035: How Grove Founder is Making Online Financial Advisory Easier than Ever with Chris Hutchins
Like many people, Chris Hutchins was laid off during the financial crisis of 2008. However, instead of simply looking for work, he set out to make a name for himself. He founded LaidOffCamp, where others like him explored founding companies, freelancing, and new ways to find jobs during that tough time.
Next, he co-founded Milk, which was acquired by Google Ventures, where he spent three years investing in early stage companies. Now, as the founder of Grove, he’s on a mission to build the first comprehensive financial planning service that is accessible and affordable for young professionals.
Today, Chris joins the podcast to share the story of how he went from being laid off, to the CEO and founder of Grove. We also discuss how he discovered the transformative power of edtech, and how he’s making it easier than ever to get honest, real advice in the financial field.
In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- Why getting laid off in 2008 was the best thing that happened to Chris – even though it didn’t feel like it at the time.
- The reasons Chris sees investing in venture capital and investing in stocks as drastically different – and how this informs his personal investing, which is far more normal than you might imagine.
- The common problems that so many people face working with robo advisors – and how Grove is working to fix these problems for his clients.
- Why Chris relies on experts – and not just technology – to get the edge over his competitors.
- How Chris secures customer data and reassures clients that their most sensitive information is safe.
- Why so many individuals who are part of the FIRE movement are becoming Grove clients – and why Chris considers himself to be semi-retired despite working 80+ hours a week.
“There is a really easy way to double your net worth — instead of earning twice as much, cut your expenses in half. I can tell you, that your expenses are much more in your control than the market.” – Chris Hutchins
Casey: Welcome to the Retire With Purpose Podcast. This is your host, as always, Casey Weade, and today we have a special guest joining us. We have Chris Hutchins here with us. Chris, welcome to the podcast.
Chris: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Casey: Chris, we’re so excited to have you here because you have some interesting stories that I think that a lot of our listeners are going to be able to relate to, one, that occurred to you back in 2008. As I read about it, apparently, you are laid off during 2008. I met a lot of people that got laid off during that period of time. What was that experience like for you? And then you turned it around and you sell a company to Google, and then you start another business, and so it almost seems like that layoff was a really good thing for you.
Chris: Yeah. It’s never fun to hear when I try to sympathize with other people and say, “No, no, getting laid off is the best thing that happened there,” or really doesn’t feel like it. So, the initial moment is always a shock. I went into an office to meet with the person I never met before and they were like, “You don’t have a job anymore.” It’s like one of those they can’t answer questions. They do this on purpose. They try to put people that don’t know you and can’t answer questions so you can’t really try to argue and that’s kind of it. I kind of have the assumption that I was going to get a job a month before the holidays in 2008 so it was on me to figure out what I wanted to do with my time to try to make a name for myself in a city that I lived in for one month.
Casey: Well, and you ended up creating LaidOffCamp, right?
Chris: Yeah. So, the kind of inspiration was that I knew a lot of people have been laid off and we all had lots of ideas about how you could maybe start doing some freelance work or start a company or find a job in the midst of kind of a pretty terrible time and it seemed like there is an opportunity for people to learn from each other. And so, we put together this event and I almost caught like a completely un-conference open source event where anyone could come. We designed the entire agenda for the conference in the morning and you had people who’d been in the workforce for 20 years talking about how to interview. You had people who never even really been in the professional workforce, talking about how to build a website or design a LinkedIn profile to catch eyes. We had people who are freelancing to talk about how they turn their skills into income and it was really an amazing event.
Casey: It’s almost like crowdsourcing, right? I mean, you’re crowdsourcing different ideas to get back in the workforce and make some money.
Chris: Exactly. And it turned out really well. We did one in San Francisco and then I open-sourced the entire concept. We had a Wiki like that anyone could go create a new page, post a new event, take the logo and use it. And so, there are about 20 events all around the country that other people put on and hosted as part of the broader theme and it was really cool. We got picked up by NPR and CNN and New York Times and all that kind of stuff which is really cool.
Casey: With that, I bet you had some stories from people you’ve met along the way that were just living in probably maybe a pretty dark place at the time. They were able to uplift and get back on the top. Is that the case?
Chris: Yeah. The number of people, you know, I had fortunately put together a little bit of savings and my wife was still working or I guess then girlfriend, now wife, and so I certainly didn’t have it as hard as others and hearing the stories after the fact even someone who through the event met an employer that led to an incredibly wild career. It’s still cool. I still randomly hear from some of those people now and see what they’re up to on social media and it’s really fun to stay in touch with people that all kind of went through the same tough time together.
Casey: Well, it seems that you’ve been in the tech world a long time trying to develop ways to really help other people and ultimately, you ended up having an experience at Google and with Google. What did that look like?
Chris: Yeah. So, after doing LaidOffCamp, I got to meet a lot of our sponsors at the event and it turns out in 2008 a lot of the companies that both were in San Francisco and still hiring was still in the Internet space. And so, I just really fell in love with the kind of quick, iterative, fast-paced company building style, worked at a few companies, and ended up starting a company with some friends that about a year in have the opportunity to kind of shut the company down and kind of basically sell it and go work with Google, and that’s how I ended up there. I always thought it was funny because I applied for a job at Google multiple times in the past and been denied that job multiple times in the past so it was kind of fun.
Casey: All you had to do is sell them something, right?
Chris: Yeah, exactly. So, it was wild. Google’s a company of tens of thousands of people. It’s always in my mind felt like Google is this cool startup in Silicon Valley and the reality is it’s actually a massive company bigger than any company I’ve ever worked at, but it was really exciting to see what an example of a company that’s been built from the ground up with kind of this new modern vision of what companies can be.
Casey: Sure. And you ended up working in Google Ventures there, correct?
