I will start this by stating there are some great financial planners out there. But there are also those who pay more attention to their interests than yours. And you know what? There aren’t always laws that require them to act in your best interest. Let me give you two personal examples of times when brokers acted in their interest when advising me on investments.
Example 1: Advisor Recommends High Commission Funds
When I joined the military in 1999 and had my first steady paycheck, I knew I wanted to invest. I just didn’t know anything about it. I had heard of an IRA, mutual funds, front loads, back loads, etc., but that was the extent of my knowledge. I talked with some of my friends and coworkers; however, few were investing at the time. This was also before the military had the TSP (Thrift Savings Plan, Government version of a 401k) as an option.
I went to a financial planner my friend recommended, and the advisor had me fill out a questionnaire that included my income, what I wanted to save for, future goals, etc. So far so good. In fact, he was very nice and helpful. When we went over my list, he recommended I open a Roth IRA, and he helped me fill out the paperwork to convert my Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA to the fund I was purchasing through him. (I didn’t have any tax implications because I hadn’t yet filed taxes for that year, and my income was below the Roth IRA limit.)
So what was my problem with the ordeal? Well, I signed up for a mutual fund through him, which was a large cap fund through Fidelity. I had heard of Fidelity and knew of their great reputation, so that was cool. I also knew fees would be involved because you can’t invest entirely for free. Not even through index funds.
What I didn’t know was how expensive investing could be. I paid a $1,000 front load to agree to a 15 year investment plan to purchase the Fidelity fund (I could get out of the plan at any time without any fees, but the $1,000 was non-refundable). He sold me on the idea of a front load by telling me to think about the $1,000 being extended over 15 years, so it was not a big deal.
It wasn’t until I learned much more about investing that I learned I was taken advantage of. I didn’t pay that $1,000 to Fidelity; I paid it to him. I also still had to pay the normal fees to Fidelity. After learning more about funds and investing, I realized I was paying over 1.6% annual fees for a fund that was more or less mimicking the S&P 500. So I transferred the entire fund to Vanguard’s S&P 500 Index fund where I paid 0.18% annual fees (the fund is currently at 0.17%). That’s almost 1/10th the fees for similar performance – and no load!
That was an expensive lesson that cost me a lot of money. Thankfully, I caught on before I caused myself too much long term damage.
Example 2: Advisor Expected me to Blindly Follow Advice
A few years after I moved my IRA to Vanguard, I decided I wanted to invest more money. This was in 2005, so it wasn’t very long ago. I had done some research and reading, was maxing out my Roth IRA, and had started a small allotment into the TSP. I went into a well known and respected brokerage firm (I will abstain from naming the firm because I believe my experience may be isolated to this particular broker, and I do not want to influence anyone’s decision to invest with this firm).
I set up a meeting with the broker and went over some of the same things as before – my earnings, current investments, future goals, etc. I told him I was maxing out my Roth IRA, investing in a tax deferred retirement plan, looking to diversify into a non-retirement investment, and I was seeking advice. (At this point I had progressed beyond just an S&P 500 index fund, but I still love index funds and their LOW fees!)
What was this broker’s advice? After listening to me talk for all of 5 minutes about my goals, how I was currently invested, how much I put away every month, etc., he pulled out a one page mini-prospectus (minus some key fund information) and told me this was his recommendation. “It was the best fund out there, it was great and would be the only thing I needed to own, yada-yada.” He also offered to have me transfer all of my other investments into a portfolio managed by him.
After approximately 1 minute he said, “So, it’s settled then. On your way out, why don’t you leave a voided check with my receptionist and we’ll set you up on an automatic monthly investment starting next week.”
He didn’t give me time to research the fund, think about how it met my goals, etc. It was a ‘one size fits all’ approach. No thanks!
I told him I would think about it and stood to leave. He handed me a stack of his business cards and asked me to hand them out to friends on base. (I’m sure he saw $$$$ signs everywhere!) Nope! I threw those cards in the trash as soon as I left!
I later looked up the fund and it had a 2.1% fee! That’s insane! Especially since it was basically a large cap index fund! I’m sure it also came equipped with a fat commission.
What I gained from this: A lot. I learned how to invest for myself. I researched investing. I read books, magazine articles, websites, etc. I talked to people with experience. But most importantly, I kept investing and continue to invest today.
With everything I learned, I steered many junior enlisted military members and good friends toward investing. I always made it a point to give them information and resources; I never told them how or where to invest their money. Many of them have thanked me for getting them started.
Yeah, it sucks that I gave away $1,000 for a BS load fee. In the end, I think it drove me to learn more about how investing works and how I need to do more learning and researching before jumping in. And if one person reads this post and doesn’t make the same mistakes I made, then I guess I’ve done some good 🙂
Be sure to research your brokers. Know your personal investment plan. And most importantly, understand how your investments work!