How Life Changes Affect Client Behavior

Journal of Financial Planning: August 2021


Danielle Andrus is editor of the Journal of Financial Planning. She can be reached HERE.

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The scope of a financial planner’s work goes beyond constructing a financial plan that helps clients achieve their objectives. Increasingly, planners are filling a role similar to that of a therapist as they uncover their clients’ true motivations, fears, and biases that affect a financial plan’s success. Dubofsky and Sussman (2009) found that planners spend on average 25 percent of their time on nonfinancial issues, and that 74 percent of planners estimated they are spending more time addressing nonfinancial issues.

Planners who nurture long-term relationships with their clients will witness multiple transition periods that bring these nonfinancial issues to the forefront. When a life change affects how clients see themselves, it can trigger grief associated with role loss.

“Your role is your accepted place in any of the social constructs of your life. So your family, your workplace, your place of worship, your neighborhood, your friendship circle,” according to Amy Florian, CEO of Corgenius. When that role changes, it can cause clients to feel grief as they grapple with what their new role means for their identity.

“The more spheres in which the role changes, and the more attached you are to that role, especially if it’s part of your self-identity, the greater the grief,” Florian said. She added that role loss “rarely, if ever, occurs without other types of losses being involved as well. There often are multiple grief triggers operating at the same time.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but Florian warned that even happy news or changes that clients worked hard to achieve can trigger symptoms of grief. She pointed out that “grief occurs even during what we consider to be positive life changes, something you choose to do. You are still leaving something behind in order to move into that new role, and there’s sadness and uncertainty mixed in with the excitement and the adventure of it,” she explained.

Changing Roles

“Role loss accompanies just about every transition that occurs throughout life,” Florian said. Trusted advisers who nurture long relationships with their clients will encounter several of these over the engagement. In fact, some relationships may start with a client in the throes of role-loss-induced grief if a life event, such as an inheritance, compels them to seek professional advice.

Florian outlined seven common life events that lead to role loss.

1. Graduation. “First, a college or graduate student gets the diploma, and now they’re out in the work world. They’re away from the structure, the social opportunities, the lifestyle of being in school; they are no longer students, and that’s a huge change.”

Most planners will encounter these life changes through the children of their clients. Members of Generation Z are just starting to hit their early 20s. Like the millennials who entered the job market amid the economic uncertainty of the Great Recession, the pandemic generation is getting its start at a time of significant political, social, and economic change that has impacted the very nature of work.1 

2. Starting a family. “A couple gets married and leaves behind the single life,” Florian said. “That changes their role among their friends and in their family of origin. It affects their self-identity and the way they operate in the world. The same thing happens, but more intensely, when they have a baby, especially if many of their friends are still childless.”

3. Job changes. When clients get a promotion or new job, “they leave behind coworkers who were peers, and maybe sometimes they’re even in a position of authority over those coworkers now. Or perhaps the promotion takes them to a new building or even a new city, and they have to start over, figuring out their role in this company, in the social sphere, and in life in general.”

4. Marital status. One of the most profound examples of role loss is when a client loses a partner, whether through divorce or death.

“Every social construct changes,” Florian said. “They are now single instead of members of a couple. It changes their in-law relationships; some people are as close to their in-laws as they are to their own family of origin. Their friends don’t know how to act around them or how to have dinner or play cards with three or five. Their financial roles are different, as they become solely responsible for supporting themselves. Their parenting role is drastically different if there are children involved. Basically, it affects their entire way of being in the world, and it’s intensely difficult.”

5. Loss of income. Some clients, especially small business owners, may have struggled with downsizing or layoffs during the pandemic. Whether they were laid off themselves or had to let go of valued workers, clients may be feeling the loss of “not only their role in the workplace and in society as a productive contributor to the enterprise but also their treasured role as a family provider. This is often deeply ingrained in their self-identity. They may feel shame, guilt, anger, disbelief as they struggle to comprehend what happened to them.”

6.  Retirement. One of the biggest life changes that planners will encounter with their clients is retirement. For many planning relationships, a comfortable, happy retirement is the primary objective. However, hitting this milestone represents a major loss of identity for clients.

“When people ask what they do, they have to answer, ‘Well, I used to . . . ,’ and it just feels very different,” Florian said. “They have more freedom now, but then they find out you can only play so much golf.”

7. Caregiving. The National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP found that 53 million people provided unpaid care for someone in 2020. Of those, 24 percent were caring for more than one person. Those caregivers can get so wrapped up in caring for another person that it becomes part of their identity, according to Florian.

“When that person dies, they don’t know who they are anymore,” she said. “They don’t know what to do with themselves. They feel they have all this love and care to give, but there’s no one there to give it to.”

Some examples of role loss are not well-received by society, which can add to the feelings of grief or loss, according to Florian. For example, new parents struggling with the physical and emotional demands of caring for an infant may feel isolated and unable to speak honestly about their experiences.

“They have few people, sometimes no one, who can name those role losses for them and tell them they’re normal; that this is an expected aspect of transition,” she said.

