Our guests on the podcast today are Kiersten and Julien Saunders. Together they blog about finance and life at the website richandregular.com. And they’re also the authors of a new book called Cashing Out: Win the Wealth Game by Walking Away. In addition, they co-host the rich & REGULAR podcast. After discovering the Financial Independence, Retire Early movement in 2012, they proceeded to pay off $200,000 in debt and walked away from their corporate jobs before turning 40.
rich & REGULAR podcast
Cashing Out: Win the Wealth Game By Walking Away, by Julien and Kiersten Saunders
Financial Independence, Retire Early and Financial Wellness
“How My Experience as a Black Entrepreneur Shaped My Views on Building Financial Freedom,” by Julien Saunders, success.com, Oct. 17, 2022.
“They’re on a Mission to Bring FIRE Back to the Black Community. ‘It Is Harder, But It Is Still Possible’,” by Kimanzi Constable, time.com, Sept. 16, 2022.
“Tanja Hester: The Pandemic Will Stoke Interest in Early Retirement,” The Long View podcast, Morningstar.com, June 3, 2020.
“Paula Pant: A Different Path to Financial Independence,” The Long View podcast, Morningstar.com, Jan. 18, 2022.
Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki
Books by Dr. Dennis Kimbro
“From Homeowner to Landlord (Park 1 of 2),” rich & REGULAR blog, richandregular.com, Feb. 27, 2020.
“From Homeowner to Landlord (Part 2 of 2),” rich & REGULAR blog, richandregular.com, March 26, 2020.
The Racial Wealth Gap
“The Racial Wealth Gap: How Did We Get Here?” richandregular.com, Feb. 6, 2019.
“A Black Couple Who Retired Early Says There’s a ‘Black Tax’ on Common Wealth-Building Strategies,” by Leo Aquino, businessinsider.com, June 3, 2022.
“Michelle Singletary: ‘You Need Diversity,’” The Long View podcast, Morningstar.com, July 1, 2020.
“Lynnette Khalfani-Cox: ‘There’s a Huge Wealth Gap in America,’” The Long View podcast, Morningstar.com, Sept. 27, 2021.
Financial Advice and Education
“4 Investing Rules Even ‘Regular’ People Can Use to Get Rich,” by Julien and Kiersten Saunders, money.com, June 14, 2022.
“Our Experiment With Cryptocurrency,” richandregular.com, Jan. 10, 2019.
“How to Offset the Cost of Education With a 529 Plan,” rich & REGULAR podcast, July 11, 2021.
“Talking to Mom About Money,” Money on the Table, youtube.com, Aug. 2, 2020.
Jeff Ptak: Hi and welcome to The Long View. I’m Jeff Ptak, chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services.
Christine Benz: And I’m Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.
Jeff Ptak: Our guests on the podcast today are Kiersten and Julien Saunders. Together they blog about finance and life at the website richandregular.com. And they’re also the authors of a new book called Cashing Out: Win The Wealth Game By Walking Away. In addition, they co-host the rich & REGULAR podcast. After discovering the Financial Independence, Retire Early movement in 2012, they proceeded to pay off $200,000 in debt and walked away from their corporate jobs before turning 40. Kiersten and Julien, welcome to The Long View.
Julien Saunders: Thank you so much for having us.
Jeff Ptak: It’s our pleasure. Thank you so much for joining. It sounds like, Julien, you discovered the Financial Independence, Retire Early, or FIRE movement, first. Can you talk about that, what you were doing for your career at the time FIRE came on your radar and what appealed to you about it?
Julien Saunders: I believe my first introduction to the movement was during my grad school days. This may have been like the late 2000s and it was really just in between those moments when I was studying and not wanting to study, and I would find myself just venturing on the internet and exploring real estate blogs and wanting to learn about real estate, making money. And somehow that rabbit hole led me to FIRE blogs and that wonderful world that really doesn’t exist anymore and has since evolved into all kinds of multimedia content. But I just found it really fascinating at the time that people were like sharing their net worth and talking about their investment strategies and really evangelizing for this way of life and this way of thinking. And I was just really just fascinated by it.
I had more than one motivation—I think at that time was really just a matter of my interest in all things money and business and wanting to make as much money as possible so that I could have a good quality of life. But when I started looking at that and juxtaposing it against some of my other interests, which were really around social justice issues and wanting to be a positive role model in my family and in my community. I really started to think about creative ways to tie the two together because it felt as if, with respect to the Black community, that we’ve made progress in so many other areas, but wealth seemed to be one of those things that we were lagging behind. And so that’s really when the ball started rolling, I would say around the late late 2000s.
Christine Benz: We want to come back to some of the things you’ve just mentioned, Julien. But Kiersten, I want to bring you in because it sounds like you needed some convincing to proceed on this journey toward FIRE. Can you discuss your evolution? It sounds like you and Julien began to talk about some of these things. Can you talk about where you were and how you came over to embrace this idea of financial independence?
