Get to know the people behind the financial advice in our Planner Profiles series, where you’ll get the inside scoop on their best money tips.

“Please don’t judge me,” a mother told Tom Canale. “But I hope my son passes away the day after I do.” Her son, she explained, has special needs and will require care the rest of his life.

For Canale, a wealth management advisor for Northwestern Mutual in Chicago, there was no judgment — only compassion. He remembers watching the mother’s anxiety melt away as they planned for her son's future.

Canale has dedicated his career to helping families in similar situations plan for their future. Today, he works almost exclusively with families who have individuals with special needs. Here, he shares what he’s teaching his clients — and his own kids — about money.

Why did you start working with families who have individuals with special needs?

It started because my godfather’s son has special needs, and I realized the impact of that. Several years after I started in the business, I met with him and his wife to talk about their financial plan. Their number one concern was about who would take care of their son, Matthew, after they’re gone.

For most people, that’s not a lifetime concern. Their children will grow up and someday will take care of themselves. For families who aren’t in that situation, financial planning takes on an incredibly important and emotional role.

Matthew will have the means to live in a facility in Chicago for the rest of his life. But I realized there are so many families who don’t have that. I wanted to help them.

You work almost exclusively with families who have an individual with special needs?

It’s probably about 90 percent of the work I do. I’m also very passionate about mentoring others in our business. So, I take on some additional work, usually to help other, younger colleagues who are looking for help with a particular situation.

Why is helping people in the business so important to you?

It magnifies the impact we can have. If I teach five others and they go on and each help a number of people, I’ve managed to impact so many more people’s lives. That’s why I started scholarships at two of our local universities for people who are learning about financial planning. I also teach a financial planning course at Northwestern University.

What’s the biggest mistake you see Americans making with money?

They’re too proud to get help with it. The power of vulnerability is tremendous. But too many people aren’t able to get to the level of vulnerability and trust that it takes to truly work with someone to improve their financial situation. That was really hard for me at the start. We’re taught that money is private, you don’t talk with other people about it. So that means we’re on our own, which isn’t helpful.

Who is your role model?

My grandfather. He was an entrepreneur. He and his cousin started a marble importing business in Chicago. His company put all the marble on the Aon Center, one of the tallest buildings in the city. I learned a lot about money from him early as I watched his successes and the obstacles he faced.

What did he teach you?

Don’t take money for granted. It doesn’t grow on trees. I learned to have great respect for it from him.

What do you want to teach your children about money?

I’m working on that right now. I want them to see what happens when they save it, leave it alone and let it grow. It’s what I say to my clients, when you save some money first, it actually frees you to spend guilt free.

What's the most satisfying moment you've had as a financial advisor?

I'm 22 years into this. It's been my entire adult life. I’d say the most satisfying thing is seeing people who were in their mid-40s when I started working with them now beginning to retire. There’s one gentleman who was about my age, 42, when he started working with me. He and his wife just recently retired. They took me and my wife out to dinner to thank us. He told me none of it would have been possible without the work we had done. Seeing that kind of impact was really powerful for me.

Recommended Reading