At the end of December I will have been a financial advisor for 10 years. In some sense it feels like a lifetime has gone by, and in other ways it only feels like a few months. Early in my career I feared the question from prospective clients “how long have you been doing this?”, and always thought it would be great one day to tout how many years of experience I have.
What I’ve realized is how unimportant “years of experience” is. Doing a job for 10 years does not mean you have 10 years of experience. It could mean you have 1 year of experience repeated 10 times over. There is a difference.
How it Began
Before I knew financial advisors existed, I wanted to be one. Money, saving, and investing made sense to me at a young age. What I didn’t know at the time is that those topics are outside of many people’s comfort zones.
Hopefully my father isn’t reading this, because I believe my frugality is a result of my genetic makeup (as was his). My parents didn’t give my siblings and I everything we wanted, which is good.
When I was in the 4th grade I dreamed of getting a Gameboy Color. If I remember correctly it was around $70, a big ticket item for a kid even by today’s standards. Rather than give me a Gameboy, I was given a chance to earn the Gameboy. A farmer friend of my father had a bunch of extra cantaloupes with no use for them. My dad took delivery, and said if I wanted a Gameboy then I should go stand by the side of the road and sell $70 worth of cantaloupes to people passing by.
My little sister, Kelly, and I were out there all day for two days flagging down cars to buy cantaloupes. It worked, we each made over $70 (tax free 😉). My father was happy with the results, and told me to keep the money and he’d buy me the Gameboy. He didn’t want me to buy it myself. He wanted me to realize what it would take to buy it myself. Plus, after I had earned the money I didn’t really want to spend it. I was okay with spending his money though!
My intention was to go to Ranken and get into tool and dye making. But I started dating this girl during my senior year that was heading to Eastern Illinois University to play soccer. I convinced myself I’d be terrible at tool and dye (probably true), and I could go into finance instead.
I followed a girl to college. Many people would call that a mistake, but I would call it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. We have now been married 8 years and have two wonderful children. Here we are as the Flintstones for Halloween (not her natural hair color).
Eastern Illinois was one of the few universities in Illinois (at the time) to offer the CFP® education program. If you took those courses you were eligible to sit for the CFP® exam certification. This peaked my interest, as I wanted to help people with money and investing. Back then, Eastern Illinois had several tremendous financial planning professors.
Had I known what a financial advisor really was, I would never have been one. During the last year or two at EIU, I started to realize that all of the entry level financial advisory jobs seemed to be high pressured sales gigs. As an introvert this turned me off, but I thought I could somehow make it work.
I landed at a large life insurance company. To get hired, I had to make a list of 200 people I could call and try to meet with to sell life insurance. Nothing I learned at EIU mattered anymore, all that mattered was how much life insurance I could sell. Many of the people I worked with never studied finance at all, nor had a CFP® designation. The larger premiums I sold, the more money I made (conflict of interest anyone?).
Quickly I was questioning everything. The people I worked with knew the solution they’d offer before they even knew the client’s needs. When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, and when you’re a life insurance agent, everyone looks like they need a permanent life insurance policy.
I felt quite uncomfortable calling people I hadn’t talked to in years, and asking them to meet with me so I could make a sales pitch. Plus, I had just turned 22 a few weeks prior, so let’s say I lacked experience. “You look like you could be my grandson” was always a defeating comment. They might as well have patted me on the head and said “You’re too young little boy”.
After torturing myself and everyone I called for 6 months, I sought something better.
I am grateful for the short stint I spent selling life insurance. It helped me realize how some of those firms operate, and how conflicts of interest and poor advice are rampant in the industry. There was a large benefit to working there. They helped me get comfortable being uncomfortable, which I found important for self improvement.
I went to a bank. My thinking was “I have the knowledge, but I don’t have the clients. Maybe I could help the bank’s clients”. It worked. The bankers would give me suggestions on which customers to call and offer help to. They were encouraged to refer customers to me as well. Towards the end of my 7+ years there, I was mainly bringing new clients from existing client referrals. I started to wonder if I still needed the bank.
A few other things were on my mind as well. There were too many “hands in the pot” so to speak. This is the case at many firms. Clients paid expenses that I thought were too high (but in line with other firms…which I also think are too high 🤷♂️). But the bank needed a cut, the broker-dealer needed a cut, and I needed a cut. This leads an advisor to take on more clients than they could reasonably service.
On top of having too many clients, I started questioning other issues. My belief is that asset-based advisory fees are inequitable (which is how most advisory firms still charge) and because I was a licensed broker I did not like the potential perception of a conflict of interest in my advice. What this means is that I was able to receive a commission for selling certain products. While I largely stayed away from this type of activity, I didn’t even like people thinking that the conflict existed.
The bank was bought out. Two days after receiving the bank’s Platinum Employee award, I turned in my resignation to go start my own business.
