ICR308: Jason Butler, Simple steps to financial wellbeing
Whether it’s affording the basics in life, feeling more in control of your money, or balancing today’s spending needs with those in later life, many of us struggle to manage our finances as well as we would wish.
My guest on the show today is Jason Butler, author of a new book called Money Moments: Simple steps to financial well-being.
Jason is a Fellow of both the Personal Finance Society and Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment. Before becoming a full-time author, speaker and investor, he had a 25-year career as a successful financial adviser.
He now focuses on speaking and writing about financial and personal wellbeing, as well as being an angel investor to various innovative financial technology start-up businesses, something we cover in our conversation today.
Jason is the author of five personal finance and self-improvement books and is a columnist for the Financial Times, where as ‘The Wealthman’, he writes about personal finance related issues. He also provides expert comment on personal finance to the BBC and Sky and a range of other publications, media and websites.
Here’s my conversation with Jason Butler, author of Money Moments, in episode 308 of Informed Choice Radio.We all want to feel more in control of our money.Click To Tweet
Martin: Welcome back to Informed Choice Radio. I’m joined today by Jason Butler. Jason, I describe you now as a full time speaker and author and financial well being expert. We’ll get into that, but you’ve had a long and successful career as a financial planner, so could you start by telling us a bit about that and your time in the financial advice world?
Jason: Yeah. I had a very varied, and quite eventually successful career in financial services from about the age of 21 until I was just about 45, 46 I think I was. 25 years. Fell into it completely by chance. I didn’t choose financial services. It seemed to sort of choose me. But I got very interested in the “doing it right” as I called it, and properly working with clients, working out their goals, working out their resources, helping them to devise strategies.
And I qualified as a certified financial planner in 1998. That’s 20 years ago, before anyone had really heard of it and I was taking myself off to study weekends, case study groups, you know, under heard of all those years ago, because I was desperately wanting to do a good job for people. And in the course of my career I must have interviewed … we worked out just under 1,000 people, hearing people’s money stories, which is quite relevant to my speaking and writing career now. And you learn a lot about people beyond the textbooks and beyond the technicalities, and that’s why I’m very fascinated now by people, the psychology of money, the emotions of money, people’s money stories, which I bring to play to try and help people live a full life and make sure that money works for them in the career that I have now.
Martin: And that career change for you, relatively recent, so you’ve gone from being a financial planner to, as I say, a full time speaker/author/financial well being expert, but also an investor, which we’ll come round and chat about in a bit. So what prompted that career change?
Jason: Well, it’s very difficult to sort of pinpoint it. As I said to people before, there were several things that came together. It wasn’t one particular thing, but the biggest trigger for me was I had a client who was worth about 25 million pounds who I’d been working with for eight years, and I’d actually helped him eventually decide to sell his business because his wife said … and I said to him “What do you want?” And he said “Oh, I want x million pounds in my business, and I’m not going until I get it.” And I said to his wife “What do you want?” And she said “I want my husband back.”
And I said “If I can help you be relaxed,” I said to him, “You know, be relaxed about the number and know you’ve got enough, would you take that number?” And he said “Well, probably.” And I said to her “And if I can get your husband back, would that be successful?” And she said “Yes.” And they had seven, I think it was about seven years together where he sold the business and spent time with him and his wife, all his children around the age of 12, and then he dropped dead. He came out of the gym and dropped dead at the age of 48.
Jason: Now, he had had a sort of heart issue many years before, so it wasn’t entirely shocking, but it was still shocking. He died suddenly. And it really shook me because he is now the age I am now. I’m 48 now, and it really shook me because I went to the funeral and it was jam packed and everything. I saw these three young children, 12, 10 and 8, and I know they’d had seven or eight years together, and his widow said she was very eternally grateful to me for helping convince him, so she said that was at least a comfort, but it made me really … I thought to myself, am I really happy in what I’m doing?
And it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t happy working with clients or doing financial planning, but it wasn’t enough for me to be getting up at a quarter to five in the morning from Suffolk and going to London three days a week, and all the stresses and strains that running a quite high profile and quite complicated financial planning business has on you. And I felt a bit lonely in that leadership role.
