Coffee Chat #2 with Ben Miller
Talking about financial independence with ChroniFI's Ben Miller
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I’m back after taking last Thursday off, and I’m happy to say that I (probably) survived my finals!
Today, I chatted with Ben Miller, the founder and CEO of ChroniFI.
Ben spent the beginning of his career working at the trading desk at Goldman Sachs before he decided to step away and reprioritize his life. While weighing whether or not he could afford to change careers, Ben realized that there was a real need for a new kind of financial planning that focused more on maintaining/achieving a certain lifestyle, and less on hitting that “retirement” net worth value. Thus, ChroniFI was born.
ChroniFI is a financial planning tool that calculates your finances in terms of time, helping you optimize for your desired lifestyle instead of a static dollar amount.
After reading one of my blog posts a few months ago, Ben reached out to see if I was interested in a partnership. Initially, we agreed to a sponsorship campaign. However, after learning more about his journey, I thought it would be cool to share his story.
Today, Ben and I discussed the financial planning industry, how ChroniFI is different from traditional financial planning, knowing when to “quit,” why retirement doesn’t have to mean never working again, and our favorite high school teachers.
Let's get started.
Jack: First question: how do you pronounce your company’s name? Chrone-ih-fy? Chronn-ih-fy? Chronn-ee-fy? I guess it doesn’t matter since people are reading this, but I want the voice in their heads to pronounce it correctly.
Ben : Chronn-ih-fy. Hopefully you're going to be yelling it from the rafters for years and years.
Jack: I hope so too. What does ChroniFI do, in three sentences or less?
Ben: Three sentences or less: ChroniFI is a personal finance software that helps people simplify their finances by understanding them in terms of time. Money can be super unintuitive and abstract for people. I find that people are able to make better decisions when they can understand things in terms of the actual time of their life, which is ultimately what people are saving money for in the first place.
Jack: Good stuff. I want to get more into the business itself in a minute, but first, what's your background? How did you go from a more traditional finance career to working in the opposite of traditional finance?
Ben: I started out of college at Goldman where I was trading foreign exchange derivatives. It was a great job, invigorating and intellectually satisfying and all that type of stuff. And I was surrounded by really brilliant people. That was just, that was amazing. So in terms of places to start out, it couldn’t have been better. But I realized a few years in that it wasn't what I wanted to do forever.
Around the time that I started ideating on, “What might be my next act?” I had a two-year-old daughter, who is now six, and she told me that her favorite thing to do was to walk on the grass. I was like, “Well, geez, we have to get this girl some grass to walk on.” So long story short, my wife and I visited Colorado a few years ago. On the way home, my wife asked me, “So when are we moving?”
Being the dutiful husband that I am, I sat down at my computer and calculated the answer, and the process that I used for figuring out my own life was the precursor to ChroniFI. I built a system to solve my own problem of trying to understand, “Okay, when can I go from this job that had great pay, but wasn't perfect fulfillment, to something that might pay less but would bring more excitement and passion to my life.”
Jack: So when you first decided to move to Colorado, did you initially want to stay with Goldman and work out of their Denver office?
Ben: I used to tell my friends and family that if could do the same job for half the money from another location, I would have stayed with Goldman and worked from Colorado in a heartbeat. Little did I know that a pandemic was right around the corner that would have made this pipe dream a reality, but at the time, that wasn’t a possibility.
So, to your question, no, but I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to try something entrepreneurial. My dad was, and is, an entrepreneur. And I really wanted to take ownership of something. There are plenty of benefits to working for a large organization, but ownership of the results is not one of them. Having to eat what I killed, metaphorically speaking, was invigorating and energizing for me.
I knew the baselines of what I wanted to do, but I was also aware of the fact that I needed to take some time and just do a mental detox. I took a few months after I quit to do some spiritual and philosophical reading. I needed to establish some better patterns of thought within my own life so that I could hit the ground running.
Jack: How long were working on mapping out your own life before you realized, “Oh man, this could actually be the business I’m looking for?”
Ben: I love that you asked that because it points to the circular reference that's lurking within this thing. I would say that I was thinking this way for a couple of years before I left my job. There was this book called Your Money or Your Life, an amazing book, that knocked things into place for me.
I remember, after finishing the book, working out in the Goldman gym and Googling “your money or your life app,” and nothing came up. That got the juices flowing and made me think that maybe this was something I could build.
Jack: In hindsight, do you wish that you had left Goldman sooner to work on your own thing?
Ben: As much as I'd like to say, “Oh, if I had it to do over again, I'd do a startup right out of college,” it wouldn't be true. That’s not the way that I'm wired. I'm more risk-averse than that. And I wanted to have some sort of a financial backstop if things didn’t work out. I wanted to ensure that my family would be taken care of. So no, I’m glad I worked at Goldman when I did.
Jack Raines: I know most financial planning goes something like this: you meet with a financial planner, you tell 'em how much money you make, you come up with how much you're going to contribute every year to your investments based on your expenses and income, and then you calculate what it takes to reach your targeted retirement goal. What makes ChroniFI different from working with a regular financial planner?
