35 – Eli Zoller: Money & Time Management

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0:00 Eli
Nobody knows everything. And that's okay. That is okay. Your boss won't have all the answers and neither will you. Your producers won't have all the answers, neither will you. Your agent won't have all the answers, neither will you.

If you surround yourself with people who are of that same mindset, congratulations, you win. You win! Whilst I'm being dramatic and a little glib about it, it really is the truth.

0:35 Tony
Hello, welcome to The Tony Howell Podcast: Conversations with Changemakers, I am so excited that you hit play!

In this month's episode, we speak with my financial planner Eli Zoller of Northwestern Mutual Madison Avenue, a comprehensive financial advisor. He has dedicated his practice to being a resource to the artists, independent contractors, and entrepreneurs in the Broadway community.

As a working music director, musician, orchestrator, arranger, educator, as well as a husband and father, I wanted to Eli on to expand on the idea of becoming a healthy CEO—particularly when it comes to managing not only your money, but also your time. Enjoy!

Eli, I'm so excited to see you. I only get to see you, you know, once in a blue moon, but always a pleasure. Welcome to the podcast.

1:38 Eli
Thank you, Tony. How are you doing?

1:40 Tony
I am great. I'm excited to chat with you. I listened to two podcasts that you've done, and also rewatched the webinar that you did for our community. So I know that there's so much that we can share and dive into. But my first intention is to get our listener to recognize that you are indeed one of us. So I would love for you to tell us a little bit more about your early years.

2:08 Eli
Well, born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. And I'm very, very proud to say that I grew up there. I love being a Midwesterner and a Michigander. But I hope what you mean by one of us is an artist, right? A professional artist, or that I have experience in the arts as a means of a career.

I took to music very, very early. I don't think boasting about one's natural gifts is necessarily a good look on anybody, but if there is one thing that I always naturally knew how to do, it was learning music after being told once. I processed music very, very quickly. It was never any sort of difficulty for me, whether it was on the page, by ear, or to an instrument. It was just one of those things where there were no barriers for me.

And I was very fortunate to have had a family who supported me seeking that out, the more I got older and the more I started getting a little bit more creative, a little bit more curious and progressive about what it is that I wanted to explore with music in my life.

And that led me to a number of different experiences and extracurriculars, to applying for and being accepted to the University of Michigan Musical Theatre Department. I did that specifically, I think I went to musical theatre specifically because it was never just one thing. I could be a musician and be an actor, I could be a dancer, and be a part of a creative team, right? Whereas with a dancer, you're entirely reliant on your body when you're a member of a cast. It's very much so an ensemble perspective. And I liked that diversity of experience. And that made me comfortable saying, “Well, if I'm going to hang my hat on any one particular musical agenda for something as big as what you're going to study in college, that made sense to me.”

But I was always exploring other avenues. One of the things that was fortunate for me at the University of Michigan being a part of the music school, and not as specifically siphoned off drama program was I had all sorts of access to other classes.

And so I started exploring things like musical composition and conducting and musicology (for all my musicology nerds out there!), so that when I eventually came to New York City after graduating, and I showcased as a musical theatre performer, my resume said one thing, but my instinct very much so said a number of others. Which was, “if it's out there, if it's music, and if I can make it happen in my day to day life, I'm gonna do it.”

And so that sort of brought me to New York, which was… everybody's New York experience is unique unto itself. But after about two or three years of being here, the line, “Oh, I'm just taking these pit orchestra gigs between auditions” didn't really sit correctly any longer. It was very much where I was headed. It was my natural trajectory. And that's what led me into being a professional music director and professional musician and in circumstances, orchestrator and arranger in the professional theatre world around New York, and sometimes, you know, elsewhere, but mostly in New York City.

And I think that's a brief recap of my history of how I evolved into being a professional artist. But if I keep on going with all sorts of individual stories, we won't have any time to talk about anything else. But I think the way that I got here was just by following my nose, and people who supported those smells very, very much so. So I was very, very fortunate in that respect to have just been able to go where things naturally evolved.

5:37 Tony
Speaking of natural evolutions, you met someone at the University of Michigan by the name of Justin Stoney, and I learned a lot. I'm constantly learning things about Eli. And I'm excited to learn more today. But tell us about Justin and how you collaborated post college.

5:53 Eli
Justin and I met when I went for my campus visit after having been accepted to the University of Michigan when I was still a senior in high school. And it was one of those things where, have you ever had that experience, where you meet somebody new, and just like “There's something about the fact that I just met you, that's really cool. I don't know what it is yet, but we'll figure it out eventually.”

Well, that led to a four year friendship at the University of Michigan together. But as soon as we both graduated, one of those things that I think we had in common was we always knew that we were going to do something beyond just what our resume coming out of school said. And he is the founder and primary coach and inspiration behind New York Vocal Coaching, one of the premiere vocal coaching studios, really, at this point, I'd have to say in the country.

