What do you do when you’re eighty-two and run out of money? It’s a frightening thing to be looking down the barrel of an empty bank account. It’s worse when the decline in your funds was due to the actions of a financial adviser that you trusted.
Gerry had been relying on her adviser for a long time. She and her husband, John, were in their mid-sixties when John passed away unexpectedly almost twenty years ago. Gerry was heart broken. John was her life.
Their’s was a traditional relationship for their time. Gerry raised their four boys, while John managed his business and their money. When John passed, Gerry put her faith in the financial adviser John had used for years. She didn’t know anything about investments, nor did she care. John had provided well for her, so she didn’t worry about money.
Gerry lived her life, enjoying her friends and a bit of travel. Her financial adviser was busy doing his thing. She didn’t know what. When the financial crisis hit, she was concerned that her account value declined so much, but what could she do?
While the investment markets recovered, Gerry’s account did not. She saw what should have been enough money to last her life dwindle to an alarmingly low level. She finally asked me to have a look.
What I saw was shocking. Her account had declined to just enough to cover a few remaining years of expenses. What’s worse, the investments were all wrong for someone living on their savings, with little savings left.
All of her money was invested in less than a dozen stocks, mostly in the energy field. There was no diversification and no pool of conservatively invested money to cover her monthly withdrawals. Amid a strong stock market, her holdings steadily declined in value. Every month the adviser sold some of her holdings to generate the cash for her monthly expenses. Because the value of the stocks he sold was down, the sales were doing more and more damage to the viability of her portfolio.
I was shocked. I naively believed that nearly all advisers had their clients best interests at heart. I never thought I’d see investment management this egregiously bad. This guy was simply trying to generate commissions on Gerry’s account. His behavior was serving no one but himself and was in fact illegal. His activity is known as prohibited conduct. In the financial services industry, investments must be prudent and suitable for the account owner.
Gerry didn’t want to take legal action, though she certainly had a very good case. She did sell her holdings to salvage what little money she had left. She’ll have to sell her beautiful house in the next year or so. She needs the equity to live on. Fortunately the equity will be enough for her to maintain her lifestyle for the rest of her life, but she’s devastated that she’ll have to leave her home that she loves so much.
You can’t just give your money to someone and assume they’ll do what’s right. While most financial advisers are good people, this story illustrates that it’s not true for all. Even an adviser with your best interests in mind, can’t know whether their strategy is still good for you unless you engage with them. Here are the things you should be discussing with your adviser on a regular basis:
- Update your financial information beyond the investments your adviser is managing. This should include total savings, total debt, and income.
- Reiterate or update your financial goals.
- Discuss whether you are saving enough, or if you’re closer to retirement, a plan for withdrawals that will help your money last and minimize your tax burden.
- Discuss how the investment strategy aligns with your goals, and how you can expect it to change over time.
- Ask to be educated on any concepts you don’t understand.
If your adviser isn’t willing to talk with you about these topics, find another one. Seriously consider someone with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. These professionals must demonstrate their skills before a governing board and practice for at least three years before they can use the designation. You can find CFP professionals in your area at letsmakeaplan.org or napfa.org.
Advisers gain a great deal of control over your savings. That can relieve you of making decisions you’re neither qualified nor comfortable in making. But you can’t just walk away. Review your monthly statements to make sure your adviser is doing what she said she would. And to make sure she is working toward the same goals as you, demand a detailed discussion with her at least annually.
For a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to building your own financial plan, pick up my book, Save Yourself; Your Guide to Saving for Retirement and Building Financial Security. It is now available on Amazon.