I had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Hamilton is vice president of SmartDollar, a financial wellness program from Ramsey Solutions.
Thank you so much for your time! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started working as an auditor for one of the Big Four accounting firms right out of college. Like most people, my wife and I had car payments, student loans and credit card debt. We were “normal.” Around the time we got married in 2007, I started listening to “The Dave Ramsey Show” and it caused a complete paradigm shift. I thought I was doing well, but when I totaled it all up, I realized I was kidding myself. I suddenly realized I was the problem when it came to my money. We decided to get serious. So, we sold the car and started getting intense about paying off our debt. We managed to pay off $52,000 in debt in 8 months. It had such an impact on our lives, that I decided I wanted to help others put the same principles in place that I had learned. I began doing financial coaching part time and found that coaching others about their money was way more fun than my day job. So I began doing financial coaching full time, and later began working with companies who wanted to bring me in to help their employees with their finances. That helped me see the opportunity to reach people who might never look to hire a financial coach on their own. Many of them didn’t even realize they had an issue with their money until their employer brought me in to help. Those insights lead me to join the Ramsey Solutions team in 2013 to reach employees through their company. We created SmartDollar, a digital financial wellness solution for corporate America. Our team works to help businesses improve the financial health of their employees by changing their behaviors impacting millions of lives across the country.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?
I look back and realize how crazy it is that as an accountant, I didn’t really have a handle on my own finances. I decided to add up my net worth one day and realized I owed more than I owned. It was just bad math and math is what I did. But at the end of the day, personal finance isn’t about math, it is about behavior. That was a wake-up call. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Most Americans, 78% in fact, are living paycheck to paycheck and many, including those with finance degrees, are buried in debt and have little to no retirement savings. As soon as I got over my pride and paid off all my debt, I realized that I had to help others with what I had learned.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
While I was still working in accounting, my employer encouraged all of us to take time for personal development by reading, listening to podcasts, and diving into some new things that could help us in our work. I was looking at the top business and money podcasts in the country and found “The Dave Ramsey Show,” and that was what changed my life. It completely reset my financial future and it’s why I am so passionate about bringing these same principles to other people. It became my mission in life.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When we started SmartDollar, our vision was to bring the same Ramsey financial principles that have changed so many lives over the years, including my own, to employees all across America. We are on a mission to change how America does retirement, and employers are the secret weapon to make that happen. They have the unique ability to reach their employees in a way that no one else in their lives can. People trust their employers and have most of their financial life directly tied to their jobs, so programs offered at work have a huge impact when it comes to personal finances. Employees don’t leave their money problems at home: they follow them to work. Once people finally take control of their money, employers see an increase in productivity, lower turnover, and lower healthcare costs. It’s a win for those businesses, but most importantly, it is a win for every single person that receives the empowerment they need to change their financial lives forever.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
If I had to choose a number-one principle, it would be to put people first. If you help enough people, you don’t have to worry about money. We don’t make decisions based on a business model, it is what will help the person using our product create real behavior change that will have the biggest impact in their lives. You must first do right by the individual by bringing them real hope and a plan for their future. When you focus on that hope and give people the tools they need to be successful, everything else falls into place.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Just like most people, my family and I have had to adjust to sheltering-in-place, homeschooling, working remotely, and have seen the negative financial impact this situation has had on those around us. Luckily, we have been on a solid financial plan for the past 13 years and living a life without debt makes a financial crisis feel more like an inconvenience. There are obviously still health concerns, but not piling on money stress on top of those concerns, changes everything. I am thankful that our business is in a unique position to help employees that are struggling, now more than ever, with their finances so they can feel the same sense of calm I feel in the current environment. I want others to have that sense of peace the next time an emergency happens whether that is a personal emergency or a global one.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I feel the weight of this pandemic in a number of ways. We have had to find new ways to work during this time. We are very collaborative and have a very strong company culture, so we had to find new and creative ways to maintain that connection while we worked remotely. Other challenges are more unique to our business. SmartDollar is an employer-provided benefit. It is definitely a challenge to get companies to buy an employee benefit in the midst of furloughs and spending freezes. But sometimes the biggest challenges can also be our biggest opportunities. We are coming up with ways to work around those barriers. Everything is on the table because helping people comes first. During this time, we made the decision to provide SmartDollar free to any company that wanted to offer it to any of their laid-off or furloughed employees to help them through their financial transition. We are also working with companies on an individual basis to find unique ways we can help them bring this same help to their existing team when they truly need it the most.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I try to discern the facts and separate those from emotion. You have to control your “controllables”. You can turn off the news. You can step away from social media if that is causing you to focus on things that cause you anxiety. Yes, we have all had to make huge adjustments and many people are truly struggling right now, but many of us are also getting more time to connect with our families and to slow down and focus on the things that are most important in our lives. People are learning to connect in new ways using technology to make that happen.
There are also the financial impacts that people are feeling right now. People need help to focus on the things that are most important. We call these the Four Walls. The Four Walls are your priority, so pay for these things in this order before anything else: 1. FOOD 2. UTILITIES 3. SHELTER 4. TRANSPORTATION These are the basics you need to keep going so you can live to fight another day. And food is number one on the list, for obvious reasons. So if there’s no food in the fridge, don’t pay the cable bill. If there’s any money left over after you take care of the Four Walls, make a list of what else you need to pay and tackle that in order of importance.
Most importantly, you can’t lose hope. There is hope in the middle of this situation. Hope is greater than fear… I stay focused on that!
Obviously. we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
America will get back to work, and we will come out on the other side of this, but we need to make some real changes. Most people simply aren’t prepared for financial emergencies, and they can happen to anyone at any time. Being prepared for whatever might get thrown at us, needs to be the norm. Now more than ever, people need to learn to budget and save for the next emergency. Financial wellness should no longer be a fringe benefit companies put off until next year. Next year is here, and now is the time to get serious. Employers can provide a solution, like SmartDollar, that gives their employees the confidence they need to weather the next storm. All of the upheaval has given us an opportunity to identify the things we can control and the things we cannot. We can be prepared. We can save for the unknown. We can have a plan for the future, even when there are things we cannot see coming.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There will certainly be changes in how we work and live on a daily basis, but I think the biggest change will likely be intentionality. This pandemic needs to be the wake-up call that makes us approach our lives differently. I think we are all going to be more intentional. Intentional with our health, intentional with our time, and intentional with our money. We will get to the other side of this pandemic stronger and smarter than we were before, and more prepared for the future.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are fortunate that we do not need to rebuild, if anything, it has made the need for financial wellness more apparent to employers across the board. This time has provided us a unique opportunity to help more people. At SmartDollar, our focus has been and continues to be helping people change the way they handle their money for the rest of their lives. This pandemic has shown a light on the need for this kind of transformation now more than ever. There are lots of programs in our market, but they don’t actually help people prepare for situations like these. We can provide that help.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage other leaders to take a step back from the current obstacles and look for the opportunities. Those might be new areas of business or new ways to go to market. It might mean a renewed focus on their employees and finding ways to encourage and empower them during this time of transition. Now more than ever we need to help each other. Putting your focus on how you can better serve your team and your customers will help your business in the long run.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Fear is the enemy of hope.” ~ Dave Ramsey
I think different quotes probably carry more weight at different times in your life. This quote has been front and center lately for me with everything that has been going on in the world. There is so much fear out there right now and it can paralyze us. Instead, I choose to focus on hope and on encouraging others no matter what the outside circumstances might be. There is always reason for hope.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit smartdollar.com to learn more about SmartDollar, our financial wellness program, and how to help your team with their finances today and in the future.