And it was one of our just random hangs, you know, just like the workday was over. I think I went to his apartment to crack a beer and play some Nintendo Wii. And he was like, “So you're playing a lot more guitar than acting these days?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he goes, “Would you want to teach guitar lessons? I have a couple students who are eager to do that.”

And the only thing I thought to myself was, “If Justin Stoney says he has an opportunity for you, to say ‘no’ is probably not in your best interest.” And so I said, “Yeah!”

And I quickly realized that I'd always had the instinct of being a teacher. I really enjoy teaching. There are tons of different ways to be a teacher. And my way of connecting and being a teacher was simply just by using a vehicle that I knew that I intimately loved, that guitar music and just saying, “Hey, if you want to learn, let's take half-hour to an hour and talk about what you want to know about this instrument, and I'll share what I know.”

And that led me to being where I am now, which is the guitar instructor for New York Vocal Coaching.

7:40 Tony
So many things, I'm like, I gotta go check out your LinkedIn and look at all these resume credits].

7:50 Eli
I might need to update… I was gonna say you just put me on blast! I gotta get up there and notice it, man.

7:53 Tony
So I know in our webinar, which I'll include below this podcast, but you said something that I've heard going to college. One of the teachers along your path, told you this advice: “If you can see yourself doing anything else besides musical theatre, you should probably do that.”

So if there are teachers and coaches that are still offering that advice, what would you tell them that they need to know, moving forward into the future?

8:20 Eli
Stop doing that. Stop. Two reasons. The first is the premise behind it is now officially antiquated.

What I think the intention behind that saying is, “This is incredibly hard. And if you're not prepared for unforeseen challenges, then this might not be the right choice for you.”

Find me an 18 year old who knows that. I don't mean to put anybody down, and I'm not being judgmental. It's part of the journey to discover what is and what is not an unforeseeable personal challenge for you. That's why you do it. You don't really know how you're gonna react to the weather until you step outside. So to say, if you're not ready for challenges don't do that. It's antiquated. It doesn't make any sense. But more importantly, it's wrong. It's incorrect. It's inaccurate. Not the intention. But the way that it's phrased.

I was speaking with a colleague, and just a friend of mine, who similar to me has found a completely unique path into being her own professional in this world. And we came up with a new way to go about that phrase: “If you're pursuing musical theatre, and you could see yourself doing anything else, congratulations, you're an interesting person. Keep going!”

I'm not saying half-ass it. I'm not saying don't commit yourself totally to what it is that you're pursuing. But if you can see yourself, if you can envision for yourself something other than “the moment” you are officially a creative person.
Congratulations! What's next?

That's it. That's the end of that conversation.

Thank you for giving me a soapbox so early on in our conversation, Tony, but that's, uh, I'm thrilled that you remember that because at the same time, I think it's also important to recount for my own personal journey, I have to remind myself of that every so often as well.

10:14 Tony
Same. I guess the other thing that I want to dive into before we talk about money and finances, you've sat behind the table a lot as a music director or in an orchestra pit. So starting at the beginning of the process for any artists that are auditioning actively, what kind of audition advice can you share from that side of the table?

10:35 Eli
Wow, great question. Auditions are so diverse in and of themselves, we could get into: Are you auditioning for a character role or a dramatic role? Are you with an instrument are you without an instrument? I think the most important thing to remember when you go into the room, on first look anyways, is as much of your genuine self as you can portray in the room, as you can bring into the room, is helpful. Because that, as a music director, lets me know who you're going to be if you were to be a member of a part of a team.

Because while it is critical that you bring in the elements that are being asked for, if you're a soprano, and you go out for an alto role, there's going to be a disconnect there. So it's of course up to you to do your homework and know that you're going in for the things that your skills are appropriate for. But beyond that, if I were to give one general piece of advice of what I've noticed in the room, and from experience myself of what I've done, right, and what I've done dramatically wrong, is that if you want to give yourself the best opportunities, not just in that room, but in future rooms, understand that they're not just looking for a person to cast, they're looking for a person to collaborate with, at least the rooms I want to be in anyways. And that means we need to see who you are so that we can see who you can be as part of a team.

11:44 Tony
Let's fast-forward. And I would love to hear just remind me and our listeners some of the recent shows that you've been a part of. But if someone finds themselves in a long run: doing a national tour, or a Broadway show, and they're doing eight shows a week for months, and months, and months, what advice would you offer?

12:02 Eli
Sure. The most recent thing I've done is I'm a designated musician on the Broadway pit for A Strange Loop. Just an amazing experience. And I adore every single person, I've walked into that building and interacted with, it's been fantastic. I can't boast about that enough—not the work, but the people.

If you're in a long run, what sort of advice would would I give for people who were?

Respect your body. Respect your body as much as you can. And this goes for whether you are in the ensemble, you are a lead, you are in a pit, that is a lot on the body. Yes, most of us are sitting down, but it's still very physically taxing.

