In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Brock Bennion, a financial advisor with Kimball Creek Partners who draws on his scientific training when he works with clients. Brock and Emily discuss how the mindsets and principles that scientists learn can translate very well into their personal finances, everything from thinking long-term to avoiding flashy experiments to collaboration. Brock also lists the essential personal finance strategies to apply during or following the PhD to avoid making a big mistake.
Links Mentioned in the Episode
- Brock Bennion Twitter (@kimballcreek)
- Kimball Creek Partners
- PF for PhDs Tax Workshops
- Emily’s E-mail Address
- PF for PhDs S13E7 Show Notes
- PF for PhDs Speaking (Seminars)
- The illustrated guide to a PhD (by Matt Might)
- PF for PhDs Subscribe to Mailing List (Access Advice Document)
- PF for PhDs Podcast Hub (Show Notes)
00:00 Brock: In science, what we learn early on is the value of collaboration and how important it is to get your findings out there as soon as you have something. And you would never wait to present those findings until you were at a conference or you were publishing them in a journal. You find the experts along the way and you workshop it the whole time. We’re hesitant to do that with finances. You’ve got to talk with people who have done it and who have some expertise, even just through their experience. Because if you do that, you will start refining your way to a better answer.
00:39 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs Podcast: A Higher Education in Personal Finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts, a financial educator specializing in early-career PhDs and founder of Personal Finance for PhDs. This podcast is for PhDs and PhDs-to-be who want to explore the hidden curriculum of finances to learn the best practices for money management, career advancement, and advocacy for yourself and others. This is Season 13, Episode 7, and today my guest is Dr. Brock Bennion, a financial advisor with Kimball Creek Partners who draws on his scientific training when he works with clients. Brock and I discuss how the mindsets and principles that scientists learn can translate very well into their personal finances, everything from thinking long-term to avoiding flashy experiments to collaboration. Brock also lists the essential personal finance strategies to apply during or following the PhD to avoid making a big mistake. The inevitable—the unavoidable—is approaching. Tax season begins in about two months. But help is on the way! I have been busy this fall creating a new version of my annual federal tax return preparation workshop and updating the versions I have offered in the past. These workshops are designed exclusively for funded graduate students and postdocs.
02:08 Emily: I used to teach this material live for university clients, but in recent years have switched over to offering pre-recorded videos plus Q&A opportunities. I actually much prefer this format because you can work through the content at the time that is best for you, whether January or April or in between, and also at a comfortable pace. For the tax return preparation process in particular, I think it’s very helpful to be able to pause the videos and collect documents or make calculations and rewatch segments if you didn’t catch the nuances the first time through. Plus, you still have the ability to ask questions in case anything is unclear or you aren’t sure how to apply the information to your situation, and frankly these are even better questions than the ones I used to get during fully live workshops because you’ve had time to reflect. I’m very proud of these workshops, and they’ve been reaching more and more graduate students and postdocs every year. The new version of this workshop that I’m offering this coming tax season is for nonresident graduate students and postdocs, and I will continue to offer the versions for U.S. citizen/resident graduate students and U.S. citizen/resident postdocs.
03:20 Emily: If you would like to use one of these workshops in the upcoming tax season, you do have the option to purchase it as an individual via PFforPhDs.com/tax. However, I would much prefer that you gain access to it for free, which you can attempt to arrange by helping me find a sponsor at your university, such as your graduate school, graduate student association, postdoc office, international house, etc. I’m bringing this up now because these offices and groups generally need some time to figure out if they have any funding available to allocate toward this purpose. Please let me know of your interest in approaching a potential sponsor at your institution by emailing me at emily@PFforPhDs.com. I may already have someone in mind! Thanks for your help with spreading the word about these educational tax workshops! You can find the show notes for this episode at PFforPhDs.com/s13e7/. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Brock Bennion.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
04:28 Emily: I am delighted to have joining me on podcast today, Dr. Brock Bennion. He is a PhD from WashU in St. Louis, and he’s also a wealth strategist at Kimball Creek Partners in Tacoma, Washington. So Brock, so delighted that you’re here today. We’ve met on Twitter, which is a really fun way for me to get to meet my guests. So, I’m so glad that we, you know, had some exchanges over there and now here you are on the podcast. So, this is really fun. And would you please introduce yourself to the audience a little bit further?
