Financial Literacy & Education

A Journey from Army Officer to Fee-Only Financial Planning through Reading and Teaching with Ian Gates

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We talked with Ian about:

  • How unique military circumstances and challenges can complicate traditional financial planning
  • Why military members need advisors who understand military-specific needs and broader financial literacy to support tailored strategies and avoid common pitfalls
  • Why maintaining good financial health is essential for sustaining a successful military career

About Ian J. Gates

Ian J. Gates, former ESL teacher turned Army intel officer turned aspiring fee-only financial planner, brings a wealth of experience and unique insights into the financial challenges service members face. His military service and background in teaching refugees as well as affluent families have given him a rich and diverse perspective on financial literacy and planning. As host of the #BLUFFbooks podcast, Ian reviews new and classic books on personal finance to help the military community “build, lead, and understand financial freedom.” Focusing on the intersection of military service and financial planning, he advocates for tailored advice and specialized advisors to help military members and their families achieve financial stability and freedom.

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Full Audio Transcript:

Lauren (00:05):

Hi, Ian. Thanks for being here with us today.

Ian (00:08):

It's my pleasure, Lauren. It's always nice to meet another military spouse.

Lauren (00:11):

Yes, I know Ian. We both have the ESL component, so we were just chatting about that before this. I did a Fulbright actually in South Korea and got to teach over there for a year, so stayed a little bit longer than that. But remind me, where were you teaching English as a second language? Was it domestic or outside the U.S.?

Ian (00:32):

So it was all domestic; it was for Catholic Charities in Newport News, Virginia. My wife was stationed out of Portsmouth and again in Philadelphia while I was going to grad school there at Villanova.

Lauren (00:47):

Oh my goodness. Okay. Well that is actually a perfect segue into a little bit about your background and between the ESL component and the military component. So I'm just going to hand it over to you. Tell me a little bit more before we do a deep dive and chat more specifically. Gosh, we've got a lot to cover today but we're going to get into some book reviews and a little bit more on the financial side for military folks. Let’s start by having you share a little bit about your background, if you don't mind.

Ian (01:14):

So when people ask where I'm from, I have to say the Mid-Atlantic because until moving to Texas and with a few sojourns thanks to my own Army service and my studies abroad, I've lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New York, and I was born in Jersey.

When I was at Fort Huachuca for my basic officer leadership course when I was a second lieutenant in the Army. So I had a friend approach me who said, let me get this straight: You live in Philadelphia? Yes. You're from New York? Yes. Your car is registered in Virginia? Yes. And you're part of the Maryland National Guard? Yes. So yeah, that was a snapshot of my life at that time. And now that I'm living in Texas, having moved here 10 months ago, I'm very much realizing that I am a Mid-Atlantic creature but I'm having a lot of fun here nonetheless.

Lauren (02:20):

Yeah, there's something really beautiful and kind of crazy about living in a lot of different places. You've got friends and what have you who end up kind of everywhere but you see so many different cultures, ways of life; it definitely puts you outside of your comfort zone. So tell us a little bit more about that. So you taught English, you're the National Guard. What brought you to Texas?

Ian (02:44):

So my wife is a Coast Guard officer and that was her dream ever since she was eight. And I know that in part because I met her at that age. So we grew up together. She was always excited about the military, thanks to two of her uncles, one in the Coast Guard, one in the Navy. And for me, I come from a family of civilian academics on one side and engineers on the other, and one grandfather who spent a couple of years in the Air Force Reserve when everybody and their brother was in the reserves at least. He actually has funny stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis and working the swing shift at that time in the motor pool.

So yes, we grew up in New York a stone’s throw from West Point, not that either of us had anything to do with West Point and the U.S. Military Academy but we grew up in that area. We were friends at church, friends through homeschooling, and eventually I got up the nerve to ask her out when I was 17 and she was 18. And despite the skepticism, we kept a long distance relationship going through college and she inspired me to join the National Guard during that time. And I did that for a little over 10 years. And about 18 months ago, I decided to separate at the 10-year mark as a captain because having two deployable parents really wasn't what we wanted for our two young kids.