Kiersten Saunders: I definitely needed some convincing. When Julien first brought the idea to me, it was like immediately no—it felt very extreme, and it felt like people weren’t enjoying their lives. And you have to remember back then, at this time I was in my late 20s, I was doing well in my career. I had a very robust social life that included expensive brunches on the weekends. And back then, the blogs were written anonymously and they were really focused on all of the ways that people were saving money and then investing the difference. So, there wasn’t a lot of narrative there. There weren’t pictures and stories like everybody had this pseudonym and code names that they were writing behind. And so, my evolution really started to happen, when I discovered different voices. When I discovered women like Tanja Hester and Paula Pant, that could really paint a picture for me that allowed me to see me embracing some of these ideals without completely removing my identity from my life.
And then this real shift happened when I went to a conference and we actually met people who were financially independent in real life, that weren’t bloggers, but were just living this lifestyle. And that was when the magic happened. I realized that is exactly what I want to be doing. Waking up when I want to, spending my time in a way that’s aligned to my values, and so I was all on board after that.
Jeff Ptak: You two became evangelists for financial wellness and began to pay a lot of attention to how you were managing your household assets. Who or what were your main influences on that journey? You mentioned Tanja and Paula, it sounds like they were pretty pivotal influences. Who or what else influenced you as you made your way on that journey?
Julien Saunders: That’s a great question. I think the first person as I’m thinking about it, I think like a lot of other Americans I remember reading Rich Dad Poor Dad. But I wouldn’t call that an influence it was really just like an entry point and something that introduced me to personal finance. But I will say Dr. Dennis Kimbro who is a professor, but in many ways in the Black community, seen as almost like the godfather of personal finance. He certainly was a huge influence on me. A couple of books that he wrote, Think and Grow Rich, which is a bit of a play on Napoleon Hill’s book, but he added one with a bit of a Black focus, which was really intriguing to me. And it was one that was recommended by several mentors. And the next one was The Wealth Choice where he really just brought it to life and that was important for me because it helped me to more sharply envision myself as some of the people that he was writing about and interviewing and sharing insights into the way that they thought and the way that they managed their money. I don’t know if you had any other influences at the time.
Kiersten Saunders: It wasn’t so much a person; it was more the lifestyle for me. It was more of a what than a who. I’m very reward-driven and so the idea of being able to do things like sleep in, which was at the time very important to me, pre-children. Those were the things that I looked forward to. I looked forward to taking vacations and not having credit card debt on the back end and being able to splurge on the things that matter to us, like I was more focused on the rewards of money.
Christine Benz: You two retired from your corporate careers before you were 40. And I want to talk a little bit about how you did that because there’s this whole gradation of people in the FIRE movement where you’ve got the, I guess they call it Lean FIRE, like the extreme frugality people and then the people who have high incomes that, somehow made their way to FIRE, but maybe they have a little higher-cost lifestyle. How would you plot yourself on that spectrum of FIRE practitioners?
Julien Saunders: For sure the latter end. I’m not a big fan of any of these labels. I really don’t use them because they’re pretty widely accepted within the community and in the media. But, for sure, we credit having high income and discipline as major sources as to why we were able to accomplish what we were able to accomplish. And I just remember thinking at the time, you know when you’re not earning, I remember when I was earning like $40,000 a year and was like the most amount of money that I ever thought and then was earning $75,000 a year and that was like a dream come true. Because I remember reading job descriptions and thinking, what do people who make this much money do with all this money? I just couldn’t imagine it until it actually happened.
Even in those moments I would look up the organization and look around and think about people who made even more. And I just found myself continually asking this question, what are we doing with all this money? And quite honestly, why are they still working? I just couldn’t understand it. But yeah, all that to say, for sure, we were very fortunate to have earned high incomes and we would see people who earned even higher incomes but made very different choices as a bit of a cautionary tale because we didn’t want to be in our 50s and 60s and still needing to work to make ends meet or to help make up for decades past.
Jeff Ptak: As you embarked on your journey to financial independence, were there any key areas where you departed from the conventional wisdom about how to do it?
Kiersten Saunders: I think the biggest area that we departed from was this idea of having a rigid number or a rigid timeline before we considered ourselves financially independent, or maybe a better way to put it is able to take advantage of the benefits of financial independence. So, while traditional, conventional wisdom says you have to have 25 times your annual expenses before you’re financially independent and can quit your job. We realized that even if you don’t have 25 times your annual expenses, there’s still a whole lot of leverage you can do between working every single day for a salary and enjoying a life where working is optional. And so, we’ve decided to pursue a creative career, I guess you can call it a career, after we left the traditional workplace and were able to do that because of the portfolio that we have.
Christine Benz: How did you set your target for how much you would need to have set aside before you could quit those corporate jobs?
Julien Saunders: Well, that part was pretty simple. It was really just a matter of guesstimating how much we think we would need on an annual basis and looking at how much we would need in our portfolio today and then allowing that to compound over a number of decades. It was really just a matter of saying how much is enough, if you will. To be able to say, yeah, we’ll have more than enough based on what we anticipate we would need during reaching our traditional retirement ages, or when we can safely withdraw without penalty from our retirement accounts. It’s a moving target for a number of reasons for us—one because we have a child, and the costs of children is so wildly unpredictable. But even now with respect to supporting a parent—my mom is financially insecure and so we do support her financially today. And we’re lucky that we’re able to do that quite comfortably based on the number of income sources that we have.