04:56 Brock: Yeah, thanks. Thanks, Emily, it’s, it’s great to be here. It’s great to talk to you kind of face-to-face, like you said, it’s fun to meet people online. Like you said, I’m a wealth strategist at Kimball Creek Partners. My background is in biology. I was an immunologist, studied at Washington University. I studied viruses and autoimmune diseases and how those two things work together and I absolutely loved it. I still love science. I think it’s amazing, but I am enjoying my career here and, you know, we might talk about how I ended up here and why I did that. But now, I love talking about the interface of science and finance and how these things come together. And so, when you offered me the chance to come on the podcast, I thought, well, that sounds like a lot of fun.
Research Mindsets that Translate into Finance
05:38 Emily: So, we decided on our topic for today being, you know, for the researchers in the audience, the PhDs and PhDs-to-be who are listening, who want to enhance their practice of personal finance. What are the mindsets that we have already developed or are developing as researchers that are really going to serve us well if we’re able to translate those over into this personal finance space? And so, you and I kind of collaboratively came up with a list of a few different points together. So, we’re just going to talk through those and kind of have fun with this like, idea of translating these mindsets from research into the practice of personal finance. So, what was the first one that we came up with, Brock? And let’s start us off.
06:21 Brock: Well, so first we talked about the importance of kind of knowing your goal. I mean, if there is again, a unique aspect of a PhD, it’s the variable size and length, but how you really do view your projects in terms of years. You know, it’s not, you know, this semester’s, you know, test or you know, the upcoming quiz. It’s okay, how do I craft a story that takes place over, you know, years and then, you know, beyond your graduate work, you know, sometimes decades-long, you know, pursuits. And that’s what finance really is. You know, if you are thinking about finance properly, you’re thinking about it in terms of your life, and often beyond that and legacy planning for, you know, future generations and setting up your kids for their success. And that’s a really great skill. And something I think is underappreciated as a PhD student is the ability to say, okay, I’m starting at zero, you know, and I want to go to this point far off in the future. And that applies really well to finance, to be able to say, I’m starting at zero. How do I get to where I want to be? And let’s build a plan to get there.
07:31 Emily: I completely agree. This is one of the points that I kind of start off one of my talks with, The Graduate Student and Postdoc’s Guide to Personal Finance. I like to start off on a like a positive note of like, encouragement for the people in the audience who might feel a little bit like intimidated about, you know, a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about their finances or learning. So, I like to say to them like, if you as a PhD student or postdoc already have like a grand vision for your career and for how graduate school or your postdoc fits in to that vision of your career, you have to do that to get to the stage of being in graduate school. Like you have to write it in your essays, like how this is going to play into your career.
08:11 Brock: Exactly.
08:12 Emily: And so, you’re doing that long-term planning on the career side. And so if you could just pivot that and think about, you know, the decades in your finances and what you want your vision for your life to be, over not just the next few years, but you know, the decades, that’s already a skill that you’re developing there. And you just have to put it over to the other side of the finances and apply it there and it’s going to serve you really, really well. And I’m also thinking now about how like, you know, in setting goals, like, okay, this is what I want my career to be. And then you can break that down. Okay, that means this is what I want to do for my graduate degree and then I think I’m probably going to follow that up with a postdoc or this type of job after that.
08:49 Emily: And you know, as you said earlier, people can pivot. You and I both, you know, made some pivots after graduate school, but we at least, you know, you can at least start down that path with a plan. And I think that is similar in the finances, right? Have the goals for the decades, but then back that out and have the goals for 10 years and five years and one year. And then that breaks down to your current goals as well. Yeah, is there anything you want to say about those, like links of time or like decision-making around goal-setting?
09:15 Brock: I think you’re right that like what PhDs do really well is they set these long goals, but then also that they set little goals to get there, which is the step of goal-setting that I think most people fall flat on. I’d say the first problem is people don’t set goals to begin with. If you ask somebody what are your financial goals, they’ll often just give you a blank stare. You should have some goals. And then what you need though, you need lots of small goals that get you there. You know, so if your goal is to discover, you know, something, you know, or show that a drug works, there are all these experiments that go into how does that line up? For the same way, when you’re doing a financial goal, one, you have to pick what your goal is. You have to know where you want to go. But then you’ve got to set the little goals to get there. It’s doing both of those things that really is where you harness the power of goal-setting and of planning.
Long-Term Goal: Retirement
10:03 Emily: I’d love to hear some examples now, like in that financial realm of a really long-term goal and then some more short-term or intermediate-term goals that will help you get there to that long-term goal.
