“I find human behaviour endlessly fascinating.”

Based in Scotland, Alan Whittle is a Chartered Financial Planner and Fellow of the Personal Finance Society with a MSc in Financial Planning and Business Management from Manchester Metropolitan University, which focused on Motivations for Responsible Investing. A firm believer in the need for the financial planning profession to continually evolve, Alan splits his time between lecturing in Sustainable Finance, researching for a PhD which will investigate the intersection between aspects of sustainable and behavioural finance, and providing Training and Consultancy Services to financial planning firms.

Alan will be your expert at the December IFW Roundtable, when the discussion topic will be: ‘How cognitive bias can impact financial wellbeing.’ Book here to secure your spot.

In his Showcase, Alan confesses his burning desire to be a singer, and how he joined the financial profession twice.

How would you summarise your passions, both in and out of work?

My work passion is seeing people flourish. Whilst that can often mean working with people at the beginning of their careers and helping them get started in learning about finance, it’s something which is applicable to everyone, at all levels.

Outside of work, which seems to consume more and more of my time now, my family are the most important thing to me, followed in various degrees by reading (anything, fiction or non-fiction) and walking, more often than not in Scotland but anywhere I can get out really. I just love the freedom of getting outside and putting one foot in front of the other for a few hours.

What’s your happiest memory?

Seeing my children and rest of my family united after being apart for so long following the 2020 lockdown has got to be up there. I think it’s difficult to identify one thing which is the happiest memory. The happiest memory today might not be the happiest memory tomorrow, maybe because there are different types of happy and the person who experienced them is not the person recalling them!

What do you wish you’d been told about finance when you were 15?

That it isn’t boring!

When I did a career aptitude test at about 15 or 16 I was “off the charts” for a career in finance, but I railed against it (I really wanted to be a singer). So I went and did a degree in philosophy, which has eventually become quite useful, and then found myself working in finance anyway.

More practically, it would be sensible to tell my 15-year-old self to think more long-term; save more and don’t use credit cards.

What made you want to work in finance?

I am able to answer this question twice. Initially, it was because there were jobs in finance and, as a new graduate with a young family, I needed an income. However, I left finance for two years around the time of the financial crisis to work with people who were long-term unemployed. I felt that I needed to do more than just “play with other people’s money.”

When I chose to come back, it was because I wanted to see finance used to help deliver change in the world. It took me a while to get started on that journey, in terms of upskilling myself and developing connections and understanding, but I’m finally getting to do the type of work I want to do.

How did this lead to you researching the intersection between aspects of sustainable and behavioural finance?

I remember having a conversation with someone about a more social form of finance in an Edinburgh café, on a dark, rainy evening in 2009. This eventually led me to a better understanding of ethical finance in the coming years. I have always been fascinated by the opportunity, the promise, that private finance has to help deliver meaningful change to communities and to the world as a whole.

The behavioural aspect of it came from trying to understand why people weren’t doing this, and when they are, why they choose to invest in this way, as opposed to giving money away to charity and so on, and how financial planners fit into this. I find human behaviour endlessly fascinating, so trying to get a better understanding of why we do what we do has been a wonderfully enlightening experience.

What prompted you to join the Institute for Financial Wellbeing?

I was introduced to the IFW by Harjeet Heer, following a referral from my PhD Supervisor, Katarzyna Werner-Masters (who wrote the Nudges paper in the Research section of the IFW portal). It was one of those moments when you go “Why did I not know about this before!”

Just knowing that the IFW existed was exciting, but joining gave me the opportunity to learn more, and there will always be more to learn! I’m interested in how financial planners can improve financial wellbeing in general, and I saw an opportunity to share what I have learned. My academic research in 2020 was into how people express aspects of themselves through their investments and how this relates to the giving and receiving of advice, so I felt I would have something to contribute to the community as well as learn from more experienced practitioners. Being part of the IFW gives me hope that what I’m doing in research might have a wider impact.

What drew you to financial wellbeing in the first place?

I didn’t like the idea that financial planning should just be about making more money for people, but about helping them have a healthy relationship with money, one that improves their overall wellbeing.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about financial wellbeing since joining?

That there’s a vibrant community of people who are really interested in helping people improve their financial wellbeing rather than just making money. Each time I log in or join a session I feel I am learning or reinforcing my understanding, a general engagement with the subject.

What is your top tip for someone wanting to improve their financial wellbeing?

Think about what really matters to you, what’s important, and then try and understand why this is important to you.

So often we think “this is really important to me” without considering why it’s important – we take things at face value. When we go a bit deeper, and try to explore our motivations, what drives us to want something, we can find that it wasn’t that particular thing which was important to us, but how it makes us feel.

Who or what is your favourite wellbeing guru, podcast or book? 

There are so many. I went through a few years consuming everything I could from zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness, Fear), Ram Dass (Be Here Now, How Can I Help?), Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) and others. Julian Diazan Skinner, a Rinzai Zen Master, and his fellow teachers at Zenways in London took me on a fantastic mindfulness journey a few years ago. I’ve had other teachers in the Soto Zen school too, though I’m not as good at maintaining my meditation practice as I would like to be. From all of them I think the best wellbeing thing I learned is “just sitting” (see Dogen’s Shōbōgenzō). We can spend a lot of time reading about how to improve wellbeing, but the real benefit comes from putting that into practice.

What are you doing to advance your own financial wellbeing?

After years of making mistakes I got a financial planner and went through a full cashflow. We might all be great at doing these things for other people, or have the technical knowhow to create the most brilliant financial strategies, but it was the process of surrendering control to someone who could be objective about my situation that made the biggest difference.