Ben: Working with a financial planner is infrequent and expensive. Some are extremely good, and their services are definitely useful to their clients. But oftentimes, you know, for it to be a profitable profession, they're either going to charge you a couple of hundred bucks an hour or something like 1% per year, so it can get expensive quickly. Also, some financial planners only accept clients with $X in assets. ChroniFI is different in that we're able to serve people who are on their way up, rather than people who have already won the game.
We are best suited for people somewhere between lift-off and escape velocity. We're helping people who want to figure out, “Okay, how can I get where I'm going the right way?” And the right way isn't always the fastest way. I think this will resonate with you based on your writing. What we advocate for is taking the slow and steady sustainable path to financial independence. It mirrors my own appreciation of the idea that, “Look, this is not about financial Independence ASAP and happiness eventually.” What we want is financial independence eventually and happiness ASAP. I want to help people pull the first fruits of retirement forward and enjoy every step along the way.
Jack: I love that last quote: “We want financial independence eventually and happiness ASAP.” How, technically, is the ChroniFI process different?
Ben: For starters, it's more frequent. You might meet with a financial advisor or planner once a year. Once per quarter at most. With ChroniFI, we’re with you every two weeks. We've designed this to be the type of thing where you can review your financial snapshot in 10 minutes, twice a month. The rest of the time, you just get back to living your life.
Most people don't want to, you know, crack open their spreadsheets on a Saturday morning and dive in for three hours. Don’t get me wrong, you might be perfectly capable of handling your finances on your own. And most of our customers are well-paid, smart, and educated. They certainly don’t lack financial acumen. The point is that they shouldn’t have to burn the weekend getting their finances straight. Saturday morning should be for bedsheets, not spreadsheets.
The idea is to manage your finances as quickly as possible so that you can get back to living your life. From a nuts and bolts perspective, people spend 10 minutes connecting all their accounts and statements to ChroniFI so that we're able to immediately show them insights about their behavior. We can say, without them having to manually categorize anything, “Hey, your sushi habit is delaying your retirement by three months. How do you feel about that?”
You'll notice that I didn’t say, “Cut it out.” What I said was, “How do you feel about that?” And so some people are going to look at their lives and think, “Wow. I didn't realize we were spending that much on sushi. Okay, maybe we'll just go twice a week instead of three times a week.” Other people might go, “Well, I love my job and I live for sushi, so awesome, so I might start eating sushi even more.”
Having been on both sides of that regime, I can appreciate that it's different strokes for different folks. We’re saying, “Here’s the trade-off. Make your own informed decision with this data.”
We can also show you how much time you can afford to maintain your current lifestyle based on your savings, income, and spending habits. This helps answer questions like “Here's how much time you have until retirement” and “Here's how much time until you can take a pay cut, stop working as a corporate lawyer, and go do the pro bono work, if that’s your dream.”
Jack: Retirement is obviously the most common goal when planning your finances, but you can also input different goals such as determining how much it would cost you, time-wise, to go back to graduate school, have another child, move to a bigger house, or change cities, right?
Ben: Correct. We see where you are and where you want to be, and we help you create the best path from A to B. A traditional budget or plan may look good, but it’s not etched in stone. The second you walk out of the office, conditions can change. We understand that financial goals are moving targets that change with our life circumstances, so we continue to feed this information through our system to keep you on track.
Jack: Something that I've written a lot about is the opportunity costs between your finances and your time. I feel like, especially with the sushi example, you're not saying, “Hey, stop doing this to hit this dollar amount.” You’re saying, “Hey, here is the opportunity cost of this habit. How do you wanna handle that?”
Ben: 100%. And by the way, I love that piece of yours on The Opportunity Cost of Everything.
If anyone is reading this and hasn't read that article, stop reading this interview and go back and read that because it is an awesome piece. But yes, you're totally right. There is a trade-off for everything. And it's funny because, you know, you'll speak with some people and they'll go, “Oh, well that sounds like a scarcity mindset. You are just saying that you don't wanna spend money.”
But it's not a scarcity mindset. It's just an appreciation of the fact that there are only so many dollars in your wallet, and there are only so many hours in the day. Every time you say yes to one thing you're saying no to something else. That's just the way that life works.
Jack: I’m with you. To me, money’s sole purpose is to be spent at some point by some person. That doesn’t mean it has to be spent by you; it could be spent by your kids, or grandkids. But money has no value other than what can be purchased with it.
The tradeoff is how much you invest now to spend later vs. how much you spend now. And the optimal level of that tradeoff varies from person to person. Back to ChroniFI. Do you have any memorable or specific success stories from any customers?
Ben: Yeah, two of them really come to mind. One of them is because it's somebody that used ChroniFI for exactly what I designed it to be used for. The other was somebody who used it for something that I never would've thought it would be used for.
The first person was a high-earning FAANG employee, a super successful guy. He was on paternity leave, and there's a funny thing that happens around the time that you have kids. You start having these thoughts, like, “Where does my job fit into my life?”