And so all of that to say for us it was a matter of being able to reprioritize the things in our life that were important to us, which at this juncture is quality of life, health and our wellness, taking care of our son, spending as much time as we can with our parents in their golden years without having to worry about whether or not we are going to have enough in retirement. And so, we’re in a really comfortable spot right now and we’re still able to earn income, which makes it even a lot easier for us.
Kiersten Saunders: I think the term for our version of FI is Coast FI, where you front-load your traditional retirement and then you’re coasting in between your current age and traditional retirement age and you’re figuring out ways to cover your expenses and continue to invest.
Jeff Ptak: You mentioned enough a moment ago. In a lot of ways, social media seems to work against that concept when it comes to getting off, say the spending treadmill. As we know, social media can be full of people flaunting trappings of wealth. How would you recommend that people deal with that given that social media is a way of life for so many people?
Julien Saunders: It’s a great question. You used the word treadmill and I would say, getting off the social media treadmill is probably one of the best things that you can do, because you’re absolutely right, it sucks you in and it shows you a very curated and mostly false way of life in thinking, and even now we’re finding ourselves spending as little time as possible aimlessly surfing social media because there’s just not a lot of value there. And I think also given our platform, we really want to represent something else. We want to be a real-world example and social media algorithms don’t really cater to that. They want to see the sexy stuff, and the sizzle and all of those things. So, I think if that’s something, if you’re listening out there and you’re thinking that this isn’t something that you enjoy, I think honestly, just consider joining the group of people who actually just decided that they don’t want to do it anymore. And just continue to opt out because it can be very enticing and it’s only getting better or worse. The algorithm is getting better at feeding the things that you don’t want or need, but it’s worse for a lot of people who are spending time there.
Kiersten Saunders: At the same time, there’s the other side of that coin, where social media allows you to find community in ways that you wouldn’t be able to do locally. And for a lot of us who are pursuing countercultural means of financial progress, it’s the only way that you can connect with like-minded individuals through hashtags and communities. And so, I’d offer that piece of advice. You absolutely want to heed Julien’s caution and treat social media like the recreational drug that it is. But while recognizing that through the power of hashtags and challenges and communities, you can also find your next biggest supporter. We tend to lean on our friends and family and expect them to support every endeavor of our lives. But when it comes to money, sometimes that’s not possible and you haven’t met your biggest cheerleader yet or your accountability partner. I would encourage you to use social media for that, to join a couple of communities, tweak the algorithm, tell them you’re interested in money nerd stuff and the kinds of content that you want to see. And then let it work for you.
Christine Benz: That’s a great point. I want to talk about one of the most amazing parts of your story, which is that you had $200,000 in debt, that you were able to pay off in five years once you both got serious about this FIRE thing. Can you talk about that? I’d like to hear specifically if you have any hacks to share with people who have debt that they’d like to pay down in a similarly aggressive way.
Kiersten Saunders: It’s a great question because when we were doing this back in 2012, it was when we started, or 2013, a lot of the apps and tools that exist today weren’t around. And so, our biggest hack was using paper. We had a countdown calendar that we would post on the refrigerator. I bought it off of Amazon—it was like 100-day countdown calendar. And we knew what milestone would be associated with those 100 days. And we could build little celebrations along the way. We knew that, if we were on day 89 in 11 days, we could have a nice bottle of wine or whatever the splurge was. And then the other hack that we used was we would move the money as soon as it came into the account. I remember, we’d wake up on Friday morning, see the direct deposit hit and we already knew where that money was going to go. It wasn’t like we were letting it sit—it went out of the account almost as soon as it came in and we were using the rest of what was left to spend.
Paula has a name for this kind of budget, but you’re basically paying your debt down first and then you have what’s left is your budget. You don’t have to categorize anything; that’s all you have. Those were the two things. It was frequent, we normalized talking about money on a regular basis. We were super engaged with it. We weren’t looking at our debt as a boogeyman. We really looked at it as a creative challenge that we could work together to get rid of.
Julien Saunders: I would add a bit of a counterintuitive hack was to build in many celebrations along the way because it can be such a long and strenuous journey, and Kiersten actually had to teach me to do that because I was much more willing to go the hardcore frugal route. But it can get boring and repetitive. And to build in these little treats along the way really help to make the entire journey feel worthwhile.
Jeff Ptak: Rental properties and rental income had been part of your story for achieving financial independence, and I think that’s the case with many people in the FIRE community. But not everyone is cut out to be a landlord. What should people know before including real estate rentals as part of their financial plans?
Julien Saunders: There’s so much to know. There’s so much to learn. I think for us, because in the early stages I thought that it was going to be something that was a part of our lives forever. But, I was like dead set on it because that’s what I had learned, that’s what I was taught, and it had been role-modeled by so many people. I think one of the lessons that I would say now looking back, and now that we’ve sold all of our rental properties, is that I think you owe it to yourself to just be honest with yourself. To your point, it is not for everyone and that could change. You have to give yourself the right to change your mind. The other thing is I would say is, break the stigma of seeing selling as a bad thing. In order for you to buy property, someone has to sell. I think there’s this obsession with continuing to buy and buy assets. I’m like, all right, someone at some point had to be willing to sell and it doesn’t mean that you’re quitting or giving up. Sometimes you just may decide that this isn’t a good fit for you.