10:13 Brock: Yeah, so usually, I mean, one that we talk about is just retirement. Now, not every scientist wants to retire. I used to joke that the retirement plan of many scientists, especially in academia, is something like drop dead in your office at 95 as you’re writing a grant, you know? But for those that do want to retire, you’ve got to come up with an idea of what that retirement looks like. You know, basic things of where you’re going to live, what do you want to spend your time doing? Because few people just stop and play golf now. I mean, that’s not really what retirement looks like for most people. And then, put a dollar figure on what that costs. Say, well, you know, if I want to travel abroad three times a year, once I retire, well you know, what’s that going to cost me? And then back out from there, and once you start getting a goal of a lifestyle type of thing, you put a big dollar sign on that. And then you take that big dollar sign, you break it down into smaller dollar signs of, well how much is that on a yearly basis? And then what do I need to start saving now to be able to accumulate those kinds of funds to be able to live that kind of lifestyle?
11:24 Emily: This example of retirement is one that I end up speaking about a lot because it’s obviously one of those biggest goals within personal finance that takes so long to properly prepare for, you know, and employing the power of compound interest and so forth. But I’m remembering that when I was in graduate school, and to some extent up until just like a couple of years ago, I didn’t really have that vision of what I wanted my retirement to look like. So, my shorter-term goal was just start saving and start investing and assume that you’re going to get to like the more specific vision later. Because I know it’s going to take investing to some degree either way. And I wonder if there’s a parallel that we can draw over to like the process of getting your PhD or your career on the other side of it. Like maybe it is just, okay, I’m pretty sure I need to have a PhD to do something with my career later in this area. So, I feel like a PhD is a good thing to complete, and that’s a nice five or so, you know, year term goal.
Value of Planning and Collaboration (PhD/Finance)
12:20 Brock: And I think with that recognizing though, like from the beginning, you’re investing a certain amount of time in your PhD, and what do you expect the return to be on the end? You know, for some people, it’s the logical next step from undergraduate. For others, they know going in, well this is what I want to do. And others figure it out along the way. And that’s totally fine whatever path you find yourself in, but you should be actively looking for your plan and your outcome. You know, the future belongs to those who go out and get it. And if you’re always just taking things as it comes, that’s an okay thing to do as you’re figuring things out. But eventually, you’ve got to set your sights on something, and you’ve got to go and get it.
13:04 Brock: And that’s exactly what I think a PhD teaches you really well to do. We all know the person who sat at their bench and didn’t do any experiments and eventually, they had to go do those experiments. And we all know the person that came in every morning at 6:00 AM and was off working, and they got a lot of stuff done. It’s no different in finance or in life. The other thing that you kind of brought up before, and I think, you know, dovetails nicely at this, is the hesitancy that people have to talk about their finances with others, and how they kind of hold this in close. And what I find so interesting is that’s so counter to good science <laugh> right? In science, what we learn early on is the value of collaboration and how important it is to get your findings out there as soon as you have something.
13:55 Brock: You know, from the time that, hey, I have this idea, and you go and you share it with somebody and they say, well that’s a terrible idea, but you know what, if you did this, this would be a better idea. And then you go down the hall and tell somebody else and they say, well that’s a pretty good idea. We could do this experiment that would find out if it would be a really good idea. And, and you would never wait to present those findings until you were at a conference or you were publishing it in a journal. You find the experts along the way and you workshop it the whole time. We’re hesitant to do that with finances. We say, well I want to keep this secret until I’m totally secure. Right? Once I’ve become financially independent, then maybe I’ll talk about my struggles early on or whatever it is.
14:36 Brock: And I think whether you’re choosing, you know, the loan forgiveness pathway or you’re trying to decide is now the right time to buy a house or should I go to a high cost-of-living area for this job that I think has potential? You’ve got to talk with people who have done it and who have some expertise, even just through their experience. Because if you do that, you will start refining your way to a better answer. And you don’t just talk about it once you talk about it every chance you get because everybody will add something different and you’ll form a really good understanding of where you want to go.
15:11 Emily: This is definitely something that, at least I would think many graduate programs you’re taught and encouraged to do this. In fact, find peers and collaborators at many different levels. You have your peers, like other people in your cohort or in your program or in your lab and they’re going through the similar, you know, struggles that you are and they can have something to say about your thought process or your goals or what have you. And then you have your mentor and then you have your committee, and then you have maybe a collaborator at another institute. You know, there are many different levels of people who can help and guide you. And you’re right that we don’t, I mean on like the personal finance side of things, I’m trying to think because like, yeah, some people work with someone like you, like a financial advisor usually after they have some money to be advised upon <laugh>.
