Every week on “The Financial Symphony,” John Stillman answers your retirement planning questions on the request line to help you make sure that all of the instruments in your financial orchestra are playing in tune. Submit your financial question below, and you could have it answered by the maestro himself! 


I’d always assumed that I’d send my kids to an in-state college, but my daughter is very interested in a private school that costs six times as much. Can I really justify that kind of expense for a college education? I’m skeptical that her education at this private school would really be six times better than one of our in-state schools.

–Kenneth In Durham

It’s an interesting discussion, and it’s a personal decision as much as it is a mathematical decision. How do you quantify whether an education at one school is three times or six times or ten times better than an education from somewhere else?

I had a very interesting conversation with a client recently about this very concept. They’d sent their son to Georgetown at a cost of about $60,000 a year. I was asking your same question, Kenneth. Is it really worth it? Can you really get a college education that’s worth $60,000 a year?

Her response to me was basically this:

“Look, if you’re just comparing the classroom at Georgetown compared to the classroom anywhere else, then no, it’s not four times better than a place where you might pay $15,000. But my kid went to school with the children of prime ministers from other countries and the children of billionaires, and these are kids that he’s still friends with to this day, so it’s an extremely well-connected worldwide network that he now has, based on the relationships that he developed in college.”

So that made me stop to think a bit more about the intangible networking opportunities when attending a school like that. She also made the point that she knew her son would take advantage of the opportunity to the fullest extent possible. If she’d had any question of his motivation or ability to capitalize on the opportunity, they wouldn’t have sent him there.

So it’s a decision that each family needs to make for themselves (and the answer might even be different for different kids in the same family). For most people, it probably makes more sense to pay in-state tuition. But there are certainly exceptions.


I’ve thought about meeting with a financial adviser to plan my retirement, but I’ve never used a budget or anything like that. Should I use a budget for a few months before meeting with someone?

–Jack in Chapel Hill

Jack, I think it’s important to understand that there’s a lot more to financial planning than just having a budget. And quite frankly, it’s pretty rare for me to have a review with someone and say, “You know what? We need to have you operating on a budget.” That just doesn’t work for most people. Most people just know how much they can spend and they spend it.

If I’m telling somebody that they need to start budgeting, it’s not necessarily because they need to limit their spending, it’s usually more for tracking purposes. While most people have a pretty good understanding of how much they spend each month overall, they rarely have a great feel for how much they spend in each category—entertainment, groceries, eating out, gas, etc. So the budget is often for tracking expenditures in certain categories like that.

So it might be the case that setting up a budget for tracking purposes is something that you’ll find helpful, but it’s not something that you necessarily need to set up before meeting with an advisor, because you might looking at the budget completely wrong, and it might just end up being a counterproductive few months of budgeting.


I tend to cry any time I talk about money. I don’t really know why. That’s just how I’ve always been. I’m worried that I’ll just end up working until I’m 80 years old because I’m too scared to sit down and put together a plan for my retirement. What would you do for a head case like me?

–Tracy in Fuquay

Tracy, maybe it would help you to know that you’re not alone on this. I see a lot of people, probably at least one a week, that are in tears for one reason or another in my conference room. It could be because they’ve just gotten an inheritance, and they’re thinking about how grateful they are that their mom or dad that left them this money. Sometimes it’s the pain of past issues like a divorce or the death of a spouse that have had financial consequences. But more often than not, it’s exactly what you just described: “I don’t really know why I’m crying right now.”

So that’s when we have to dig in and figure out the root cause. Where does this stress and anxiety come from when you’re talking about finances? Maybe we won’t figure out the answer immediately, but usually talking through the issues is helpful, instead of just keeping the stress and anxiety bottled up.

But eventually, if we can lay out a retirement plan for you that makes sense to you, that you understand, and you’re not overwhelmed a pile of data that doesn’t mean anything to you, you’d be amazed at how much stress and anxiety just lifts off your shoulders. That’s one reason that I love the planning process so much.

By the way, tears aren’t necessarily the sign of stress for everyone. Sometimes it’s lack of sleep or maybe just tension in your neck and shoulders that you’re not even conscious of. But it’s incredibly important that you start to identify your stress points so that you can solve not only the mathematical side of retirement planning but also the emotional side.


Financial Request Line


Hosted by John Stillman of Rosewood Wealth Management, Financial Symphony equips you with the tools and knowledge needed to successfully orchestrate your way to and through retirement. You can listen to the full show here, and tune in every weekend 97.9 The Hill. The shows airs Saturday at 11am, with a repeat airing on Sunday at 10am