Cindy Couyoumjian: Redefining Financial Literacy

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: I feel like finances is such an important topic, and I feel like every year it gets more and more important and possibly complicated, but you’re saying it can be really simple. Why is it so important for you to help others better understand the financial landscape?

Cindy Couyoumjian: I think because first off, a lot of people haven’t been educated in financial literacy starting from elementary school, high school and college. I think people are left in the dark, not understanding and making financial decisions about their future, sort of blindly. I mean, 70% of people reject financial advice today. So it’s a necessity for people to empower information and knowledge, not fear, but facts, when it comes to making good financial decisions about your future.

RM: I love that because it sometimes seems like it can be intimidating, but when you break it down, there are some easy things that we can do. You actually wrote a book to help with that, Redefining Financial Literacy. How can this be a great tool?

CC: There’s a lot of books on micro financial literacy, like from Suze Orman and David Ramsey, who talk about practical applications you can control, like savings, budgeting, a basic investment strategy. I thought there was a necessity for taking it a bit further, for people who have money and for more macroeconomics. I call it macro financial literacy versus micro financial literacy. Macro are about things we as investors can’t control, such as inflation and Fed printing and forces that come at us that affect our money, our retirement and our legacy. It’s up to investors to become either an economist or really take a look at practical action steps in this book that will help investors not only combat forces they have no control over, but give them strategies that they can actually combat those forces. So that’s really important.

RM: I feel like regardless of where you’re at with your own economics for your family, the past year with COVID, the world pandemic and quarantine, it has a lot of us questioning whether we’ve done enough. I feel like the broader conversation is this kind of a gap, where the richer are getting richer and then the poorer need to better understand how they can move up. What kind of practical advice can you give, or can you speak a little bit to that?

CC: Well, first of all, I think a lot of the uncertainty we as investors and Americans feel is all related to our money. So that uncertainty created, and you hit it, right on the head there, uncertainty was created because of inequality. Inequality means that the rich have gotten richer because the economic ideologies in this country was to benefit shareholders, not stakeholders, which are employees. We got our pension stripped from us. We see more stock market volatility. You see companies buying back their stock and not sharing their profits with the people. We don’t see wage increases. We see less benefits.

And ultimately because of that economic ideology, which is to benefit the shareholders, which are typically the wealthiest people in this country, it’s taken away something from the everyday American. And so that inequality is directly related to two things. How people feel in the investment strategy they’re in today, which has made up of stocks and bonds, and if you take a look at the last 20 years, something is going wrong. The returns are not what they used to be in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and people must take action steps to get empowered, to think outside the box and bring in new asset classes to help combat those hidden forces.

RM: You’ve created a unique structure in which you think people can adopt it and it will aide in that process. It’s called REALM. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?

CC: Yes. So back in 2003, when I actually went through my first bear market as an advisor, the first 17 years, the market just went straight up, baby boomers were buying stocks and things were perfect, 17% return. And then something came around called the tech wreck in 2000 to 2003. And I thought to myself, I was 41 years old at the time, my clients were in their sixties and I saw their portfolios drop 30%. And I told my husband, I remember saying, “If we have a couple of these, clients are going to run out of money and I’m going to have to have them all move in with me.” He was like, “No, don’t go do that.” I said, “Then I’m going to have to change the way I look at investing their money because the stock market’s too volatile and the bond market doesn’t pay enough in yield.”

And I went on a 17 year journey to add these new asset classes. Little did I know, 17 years later that the endowments – the USC, the Yale, the Stanford – that the endowments were doing something quite similar than the public. They were not using all stocks and bonds. They were using a small allocation of stocks, a small allocation of bonds, but they were bringing other asset classes together. So since the endowments were the first to use it, I called it the REALM, the Retail Endowment Allocated Like Model, because if it was good enough for the endowments beating the market with less risk and more income, it could be certainly good enough for the public to embrace these new strategies that have evolved over the last 17 years. And I’m going to tell you today, I can build a similar like strategy that the Yale endowment has for the average retail investor and that’s making investing great today.

RM: I think another huge component for the average investor is who to trust and what that looks like. So I love that you have a faith component to you. You are completely certified and that could be compartmentalized and not even part of your coaching or your investment strategies, but you’ve allowed it to be because you feel like that helps bridge that trust. So talk to me a little bit about how faith looks in your life, in this role.

CC: Well, first of all, you want to know what your planner’s philosophy is about money before you’re going to hire them to invest. I think it’s important to spend, save and give. A component of my own personal life is tithing. Yes, I think it’s an important component. Not only is tithing important, but so is paying yourself first, which is saving and then spending. I think having all three of those together is a component for successful money management.

Now there might be people that disagree with me on that philosophy. I know David Ramsey sort of has something similar in his belief system. And I think it’s important that clients understand my feeling about money and how I manage my own emotions with money, because we all have emotions and we all can get caught up in trying to get rich fast, make bad decisions because our emotions get the best of us.So it’s important that people have a coach, someone they can run their ideas off of to make sure they’re logical, not emotional, that would get you in trouble or just totally get you off path, of where you want to go.

RM: I understand you even had a conversation with your pastor about what that looked like.