A Fee-Only Firm
When I decided in my head that I would leave the bank, initially I thought I’d go work at another advisory firm. However, I was unable to find a company that was structured in a way that I thought was best.
The core idea of my firm was to eliminate all potential conflicts of interest between the advisor and the client. Further, I wanted to implement the following principles:
- Never receive a commission or kickback for selling a product to a client.
- Do not charge fees based on assets under management. Whether someone has $500,000 or $10 million, the fee is the same.
- Limit the number of clients I work with to ensure high quality work.
When I looked at advisory firms in the St. Louis and Metro-East area, no one did all three of these things. I smelled an opportunity. When telling other advisors what I planned on doing, I was told repeatedly it was a bad idea. That’s when I knew I was onto something good 😂.
Things have gone well. Client capacity will soon be reached, and the firm will continue growing beyond myself when I can identify the right person to bring onboard.
Things I’ve Concluded So Far (with the help of others)
Over 10 years and thousands of client interactions I have learned a tremendous amount. Below are a few important points I’ve learned throughout my career that were not taught in school.
Decisions are too often judged by results:
The evaluation of a decision should be judged independently of the result. Did you make the best decision given all the facts and resources you had at the time? That’s how we should evaluate our decision making, not solely from the results. One might be able to drive home safely while inebriated, but we would all agree that is a poor decision with a fortunate outcome.
A bad result is not always the result of a bad decision. Good decisions can have bad results, as bad decisions can have good results.
Money solves one of life’s problems:
There are many people I’ve interacted with that have won the money game. They could live the rest of their life happily without worrying about their finances.
They still have plenty of stressors though. Wealthy people still have to worry about personal health or that of their family members. They still have to raise their kids or grandkids to be successful. They still have to get along with family and spouses.
One might argue that having a lot of money makes all of those other things easier, maybe so, but I have not seen that to be true.
Having $50 million in the bank but no control over how you spend your day, makes you rich, but not wealthy. True wealth is being able to do anything you want, anytime you want, with whomever you want.
It’s an easy time to invest, but a hard time to be an investor:
Open a brokerage account from your phone and fund it in under 10 minutes, and never pay a dime of trading commissions. Do you want to buy stocks in Kuwait and Morocco? There’s an ETF for that. Do you want 3 times the daily return of the Homebuilders and Supplies Index? That exists as well. Are you starting to see the problem?
There’s so much to choose from, it’s hard to sit and do nothing. Sitting and doing nothing has probably done more for investor wealth creation than most other strategies. Today we are constantly beat over the head with the most up to minute market information. Every time the Dow falls 3%, CNBC has a “Markets in Turmoil” special. There is an incredible urge amongst investors today that something always needs to be tinkered with.
Yes it is easy to invest today, but no it is not easier to be a successful investor today.
Becoming a spender is hard:
It’s odd to get a paycheck every two weeks for 40+ years, then nothing. If you’ve lived frugally during your career and saved appropriately, you may have trouble when it comes time to actually start spending your nest egg. There’s a hesitation for some people.
While it may seem odd, it’s completely normal. In an almost irrational way, some would rather sacrifice and save for their children’s future consumption than enjoy it themselves. Other people just realize later in life now that they can afford anything they want, they don’t want anything.
If you don’t spend your money, someday someone else will happily spend it for you. Balance the act of living for today, and saving for tomorrow.
A purpose in retirement is a must:
Watching cable news and sharing Facebook memes is not a good way to spend your golden years (or any other phase of life). A purpose in retirement is a necessity. Whether the purpose is becoming a rockstar grandparent, seeing the world with your spouse, volunteering in the community, or all of the above, it’s imperative to have something to keep your wheels spinning.
People are better investors when their political party is in power:
I have no empirical data to back up this claim, but it is a trend I’ve noticed throughout my career. People are more confident in their investments when a political figure or party they support has the power, even though all evidence suggests it doesn’t really matter.
The most expensive meal you’ll ever eat is the free steak dinner retirement planning seminar:
I don’t think this one requires further explanation.
Having a 4 year old son is healthy when it comes to defending ideas. After he asks me “why” to the nth degree about a subject, I begin asking “why” to myself.
Galileo was place under house arrest by the Catholic Church in the early 17th century for stating that the sun, and not the Earth, was the center of the universe. While we now know he was correct, at the time it was heresy. 300-400 years from now, people will read about us and laugh about many things we were wrong about.
Asset managers routinely call my office to pitch the latest and greatest investment funds. Asking them “why” enough, usually leads to their theories falling apart rather quickly.
While I could go on for days about different tidbits I’ve picked up on these last 10 years, I will stop here for now. Some of you reading this have been clients since the very early days, and I greatly appreciate the confidence and support from everyone along the way.
10 years have flown by, but I think I could stick it out for another 50 or so 😁.