Lauren (04:38):

Yeah, I get that. Can you share a little bit more about your time in the service and how that's connected you to what you're gearing up to do today and in the financial advisory space? I'd love to hear a little bit more about what inspired you to go that direction, the why. What you saw is literally like boots on ground talking with others that directed you along this path today.

Ian (05:07):

Yes. So as an ESL teacher, even as an intern in Virginia while I was attending Old Dominion, they had me doing ESL classes for very recent refugees. And these refugees get a couple hundred dollars, they get plugged into some resources, they have a rather short runway before they're expected to be at least semi-independent. And so this was crash course ESL. And simultaneously I was also in ROTC at Old Dominion. And about a year later, my wife, who's a prevention officer in the Coast Guard, she transferred from her little 270 cutter out of Portsmouth to work at Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia. And so I was teaching ESL at a handful of schools around town as an adjunct, which is kind of the Uber driver of college professors. You pick up whatever courses are left over by the tenured people and if that means you drive from one end of town to the other to teach your two, three classes in a day to make it work, you do it.

Lauren (06:38):


Ian (06:40):

But the ESL students I would see, again, some of them were refugees but most of them just wanted to get an American college education. And so their families were rather well off. So you would see young Saudi guys with more money than they knew what to do with and more freedom. And now they're all 19. Just talking to them, I was like, just because you have money doesn't mean you should use it this way and the casinos are not your friend.

Lauren (07:22):

So do you mind sharing a little bit more, you talked a little bit earlier about I think some of these challenges of being able to explain language barriers as it relates to finances. I know you've seen it on the ground just working in the military, having to help people. I mean, you think about as someone who's in the military, you are being deployed usually in a pretty frequent cadence and there's a lot of things to be able to get your house in order. So from a very young age, you're literally thinking about these sorts of things. What kind of things did you hear about? I mean, I'm sure there's people listening who have family who are military, loved ones in the military. And from a financial perspective or even advisors who maybe have clients with military connections, what things should they be thinking about or even resources that would be helpful for them if they are talking with clients for them to learn a little bit more about maybe tools to be able to share with their clients or even for their loved ones as well?

Ian (08:26):

Yes. So the first thing is I want to give a shoutout to the Military Financial Advisors Association, which is a coalition of fiduciary fee-only financial advisors, many of whom are also part of XYPN.

And there's also the MilMoneyCon. I had a great time attending the event this past April in Denver. And yeah, the association and the convention are great resourcing because for military members, the lifestyle is different enough that it really helps to have people who target your niche and speak your language as it were. And there are a lot of benefits to being in the military but that also can throw a wrench in the planning by somebody who hasn't been accustomed to that environment. For example, the Secure Act 2.0 took away the ability to write off on your taxes a required move. So if you work for Microsoft and they tell you to move to Texas, sorry, you can't do that anymore.

But if Uncle Sam tells you to move to Texas, well, you can still write that off but you could wind up not enjoying that advantage because your advisor just doesn't know. It’s that niche. And there's also things as well, like having an advisor who can remind you to apply for your veterans benefits on time while you're processing out from the military. Or you may have an advisor who thinks their investment products are the bee's knees. And they may be but they don't know about TSP, which is a great benefit federal employees have in terms of being able to invest and have that come straight out of their paychecks.

Lauren (10:34):

Yep. I feel like in the advisory space, there's just so much jargon that can come along with it. And it's the same thing in the military. There's so much jargon. So if you can meet both those worlds and know as they often say in the advisory space there's these triggers, there's these life triggers but a lot of those life triggers are unique. For the military in particular. I mean even think about retiring or transitioning from active duty to the reserve; these sorts of things really can impact your portfolio and long-term projections. And even things like your health insurance. I'm sure these are conversations you were having, or at least to a certain degree or they would come up with others you'd be working with in the National Guard. Is that fair?

