Ben Henry-Moreland’s first act was singing opera on stages across America and Europe. Act II: Helping folks financially navigate the feast-or-famine world of freelance work. The certified financial planner knows all about that because he lived it, as he tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.
Freelance workers have been “ignored” by the financial services industry because they typically own few assets and have complex financial-planning and tax-planning needs, says Henry-Moreland, 34, founder of Freelance Financial Planning in Omaha.
Despite independent contractors’ challenges of unstable cash flow and lack of employee benefits, the CFP’s mission is to guide these workers and business owners to a secure financial future.
He serves a blend of clients who see freelancing either as temporary work between staff jobs or an ongoing lifestyle choice.
After freelancing for five years as a professional opera singer, he saw his dream job failing to live up to its billing and in 2012 moved to a more income-predictable arena: financial services.
Five years later he went solo, joining XY Planning Network, after stints at investment advisors NEPC and Modera Wealth Management, both in Boston. He offers a choice of four pricing options and meets virtually with 75% of clients.
From the small town of Northfield, Minnesota, Henry-Moreland does not hesitate to use his former career as a conversation starter to show his understanding of freelance workers’ issues, needs and goals.
Last year, the CFP realized one of his own longtime goals: Appearing as a contestant on the “Jeopardy” game show. Getting there took six years of online tests and an in-person mock game.
“I wish I could have won and made it last a little longer,” he says, “but it was quite an adventure.”
THINKADVISOR: Being on “Jeopardy” must have been exciting, right?
BEN HENRY-MORELAND: It was an incredible thing to do, a lifelong dream. One of the questions was in my wheelhouse. It was about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I was really glad I got it right. It would have looked bad if I didn’t get that one!
Has your career singing opera helped you as a financial planner?
Financial planning is a great second or third or 10th career — as long as it’s not your first because you need to have some other life experience to have clients listen to you, accept your advice and follow through. They don’t teach that human connection side in school. But it’s what people really value — making this complicated financial system manageable.
Why did you become a financial planner?
One of the reasons was that trying to make a living from singing made me not really enjoy singing anymore. I had no [formal] financial education, but when I got out into the world, I realized there was more to surviving than just being a good singer, and I became interested in finance. So when I decided to move on from my singing career, this was the natural choice.
How do you market your practice?
Freelancers have been ignored by the traditional financial industry. They don’t have a lot of assets to invest, and they have more complex financial-planning needs than the average person. So a lot of my marketing has been trying to put myself in front of that audience with my blog, writing guest posts [etc.], to tell them that now there’s someone who cares about them and their needs.
What are freelance workers’ unique planning issues?
The main thing freelancers struggle with is inconsistent income. So one of the big things I do is keeping clients on track with their savings goals, and paying their bills and taxes.
Are independent contractors’ taxes a complicated affair?
The tax part is a big thing. They’re responsible for knowing how much they owe and for paying [estimated taxes] four times a year. Some wait to pay the whole year’s taxes [in April]. Then they also have to pay a penalty for not [paying] estimated taxes. If you do that every year, it snowballs. And then [the IRS] start[s] adding interest and more penalties for late payment. All that really adds up.
What else is critical in serving freelance workers and entrepreneurs?
They don’t get handed health insurance. I help them compare plans and premiums. I’ve had business-owner clients who, if they didn’t get their income below a certain level, [were faced with] a $20,000 difference in premiums.
When you relocated to Omaha from Boston, why did you go solo rather than join an advisory?
I wanted to have a source of income that aligns with my values. This is really something that hits the sweet spot for me. I like talking to people that are passionate about what they do. At my [last] job, I had clients who were just “punching [in],” watching the clock and waiting for retirement. They only wanted to see how their investments were doing so they could retire as soon as possible. I want to work with people who are excited about what they do.
You forecasted on your blog this year that “the future of financial advice is female.” Please explain.
At the investment company I worked when I started out, one of the things that struck me was how aggressively male the industry was. It should be about helping people, but I saw this masculine culture that was very much based on sales and aggressiveness.
Why, then, do you think female advisors represent the future?
As I’ve moved into the financial planning world, I’ve seen a shift where advisors are starting to have a fiduciary relationship with clients — the gold standard of financial advice. If we want to be successful in the future, it won’t be via a hyper-masculine sales style. It will be more of [using] the fiduciary client-centric model. And that goes hand in hand with there being more opportunities for women in the industry.
Do you do much retirement planning for your clients?
Yes. Freelancers don’t have company 401(k) plans set up for them, so they have to take care of retirement planning themselves. I make sure they know what their options are and determine how much to contribute based on projections that we do.
Companies are often tardy in paying freelance workers. Have your clients talked much about that?
It’s absolutely an issue. So I work with them on having the liquidity they need to absorb that. I focus on having a cushion — an emergency fund — that will get them through the times when they’re not working but also when payments don’t arrive when expected or when they have an unexpected expense.
Your practice is still new. How has it gone so far?
In terms of growth, I’m about where I expected to be. I started with zero clients and zero revenue. I knew it wasn’t going to be gangbusters right away, but now it’s starting to snowball a little. I have about a dozen current clients. I’ve been validated that there’s very much a need for financial planning that works for freelancers.
What plans have you for the future?
I’m not looking for exponential growth. I want to work with about 50 or 100 clients. I didn’t do this because I want to grow a giant business, hire 50 people and have an empire. I feel that as long as I’m listening to what clients want and what their needs are, the business will take care of itself.
By the way, who are your favorite composers?
For opera, I’m a big fan of Benjamin Britten. I sang in his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Rape of Lucretia.” As for composers overall, I love singing Bach. It’s that baroque complexity. You need agility to flip back and forth between being a soloist and an ensemble singer. I just relish doing his cantatas.
Do you still sing?
I do church music: I’m a section leader at Omaha’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Singing will always be a part of my life. But doing job auditions are definitely a part that I don’t miss!
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