Respect your body and know that when it's telling you to cool it, you got to cool it.
And I always feel like one of these statements is always easier said than done. I think that the majority of that battle is mental, right? Telling yourself that your body needs a break is not lying to yourself, and it's not quitting. So that would be my starting… the first piece of advice that came into my head when it came to long runs, especially when you're on the road. Oh my goodness. That's one of those things that I can't really describe. It's just very, very different.

And I’m fortunate that I have not been on the road for excessive amounts of time, like friends and colleagues of mine who have done for years and years at a time. The most I ever did was a couple of months. So but still, that beat me up.

So I have a lot of respect for anybody who can really put longevity into their career by being on the road. So respect your body.

13:31 Tony
I've heard you call it, you have a “dual career.” And for other people that are feeling this desire to explore other interests that are multi-talented, multifaceted humans. I wanted to just brag on you for a moment. You were a member of Actors Equity starting in 2006, a member of the local 802 AFM starting in 2011, and now a member of Northwestern Mutual correct me on the dates around 2019-2020. So at this point, I would love to just have you share your story of how you found financial planning, or it found you.

14:07 Eli
Yeah, I was always seeking out a second career of some sort. Like I said, I thought I was taking regular gigs as a pit musician between auditions so I always knew I was dually fascinated in some capacity if just to satisfy my own brain.

But the more I started to think about it, the more I was telling myself, it's actually for my own mental health as well. I really wanted to know that I was capable of doing more than just one thing. It meant a lot to me personally, and I didn't really connect with that until the end of this journey. But what really inspired a true descent into being a dual career individual was in 2016, my wife and I (my wife, Melody), we received word from our daughter’s doctors (our daughter’s Maggie, she's about to turn two), and we received word after extensive examination that she was going to be diagnosed with epilepsy and on the autism spectrum. Neither of those two things are nearly as severe as some of the stories that I've heard about what parents face when it comes to medical challenges with their children.

The three things that put us in a significant position that changed everything was, we could see the tidal wave of debt coming, because we knew our daughter was going to need significant amounts of treatment that we simply weren't earning. We knew that we were both independent contractors, which meant that our careers and our livelihoods that were currently supporting our family were volatile on a shoestring. And we had put zero money away for the future.

And so I knew at that point in time, a second career was no longer for me, it was for my family. And so I cruised around into a number of different career paths, thanks to supportive friends and colleagues. But everything that I tried hit one of two roadblocks, if not both.

The first was to make a full-time career out of it, they didn't want a “theatre guy,” right? They wanted a “them guy,” not a “theatre guy.”

Footnote on the bottom of that conversation: that doesn't exist. But they either wanted their guy and not somebody else's guy, or it wasn't the right fit, because I couldn't justify the time to it. Because it either took too much away from who I was, personally didn't compensate me appropriately, or both.

And when the pandemic hit, I was stuck at home with a lot of time. And as soon as I got done licking my wounds, like everybody else did, well, as everybody else was doing. Frankly, I realized, “Oh, I've been chasing down that career for the past three or four years. I'm sitting on a pretty decent corporate resume! Let me take it out for a spin and see what it can do.”

And I started getting hits on Indeed and Zip Recruiter for financial advisors like crazy, crazy! And I contacted one of my old bosses, who was a wonderful mentor, who was, even though the career path didn't work out, he was a fantastic inspiration to me.

And I said, “What is going on?! I've never considered finance in my life. I have nothing that would qualify me for it. And I'm in no way shape, or form, somebody that I would ever see in that particular path.”

And he corrected me instantly. And he was like, “Oh, that's where you're wrong. Because to be a good financial adviser, and to be desirable for firms to want to hire you, you need two skills. The first is you need to know how to talk money.” And fortunately for me, and a couple of these careers, I was in a place where there were a great deal of high asset class earners who used all sorts of vocabulary that I was Googling left and right on my phone between, like, between meetings, and I was just like, “What the heck are they talking about?” So I learned the hard way, I have those high vocabulary conversations.

But the second thing he said to me was, “Your background as a performer makes it so that they don't have to teach you how to have a natural conversation.”

And immediately the bells started going off in my head like, “I can talk to anybody about anything! So long as I'm honest. And I'm engaging in a way that promotes listening as much as talking, I can talk to anybody about anything, which means I can interview for a financial advisor position.”

I started taking interviews, and I landed at Northwestern Mutual, because while I did interview with a number of highly qualified firms, they checked all the boxes for what I was looking for, for that dual career.

They were not turned off by a theatre guy, they knew it was an asset to their firm. And it was worth my time and compensated me appropriately—checked all the boxes. I was game. I learned a lot real, real fast. And sure we'll get into this in a bit. But immediately, as soon as I started on that career, I immediately started helping people. And that meant a lot to me.

So that was an immediate thing that I was just like, “Oh, this feels great. This feels like teaching again, but I'm not teaching an instrument. I'm talking to people about their future. And I'm a support. It's great.”

19:06 Tony
You are great at what you do. And I am proud to call you my financial advisor. One of the things that I like about your work is that you sort of straddle two worlds, especially in New York City. So as a part of Northwestern Mutual Madison Avenue, you are probably sometimes in rooms with Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, all these high earners using fancy buzzwords.