And then that was one side of things, but the other side of things is I’d managed to get the situation, thankfully where I’d paid my mortgage off, I’d built some wealth, I’d had some reasonable financial success, and I thought to myself “I’m only making 70 or 80 wealthy families wealthier, and this isn’t really meeting my personal need for making a difference and having meaningful work,” which is a theme I’ll come back to. And I thought to myself “You know, I could stay in this firm and not really be 100% happy because I’m not changing the world, or I could actually change my career, adapt what I’ve already learned, try a different route. If it doesn’t work I can always go back to what I always know. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
I was thankfully in a financial position where I could do so, and I managed to organise an exit package, which was such that it meant that really, I didn’t really have any financial strains as such. It doesn’t mean [inaudible 00:04:31] I don’t like earning money, but it meant I had some options. So I thought “Well, I’ll never get this time back again. I’ll never be this age again, and I’ve got nothing to lose.” And I really did want to try and bring my knowledge and experience and perspectives and my love of learning to try and help people live a life which was fuller, and also free from all the stresses and worries of money and make … so that money was serving them. So I was hoping to really touch the lives of many more people than I was hitherto doing in my previous role.
Martin: Well we’ll come back round in a second to living a fuller life, what that means, how you go about it. Before we started recording we were chatting about the fact that you’ve had two books out in relatively quick succession. So if we look at the first one first, so [inaudible 00:05:12] Squeezing the Orange, which came out last year, what inspired you to write Squeezing the Orange?
Jason: Well it was my daughter who’s now at Durham University doing classics. She was studying for her A-level finals at the beginning of last year, and I remember thinking … I walked into the study and she had all these books, and it was amazing and piles of stuff and she was grafting away hour after hour, and I said to her “You know, I’m amazed darling that you’ve got that presence of mind and self discipline and determination to get all this work done.” I honestly can’t remember working like that when I was at school at that level of focus.
And she said to me “Well, I’m squeezing my orange.” And I said “What do you mean?” And she said “Well, do you remember years ago when I was about nine or ten Dad? You told me the story about life is like an orange. You can decide how much of the juice you get out of an orange, and you can decide how much you get out of life.” And she said “You always said squeeze the orange as much as you can to get every last drop out of it. So in other words, do everything that you can to life so that when you take your last breath that you don’t have any regrets.” And she said “So, I’m squeezing my orange. I’ll only get this chance once. I might as well do everything I can.”
And she needed to get three A’s at A-level to get into Durham. There was no options. That was it, and she had to get the three A’s. And she said “You know, I’ve got to get the three A’s so I’m going to have to work hard.” And that was really the kernel of the idea, and then about a month later she said “Do you know what Dad? You should write down all these lessons of life you’ve been lecturing me on for years. You should write them down in a book.” So I started just writing down some of the concepts and ideas that I’ve learned and I’ve been teaching her and I’ve sort of lived my own life by. And before you know it I had a book written, and they were just a collection of stories based around obviously some validated facts and some academics and so on. And that’s really where the book came from. So my daughter’s got everything … she’s to blame for it.
Martin: The blame in a good way. Now, we haven’t all got fathers who give us these inspirational messages as youngsters, and we sort of pick them up and carry them. Do you think it’s fair to say that most people settle for a life that will simply do? They don’t squeeze everything out of life.
Jason: Well, I think it’s important here not to be judgmental. We all come at life from different perspectives. We’ve all got different personalities. We all have our different upbringings, and we all had different experiences. So I’m certainly not one here to say what a good life it is. I do think it’s the case that there are a fair degree of people that I’ve met in my career and socially who I think aren’t intentional about life. And what I mean by that is if they’re not unhappy, they may not be completely fulfilled, and flourishing is the word I use.
And I think what that means is that the vast majority of people in the UK today, if you look at all the studies, the majority, if not all, but the majority of people are reasonably happy with their lot. That doesn’t mean to say that they’re living the fullest life they could and that they are the best version of themselves, and that they’re getting the most out of life. And I think that’s because they sometimes lack intentionality, like we all do, right? And they aren’t standing back every now and again and saying, not in an over analytical way, but just saying “Am I happy with this lot? Am I happy with the life I’m leading? What is working for me, what isn’t working for me? Or should I make some course corrections?”