Chris: Yeah. So, I spent a few months working on the product side back when Google had, I don’t think they still have it but Google+ which is their social network and had an opportunity to go work at Google Ventures and invest in early-stage companies for about three-and-a-half years and it was, you know, one of the coolest opportunities in the world. Your job is effectively to meet with entrepreneurs who were telling their life stories and talking about their passions and from time to time finding ones that align with the interests of the firm and my personal interest and being able to fund those companies and help them go on to be successful.
Casey: And so, these ended up being personal investments as well as investing some of the company’s money. Is that correct?
Chris: So, all the investments we made at Google Ventures came from Google’s balance sheet from a fund that that was allocated each year, but it was certainly a personal time investment.
Casey: Did you have kind of guidelines or I guess I just would ask you, what was the best investment that you found or made during that period of time?
Chris: Well, I wouldn’t want to play too many favorites. I’ll talk about one of my first investments, which is a company that’s gone on to be quite successful, at least out in the education space. It’s a company called Clever. The thing that happened, I met with these founders and I had no personal interest yet in education technology, but they had realized that the database that most schools used to store all the records of students talked to nothing and so every time a classroom wanted to use a new piece of software, it turns out that teachers were downloading and exporting CSVs of the classes emailing them to these companies and saying, “Hey, could you upload my students so that they could use your software?” And so, they built a piece of software that connected to all the different various student information systems, and made it accessible to any software developer, and they found that when developers implemented it and they paid to do so, they got such fast adoption and engagement with schools that their software spread kind of like wildfire throughout the school in ways that hadn’t before because of so much friction. And when I met these guys, they were so passionate about fixing this broken system. One of them was a teacher then it was just it felt like a huge opportunity and I just really want to get behind it and I think since then, they’ve gone on to raise tens of millions of dollars and build a really big company.
Casey: Well, assuming you had some guidelines that you’re able to follow as you’re evaluating these different investments, what kind of guidelines or how did you evaluate and determine if you’re going to make a good investment or not? How would an individual investor carry that on over to making their own investment decision, say in the stock market?
Chris: Yeah. So, I would say there are very few corollaries between the two. The assumption and venture capital investing is that maybe five to nine out of the ten investments you make will go to zero, and so you could argue that it’s like the most extreme high risk, high reward investing. The goal is maybe every year you pick two or three companies that turn into multibillion-dollar companies and you should be totally comfortable if half of them end up not working out, and the further along you invest in the stage of a company’s life, the more those numbers might not line up. If you’re an angel investor making personal investments in companies, I always tell people to assume that every check you write will go to zero. And only if you have the risk tolerance for 100% of your checks to go to zero, should you even consider writing checks to invest in companies.
And so, I guess the way I draw that into thinking about your own personal investing is every time you think about making an investment or investing your money you need to really figure out what you need that money for. And for me, for my personal investing, I don’t make personal investments in startups. My investing approach has been, well, I identify what my wife and I need for our family and for our future and if it’s in 5 to 20 to 30 years, I might invest in a different way than if we needed it for a down payment or to have a little extra money for children if we were going to have children because we might have extra expenses that we weren’t used to having during those first few years. So, it was really nice to be able to learn how that kind of investment style works with someone else’s money because I certainly don’t have the personal risk tolerance or the personal net worth to be investing my own money in ways that effectively you assume might not ever materialize with anything.
Casey: Yeah. We’re not going to risk what we can’t afford to lose and if we can only afford to lose $1,000, it’s probably not going to make a big enough impact to make that determination or make that investment, right?
Chris: Yeah. And between my wife and I, other than my stint at Google, I’ve worked all at early stage companies, the last two of which don’t even exist anymore. You know, my wife’s company has actually gone on to be quite successful, but we take so much risk with our personal lives in our careers and the industry we work in that for me, when it comes to investing my savings, it’s like the exact opposite of the great kind of risk I take on the personal side.
Casey: Well, I think a huge insight to be made there because I meet with a lot of business owners. I kind of specialize myself with working with business owners and I’m a business owner myself, always been an entrepreneur, and my dad was the same way ever since I was a little kid. He had nutrition businesses and supplement businesses. He has apartment complexes and insurance brokerage firms and he’s a financial advisor and he always said, that’s your risk. Your business is your day-to-day risk and once you make those dollars, you take them and put them someplace safe or put them someplace where you know you’re not going to lose them all. You don’t just take all that hard earned money and flip it over into venture capital. As a business owner, you are your own venture capital in a sense.
Casey: You talked about your wife there and so I was going to save this for later, but you’ve brought her up a couple times and I’m just curious, being that you’re in the financial space pretty heavily now, you’ve been there for quite some time. You ran a blog on finance for quite some time and you talk about making investment decisions together. So, how do you and your wife communicate about finances?
Chris: Yeah. So, it’s funny. There are a bunch of things we kind of jointly agreed on like here’s the amount of risk we want to take and then on a lot of things we delegate. So, when it comes to the execution of the rebalancing of a portfolio, we’ve kind of been like, well, we’re on the same page about how much risk we want to take. We’re on the same page about how much money we want to set aside for things in the next five years. So, now I feel really confident going into Vanguard and executing on a portfolio, but we sat down and we’ve gone through a lot of things together, some that I was more excited about than her. She’s not the biggest fan of the kind of annual go through all the transactions from last year and see how we’re spending and figure out our budgeting for the next year. But every time we end the process, we kind of get to take an evaluation of are we spending our money in line with the things we care about and that’s a really rewarding experience for both of us. We still keep our at least one account separately from each other so we can during the holidays buy things for each other and not share the secrets but we’ve chosen to get it for the rest of everything, combine everything, so we all kind of have the same level of access to what’s going on.
Casey: Well, I don’t know about you but every once in a while, I have a disagreement regarding an investment I have in mind and communicating that with my wife, sometimes we have some obstacles to overcome. Have you ever had any experience like that?