I think if you’re a newbie investor and you’re thinking about it, I think getting over that hump and not seeing selling as some type of failure or some admission of wrongdoing, I think is really important. Take advantage of all of the different perks and flexible options that you have that come with being a real estate investor or landlord, and that includes knowing when to fold them.
Christine Benz: Can you discuss your decision to unload your properties and not be in that business anymore?
Julien Saunders: It was really as we started to engage and think about how we can better leverage some of the skills that we learned in our corporate careers, as entrepreneurs and specifically within the creator economy, which is something that we really started paying attention to about five years ago. And the reality is it was just far more lucrative and far more fun than owning real estate. And so when I started thinking about where I wanted to spend my time and where I wanted to learn and it was like, all right I got to choose between really trying to master my understanding of taxes and insurance or do I really want to explore videography and photography? And so one was just that interest and I just didn’t really find owning or being a real estate investor fun the way that I used to. But secondly, it was just far easier and more fulfilling for me to drive traffic to a website to grow income or to grow a following on social media, it’s just far easier for me to do that than it was for me to raise rent. And far more lucrative. Quite frankly, some of the income that we would earn on an annual basis in one of our rental properties we could earn with content in a day.
So, it just didn’t really make much sense anymore and we started to look at our real estate portfolio as like a dreary bond portfolio. It was just holding me down. And we just didn’t want it anymore. It’s like, why are we doing this? And again, it was just out of this deep sense of commitment that, well, this is what you do when you’re building wealth. You’re supposed to own real estate, and we just found it not to be true. And so real estate led us to FIRE community, the FIRE community led us to the creator economy, and now we’re sort of straddling the fence between the two and it’s a really, really fun place to be.
Jeff Ptak: What steps did you take to protect your own plan against the kind of market downturn we’ve had so far this year?
Kiersten Saunders: I think it was a combination of things. We got a glimpse of the market downturn for a blip back in 2020 when the pandemic started. And at that point, we had a lot of cash on hand from liquidating our real estate and we started to really buckle down and determine what is our baseline budget, what is our, I forget the word for it, but what does Erin Lowry call it?
Julien Saunders: I don’t know, I always think skeletal.
Kiersten Saunders: Yes, but she has like a darker word for it, but like our skeletal budget. We got into a good rhythm during the pandemic because I had just left my job. Things were different. We had a lot of uncertainty. Obviously that little blip only lasted a couple of months. Now we are revisiting back to same practices that we’ve been using for this entire journey. I think the benefit of the FIRE community is that it teaches you how to be lean and creative in times where you don’t need it. So, when the environment, when the markets call for that same shift to happen so that you can free up capital to continue to invest. It feels very natural to you. It doesn’t feel like some sort of punishment or any negative connotation. You just recognize that this is natural, you see it as an opportunity. You welcome the uncertainty to an extent. And it becomes—we keep using the word creative challenge—but it really does become this creative challenge to figure out how to take advantage of the downturn.
Julien Saunders: I think it was also a little bit of just being willing to look back and be better students of your own investing history. Which is to say, we’ve been investing over a decade now. I’ve gone through a number of recessions. And so, you’ve got to really think back and say, well, what did I believe to be true in 2008, 2009, or that I believe to be true the last time we had prior hiccups and what can we learn from that? And in most cases it was really to just hold on, to just keep going, to trust that we’ve seen those gains, while we don’t know if the market will perform the way it did over the last 10 years, it really doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. And what we do know is that we are in a cycle. One of the best things you can do is to not overreact. And to, if anything, reevaluate your investing strategy and if you really trust it, you might even be willing to play a little bit more aggressively, than you did in the last 10 years.
Christine Benz: Julien, you mentioned at the outset of our conversation the racial income and wealth gap, which is a key interest of yours. It’s something we’ve talked about on a few occasions on the podcast as well. People of color have substantially lower net worth than white people. They’re less likely to have investments in the stock market or inherit wealth, and they’re also more likely to be poor in retirement. So, as you’ve studied the issue, what have you concluded? And this is a question for both of you. What do you think are the best ways to move the needle to improve financial wellness among people of color?
Julien Saunders: It is such a sad and big question. When we first started, when I first started really thinking of personal finance, wealth-building as a hobby, as an area of interest, I remembered that gap was somewhere in the ballpark of 6 or 8 to 1 or $6 to $8 for every $1 for Black families and now that number is anywhere between 11 and 13. And so we’ve seen it doubling. We’re seeing wealth inequality get worse and the pace in which it’s growing it seems to be getting faster. We haven’t even begun to see what the impact of COVID-19 and closing of businesses or loss of homes and property or any of those other things may do to make it even worse. What I do believe is that anything that is worthy of being deemed a crisis requires a multifaceted approach and I think that this is without question a crisis. And so, policy got us into this mess by and large and I think policy is going to have to play a role in getting us out of it. And we’ve seen a number of politicians offer some things from baby bonds to…
Kiersten Saunders: Reparations.
