professionals.

You are your clients’ trusted adviser. Embrace this role and help them understand there’s immense power in your expertise. But first, they have to know you have it. If you aren’t sure how to start talking to clients about your planning services, visit our Planning and Tax Advisory Services webpage to get tips and access to free resources and tools.

And if you truly want to demonstrate expertise, you have options. Show your knowledge a la carte by earning a certificate in your focus area(s). Or, better yet, become a CPA/PFS and be recognized, with this CPA-exclusive credential, as someone who can provide your clients with the most respected guidance in financial planning.

Technology will always allow us to do more, faster. But it can’t help guide your clients in making the best decisions for where they are in their lives. For that, they need you.

Adam Junkroski, Lead Manager, Communications--Tax, PFP and S&C, PA, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants 

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