Chris: So, it’s funny. Everyone I know is like, “Chris, you’re in Silicon Valley. You know all the coolest, hottest companies that are happening. You work in FinTech. You must see everything like, man, what’s your investment tip?” And if you look at my portfolio, it would be a diverse set of low-cost index funds that play across the market and like the craziest thing is like, well, one of those index funds is in natural resources like that might be like the coolest, most unique thing that I’ve invested in with my money. And then with my time and my lifestyle, obviously, we both spend a ton of time investing in the companies we work at. But honestly, we never disagree on the investments because we’re not really making any unique or wild investment.
Casey: Right. Well, ultimately, you ended up getting into the educational space to help educate others on their own finances it seems with the founding of Grove, which we’ve got a nice shot of the Grove logo here if you’re on our YouTube channel. And I think just tell us a little bit about Grove and why you decided to start the company.
Chris: Yeah. So, my whole life I’ve been kind of one of those really huge nerds about personal finance and optimizing everything and probably extends even beyond money but it’s always been a thing that I just instinctively and naturally did and when you go through high school and maybe go to university, graduate, and you’re just having your first job, you’re trying to figure out your finances, there isn’t really a lot to do and so there was never really a strong distinction in my mind between what I did with money and what anyone else did. And then as my friends started hitting that age where they were having kids, maybe buying a house, getting married, people started asking me like, “So, how do you figure this whole money thing out?” I was like, “What do you mean?” They’re like, “Well, how do you know if you’re saving enough? How do you know if you’re on track?” and I was like, “Oh, well, I just looked at every year for the rest of my life and looked at if we’re going to have kids or send them to school or retire, I think of how much money we would need every single year and put that into a future cash flow model and ran some kind of investment simulations to see different portfolios might perform and thought about it in line with my risk and put together a plan and invest it according to it.”
And everyone was like, “What? You did what?” And I was like, “Yeah. Like, I got a spreadsheet I can send you.” “No, no, I’m not interested.” And it became clear that like the approach I took was not one other people took and it was maybe more someone who’s in the industry than someone who’s not. And as I talk to people after hearing they weren’t going to take any approach on their own, I just realized how much stress and anxiety, not knowing whether you’re saving enough, not knowing whether you’re on track or have enough to stop working. Those anxieties and those stresses are like real. Money is the number one cause of stress and divorce in America and that’s really unfortunate. They don’t teach people how to do this in school. It’s not something that you sit on a table with your friends. You’re probably more likely to talk about the last cool expensive thing you bought than the last likely thing you did to save money. And so, if you have a society like that and people aren’t going to learn how to become financial planners themselves, how do you make the process of getting help more accessible, more affordable, more honest in an industry where 90% of the financial advisors have no sole responsibility to act in your best interest? And so, yeah, that’s what drove me to quit.
Casey: You made some pretty good money when you sold the company to Google so did you ever seek financial advice yourself?
Chris: Yeah, I mean I think there’s some correlation between the type of acquisitions so it was a rather small acquisition of four people that worked on selling for years so I never kind of fell into the camp of every financial advisor is reaching out trying to give their services, but a handful did and I talked to them and I got some advice really early on to ask these financial advisors if they’re fiduciaries, meaning if they have to legally act in your best interest and funny enough, most of them skirted the question and said, “Well, you know, I really care about our customers.” I was like, “Well, a wait a minute here. That’s not an answer. Are you a fiduciary?” and they’re like, “Look, we have all these things set up to really make sure that we’re always trying to take your goals into account,” and I was like, “Man, this is crazy.” And so, you know, I talked to them. I heard about CFPs and met with individual personal financial planners that were fee-only and to be honest, even though I thought it would be valuable, the average cost of work with a financial planner is like $2,000 to $4,000. And so, for me, I was like that’s a lot. I know it’s important but that’s just a lot of money and so I didn’t end up working with anyone.
I think at that time my wife was more like getting hit up because she had joined a company called Lyft really, really early, back when the team was five or six people and by that point, Lyft had kind of really made a name for themselves and so she was getting hit up on her side from financial planners and said, “All these people are telling me I don’t know what I’m doing like, ‘Are you sure you know what we’re doing?’”
Casey: Like, honey, I’m a fiduciary.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I was like, “No, no, I think I know what we’re doing.” And so, the more I dug into the industry, the more I realized what options people had and the reality is, the options must not be good because most people are not working with a financial planner. And so, my assumption after talking to people was it was definitely too expensive. It was definitely really hard to find them because most kind of fee-only fiduciary bound advisors are independent RIAs so you got to go find them somewhere on the Internet or get a reference from a friend and most of the big companies that had raised money to build brands either were totally untrusted by a generation of people that have seen the woes of the financial crisis, of the Equifax, of the Wells Fargo, and were totally turned off by that but didn’t know where to go. And so, it just seemed like someone needed to start a firm that put customers’ interest first, that did it all entirely online and built technology to make it affordable enough that most people could get access to it.
Casey: So, essentially, just to make sure we don’t get too far ahead right now, essentially, Grove is a new age robo-advisor if you will bringing in fiduciary responsibility and comprehensive financial planning to the un-wealthy, you might say.
Chris: Yeah. I would say we typically help people who are actively saving and some of those people might have $10,000 in the bank account and some of them might have $2 million and anywhere along that spectrum if you have goals and you want to make sure you’re making the right decisions and on track for what you care about, I think there’s almost always an opportunity to get a second opinion to have someone else take a look and help you make sure you’re making the right decisions. So, yeah, that’s pretty in line with what we do.
Casey: And when you take a look at the market, there’s really you feel like there’s not really a lot of competition in your area or would you say a typical robo-advisor would be a piece of competition for you or are you just doing things so much different?