Ian (11:17):

Yes. So while I was teaching ESL in Philadelphia, I would get off of work on Friday and then I would put on my uniform and shave. And then on Saturday I was a part of a cavalry squadron in the Maryland National Guard that was being turned into a military intelligence battalion. And that of course meant the security clearance requirements for the positions in that new organization were higher than the ones in the old organization. Plus there were a few disgruntled souls who weren't exactly happy about it. I would compare it to a football team being told you're going to be a chess club.

Lauren (12:09):

It's shaken up a little.

Ian (12:12):

Yeah. So as an assistant S2 in the battalion staff, I was given the responsibility for the short end of the stick as they saw it, to help lots of soldiers apply for security clearances. And that includes financial background checks and educating people on how your financial background will impact your clearance. And then as the security clearance guy, that followed me for the rest of my time in the National Guard. And so helping people with those things was always very rewarding when they wanted to be helped. I learned from that that I very much enjoy helping people. And in 2017, 2018, something came out called continuous evaluation and it was a big game changer for security clearances throughout the government. So continuous evaluation, which was rolled out between 2018 and 2021, was all about we're not going to just do a top to bottom reevaluation of your fitness to safeguard secrets every say six years for top secret clearance or 10 years for a regular secret clearance. We are going to be scraping the internet and databases for potentially derogatory information 24/7. And if you pop hot, a human at the Consolidated Adjudication Service at Fort Meade in Maryland will review it and you may get a letter handed to you by your friendly neighborhood S2 — me — saying, what's up?

We're going to pull your clearance —we either have or we will if we don't get an answer to this concerning information. And once upon a time it was that your commander, somebody who you actually make eye contact with, would have to put in for your clearance to be revoked or could say, he's okay, we dealt with it. Now the onus is on the commander to say, please don't take my guy's clearance. Here's what we're doing to fix it. So a steady drumbeat of people who needed help turned into a river. And I was the SSO of an infantry division at the time, special security officer. So in the midst of COVID, wall-to- -wall people are needed to deploy and they have to get investigations or they've got issues. And that was stressful but I learned a lot through it. And in another part of my work experience, I served a couple years at U.S. Africa Command and there was a Navy Reserve intelligence officer who told me about this thing called CFP®. And so after COVID died down, I was sitting down with my wife like, we can't keep doing this. I want to do something new and I need a job that will travel well with yours. And CFP® made sense.

Lauren (16:21):

So that's the route as you've been involved with it, right? There's so many resources. Just asking if there's resources, like you mentioned XYPN. What kind of things have you gotten involved with to date just to learn more or even prior to going this route to learn more that this was the right path for you? I know I think in some notes prior, you mentioned Dave Ramsey, and following some of the other conversations are related to that. Where did you start to go like, hey, is this the right career for me? What does this mean? What's the time investment? What's this community? What has that process been like for you and what have been the valuable resources that have come out of it?

Ian (17:03):

So my dad has been an English professor at a small Christian college since the 1980s, and my mom has worked in administration. I'm the eldest of six kids.

Lauren (17:16):

Goodness, you've got a big family.

Ian (17:19):

Whether she was an administrator for the college or she was just administering, we had six kids, five boys and a girl. In the end, there was always the effort to make ends meet because the small Christian college was in a very expensive part of the country, just outside of New York City. And for a large part of my childhood, a single-income household, we got really good at stretching a dollar. And not a day would go by when we're thrifty Scotsmen wasn't thrown around — we make due, we don't waste. And even as my dad got a few pay raises, my mom started working, and some of those things changed, it was deeply ingrained from the get-go in our family life. And when I got married to my wife, one of our friends gave us the Financial Peace University gift box set.

Lauren (18:39):

I'm not familiar with this. Tell me more.