These thoughts come to climax when your baby is staring you in the face, like, “Hey Dad, how do you like your job now?” So this guy is on paternity leave. He was already on the fence contemplating what he would do post-paternity leave. He uploaded his information on ChroniFI and saw he was much better off financially than he expected.
The customer in question was able to distill his finances down to the simple truth that he was in good shape. As soon as he got back to the office he left that job, moving on to a startup that was better aligned with his values and goals.
Now to the other example. This person had a job that he really liked, but he was getting worn down. He had like 16 projects when he was supposed to only have 3. He was on the cusp of quitting. Just getting burnt out. It was a great job and he was doing fulfilling work, but he couldn't stomach it for much longer. So he used ChroniFI and realized, Wait a minute. I don’t even need this job. I’m just fine financially.”
And that realization gave him psychological leverage, the confidence, that he needed to talk to his boss about his situation. He told him that he enjoyed the work but it just wasn’t sustainable. He needed an assistant to help with the workload if he wanted to stay with the company. His requests were granted, and he’s still happily employed there. By having a firmer grasp of his finances, he was better prepared to discuss his job concerns with his boss.
Instead of leaving his job or changing his lifestyle, he was able to optimize his existing life.
Jack: It seems like when you have more data, you can be a lot more certain in your decisions. Whether or not you choose to leave or remain at your job, move cities, or purchase a bigger house, better data provides more confidence in one’s financial decisions.
Ben: 100%. It’s all about confidence.
Jack: Financial independence is a common theme in financial planning, and the FIRE movement, or “Financially Independent, Retire Early,” has exploded in popularity in recent years. Personally, I take issue with FIRE, at least when it is taken to the extreme, because it puts retirement on this pedestal and never really covers what comes next. Basically, you work and save as much as possible to retire as quickly as possible, and that’s it. What are your thoughts?
Ben: I think the whole “retire early” half of the moniker can be misleading and unproductive. And I’m saying this as someone who latched onto it early on. This is my intellectual history at work here. I bought into the FIRE mentality early because I had a job that I didn't want to do forever. Retire early? Check. That sounds good. But as time went on, I started to realize that I couldn’t stomach being at that job until I was properly financially independent. Goldman already took my hair…
*This is a written transcript, but Ben has a shaved head.*
What else was it going to take from me? However, even at a job that I wasn’t in love with, I was itching to get back to work after a week of vacation. So I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay at Goldman until I could afford to retire, but I also realized I wasn’t wired for true “retirement” anyway. I liked working and problem-solving.
For me, the sweet spot was saving up enough money that the investment returns of my capital could complement whatever income I generated by doing what I actually wanted to do.
When I ran the numbers on my own finances, I realized that my wife and I lived relatively inexpensive lives. We'd saved enough that we could maintain our current lifestyle even if we switched careers to work as teachers. And by the way, that's not a random career choice. I really enjoy teaching. One of my favorite parts at my old job was teaching the new hires about options theory, and stuff like that.
So on the left tail of my distribution, if I failed as an entrepreneur, if that was my worst-case scenario, we could go be high school teachers. And that was still a “pinch me” scenario.
So yeah, in short, I think your concern is spot on and that work should not be the enemy, but a healthy component of how you spend your time.
Jack Raines: It’s funny that you mention teaching as a dream job. My favorite teacher from high school, Coach Koran, ran a successful aluminum company before “retiring” to teach history and coach cross country. He had made his money, but he was passionate about teaching and coaching. And because he had already “won” the money game, he felt free to teach however he wanted. He painted the walls of his classroom to resemble an ancient map of the Middle East. He incorporated movies like 300 and Braveheart when he taught Greek and Scottish history. It was awesome.
Ben: I actually had a high school economics teacher who had a similar journey. He was a high-earning lawyer in New York who realized he didn’t need to be an attorney anymore, so he became a high school economics teacher.
Those teacher examples are emblematic of what financial independence, if achieved correctly, can do for you. It expands the list of jobs open to you, allowing you to pursue fulfilling roles without worrying about the financial consequences. You are no longer constrained by a need to pay your bills or feed your family.
Jack: Great stuff man. One last question before we go: How would you currently define success? And how has your definition of success changed since you started your career at Goldman?
Ben: To me, success is having enough money to be able to do what you love every day. I always used to envy the traders who really loved it because they earned a sweet check and they were enjoying themselves. That wasn't me. I had to go out and find something that was enjoyable but still paid the bills. Luckily I found that in ChroniFI. You can't have success without ticking both of those boxes.
Jack: There’s a Morgan Housel quote from the Psychology of Money that mirrors what you said: “The ability to do what you want, when you want, with who you want, for as long as you want to, pays the highest dividend that exists in finance.”
Ben: Well, if you just invoked Morgan Housel in relation to what I just said, then I think I’ve done a good job because I love his content.
Jack: Likewise. Well Ben, we’re about to wrap up. I really appreciate you chatting with me. If any readers want to check out ChroniFI for their own financial journeys, where should they go?
Jack: Good stuff, thanks again Ben!
Ben: And thank you for having me!
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