Christine Benz is bringing her unique approach to personal finance to Huntington Beach, California. Christine is the director of personal finance and retirement planning at Morningstar. She also co-hosts The Long View podcast, where she serves up a mix of practical financial advice and portfolio reviews, while interviewing notable figures like best-selling author Ramit Sethi, columnist Jason Zweig and FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) blogger JL Collins.
Christine took a circuitous path to podcasting and writing about personal finance. Raised in a family of political junkies, she studied political science and the Russian language. After a stint in publishing, she started working at Morningstar in the early 1990s, where she continues to work today.
I sat down with Christine to talk about the state of financial literacy in the U.S. (spoiler: “not great”), the recent human-centric transformations of the wealth management industry and how a broken foot led to a new approach to taking time off of work.
Future Proof: The career path you took is going to surprise some of the attendees at the Future Proof Festival. How did you arrive at the intersection of personal finance and investment analysis?
Christine Benz: I can’t even make it seem intentional in hindsight; it was very circuitous.
I grew up in a family of political junkies and was always interested in politics, current events and international relations, so I studied political science. I also majored in Russian, because I had been studying the language for quite a bit of time. When I emerged from college I was not super marketable.
My dad had always been an avid investor and knew of Morningstar. It was a rapidly growing company, so he suggested I apply there.
From the beginning I loved that it was an intellectual place. It was an intellectually curious, vibrant place—which I’m happy to say it remains so.
I eventually led our U.S. fund analysis team, but I realized we weren’t talking about broader issues of asset allocation and some of the other things that we know make or break someone’s financial success.
So I went through the certified financial planner program and began to research and work on some of the broader topics of personal finance and financial planning that I focus on today.
FP: Speaking of allocation, you remind advisors to pay attention to clients’ “time on earth” allocations. What do you mean by that?
Christine: I like it when advisors think about the resources that their clients have, broadly speaking. A “time on earth allocation” is one’s allocation of personal time and energy.
Historically, advisors spent the bulk of their time on allocating household cash flows, allocating savings and apportioning their clients’ investment mix.
Time on earth is different. A client might have a job that’s super remunerative, but it’s detracting from their quality of life. Maybe it’s detracting from the time that they can spend with their family.
Advisors can add value in situations like that. They can help their client take a step back and say, “You seem to be on this hellish treadmill where you are at peak earnings, but if this isn’t delivering you satisfaction, can we figure out a way to get you to a place where you’re happier with your balance.”
FP: You’re also an advocate of improving financial literacy. How would you assess the general levels of financial literacy in America?
Christine: Not great. Studies have shown that the general population only gets about half of very basic financial literacy questions right. This cuts across populations; it cuts across the globe.
One thing I worry about is the lower levels of financial literacy among lower income segments of our population. It’s troubling. The less money you have, the fewer opportunities you have to learn and to improve your financial decision making.
FP: What can the wealth management industry do to improve that discourse?
Christine: Counseling consumers definitely helps. We need to teach people the importance of being skeptical and bringing skepticism to financial relationships and financial arrangements.
FP: You work with survivors of domestic abuse to provide them with financial education. What lessons do you focus on in that setting?
Christine: It’s a broad ranging personal finance curriculum, supplied by an organization called W!SE, which stands for Working In Support of Education.
It starts with very basic budgeting, but gets into investing and saving for college. One thing I’ve found working with these groups is even though most of their questions are about the here and now—like getting out of debt or getting into a home of one’s own—people still aspire to save money for their kids or to have a better life or buy a home at some point down the line.
In my time volunteering, I’ve gotten better at familiarizing myself with very basic financial information, like how to deal with credit card debt and how to budget. Those are areas that I probably had an average knowledge about, but volunteering helped me hone my skills.
FP: In your articles and podcasts, you strive to balance the theoretical elements of finance with the human factors of money; money is a tool to achieve something. What are your observations of the financial service industry’s ability to address the human factor?
Christine: Over the past decade or two I’ve noticed a change. We have all become more attuned to the importance of behavioral finance and psychology, in terms of helping people reach their goals.
The wealth management industry, as a professional class, has become much more receptive to human-centered advice. It’s really encouraging.
Concepts like mental accounting and bucket investing for retirement seem to be more accepted by professionals. What matters isn’t necessarily the efficient frontier. What matters is whether someone can achieve their goals and find peace of mind with their plan.
There’s more alignment with individuals and the professional community, which I think is for the better.
FP: Travel is really important for you, whether that’s a trip to Huntington Beach or elsewhere. What is your most memorable travel experience?
Christine: I have so many. One trip that really stands out was a trip that my husband and I took to Barcelona. We were renovating our old house and I had broken my foot that summer. I was also working on a book at the time. It was just kind of a hellish summer.
So we went to Barcelona, and just went to that one place for a whole week.
It taught us the importance of going deep on a place and not moving around too much. You don’t have to go everywhere on a particular trip. We know that if we like a place, we’ll come back.
I’m also a foodie. Whenever I decide I’m going somewhere, I almost always book my restaurant reservations first. That’s the first thing I look at.
Sometimes I even overdo it. I’ll plan days in advance, look at the menus, sort of hint what I think my husband should have. I make a point of trying to make reservations, because I am not a happy camper if I’m figuring something out on the fly. So I can go overboard, but it’s a fun part of travel for me.
FP: You’re a big music fan, too?
Christine: I’m a huge music fan, so I’m excited about the opportunity to hear live music at Future Proof.
I like to stay current on my music and one person who I’m really loving right now is Steve Lacy. He’s just come out with a new record. I really love everything I’ve heard from him.
My musical tastes are really broad ranging. I love jazz. I love blues. But mainly I love contemporary music.
FP: We’re excited about the music that will be at Future Proof! At the beginning of our conversation you described your love of intellectual curiosity. What opportunities for intellectual curiosity are you looking forward to at the Future Proof Festival?
Christine: I love how interdisciplinary the agenda is. I’m excited to hear from speakers who I might not run into at typical financial planning conventions, and with so many different people I’m hoping I’ll come away with some new guest ideas for our podcast.
Future Proof gets beyond the typical conference that we all go to. It’s bringing in people from different areas—beyond our financial services sector.