15:54 Emily: And then before that point, when you’re in the, let’s say the training stage and you’re just like trying things out and trying to get some debt paid off and get your, you know, your investing off the ground or whatever’s happening, it’s much less common to talk either with peers or with a mentor or someone who’s been there before. And you know, I do kind of serve as that role as like an educator, but I don’t have like one-to-one relationships with people. It’s more of a teaching like mechanism for me. But people, yeah, don’t tend to talk very much among their peers, even though they could be really good, resources and sounding boards. Yeah, what have you seen, like, I guess with your clients or have you seen any way to like kind of overcome this stigma that we have?
16:34 Brock: You know, it’s hard. Like any stigma, you know, and if we’re talking about, you know, mental illness or social issues or whatever it is, any stigma is best broken by breaking it. And you really just kind of have to start and realize that most people don’t judge. Most people are very accepting, very welcoming to that being honest and open. And you actually forge some real connections with that. You know, some of the best relationships that, you know, me and my wife made during our grad school years were with other couples who were going through the exact same thing. And we’d talk about, you know, our struggles of how do you make this work in the finances, and everybody’s dealing with the same stuff. And typically, people who have already overcome are even more empathetic because they remember those years and they think about, well, how could I have been helped? I wish I would’ve known this, I wish I would’ve known this. And it’s really valuable.
17:32 Emily: I think that’s definitely an encouragement to the listeners to talk with whoever’s a little further along than you are. Like if you’re an entering graduate student, talk with an older graduate student, talk with a postdoc, anyone who’s at like a later stage. And what’s kind of interesting about academia, I mean, obviously people come from very different, um, financial backgrounds. And you know, some people might be deeply in debt coming into graduate school. Some people might have resources from their parents or maybe a prior job that they had before they started graduate school. We can all be coming from different places, but within your program, it’s pretty likely that people are being paid somewhere in a similar range to each other unless there’s like an outside fellowship involved or something like, so at least you have some degree of commonality that you can like start conversations from. Like, oh wow, you know, rent is like 40% of my income.
18:22 Emily: My goodness, what are you paying for rent? I love that question. What are you paying for rent? It’s a very easy one to answer. Everybody knows how much they’re paying for rent. And it’s low stakes, right? Like, it’s not a judgment, oh, you’re paying more or less, whatever. Oh, we found a great deal. I’d love to know how you did that. I literally did this in graduate school because I ultimately moved a couple times in graduate school, and by the time I got to the last place that we stayed, it was like the best deal that I ever lived in during that period of time. It was because I asked people, how much are you paying for this place? Seems great. Oh wow, I can’t believe it’s that little. I’m going to get on the waiting list. You know? So, it it took that like collaboration, like we were talking about earlier, in sharing information to get to those great tactics that actually really help your finances when you can do something like reduce rent. One quick example, easy example. Very easy to talk to other people about rent. I found <laugh>.
19:09 Brock: No, that’s a super great example. No, and I love that because you’re right, people, everybody knows what it is and you know, you don’t judge anybody. You know, you don’t feel any judgment. You feel like you got a deal if somebody’s saying, oh, I paid this or I paid this, and Oh, that’s a great question. I like that.
19:26 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. Would you like to learn directly from me on a personal finance topic, such as goal-setting, investing, frugality, increasing income, or student loans, each tailored specifically for graduate students and postdocs? I offer seminars and workshops on these topics and more in a variety of formats, and I’m now booking for the 2022-2023 academic year. If you would like to bring my content to your institution, would you please recommend me as a speaker to your university, graduate school, graduate student association, or postdoc office? My seminars are usually slated as professional development or personal wellness. Ask the potential host to go to PFforPhDs.com/speaking/ or simply email me at emily@PFforPhDs.com to start the process. I really appreciate these recommendations, which are the best way for me to start a conversation with a potential host. The paid work I do with universities and institutions enables me to keep producing this podcast and all my other free resources. Thank you in advance if you decide to issue a recommendation! Now back to our interview.
Not-Flashy Experiments in Research and in Finance
20:49 Emily: Another point that we put in our outline was to choose experiments that you are fairly confident are going to work in the sense that they are going to give you information. And the way you put that was don’t be flashy. So, what does this in the research realm, and then how does this translate over to the personal finance realm?