Julien Saunders: Reparations and guaranteed income, all of those things. But the last time I checked it certainly does not seem to be a top priority right now. This is where individual responsibility and people on a local level really need to buckle down and start looking at their finances and get more engaged with investing. I think one of the best things that we can do is to really lean into entrepreneurship, if for no other reason than because when done well, there is no cap to your income and that’s certainly not a perk that most jobs can afford us, and that’s why it’s such an important part of our message is to encourage people who are doing well and have the ability to walk away to do so with the interests of starting a business or becoming a business owner, whether or not you’re an active participant in it or not. So, all of that to say, if I had to boil it down to one thing, all of the above. We need government intervention, we need education, we need…
Kiersten Saunders: Income.
Julien Saunders: …culture, and social norms needs to be reevaluated so people feel a little bit more comfortable being or acting in a counterintuitive manner. All of the above is necessary.
Kiersten Saunders: And I just add on that we need role models. We need examples of people who have done the things right, whether it’s investing or saving heavily or retiring successfully. We need those stories. We need to update our examples of success for our community. We tend to highlight the extreme—the Oprah, the Obamas, the LeBrons. I was going to say the Joneses, but I don’t mean the ones that everybody compares them to. Just the regular Black Joneses. The Mitchells and the Saunders or whoever—these are people that you can admire as well and we need. We need refresh stories and those people to be celebrated just as much as we celebrate our celebrities.
Christine Benz: Julien, I want to follow up on the entrepreneurship point, because when you look at the data—and this cuts across racial lines—a lot of small businesses fail. People strike out and start businesses and they don’t succeed. So how do you talk to people about taking chances to pursue that entrepreneurial idea but also putting guardrails around it to ensure that it doesn’t completely blow up their whole financial plan?
Julien Saunders: That’s such a great question because it’s something that I do find when we talk about entrepreneurship with people. And what’s interesting is you use the term small business and that’s exactly the term that people use. But even when we’re talking about small business, I think people are thinking too big. You’re thinking about a multimillion dollar or even a million-dollar business or even a half-million-dollar business. You can be the worst photographer in the world and earn an extra $10,000 a year. Automate that to invest into an index fund and be a millionaire in 15 years. So those are the types of things that we’re talking about. So more specifically, it’s really just encouraging people to think smaller than a small business.
You should be thinking about micro enterprise, or you should be thinking about the power of self-employment—whatever language or word feels most comfortable—it’s really just about growing income and doing it in a way that is fruitful for you and comfortable for you. That doesn’t sacrifice your quality for life to some crazy extent, but that’s really what we actually encourage people to do, is to think smaller. I’m not asking you to create an app. I’m not asking you to break into tech or to have a brick and mortar. I’m simply asking you to think differently and to open yourself up to exceedingly wide number of ways to earn more income that exist today that didn’t exist even two years ago given the internet and social media. And so, again, it’s one of the reasons why we are so bullish on things like the creator economy. Because it is very lucrative and when done well can be a huge source of supplemental or even primary income for a great number of people.
Jeff Ptak: One topic we’ve discussed with other guests, including Michelle Singletary and Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, it’s what’s sometimes called the Black tax, which is a term that’s used to refer to the financial obligations that Black people often have to their family members and others in their community, and how that can affect their ability to get ahead. Can you talk about that issue and weigh in on whether that’s been a factor in your own journey?
Kiersten Saunders: It’s absolutely been a factor in our journey. It’s something that we’re dealing with now. It’s something that is much larger than the Black community as we enter into this crisis of shortage of healthcare professionals and just the care economy in general struggling after three years of the pandemic. I think the ways that people address this is very personal and it requires some internal work because it’s asking you to confront all of the cultural expectations and what you’ve been told to be true. What you’ve thought to be true for decades, it’s asking you to rethink the shape of your family and how that works. I know in our case we’ve decided to again subsidize Julien’s mom’s income. She lives off of Social Security, a very modest Social Security check. And that’s really it. She didn’t have additional retirement savings or a large portfolio to draw from. And so, for us, we’ve decided to supplement it because of the benefits that we get from having her close to us and our son. The generational wealth that we get from, not a monetary dollar, but just our son having access to elders and lots of people from our family.
I don’t have a broad answer to the question other than it’s something that we need to be talking about more often. It’s something that I’m hoping our fintech innovators and financial experts and gurus, creators of products and services can help us address because it’s out there. And right now, we just keep getting more like budgeting apps and roundup apps, and I think this is a problem that technology and community could really solve for.
Christine Benz: I wanted to ask about financial advice. When we delve into the data like the 2021 Ariel-Schwab Black Investor Survey found that 21% of Black Americans work with financial advisors. The percentage of white Americans with advisors was more than twice as high. Can you talk about that issue of seeking advice, getting advice? What are the key factors at play there, do you think, in terms of why Black people are less likely to use financial advisors?
