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Nov. 23, 2020, 3:35 p.m. EST

Skip these ‘free’ sources of financial advice — they will cost you dearly

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By CD Moriarty

Free is great marketing — four letters attracting more attention and selling more products than any other words.  But free is not a great source of solid financial information.  Free in the financial world is fraught with problems.

Be aware that these sources of free advice have a limited perspective:

Your own assumptions. “We always thought….”  And “I believed…” are dangerous financial perceptions, often demonstrating a person who does not know what they don’t know.

Any time you sign or co-sign a loan you are responsible for its repayment. A business professional confided in me, “I never knew my daughters’ college loans would show up on my credit report.”  As a result of misunderstanding, she had to delay expanding her business because she couldn’t get the loan she needed.

Marriage is a legal contract as much as a love promise.  However, marriage does not automatically provide legal documents for health care, financial power of attorney and wills.

One happily married couple erroneously believed all their assets would pass to the other.  Because they each had children from previous marriages, this was not the case. Instead, state law determined where the assets went after one died because they didn’t have wills.

Read: Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones

Rules change, and hearsay and our belief systems get in the way.  Determine today’s facts. Verify your assumptions.

A salesperson with a vested interest. Many investment professionals make their money through commissions or as a percentage of your assets that they manage. There are professionals who do a good job for you no matter how they charge.  However, there are others that care more for their pocketbook than yours.

Beware when anyone tells you that “these investments are a sure thing” or investment advisers that claim “I can make you more money in the stock market than what you have now.“ They may want you to move your pension money or invest through them. Then they will collect 1% of your money or more each year as a management fee. They cannot guarantee to make you more money.  No one can, especially in the short term. 

One new client  told me she did not want to pay money for financial advice.  After all, she had already gotten it for free from a “very nice helpful gentleman.”  Then she showed me the annuity she had bought through him.  The commission?  Well over $10,000.  Because she did not hand him a check, she thought it was free.

Friends with time on their hands may be spending retirement learning personal finance tips at free seminars that include lunch. People of a certain age in every state, including in sparsely population Vermont, receive these invites.  More than likely, an investment firm bought your name from a mailing list.  They want to sell you investments or an annuity.

If you are so compelled and strong enough to say “no” to whatever is being offered, by all means, go and learn something.  Otherwise, spend some money paying for your own lunch. You will most likely save a lot of money on commissions, unnecessary fees and that “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Read: My grandson says my financial adviser is steering me wrong and double-charging me

Well-meaning family and friends. They don’t know your whole personal financial situation or needs. Why? Because over decades of my experience no two clients were exactly alike. Their situations and assets all  had detailed nuances.  Any opinion offered from personal experience without knowing the whole situation may create a problem in the future. 

Once relative learned that “you can give $15,000 a year away to individuals tax-free” — which is true.  She was encouraging her mother to do this so Medicaid could pay her bills.  Had my client done this and not asked me first, this elderly woman would have been financially vulnerable and unable to qualify for Medicaid when she needed it. 

Medicaid has a look-back rule on where your assets went; it’s five years in most states.  The advice the daughter had gotten applied to her situation, not her mother’s.

Don’t underestimate the bad information out there — from newsletters, from “experts” on the internet and television. They are there to do a job, and taking care of your overall personal situation is not it.

The power of example. My father (or aunt or friend) did it and it worked for them. The world is a changed place, and so are tax rules and investment possibilities.  What worked in the past may or may not work for the future.  The bottom line is what is best for you today.   

In my father’s day, there was only one type of mortgage (fixed rate), two types of life insurance (whole and term), and IRAs did not become an option until I was a teenager and he was close to retirement. Times have changed and options abound.

One 50-year-old client held on to her $5,000 whole-life insurance policy that cost $180 a year.  She did not want to make a change because her dad said this was a good policy to have when he gave it to her at age 21.  She could have gotten a $100,000 term life policy for a few dollars more a year. 

Sure, use dear old Dad or Aunt Suzy’s way as a guide.  But apply today’s rules, regulations and your personal goals as an overlay to find the best decision for you.

Columns like these address many concerns but they should not be your exclusive source of information.  That’s why I urge you to get personalized advice. Ask questions and understand your situation.  Make decisions based on what you (and your partner) need. Understand all the implications of each decision. 

Be sure your financial decisions are made based on your whole financial picture with objective advice. Leave “free” to the marketing world.

CD Moriarty, CFP, is a columnist for MarketWatch and a personal-finance speaker, writer and coach. She blogs at MoneyPeace. You can ask questions that may be published by clicking here

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