What Planners Should Look For

Understanding the types of triggers that might lead to grief among their clients is only part of providing them with the support they need. Recognizing it might be harder, Florian pointed out, as “the way that grief manifests itself is partly dependent on the type and depth of the loss.”

Individual personalities, prior experiences with loss, and personal attachment to or identification with the previous role can all affect clients’ behavioral changes following a loss, she explained. Clients dealing with minor changes might not display any outward signs of stress at all, but major life changes can result in profound health or behavior changes.

“Usually, for instance, there can be deep questioning or evaluation about their purpose in life,” Florian said. “They may find difficulty concentrating—a lot of foggy thinking. Some are prompted to get super busy and do a lot of things in order to cope, while others get very emotional and have a hard time functioning. Many have difficulty sleeping.”

Clients may need their advisers to “act as a sounding board and a guide to figure out what they want in this new situation and what they can afford,” she continued. “They may even be unaware that it’s OK to grieve this change in role and, therefore, they try to deny or suppress any unwanted emotions.”

This is an opportunity for advisers to connect with their clients beyond the financial aspect of their relationship.

“If advisers can’t connect on these other levels, not just the financial level, sooner or later they’re going to lose that client because the client will find an adviser who can.”

Grief, Stress, and Health

Florian noted that grief isn’t just a psychological state. “It is a whole-body experience. Grief affects the client’s immune system; the deeper the grief, the more likely they are to become physically ill,” she said.

Clients in various stages of grief may start eating too much or too little, relying on alcohol or other substances, or stop exercising. This can lead to health issues like higher blood pressure, she said.

One tool that can help advisers identify the likelihood that a client’s stress level could lead to health problems is the Holmes-Rahe stress inventory.2  Developed by Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967, the assessment has been “verified and re-verified cross-culturally,” Florian said.

The questionnaire identifies common major and minor changes individuals might encounter in their lives: marriage, death, promotions, speeding tickets. The questionnaire also includes financial changes, such as taking on new debt, buying a house, or retiring. Each of these events has a numerical score assigned, the sum of which indicates how likely the client is to suffer a stress-induced illness.

“Cognitively, all the types of grief and loss affect our thinking ability and our upper-level reasoning,” Florian said. “More so with greater losses, the brain gets flooded with a hormone that pushes us down to survival level. That may mean that the client is just figuring out how they can breathe, how they can put one foot in front of the other, how they can make it to the next day, sometimes to the next hour.”

What Planners Can Do

The first thing advisers should do when they have a client who is struggling with a life transition is to help them “name their losses and normalize them. Once we have a name for things, it gives us a feeling of control or power. The adviser can point out that this life transition, like all life transitions, involves one of the known grief triggers—a change in role—and that may bring with it some unexpected emotion that is completely normal.”

Clients who are adjusting to a positive life change, like a new baby, might not be getting a lot of support from their peers and social networks. Advisers should encourage them to rely on the people who are supporting them.

“By telling them this, you are telling them that they can rely on you. If they believe you get it—you get them, you understand their experience, and you can help them feel like they’re normal—then they’re going to build a level of trust with you,” Florian said.

She suggests that advisers begin a dialogue with clients that focuses on how they’re experiencing the change that they’re going through.

“They need to tell their story,” she said. Planners can ask what they miss about their old role and what they’re excited about now. They can probe how their clients’ social networks and family dynamics have changed with their new role.

“Think about all the implications of their change in role, both positive and negative, and use questions like these that invite the client to share their experiences. So few people know how to do that, and it builds deep trust in your relationship,” she said.

The accepted wisdom that clients shouldn’t make major changes in the midst of a transition is well tested.

“Both scientists and financial regulators agree, it’s not a good time to be making major, especially irrevocable, decisions,” Florian said. Fuzzy thinking “is a physiological part of grief and transition; it is not a sign of weakness. It’s something we can’t control.”

This is another opportunity for planners to show up for their clients. “Tell them you will make sure that whatever must be done, gets done. Beyond that, you are their independent advocate, and they can always bring ideas to you, whether it’s their own ideas or those that are offered to them by others.”

Florian noted that “there’s nothing like grief or a life transition to make people come out of the woodwork to give advice.” When that happens, advisers are an important backstop to prevent clients from selling a home or making an investment that feels like it addresses their concerns in the moment, but creates new problems later.

“Tell them you are there for them to help them objectively evaluate, ‘Is this a good idea?’ And if it is, is it the right time to do it, or is it better to wait?”

Advisers can help their clients stay on track to meet their objectives and, just as importantly, identify new objectives that arise from the change. Checking in frequently during and after a transition is an important part of servicing these clients.

“When people are going through a transition, they may think one thing at one point, and three months or six months down the road, they think something else,” Florian said. “They may be better able to verbalize and envision what they want.” 


  1. See Pew Research Center. 2020, May 14. “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far.”
  2. See the American Institute of Stress. n.d. “The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory.”


AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving. 2020. “Caregiving in the United States 2020.” Washington, DC: AARP.

Dubofsky, David, and Lyle Sussman. 2009. “The Changing Role of the Financial Planner Part 1: From Financial Analytics to Coaching and Life Planning.” Journal of Financial Planning 22 (8): 48–57

General Financial Planning Principles