Ian (18:41):

So Dave Ramsey has this Financial Peace University, which is a series of DVDs. It's some books and it's study guides and you can do it like a Bible study group.

Lauren (18:54):

Got it.

Ian (18:57):

It is a very good resource as a starting point but as I've said in one of my podcast episodes, Dave Ramsey is good for people who are bad with money and bad for people who are good with money. Dave Ramsey is extremely anti-debt and kind of like you will have people, if you go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, everyone's going to be extremely against alcohol probably because they've all been burned by misuse of the substance. But I have to push back on Dave and say no, debt has a useful purpose. Debt is not the devil. It's just a tool or a chainsaw. You might say you cannot play fast and loose with the chainsaw or you will get hurt but please don't try to chop down a redwood with a little hatchet.

Lauren (19:58):

Yeah. Okay. So it sounds like Dave Ramsey was an initial starting point hearing a little bit more about that. Your upbringing was a starting point and XYPN mentioned earlier. Are there any other resources you've leaned into as you've been exploring this profession?

Ian (20:22):

Yes. So I started the #BLUFFbooks podcast as a series of posts on LinkedIn to keep myself accountable for really reading books. And through those posts I've exposed myself to as broad a variety of personal finance literature as I can. And I'm on my 47th book for doing posts. My 19th episode dropped last week, and I figure if I can talk intelligently with somebody for 30 minutes about a book, I've probably read it.

Lauren (21:05):

Yeah, absolutely. So, okay, 47 books in what time period?

Ian (21:10):

So about two and a half years.

Lauren (21:12):

Okay. That's pretty decent. So then, okay, of those books, are there any ones you would recommend that just really stood out to you? I want to read this book again, or maybe two or three times again.

Ian (21:28):

So I have an article coming out this month on the GoVA website called “Operation Contentment Military Families Versus Overwork and Overspending,” and it's an essay that applies ideas from my favorite financial literacy book to the unique military family situation.

Lauren (21:52):

Oh, interesting.

Ian (21:54):

So the book is “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, which is on its fourth edition as of 2018.

Lauren (22:04):

Oh yeah.

Ian (22:05):

And “Your Money or Your Life” is all about getting the maximum value for your life energy, not just your money but your time, your health, your sanity, all of those resources you have, and investing it in such a way that you will actually have a life not getting caught up in consumer spending, not getting caught up in personal ambition. Not to say that spending or ambition are inherently bad but when they're not thought through, you will find yourself with an atrocious commute for a job. You don't really like to keep up with the payments on a house that's way too big for your family's needs.

Lauren (23:06):

Yeah, that balance. That's great. Well, thank you for sharing that too. And it's also good to hear, I mean, it's quite a few books, and then also being able to take the time to be able to review them takes time as well. So appreciate you sharing that. I also, just to kind of close up things here, really appreciate you sharing more about your personal background, your journey to the financial services world, even though it sounds like it's been kind of baked in you from day one to some degree or another. And then also I want to make sure that we link to, I think you said it's a LinkedIn page for #BLUFFbooks as well as a podcast on Spotify and Apple, is that right?

Ian (23:43):

Yes. So it's the #BLUFFbooks brand. So building, leading, understanding financial freedom, and when you are in the military, there's something called the BLUF, bottom line up front. I am the self-appointed “Reading Rainbow” of financial literacy books.

Lauren (24:05):

Love it. That's so great.

Ian (24:07):

But you don't have to take my word for it.

Lauren (24:10):

Love it. Awesome. We'll include that link below. I'm sure it's full with resources and then continuously being added to. So thanks for getting that shoutout. And then if that article comes out, we'll also make sure to link to it as well. But Ian, thank you. This is fun to just hear a little bit of the spread of background and specifically money management and a little bit about your background for military folks and for those who work closely with the military. So thank you again for your time.

Ian (24:39):

It was my pleasure.

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