Julien Saunders: I’m not an expert on the financial advisory industry, but I do know that there was a time where, and to a large extent it still exists today, where they really only worked with people who had a minimum amount of money to invest. And so, if you weren’t part of those people, then you weren’t a part of the target, they didn’t really focus their marketing efforts to you or to your community. And I think because historically the Black community has not had very much wealth, aside from a few examples here and there, I think a lot of the approach, the beliefs that advisors have still follow that old model. And a lot of the Black people themselves, still think about it the same way. They don’t think they have enough, much like they don’t believe they need a will because they think that that’s something that’s only relevant for rich people.
A lot of these outdated beliefs still shape the way that people think and act today. But I also think it’s important—going back to Kiersten’s point about role models—that’s so important. There aren’t enough people that we can point to in our neighborhood that we know and trust and can say. Oh well, I know the Johnsons. I know the Williams like well, yeah, they had a financial advisor. This is the type of life that they live. This is what they’ve done. This is what they’re doing or able to do, and they can credit it back to that. And so without those examples, the idea of having a financial advisor, the idea of having and building wealth still for a lot of us seems like something that you see on television or something that you just have heard is possible, but not something that you’ve actually been able to see and as a result can relate to. And so that’s why it’s so important for more of us to be role models. And to be outspoken about our experiences so that we can encourage a lot of other people to tap into some of the resources, and programs, and services that are available to them so that they can follow suit.
Jeff Ptak: Wanted to shift gears and ask you about education, paying for education specifically. As you know, education in the U.S. is very expensive and people can get into a lot of debt to cover it. And yet investing in higher education is practically a must for advancing in a career and accumulating wealth. How do you advise people to go about rightsizing their education purchases so they’re not putting themselves in financial jeopardy to pay for education?
Kiersten Saunders: I think our biggest advice is to begin with the end in mind and so really, really be crystal clear about the expectations that you have for this advanced degree or certification and then ask yourself if there’s an alternative. We know several people who go and get advanced degrees and they are looking at salary data that they got from typically the university, which I don’t know how honest that is. But they have these grand expectations for how much they’re going to make, but they never actually did the research of the market in their specific area. Talking to people who have jobs, looking at hiring managers, going to networking events to see if that number that they have in their mind is actually an accurate reflection of what the market is willing to pay right now. And that’s unfortunate because they spend all of this money and then they come out and the salary isn’t nearly what they expected.
I also think we’re in a time where education is going through a very similar revolution, like the labor market, and there are tons of new models that are popping up that are focusing on adult learners. We know that a lot of the jobs that will exist in 20 years don’t exist today, and a lot of companies are investing in upskilling the workforce so that they’re able to tackle these new roles and these new requirements of jobs for the future. And so there might be an alternative, whether it’s a boot camp course or some sort of community college option that’s local that is a very specific targeted skill set. Instead of getting a degree in marketing, you very specifically learn digital marketing or asset management, or some other derivative of a larger subject and you focus on that. And then that gives you a better chance of getting the job that you’re looking for or achieving the income or at least learning the specialized skill that’s going to get you the wages that you’re hoping to get.
Christine Benz: Can you talk about how you’ve approached funding higher education for your son and also balancing his education savings alongside your own goals of achieving financial independence at a fairly young age?
Julien Saunders: We opened; it was a very proud day. I remember it’s one of the things that we were so looking forward to when we decided to open up our son’s 529 account. So, we certainly take advantage of those types of investment vehicles to help offset some of the costs and I think that’s really the approach. It’s very difficult to set a target for something that has risen so fast as the cost of higher education. For us, we’re really focused on making sure that we can—we set a cap there and say all right this is how much we are able and interested in putting into these types of accounts, assuming he is interested in going to college. Because there’s certainly a lot of questions about whether or not the value of a college education will be worth it 10 or 15 years from now, or even the number of colleges that are even available. Like there’s a lot of consolidation going on and all those kinds of issues.
So that’s the big thing for us is really just to set money aside that way, but we really think about education. Kiersten uses the word woo-woo. And I don’t often use it, but I’m going to use it here—is that we really pay a little bit more attention to education as a whole, and not necessarily higher education or not specifically higher education, that’s to say that our son learns in a number of different ways. He can learn by working with us, he can learn by starting a business. He certainly learns when he travels with us and I don’t see that changing as he gets older. I genuinely don’t know if he is going to even be interested in going to college. But if he is, he will have some money that’ll help him to do that. But if he is interested in pursuing an entrepreneurial route or something else, I’m not necessarily against that either. So, give me a call in about 15 years and I’ll tell you what my final answer is.
Kiersten Saunders: Well, it’s interesting now and this is one of the things we’ve had to unlearn about parenting is that the milestone used to be when they graduated high school. When you’re in high school, that’s when you decide what’s going to happen after that. But the reality is these kids are able to create paths for themselves far earlier than any of us were able to do. So part of the planning process is remaining open to what he tells us. It’s a power dynamic shift because as a parent you feel obligated to guide them. But this new economy, this new world where these kids come out of the womb digitally savvy and have the world at their fingertips requires more of a partnership where, by the time they’re in fifth grade or seventh grade, they’re pretty able to tell you like here’s what I plan to do. I’m already working on it. I’m learning it right now. I speak Mandarin and I understand the world very differently. So that’s exciting for us to see. Yes, obviously we’ll set aside money in case the traditional route is still the thing that he wants to pursue and still exists, but we’re also remaining open to the idea that in 15 years, the options are very different for him.