Chris: Yeah, I think there are certainly lots of people vying for, you know, your mind space when it comes to software and tools and websites and apps that help with your money. The approach a lot of people have taken is how we automate an investment portfolio which is a really big part of financial planning, but there’s another big part which is defining your risk, defining your goals, and a lot of times I meet people who say, “I’m using this robo-advisor. I put all my money in the market. I’m really excited. It’s great,” and I ask them, “Well, what’s the money for?” and they’re like, “Well, it’s for a down payment next year.” And I’m like, “Well, do they know that because you might not want to put all of your money in a stock market if it’s for next year because it’s a long-term investment vehicle that you know will go down and up over time and in the long run has historically gone up, but in any given year, it might go down 20% or 30%.” And they’re like, “Oh, I never thought about that.”
Well, the step before investing your money should be thinking about what your goals are, trying to understand your current actions, figuring out what capacity you have for risk, not just how much tolerance you have for it. And so, we’re trying to take that step that might exist before the automated investment portfolio and helping people think about their goals and lining them up with their actions and their savings. And so, the end result after that is now you might know I need to put $50,000 into an account and invest it for 30 years. And for that solution, you can do it yourself, you can do it with us, you can do with another robo-advisor, but I think people also should make sure they take a step before which is where does investing fall into my personal financial planning?
Casey: Yeah. You really, I mean, I think the robo-advisor world was brought to the world to help individuals that didn’t have $5 million, $1 million, $10 million. People are getting started investing and not getting taken advantage of by investing a share of mutual funds and upfront load funds and different products, or whole life insurance products. They’d really be better off investing in something that would be very low-cost and very automated. However, they’re missing that component of consultation which I think is the biggest benefit of meeting with a financial advisor is the ability to sit down, have a conversation, structure your goals, and then have that conversation as you say, you said capacity for risk, the capacity of we like to say, “Can you take the risk? Do you have the capacity? Do you have the attitude? And do you have a need?” and that takes some consultation to determine and then you’ve got all these other aspects which is risk management, life insurance, income planning, tax planning. I think that’s where the real value comes into play.
Chris: Yeah. I think when we go to doctors, every now and then you’re like I have all these symptoms and I know exactly what’s wrong. I just need to get a flu shot, or I need something like that. But a lot of times you’re like something is not feeling right and I would like a professional to help me figure out what that thing is. And I liken the robo-advisor to the, “Oh, I have this issue. I can just like use a telemedicine service to get a prescription because I have a case of eczema again and I know what cream I need,” versus, “I don’t know what’s wrong.” And I feel like most of the financial problems of people in the country are more like the, “I don’t know what’s wrong,” and so there’s a lot of solutions but if you can’t help someone figure out what to do, it’s really hard to hand them a product and say, “Here’s something to do.”
Casey: Yeah. I often say you know walking into your typical wirehouse or brokerage house is kind of like walking into a ReadyMED and telling me I got a cold and they’re prescribing me a Z-Pak and you’re on your way. But you get into these more complex issues, especially retirement, now you’re making a transition into permanent unemployment, it’s kind of like a serious ailment and you should probably get a couple different opinions and put together a comprehensive plan and maybe do that with the fiduciary. You brought up this word fiduciary a couple times. You’ve built your firm I think on kind of two core things, which is, one, fiduciary. Another one is CFP, certified financial planner practitioner. What is a fiduciary? What is a CFP? Why is that something that you have really built your company on?
Chris: Yeah. So, fiduciary just means that we legally have to put our clients’ interests ahead of ours. It applies to everything we do, all the advice we give, and I just don’t think there’s a way to run a financial planning firm that is any other way. When it comes to the team of advisors we hire, there’s a lot of different types of investment advisors. Some focused just on investments. We focus on the broad spectrum of financial planning. So, that might be related to life insurance. It might be related to your budget. It might be related to buying a home, saving for your kids’ education or your retirement. And so, when we look at the profile of the people we wanted to hire, it was people that had kind of both the experience and education and interest in that kind of broad spectrum of financial topics. And the CFP Board puts together an entire both curriculum, examination, and tests and experience requirements to be able to certify people in that expertise. And so, right now we don’t have as a small company a training program to hire new advisors and teach them all of the different ways of financial planning, and so we really leaned on the expertise they’ve built in creating that certification so that we can build a team of people who are able to provide the kind of advice people come to us for.
Casey: Well, being a man that’s always looking for a competitive edge over competition, knowing that I read him on your blog post, nine of 10 financial advisors don’t have an obligation to act in your clients and their client’s best interest, and so that means that you’re 10%, right? So, you’ve got a competitive edge over some of that competition being that you are the fiduciary that they are and so that really differentiates yourself.
Chris: Yeah. I think we lean on it heavily because we know that the average person who might have a financial advisor could go ask that question and get a response that they’re probably not expecting and disappointed to hear the answer.
Casey: Right. Now, I think most of the families we work with, they’re between the age of 55 and 75, they’re getting ready to retire, they’re almost retired. I’m wondering where a firm like yours lands. Who’s the right fit for Grove? Is it a good fit for retirees, millennials, or is it a good fit for both?
Chris: So, I think when we thought about the expertise we wanted to build and the kinds of people willing to benefit from the software capabilities we are building, it was definitely skewed younger. I’d say, five, 10 years ago there weren’t a lot of people over 40 that were interested in doing all of their financial advising on the Internet and so that’s kind of where we got started and we’re slowly learning that very quickly people in their 40s and 50s and 60s are more and more interested in doing stuff online, especially when it comes to their money. And so, I’d say our roots are in people kind of 25 to 45 trying to figure out how to make sense of a really complicated life that when you get married or have kids or buy a home realize that you have to save for retirement like once you realize all those things, unfortunately, in a very usual tight type window of a few years, life gets super overwhelming and that’s kind of our core customer. We actually have had a lot of kind of early success I guess helping people in the fire community which is finance.