And then you're also in the room with artists talking about LaDucas and Capezios over here—whatever it might be.

So tell me if there's any through line that you've learned. You mentioned you have to talk about money. What is a through line that comes to money, no matter how much or how little you have?

19:49 Eli
Wow, it's such a great question. And when you put it in the context of comparing one world to another when it comes to vocabulary, I think that's incredibly revealing because some of the high-end buzzwords that the people on one side of town use are commonplace. And the same can be said for the artists community, right?

Like, if I were to take a 20-year financial advisor with no experience in the arts, and put the cans on him so that he could hear a stage manager crew, he would have no idea what's going on. And that's the through line.

If you speak to people with the intention to listen and learn, they will reveal exactly what they're looking for. And when it comes to money, we really all want the same thing, the means by which we acquire it and our comfort level with talking about certain elements of it varies person to person, but we all want our money today to be valuable tomorrow. It's quite basic, it's quite simple.

I share with people all the time: people often think that the opposite of easy is complicated. It's not. The opposite of easy is hard. But things can be hard and simple at the same time.

And when you strip away the vocabulary when it comes to financial planning, that's what most of it is. And that's the through line: that we all really want the same thing.

And the only thing that really holds us back from naturally accomplishing that is a difference in vocabulary and henceforth comfort level of discussing what it is that we want.

21:25 Tony
I would agree. And I would say that I was uncomfortable at first, and I'm asking you, like. “Slow down. What does that mean? Like, explain to me…” like I didn't even know what liquid cash was, okay? I needed to learn a few things!

So I also know from our conversation that only 32% of Americans have a financial planner, which means that 68% of people somehow count themselves out. So what would you say are misconceptions when it comes to working with a financial planner?

21:56 Eli
Let me first put a caveat on that, that all financial planners are different as well, right? People's qualifications vary. fee structures and agreements between how they work with their clients or how they run their practice varies as well.

But I think the the thing that people have in common, the most who do not have financial advisors, who don't think that they qualify, if you will, for working with a financial advisor, is that something along the way suggested to you that you have to make a certain amount of money in order to have a financial plan? And that's a false equivalency. That's not true. It doesn't mean that your plan is going to look different. Yeah, sure. But one of the reasons why I was really proud to associate my practice with Northwestern Mutual, and one of the things that I thought was imperative to me being able to set up shop anywhere to do this for real.

I'm what's known as a no fee advisor. You do not have to pay me for my time. And while the means by which that structure varies based on the work that we do, Tony, you're my client, how many meetings have we had? And how much money have you paid? Me? The answer is lots of meetings and $0. [Right.]

So it's not a matter of being qualified. If there was a qualification for working with a financial planner, I wouldn't have done this! I wouldn't have done this. But to expand a little bit further on what I think most people have in common, who don't have financial advisors, is there's just a lack of familiarity with what it is that that was what they need, because that's a little being a little bit too judgmental. But what's appropriate, it would be intimidating for me to talk about open heart surgery. But the important thing to remember about me right now is that I don't require open heart surgery. So why would I need to learn what that is for my yearly physical, right? It doesn't add up.

So to think to yourself, Well, I'm not ready to talk about money, because I don't know everything. Yeah, no kidding, neither do I. So let's just talk about you. Let's talk about what it is that you need and what you're interested in, and where you feel that you need to be more educated, and we will feel it out from there. That's the way that I approach most entry level meetings with clients or with potential clients. And I think it's a really valuable asset to say, not here's what I do, but what are you thinking about your financial picture? And how can we collaborate on making that more comfortable for you to talk a little bit further.

24:25 Tony
During that call that you did for us for FREE in the Changemaker Community, it came up that someone said that it's a crime that people don't teach, you know, financial wellness, financial planning earlier on.

So my question is, if you got to wave a magic wand and you got to create a curriculum for students growing up, at what point would you start introducing financial literacy?

24:53 Eli
Wow, that's a wonderful question. I think I would introduce it right around... I wouldn't introduce it… probably an early early middle school. The same way I’d introduce something like what we used to call language arts, or even math.

Don't just have that ONE class where they teach you about everything. Learn it progressively, right? Just have it like, even if it were just an element of history class, where you learn about the history of how money became a thing in this country, in the world, I don't know if it needs to be an isolated experience, either. I think that they truly… just rolling off the fly on this, like, just incorporate it more into other curriculums. And it'll evolve more naturally into what people naturally understand.

We didn't have a specific class on one species of animal, but we had biology. So just incorporate it more into what's being discussed, in general, right? Just make it more part of the curriculum on a broader level. And then, once kids get to college, they won't be as intimidated by the thought of it and might be a little bit more inspired to take economics into a factor or into consideration when they take electives.

Or when they're just doing their own finance management for the first time, it won't be as foreign because there'll be that small thing that you remember from that class in 10th grade. And that'll be enough, that will be enough.

But rather than just taking a wholesale approach of just saying, “No, economics should be taught in this class, and then money management should be taught in this class,” just incorporate it across the curriculum in general.

