The sweetgum tree, which you may know for its spiky, golf ball-size fruit underfoot, is actually a marvel of nature. Apart from its seasonal beauty and longevity of 100 to 150 years, the tree’s resin and those spiky balls have produced health benefits for centuries and are still researched for potential medical uses.
So for John Baranauskas, CFP, the founder and CEO of Sweetgum Labs, the choice of a name for his firm was a natural. It fits the model of financial health as a “foundational component” of his clients’ well being.
Now, Baranauskas and his partner Christian Hastings, a registered investment advisor and director of business development for Sweetgum Labs, have applied that notion to a program that helps clients with cancer navigate the financial implications of their illness.
Both are volunteers with Family Reach, a national nonprofit founded on the premise that cancer patients and their families need professional advice when dealing with the expenses and income loss a cancer diagnosis can present.
Family Reach, the Financial Planning Association and the Foundation for Financial Planning teamed up to form the Financial Planning for Cancer Program for the industry.
The Financial Stress of Cancer
Cancer patients and their families identify finances as their second-greatest source of distress, according to the FPA. Statistics show 37% cut back on grocery purchases, 36% deplete their savings and 24% borrow against retirement funds pay bills.
And for clients nearing retirement, the impact of a major medical crisis can be even greater.
“It depends on the amount of preparation completed by that individual. I’ve never encountered anyone to have a crisis plan perfectly mapped. But if the foundation for estate/end of life instructions are outlined during a baseline mental state, folks tend to trust and use it,” Baranauskas says.
He adds that having the contingency plan “frees mental capacity to concentrate on what’s truly important: family, morale to fight, business succession and legacy design.”
Baranauskas and Hastings knew each other from their time as senior advisors on the retirement desk at Merrill Lynch in New Jersey and they stayed in touch over the years. After Baranauskas decided to form his own firm in 2019, Hastings joined the venture with his former colleague. Sweetgum Labs is based in Pennsylvania, where both Baranauskas and Hastings now live.
A Personal Connection
Hastings’ connection to Family Reach hits close to home — he was diagnosed with kidney cancer four years ago while in his early 50s.
He knows first-hand how expensive chemotherapy treatments can be and how recuperating can often leave you unable to work at your previous pace.
Grueling chemo sessions left Hastings, a strapping 6-feet, 5-inches tall, 100 pounds lighter, dizzy and tired, he recalls.
And he says he learned how important it was to have support.
“My wife has been tremendous; you have to have a team behind you,” Hastings says.
His team includes his wife, a human resources executive at Merrill Lynch, whom Hastings says was the family’s rock in dealing with the financial impacts of his illness. And then there are Hastings’ children — a son in high school and a daughter in college. His friends also are part of his support team.
Meanwhile, his medical team at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia had his back through myriad treatments during his cancer crisis in areas, including surgery, oncology, genetics and heart health.
Hastings manages to view his health situation with a liberal helping of humor.
He’s had to adjust to being a case study for his cancer survival while at the same time enduring two heart attacks, which resulted in his having eight heart stents implanted.
At appointments at Fox Chase, “Lots of medical students come by,” he says with a chuckle. He suspects they want to learn “Why am I here?”
Time to Give Back
People experiencing a cancer diagnosis need those teams, he says. And through Family Reach he saw a way to give back to others.
“I always felt tugged to help kids with special needs,” says Hastings, who along with Baranauskas became connected to Family Reach about a year and a half ago.
Family Reach is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to removing the financial barriers standing between a cancer patient and his or her medical treatment, its mission statement asserts.
Amanda Maddalone, the financial coaching program manager for Family Reach, manages volunteers and on-boards financial planners, she says.
It is crucial to talk about the financial impact of a cancer diagnosis, she adds: “The financial treatment needs to begin as soon as the medical treatment.”
The Family Reach Program
Maddalone says the organization last year marked its 25th anniversary. Family Reach has 40 employees based mainly in Boston and also in Parsippany, N.J., according to Maddalone. She is based in the Boston office and has been part of the organization since 2019.
Maddalone says a family’s finances can be impacted almost immediately with a cancer diagnosis. Patients face loss of income or loss of a second income, for example. A parent may have to stop working if a child is diagnosed with cancer. “A family may even be left with no income at all,” she says.
Family Reach focuses on four areas to help clients. It delivers financial education, financial coaching, resource navigation and emergency relief funds to patients and caregivers facing a cancer diagnosis “so no family has to choose between their health and their home,” its website states.
Maddalone explains that for financial education, Family Reach utilizes guidebooks for adults that gear advice by age — to families facing either pediatric cancer, cancer in young adults or cancer in adults.
Financial coaching is at the heart of the pro bono program for participants. Maddalone matches financial planners with patients or their caregivers to give one-on-one, personalized advice at no charge. Participants receive guidance on planning their finances and finding cost-saving options to manage their finances as they manage their medical treatment.
