Christine Benz, Morningstar‘s (NASDAQ:MORN) director of personal finance, who has twice been named to Barron’s list of “100 Most Influential Women in U.S. Finance,” explains how she builds her model portfolios, how people should approach the long-term care conundrum, how to close the gender gap in finance, and what she learned from her “faux-tirement.”
To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool’s free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Oct. 26, 2021.
Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I’m Alison Southwick, joined as always by Robert Brokamp, personal finance expert here at The Motley Fool. It’s the last Tuesday of the month, which means you get to eavesdrop as Bro seats down for a nice chat with someone he reveres in finance. This month, he’s joined by Christine Benz, Morningstar’s Director of Personal Finance. They’ll talk about how people should approach the long-term care conundrum, how to close the gender gap in finance, and much more, all on this week’s episode of Motley Fool Answers.
Robert Brokamp: It’s the last episode of the month, which means we get a chance to interview a bright shining light in the world of financial planning. This month, it is a real privilege to spend some time chatting with one of my favorite writers at one of my favorite websites. Christine Benz, the Director of Personal Finance at Morningstar. Christine has worked at Morningstar for almost 30 years, as a Morningstar’s 401(k) committee co-hosts the Longview podcasts, and in 2020 and in 2021 made Barron’s list of the 100 most influential women in US Finance. Christine, welcome to Motley Fool Answers.
Christine Benz: Robert, it’s so great to see you. Thank you for having me on.
Robert Brokamp: So let’s start with your story. How did a political science Russian language major end up as Morningstar’s Director of Personal Finance or finance as you pronounce it?
Christine Benz: It was around about path, I studied Russian language for 10 years; four years in college as well as six years prior to that, had always had an interest in politics and government and international relations. I emerged from college thinking that I would do something putting those two things together, and at that point, when I emerged from college, the job offerings that would leverage my Russian language experience seemed dull to me, so I interviewed with the NSA I remember in that position as far as I could tell and just listening and on phone conversations of Russians [laughs] who might be living in the US, it just didn’t seem super interesting work to me, and I wanted to come back to Chicago. I had been an intern in DC and really love DC, but I did want to live in Chicago with my family. So moved back to Chicago with a vague notion of working in publishing and had a couple of jobs in publishing. My dad was an early adopter of Morningstar, and he really liked what Morningstar was doing. He knew a little bit about the company. He was a mutual fund investor as well as a stock investor. I remember I saw a help wanted ad in the newspaper, The Chicago Tribune for a copy editor at Morningstar, and my dad urged me to go apply. I remember that he and my husband gave me a little bit of coaching in advance because my financial knowledge at that point was minuscule. I remember even the night before dinner my husband saying, “You know what a mutual fund is, right?” I was like, “Well, kind of.” [laughs] I came in with very little knowledge of financial matters. But thankfully, Morningstar was very willing to train liberal arts folks in investing, and it really didn’t matter what position you occupied at Morningstar, you still got that training, and you gotten assigned reading list which included A Random Walk Down, Wall Street, and it included Jack Bogle’s books. I was really lucky that I was joining a company that was appreciative of liberal arts majors and what we could bring to the table in terms of organized thinking and writing abilities and so forth, but was also willing to train us up as analysts. I started as a copy editor editing the analyst reports, and along the way, within months of doing that job, I began to find it interesting and also began to think that it was a job that I could do, so I applied to be a fund analyst and eventually, after doing that job for a few years, eventually, headed up our US equity research team, our team of fund researchers covering US Stock Focused Funds and then eventually, heading up our US Equity Research Group, our Fund Research Group.
Robert Brokamp: Morningstar itself is a great story, it started in 1984 by Joe Mansueto, who at the time was a 27-year-old working out of his apartment in Chicago.
Christine Benz: Right.
Robert Brokamp: The name of the company comes from the last line in Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, which I love as an English major.
Christine Benz: Yeah.
Robert Brokamp: The company is now worth $12 billion and has more than 8,000 employees in 29 countries. You joined in 1993 when the company was less than a decade old, and the style box at the company is now famous for it was only a year old. So it must have been really exciting to be part of the company’s growth over the decades. Do you have any career development tips you’d like to share with people looking to build a similarly successful career? It could be in finance or publishing or elsewhere.