So it’s not about a big epiphany or a big “throw the toys out of the pram.” It’s a case of sometimes taking course corrections. I mean, if you’re in a plane going to America, they don’t just … the autopilot doesn’t just leave it, all the rudders and all the speed and everything. It’s always making course corrections, and I think sometimes we’re guilty of not making course corrections in our life because you aren’t the same person at 30 as you were at 20. You’re certainly not the same person at 40 as 30, and you’re definitely not the same person at 50 as you were at 40. So I think it is important for people to sometimes take a stand back and saying “Is this life working for me?” And, “Is my definition of good, is that actually being played out in my life?”
Martin: So what steps can we take to do that? To stand back and look for intentionality in life?
Jason: Well, obviously you have to read the book to get all the proper insights-
Martin: Of course.
Jason: But I think … I mean, I give a whole series of lessons in the book. One for instance, which I follow very much the stoic principles. So, stoics were around well before Christianity and so on, and they teach that there are only two things we can control in life. One is our judgement , how we interpret things, and secondly is the actions we take. The rest of it is all down to chance luck, so you could be a very hard worker. You could be exercising at the gym, eating healthy and still drop dead of a heart attack. Obviously you play the odds, and so there are some things that you just can’t control, so for all your best endeavours, you can be doing everything right and still things can’t go wrong … might not go right.
So one of the things I do say though is really important, is to take … and the concept came from the book called Extreme Ownership, and it’s basically taking responsibility. So this is one simple thing, is don’t blame anyone else. Don’t act like a victim. You’ve got to be the victor. Whatever’s going on in your life, take responsibility. It doesn’t mean that you can control everything. It doesn’t mean that you’re always going to get it right. It doesn’t mean there’s always someone to blame, and even for all your best efforts you may still fail. But take responsibility for those things that you can control, and understand those things that you can’t control.
So that extreme responsibility means not putting off to other people. So, if you’re in a relationship that’s not working, don’t blame your partner for bad behaviour. You take responsibility for it, and if you can’t change things then you have to part. It’s as simple as that. So that’s just one extreme example, but don’t keep blaming your partner for things that aren’t working in your relationship. You take responsibility for how to change it.
Another example is making other people look good. Now, this sounds counter intuitive, but I tell the story of a lady who had a tyrant of a boss. She’s a friend of a friend, and she had a tyrant of a boss who treated her abominably. But instead of becoming belligerent and disgruntled, this lady, Melissa, she decided to do everything in her power to make her belligerent boss look good. And a magical thing happened, is that eventually the boss became reliant on her. Melissa ended up, the lady ended up getting pay raises, bonuses, promotions, she got extra holiday, and eventually she was put on such a pedestal, she got such a position of power and authority and control that actually … I don’t mean let yourself be treated like a doormat. There comes [inaudible 00:12:00] where you have to stand up and be counted, but generally speaking, all the low level chaos this boss was bringing around her, Melissa, the young lady, she took control and said “I’m going to make my boss look great.” And so again, making someone else look great is counter intuitive to how we normally think.
Martin: I’ll put a link in the show notes for that, but you mentioned Extreme Ownership. It’s a Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, absolutely brilliant read, so-
Jason: It’s awesome. It’s brilliant. And I tell the story of the boat squad, you know, those two boats, and it’s a brilliant one. So my book is touching on lots of insights but obviously from real stories from me, my clients and friends, and some I picked up from other authors, but I try to package these ideas and each chapter you can read in less than two or three minutes, and you’ll get the point, and it’s very simple text. It’s really easy to read. You’d read the whole book in an hour and a half tops. And I have people all the time coming back to me and saying “I love this chapter,” or “I love that chapter,” or “I like this one. I like those ones.” And you know, it’s not about me having all the ideas. It’s about me helping you reconnect with a narrative that works for you.
Martin: Well, your new book is called Money Moments. That’s all about financial well being, and that seems to be a really hot topic in the world of financial planning right now. So how would you define financial well being? What is it? How do we recognise it if we saw it?
Jason: Well, there’s lots of definitions, but my definition is really simple. That we know that money is a source of anxiety, pain and worry for lots of people. And let’s face it, money is an abstract, isn’t it? Money is merely a unit of exchange. So for many people to have an ambiguous relationship with money, and a lot of people are fearful and frightened about money, and it goes beyond numbers and math. I mean, some people have self limiting beliefs and so on. But for me, financial well being is about minimising or avoiding stress, worry and anxiety and pain about money, and having be more intentional about what you use your money on in the here and now so you maximise and flourish and enjoy life. But equally that you are … today you’re being good through your actions to your future self when you either can’t or don’t want to work, or are unable to work.
