Roger Ma on the FIRE Movement, Financial Literacy, and Diversity in the Profession
Journal of Financial Planning: March 2019
WHO: Roger Ma, CFP®
WHAT'S ON HIS MIND: “Having clarity in a career path could go a long way to attract a more diverse candidate pool.”
1. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I can remember being first asked this question in the fourth grade. The teacher asked everyone to share what they wanted to do when they grew up. I thought, I had no idea. The only professions I had been exposed to were through TV, and it was either a doctor through watching Doogie Howser or being a hot-shot lawyer.
I forget which choice I said, but it was one of those two professions because that was all I’d been exposed to. As I got a little older and proceeded through middle school and high school, I started to narrow it down to: I wanted to do “something in business,” but I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.
2. Prior to entering financial planning and real estate, you spent seven years in investment banking, most recently at Morgan Stanley. What led you to financial planning?
It was partly due to having an interest in personal finance, and partly due to my own insecurity around my own finances. When I was in investment banking, I’d often have friends and family ask me for advice around their personal finances. For some questions, I was able to answer outright or create a model to help them make a decision. However, for a lot of the topics, I thought to myself—I have no idea what to tell you, and in fact, I stress about this same thing myself.
After leaving investment banking, I regained some free time and used some of that time to start a site to write about personal finance topics such as saving money, credit card hacking, and other money-saving strategies. After a little while, I started getting into some of the more core financial planning topics like investing and tax optimizations, and I realized how interested I was in the underlying material. That independent research and writing is what ultimately led me to become a Certified Financial Planner and start my own planning firm.
3. Tell us a little about your financial planning company, lifelaidout LLC. What sets it apart from other planning firms?
Lifelaidout is a New York City-based financial planning firm, and it differs from other firms from a service offering and fee point of view.
From a fee perspective, I charge flat fees, whether it’s for a one-time financial plan, an hourly session, or a financial plan and ongoing service. I don’t claim that flat fees are the best or conflict-free, but that fee structure most aligned with the type of service and offering I wanted to provide.
One of the reasons I structured my business this way is because I’m a Boglehead at heart—I’m really into low-cost, passive investing, and it was important for me to feel like I was giving the client a fair deal, and I thought flat fees allowed me to do so.
My goal with each client is to structure their personal financial situation in a way that they feel empowered to take control of it themselves once our work is done.
4. You are very active in pro bono planning. Can you tell us about a particular cause that’s important to you?
I’m most passionate about financial literacy in general because I’ve seen the impact it’s had on my own life. I try to provide pro bono services either on a one-on-one basis or through speaking engagements whenever I can. Oftentimes that’s through the FPA of Metro New York and the New York Public Library.
The FPA of Metro New York sponsors a couple of big events each year where we’re able to offer pro bono financial planning sessions to the public.
I’m also active in speaking at the library on various personal finance and real estate topics, and I also work to help other nonprofit organizations.
5. You’ve written about the FIRE movement, and you’ll be speaking about it at FPA Retreat. What advice do you have for people interested in gaining financial independence and retiring early?
My first question back to them is, why? What attracts you about the FIRE movement? What do you think FIRE is going to allow you to do that you can’t do right now? And how do you envision life is going to be post-FIRE? I challenge them to get pretty detailed on how a typical day will look, including thinking about what time they’ll wake up, how they’ll spend their days, and who they will spend their days with.
I think the “why” of any goal, and especially pursuing FIRE, is super important, because sometimes people take on this goal because they’re trying to run from something—whether it’s a job they don’t like or how their life has turned out.
Instead of running from something, it’s important to think about, what’s your “why” with FIRE? Oftentimes, people are seeking more subtle changes that they can take action on now without having to save a significant amount of money or make major trade-offs in their life.
6. You’ve also written about how you and your wife hired your own financial planner. Have you changed or adjusted anything in your planning practice as a result of working with another planner?
I haven’t made any major changes as a result of the planning—it’s been more subtle changes here and there, and most importantly, it gave me some things to think about. In general, going through another planner’s process was super interesting. I particularly had an interest in financial life planning, so I looked for someone who had that training.
The planning process started with taking my wife and I through [George] Kinder’s three questions. That got me to think about whether I should incorporate some of those questions into my information-gathering process for clients, and how I should think about who may be in the right frame of mind to want to answer those questions.
7. You’re writing a book; it’s about teaching readers how to find what they want from work and life, and how to fund it. What inspired you to write about this?
It’s similar to why I became a financial planner. Work and money are two aspects of life that I’ve struggled with and tried to make sense of for a lot of my post-college career. When I started thinking about writing a book, I did some research of what was out there in the market already. There are a lot of books that focus solely on personal finance, and there are a lot of books that focus on managing your career individually, but there aren’t really books that combine these two concepts.
Personally, I often looked at these two areas of my life in a silo, even though a decision that I make within my career has a significant impact on my personal financial situation and vice versa.
I wanted to be able to write a book that had a balanced view of each of these topics and point out that it’s important to take all of these different aspects of your life into consideration. At the end of the day, I’m writing a book that I wish I had in my 20s.
8. Did you learn anything about yourself while writing this book?
I’m still knee-deep in the writing process; I’m continuing to learn so much. That’s another reason why I wanted to write a book—I thought it would be a really great learning experience. It’s given me a structured way to reflect on my past experiences, but also research career and financial concepts and dig into the psychological aspects of some of my decision-making, which I find super interesting.
I’ve also enjoyed talking to other people about their career paths, the decisions they’ve made, and their relationships with money. I’ve been fortunate to talk to people that have been real and transparent about the good, the bad, and the ugly about those aspects of their lives.
9. Speaking of books, what book are you reading now?
I’ve been reading a lot of books for research! But a book I read recently is Bad Blood [by John Carreyrou] about the Theranos scandal. That book was amazing. I read it in a couple days. I was waking up early, going to sleep late just because it was so absorbing.
10. You are a 2017 recipient of the FPA Diversity Scholarship. What one thing could financial planning firms do today to increase diversity and inclusion in the profession?
This is tough to narrow down to one particular aspect, because when I think about diversity and inclusion, I think about three pillars. There’s attracting diverse talent, then trying to retain that talent, and then working to promote those diverse candidates.
From an attraction perspective, I think financial awareness and literacy early on could go a long way to building the profession. I also think the standardization of titles is a huge issue. It’s just so confusing for even someone in the industry to make sense of all these different titles of financial planner, financial adviser, financial coach, wealth adviser, or wealth planner. It’s super confusing. In investment banking, it was clear: there’s analyst, associate, vice president, director, etc. Not only was there uniformity in terms of titles across firms, but there was a clear career trajectory. I know—at least in my family—there was a huge emphasis from my parents on finding a stable job.
Having clarity in a career path, I think, could go a long way to attract a more diverse candidate pool. So could the type of pay that you’re compensating people with. Sometimes I’ll see political internships or internships in the media that are unpaid. I would say, that is not very inclusive, because it only allows people that can afford to pay for their own living expenses to be able to take advantage of those opportunities. And I think to some extent, fixed and variable pay has that impact as well.
From a retention perspective, I think you need to create an environment where diverse candidates—really any candidate—can feel safe to contribute and be productive. I think the buzzword for that is feeling “psychologically safe,” feeling like you have some autonomy, you’re not micromanaged, you’re free to take smart risks, and enabling all workers to build their own personal brands and networks.
Join Roger Ma at FPA Retreat, May 6–9, 2019 in La Jolla, Calif., where he will present an educational session on “Breaking Down the Financial Independence, Retire Early Movement: What Financial Planners Need to Know.” Learn more at FPARetreat.org.