Also, similar to your community retiring soon just doing it maybe 20 years earlier than others and, in that community, it’s interesting. The reason I think we’ve been helpful there in ways that we haven’t gone after later retirees is that we just have focused our software and the advice we give on savings and investing, but not necessarily on like some of the complicated systems that involve retirement distributions. And so, we actually, to be frank, say, “If you’re really looking for someone to help you figure out how to draw down on your 401(k) and your pension and your IRAs and time those with different years and minimum distributions like that’s not a thing that we’ve built an expertise in yet. Obviously, it’s something we’ll need to build an expertise in because we have people that will be there in the next decade, but it’s not something we focus on today and so we’re really more focused probably a generation earlier right now or maybe even two.”
Casey: Sure. Well, you know, I often say for someone, I’ve got friends that come to me all the time they’re 25, 35 years old. They want, “Hey, can I hire you? Should I work with you and your team?” and I always say, “You don’t need me yet. You just need to pay attention to keeping your taxes as low as possible, keeping your fees and expenses as low as possible. Financial advisor, investment manager, they’re not going to beat the market. Just keep your costs low and the things you can control. I mean, those are the guarantees is reducing our fees, reducing our taxes, and that’s all you have to focus on right now. Be systematic and you can typically do most of that research on your own. It’s not that complex. It can be a little overwhelming at times as you’re going through this process, especially as it gets more complex, but that’s the core of what you need to focus on as a young individual.” But then you make this step in retirement and it becomes much more complex, retirement planning, tax planning, long-term care, healthcare planning that I think one of our past guests said it really well. Dirk Cotton from Retirement Researcher, he said, “You plan for college. It’s like four or five years of your life. You plan for retirement, we’re talking 30, 40 years,” and so, that a long period of time. One of things that I read that I really love that you had talked about when it came to Grove was how Grove acts as a personal trainer for your finances. I like that analogy. Can you expand on that?
Chris: Yeah. So, when you’re trying to think of good metaphors because the reality is most people under 50 have never worked with a financial advisor or if they have, the way they’ve thought about them is like, “Oh, my dad has a guy in a suit that sold them some stocks,” and they’re like, “I don’t want that.” And so, we try to liken the way people think about financial advice to something more familiar and the personal training, you know, kind of corollary made a lot of sense. People, a personal trainer usually meet with them and the first way you get started is, “Let’s do an evaluation of your fitness, let’s do an evaluation of the way you work out and what you care about, and are you here to bulk up and have huge muscles or are you here to slim down and be fit or do you want to run a marathon? Let’s create a plan for that, a regimen.” Some people really benefit from having that person focus on accountability over a long period of time. Some people want that plan, and maybe want to check in from time to time but a lot of people don’t know how to line up their health and fitness goals with a routine. And so, that’s effectively what we’re doing. We’re going to evaluate where you are today, where you want to go, and create a plan to get there.
Casey: And then on an ongoing basis, how do you act as a personal trainer, kind of coaching with periodic phone calls, emails? Are you actually tracking their information to give them updates? What’s that look like over time?
Chris: Yeah. So, people when they sign up, they sync their accounts so we have a good accurate view of what’s going on in their lives, and we set goals and targets, and we kind of build out this plan and then over time, we can track whether they’re still on track. It’s the biggest question we get is six months later like, “We’re trying to save money to buy a home. Are we still on track to do that?” And so, we’ve built out software to let you see whether you’re still on track. Our advisors are able to quickly do check-ins every quarter that give you an update on what’s happening, any new recommendations, any changes to whether you’re spending more than we estimated, and that really helps people get a good understanding of where they’re at.
Casey: Well, I think that’s one of the keys is understanding where you’re at and if you’re still on track so you don’t have to end up panicking during the bad times and that’s one of the things we’ve kind of been struggling with implementing with the families we work with is linking up their accounts to their financial plans. The financial plan gets updated every single day and so they can always access that financial plan and see what the percentage odds of accomplishing each one of their individual goals is. However, one of the obstacles we’ve had is they don’t want that stuff on the Internet. Many of them still want to access paper. They don’t want to even access their accounts online. They’re concerned about security. I think it seems like every single day we have something coming up. I think you mentioned Equifax here earlier. It’s like we have all the stuff that pops up in the news every day and then we’ve got these robocalls. We’ve got someone that just stole our credit card number. How do you provide the security for people to know it’s going to be okay to access your accounts online? How do you overcome that obstacle?
Chris: I mean, I think the reality is there’s kind of a generational shift in the willingness to put information online. A lot of our clients grew up doing this from the get-go and don’t really know a world where I think back to directions like I remember, I just hit the kind of like print maps in an Atlas.
Casey: Putting out the MapQuest.
Chris: Yeah. And so, our customers primarily like don’t know another world and are much more comfortable with the trade-off. Sure. If every bit of financial information is on a piece of paper in a vault in your house, it’s much less likely that it could ever go anywhere but the trade-off is you’ve got to do all this crunching on your own and it’s not dynamic and it doesn’t go anywhere. So, we put a ton of procedures in place to protect data, whether it’s encryption or internal policies. When clients sync their accounts, we don’t actually store any of their credentials. We work with the well-known large public company that manages this process of we don’t have the ability to move your money around. We just get a feed of what’s happening. So, we’ve done a lot of things to put people’s minds at ease and the reality is other companies that aren’t doing as much sometimes make the whole industry look bad and some generations they’re just not as comfortable with it because it’s new and hasn’t happened their whole lives, but I think over time we’re kind of seeing when we first started even a few years ago that weren’t many people in their 40s really willing to do it. In just two years like that seems to be totally different.
And now, it just keeps getting old. The generation of which people are willing to go online for financial advice, it just keeps growing and there’s more and more people willing to do it when they realize the value of, “Oh, I can do this at a lower cost. I can do it online. I can do it with someone who’s acting in my best interest, and the only thing I have to give up is I have to be willing to do it online.” The trade-off, the longer you wait, and realize that you’re stressed out about money and nothing’s changed, the tradeoff just becomes something people are more comfortable with.
