As part of our series about what one should look for when hiring a financial planner or adviser,
I had the pleasure of interviewing Vice President of Financial Planning at AAFMAA Wealth Management & Trust (AWM&T), a subsidiary of the nation’s longest-standing military financial services not-for-profit organization.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I knew I wanted to help people, but I just was not sure how. While studying at Campbell University, I met with my advisor who suggested changing my major to Trust & Wealth Management. This change was the best decision I have made. Upon graduating, I joined the team at AAFMAA Wealth Management & Trust (AWM&T) and soon sat in on a financial planning meeting – it was so gratifying to be helping and educating clients, particularly current and former members of the U.S. Military and their spouses. I was excited to help come up with resolutions catered to their goals and problems, such as achieving early retirement or planning for special needs family situations. It was like the puzzle pieces fit together. Soon after I started studying for my CFP exam and became certified as a financial planner.
Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting in the industry? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
AAFMAA Wealth Management & Trust only works with the military community and some of the clients we work with have strong security concerns. Often times we take for granted the simple technology incorporated into our planning process which enables us to align budgets, expenses, and cash flow. One client reluctantly started using some of this technology to help monitor his personal situation. This situation often comes up in meetings and we like to poke fun at how we “influenced” him to expose his entire life and put his entire financial plan in jeopardy just to easily track his cash flow. We often joke that one day we are going to open up the Wall Street Journal, see that company got hacked, and the first call that client makes, before he calls the police or the credit bureau, will be to me!
In this situation, the client ended up being very happy with the software and is now comfortable using the technology. We didn’t cause any harm by directly or indirectly influencing his decision to consider the technology as an option, but it did help us have a good laugh and connect over what should be a serious concern. It also helped me reflect a little more on some of the integration and systems we use every day from the perspective of clients, who are often less familiar with these systems than we are as professionals. I now approach that discussion with clients a little more cautiously, not out of concern for the system but respecting the comfort level of the client. So while it is still an ongoing joke today, it has helped me to me more mindful in how I frame opportunities and suggestions with clients moving forward.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We are working on developing a subscription-based planning program to assist younger generations with financial planning, whereby they can pay a small fee for access to a financial dashboard and a real person to help answer their questions. We have a passion for financial planning and want to be able to help younger military service members and their families with questions that are most important to them throughout all stages of life, such as, “How do I tackle student loans?” or “How much house can I afford?” Not only will this new program help us forge long-term, trusting relationships with clients, it will encourage these individuals to learn best-practices which enable them to take charge of their financial future early in life.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?
The tipping point came when I started to believe in myself and realize I bring value to the table. Over time and through many discussions with leadership and my mentors, my confidence grew and I was able to find my voice and stride. It is very important to have a mentor or two, someone you can go to when you have a question about self-development or a technical question. I believe a strong support and leadership system has been vital to my success.
What three pieces of advice would you give to your colleagues in the finance field to thrive and avoid burnout? Can you give a story or example?
These steps sometimes are easier said than done and, let’s be honest, we all have to constantly work on balance in our lives. First, find an activity that is your way of self-care. Whether that be taking time to read a non-financial related book, physical fitness, or meditation. Second, find a routine and put your personal time on your calendar; a routine will help you stay consistent with your professional and personal goals and guarantee you carve out time for self-care. Lastly, make a promise to yourself that you will find time to take off and go on a vacation at least once per year. Your clients will understand your absence and appreciate you coming back refreshed. It’s also fun to talk to clients about an upcoming vacation or the vacation that just passed. It’s a great relationship builder to connect with clients about their vacations, family events, and upcoming plans. Application of these is much like the advice we give to our clients and we have to actually remember to use it ourselves!
Ok. Thank you for all of that. Let’s now move to the core focus of our interview. As a “finance insider”, you know much more about the finance industry than most consumers. If your loved one wanted to hire a financial advisor (not you :-)), which 5 things would you advise them to find out about before committing? Can you give an example or story for each?
