Elliott Appel knows firsthand what it means to be a caregiver. His father is suffering from cancer and dementia, and Appel and his mother are by his side during his journey.
Empathy for those who are experiencing difficulties inspired Appel to create his financial advisory practice, Kindness Financial Planning, in Madison, Wis. His practice serves caregivers, widows, widowers and those with durable powers of attorney.
Appel’s experience with his father drew him to those who are, in his father’s words, “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” His father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2016. Appel is the secondary caregiver for his father while his mother serves as primary caregiver. Complicating the situation even further is that Appel’s parents live half a continent away from him, in Olympia, Wash.
Olympia is Appel’s childhood home and where his interest in financial services began.
“I always liked finance,” he said. “My uncle got me started in investing when I was young. I always was attracted to the technical side as well as the emotional side of money. I liked how, in this industry, you can blend those two sides together. And it’s not just the technical side, it’s not just the emotional side, but sort of weighing what each of those brings to our relationship with money.”
Appel was an intern with Charles Schwab while he attended Seattle University. During his 10-week internship at Schwab, he met one of the partners at Empirical Wealth Management in Seattle and was offered an internship there. He began working there full time after graduation, starting as a portfolio manager and ending up as vice president-director of associate advisors nearly 10 years later.
“I was an associate advisor supporting a partner in the practice who I connected with,” he recalled. “The firm specialized in serving people who were approaching retirement or who were in their early stages of retirement when they have a lot of planning decisions to make such as how to claim Social Security. How do we take withdrawals from retirement accounts? Do I have enough money to retire?”
During Appel’s time with Empirical Wealth Management, his clientele expanded.
“Once I became a lead advisor, I had a mix of clients,” Appel said. “I still had clients who were approaching retirement or who already were retired. But being in Seattle, there was a huge tech community that had a lot of younger people in their 30s and 40s. They had newfound wealth and weren’t sure what to do with it.”
Youth As A Benefit
As a 20-something advisor helping clients sort out their retirement issues, Appel was serving people who were old enough to be his parents.
“It was a tough thing to overcome in the beginning,” he said. “But after a certain point, there was sort of a crossover where I felt confident in my knowledge and in working with people. It wasn’t as challenging anymore, and most people didn’t seem to have an issue with my being so young. Because if you go into a meeting and you listen to people and you meet them where they are and demonstrate that you have the knowledge to help them, most people aren’t going to care how old you are.”
Appel often framed his age as a benefit to his older clients. “I mean, do you want to have an advisor who is in their 50s or 60s who is likely to be retired when you are in retirement? Or do you want an advisor who is younger, who might be more familiar with new rules that are coming out and who will be with you for the next few years?”
When Appel’s fiancée was accepted for medical residency training at the University of Wisconsin in 2021, he followed her to Madison and began his own practice. The idea for Kindness Financial Planning came about after Appel studied for his Registered Life Planner designation.
“Through that program, you get paired up with someone else doing the training, and you actually lifeplan someone else,” he said. “That gave me permission to go out on my own and start talking about what I wanted. I went back and forth about the clients and the demographic or niche I want to serve. I decided I wanted to serve widows, caregivers and people affected by major health events.”
Kindness As A Vision
Incorporating the word “kindness” into the name of his practice came about when he thought about the way he wanted to provide advice.
“I thought Kindness Financial Planning was a good description of what I wanted to do, with an emphasis on financial planning, as well as a good description of how I approach relationships,” he said.
Appel’s experience with his father’s illness, along with his experiences with clients he served in his former job, shaped his vision for the practice he created.
“In my prior firm, I worked with about 115 clients,” he said. “They ran the spectrum in terms of age, experience and occupation. So I asked myself, which of these clients do I get most excited about? I began to realize that in a lot of the conversations I had with clients, I was talking with those who were about to lose someone or who were taking care of someone or who had lost a loved one recently. I decided that would be a great demographic to work with.”
Appel was able to get clients to open up to him as he related their experiences with his own family’s challenges with illness and caregiving. “It was that commonality of experiencing loss and grieving as well as going through the caregiving experience.”
He said his journey as a caregiver inspires him “to meet clients where they are on that particular day, whatever they are experiencing.”
“People can be on a roller coaster,” he said. “Sometimes they have bad days. For me, it’s about being as patient as possible and explaining things and re-explaining things that they need to know because they have a lot on their plate. People who are going through a loss or extreme stress often experience brain fog and can’t remember a lot. So if you can guide them through whatever they need and be a partner to them through that and educate them, you are performing an important service.”
Appel’s clients who are caregivers frequently look to him for recommendations on how to help their loved one. “Things like ‘I need to take over my parents’ finances,’ or ‘my parents aren’t quite ready for me to take over.’ They want to know whether their parents have enough money to last through whatever long-term care event they are going through. They want information on whether they need to find care for their loved one now or whether they should think about power of attorney documents.”
Appel frequently provides referrals to elder care consultants, accountants or attorneys.
Many caregiver clients have multiple family members who are involved in making decisions for a loved one’s care, he noted. “Sometimes it’s nice to have that independent third-party opinion from someone who’s not in the day-to-day stuff,” he said.
Widowed clients frequently fall into one of two scenarios, Appel said.
“One is when your spouse is recently diagnosed with something and you know you’re going to become a widow soon,” he said. “In that situation, you help prepare them to take over the finances. So many times, the man has been the one in charge of managing the finances and the wife has not been that involved. How do you bridge and establish that relationship so that she feels comfortable enough to handle what she wants to handle?”
The other scenario is when someone dies but their spouse was unprepared for their death. “Now the surviving spouse is experiencing brain fog and grief. They’re trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together slowly. That’s a much harder situation. People frequently are not quite sure what to do with their finances. So, we need to come together to help them figure all this out.”
Appel’s mix of advisory knowledge and caring nature make him a perfect fit for the clients he serves, said an advisor who has known him for several years.
“Elliott has a lot of technical expertise, but what makes him stand out is the way he handles people who are going through difficult situations,” said Diana Gisel Yanez, a certified financial planner and founder of All The Colors. “He has a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence.”
The Magic Question
Appel hosts a podcast series, “Making The Most Of Time,” in which he speaks to people about the caregiver’s journey. In the podcast, he often asks his guests this question: What act of kindness was transformational in your life?
“It’s a question that gets people thinking, and you find out something really interesting about them at the same time,” he said. “Or I often ask people, ‘What is something good that happened to you today or this week?’ Again, it’s a way of establishing a relationship, of moving the conversation forward.”
When Appel is asked to describe the act of kindness that transformed his life, he looks no further than his mother.
“She has always been the primary caregiver for my dad,” he said. “Her willingness to step up gave me permission to move out to Wisconsin with my fiancée while I continue to help my parents as much as I can from here. It was harder for my mom when I moved across the country, but her willingness to accept that has meant the world to me.”
The podcast series has been as much of a learning experience for Appel as it has been an educational tool for other caregivers.
“My goal is to bring in a host of experts as well as people who have been through this,” he said. “So that someone who listens to the podcast can say, ‘Someone else has made it through this.’”
Danika Waddell of Xena Financial Planning praised Appel for what she described as “a gentle, calming presence.”
“To have someone like him in your corner when you are going through a difficult time — I can’t imagine how powerful it would be. That’s a rarity in our industry,” she said.