Casey: Well, what do you have in the way of advice for individuals who might be concerned about data privacy? And I guess at the same time, what were your thoughts on identity theft? Is that a legitimate concern? And what should people do about it?
Chris: Yeah. So, I mean, if Equifax has taught us anything like obviously, identity theft should be a concern for people of something they’re thinking about. The great thing about financial planning is you can do it without needing someone’s Social Security number. So, I would say there are circumstances where if someone were opening an account, they might be bad information but I would say when we look at the information we collect from clients, there’s lots of personal information, but we don’t need your Social Security number so it’s less of a risk with financial planning than it might be in other services. I do think it’s important. It’s something we help people think through about whether they should have a fraud alert set up or whether they should freeze their credit accounts and those kinds of things and there are ways to protect yourself and I personally put a fraud alert out and you have to reset it every 90 days but using a little bit more comfort knowing that it seems pretty likely that my information is out there. On the same side like so is hundreds of millions of other people’s information and so it’s kind of become something where maybe the new reality is monitoring and watching instead of preventing.
Casey: Well, I know I’ve experienced some of this with families that I’ve worked with. I actually had a client that had a pretty bad identity theft experience recently so I didn’t use to take all that seriously, but I’m definitely taking it much more seriously today as I’ve seen some people really struggle with dealing with those things. And you mentioned the FIRE movement earlier and I’m curious, so FIRE stands for FIRE, financial independence retire early. So, what are your thoughts on the FIRE movement? You said you have a lot of these individuals that are becoming clients of yours. What do you think about the movement? Are you a member?
Chris: Yeah. So, it’s funny. Depending on who you talk to, I’m a member, personally, I consider myself a member because I made the decision when I left Google that I had reduced my cost of living or my wife and I’s cost of living to a place that at any point in time there is a place in America that we could live and not need to worry about whether we have enough money. What I also knew was that retirement to me isn’t sitting on a beach and doing nothing. I want to be building, I want to be creating, and my wife feels the same way and so, I consider myself somewhat retired right now, which I think is a little bit of a Catch-22 for a lot of people because I probably put in 80 plus hours of work a week but I’m doing it on my own volition. I chose to do this. I didn’t do it out of any need. I didn’t do it out of any requirement to provide for someone. It was that I decided this is the thing that I want to do with my life and that’s what retirement kind of means to me. It might not match up with the Merriam-Webster definition, but for me, FIRE is getting to a point in your life where you can spend your life the way you want to and not do something just because you need to earn an income.
Casey: So, would you say you are currently financially independent?
Chris: Yeah. I would say right now my wife and I are financially independent.
Casey: What’s that mean?
Chris: Yeah. To me, it just means you can choose to pursue whatever path in life you want. If someone, for example, this is maybe counter to a lot of people’s opinions, but let’s say someone’s been traditionally is working a job that makes $85,000 a year but don’t love their job, but they’ve been rapidly saving and their dream job only makes $50,000 year. If you saved up enough money to be able to do the thing you love and make $35,000 a year less because you’ve saved up enough to make up for the difference like in my mind, that’s financial independence and that doesn’t mean you have to stop working. It just means you can make the decisions in your life that you want. And for some people, that’s not working. Maybe that’s spending time with her kids. For some people, that’s traveling, and for some people it’s doing a different thing, a different employment, maybe being a musician or an artist, something that’s maybe, in the long run, might end up making you more income than your regular job and in the short term it might not and financial independence to me is just being able to align what you do with what you care about and love. And I’ve chosen to be frugal and save for many years so that I can put myself in a position to do that.
Casey: And it does take a degree of net worth depending on what your income needs are. What would you say has had the biggest impact on your own personal net worth?
Chris: Saving, like 100%. I’m like one of those crazy people that it optimizes every transaction and every expense and to try to make sure we’re saving as much as possible. We converted one of the bedrooms in our house into a studio so that we can rent it out. It’s just like that’s my MO. We play the miles and points games so we don’t spend money on travel and try to rapidly cut our spending to save. And the funny thing I always tell people is if you are able – because people are like, “How do you get an edge on the market?” I was like, “I’m not aware of any certain way to double your income from your investment portfolio, but there is a really easy way to double your net worth and it’s to be able to instead of earning twice as much, if you effectively cut your expenses in half, you can start saving twice as much and I can tell you that your expenses are much more in your control than the market.”
Casey: Well, that’s a really important point. I think most of us say, “Well, I’ll just make an extra 10,000 next year and then I’ll throw in a really aggressive investment and it will turn into 100,000 in the next five years. It just doesn’t work like that. We can’t control those things, but focusing on what you control, I think that’s been something you focused on a long time. You mentioned these hacks that you’ve kind of specialized in over the years and optimizing your financial life through using credit cards and I’m wondering what is your favorite financial hacking tip that you say implemented to your own life or that you like to share with others?
Chris: Favorite is tricky. I’ll just throw out an obscure one. You know, if it was favorite, it would go into credit cards and millions of people have talked about credit card points and miles and how to play that game and we can go down that path and I’m the crazy person that probably has 16 credit cards and picks which one based on the maximum points earnings. But an interesting one is I find that when my wife and I go out to eat, sometimes I look at the menu in advance and pre-commit to what I’m going to do which in the moment I might go and say, “Oh, maybe I want a glass of wine and maybe I want an appetizer and an entrée and dessert,” and it’s much harder to resist but if I commit in advance, it’s not only a financial hack but it turns out it’s also a health hack. Because when I see someone get this like a beautiful burger right next to me, I might want it. But before I get there, I’m like, “No, no, no, I’m getting the cobb salad.” I’ve already committed to that. It might save me both money and the calories and so that’s just like a really obscure one that I’ll throw out that’s maybe less common than credit card points.
Casey: Well, it shows that you’re a planner, right, which is why maybe we started a financial planning company, now, apparently you don’t subscribe to the Dave Ramsey philosophy of cutting up all your credit cards. It sounds like you have roughly 16 credit cards in your wallet.
