February 15, 2023

Fire Your Financial Advisor: Greg Aler

Greed, exploitation and so many fees, all hidden in plain sight. That’s your financial advisor, whose services and advice have been the outdated VHS player of retirement.

Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty and my guest is Greg Aler. He’s here to talk about his new book titled, Fire Your Financial Advisor, let’s get into it.

Hello friends and welcome back to the show. I’m here with my friend Greg Aler today and we’re going to be talking about his new book, Fire Your Financial Advisor. There’s some interesting stuff going on in this book and I’m excited to dive deep today with Greg. Greg, thank you so much for joining the show.

Greg Aler: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be on here and talk a little about the book.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Definitely man. So you know, at the beginning, I’d love to give some context to our audience about sort of who you are, where your upbringing was, what was it like growing up as Greg and how did you find yourself in the financial industry to begin with?

Greg Aler: Oh wow, so that’s a big question. Who is Greg, right? I grew up in a small town in Ohio. You know, obviously, I think kind of the American dream, right? My parents were hard working, school teacher, my old man was a factory worker, grandma was a bus driver. So I had a pretty typical upbringing, parents who loved me, took care of me. Yeah obviously, we were never really rich, we were never really poor, just somewhere in the middle.

Obviously, I was the first Aler actually to go to college. So I was kind of paving the way down that road, got into finance a little bit. Along that route, went to Miami University and found my way drifting over to the practice of law, unfortunately, ended up at law school, Case Western and then you know, took my first big firm job over in Chicago, where I ended up working for one of the largest firms in the world, Kirkland Elis for about a half a decade before I basically kind of wound down, try to start my own gig, right?

I was tired of you know, working for the big, “the man” if you will and I decided to kind of hang my own shingle and started my, I guess, I started the journey towards the financial service industry, actually opening my own estate planning and elder law practice in around 2010.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah and from what I’ve read and just kind of gathered about you. You started basically, three multimillion-dollar, almost separate types of businesses that was somehow interlinked, of course, with your knowledge base which is really profound and powerful. It sounds like you learned so much along the way that you are, once you kind of hit that breaking point, you’re like, “Okay, where can I actually take this and apply it?”

But in your book, you described the financial industry as sort of like, you know, the evil empire, if you will. Can you expand on that a little bit and let us know sort of, you know, obviously coming from your experience, it’s a big statement. So let’s get into it a little bit.

The Evil Empire

Greg Aler: Yeah. I mean, chapter four, I think is actually called the evil empire. You know, how we got in this mess, before I kind of dive into the financial industry, I had a unique opportunity. Most people are like, “Well, how did you get all this information or how did you have this perspective?” and the reality is, in some ways, I was a double agent, Hussein. I really was.

I was, I’m going to say an estate planning attorney by trade. So I was meeting hundreds and hundreds of financial advisors all the time and I was hearing how they ran their businesses, what they really thought, kind of how they charged, what they did or didn’t do for clients and really had a look behind the curtain in a very unique position that they were letting me in because they didn’t view me as competition.

They didn’t view me as someone that was obviously, you know, going to take, you know, or take shots at their gravy train. As our business grew and obviously, the law firm grew across the state of Ohio, we ended up having about you know, 13 offices but you know, I looked at it and said, “You know, why don’t we try to do the same thing for the financial industry that we did for the legal industry?” and that’s what I did.

Firing up Golden Reserve gave us the opportunity to take everything we learned over the previous years and we basically, when it came to the legal practice, we kind of killed the billable hour and tried to innovate and when it came to financial services, I mean, there was a litany of issues but Hussein, really the main issue we saw was that they were charging a lot of money and not doing a lot.

The evil empire chapters are about how fast they grew and the first half of the book really breaks down how we got into this mess. I mean, from 1978 basically, you know, we killed the pension and the IRAs and 401(k)s came roaring in, and no one was there to help these everyday Americans. So we basically had to start creating these retail financial advisors and we ended up start selling more and more, you know, retail mutual funds, which really weren’t part of the market before then.

And that really ballooned and snowballed and you know, I think if you really dig in to how did this perfect event happened, well, interest rates came down, our economy went up and then we had this huge need and all of a sudden, this evil empire said, “You know what? We have a bunch of plumbers and teachers and people that have lower-level financial savvy, we can basically charge whatever we want” because remember back then, we had rotary phones, Hussein. I mean, we had no way of accessing any kind of information.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: It’s like infiltrating our social fabric in a way, right? Because we don’t know how the financial industry works and what it actually cost to know it, it’s like putting your health in the hands of the doctor. You know, in today’s world of course, you can look up all kinds of health things and you can look up multiple different doctors that kind of give you different options and ways of looking at something specific.

