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Getting Good Advice – Millionaire on the Prairie

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When it comes to your money, you want to get good advice. The problem is that it’s very hard to know if you’re getting good advice, or whether you’re being scammed.

For my part, I’ve built my portfolio by myself and I started when I was a young adult. All told, it took me more than 25 years before I went to see a fee-only financial planner. He took my information – he crunched my numbers – he told me that I could retire 2 years earlier than I’d planned. His fee was worth every penny!

Bank Advisors

Reader of Long Association know that I’m not terribly fond of banks. I hate paying bank fees. For the most part, I think lines of credit are poisonous. Debt is not something I encourage people to have. If you take away debt & fees, banks have precious little to offer their clients. My impression of bank advisors is similarly dim.

Banks offer mutual funds to their clients. However, the bank’s offerings are generally more costly than what can be purchased elsewhere. Advisors from Bank A will sell you mutual funds with management expense ratios of 1%-2%. They will not tell you about nearly identical products that can be purchased for 0.35% or less, i.e. exchange traded funds (ETFs).

The advisors who work for banks are not bad people, necessarily. They’s simply employees. Part of their job is to sell their employers’ products to the bank’s customers. They are trained and are knowledgeable about financial products. However, the terms of their employment are such that they will never advise customer to check out the competition’s investment products. Advisors working for banks will never encourage customers – you – to go and see if the same product can be obtained for a lower price. This is just a simply fact. Advisors at Bank A receive their paycheques from Bank A, not from you. Since you’re not paying them, the advisors’ interests are more aligned with their employer than with yours.

I went to a Bank near the start of my investment journey. It was a less than great experience.

Was I getting good advice? No.

Did the bank charge me a high management expense ratio? Yes.

As I learned better, I did better. Time to move on.

Investment Companies

After my experience with buying mutual funds from the Bank in my early twenties, I decided to invest with one particular investment company. They had a slick marketing folder, an office in the mall near my job downtown, and I liked their website. What other criteria could I have possibly needed to choose an investment company?

I have no idea if that company is still around. What I do remember is that they charged atleast 1% for their mutual funds. The management expense ratios (MERs) were the same as, or a touch lower than, the Bank’s.

Was I getting good advice? No… but atleast more of my money was directed into my investments and not being paid out in MERs.

As time passed, I moved my money to a different investment company that had far lower MERs for their products. While this second company did not have an office in the mall, they did have a much better website and a wider array of products. (Throughout my whole investment journey, I never stopped reading about money and investing. As I learned more, I made better choices. Like they say – when you know better, you do better.)

I improved my portfolio mix by moving to the second investment company and I saved money on the MERs I was paying. Further, the second company was easily able to set up an automatic transfer from my chequing account to my investment account. Each time my paycheque landed in my bank account, the investment company would scoop out a portion of it to be added to my investment portfolio. This was a free service! Once I’d set it up, I never had to think about it again. I could go about my daily life knowing that my money was being investing for the Care and Feeding of Future Blue Lobster. All was well… for a time.

Bear in mind that I never stopped learning. I continued to read more books from the library and I delved into online articles about money & investing. That’s how I came to learn about ETFs and index funds, investment products that mirrored mutual funds for a much lower price. In other words, I could re-create the same portfolio by replacing expensive mutual funds with cheaper ETFs and pay even lower MERs. Eventually, I had to accept the fact that my second investment company’s MERs were too high when I could get the nearly-identical portfolio elsewhere for less money. Though I really enjoyed the convenience of my second investment company, that convenience wasn’t worth paying higher MERs. Whatever wasn’t diverted to paying MERs would instead be invested for long-term growth. I realized that I could improve my returns by investing my money into ETFs so that’s why I did.

Self-Directed Learning and Investing

At some point in my investment journey, I had opened a self-directed brokerage. When it was time, I moved my portfolio from my second investment company to my brokerage account. In a few simple keystrokes, I sold the mutual fund products and bought ETFs from BlackRock (aka: iShares). Unlike my last investment company, this one did not make withdrawals from my bank account. I had to set up my own automatic transfer so that I could buy units every month. And since I was using my brokerage account, I had to pay a commission.

Big deal! The money I was saving on my MERs was more than sufficient to cover the monthly commission fee. My twin goals were being met: consistently investing every month and saving money on my MERs.

What could be better?

Vanguard Canada was better. By the time Vanguard came to Canada, my self-directed investment education had already led me to its US counterpart. I was ready for their Canadian arrival. Now, I didn’t sell anything from my BlackRock holdings. For the most part, I’m a buy-and-hold investor. The exceptions I can remember were moving from the Bank to the investment company, between my investment companies, and then from my last investment company to my brokerage account.

Instead of selling investments, I simply re-directed future investment dollars to Vanguard’s products instead of BlackRock’s. Again, Vanguard’s offerings were nearly identical to BlackRock’s and Vanguard’s cost less. There was no good reason to pay more money for the same damn thing.

My Fee-Only Advisor

Despite the pride I felt in building my investment portfolio, I wanted an objective review of what I had done. My goal was to retire early on a certain income. Despite my years of self-tutelage, I’d never discovered the formula that could give me a straight answer. Could I retire when I wanted? Or was I looking at another 15 years of work?

So after 25+ years of investing on my own, I went to a fee-only financial planner to get the answers to my questions…. The news was good. It was better good – it was great! He told me that I was on track and that I could retire two years earlier than I’d planned. Woohoo!

For the first time in my investing life, I was getting good advice. The financial planner pointed out a few weaknesses in my investment strategy. He offered me a tentative, new plan and explained how it could improve my returns going forward. However, he also assured me that I had done a very good job by myself and that my goals would be met whether I followed his suggestions or not.

When it comes to getting good advice, I’m a fan of fee-only financial planners. They work for the customer, who is you. They make recommendations, but they don’t sell investment products. That means that they don’t get a commission from someone else for making certain recommendations or pushing the investment-product-of-the-month. You’ll pay a fee for them to analyze your current situation and to create a plan whereby you will meet your financial goals. They will give you advice and it’s up to you whether to follow it.

Have I made mistakes? Yes – many mistakes. I didn’t get great advice to start. The only rule that I’ve always followed was to live below my means. (Even when I was stupid in 2008/2009 and stopped investing when the market crashed, I just piled up money in my savings account until it was “safe” to start investing again.) I saved and invested and switched my investments and kept learning-learning-learning … then more than 25 years later, I finally went to a professional advisor.

Getting good advice is worth the effort. It allows you to reach your goals faster and with less effort. Though I am self-taught, I have benefitted from many resources over the years. I’m confident that I have the knowledge to separate the good advice from the bad as I continue to fulfill my financial goals. You can do it too. Start today. Save – invest – learn – repeat. When you know better, you’ll do better. I promise.

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