Chris: Yeah. I would say I definitely don’t subscribe to that philosophy. I think if every place you spent money in America offered you, you know, a cash discount equivalent to the credit card fees, I might not be a fan of credit cards, but if I’m going to go to a restaurant and spend $100 on dinner and American Express wants to give me 400 points and if I paid with cash, I would get nothing, as long as you can be responsible and pay your bills, oftentimes you end up with more monetary value. Even if it’s just a zero annual fee 2% cash back card, you’re going to get 2% cash back and if you didn’t use a credit card, you wouldn’t. So, for me, it’s every decision and every moment is all about optimization and spending money and how I earn points and miles in cash back is just another one of them.
Casey: Well, it just seems like such a hassle to me. I mean, I’ve had this one credit card that I’ve had for last two, and I think last time I switched credit cards is maybe two or three years ago and I know there’s a better one out there. I know there’s a better one out there, but I just don’t want to go through the process of having to switch everything over, all the billing and everything. How do you make this process simple for someone to find the right credit card and know when it’s time to switch? Do you switch credit cards quite often or are you always opening up new credit cards? How do you do this?
Chris: Yeah. I think the busier I got in the last few years, the less frequent I optimize. I have a pretty good sense from our annual budgeting of what categories we spend money on so I can kind of say, “Okay, well, if we spend the most money on X and there’s a card that gives twice the amount as any other card on X like that would be a good thing.” So, that’s one. I keep a spreadsheet of all my recurring bills. So, if I decided I was going to switch a card, I wouldn’t say it’s a fun process but I at least have a list to go through of got to log in and change the trash bill and the water bill and the cable bill. You know, I at least know how to keep track of where everything is but for me, I’d say a lot of my spending is online even whether it’s bills or whether it’s shopping or anything so I use a password management app called 1Password. I have all my credit cards in there. So, if I’m going to buy a flight, I use the flight card. If I’m going to buy a hotel, I use the one that gets the best on travel. So, I don’t actually have to carry around all the cards because if I want to buy something from Amazon, there’s a Prime Rewards card and like I just have the cards all linked up in a wallet on my computer so I don’t have to worry about memorizing the numbers or keeping them all on my wallet.
Casey: Well, if we saw you using physical cash and credit cards, we might not take all your tech companies quite so seriously but it sounds like you fully utilized all that tech to maximize and optimize your financial life. And one of those has to be with budgeting. I know I’ve went through a lot of different budgeting software with clients, with myself, and my wife. What do you find to be the best budgeting software or do you just spreadsheet it?
Chris: Yeah. I’m going to be honest. There’s not a good budgeting software that I’m aware of. The process is so unique to a different person. For me, I care more about the analysis of it than I do about the tracking of it so I use Mint as a central repository to collect all the transactions and categorize them and then I export it all to a CSV and I import it into Google Sheets and I manipulate it all on my own. I know a lot of people have had success with YNAB. The philosophy behind it, I really can get behind of trying to allocate where you want to spend money based on what you care about and what you’re interested in versus just looking at what you’ve been doing. One of the things I noticed is my wife and I really think that we’d like to prioritize spending our money on new fun experiences. So, whether that’s going to a show or a sporting event or trying a new activity. And when we went through our budgeting last year, we realized that we were spending more money on just about every other category than this one category that we had already decided it was the most important to us.
And while we weren’t using YNAB, we kind of took a principle of it which is we need to spend more money on this thing which is somewhat counter to my entire life philosophy which is spend less money on everything but it was, look, we don’t need to increase our spending. It’s just we have this thing that we care about more than anything like why are we spending our money on anything else if we care about this more?
Casey: I’ve got to know. What is it?
Chris: No, no, no. It’s the experiences whether it might be an escape for one month. It might be, you know, random, unique dinner then next month it might be a trip. It’s just that category versus shopping, versus going out to eat at a restaurant, versus dog toys or whatever it is, a new iPhone. It’s like those things are all expenses but there’s this other category of expenses then it’s like experiences that are where we’ve kind of said like if we have money, why are we not spending more of it there versus other places? And so, we kind of went in and evaluated everything and said, “I’d rather give up. I’d rather just cut my own hair if it meant that I could go do more things.” And so, that’s the focus for 2019 is how we reallocate our spending to focus more on experiences.
Casey: Well, Chris, your hair looks great so then look like, I mean, if you cut that yourself it’s pretty impressive. You’re doing good. I wanted to ask, I mean, is this part of your intentionality that you do every month? I read somewhere that you like to do something intentional every single month.
Chris: Yeah. So, I don’t remember. Sometimes in…
Casey: So, being intentional with experiences?
Chris: Yes. In 2014 someone proposed this idea and I just latched onto it hard and I don’t even think they do it anymore which is funny but they had proposed this concept of do something unique every month and they didn’t really have a reason behind it and the reason I applied to it was I don’t ever want to look back on any month in my life and say nothing memorable happened. It would be a travesty if December 2014 nothing worth remembering happened. It’s just like we’re on this earth for such a short period of time but how could 31 days or 30 days or 20 days go by and like nothing memorable happens. So, I just said, I am going to dedicate that every month something memorable will happen, and it was easier in the beginning because there’s lots of low hanging, easy things you can just do. The longer you do it, the more you have to kind of reach into the realms of wild random things, but I’ve been keeping it up since 2014. Every month there’s something new. You know, it’s an opportunity to explore the world, try new things, and see things from a different perspective.
Casey: One of the top three most memorable and intentional experiences that you’ve had?