Christine Benz: Yeah. I think the starting point you referenced Joe Mansueto’s founding of Morningstar, and I think a key thing is finding yourself in a place where you align culturally with the company, and I think that comes down to the company’s roots that Joe Mansueto has said that he didn’t call Morningstar Mansueto Inc. on purpose, that he didn’t want it to be about him. He wanted it to be about something bigger than him. I think that resonated with me and also the idea of working in a position at a company that was trying to be helpful appealed to me in a very basic way that I think even though I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to do with my career, I always had the sense that I wanted to do something somewhat altruistic, and so I think making sure that the decisions you make align with your values as a human being is absolutely crucial. That I would say has been a touchstone for me throughout my career, just thinking about what my values are, thinking about how they might be evolving as I began to evolve away from focusing so much on investment research and focusing more on financial planning instead, having a company that was going to be supportive of that growth was really important. Then I would say another thing I think about is developing your own style with respect to networking your career is really important. I do not think of myself as a good networker in a traditional sense. But I think finding your own way to network can be really beneficial. An example I would give is that I often work on things where I get to work with really high profile people, whether it’s Bill Bernstein or even Jack Bogle, while he was still alive, where I would get to work with them on something and I think they would gain an appreciation for how I thought about things, how I research things. I think you can insinuate yourself into being respected by just doing what you do rather than networking in a really traditional sense, if that makes sense.
Robert Brokamp: Yeah, I think that’s excellent advice. When I joined the Fool, I knew I wanted to join the Fool because of the things you said. I liked the culture, I liked the founders. Here at The Motley Fool, no one has their own closed-off offices, even these founders and the CEOs, and I was just like, “I got to get in there anyway I can, and once I’m in, I’ll work my way to the job I want.”
Christine Benz: Exactly. At Morningstar, it’s the same way where Joe Mansueto and Kunal Kapoor, his successor. I remember Joe had a very nice oriental rug in his cubicle, [laughs] but he had the same sized cubicle as all of the rest of us, he did have a corner cubicle but I really appreciated that as well. That’s those cultural markers that you can pick up on.
Robert Brokamp: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the topics that you cover in your work. When someone visits your author page on Morningstar, they’ll see right below your bio that the featured link is to your model portfolios for retirees and savers. Tell us a little bit about those.
Christine Benz: They’re a little different from other model portfolios that people might be familiar with, and that they’re really there for educational or illustration purposes, and I started experimenting with model portfolios mainly because I’ve become a proponent of what’s called the bucket approach to retirement decumulation, and I was influenced by Harold Evensky, who is a leading light in financial planning to work on these bucket portfolios, and basically, they’re portfolios that are organized by anticipated spending horizon. You create your asset allocation based on your proximity to needing to spend your money over a given time period. I decided to create the model portfolios just to illustrate how this would work in practice because I think asset allocation can be horribly black boxy, where it can be really difficult to know what is an appropriate asset allocation given time horizon. That was really the impetus to show people how this might work in an actual portfolio populated with actual holdings that our analyst team likes and recommends. That was the goal, and I have since created companion portfolios to the bucket portfolios that are more accumulator portfolios geared toward people who are saving for retirement, as well as some portfolios for people with very short-term goals like within the next 5-10 years as opposed to retirement. Then have created all different iterations of those model portfolios, including tax-efficient portfolios and portfolios that are geared toward specific fund families. It’s just a way to illustrate how some of the things that I talked about in my work could be realized in actual portfolios.
Robert Brokamp: If I could sum up the buckets, it’s generally the first bucket, super safe money, any money you need in the next couple of years, that’s cash. Years to 10, maybe bond heavy, including maybe floating rate, maybe tips, Treasured Inflation Protected Securities.
Christine Benz: Right.
Robert Brokamp: Maybe some large-cap stocks, but mostly, safer stuff, and then any money you need beyond that 10 years. Pretty stock-heavy because historically, you’re going to make money in the stock market over roughly 90 percent of 10-year holding periods. Do I got it mostly there?
Christine Benz: Yeah. No, that’s exactly right. The basic idea behind that 10-year ball work at the front end where you’ve got the cash piece and then you’ve got that bond heavy bucket too is that if Armageddon occurs in the equity market, you would not have to touch your stock holdings during that period that you would have enough to spend through in such an environment, and we have had periods like that. The lost decade for equities from 2000 through 2010, I think, is a perfect example of why I think that 10-year time horizon may make sense. In other market environments, you wouldn’t necessarily spend through buckets 1 and 2, you wouldn’t spend through your cash and bonds, we’ve had such a great equity market that your equity appreciation has probably supplied everything you needed to live on, and then some. In better market environments, you can easily just prune your appreciated equity holdings and use that to supply your near-term living expenses, but the idea that basic bucket setup and that eight years, 10 years, however, you want to size that bucket 1 and 2 component is there to protect you in case we have some a sustained downturn.