But of course, yes, back then, you had no idea and you were just kind of listening to what you were told or trusting like what your neighbor or your friends or someone that you knew give you some advice. So where does that take us? So you go through this phase of growing your business but also you start to understand the behind the scenes but where does this passion for helping, what you say about, you know, the 95 percenters, right?

The rest of us who aren’t necessarily, like you said, financially savvy, where did this passion really come into play to start wanting to help and educate that section of our social fabric, if you will?

Greg Aler: That’s a great question. I ask myself kind of what I wanted to do with my life for so long. I was chasing that, you know, goal post, if you will. You know, everything was bigger and better and shinier and then I got to the pinnacle, obviously, working for one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world and I was just making rich people richer, and I looked back at my roots and I looked at kind of my family and who I was and how they raised me and it just, it kind of rang empty.

So coming home and our estate planning firm was built on servicing people that have less than two million dollars. Estate planning was usually something reserved for rich people. So the law firm kind of started that rally cry and the financial services, you know, the Golden Reserve launch of that business really just was the extenuation of making sure that the people have less than two million dollars have some place to go because their needs are different.

The needs of someone that’s got a helicopter and flying private is exponentially different than someone that has you know, $750,000 in an IRA and there’s a huge disconnect on those services because what happened back in the 80s and 90s is, essentially, we just inherited this top 5% kind of charge 1% model to pick a bunch of investments but really, that’s not what most Americans need.

They don’t need someone to pick investments, they need a guide. They need a leader, they need someone to protect them from the real risk of retirement because they have issues like, “How do I pay taxes on my IRA?” you know or “What if I go to a nursing home?” and those are real fears and expenses for the everyday retiree that you know, the top 5 percenters will never have to worry about.

The Retirement Planner

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s so powerful like sort of reframing how we see retirement and how we see ourselves in it and what we actually need and not necessarily just a financial advisor but a guide that can really help us navigate all the steps that come along with that, right? Financial is one aspect, this is the money but then you bring up a very prominent thing to think about is your health, right?

Where does that play a role and what actually happens when you get too old where you can’t take care of yourself? These are very interesting things that I feel like many people think about but sometimes obviously, your financial advisor is not going to help. Perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t but I just don’t feel like that’s like going to the banker for your knee problems. It’s going to be a… not necessarily a two way street there.

So can you introduce us to the concept of the retirement planner, which you propose in your book so well, and how that came to be?

Greg Aler: So what we wanted to do was stack a value-based proposition for retirees of services that will actually do things. I think you hit the nail on the head, Hussein, when you mentioned, you know, what are they going to talk about? Financial advisors will talk about everything. They’re great at talking, they’re great at sending birthday cards.

They’re great at grabbing coffee, they’re great at talking about your grandkids but when it comes to actually doing anything, they don’t do much other than just sell you investments, most likely investments that you probably don’t even need. You don’t need to take that much risk in retirement for most retirees.

So when we look back at kind of what is the retirement plan and why do we build it and why is it such a prevalent part of the book, it’s because we wanted to stack together services that we thought retirees need and at the end of the day, it was about having someone to actually do an IRA tax plan. It’s usually everyone’s largest asset.

People tell you how to put money in, but they never tell you how to take money out. So that’s a big part of what our retirement planners do. They work with their team of CPAs that are on staff, and they do the actual tax plans. They actually do the tax returns. We have attorneys in-house that actually do the legal plans.

Obviously, none of this matters if you don’t have the legal components to take care of. You know, whether it be a healthcare power of attorney, a financial power of attorney, a will or a trust. All of these things equal obviously, a successful trip down retirement mountain and if we don’t have the right guide and that is who we think the retirement planner is.

They’re multi-disciplined doers as supposed to investment-selling talkers, and I think that’s a challenge to the industry is that, you know what? Talking about investments isn’t getting it done anymore because frankly, everyone figured out that ETFs and index funds are pretty easy way to ride the market, if that’s really what you want out of your retirement and you don’t need a financial advisor to pick Facebook versus Apple, right?

I mean, it’s just not something that’s required skill anymore and there’s not a lot of value and what are you going to do? Charge them 1% for the privilege? I mean, that’s pretty pricey, Hussein.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah man. I mean, you understand that world way more than I could ever possibly put it together but what you’re saying to me is very invaluable because personally, when I look into the future, right? And think about all the different things that I want to ensure that I have, you know, definitely my health, right? Definitely the things that I need in place, as far as like, you know, having that income that I need specifically for that lifestyle that I hope to have.

Really asking myself those questions over the last five or seven years to be honest with you, has led me to reaching out. I have a few friends in the financial industry that just kind of reaching out and having those conversations with them but you’re 100% right, it’s something I never really considered is, how important having lawyers and in the accountants and the health advisor.