21:11 Brock: Yeah, I hope this wasn’t just me in grad school, but I feel like a lot of grad students, maybe it was just me, you know, early on, will sit down with their advisor and say, Hey, I read in the literature about, you know, this new aspect, this new cool thing that’s out, and I was thinking that this might be affecting this, which might be affecting this, which is actually driving, you know, my project. And you know, the advisor lovingly looks at you and says, mm, probably not <laugh>. You know, like that’s a really long stretch. It could be, and if it did, it’d be really cool and to be really impactful, but the chances of that being true, that’s not really well-grounded in the literature. And then they steer you to some experiments that whether or not, you know, whether you get a positive result that you’re expecting or a negative result, it’s the right question to be asking.
21:59 Brock: It’s the right experiment to be doing and that can go into your paper, you know, be part of your project. And, you know, often people will ask, you know, what do I need to do to be financially independent? And like a really basic way to start is save 10% of your income. Not super flashy. It’s not about a specific investment or it’s not about, you know, doing a fixer upper home or having a side hustle or whatever it is. It’s just, you know, what, if you save 10% of your income, you put it away super diligently for 30 years. I don’t run into many people that have done that and aren’t in a good place financially. They may not be super rich, but they’re in a good place financially. They did something with a high degree of probability that it was going to work, and it worked <laugh>.
22:51 Emily: I think the way that I would put this, and I’m trying, I think this was advice that I sort of, I don’t think I applied it but I sort of heard it during graduate school, was to have a couple of sort of safe aspects to your project. Maybe more conservative, maybe more likely to pan out. And then take one high flyer on some strange idea you have. But don’t devote all of your time to it, right? We’re talking about 10, 20%, something like that. And have, you know, in terms of like constructing your dissertation, like have a couple of chapters that you’re pretty sure are going to work out and then save your, you know, strange, unique, possibly very high reward, but also very high-risk idea for, you know, the last one, right?
23:32 Brock: Yes.
23:32 Emily: And so, I think that that translates over very well to personal finance. It’s like, yeah, a few people might, you know, make it big financially on essentially a gamble, but the vast majority of people do not win the lottery, whatever, you know, the crypto lottery, whatever the version of the lottery is that you’re playing. You can try it, but with the vast majority of your resources, let’s do something that’s a little more tried and true. As you were kind of saying earlier, like, you know, I think about, and maybe we’ll link it in the show notes if you can find this, but I don’t know if it’s a PhD comic or xkcd or something like that, but it’s like, you know, a circle and it’s like these are the boundaries of human knowledge, and the PhD is like putting a little tiny bump on the edge of that circle, you know, like that. It’s the same thing with finances. Like the circle is like, do the stuff like saving 10% of your income, having insurance, like do all the regular stuff that is boring. It’s not flashy, but it’s going to work. And then, okay, yeah. Like, let’s take a little risk over here and a little risk over here as, you know, your personality might lead you to, or something like that. Is that another way of phrasing what you said?
24:38 Brock: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are things that you should do that make a lot of sense. And then yeah, you know, I’m certainly not saying you can’t take any risk or you can’t, you know, say, have fun with some aspects of your finance. But where you get hurt is when you devote too much time to that, just like you would in a project where if you spend all your time doing high-risk projects, maybe you get lucky and you hit it out of the park, but most likely you’ll end up with a lot of dead ends. You’ll be years into your project and you won’t really have a good foundation. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid.
Not-Flashy Personal Finance Advice (But it Works)
25:15 Emily: So, let’s give people some not-flashy personal finance advice. Let’s come up with like, I don’t know, three or five like baseline things, not flashy stuff, great strategies to be using. Whether that starts during graduate school or starts a little bit afterwards if they’re not quite ready for them yet. What’s on your list?
25:31 Brock: Well, I mean, you know, you’ll always hear, you know, my favorite is they’ll always say something like, you know, man, if only I bought, you know, insert whatever tech company in the nineties, you know, now I’d have, you know, this whole fleet of jets or something, right? Like, what people don’t say is, man, I sure wish I bought a diversified low-expense ETF in the nineties. But if you did that and you waited 30 years, it grew <laugh>, it worked. And there were a lot of companies in the nineties that just went away. And so yes, we can in hindsight look back and say, it would’ve been great to have bought this one that became big and changed the world. But if you just bought a low-expense, you know, ETF-type solution, it’s not flashy, it didn’t make you a billionaire, but it did work and it did grow.