Robert Brokamp: You mentioned Harold Evensky, very respected financial planner. He wrote a post last October on his website, talking about basically how we just not expect great things from the US stock market over the coming years. Another excellent resource that you provide is your annual survey of these types of forecasts from different firms including Morningstar. What people could expect from stocks and bonds? The industry often calls them capital market assumptions. What are various firms expecting these days? How should investors factor these predictions into their plans?
Christine Benz: They are not expecting much, at least from a plain vanilla 60 percent equity, 40 percent bond portfolio composed of US stocks and bonds. The return expectations really across the board, we’re in, I would say, mid-to-low single-digits for US equities and even lower for fixed income because we know that starting yields are really good predictor of what your opt to earn in terms of your total return from bonds over the next decade. We all know where fixed-income yields are today, even though they’ve come up a little bit, they are still very low. The capital markets forecasts for that plain vanilla 60, 40 portfolio are really quite muted. They look a little better once you stretch the time horizon. Our Morningstar Investment Management team will look at longer-time horizons, and there, we return to more normal levels if you push it a little further out into the future where you can use long-term historical returns for US equities, which are certainly brighter than mid-to-low single-digits. What I saw though, in the latest run-up capital markets assumptions, and I’ve looked at this within the past few months, is that to affirm, they are expecting better returns from non-US equities. I know that a lot of people, myself included, have been beating this drum for a while and it really hasn’t happened, including in 2021 where we have seen better returns from non-US equities. But it does appear that there is a convergence on that front that most firms do to lower starting valuations. Overseas are expecting better returns from international equities.
Robert Brokamp: I’ve been pointing that out too for a good five years or so. [laughs] One of these days, Christine, we’re going to be right, I swear.
Christine Benz: We’re going to be dead right. [laughs]
Robert Brokamp: Obviously, when you think about your portfolio, how much to put some cash, bonds, and stocks, you’re really thinking about risk and return. But you recently wrote that there’s actually more to investing than just risk and return. What are some of the main lessons you wanted to pass along in that article?
Christine Benz: I had been just toying with the idea or thinking about how there are all these non-tangible intangibles that we don’t think about, or we certainly don’t talk about with respect to how we create our financial plans. Peace of mind is a big one that I come back to again and again where I realize that a lot of smart decisions that I’ve made over my financial life have been in the name of peace of mind. Big one that I would point to is my husband and I a few years ago were looking at our mortgage and we’re like, “Well, how do we really have a mortgage? We have cash on our balance sheet.” I’m thinking, “Well, we could probably invest that money and earn a higher return in the market, but gosh, wouldn’t if feel good to have a paid-off home?” We did that and have never looked back. I think that people if they are thoughtful about their financial lives, they’d probably find that there are other decisions that they might make, that they made first and foremost in the name of peace of mind didn’t necessarily deliver the best quantifiable ROI, but nonetheless was a really smart decisions. Peace of mind, I think is one of those important factors that should affect how you approach your financial plan and your investment plan.
Also, I really love the concept of enough and figuring out if you have enough, and how that might affect how you invest. Bill Bernstein, who I know that you’ve had on the show before, has said, and he would probably say this code is an original to him, but he said, “If you’ve won the game, quit playing. That if you are in the place you need to be in terms of your financial life, you should really curtail risks in that plan. There’s no need to go on for a higher return.” But I think too many of us, I would say that I’m sometimes guilty of this as well. Just a geared toward like, “Well, no, there’s a better return to be had somewhere so I’m going to continue to position my portfolio aggressively and never pull back even when I have enough.” Another topic I covered in that piece was just time-on-Earth allocation that I don’t think we talk enough about how we spend our time, and whether the financial decisions we make align with, giving us more time to do things that constitute quality of life for us. I think if you really are mindful of the importance of your Time-on-Earth allocation to me that points for really trying to simplify your financial plan or maybe delegate some of your financial planning decisions, some of your investment decisions to someone else. Those are just some things that I was thinking about with respect to things that are not quantifiable. You can’t create an Alpha around Time-on-Earth allocation. It’s really very personal and up to each of us to make our own decisions, but they should be part of the decision-making process.
