How do you get ahead in America?

By John S. Adams, CFP, UBS Financial Services

UBS logo“What creates financial success?” “How do you move from zero savings to financial security?” Those were my burning questions for many years. Now, things have improved personally. We have a city home with sweeping views of the skyline, and a country cabin set beside a quiet fishing stream. The desire to own a home and to have financial security springs from a circumstance I have not confessed to before writing this introduction. When I was young, I was homeless for a while. My parents were born to wealthy East Coast families and chose simpler lives as teachers. At age 16 after a quarrel with my father, I was out on the street, with nothing but a pack on my back. It was riches to rags in three generations.

I slept in parks and scrounged for food, working a few odd jobs and getting thin. I was fortunate to get by with work, however I did go to sleep hungry, which many in America have never experienced. There were several times I spent my last dime, not knowing where the next one would come from. There is no poverty like being without a home for the night, having no means and no education. It was a humbling and unforgettable experience.

Finally, a school friend’s parents took me in, and I slept on a basement couch for several months while finishing high school. That summer I worked nights at a grocery to pull together the first dollars to attend college and in the mornings, slept on an abandoned sofa atop an apartment building. This created an indelible imprint. From that point forward I asked the question “How do you get this right?” “How do you get ahead in America?”

For the next four years I worked my way through college. I figured out how to paint and roof houses, worked as a laborer loading ships on the docks and played music to earn my way and pay tuition. After college I married young and had a child. The financial pressure was on to provide for them. My wife was working on her degree, so it was up to me. I got a job with a firm that promised to train me as a “financial planner”, a brand new buzzword in 1982. Little did I know that management just wanted me to sell insurance and did not actually employ any financial planners!

After struggling to sell insurance and mutual funds during a deep recession, my luck turned. The company announced a new financial planning training program. When I told the local manager, he almost fell off his chair, as it was news to him. I was accepted to the program and began training to prepare financial plans for families.

Five years later I had earned the Certified Financial Planner™ certification from the College for Financial Planning. By then, I’d built and owned a small employee benefit company and developed a specialization in setting up retirement plans for small and mid-sized companies in the Olympia-Tacoma region of Washington State. It was a thrilling time from a career perspective as the 401(k) plan had recently been invented. Financial Planners help people to save and invest in a way that truly has long-term impact.

Over the years I’ve prepared financial plans for hundreds of individuals and couples. This has included blue-collar workers and executives of public companies. Every one taught me something. I kept asking the questions, “How do you get this right in America today?”, “How do you move from the bottom of the heap to attainment of financial security?”

On the way I learned systems — how to buy a house with little down payment, how to run a small business, how to avoid high-interest credit, and how to build up savings. I started four small independent businesses, and learned how to be an ‘intrapreneur’, the term for creating a business unit within a large corporation. I made some bad personal investments and made some good ones. I kept reading and learning and earned two Master’s degrees while working full-time. The academic work was valuable, but the personal investment losses and wins were the best teachers.

When working with clients, the conversation turned more and more to their question “How do we live a satisfying life with the resources we have?” And a key component of that was investing sustainably, as most people want a better world for their children and grandchildren. For 25 years now, sustainable investment management has been integrated with client financial planning.

After completing many financial plans, patterns emerged. Most of the people we work with don’t want a pile of money; they want to lead a satisfying life. And most have worked and created wealth incrementally, over long periods, while for a few results were quick — as with a business sale. And everyone went through times of stress and loss. There are families for whom I have helped multiple generations through life transitions.

For me, working up from nothing helped me learn each step on the ladder of financial success. There are personal rewards that are much bigger than having a good investment portfolio. Foremost is the ability to provide for my family. Sometimes I am very tight with a dollar and compare the prices on the cans of beans at the store — an old habit. And sometimes I get to be generous, especially with my grandchildren. Another reward is the satisfaction of giving to charities. I’ve found helping those in need lets us know we have enough and creates a feeling of fulfillment. It is a joy to grant a scholarship, donate to the arts and help preserve wild nature and beautiful places.

The key thing I found is that managing this life stage well, and managing your finances to set up your next life stage, is the clearest path to financial success and life satisfaction. Most people don’t think twenty to thirty years in advance. Rather, we respond to what is imminent. When we figure out the two to three actions we can do, in the here and now to improve our finances, it can have a ripple effect far into the future.


Article by John S. Adams, Senior Portfolio Manager at UBS Financial Service Inc., who leads the Arbor Group investment team in Seattle, WA. John is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP) and CERTIFIED INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT ANALYST™ (CIMA. He serves on the Executive Council of the Conservation Finance Alliance and on the Global Advisory Council of Birdlife International.

John and his family live in the Seattle area. He is an avid hiker, photographer and birder. He has a Master’s degree in management and a Master’s degree in financial services. John is a member Seattle Rotary Club #4 and is on the Board of the Rotarian Malaria Partners, which works to eradicate malaria worldwide. Contact John at

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