CC: Yeah. Back in ’03, as I mentioned, when I went through that horrific tech wreck, I really started to question my value as a planner. If all I have is a stock and a bond, and a bond and a stock, and I felt that that was no longer an effective, sustainable strategy, what would I be putting my clients into? And it was funny because I was at a Sunday church function and my pastor was there. I pulled him aside. I said, “You know, I don’t know. I’m thinking about leaving the industry of my career in financial services.”

He goes, “Well, how long you’ve been in the business?” I said, “17 years.” I pretty much told him, “I don’t feel like I have a lot of value. I have no control over this market. I feel really bad for my seniors. Where do I go from here?” He goes, “Are you honest?” I said, “Well, isn’t everybody?” He goes, “Are you integral?” I said, “Of course.” He goes, “Then you owe it to your clients to go back and help them navigate this world of volatility with your expertise, because you have experience now, and go find a strategy that could protect them.”

And literally within three months, I resigned after 17 years with Equitable and I went to an independent firm that gave me more flexibility. And here I am today with the REALM model to offer the retail clients, so I’m very pleased.

RM: I love that Cindy, because it shows your heart and your vulnerability that you thought, “Oh man, I can’t help them make a difference. What’s my purpose? What’s my value?” I feel like many are questioning just that. Asking, Where do I belong? What’s my passion? Am I really thriving in what I’m doing? Share a word of encouragement or something to those that are maybe feeling like they’re in a rut or that their skill sets could better be used, and how to overcome?

CC: Well, I think the word is hope. You know, positive attitude and actions, action steps, because our mind’s going to play tricks on us. I think it starts one step at a time. I’m from Detroit. I moved out to California when I was 23 years old. I’m 58 today. And I remember I came out to California with a couple thousand dollars. And within 90 days it was gone and I’m like, “I’m not moving back to Michigan. So what am I going to do? I’m going to find a second job. I’m going to start saving 50 bucks a month.” And then every year I’d add up everything that I had. And I’m like, “Oh good. I’m worth more than I was the year before.” So it’s an exercise. It’s a purpose. It’s a cause. It’s motivating. You think of like, when I got married, when I was 28 and I had two children, it was my children.You need something to motivate you. It was this financial security for my family. It was being successful. So you’ve got to set up these goals for yourself, financial goals. You want it? What are you going to do about it?

What was my next goal? Well, I wanted to be successful. Well, okay, great. I’m going to work really hard, work harder than everybody else. So it was those little stepping stones of setting those psychological and emotional goals that keeps you going. Because if you don’t have a goal, if I didn’t have a goal today, I’d be sleeping right now. I wouldn’t be motivated.

People are motivated by setting goals and attaining them. Not only does it motivate you to be successful, now you’re building all your marks. Like, “I’m more confident than I was last year because I hit this goal and I hit that goal.” It helps build your self-identity, your self-worth and being able to better yourself in whatever field you’re in.

RM: You set the big dream goal, but then you just have the little goal steps in order to get there. And eventually once you get there, the positive thing is you get to set another bigger goal that you get to keep going after.

CC: You have to. I’m like, I’m doing good financially. No, [now] I’ve decided to write a book. Now I’m writing a second book and the second book is for women. I mean, I have the name of the book, it’s called Feminine Courage: How to Regain Your Financial Destiny, but it might be changed to Feminism for the Financial Revolution for Women. So now I’m pushing myself to write books. And my husband told me, “Twenty years ago, Cindy, you told me you’re going to write a book.” I’m like, “What is it going to be about?” So yeah, planting the seeds is a part of, I’ll call it like a brainwash your mind to say, “Hey, I’m going to do this someday.” And then it happens. I’m going to do this someday and it’s going to happen. But you have to believe it. You have to stay positive. And you’ve got to know that the forces are coming at you.

I don’t care if it’s about the money forces or the forces that are coming at you saying you can’t do it. You must be strong. You must have your faith. You must do the right thing. You must be upfront. Those are all the ingredients to combat the forces you’re going to enter into. I don’t care if you’re a professional or you want financial security. Any goals that you set up for yourself, you have to be equipped with the armor because the forces are coming against you and you have to be able to fight them, have a good attitude, have faith be your guide and moving forward.

RM: Those are great takeaways and the importance of having that self-discipline, but also the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people. And that’s where you come in, so share how people can get in touch with you if they want to join and be part of what you have to offer. Or maybe start with some of the free resources on your website.

CC: First of all, I’m going to offer my book free to anyone listening. And if they want to call my 800 number, it’s 1-888-210-8777. If you want to call my office, I’ll sign a book and send it to you. My goal is to have you take action steps. There’s over 551 pieces of research in this book. I spent three years, hundreds of thousands of dollars getting this book out there for the public, as a contribution to the financial service industry. It’s available, but you must take an action step so you can call my office. Once you get the book. I’d be more than happy to sit down with a free consultation and answer any questions you have. That’s the first start.

If you’re not a reader, I get it then go to my website, Cinergy Financial. Yes. I have energy. Think of that. Cindy at Cinergy. My website (cinergyfinancial.com) is full of videos. You can listen to all kinds of radio shows. I’ve had two Los Angeles radio shows for almost a year. I’ve put all my radio shows on there. I’ve got podcasts. I have videos. I have 15 eight minute videos. So I have every kind of learning available, whether you like to read, whether you like to listen, whether you like to watch, but it takes action steps. One step at a time. You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to be able to ask questions like you are of me this morning.

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