26:22 Tony
Now you get to fast-forward and you are suddenly employed by a university. I won't name which one, but you are creating a curriculum for a B.F.A. program, let's say. Okay?
And you get to introduce money management, financial wellness, financial planning… so what would you love your seniors to graduate with knowledge of? Tools? What would you like for them to have when they graduate?

26:46 Eli
I'd sit them down junior year, and I'd say, “You don't know enough about money, and we need to know what you want to know.” And then in senior year, I would bring somebody in specifically to answer those questions. That's a big thing. There's so much, so much in our arts programs that's left until senior year.

You know what I was thinking about senior year? A lot of nothing! A lot of nothing, man. And it wasn't because I wasn't dedicated to being a professional artist, when I graduated. I was just a senior—being seniors is awesome.

But I think the important thing for them to leave with is the confidence of knowing that reaching out to other professionals, and other resources that are qualified to assist you with your money is not a bad thing.

There's a reason why you go to vocal coaches, why you stay in dance class, why you have an agent, there are other resources that sustain your career, both with collaboration and with improvements. Your experience with money is always evolving, whether you know it or not. Much like your voice, much like your body, much like your performance style, much like your resume, but like your life. So have that additional resource to check in. And know that that's not anything that you're unqualified to receive. You’re a professional now.

28:08 Tony
Speaking of professionals, those of us like you and I that are just a few years out of college, or maybe someone who's listening who's feeling embarrassed that they have never met with a financial planner at whatever age they are.

So now, Eli, I've given you all the resources. You get to create an online class teaching the artists, the professional artists, what you want them to know. Give us just a hint of what's in the curriculum. What should they learn retroactively?

28:35 Eli
Interesting. First, let me say that there are a number of people who do this very, very well, in addition to what I'm creating right now. So this is not a pipe dream. There are resources out there for people. What should be learned retroactively in a program that I were to create for the artists’ financial picture?

That much like your career, carts before horses go nowhere. Small financial steps are the bedrock of a long, successful financial plan.

And that knowledge is power. So if all you do for your first experience in Eli Zoller’s Artists’ Financial Curriculum is listen and educate yourself a little bit more about what is out there, and what you can consider, and how to experience money as opposed to just saving it or spending it, how to prepare for what money will do for you, or will require of you. It'll make you more stable going forward.

I think that would be the first thing and then from there, I have no idea because much like my experience with money, and much like my clients’ experience with money, I think it would evolve over time.

The financial advice that I would have given somebody pre-pandemic is drastically different from the advice I would have given them post-pandemic, but not because, not out of fear, and not out of, you know, things having changed dramatically. Just our experience around how we view our financial picture has changed. And it's important to acknowledge that. But the vocabulary around the conversation hasn't changed at all.

30:02 Tony
Just from research and like preparing for this, I, you know, I'll include some of those links with the bonuses here and anything you want to include as well. But I loved how specific, and I noticed that you're like, you're not being specific, but I love when you can get specific about like, “Well, this person has $10,000 in debt. This person has…” you know, whatever it might be. And if you're willing, whatever you want to share, but you shared 70% of people say that their financial plan could use improvement. It's kind of like that thing that like everyone's always a little bit unsatisfied.

And you've also said, like what you just said, our relationship with money is always changing: sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily. So with your own journey, as the owner of money or consulting others what to do with theirs, what have you learned about money and how to manage it?

30:58 Eli
I'll use my experience so as to not ding anybody else. The experience that I learned about managing my own personal finance, I think the two things that I learned that I hope to project in my practice, in how I just speak with anybody about their finances or their lives, the two things are that much like, I would say, like, like, like I said, before, you know, carts before horses go nowhere.

If you're anticipating what to do with your money, it's officially not doing anything. It's not a zero sum game, but it is an on/off switch. You're either proactively managing your finances, or you're not. You need to take action. And that action should be managed. And it should manage expectations. And it should absolutely operate on a comfort level that corresponds with how you feel. But to do nothing is not a plan. That's the most important thing.

And then the second thing, and this is an emotional conversation for a lot of people as it has been for me in the past and will continue to be. And that is that a person's debt is not a reflection of their values. It's just not, if you were to have looked at my balance sheet, just my balance sheet five years ago, you would have said “This person is awful with money,” because you would have seen a great deal of debt. But how’d that debt get there? I was taking care of my daughter, and I wasn't earning as much money as my time would allow me to. Rubber had to meet the road someplace. That's just a natural experience with how our money, our money performs, and what it is that we're capable of doing.

It shouldn't be a deterrent. And I completely understand that debt is an emotionally loaded experience. It is loaded, man. And if you're going to aspire to anything in your future, you can't let that emotion intimidate you into acting on what's important for you next. This is totally me armchair quarterbacking, because I've been frozen by this experience multiple times. But that's oftentimes where a financial adviser can be helpful. Just to show you, “Pkay, you're paying off your student loans, you're paying down your credit cards, if you maintain that path, you can optimize that experience and do things for your future at the same time. It is possible, right? You're not just in a hole.”

