My Mentor

Ben Rodriguez

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, my father-in-law was diagnosed with a blood cancer—multiple myeloma—and given five years to live. Ever since, he’s been battling it like a warrior. But he’s dying now, and he won’t be around much longer.

My father-in-law grew up without money to Depression-era parents. He earned his way into a prestigious college, and eventually received a PhD in chemical engineering. He had an impressive career as an engineer with a large chemical company in the Midwest. He was an internationally recognized expert in his field.

Like most engineers, he was a tinkerer. He liked to figure out how things worked. As a do-it-yourself investor, he did well in the stock markets of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. He retired early, with a paid-off house and a handsome nest egg. And that was after putting two kids through college, including my future wife.

As for me, I was born to be wealthy. But by some galactic mistake, my family had little money, but—thankfully—a strong work ethic. I went to college by borrowing the full amount for tuition, room and board. After graduating, I had little desire to repay my loans. I also discovered that all the good political scientist jobs had already been taken. I decided the only sensible thing to do was to go to law school—and borrow twice as much for that degree.

I knew very little about money when I landed my first job as a lawyer. My impression of finance was that it was a complicated subject best left to the experts. I never dreamed of becoming a do-it-yourself investor.

I started investing in my firm’s 401(k) plan at age 27. That happened to be when the market peaked just before the Great Recession. Two years later, the market had bottomed out. By then I had moved to another firm, and was investing modest sums in that firm’s 401(k).

I’m sure I’d heard of a Roth IRA, but had no actual idea what it was, let alone how or why to invest in one. In 2009, just as the financial world was reeling from the market crash, my father-in-law suggested that I roll my old 401(k) into a Roth IRA. That way, I’d pay the conversion tax bill while in a low bracket, because I was still early in my career.

He encouraged me to open an account at Vanguard Group and invest in its Small-Cap Index Fund (symbol: VSMAX). Little did I know that my adventure in personal finance had just begun.

On visits to the in-laws’ house, the reading material consisted of The Wall Street Journal, especially the weekend editions. Discussions often turned to personal finance, including investing ideas and themes. As with most things, when you become interested in a topic, you end up learning a lot.

Reading the Journal led me to online articles. Which led to books and blogs on finance, and eventually hours per week of podcasts. Soon enough, I was reading John Bogle and Burton Malkiel. I formed the belief that, generally speaking, broad market index funds were the way to go.

My father-in-law, always the tinkerer and maverick, had more of a flair for actively managed funds. He’d certainly earned the right to select his own investments. You can’t argue with success. Over the years, we’d trade articles and ideas. He’d quietly cheer on my wife and me as we hit milestones in our own financial journey.

Looking back, I’m surprised at how far I’ve come in my knowledge of personal finance. It’s not a very difficult topic to learn. Yet many people find it daunting, and I was one of them. I was fortunate to have encouragement from a mentor, one who had made his own way in the world. He approached every topic as one that, with enough effort, he could master.

I certainly learned a lot from my father-in-law over the years, but I’ll always think of personal finance as the one thing we really bonded over. I don’t think I’d ever have learned to love it without his influence.

After someone is gone, it’s nice to share with others what that person meant to you. But it’s even better to do so while he or she is still alive.

I hope they have The Wall Street Journal in Heaven. If they do, please save the weekend business section for me for when I get there.

Licensed in both Ohio and Kentucky, Ben Rodriguez practices real estate law in Cincinnati, where he lives with his wife and daughters. Since 2009, Ben’s made a hobby out of personal finance by reading books and articles on the subject, and also listening to podcasts. Check out his earlier articles.

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