After nearly 10 years as a financial planner, the first 2 questions I ask every client have nothing to do with money

First, we’re talking about coffee. Sorbis /
  • Lauren Lyons Cole is a financial planner in New York City
  • When she first meets a client, she asks them two questions seemingly unrelated to money: “What is your favourite Starbucks drink order?” and “What are your goals?”
  • She finds the answers to those questions give her insight about how client spends and saves, and how to craft a strategy to help them get what they want.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When I start working with a new client, I need to know everything – and I mean everything – about their finances. From monthly expenses to account balances to credit card interest rates, no detail is too small.

But before we get into the financial minutiae, I ask two questions that have nothing to do with money, yet tell me more than a pile of bank statements ever could.

1. What is your favourite Starbucks drink order?

In many ways this is a simple question. I’ve learned over time that caffeine comes in handy when talking about personal finances. Without it, the risk of glazed-over-eyes syndrome increases significantly, especially during the first meeting. So, I always come prepared with the client’s beverage of choice.

But, truth be told, I have an ulterior motive for asking this question. What you buy at Starbucks reveals something to me about how you spend your money.

In my experience, if you prefer a basic drink like a venti black coffee or a tall cappuccino, you’re probably not a big spender in other areas. If your order is more elaborate, like a venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato with sugar-free syrup and light ice, then I’ll brace myself for a conversation about budgeting and scaling back.

And, if you respond by telling me how much you hate Starbucks and only drink premium espresso from a pricey independent cafe, then I’ll expect to have a frank discussion about maxing out your retirement accounts because your disposable income may be higher than it should be.

These are just observations of course, and are not based on any kind of data or science. I ask many more questions during the meeting to get an accurate perspective on a client’s approach to spending. But more often than not, the Starbucks question holds true.

2. What are your goals?

Financial planning should never be a cookie cutter experience. Before I start calculating a savings strategy for a new client, I have to understand their goals.

If you want to get married, buy a home, and start a family in the next five years, your financial plan is going to look a lot different from someone who dreams of visiting 30 countries before turning 30.

The goals have to come first, then the money follows. Once I know a client’s vision for the future, I can do the maths on how to get there from here. Spoiler alert: You might have to give up your daily coffee, unless you’d rather cut back in other areas. It’s not my job to tell you how to spend it day-to-day, as long as you’re on track to meet your goals.

Don’t worry though. If you do give up buying coffee, I’ll still have a venti iced skinny hazelnut macchiato with sugar-free syrup and light ice for you next time we meet.

Lauren Lyons Cole is director of personal finance at Business Insider. She is also a certified financial planner