Martin: And you mention there again being intentional, so is this down to mindset again? Is mindset something we’ve all got available to us to deploy when we need to? Or do we need to learn it?
Jason: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day if we just think … money is the means to the end, it’s not the end in itself, although many people you meet, they do think that is the end, because when you’re dead how much do you leave? You leave all of it. I do think it’s intention. It’s about working out the role of money in your life, and we know that not having enough money for your basic needs is a source of unhappiness, but having loads and loads of more money doesn’t necessarily make you more and more happy.
So there’s a compromise between living for today and planning for the future, and I think it’s the intentionality of working out … trying to do more things that help you flourish and fulfilled and satisfied and have meaning in your life, and you could call that happiness, or you could call it whatever you want, whatever that means to you, and doing less of the things that take you away from that. And your day to day actions on spending and how you use your money and how you think about other people and envy people and compare yourself to people, and all these things, these are all what I call “rules of the road” that are destined to make you … certainly not help you have a fulfilled life and more likely to make you feel unfulfilled.
So for instance, I explained that if you compare yourself to other people, it’s just a recipe for disaster because you will always find someone who’s got more than you, whose been more successful. Believe it or not Martin, you’ll always find someone who’s better looking than you. I know it’s hard to believe.
Martin: That doesn’t happen often.
Jason: No, no, but just imagine, just pretend for one moment that there is someone out there. So I think the point is … and I call that Facebook false. That chapter is all about if you compare yourself to what other people say, and in fact the illusion of wealth that other people create around them is actually not more to do with an illusion of debt because people are often mortgaging their future to impress people that they don’t know with money they haven’t got for things they don’t need to impress people who don’t really care.
And so I think once you can get some of these principles out there, that no one really cares about your life, and it doesn’t make any odds to someone down … I mean, in my last FT article I said “You know, imagine if there was absolutely no one else in the world and you could cope with the loneliness issue, but everything was still in the shops and the power still worked, would you still drive the same car? Would you still wear the same clothes? Would you still go out to the same places? Would you still do the same things that you do now?” So in other words, are you living your life and the way you use money based on acceptance of others, the comparisons of others and what other people say is important to them about money, and you’re trying to living their value set?
So of course we all need a certain amount to live, but the point is, how much is enough? And I suppose that issue is that … and how are you using your money on a day to day basis to help improve your fulfilment and your satisfaction with life, and so that you flourish. So as I say, when I do my talks I talk for all different groups and I was with a really big high powered group recently, and I said “Look, I am sure there are people in here who’ve got more money than me, but I can promise you that I don’t think there’s going to be anyone in here who’s happier than me.”
And that wasn’t me being sanctimonious or trying to get one over on anyone. That was making a fact, is that I am genuinely very happy with my lot. Not in the sense that I think I’m better than anyone. I’m just very happy with what I have. I still have the tension of things I want to do and things I want to improve on, and how I want to make things better, but that’s not the same as … so I’m not living my life in whatever people want me to be.
I always remember a really successful financial advisor said to me when I was selling the firm, he said “I can’t believe it because you ran that firm for 17 years. You’ve been an advisor for 25. I can’t believe that you’re doing something different.” He said “Aren’t you scared?” I said “No, I’m not scared because I’d be more scared if I didn’t try something different, because I’m not defined by the job that I do.”
Martin: So what is the best way that we can spend our money for that purpose of happiness and fulfilment? We can be intentional with how we spend our money.
Jason: Well again, without sort of … I mean, you could buy the book, and there are four areas, but if I just summarised, there are four things to think of. One, there is getting control over your day to day finances, and there are several ways that you can do that. Everything from just understanding where your money goes to what you’ve got. Where everything is and where it’s all going. And there are several strategies for that. Then the other thing is, is being able to cope with financial shocks. And financial shocks are, you know, the ball has just gone wrong. I think you had this a few years ago Martin, didn’t you? [crosstalk 00:18:52]
Martin: [crosstalk 00:18:52]
Jason: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So the boiler blows up or the car breaks down, or suddenly your daughter comes home and says “There’s a school trip to go to so and so for 500 pounds.” “Oh yes, okay.” So things happen, and if you haven’t got savings or you don’t have insurances that can pick up the strain and absorb those unexpected things, then you’re going to get blown off track and possibly build up debt, and that’s one of the … it came out today actually from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, was them talking about the amount of unsecured debt and low income households.
