Russ Ford, Wayfinder FinancialRuss Ford started in the finance world straight out of college, drawn to the opportunity to connect with people on the kind of deep level that discussions about money allow.

"For a number of years, I was a bit more of a product salesperson disguised as a financial planner rather than truly having the ability to do financial planning the way it should be done," Ford explains. "Down the road, that's what caused me to launch my own firm so I could focus more on that connection between life and money – not just doing the numbers for people, but really talking about life goals and dreams and talking about the barriers and opportunities to get there." 

In 2019, Ford launched Wayfinder Financial in Indianapolis, Ind, a financial advisory firm with a business model based on flat fees determined by a client's net worth rather than being based on commissions or percentages of the accounts held.

"I wanted to create a business model so that I was incentivized to spend a lot of time with people and wasn't incentivized to recommend doing one thing over another," he says.

CardRatings recently talked with Ford about what he's hearing from his clients in this current COVID-19 reality, how he's helping them navigate these tumultuous economic times and, of course, whether he's Team Credit Card (hint: He is! But he has some rules).

The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.

CardRatings: The economic landscape right now is changing rapidly; what are you talking about with your clients these days?

Ford: The advice stays the same; it's just getting more real for people. Things like having an emergency fund, that gets a lot more real. This has been an experience that's given me an even greater conviction about encouraging my clients to have a good emergency reserve. We need to keep cash on-hand for the unexpected. Up until this point, the vast majority of clients have never needed three to six months of expenses in their bank accounts. Until now.

There are things in the current economy and market that are just unknown, especially for Gen Y or Millennials – they haven't really seen a market decline by 30% because they were in college in 2008. There are a lot of first-time job losers right now, and my advice is certainly to stay invested and not panicky.

A lot of my clients are accumulators with at least 10 years until retirement and they know that they can afford to wait for the market to go back up.

CardRatings: Are there any consistent factors for people who are weathering this time well vs. those who are perhaps struggling a little more?

Ford: The people with adequate emergency funds have a lot more peace of mind even in an uneasy situation, even in a job loss. They have the ability to make decisions out of a position of strength rather than a position of weakness, not just money-wise, but life-wise, too. What I mean is, if they're talking about finding the next job, they can look for the right one rather than the first one that comes up because they're out of money four weeks from now.

The people that can make decisions faster based on knowing where their money is are able to stay saner during this time and have more peace of mind as well. If they know where their money is going, they can cut expenses if need be. Having that awareness seems basic, but it's not. The first time I talk to people, trying to get a read on how much they spend, especially with discretionary spending, they often have no idea. I see that with people who have $30,000-$40,000 of income to people who have $300,000-$400,000 in income.

Maintaining low fixed expenses – creating a lifestyle that doesn't cost you as much to maintain – is obviously super helpful when faced with turmoil as well.

And, in all of this, life stage certainly matters. In terms of investments, people later in life have a little bit more concern over the markets and perhaps more concern over job loss and being able to go get another job.

CardRatings: As a financial planner, you've probably seen both the good and bad of credit cards. What are some of the things you discuss with your clients as it relates to cards?

Ford: The way people handle credit cards at a broad level, it really doesn't discriminate across income and wealth levels. Most people I talk to don't really pay attention to their spending on their credit cards all that well. They might pay it off every month, and that is certainly great! In my opinion, though, you also need a spending cap you actually track.

My advice is you have to pay attention. Credit cards can be a wonderful thing if you handle them in some kind of systemized fashion. I like certain systems, but the key is to find a system and stick to it. Having some awareness and clarity is necessary for every tool in the toolbox, including credit cards. That's something I have to coach my clients on, helping them become informed participants so they can make good decisions.

Everyone talks about credit card rewards. When I ask people why they're using their cards, they say they are earning rewards, but they often haven't put any thought into which credit card they should be using, let alone how much they're putting on them.

It's really the people who take advantage of going to credit card review sites like CardRatings.com who are the ones who can maximize their money and their rewards.

CardRatings: Have you noticed a change in the way your clients talk about credit cards over the course of your career? Are they talking about them more now than in the past or vice versa?

Ford: Credit cards have always been a big part of the landscape. But more and more over my career, I've seen more intentional thought being given to which credit card and why. I think the prevalence of information out there about credit card choices has become more known to the general public. I do get more questions about "What do you think about this card vs. that card?" In terms of the actual choice, I don't typically have a preference, but I'll tell them to get more intentional and do their research.

CardRatings: What advice do you give your clients when it comes to credit cards? How do you recommend they fit them into a financial toolbox? When they say, "I want to take a fabulous trip," do you talk with them about the rewards they'll be using to do it?

Ford: Usually, I'm not the person that has to prompt them about credit card rewards. Normally, they have already thought about that and why they use their credit cards. Part of our routine at every meeting is a quick net worth snapshot, and we don't put credit card or loyalty rewards on an asset sheet, but that might not be in line with every consumer mindset. This conversation is kind of making me rethink that a little.

CardRatings: Anything else you'd like to tell us about healthy personal finance habits, especially as it relates to credit cards?

Ford: It all comes down to intentionality and awareness. People who are more intentional and aware are generally more successful at accomplishing their financial goals.

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