26:19 Emily: Because, also by the way, it probably included that flashy tech company, whatever the sector was that, you know, is hot at the time, right? You just bought a tiny bit of it instead of a hundred percent of your bets on that. But the thing is like when you make that diversified portfolio bet, as you were just saying, you’re going to have some winners in there. If the economy is winning, you’re going to be winning with that portfolio. And you’re going to have a lot of losers in there, too. But thank goodness you bought some of the winners as well because you were so well diversified and it didn’t rely on your research and your ingenuity and your insights and blah, blah, blah to pick those out. Okay, so passive investing, index funds, ETFs, that’s a non-flashy strategy. Great. What else is on your list?
26:58 Brock: You need to have some form of life insurance if you have people that depend on you. Now, this does not mean an expensive, you know, universal whole life, whatever policy. But what we’ll tell people is, you know, make a list of everybody you say I love you to. Put a checkmark next to anybody you’re financially responsible for, and then ask yourself what would happen to those people if I wasn’t here? It’s not a flashy way to do it, and the goal is that you die never using it, but if you’re wrong and you don’t have that, you could leave people that you care about in a very unfortunate position.
27:42 Emily: Yep. Love it. And I want to add to that disability insurance too.
27:45 Brock: Yes.
27:45 Emily: Own occupation. Okay. What else is on your list?
Don’t Overextend Yourself
27:48 Brock: Just little things like don’t overextend yourself. Keep a budget, you know. Understand where are you putting your money every week? Is that in line with your priorities? And the example I sheepishly use, soon after undergraduate, I found myself working at a company as a microbiologist and I would go to lunch at just a sandwich shop every day. And all of a sudden I looked back and I’d spent like $300 that month going to the sandwich shop. Well, it didn’t put me in a bad financial position, but I thought, this is not in line with my priorities. It didn’t bring me that much more joy and to think that I could have put that money to something that had, you know, more in line with what I wanted to be doing, well that compounded over time. And so, again, there’s nothing flashy about bringing your lunch or making those small purchases and funneling your money in the direction you want it to, but it does work and it does add up, especially when you start early.
28:52 Emily: Yeah, I think I would phrase that as like an awareness of your money and just being willing to make adjustments when things are kind of out of alignment. And as you said, not overextending yourself. When you said that, I always think of housing and transportation, right? Like large fixed expenses, like especially challenging during graduate school, but like as much as possible, keep those in alignment with your overall income at that time. It’s obviously going to be really challenging in high cost-of-living areas, but just do the best you can during that kind of strange period of life, and you’ll be able to be more in balance later on when your salary is higher. But do the best you can and be aware of it. And like we talked about earlier, just be aware of opportunities where maybe you could find a way to spend a little less on one of these expenses if you feel overextended in that area.
Focus on Your Main Job
29:38 Brock: The last one I might add to this is just lots of times, people will focus on having a side hustle or side job, which is great if you enjoy that. I’ll often talk to people about focus on your first job. You know, there are things especially early in your career that you can take on more responsibility in different areas and accelerate your career growth and your career trajectory so that you’re making more money and you don’t have to spend 10 hours a night doing something else. You could spend an extra hour at your job and show that you’re willing to take on more responsibility and you grow. And as your salary grows, you don’t let your lifestyle creep with it, but you find ways to put that money to where you value most.
30:25 Emily: I love that point, kind of the rise of the side hustle corresponded with when I was in graduate school, like during the great recession, I think you were there at that time as well. And you know, at that time it was like sort of a necessity thing. Like a lot of people didn’t have primary jobs, couldn’t make more of their primary jobs, so they were turning to the side hustle. And then sometimes we were talking about earlier, like you see these successes of people who have a great side hustle or turn their side hustle into their main thing and their businesses and forth. And that can seem really attractive. But the 80/20 on this is just make more at your primary job as best you’re able to. And that could be through negotiation, that could be through, I want to say like preparation.
31:03 Emily: So, as a graduate student, as a postdoc, I want you to negotiate, I want you to apply for the fellowships. I want you to advocate for yourself. Absolutely. But if you’ve done that to the greatest degree you can and that’s where your income is for the time being until you graduate or move on or whatever, what you can still be doing is preparing for that next stage in your career through professional development, through networking, through gaining more skills. And so, that will pay off later. It’s not going to be in the immediate future, but when you have that first post-PhD, you know, career, job or whatever, that’s when it can sort of be like pedal to the medal and you’re going to apply all that stuff you learned, you’re going to negotiate, you’re going to do all the stuff to get that great salary.