Because they never build up a reserve, and they’re only just sort of holding … getting enough to come in to meet the basic needs, and sometimes now even that, if you never got a reserve you only have to have one or two things happen and you get blown off course. And I saw a homeless guy begging outside Manchester Station. They guy behind me said “We’re all only two or three catastrophes away from being homeless.” I thought to myself, “That’s a very powerful point.”
And then the third element of that is having choices and being very intentional about what you spend your money on in the here and now so that you have choices to decide what to spend money on, and that that’s in tune with what you say is important to you, so it maximises your flourishing and fulfilment. And then the final thing is being on track to achieve your longer term goals. Not to the be all and end all of not living today, but having an eye on the future so you know how much is enough, how much of today’s money you need to put aside, perhaps when would you be financially independent where paid work is optional, and kind of … what options and where you might get resources from under different scenarios.
It doesn’t have to be a rigid plan, just a sort of … it can be a series of guesses that you can keep revisiting, but just some kind of rough idea of where you might be in 10, 15, 20, 30 years, which we know will be wrong but at least it gives you an idea and context within which to make daily spending decisions. So they’re the four key areas, and the book goes into lots of detail. But if you don’t want to buy the book, people can download the 20 point cheat sheet, as I call it, or the checklist, which is actually from the last chapter of the book from my website, which we can discuss just before I go.
Martin: Yeah, absolutely. And again we’ll put links in the show notes. Now, I mentioned at the start, as well as being a speaker and an author and a financial well being expert, you are also an investor now, private investor. So I, about a year ago it was, bumped into a few of your colleagues from [Finsole 00:21:04] at the master investor show. They had a stand just down from ours, so could you tell us a bit more about your investment in Finsole and why you’re backing that business?
Jason: Well, I have five holdings, five fintech holdings. I back businesses basically that have a financial … that are somehow shape or form involved in personal finance. And Finsole is just one of a number of businesses. In fact, it’s the smallest holding I have. Their mission is to get professional services firms, which includes financial advisors and financial planners, investment advisors, to incorporate live video and screen sharing in the client collaboration and advice and planning experience.
And what they’re saying is that this makes it more convenient for people, it makes it easier for people to understand concepts, perhaps if they’ve recording the meeting they can go back over and listen to bits of it again. And it also potentially makes the service more affordable to more people, so I back them because they’re very much being focused on getting firms to adapt their client experience to use high definition video with screen sharing using the next versions of technology. And they are resellers for all the major video technology companies.
And of course, the other benefit of that is if firms use that sort of technology in their meeting rooms they can actually watch back the client meetings and see how well and how effective the advisors and planners are with the clients by looking at body language, looking at what was said and how the conversation was flowing so the advisors and planners and professional advisors can develop their own soft skills to be more useful, more relevant to clients.
But I’ve invested in Advicefront, [Finnemeyers 00:22:41], Money Alive, so I’m investing in lots of different businesses that, whether they’re creating video content so clients can understand things, whether they’re creating a do-it-yourself financial plan process, whether they’re creating an interactive tour so that advisors can help clients build their own plan remotely but together. So I back all businesses where they’ve got great management, they’re solving a real problem, and they’re trying to do things differently, but for the ultimate good of the end consumer.
Martin: Jason, thank you for joining us on the podcast today. Before you go, where can we find out more about you and the work you do and where can we buy copies of your books?
Jason: Well, my website is jason-butler.com, and there you can see videos, podcasts, you can read my blogs, you can get access to … you can look at all the testimonials, et cetera. You can buy the book on Amazon, and in fact there will be a Kindle version of Money Moments available in the end of January, and there’ll be Audible versions of both Squeezing the Orange and Money Moments in early February, but they’re all available on Amazon, Kindle, Audible. But as I say, if you want to book me for speaking, you need to find my website, or [inaudible 00:23:52] for the books.
Martin: Thank you very much. I’ll make sure we put links in the show notes. That was great. Thank you.
Jason: Thanks for having me. Thanks.