That's the other thing about money, maybe that's the third thing, money is not a binary experience, right? It's not you're in the black or you're in the red. That's what the numbers look like on paper. But life is very different. So it's not a binary experience at all.

So those are the things that I think I've learned, most specifically about what you see on paper, how your debt is a reflection of what you're capable of. And in terms of proactive financial planning, even to just do a little bit is better than doing nothing.

33:41 Tony
So Eli, I love what you shared in that call. And you kind of gave us five tips. And even in my own personal financial planning with you, you were able to highlight things that I hadn't thought of. And so I'm just curious, without, you know, giving everything away, because I want everyone to go watch that class.

Can you give us the Cliff Notes on those five things to think about?

34:03 Eli
The five things that I think are critical in evaluating how your financial planning conversation with your advisor should go are budgeting, liability, taxes, retirement, and planning. The fifth one always takes people by surprise.

First thing about budgeting is you just need to be honest with yourself about how you feel about what's coming in and what's going out. And like I said before, when I spoke about my experience with debt, I was very comfortable with what was going out personally because I knew how unnecessary it was. But when it came to financial planning, I had to be realistic about what that meant for my future and what I could put aside. So that's the only conversation about budgeting. It's not a judgment call. It's just to be realistic about what it is that you're capable of.

When it comes to the second thing, liabilities as actors, as performers, as artists, we know this all too well. Do you ever plan for when things don't go the way you thought they would? What's your safety net? Because while you can't hold on to a show that's closing, you can put guardrails around a financial plan so that nothing ever falls off completely. And that's done by things like insurance planning by things like having a significant amount of money in cash based on what your immediate needs are and what your emergency needs are. And how you get to those numbers is entirely an individualized experience.

The third thing is taxes. Like, what was saying? “The two things that are certain in life are death and taxes.” I think the difference though is that death is permanent, and taxes evolve. So knowing that that's always going to be a reality for how you manage your money is something where you want to have somebody on your team, right? How do taxes look differently when it comes to saving cash, as opposed to investing? How does it look differently if you’re CEO of a company, or if you’re getting your paychecks once a week from Disney or the Shubert or some other producing entity? And what does that mean for your bottom line? Right? Let's have a chat about that. That'll last us an entire other podcast!
And retirement, the fourth thing. Speaking to all the artists out there, and I'm sure all the future individual CEOs as well, if I were to say like, “How do you feel about retiring?” You would say, “You'll pull my arts experience away from me once I'm dead! I'm never going to retire.”

Okay, so what if we talked about it less as a lifestyle and more as a financial plan? Right? What plan do you have for financial retirement? And that's where people are always like, oh, gosh, it's time to start thinking a little bit more proactively about what retirement means as a financial strategy.

Because there are two different types of retirement out there: the type of retirement where people don't want to work anymore, and where they don't have to work anymore. That's an individualized experience, the tools that get you there are very, very commonly used for both. So a conversation around that is critical.

And then the fifth thing is planning. It's a matter of just knowing what objectives you're capable of communicating to other people.

Items one through four (budgeting, liabilities, taxes, and retirement), you can do those on your own. It is possible. So why is planning critical? It's because you want somebody else in your corner to remind you of why it is that you're doing what you're doing. Always a good thing to have stability, to have stability in your plan, knowing that somebody else is going to help you keep it on track.

And of those objectives that you're planning for: are they isolated or are they for other people? Are they both? Knowing that is going to keep you going, is going to keep your financial stability going forward… a lot more on track.

37:38 Tony
I love it. It feels comparable to a tool that I love called the Business Model Canvas, which helps someone look at their business from a bird's eye view. And that's kind of my reflection, like I'm not the expert you are with money, but I see how things that are involuntary (like a pandemic or a diagnosis) can really alter the course for someone.

So it's good to be able to have an advisor to help guide you on your next best choices.

38:04 Eli
And to let you know what choices are out there as the experience around planning for those things evolve. Because there's always new things out there, there are new ways of managing finance, there are new ways of showing what works and what doesn't. The right solution 10 years ago might not be the right solution now, and vice-versa. So it's just good to have that other person in your corner to show you.

Your goals might not change, but the tools in the toolbox very much so do from time to time. So it's important to know how that evolves.

38:31 Tony
What I like about what I understand about your relationship with Northwestern is that in some ways, you are both an intrapreneur as well as an entrepreneur. Because you work inside the company, but you have a private practice. So with that, and then also your experience in showbiz, can you talk about what you have learned about business in any industry?

38:52 Eli
Nobody knows everything. And that's okay. That is okay. Your boss won't have all the answers, and neither will you. Your producers won't have all the answers, neither will you. Your agent won't have all the answers. Neither will you.

If you surround yourself with people who are of that same mindset: congratulations, you win! You win life.