31:39 Brock: Yeah.
Don’t Be Wrong
31:40 Emily: And the last point on our outline, Brock, I love the way you said this was, don’t be wrong, <laugh>. So, what do you mean by that?
31:48 Brock: Well, it comes back to the idea of, you know, doing what works. But we’d often say that the number one rule in science is don’t be wrong. You don’t have to be totally right. Nobody publishes a paper and at the end says, and this is it. No reason for a follow-up study, no reason for discussion. This is the end of the study. No, everybody has more questions. Every good study brings up implications and has things that spread from it. What you can’t do in a study is say something that’s wrong. You can’t make a claim that’s unsubstantiated, you can’t, you know, lead the field down the wrong path. You don’t have to be a hundred percent right, but you can’t be wrong <laugh> if that makes sense. And it goes the same way for finances. Making bad investments, things that are too risky early on, paying way too much than you should for things like a car or a house early on in your career. Those are things that can get you sideways financially and really throw you off course for a long time. It is better to just not be a hundred percent right. Talk about buying a diversified fund or something like that. You buy everything, you buy some losers, you buy some winners, you’re not wrong even if you’re not a hundred percent right. And I really think that’s important. Too many people are looking for that, well what’s the trick that’ll get me there faster? And it’s those tricks that usually mess you up.
33:22 Emily: Yeah, I feel like we went over this a little bit when we were talking about those like non-flashy strategies. Because the flashy strategies are the ones where we’re like, well, you might be right, but you definitely might be wrong as well. And it takes a lot of time to like figure that out, right? I mean, if you are an active investor for example, and you love to pick your own stocks, time will tell whether your strategy was successful or not. But it’s going to be time over like decades, not over like a year. And there’s less time to course correct once you’ve figured out that statistically that did not, you know, work out very well for you. So, don’t make a big mistake like we talked about earlier, like having sufficient insurance, not just life and disability insurance, which we mentioned, but like keeping health insurance and all that other stuff. Like insurance generally is one of those like nobody wants to pay for it, but guess what? The reason why the product exists is because you have an area in your life where if something terrible happened, you would not financially be able to recover from that, or at least not very quickly. That’s why you have the home insurance and the renters insurance and all that stuff. So like insurance is definitely one of those like, don’t make a mistake kind of products like yeah, it’s not pleasant to pay for it, but what’s really unpleasant is if that thing happens that you’re trying to insure against.
34:30 Brock: Yeah, we talk about, you know, you invest in what’s probable and you insure against what’s possible. So, the things that are possible but financially devastating if they were to occur, that’s where insurance can mitigate that. We don’t invest in those kind of things that are possible but not probable. We invest in what’s probable, insure against what’s possible.
34:51 Emily: Interesting. And can you think of any other areas that would be like a big mistake? Something that we haven’t already mentioned?
34:58 Brock: Yeah, I mean the one that comes to mind, and this is probably for people considering a graduate school or something like that, but where I look at people who go into a program and don’t finish. Or, you know, and I’ve seen people that drop out, you know, maybe just after five years, but just a year or two away from finishing that you get going down the wrong path and you decide that’s not for you, but you leave taking away nothing. It’s better to finish all the way to the end and then pivot once you’re out, and this isn’t for everybody, but in a lot of cases. Because then you have something to show for that. You show you’ve completed this, then you can move on to the next thing. But where again, you can get yourself really sideways is if you spend half a decade or more going down a path only to drop everything and not at least attempt to build on that momentum that you came up with.
35:57 Emily: Yeah, this is an interesting point and I feel like actually it could apply in other areas of career as well. Like not just the choice to go to graduate school or not, but sort of going down the wrong just career path generally for you. And it goes back to what we were talking about earlier about knowing yourself, knowing your values, knowing your personality. And I think just as soon as you start to notice a misalignment with whatever is going on in that area, it behooves you to examine that and then take action. Whether that’s the action to decide to finish, let’s say the PhD, the action to leave at that point before you, you know, spend three years in that state and not take any action about it. Because there are off ramps, right? Out of academia that can still be fruitful.
Be Open to Pivoting
36:35 Brock: Oh, I’m obviously all for pivoting. Me and my career, I pivoted. I think it’s great. I think you have opportunities throughout your career to pivot. But there’s a way to build on your pivots so that they aren’t turning around, but just changing course. And I think that’s important.