Like all kind of working together to making this thing possible down the line. I just appreciate that because you’re right, I feel like this idea of switching from just the financial adviser to this idea of a guide through a retirement planning, is more like a coaching, if you will, and I just appreciate that. What are the characteristics, as your book identifies, is making a retirement planner sort of like the hero for retirees, so you got the evil empire and you got your hero and how you can put those two together.

Greg Aler: Well first of all, let’s make sure you hide my book if your friends come over from the financial industry. They’re going to wonder what’s going on if they see a book called, “Fire Your Financial Advisor” on your kitchen table. They’re not going to be very happy, Hussein.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: They might not be but that’s okay.

Greg Aler: That’s okay. Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist, right? Everybody needs a hero, and I think it comes down to a different state of mind, really a mentality. When we view ourselves as someone that is built to protect and guide, we always talk about ourselves as sheepdogs, it sounds kind of silly. We talk about guiding people through retirement, and we walk it with them.

The reason we walk with them is because most of us have similar backgrounds. We don’t have the silver spoon, the typical, “I took over my daddy’s financial services company” you know? When you have that sheepdog mentality and you’ve walked it with them, most of us have worked in factories or you know, tied steel, or worked in construction crew, and did the jobs that everyday Americans usually have to do, growing up and working through kind of those trials and tribulations of life.

You know, I bagged groceries, that was my first job and understanding all those things means that we understand how they live. We understand what their concerns are, we understand how they spend their money, how they view their money and that puts us in a very unique position to walk with them and when we’re protecting and guiding, we’re not only doing that but we’re also fighting off the wolves and we take that very seriously.

We’ve viewed the financial industry as kind of you know, the wolves out there looking to take advantage of retirees because if you really look at what they do over the last years, I mean, think of the commercials you see on television about financial advisers. They never talk about services; they talk about how they charge you because there is really nothing to talk about. They talk about fee only.

They talk about, “Obviously, I’m a CFP. I’m a fiduciary.” These are all just jargon and void of any real action because if they really button down, they still, the only real service, all these industries do is pick investments and that’s not what 95% of retirees need and I think as the Internet has obviously opened Pandora’s box of information, people are slowly coming to the realization, “What am I really getting if I have a half a million dollar IRA and I’m paying my financial adviser 1%? That’s $5,000 and then I am paying another 1% for the mutual funds he sold me, that’s $10,000. I am paying this guy $10,000 to pick some mutual funds that he’s guessing?”

I mean, that doesn’t feel like a very good gig because whether or not your money goes up or down, they’re getting paid no matter what and there is a misalignment in that value proposition, and I think that’s where we want to put the flashlight on with this book of saying, “Listen, if you feel like you’re getting the value you’re paying, then great, then don’t do anything.”

But if you have some questions on the missing pieces of your retirement puzzle, and things we think are really important that are getting glossed over or not even addressed, and you are still getting charged one percent, you probably should kick the tires a little bit. You probably should kind of take a step back and say, “Is this person really my buddy?” Because that’s what they want, Hussein.

They want someone to continue to say, “Oh, you know, let’s rely on that relationship that we’re your friend. We take you golfing. We go on vacation with you. We take you to these…” because if you have a relationship, it’s going to make it much harder to ask the hard question, “What are you charging me? What are you actually doing?” You know like every other vendor in your life, your doctor, your accountant, you’re going to ask what the bill is, right?

You’re not going to have any issue wondering what you are paying but when it comes to your financial adviser, it’s just this weird Stockholm syndrome-ish effect where these people are literally charging whatever they want and no one knows how much they’re paying them, it’s insane.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s so powerful to think about, man. You really set the foundation for how to start perceiving this so-called friendship, this so-called connection and vibe because what is it really based around and how to just kind of take a step back and re-evaluate it a little bit. I think that’s really powerful.

Greg Aler: Yeah, I mean, I think the question is simple. If you took your money away from this person, would they still call you on your birthday? Would they still be your buddy? Would they still take you golfing? And everyone knows the answer is no, they won’t. They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t maintain that friendship. Anyone that’s left the financial advisor knows that.

You know, the relationship is built as a distraction device to hopefully make sure that you are not paying attention or you’re too confused by too many charts and statements to really ask the right questions of A, “What am I paying?” and B, “What am I getting?” and if those questions get asked, most people aren’t going to like the answers.

If you are dealing with your traditional Edward Jones, Raymond James, Edelman, Fisher Investments, all of those people are built on a chassis of really just picking investments and then talking about a bunch of buzzwords and hopefully handing out some business cards where you may or may not end up talking to an attorney or account to take care of some of the biggest risks in retirement.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: So powerful. What would you say like the number one thing some of your clients come to you for as far as getting that guidance? What do they are actually seeking? What do people — I mean of course, the financial aspect of it but what do they also asking for?