Family Reach’s “resource navigation” element works with families and hospitals to best meet patients’ needs. And the program delivers emergency relief funds to help with necessities such as household expenses, or transportation or other bills as patients cope with cancer, Maddalone says.
Health Problems Meet Workplace Realities
For older caregivers, the need to cut back work or stop entirely brings up serious issues.
“We’ve seen folks delay retirement because they feel the need to keep health insurance and income stream,” Baranauskas says.
“When the unexpected happens, humans tend to put blinders on and search for the path of least resistance.”
And he says that can be a dangerous combination without a guide.
“During a recent conversation with a senior executive at a large company, his career assumption was that job offers will keep coming in his late 50s and 60s,” says Baranauskas. “He caught himself moments later when he said ‘I tend to hire folks that are younger and full of energy.’”
“Taking time off to help a loved one less than a decade from retirement may not be easy to bounce back from,” adds Baranauskas. “Legal or not, companies target younger blood and folks need to be careful to make sure they don’t derail their ability to retire.”
Forming Closer Relationships with Clients
Hastings cut back on the scope of his work from his years of handling $600 million in retirement accounts at Merrill-Lynch to working with about 50 families at Sweetgum Labs. But the work now is more holistic, with fiduciary relationships with clients that are personalized. He gives a lot of attention to planning, budgeting and goals.
Working with Baranauskas also enables Hastings to accommodate his personal needs (such as follow-up doctors’ appointments) as he continues toward his goal of being given a clean bill of health in the fall. He also has a bit more time to play golf and is training to be a golf technician, fitting golf clubs for players.
Hastings said that financial planning for pro bono clients with health issues involve basically the same standards for other clients in his business. For all cancer patients, the financial advisor becomes their “quarterback” — part of their financial team.
As with other clients, the pro bono clients receive an individualized plan and one-on-one sessions going over insurance, estate planning, 401K allocations and budgeting. With clients in a medical crisis, the issues of income or long-term disability insurance come more into play.
Hastings has also been pursuing Fidelity’s ABLE 529 investment instrument for his regular clients with disabilities or special needs, but he feels that this can also work for pro bono clients who meet the ABLE parameters for disabilities or special needs.
Hastings says he also is in a bit of a personal quandary when advising cancer patients: How much of his own health challenges he should disclose to them? “Do you bring it up, or not?” he asks.
While he doesn’t want to burden clients, he wants them to know how he can relate to them, he adds.
Not an “Easy Conversation”
Hastings and Baranauskas have seen some clients die before their financial plans could have been implemented. Although this situation can happen in any client relationship, both agree that having a plan for the end of life is crucial with a client with medical problems.
“It’s not an easy conversation,” Baranauskas says, “but it brings a client some peace and closure that everything is in place.”
For example, it’s preferable to plan ahead for when a client or partner becomes incapacitated, he said.
He and Hastings acknowledge that not every problem can be planned for. But Hastings notes that even basic moves, such as making sure your trusted family member knows passwords to accounts or knows where the key to the safety deposit box is kept, makes a difference for survivors.
A Challenge Faced by Many
Hastings is not alone in dealing with cancer and advising clients in the same position.
Eric Chetwood, CFP, managing partner of Adams-Chetwood Wealth Management in Durham, N.C., creates videos about many issues of interest to their clients, including one about his own cancer diagnosis.
In his video “3 Things Cancer Taught Me about Financial Planning,” Chetwood says he learned some “sweet lessons” from his experiences.
He cites the Bible in advising “numbering our days to gain a heart of wisdom” – i.e., to reset our priorities to what is most important.
Like Hastings, Chetwood found community (or as Hastings put it, his “team”) a necessity in coping with the demands of a serious health crisis. Making an investment in community should be a priority for everyone, Chetwood says in the video.
Finally, he recommends investing not only in financial instruments but in experiences. A longed-for family vacation full of good memories is its own sound investment, Chetwood says.
Additionally, many organizations offer information about coping with a medical crisis and obtaining financial advice.
“How to Find a Financial Professional Sensitive to Cancer Issues” is a brochure prepared by the National Endowment for Financial Education that offers advice and resources. It can be downloaded here.
“Keeping the Torch Lit”
For Baranauskas, having a financial advocate in a health crisis can make all the difference in a person’s day-to-day decisions.
“My time on an ESOP/retirement desk is full of anecdotal doozies for those that lack a plan, such as: folks becoming ill and letting six-figure options grants expire worthless; or receiving a $10,000 medical bill and withdrawing the full seven-figure 401(k) (because the plan doesn’t allow partial withdraws.)
“Bad medical news hits the psyche hard; the unpredictable behavior that follows can lead to painful planning mistakes without a trustworthy advocate.
“People need their torch lit to keep living well. After decades of work, subtracting mobility/ability from the equation can extinguish the fire that keeps a person going.
“Our mission,” Baranauskas says, “is to help keep that torch lit — not a glass half-full optimism mindset — but actually finding a person’s purpose and guiding them towards that light.”
Patricia McDaniel is a freelance writer and editor and former journalist with Gannett’s New Jersey newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.