Robert Brokamp: We’ve talked about risk a little bit in the conversation and mostly pertaining to portfolio, but there are other risks and one of those is the potential need for long-term care. There’s really two aspects to it. One is whether we personally when they need long-term care, and the stat suggests that most people over the age of 65 will need some care. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay for it, but you’ll need some help. But then there’s a possibility that we’ll be the ones providing some level of care for generally relatives. You’ve had personal experience with both of these aspects. You’ve written that your parents needed care before they passed away, and then you have an older sister with intellectual disability, and she lives with you and your husband for part of the year. You’ve also written that you and your husband hired a fee-only financial planner to help you decide whether you should purchase Long-Term Care insurance for your own coverage. Given all your experience and research, how do you think people should approach the Long-Term Care Conundrum?
Christine Benz: Starting with the financial piece, I would say, it’s devilishly complicated, and that was the choice that my husband and I were attempting to arrive at a decision on. Really, there are a few key options. One is to self-fund, which is probably where we’ll land and when we met with the planner. Her advice was I think you should probably just come down about this even though this is your personal experience, I think you’re OK in terms of self-funding. But you can also buy pure long-term care insurance. A problem with it is that it has become more expensive. We’ve seen consumers who thought they were doing all the right things, purchase long-term care insurance, and then be confronted with these egregious premium hikes, which has been the result of insurance claims experiences. If people have long-term care insurance, they tend to use it. If they purchase it.
The insurance company tends not to be able to shake them off with these premium increases. They hang on and say, well, I’ve been paying into the policy, why would I quit it now? We’ve seen premiums go up on pure long-term care. I still think that that’s probably the right answer for a certain set of consumers, especially for those who have tighter financial plans, where it looks like they will need everything in their portfolio to live on during their retirement years when they’re healthy. I think that pure long-term care can make sense in some situations. Increasingly, there are these hybrid life/long term care policies, which is really a life insurance policy with a long-term care insurance rider. That was something my husband and I delved into when we were looking at long-term care decision-making. We had a whole life policy, and you can do this not to get too in the weeds in terms of all these insurance aspect. But you can do these conversions called a 1035 exchange of an existing life insurance policy into one of these hybrid policies. That was a spot where we did get some help from a broker who talked us through the available options if we wanted to do that. I think that that can be an elegant option and that it helps you switch off one risk. The risk of dying while you have dependents.
The new risk, which is the risk of having long-term care. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I would say that it’s an exceptionally complicated space. Finally, the last option for covering long-term care is to rely on government resources, and in fact, the US government and Medicaid is the largest payer of long-term care expenses in the US. But there are significant strictures around who can use those resources. You’d need to essentially deplete a big share of your investment resources. This is a big issue, especially if you’re part of a married couple, where you would essentially have to not impoverish, but really drain the resources in order to have the person who needed long-term care be eligible for Medicaid provided care. Not a simple answer financially, but I would definitely think through the key sorts of options on that front. As you alluded to, there’s a whole softer set of considerations around long-term care, where you want to long-term care. The experience that I had with my parents was that they wanted to receive care in their home and I very much respected them and adored my mom and dad and wanted to help them make it happen and have five sisters, so we were all very hands on. But what I would say is for people who have that as their plan, just make sure that you have some really committed adult children who can help you see that vision to fruition because it’s not as simple as saying, I plan to just install grab bars in my shower or whatever it might be.
There’s all other stuff that goes along with making care in a home work. Then with my sister, that’s a separate consideration. She has an intellectual disability, has had since birth, and it was our family’s plan to keep her with us. We have a large family, and she spends a portion of each of her years with us. She has a bedroom and each of the homes of my siblings and myself and my husband, and she is the honored guest. She’s there for her 2.5 months each year. It works really well for us. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for everyone else because my sister, they happens to be quite high functioning, and she makes it really easy for all of us. But that’s been a more elegant, I would say, solution to a long-term care. What might be a conundrum for other people has been a pretty nice solution for my family.
Robert Brokamp: Just to highlight a few things there and make sure everyone got them. First of all, you’re one of six girls in a family.
Christine Benz: Yes.