- Is the professional you are working with or considering engaging with held to a Fiduciary standard? Meaning, are they legally obligated to hold your interests ahead of their own? Keeping the interests of clients ahead of our own should be a core principal of any trusted advisor and its one that we take very seriously at AAFMAA WM&T, as our clients have put their own needs ahead of others’ when they served in the Armed Forces.
- What are their credentials? It’s okay to ask for details like where they went to school, when they were certified and if they specialize in anything. Most advisors will be happy to elaborate and share credentials when asked so if you sense any hesitancy, you might want to explore other options.
- Are your personal goals/objectives within their wheelhouse of expertise? If not, do they have the resources to obtain expertise? Some of our military clients have unique financial circumstances due to service-related entitlements and military reimbursements and, unfortunately, many come to us with stories of how other advisors weren’t well-versed in working with these nuances.
- What is the company investment philosophy and how is that applied to individual portfolios? An advisor/client relationship will simply not be successful long-term if the investment strategy of the firm is not aligned with the individuals. Perhaps you want to err on the side of conservative when it comes to your investments. The firm you’ve chosen to partner with should be able to provide you with sound advice while keeping your overall philosophy in mind. It’s okay for them to encourage you to make some changes, depending on shifting trends and new technologies, but if your advisor begins making suggestions that you feel will really take you out of your comfort zone, that’s a red flag.
- Is it the type of relationship and interaction you want? Meaning robo-assistance, digital interaction, or in-person meetings. At AAFMAA WM&T, we deal with clients who represent a wide variety of lifestyles and preferences. Generally, older clients are more wary/averse to handling major decisions online or even via phone and prefer in-person meetings. However, as I mentioned previously, we’re starting to get interest from younger members who like the idea of a digital dashboard they can monitor and adjust but who also want to comfort of an advisor they can reach out to with questions.
I think most people think that financial advisors are for very wealthy people. This is likely not actually true. Can you explain who would most benefit from hiring a financial advisor and why? Can you give an example?
Absolutely not true. A financial advisor is appropriate for all individuals, regardless of lifestyle, age or income level. We are advisors that help you map your financial goals (no matter how big or small!) and help you get on the road to achieving them. For example, goals vary depending on what stage of life a client is in and could include how to create an emergency fund, paying off student loan debt, new home purchase, planning for a child or determining how much to save to retire. Also, what kind of advisor are you working with? A wide variety of options exist when it comes to financial advisors and firms, all of which are a good fit for a specific type of client. For instance, there are big broker houses, RIAs, family offices, and trust companies. AAFMAA Wealth Management & Trust focuses on military families and a lot of us are military spouses or veterans ourselves. So our lifestyle and values are similar to those we serve and that helps us connect and build relationships with our clients.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Working for AWM&T, I have been fortunate enough to have a wonderful leadership staff who have mentored and guided me through much of my career. They are a group of inspiring people who come from various related departments within the company and bring a wealth of diverse knowledge and experience, which often creates a ripple effect throughout the rest of the team members. The smartest person on a given topic, whoever he or she might be, is always ready to step in and offer their best resources and team to help provide the best solutions. I think the support and camaraderie through the company goes a long way, and the leads of each department never hesitate to provide assistance and guidance whenever needed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
This is a funny question because I think a lot of us want to help more and more people. I think the military still has a family feel and family environment. People in this community are open, honest, and supportive. They are going to laugh, cry, and argue about things but they are still one team and stick together. If I could start a movement it would be to integrate a better financial planning service for military families. I read articles all the time about the difficulty and challenges military families face with their financial situations. The sooner we can help military service members and their families make better financial decisions, the sooner they will share those decisions with their friends, helping to build a happier and more confident life for a lot of people. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to get more resources into the military community.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am active on LinkedIn; it’s where I share my personal experiences and I can read other great financial planning stories or industry discussions: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brittanybenassi/
You can also follow AAFMAA Wealth Management & Trust on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.