Greg Aler: People come in and they ask technical questions, right? Like they say, “Well, how do I take money in my IRA and pay the least amount of taxes?” or “How do I protect my house from the nursing home?” or you know, “How do I get the right level of risk?” or “What is the right level of risk I should be taking in retirement? Should I use an annuity?”

We get a lot of questions but what this all boils down to and people are desperate right now, I think even in 2023, they’re desperate for leadership and I think when you go and talk to a retirement planner, that’s the first thing we do as a sheepdog, right? We talk about we want to be your leader in retirement. We want to help you make those decisions that you can lean on.

That we can show you the right paths and I think that’s really what people wanted is someone to lead them and to inspire them, you know, week to week, month to month, year to year and when those terrible events happen, guess what? We’re in the meeting with you when a loved one passes away. We’re in the meeting with you when someone goes in a nursing home. We’re in the meeting with you talking about your next tax return. We’re in the meeting with you if you want to change your plan because you just had a new grandchild.

Those are things that people want, they want to know that someone cares and that they are going to be with them when they need them the most.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: So powerful and again, it ties right back into our human emotional needs. Of course again, there is always the financial aspect of it but I feel like as humans, we want to be able to connect. We want to be able to live as healthy as we can, and we want to be able to trust if you will that we work with. I think that is a huge component of the people I try to choose to work with.

It’s really based on a foundation of true understanding, “What do I get for X?” and it’s like especially the people I work with and are ones that I trust like it’s crucial and I love that you said that, “You know, like here is the plain piece of paper. Here is the exchange of what happens in this planner” and I just appreciate that. While working on the book and this journey because it is a journey to write a book and you yourself took the reins, what was that like for you and what was something that you learned and would pass on?

Creating An Impact

Greg Aler: Writing a book is really hard, is probably the first thing I would share. You know, I write a lot of copy and over my career I’ve always had a knack for writing but sitting down and building a story that’s cohesive and entertaining and educational is hard. I mean, it’s all got to work together and you know, I would tell anyone to make sure that when they start writing a book, it’s probably going to not look at all what you thought it’s going to look like when you started.

I think my entire title, table of contents, storyline, everything changed two or three times, you know, over the course of the first probably three or four months, getting it down on paper. It’s hard when you get up at 6:00 on a Saturday to hit a deadline and you got to know, you got to crank at a chapter. You got to just, you know, sometimes like anything else, you got to sit down and do the work, and sometimes it’s not great, and then you just rewrite it.

You rewrite it and you keep pressing on, and at the end of the day, I’m kind of cheating because this is my life’s work I am writing about. I am not writing about a fantasy novel or some kind of murder mystery. You know, this is who I am, this is our mission. This is, you know, I have built three companies around the principle of taking care of the little guy and you know, this book is basically us ringing the bell and telling the world our story and you know, in a lot of ways that made a lot easier.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s so powerful, man. What would you say has been like the most rewarding aspect now, finishing up and getting it out in the world?

Greg Aler: I sent it out to a series of obviously folks to read ahead of time letting them know that, “Hey, the book launch is coming up. I’d love to have you read it and if you could, obviously write a review and say something nice if you like it” and I guess I was shocked of how many of my personal network stayed up and started reading it that weekend. I sent it on a Friday, and I was getting messages at midnight on Saturday that people had stayed up and read the whole thing and were sending me notes.

I guess it gave me chills that I was able to put together something that was not so boring, that people would actually stay up on a Saturday night and get through it and then that gave me a lot of joy knowing that I put something out there that was worth reading that was finishable.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah man, that’s really powerful and I know it is going to create an impact, the people that it reaches but when you read or put that book down, what do you hope they feel after putting it down? What’s the thing that you really want them to feel walking away from this amazing book?

Greg Aler: I hope they feel empowered to ask some questions and I hope they feel like they deserve to have a great guide and protector in retirement regardless of how many zeros are in their bank accounts. I hope they feel like they deserve that. It doesn’t matter how much money they have, they deserve to have someone that cares about as much money as they do and if that rings true and then they can start asking some questions and challenging the industry a little bit, that would be the cherry on top for me.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s so powerful. Greg, it has been an honor sitting down and getting to know you today. I learned so much. Thank you for sharing your stories and your experience of course. The book is called, Fire Your Financial Adviser: 40 Years of Greed and Exploitation of the American Retiree and How You Can Fight Back. Besides checking out the book Greg, where can people find you?

Greg Aler: Absolutely. Obviously, you can go to goldenreserve.com, is the name of our company. You can also hop on fireyourfinancialadviser.com is the book’s website and obviously, feel free to leave us a message and we would love to get back to you.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that so much. Greg, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you man. You made this conversation super easy. I am grateful for your time today. Thanks again and congratulations on your book.

Greg Aler: Thanks Hussein, have a great day.