Robert Brokamp: Which is quite amazing. The other thing that even though you are personal finance expert, you hired a fee-only planner to help make a decision. I have often said that I think even the most dedicated do-it-yourself-first should occasionally get that objective expert opinion, just make sure they have all the basis covered. I’ve done it in the past and I expect to do in the future, even though it’s really not very cheap.
Christine Benz: No, that’s right. We shopped around, and I found a planning firm here in Chicago. I had actually had some contact with them through work-related things and think a lot of their abilities. They’re quite sophisticated, I think that sometimes people think that this hourly model of paying for advice for less sophisticated investors as well as less sophisticated planners, and I would say that this particular planning firm and several others that I know have really puts the lie to that notion in that they are incredibly sophisticated, especially with respect to their tax planning expertise and also their clients are pretty sophisticated in that one of the planner shared with me that their typical client portfolio is $10 million. I think those clients have done the math and have said if I’m going to pay for advice, it’s probably better for me to do it on a surgical basis rather than handing over a percentage point of my return per year. Which is not to say that isn’t a good model for some people, but I think that certainly for people with very large portfolio won’t be the most cost-effective way to pay for advice. Absolutely get advice from a financial planner and do so either on a holistic basis or on a surgical basis. I think that it can be really economically, quite efficient. The planner that we work with does have a high hourly fee, but we only need their services once every couple of years, and we only need 10 or 20 hours of their work, it will be more cost-effective for us than paying an ongoing fee year-in and year-out.
Robert Brokamp: Since we’re talking about the financial profession, the financial world in general, seems very male-dominated. Whether you’re talking about financial services industry, financial media. Even the consumers of financial media, The Motley Fool audience skews very male. I assume that’s true of the Morningstar audience you could tell me if that’s accurate or not, but based on the Five Morningstar conferences I’ve been to, it seems that to be the case. Assuming you agree with all that, why do you think that is and what can be done to close the gender gap?
Christine Benz: Yeah, you have, Bro in your name, so let’s start there. [laughs] It’s very bro-ey I would say overall, I do see signs of change, and I think that’s happening for a couple of reasons. One is that I feel the dynamics in the financial industry is moving toward an appreciation of financial planning and moving toward an appreciation of goals versus investing strictly and beating the benchmark. I feel like the whole conversation is moving more toward goals. I think that’s where women really shine, and I think to that idea of reaching goals, achieving tasks resonates with women. I think that we’ll begin to see more diversity as the industry evolves to show a greater appreciation for helping people achieve their goals as opposed to beating benchmark. Of course, these are huge generalizations. I’m sure there are plenty of women who are very geared toward beating benchmark and I know plenty of guys who are very goals focused.
But I think as the conversation as the industry shifts more in that direction, I think we will see more women enter the field. I think culture is really important. I come back to Morningstar’s culture, I think Morningstar has always been a tremendous culture for women. We’ve had several women leaders over the years. But even the male leaders have been incredibly receptive to having women be in leadership positions, I think my main mentor at Morningstar Don Phillips, who was one of Morningstar’s original founding members, was always just so supportive of my career and so supportive of everything that I worked on. I think that cultural, and so I would like to see more companies get better at including women in leadership positions. It’s a heavy lift, but I think we’re going to get there. I’m hopeful.
Robert Brokamp: I’m thinking and hoping also that it’s generational when I think of my mom’s generation, it certainly was much more of the case where you left money to your husband and you took care of the kids. I think the studies that look at the financial literacy gap between men and women find that younger women are doing much better because it’s just change in society in terms of giving women more opportunities, equal treatment in various ways, things like that.
Christine Benz: I think that’s absolutely true. I’ve been interested in some of the data on how women invest relative to men. When you look at the data, you do see that there is a gap that women tend to be more conservative and that gets repeated again and again. But then when you drill into that, that’s really an income gap. That women do tend to earn less than men over their lifetime. Perhaps quite rationally, they take less risk in their investment portfolio because they don’t think they have the funds to risk. It’s interesting when you look at some of the more finely tuned data that look at investment choices. When you control for income, you see that men and women invest almost in the same way. I think solving that income gap, that is still something I’m very interested in. I think part of that comes back to, do we create an environment where women can stay engaged with work even while they want to be very involved with raising their kids at home, and do we create an environment where men can do that as well? I think that that is key to solving this income gap, which has been, in my view, very important in terms of causing women to invest more conservative.
Robert Brokamp: At this point in your career, you’ve written a hundreds, if not thousands of articles. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to count them all?