36:54 Emily: Yeah, I think actually my career has been an illustration of this point, actually, because I started knowing maybe around two years into graduate school that I probably wasn’t going to continue in research. But at that point, I really did a heavy reexamination period for about a year and decided that I did want to finish the PhD and it was because I was interested in several, you know, quote unquote alternative career tracks where the PhD would be useful. And so, I finished and then I picked my head up and did another reevaluation and said, oh, but I really love personal finance now and I really wanna go in this direction. So, I ended up pivoting again. But as you said, I was very happy that I got to the credential and got to the finish point because it has been useful since then. Then again, if I had been certain earlier that I didn’t want the PhD, then that would’ve been a good point to take that exit.
37:42 Brock: Exactly. Because, just like you said, those additional years that you would’ve invested. I mean, the relationship between time and money I think is very important. And, you know, whether it’s that you realize that my time is more important spent in this other direction, that’s great. Pivot. Leave grad school if that’s the right call for you. But know and recognize what you’re giving up and what you’re changing to. Because those are the kind of decisions that, you know, make a big swing in your career, in your finances, in your life. You’ve got to pay attention where you’re swinging.
Best Financial Advice for Another Early-Career PhD
38:19 Emily: I want to finish up now with the final question that I ask all of my guests, which is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And we’ve talked about so much like advice-y kind of stuff in this podcast episode already that I actually want to give you a more specific assignment, if you don’t mind.
38:36 Brock: Yeah. Okay.
38:37 Emily: Which is that you mentioned earlier that you had children while you were in graduate school. And so, I would love it if you would give advice for another graduate student or early-career PhD who has children maybe at a time when their peers do not yet have children, and what is some financial advice for that person?
38:54 Brock: You know, I <laugh> that’s a hard one. It is hard to have kids in grad school, but for me it was so worth it. It was great. My wife and I are a fantastic team. I hope she would say the same, and certainly she shouldered a lot of that burden. And I wouldn’t have been able to focus on grad school the way I did if it wasn’t for her support. And, you know, she deserves probably more credentials than I do. The advice that I would give to somebody thinking about this is to be really intentional with your time. Kids, whether you have one or I have three now, so I can speak up to three, they take up all your time. No matter how many you have. They are, you know, they expand to the volume to which, you know, the container holds.
39:51 Brock: And so, you need to be very good about structuring your day and your time so that you can be where you need to be. Now when kids are young, they don’t really know whether you’re home or not. So, it’s as much about supporting, you know, your other team member, you know, your significant other, in that process. And you need to do that. You need to be an equal team. But know that you will have less time. You will have competing priorities, and it will be hard. But I’d say that’s okay because it’s really fun. I’m a big fan of kids <laugh>.
40:37 Emily: I think, you know, the first thing you mentioned there was like time management basically, like being really intentional about where you put your time. And that’s something that I’ve definitely been learning as a business owner and as a parent. Sort of like the, when you’re at work, be all at work, be really focused, get what you need to get done in that time. And then when you’re at home, be off of work, be with your kids, like have that quality time together. And hopefully, you can make the arrangements with your partner and your childcare provider and all this stuff so you have that like, committed time that you can devote to both. But yeah, like you just become pretty, I at least have become a lot more hands-on manage-y about my time because I need to be now that that’s a factor in my life.
41:23 Brock: Yeah. And again, it’s different ways of doing it. You know, so I mean, I had friends in grad school that they would come in later in the day and they’d stay until three in the morning. And that worked really well for them. And for me it was get in early and leave in time for dinner at home and come back if I needed to, if there was a late night time point or something for an experiment. But you need to find something that works for you. You know, your life, your finances, have a goal of what you want that to look like and then you make a plan to get there. It’s not easy. It’s actually incredibly difficult, but it is worth it, and you will find more happiness if you do it that way.
42:06 Emily: I love that note to end on. Thank you so much, Brock, for giving this interview. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
42:11 Brock: Thanks so much for having me on, Emily. It’s great talking.
42:18 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode! I have a gift for you! You know that final question I ask of all my guests regarding their best financial advice? My team has collected short summaries of all the answers ever given on the podcast into a document that is updated with each new episode release. You can gain access to it by registering for my mailing list at PFforPhDs.com/advice/. Would you like to access transcripts or videos of each episode? I link the show notes for each episode from PFforPhDs.com/podcast/. See you in the next episode, and remember: You don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance… but it helps! The music is “Stages of Awakening” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing by Lourdes Bobbio and show notes creation by Meryem Ok.
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