I'm being dramatic and a little glib about it. But it really is the truth. One of the things that I and many others in my field, as financial advisors say, when you're talking about investing — and I've used the term investing very literally, right, buying shares of something with market exposure — if you're ever speaking to somebody about investing and somebody uses the word guarantee, run, get out of that conversation as soon as you can.

Because there are no guarantees there. I'm sharing these ideas for you because of what you've shared with me and I think this is my experience delivering this advice to you. But there's still very much so a lot of unknowns out there and I'll be with you to help you to experience this journey on the same path and timeline that you will. That's what I think is one of my greatest assets as an advisor.

I know what I don't know. And I work around people who know what they don't know. And I enjoy speaking to people who know what they don't know. That's the overarching thing. And if you ever already experienced this with people, as I'm sure everybody who's hearing this has where you're with somebody who is a know-it-all, who knows everything. Remember that.
There's a second answer out there somewhere. And it's always just important to know what that is, so that you have perspective.

40:35 Tony
I like it. I always have to question myself. That like, “Am I pretending to know it all? Am I mansplaining right now?”

40:41 Eli
Oh, yeah.

40:42 Tony
But here's an analogy that gives me comfort in times of anxiety, I just want to see if it feels right to you. It's like, what I tell people.

Entrepreneurship is like sailing a ship. And you just like set your sights on the destination you have in that direction. And there might be winds, there might be things in the water that you have to make slight adjustments. As long as you just keep going in a direction and you like you pick where you want to go. Like, that's the whole point is just little tiny adjustments.

41:10 Eli
I completely agree, and not overreacting. I think it's a big deal to that as well, in finance, in managing your business, in managing your career. Don't overreact.

There's a lot of noise out there, right now. There's a lot of noise. The number of people who have asked me, “So are we headed for a recession?” I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. How much TV have you been watching that makes you think I know the answer to that question? First of all, I don't. But second of all, let's say I did know, what would you do different? Because I don't know. And I do this for a living.”

One of the key things I ever learned about being an artist, all good acting is reacting. You react appropriately with your scene partner or with your audience, or with your cast. And that's what generates an authentic performance, say with anything. And so I think you're absolutely dead-on there.

Because if entrepreneurship is like sailing a ship, that's no small task! There's a lot that goes into really steering a ship across the sea. So overreacting to any minor adjustment, weather change, or whatever… you’re sunk! You're more likely sunk than to get where you want to go.

42:32 Tony
I like what you just said about a lot of noise. Because especially in the past, I will say six years, there's been so much noise. The volume has been turned high!

So in that, you mentioned that you started this practice sort of around the pandemic. You know, my mission is to teach the artists how to become a healthy CEO, which is why you're on the show, which is why you came in—because managing their money is a part of that.

But for you, Eli, what are the habits that you place into your daily life, or weekly, or monthly, whatever it might be that helps you maintain your wellness, holistically?

43:08 Eli
It's a really, really wonderful question. The first thing that came to mind, these aren't in order of priorities, but the first thing that came to mind is I am diligently looking at my calendar. And it's not just my work calendar—like my personal calendar.

I put all my work on my personal calendar, so my family knows what I'm doing. And so that I can see other things in my life that are happening, and balance that against my work life.

I'm not going to put a meeting right up against my kid’s parent teacher conference. I'm going to give a half-hour because I need time to get from one place to another. Even if it is over Zoom, I need that mental, that mental space to change. So I am diligent about my calendar.

But also because, and this might harken back to one of the things that I learned as an entrepreneur, my most valuable asset is my time. And I'm pretty sure it's the same for everybody else. I won't rush to judgment on anybody's personal priorities, but my most valuable asset is my time. And so if I am managing that appropriately, then I am doing my mental health a significant service.

Because I love being busy. I love it. It's fantastic. I'm a dual career individual. I'll take six meetings during the day and then go play a show. And my body doesn't always thank me for it, but my mind does. And I love it. I love being proactive in multiple aspects of my career.

But you have to know that it requires time management and knowing how that trickles down into all of the other things that we associate with mental wellness, right? Time for yourself, time for your family, time to eat, time to sleep, time to work out, time to zone out. So I think it all stems from time management.

44:59 Tony
I want to put neon lights around the fact that what I heard is that you schedule everything. But I think something that can often get overlooked is that buffer time, or the downtime. That people sometimes fail to include that, or the travel time, whatever it might be.

45:14 Eli
I agree. I think it really took a big hit when we all went online during pandemic times. But we also, I love the utilization of tools like this, where we have Zoom, and we can have meetings over our computers. I think it's fantastic. It enables me to reach more people, it enables me to take on more work. So all of that is a recipe for success.

But knowing what you need to sustain that energy doesn't really change.

45:44 Tony
And I want to ask you a hard question. I know that you mentioned it earlier, but you are a proud artist: multifaceted dual career individual. But you're also a proud husband to Melody and proud dad to Maggie.

So for anyone who is listening, that is a parent, maybe a single parent, or future parent, what are ways that you bridge those commitments to both your work and also your family?

