Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When to Seek Professional Guidance?

How do you decide when to hand over some control in your life to a professional? When I was much younger, I did some work on my own cars. I had not yet injured my lower back. My knees still worked and automobiles like a 1968 Ford are pretty simple to figure out even for an amateur shade tree mechanic, like me. Times have changed. I can’t even see most of what is in the engine compartment of my 2010 Acura. I don’t know what the little black boxes I can see contain. I can’t even change the oil filter without putting the car on a lift. It is time to turn some control and decision making power (but not an abdication of personal responsibility) over to a professional. When I lived in Maryland I was fortunate to have a coworker who repaired and maintained cars in his spare time. He was very good, very cheap and most importantly, very honest. If he didn’t have the right tools or the expertise he would tell me what questions I should ask before I selected a professional shop to handle the problem.

There are some principles that can be generally applied in all such situations.

First of all look at the problem. How is your current approach working for you? Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

If what you are doing isn’t working, for God’s sake try something else.

What are your interests and expertise?

How much time are you willing to invest in finding your own path to a solution? After losing small amounts of money, listening to advice from supposed investment advisors who were actually mutual fund salesmen. I concluded I would never again pay someone to lose my money for me. I didn’t start with any expertise, so I decided to buy stocks the same way I bought stereo equipment, look for the best quality at the lowest price. I also learned that passion over time leads to expertise. I also learned that if you really want to remain ignorant (although I can’t imagine why everyone is not passionate about managing their investments) all you need to know is four words, Vanguard Life Cycle Funds.

How complicated are your problems?

Most people can do their own taxes. If all you are dealing with are a job, a house payment, and a 1099 from a credit union easy to use programs like TurboTax are more than sufficient. Do it yourself. If you are lazy or a little frightened by the increasing complexity of your tax returns, hire somebody from a company like H&R Block. I rely on my CPA; may she be blessed. Early on I concluded that I would never spend the time necessary to become fluent in the U.S. Tax Code. I depend (perhaps more than I should) on the expertise of this wonderful woman. This year my combined tax returns for the IRS and two states ran 88 pages. The claims on the various forms are all interconnected in ways I do not even want to understand. If something goes wrong, she is qualified to defend my return before the IRS. In fact, if that happens she will perform this service at no additional charge! I consider that money well spent.

What are the consequences of a mistake?

Back in the day I practiced Tai Chi as a martial art. Our instructor was qualified by an internationally recognized master (really) to teach Tien Shen Pai, Tai Chi, and Xing Yi. He spent a great deal of time and money studying alternative health modalities. His diet was an important part of his discipline. What he was doing with his body worked. He can perform physical feats that most men half his age can only watch on television. However, when my teacher or a member of his family needs to go to a doctor he is quick to visit his MD. If you are facing a serious or life threatening problem, whether it is legal or medical, don’t mess around. Seek professional guidance. If the consequences of your inaction are death, imprisonment, or bankruptcy don’t try to save money by doing it yourself. It just isn’t worth the risk.

How to find a professional?

There are two places to start the search for a professional the Internet and personal referrals. Internet reviews can be quite useful if there is a sufficiently large number to provide a critical mass of useful information. If a five star system is used, the two, three, and four star ratings will give you the most useful information. Normally these reviews tell you what and why the reviewer liked or didn’t like the person in question. For example, since my wife and I have recently moved to a new home we will need to find a new General Practitioner. I will be looking for an all purpose country sawbones, who will take care of business without a lot of time wasted on unnecessary tests or referrals to specialists, unless of course, I have an acute problem that is beyond his or her level of competence. My wife, on the other hand, is looking for a compassionate soul who will listen to her problems and spend the time necessary to explore different possible treatment options. If a review says, “Doesn’t care about my feelings.” It isn’t going to be a good fit for my wife. If the review says, “A very through professional who is an integral part of a network of specialists and laboratories.” Maybe I should look elsewhere.

By far the best means of locating a professional is personal referrals. If a knowledgeable friend recommends the services of a professional, that is gold. I asked one of the elders in my church I knew to be a CPA if he would do my taxes. He said he didn’t have the time to take on a new client. However, he knew a woman who used to be a member of our church whom he considered outstanding in every way. That is how I located my CPA.

There is a final question, chemistry. Even if a professional is competent, affordable, and ethical he might be a bad match for you. My Tai Chi instructor once introduced one of his assistant instructors to his master. He thought this very gifted woman would benefit from the expertise of a recognized expert in their field of study. This man has trained world champions. Unfortunately, this old Chinese master screams at and insults gifted students in order to push them past their self imposed limitations. He tells the less gifted they are doing just fine, while continuing to take their money. This woman is an unusually sensitive soul. She was so upset by the experience she never returned to the master’s studio even though our teacher explained that his teacher’s behavior was a great honor. If you just can’t work with the guy, whether he is a lawyer, doctor, accountant, car mechanic, or kung fu fighter don’t try to figure it out. Just move on. Life is too short.

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