Chris: So, I pulled up a spreadsheet beforehand so December 2014 was a fun one. My wife’s family was in the mountains in Colorado and we went dog sledding which is something that I’ve never done, I never learned about. We went to a place where you really get to understand how the sport evolved and meet the dogs and everything and that was just a real wild adventure. Let’s see, this is going to sound silly but hopefully, someone here that listens is from the area. I’m a huge waterpark nerd and love water parks, and so, in the summer of 2016, we went to Wisconsin Dells to go to the largest waterpark in the country, Noah’s Ark, and I was like my wife thought that was the dumbest thing ever because she’s not a waterpark fan but had a good time. And I’d say the most memorable yet was I had met someone who worked in the White House somewhere and got this random text message in summer 2016 also and it said, “Hey, do you have any interest in driving in Obama’s motorcade?” and I was like I didn’t even know what the message meant because it didn’t even like it hadn’t crossed my mind what was about to happen could happen, and ultimately had an opportunity to drive one of the like four vans that transport senior White House staff in the motorcade from San Francisco down to Palo Alto, meet the president, and the whole thing. And it was probably the most memorable of like four years of experiences.
Casey: Well, you’ve had some memorable individuals in your lifetime as well and I understand a couple of those are your grandparents, John and Heruana. Have I said that correctly?
Chris: Yeah. Her-wa-na,
Casey: Her-wa-na. I named our company after my two grandparents from the things that they taught me growing up and the principles that I want to bring into our everyday business and it sounds like you’ve learned a lot of your principles from them and maybe brought that into your financial life.
Chris: Yeah. So, my grandparents are like the essence of frugal optimizers, you know, they retire – I would even put them in the FIRE camp though I don’t think it was even a thing but they retired in their 50s. They decided that the thing they cared most about in life was traveling and so they started a tour company and took people in – they moved in, in their 50s, into a retirement community. They’re probably the youngest people in the entire community and they organized tours where they would take all these people around the world as their travel agents. And because they had to maybe 20 years on everyone, they were able to keep up with organization and management of the whole thing and they traveled around the world to dozens of countries for free in their retirement, didn’t spend anything on it. And that’s just like one of the dozen examples of things that they’ve done, some of which I admire, some of which were packing, you know, like food into suitcases to go on vacation which I wouldn’t totally adopt personally.
Casey: That’s just like food but we’re talking like canned goods.
Chris: Yes. Canned goods like Rice-A-Roni in a suitcase because they wouldn’t throw things out. It was like six years expired Rice-A-Roni to cook at a timeshare in Mexico when you could get like local tacos down the street for $2. So, like there’s an extreme and I think they took it there sometimes but their relentless commitment to optimizing and saving I think has really been an example for me.
Casey: Well, you ended up becoming a travel agent, right? Are you still a travel agent?
Chris: So, my mom’s business is planning meetings and conferences for large trade shows and so that requires her to have a travel agent license, which I’ve been a part of helping friends plan trips from time to time. And I think ever since starting the company, I’ve realized I have zero time to do that and so people used to say, “Oh, I’m planning this trip. Would you help me think about how to book a house or organize it?” and I would help out, but in the last two or three years, it turns out starting a company is like three full-time jobs at once.
Casey: That generally shows you brought some of those things from your background and the learning how to travel efficiently. That’s a lot of the things that retirees that we’re working with will know how to do. What would you say is your most efficient travel hack, the place that you went that’s been super cool, maybe typically expensive that you are able to pay next to nothing for?
Chris: I mean, my wife and I actually quit our jobs in 2009 and travel around the world for seven months and spent about $7,000 each, hitting about 20, 25 countries and I don’t know if this is as great to hack. I would say that it is. I think you would have a lot of success but I would think it would be very uncomfortable for a lot of people in retirement but there’s a whole community of couch surfers who open their homes to random people for the experience and sometimes we stayed with young college kids and sometimes we stayed with retired families. And, I mean, it would be impossible for me to pick a hack anything other than seven months of free lodging and a couple dozen countries around the world. That has to be it and I’d say every time we hit a new city, we do the as cheesy as it may sound, we do the free walking tour just to get acquainted with the city and understand the lay of the land.
Casey: Well, you probably find some good deals while on that walk at the same time. Hey, I’ve got one stock question for you as we wrap up here and I’m wondering what would Chris do if he could go back to his 20-year-old self and give him a little piece of advice?
Chris: Oh, man, 20-year-old self. So, I’m not, you know, it would be counter to my professional philosophy to go give a stock tip. Obviously, a time machine I’d just do some analysis beforehand with the highest return on investment would’ve been and say, “Go put all your money in this one thing that’s going to be the highest return investment.” I think if I can go back to my 20-year-old self, I really just try to point out the value of aligning your goals with your saving. I think it’s really hard to think about saving when you don’t have a lot of money and those goals are so far away, but if you go through the process of whether it’s using a compound interest calculator, whether it’s financial planning, understand that like building the habit of saving regularly in tax-advantaged accounts is so valuable. I think I was so frugal and good at saving but I never put money into a Roth IRA as a kid when I had no income.
I even went one step further, which I think my dad helped me put money in a Roth IRA before I even knew what it was. I took all the money out and I don’t even think I spent it. I was just like, “Ah, it seems like a mess to manage here. I’ll just put it in my checking account,” which is not a good move. And so, there’s just some fundamentals. I think I’d sit myself down and be like here’s the fundamentals. You could still live a fun life. You don’t have to give up on the things you care about. Just kind of compare them to the opportunity cost of not saving.
Casey: Well, Chris, thanks so much for joining us. You’ve got a lot to offer, a wealth of information. I bet there are some people out there that want to connect with you and learn more. Where should people go to connect with you and learn more about growth?
Chris: Yeah. So, you can find me on the internet whether it’s on Twitter at @ChrisHutchins but primarily, I go to HelloGrove.com. If we don’t end up being a fit for you because you’re dealing with retirement, maybe it will be a good fit for someone in your family, kids, people graduating, that kind of stuff.
Casey: Awesome. Chris, thanks so much for joining us here on Retire With Purpose. Maybe we’ll catch up again.