Christine Benz: No, scared to. [laughs]
Robert Brokamp: Are there a few that you considered your all-time favorites? Maybe because you thought they’re particularly well written, you saw it publishing like dang, that was a good article. [laughs] Or you thought that they covered a really important lesson or maybe you hit upon a new insight?
Christine Benz: Yeah, one that comes to mind I referenced my sister, and I wrote a column out of pure rage, not toward her, but toward a situation that happened when she was staying with us and we had door-to-door financial advisor. I think it was one day when I wasn’t home and came and spoke to my sister and later, dropped off some materials at the house about retirement planning. It was pretty clear to me that she would have understood the situation. She would have understood that my sister would’ve been someone who couldn’t make her own financial decisions, but nonetheless, she [laughs] seemed determined to try to make some sort of a sale. I guess I was just so disgusted by the practice of what seemed to be an exploitive situation. I also think it’s just playing risky for financial people to be going door-to-door, no matter how safe that community might be perceived. I just was so frustrated with the sales culture that seems to persists at some financial advisory firm. I wrote a piece about that called Not Okay, that discussed my thoughts and my concern about that sales-y culture.
Robert Brokamp: You eventually track that person down and confronted the financial planner, right?
Christine Benz: I did. [laughs] I was just so angry and I talked to her and I have really given her the benefit of the doubt and talk to family members about like, “Is it possible she didn’t know? Is it possible she didn’t realize?” Everyone assured me that she had to have known. I would say that we had a fairly cordial conversation and just left it there. I did have a journalist inquire about, can you give me her name? Can you give me her number? I want to follow up on this. I didn’t want to completely wreck her career. But I did want her to know that I felt that her behavior had been very concerning.
Robert Brokamp: Any other articles stood out among your all-time faves?
Christine Benz: Well, I liked a piece I wrote about lessons from my 25th anniversary, so I would’ve had my 25th anniversary at Morningstar in, I guess, 2018. I wrote a piece just reflecting on a lot of things that I come back to again and again in my columns, on why less is more in your financial plan, the importance of financial planning and not sweating the small stuff, just some big picture takeaways. That was a fun one that seems to resonate with people.
Robert Brokamp: I’ll tell you what one of my favorite Christine Benz articles was. That is confessions of a former FIRE’s skeptic, FIRE meaning, financial independence, retire early. I like that article for many reasons. But one is it encapsulated pretty much my own thought evolution on the FIRE movement. What were you skeptical about, and then what changed your mind?
Christine Benz: Two main things I was skeptical about. One was, I had the perception that everyone in the FIRE movement was viewing work as this log that they needed to get through. That work is just horrible thing that you have to put up with until you can stop. Having had such a happy and successful career, I guess that’s just not my vantage point at all. I feel like work can be a great source of joy for all of us. I think about like when my parents were dying, what a great source of refuge from some other sad parts of my life that work was and friends at work were during that time. There was that. I would say that hangs out there a little bit that I think there are some people in the FIRE community who still treat work that way. My point on that is, maybe look for another job then, if work is that bad for you.
Then the other thing is when I think about my 20s and 30s and 40s, I think that those can be really great years for experience and some of those experiences require spending money. I think about all the great travels that my husband and I did in those years, which we’re still doing, but you never know what the future holds. I’m so glad that we did them while we were young. Some of those things do require spending money. I think about the intense frugality that pervades the FIRE community or some quarters of the FIRE community and that I reject because I do think that you need to find balance. That might involve spending more money than perhaps you want to. Those were the initial reservations that I had. I would say speaking with Chris Mamula, who has a blog, I think it’s called Can I Retire Yet? I believe, really changed my mind. He was the first person we had on our podcast who was part of the FIRE community. He really evinced balance in the conversation.
He talked about how he and his wife love travel too, and they had visited every continent. I’m thinking to myself, “Gosh, I haven’t visited every continent, that’s pretty good.” He also talked about how important it had been for him and his wife to set their priorities. They live in Utah and they love outdoor adventure. He made the point that we’ll always have the best outdoor gear. Whatever it is to keep warm or keep us comfortable as we engage in our outdoor pursuits, we’re going to spend money on that. We’re not going to cheap out. That conversation was really eye-opening to me in terms of understanding how someone who had been successful in a FIRE pursuit had pursued it. Also, how he hadn’t completely abandoned balance in the process. Also, listening to him, Chris continues to work. He works on his blog. He has written a book. Understanding that not working for pay does not mean not working.
