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Interviewing Tanja Hester: Advising a New Generation of Wallet Activists

In this special, live episode of Big Picture in Practice, Julie and new co-host Syl Flood interview Tanja Hester on sustainability, wallet activism, and advice for advisors who want to engage with the new generation of investors. Tanja Hester is an award-winning author and activist.


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In This Episode, You’ll Hear...

0:38 – Introducing Tanja Hester

Tanja Hester is the author of two award-winning books:

• Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way

• Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save as a Force for Change

She's best known for retiring from her career at the age of 38 and considers herself a life-long activist.

2:44 – COVID’s effects on the FIRE Movement

FIRE stands for financial independence, retire early. Early in the pandemic, there was a lot of speculation that COVID would be the end of FIRE, and that folks would no longer look to retire in their 20s, 30s, or 40s. Tanja thinks the opposite is true—that the pandemic encouraged workers to build financial security beyond their jobs, and that this trend will accelerate.

4:08 – Doing FIRE Right

The FIRE movement encourages workers to resist the pressure to endlessly accumulate, and to make personal decisions about when they feel like they have enough. It is also a form of social or economic justice, because when more people leave the workforce at an earlier age, it frees up opportunities for the next generation.

6:38 – Defining Wallet Activism

According to Tanja, wallet activism is recognizing and using financial power in all its forms to create change that aligns to personal values. Advisors can engage with wallet activists meaningfully by understanding that almost 90% of investors are interested in aligning their financial choices to their values and following up accordingly.

8:56 – Making Sustainability Accessible

Tanja’s tried the zero-waste lifestyle. Her perspective is that extreme solutions are burdensome and unrealistic, and they won’t successfully convince most people to take meaningful action. Instead, she suggests investors reflect on how they can reshape their lives in realistic ways.

10:23 – Fighting ESG Cynicism with Tools for Transparency

The lack of a consistent definition makes Tanja skeptical of ESG. Many investors have the misconception that a fund needs to have a good score in all three areas of environmental, social, and governance criteria, and accuse a fund of greenwashing if that expectation isn’t met. Investors need tools that will allow them to see what makes up a fund directly, as well as the long-term environmental and social costs of those funds, so they can make informed decisions.

13:43 – Advising the Next Generation of Investors

Tanja suggests that financial advisors should not assume that every client, especially younger ones, wants to make the highest returns they can. She thinks that many, including herself, are willing to trade off the highest possible returns for the opportunity to do something impactful. She thinks there is a lot of economic opportunity for advisors who focus on equipping activist investors with the knowledge to fulfill their goals.

17:53 – Debt Funds: An Opportunity for Advisors

Tanja thinks that a big opportunity is to buy into debt funds that specifically finance projects in disinvested communities. She lists examples of relevant companies or initiatives for advisors with clients who have a social-justice focus.

19:47 – Are Millennials Fed Up With ESG?

As investors become savvy about greenwashing, they are increasingly frustrated to find funds who set their own ESG metrics falling short of their values. They also acknowledge the conflict of interest, where many of the professionals packaging ESG funds hope to make money off sustainable investors. That is why transparent assessments that dig into which ESG funds live up to their promises are essential.

20:49 – Climate Legislation vs. Individual Choices

Tanja’s perspective is that investors should have modest expectations about climate policy changes. Instead, she suggests they reflect on the impact that their communities have on the environment and society and make mindful decisions accordingly. While it’s impossible for someone to do everything, she believes those who have financial means have more responsibility to understand their impact on the world.

22:27 – Evaluating Bill Gates’ Impact

While Tanja acknowledges the resources and impact of the Gates Foundation, her problem with billionaire philanthropy overall is that it gives the wealthy an enormous influence over social policy. For example, the Gates Foundation has dictated much of how schools in the United States function, without much input from American voters.

23:45 – Q&A with Tanja

Tanja addresses questions from the audience, including:

• 23:45 – With healthcare costs rising well above CPI, how can investors, particularly those with chronic or debilitating diseases, prepare for a long or early retirement?

• 24:54 – Do FIRE advocates need advisors?

• 25:25 – What advice would you give to the uninitiated investor, who's excited about the idea of value investing but not yet knowledgeable about the fundamentals?

• 27:08 – How can real estate investors promote growth without displacement in cities?

• 28:09 – How can advisors help nudge clients from the obsession of acquiring and toward using their wealth to fund experiences in charitable giving?

• 28:41 – How can advisors show the impacts of choices and progress toward non-financial goals?

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