Jeff Ptak: One topic we’ve asked a number of our guests to weigh in on is what works in financial education and also what doesn’t work. You two are financial educators. What works and what doesn’t if you’re trying to help people improve their decision-making about money matters?
Julien Saunders: I love that question, first of all. Thank you for asking it. I don’t know that I think of myself as a financial educator. And I also don’t want to be disrespectful to certified financial educators out there. I know for sure people learn from us. But when I do think about our skillsets, it’s really that we are storytellers, we are marketers. We’re speakers if anything. And from that standpoint what I’ve found works is storytelling. I’ve learned it the hard way, not to lead with lecture and not to lead with data points because it’s actually not been very effective. What is effective is when you can tell people a story. Something that they can relate to. And that to me has been one of the most impactful things that we could ever do. When we think about what the future holds for the work that we do now, and we think about what success looks like, we really pay much more attention to people like LeVar Burton. And you think about the impact that he had on literacy rates with Reading Rainbow, or you think about Neil deGrasse Tyson and you think about his ability to draw people into wanting to care about science, who wouldn’t normally be interested in that subject.
And what I found is actually really, really impactful isn’t just the storytelling, but it’s to be entertaining. Americans value entertainment. We spend disproportionately on entertainment. And so, if you can find a way to entertain people while weaving in financial lessons, I think that’s one of the most important and impactful things that you can do. Even this podcast, I mean respectfully, this has been one of the best conversations, we’ve had, but I know far more people who would be more willing to watch a basketball game than listen to me speak about money.
The question or the creative challenge for us becomes, well, how do we figure out creative ways to continue to make this fun? How do we not make it feel like they’re learning? It’s a matter of just meeting people where they are. We’re addicted to entertainment and so it’s really a matter of saying well, if you want to have an impact on the masses, you’ve got to figure out and understand mass media. But then you also need to figure out how do we entertain people because that’s where the attention is.
Christine Benz: A related question is how much financial education we should be teaching kids in schools? There’s been a lively discussion on financial Twitter about whether that should be a part of every grade school, high school curriculum. Can you give us your thoughts on that question, like how much financial education should we be getting in schools and how do we find time for that, alongside other important things, to be teaching kids?
Kiersten Saunders: I love this question. I used to be a volunteer with an organization called Junior Achievement that focuses on readying kids with financial literacy and business literacy early. So, I’m a proponent for introducing these topics to them as early as possible. And the reality is money is already discussed in school. It’s just usually discussed in the context of not having enough of it. We’ve all, if you are a parent, we’ve all participated in fundraisers and bake sales and popcorn buys and gift wrap, whatever it is. Like these kids know that money needs to be exchanged for things to happen. But I think the context of how that then shows up in real life is the part that’s missing. And I think this is where companies can really be innovative, especially companies that are local to a school system or a school site to come in and help create scenarios where kids can learn not behind a desk and a lecture style, but through the act of participating in some sort of staged economy.
With Junior Achievement, they have a building called BizTown where all of the corporate entities in Atlanta came together and we created a storefront, and the kids get fake money and it’s basically a field trip. They get to go for like three hours, they get a budget, they have to go to the grocery store, they got to go to the bank, and they learn what $300 actually buys. It sounds like a ton to a 5-year-old until you’re faced with, well now you’ve got a phone bill, you wanted this car, you wanted groceries. And it helps them contextualize how far money gets them. I don’t know that we should add another thing to teachers’ plates, bless their hearts. I love educators. They have a lot on their plates, and many of them, again, do teach about money. But I do think this is where corporate entities and small businesses and communities can really pitch in and help schools teach more about financial and business literacy.
Jeff Ptak: What kind of lessons are you trying to impart to your son about money and financial wellness?
Julien Saunders: My first lesson was actually forced on me and I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming. But there’s a place called Andretti’s down here in Atlanta where we live and it’s like your typical arcade, kids games, and that sort of thing as you play the games, you win tickets. And if you’re a parent, you know where this story is going. You collect all your tickets and you’re supposed to cash in those tickets for toys. And our son’s eyes lit up because he saw that big shiny blue car and he was like oh man. So, he’s got a hand full of tickets, more tickets than he’s ever seen in his life. And that’s really how he learned his first lesson on the importance of saving. I then failed miserably at trying to teach him that you don’t have enough son. I know you have 100 tickets, but you actually need around 10,000 tickets to get the big shiny blue car. And the first time it did not go so well. But I was so pleased the second time we went. We didn’t even get in line, and he was only five, but he knew then. And he was like nope, I’m going to wait, I’m going wait. And granted, he did not wait until we ended up getting 10,000 tickets. But he did wait long enough to get some silly helicopter.
Kiersten Saunders: Something other than like a Smartie.
Julien Saunders: And that was more than just another piece of slime that ended up in the garbage can. It’s little things like that, like just reinforcing what it looks like to work hard, to earn tickets, or money, and if you want to go there and get the reward for something bigger is there if you’re willing to be diligent and patient. It’s really the simple things now. And we’re also very fortunate that our faces are on the cover of our book. He sees that, and he’s asking questions about what does that mean? What does that stand for? It makes it a lot easier to lean into some of these early financial conversations.