Those are a couple of things that brought me around to thinking that, hey, this can really be a neat idea and I actually would love it if more young people rather than day trading stocks or crypto or whatever they’re doing. I would like to see them get more engaged with this financial freedom idea, which comes out loud and clear if you follow some of these FIRE blogs.
Robert Brokamp: Yeah. I think the main benefit of the whole movement is just being very thoughtful about your spending.
Christine Benz: Yeah.
Robert Brokamp: We all spend money on things that one month, one year later, we’re like, you just don’t value it. Whether it’s going out to eat too much, stuff that’s just clogging up your closets, or your garage. Just being very mindful of that I think is very valuable. Another person you had on your podcast was Tanya Hester, another significant figure in the FIRE movement. She’s written that to a certain degree, we all should be practicing FIRE because we don’t really know how long we’ll be able to work. Something like a quarter to a third of people who retire, retire sooner than they expected. Sometimes due to health issues or job loss, something your colleague, David Blanchett, I think, calls retirement date risk.
Christine Benz: Right. No, I think that’s such an important point. It’s really we’re thinking through that we don’t have as much control over this as we might think we do. When we look at the research on when people thought they would retire in the pre-retirement years relative to when they actually did retire. What we see is that there’s a disconnect. You’ve got a lot of people in the pre-retirement year saying, Oh, yes, I might work past 65, I might even work past 70. In reality, it’s a fairly small subset of the population that is either able to do that or wants to do that. I think keeping in mind that you may not fully have control over your retirement date is an important aspect of planning and retirement planning.
Robert Brokamp: Since we’re talking about retirement, it brings us to our final question, which is we generally ask retirement expert about their own plans. What does retirement looks like for Christine Benz and was it influenced by a sabbatical you took in 2017, would you call it your full retirement, I should say?
Christine Benz: Yeah. Morningstar does offer a sabbatical every four years, which is, I think a six-week break. It’s been a while since I’ve had one. Six-week break from work. I did start thinking about that on my last sabbatical. Where I was just thinking about, like, “Huh.” My husband and I took a long trip, first of all, but then I came home and was just by myself, thinking about is this what retirement might be like, and I did have a long list of projects that I wanted to work on which I blew through. Some of them related to dealing with the last bit of my parent’s estate. I realized how much I missed my work colleagues and how I would need to replace that in some fashion and retirement. I thought about how balance is so important in retirement as well. How my best days in this full tirement or days where I got some stuff done and also did something really fun that I think full-time fun is less fun when you’re not balancing it alongside achieving some stuff. Those were a few conclusions.
On an ongoing basis, someone who’s really influenced my thinking was Carl Richards, who is the sketch guy. He has written books. He’s just an excellent thinker on financial planning matters. When I asked him about his retirement he said, “Well, I don’t plan to ever retire, but what I’m doing is I’m keeping a stop doing list. As a go about my work, I’m putting on that list, stuff that I really don’t enjoy.” Inevitably, as we move in our careers, we get good at some things that we don’t enjoy, and they keep asking you to do these things. Some of these things might be high-profile and might be actually part of your identity. But if you’re honest, you might reflect and say, “I don’t love doing that thing, that thing stressing me out, it doesn’t make me happy even the day before I start thinking about having to do it and I don’t love it.” I’m going to take Carl’s lead on that. I’ve been trying to do this where I’m keeping a stop doing pile. Eventually, my hope is that I’ll just get my job down to a shorter list of stuff that I really enjoy doing. I think that that’s something to think about as people move forward toward retirement, we do have a lot of research that shows continuing to work in some fashion is really important for us in terms of having that sense of purpose as well as having those social interactions. My plan is to continue working when I think about if I were to fully retire, I probably want to do some volunteer activity that might look a lot like my day job that I get paid for right now. [laughs] I’m like, why would I do that? For now, I’m thinking about just continuing to work, but working more on things I enjoy and feeling lucky that I have the privilege to be able to pick and choose a little bit.
Robert Brokamp: Well, Christine, this has been such a pleasure. Thanks so much for joining us.
Christine Benz: Thank you so much, Robert. You’re a great interviewer. I love talking to you.
Alison Southwick: Well, that’s the show. It’s edited spookily by Rick Engdahl. Our email is email@example.com. For Robert Brokamp, I’m Alison Southwick. Stay Foolish, everybody.
This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.