The Best Advice Is Be Careful About Where You Get Your Advice

In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Robert Brokamp and Alison Southwick talk to special guest,New York Times reporter John Schwartz. Like many of us, the money decisions he made through the first few decades of his career were not the very best, but in his mid-50s, he made a concerted effort to get back on track, which he chronicled in his new book, This is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order. And because it’s far less painful to learn from other people’s mistakes, the Fools brought him in to discuss five lessons that they took away from his tale of fiscal woe and redemption.

In this segment, we combine two on the subject of consulting with experts. In those rare situations that you need a lawyer, start by picking one who’s an expert in your problem. But when you need a financial advisor to guide you to the right investment vehicle, there are qualities that may matter more than expertise.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on May 8, 2018.

Robert Brokamp: This brings us to Lesson No. 3, which you already touched on. That’s to get the right advice, and there are various aspects of this.

First of all, you did find a lawyer that was able to give you some good advice, even though other people were hinting that you should possibly declare bankruptcy. In the end, you found some other solutions.

John Schwartz: That’s right. The thing that comes immediately to mind is that when you’ve got crushing debt and this sort of money drain of this New York apartment, people will say, “Well, you’ve got to file for bankruptcy.” I mean, relatives who are lawyers said it was time to file for bankruptcy. But when it came time to find an expert to help us through it, and you go to an actual bankruptcy expert, you might get different advice, and we did.

I found a guy who was terrific. He said, “You described your financials to me. You aren’t a candidate for bankruptcy. You only have one big problem. Your income is decent. Your debt load, aside from this, is pretty low. You have one problem, and the way you get rid of that problem is through default and foreclosure. You now need to give up the apartment.” He walked me through what I would have to do, and I did it, and I felt like the biggest failure in the world.

Brokamp: Right.

Schwartz: So that’s a good outcome.

Brokamp: But you did get out from under that, so that’s good.

Schwartz: It is.

Brokamp: Another situation in which you didn’t get great advice was the advisor who sold you an annuity as a way to save for college.

Schwartz: Yes. He was a guy who showed up at work. He gave a presentation. He sounded smart. We said, “Well, let’s go talk to him.” We had no idea how to save for college. We figured experts know things. The guy was smart, but he didn’t sell us the savings plan that would be right for us. He had a complex annuity setup and said, “This will pay the interest. You’ll be able to pay it down. This will come every month.”

My wife just said, “Why are we doing this if we’re just going to pay the money?” When it came time for my daughter to go to college, she cashed the things in and paid for tuition with them, because they weren’t appreciating in value in the way that the guy said they would, and what’s worse is they didn’t offer us any of the supposed advantages that they would offer. He had said that because of the way these things were structured, they wouldn’t show up on your financial aid forms, which is not quite fraud.

As a matter of fact, everything we had did show up on the financial aid forms unless we wanted to commit fraud, and in some specific areas with some specific schools, you could put it aside over here as a different investment vehicle. In fact, it did nothing of the good it was supposed to do for us and the only person it really did a lot of good for was the guy who got the fees.

Brokamp: Right. Just to make it clear for listeners. Any type of life insurance or annuity is not a good way to save for college. In your book you talk to various types of financial professionals [a traditional broker, someone at Vanguard, a fee-only planner with the Garrett Planning Network]. Generally speaking, where do you come down on that? If someone wants financial advice, where do you think they should turn first?

Schwartz: I got real religion on the idea that you want to try to separate yourself from somebody else’s conflict of interest to the greatest extent possible. It doesn’t mean that every broker is bad — some of them are terrific — but my preference is now go to the people who start out with a fiduciary duty to you and who are obligated by the terms of their employment to put your needs first.

I came down on hourly rate, fee-only financial planners because for many people you come up with specific problems. If you can formulate the question, they can provide the answers and work with you, and you don’t need somebody telling you how to churn your portfolio every two months. And there’s that sort of lunch visit in the book with one of these people, and he was terrific.

So, if you are going to go with a broker, I also recommend that you ask many questions and be as tough in finding that person as you would be in finding a car. I mean, we ask all sorts of tough questions as consumers in all sorts of areas of our lives, but because there’s this person sitting across from us, we might chicken out. This is not a time to chicken out. This is your money.

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