Christine Benz: You mentioned the arcade. And so, I wanted to ask about this influx of new investors into the market. It seems like we get a lot of new investors who are dabbling in individual stocks, crypto. It sounds like you think that that’s probably not the right approach to start with some of those more speculative investments. It sounds like you two think that people should start with a broad base of investments through index funds, for example, and only add to the riskier investments after that. Can you discuss kind of how you think about investing, how you think most people should approach it?
Julien Saunders: In a former life I was a professional chef and so I tend to use a lot of food analogies and I think when I think about cryptocurrency specifically I think people should just think about it the same way they think about hot sauce. Like you just need a couple of shakes, if any, but you don’t need to smother. It’s certainly not and shouldn’t be like the main protein or the main part of your dish. If you want to leave it off altogether, then more power to you, but if you’re going to put it on there, you only need a couple of shakes. It doesn’t need to smother your entire portfolio, or certainly doesn’t need to be the primary focus of your meal if you will.
Jeff Ptak: Your podcast covers a lot of different topics, from ESG investing to food insecurity to buying used versus new. How do you decide what to talk about each week?
Kiersten Saunders: That’s a good question. Our podcast when we created it, we wanted to really explore this intersection of life and money. And we wanted to think about all the places because our listeners, your listeners, people who are already engaged in the financial community and content are well aware that you’re supposed to spend less than you make, invest along the way. There’s only two or three golden rules and so we really wanted to explore and get under the hood of like all right, well then what stops people? And so, we started picking all of these areas, these moments of conflict or tension, where people know the right thing to do but just don’t do it, whether it’s because they’re hungry. That’s what the food insecurity episode is about. Like when you’re hungry, the idea of putting money away for 10 years sounds ridiculous.
When you are supporting a parent, the idea of not having a ton of cash on hand sounds ridiculous. So, we just start to explore all the big and little ways that people can find themselves, ignoring all of this good financial advice. And we’re very fortunate that we still, although our business is digital, we still have a very active in real-life lifestyle. Every week we are talking to parents and members of the community, our friends, our family, and so we pick up a lot of the ideas just from general conversations people will just say stuff. And we’re like, wait, what? Say that one more time. Why did you do that? It becomes a topic and then it grew on its own. People now write us notes and ask us to discuss things like they’ll say, “Can you explain the metaverse really quick? I don’t understand why this is such big news.” And so, we’ll do it that way. But it’s not something that like we batch hundreds of episodes at a time. We get ahead, but we don’t try to get so far ahead that the topic that we’re talking about isn’t relevant to the audience in the moment.
Christine Benz: As you reflect on some of the podcasts and videos you’ve done so far, what are some of the ones that you’re proudest of.
Julien Saunders: I think without question. We have a video series that we do called “Money on the Table,” where again we focus on being entertaining and we cook a meal or go to a restaurant and have an engaging conversation about money while enjoying that meal. And I think the most impactful one for sure would have to be when we invited my mom over for dinner because we learned a lot about her history, her growing up in Jamaica. And the reason why we did that episode is because we know so many of our listeners—and we alluded to it earlier in this conversation—so many of our listeners, and many millions of Americans really, are struggling with financially supporting their parents. And the goal of that conversation was to one, learn a little bit more about my mom, and then to confront that obligation head-on to get her understanding, what her expectations of our support was going to be. Try to help her understand why it’s actually really challenging, not because we don’t love her, but it’s really one of the more difficult parts about managing money for us, especially at the time where our business was still pretty young. We weren’t really sure what we were doing. It was really interesting and impactful because it serves as a springboard for other people to have that very uncomfortable conversation with their own parents.
And we hear from viewers and listeners all the time, and they say, “Man, I sent that video to my mom, and it actually helped me to have that conversation with her because she saw herself in your mom.” And people’s hearts were racing as they are watching this video. Because it is kind of tense, but it’s real and I think it’s one of the more difficult parts of managing money, which again sits at the heart of why we do the work that we do. We believe our listeners are some of the smartest people out there. They don’t struggle with financial illiteracy; they struggle with the social and the cultural issues that get in the way of them making smart financial decisions. And in an effort to be role models and to fulfill the mission of our business, which is just to inspire better conversations about money, we figured there was no better way to do that than to simply show them what it looks like.
Jeff Ptak: Well, Kiersten and Julien, we have absolutely loved this conversation. Thank you so much for coming on The Long View and sharing your insights.
Julien Saunders: Thank you so much.
Kiersten Saunders: Thank you for having us.
Christine Benz: Thanks so much for being here.
Jeff Ptak: Thanks for joining us on The Long View. If you could, please take a minute to subscribe to and rate the podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
You can follow us on Twitter @Syouth1, which is, S-Y-O-U-T-H and the number 1.
Christine Benz: And @Christine_Benz.
Jeff Ptak: George Castady is our engineer for the podcast and Kari Greczek produces the show notes each week.
Finally, we’d love to get your feedback. If you have a comment or a guest idea, please email us at TheLongView@Morningstar.com. Until next time, thanks for joining us.
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