46:09 Eli
That's a very personal question. I don't want to give you a non answer. But I think the best way I can respond to that is that I try my best to listen to my family when they're telling me what they need. And know that there's no way to rest on principle of what you've done before.

My daughter's growing, as kids do. I hate it. But you know, as she gets older and her needs change, that's going to make my wife's needs change. That's gonna make my needs change. And I think it's just always… gosh, it is a very difficult question to answer because I also don't want to project anything about my experience onto anybody else's.

Because I'm not a single parent, and I have an unbelievable amount of respect for those who are. I'm, you know, I have about 8 years experience doing this, but my experience is drastically different because of my daughter's special needs.

I think the most important thing to remember, rather than just saying like, what advice do I have, what do I do that other people should do? Or what I would impart, I think the most important thing to remember, for me anyways, that I always have to remind myself of, because I also mentioned that I love being busy.

Not showing up is not an answer. Not showing up is not an option, you have to be present for your family. Just working your tail off to provide them financial stability, or to make them proud, or you know, satisfy some other personal expectations so that you can put that show on your resume, or put that designation on your business card, that's not for your family. You might think it is, it's just me talking to myself, I might think it is, I might think, “Wow! I'll be in such a better position for my family if I have one more Broadway show on my resume.”

Not in the moment! It goes back to what we were saying about my most valuable asset is my time. It's my time, my time is my family's time too. And that's what makes it so valuable. That's what makes it so special. So just always reminding myself that the best way to be there for my family is just to show up, everything else will figure itself out.

48:15 Tony
I like it, you are investing your time with the family, which is beautiful.

48:21 Eli

48:22 Tony
To wrap us out, because unfortunately, we are out of time, but people can contact you if they want to connect more. But I actually want you to take your time with this and kind of remember back. Place yourself in a younger version of you, when you were feeling like you were the struggling artist. You don't know what you know now. You don't have the life and business experience. So if you could whisper in your own ear at that moment of just like, things not quite going right. What kind of inspiration would you want to hear?

48:55 Eli
There's no such thing as a quick fix. So be patient, and be focused. And be curious. Because a lot of the harder times that I experienced were perpetuated because I was judging myself. I was judging the fact that I was waiting tables. I was judging the fact that I only served one Broadway show in two years. I was judging the fact that they didn't want a theatre guy. So I was basically just you know, saddling up for a healthy bowl of poison every single day at breakfast.

The thing I needed to hear during those times was just be curious. Start asking more questions. If you're in a rough patch, if you're having a tough time, find the resources that want to hear your questions. I mean, sometimes they are the mentors or the people that are close to us that are there for comfort, which is important, but narrow down what it is is really making you stressed, to what is really making you uncomfortable or scared right now.

Nail it down to a topic, find somebody with experience in that topic who's ready to hear your questions, and be diligent about getting those questions answered in a way that will be productive. Not wholesale answers; there is no quick fix. But I would have loved, loved to have met me, now, in 2016 when Maggie was diagnosed.

Because I would not have told me, “It's all going to be okay.” I would not have told me, “The fact that you haven't put any money away for retirement yet isn't gonna sink you.” What I would have told me is “You're in for a really challenging time. Let's talk about information that will benefit you as you start to make those critical decisions for your family. And let's talk about what you can do to protect what you've got. That way you know that your ship, while it is taking a detour, will not sink.”

Because that's what ended up happening. But to have heard that at the time, Tony, the number of hours I would have slept better would astound you. So that's what I think I would have loved to have heard during the tougher times. And as I'm saying it right now, when times are thankfully, pretty good for me. I like hearing it again.

51:25 Tony
Thank you, Eli, and congratulations on your incredible growth. And thank you for joining us.

Now I tried to highlight things that stood out to me within the episode, but I do want to hear from you. If you have something to share, if you want to ask us questions, take a screenshot and tag Eli Zoller and Tony Howell. I promise we'll get back to you.

Check out the episode description because you will find a special bonus link with exclusive content including some fun behind-the-scenes photos, the free class that we talked about, special recordings from Eli, as well as his direct contact information.

Now before you go, I need you to do me a small favor. Please just go ahead and take a few extra seconds to find the other link below which is RateThisPodcast.com/tonyhowell. That will help you leave a rating and review on our show and help other changemakers to find things.

While you're there, make sure that you subscribe or check out our past episodes because there's a lot more where this comes from.

Thank you so much for tuning in. Now I ask you to go out there and use your work to change the world. I hope you and I get to have a conversation about that very soon.

In this month’s episode of Conversations with Changemakers, we speak with Eli Zoller, a comprehensive financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual Madison Avenue.

Eli’s dedicated his practice to being a resource to the artists, independent contractors, and entrepreneurs in the Broadway community. As a working music director, musician, orchestrator, arranger, educator, as well as husband and father, I wanted to have Eli on to expand on the idea of being a healthy CEO, particularly in managing your time and money.

Click here to access bonus resources from this episode.

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If you enjoyed this episode, please visit RateThisPodcast.com/tonyhowell. Be sure to check out our past conversations and subscribe for next month’s special guest!

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