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The Fierce Girl's Guide to Finance

Get your shit together with money

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April 2018

If financial planners are greedy, dishonest or stupid, who should we trust?

That’s a big call, I know. But it’s what the Royal Commission (RC) into financial services seems to be suggesting.

Not all financial planners, just the ones who’ve been blowtorched by bad-arse special counsel Rowena Orr, affectionately  nicknamed ‘Shock-and-Orr’ by the media. (Pictured above, showing  strong side-eye game).

I’ve been following the RC  closely this week. Partly for professional interest and partly because it’s car-crash viewing – i.e. hard to look away from the wreckage.

So far we’ve heard about greed and dishonesty at the top. AMP management all but confessed to charging fees for no service, then lying to the regulator about it. So far, the CEO and head lawyer have taken the fall, but there will be more, I suspect.

We’ve also heard about incompetence and greed at the frontlines.

An adviser who told a couple they could buy a property within their self-managed super fund, to live in. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of SMSFs knows you can’t do this: only investment properties can be placed into super. That couple ended up with no home of their own to live in.

There was another adviser who suggested his clients change super funds, even though they’d be slugged with a $16,000 exit fee – or a quarter of their (fairly meagre) savings. Because it would make him money.

Then there was a high-profile, TV-star adviser, who told a client to leave her super fund and join his firm’s. Even though it would cost her $500,000 to do so.

This was after his staff had impersonated the client to contact her super fund (which is absolutely not required, because you can easily give an adviser authority to call on your behalf).

Turns out he was confused about whether his client was in a ‘deferred benefit’ fund or a ‘defined benefit’ fund. Those two things are in no way similar; it’s like saying you’d like a pinot noir and being serve a pinot gris. When a girl wants red wine, she does not like getting white.

Luckily, this client is a smart and savvy lawyer, so she picked up the error, rejected the advice and complained to his professional body. In the planner’s response, he called her ‘nitpicky’ and ‘aggressive’.

I don’t know about you, but if I’d picked up a $500K error in advice I’d just been charged several thousand dollars for, I’d feel a little aggressive.

And if knowing the difference between ‘defined’ and ‘deferred’ is nitpicky, then sure, sign me up for pedant of the year.

These are just some examples of the train-wreck that is the Royal Commission. And while there is some schadenfreude in watching it, mostly, it just hurts my heart.

It hurts because these are everyday people who have done the right thing and sought professional advice about something important. Then been totally screwed over for it.

It hurts because, for every dodgy and stupid and incompetent planner, there are many more who care deeply about their clients and give solid advice that’s in their client’s best interests.

But sadly, it’s hard to sort the good from the bad.

When you get a bad hairdresser, you know straight away. Your partner will no doubt declare the shitness of your new ‘do as soon as you walk in the door. Ah well, six weeks and you can move on.

But bad financial advice can take a long time to emerge and even longer to fix. In fact, many of the people affected by bad advice don’t even know it yet. Seriously, AMP admitted that they haven’t quite got around to telling a bunch of clients that their adviser is a chump who’s cost them money.

I’m at a loss to know what to make of it all. How can I sit here and tell all my Fierce Girls to get professional advice? What if you end up with one of the spivs who send you off in the wrong direction?

What if you get sold crap products and solutions just because it puts money in the pocket of the adviser and their company?

You can look for recommendations from family and friends, but what if they have also been given bad advice and just don’t know yet?

I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions. It’s mindblowing to me just how devastating the RC’s findings have been. From the Prime Minister through to the average woman on the street, we are all left shaking our heads at the breathtaking combination of greed and stupidity that appears to infect the financial planning industry – or perhaps the finance sector more broadly.

Take charge of your own money

The only advice I can offer in light of these revelations is this: you can make plenty of good decisions about your money without financial advice.

The first thing to do is get a handle on your spending. Good money management is the biggest challenge for most people; working out how to invest comes later on.

So before you do anything, check out my take on Guilt-free spending and how to wrangle your bank accounts into order.

Beyond that, financial advisers mostly help you in three areas: personal insurance, investments and superannuation. Here are some DIY ways to improve them.

Insurance – You normally get insurance through your super fund without even asking – mostly it’s just death cover and TPD (read this post for more detail). Call them up, check how much you’re covered for, talk to them about whether it’s too much or not enough. Most funds are allowed to provide this ‘limited advice’ as part of your membership. And you should definitely look at adding income protection if you don’t have it already.

Investments – Knowing where to invest your surplus savings is a good problem to have. However, many of us could do great things just by paying extra off our mortgage (and therefore saving thousands in interest over the life of the loan).

We could easily start small with an exchange-traded fund (read more here) or a micro-investing app (like Acorns, which this week rebranded itself to Raiz). Investing doesn’t have to be scary and complicated – and a bit of self-education goes a long way.

Super – With the RC findings ringing in our ears, I’m gonna make a call: a big-bank super fund may not be the best option. I’ve worked with lots of super funds over the years (as clients) and have found that industry funds and values-driven funds (like Australian Ethical) really do approach things with one purpose in mind: their members.

If you’re already in a bank fund, I’m not saying you need to bail out of it. But if you want to roll all your super into one fund (which you totally should, to cut out duplicate fees and insurance premiums), pick one that aligns with your values.

And consider putting a bit extra into super, as it’s a good way to cut your tax bill and keep money aside for the future.

Another thing you can do is speak to your fund about which investment option is best for you. Again, this advice is often part of your membership, so it’s worth seeing if your risk profile is right for your age and situation.

In some cases, the ‘default’ option they put you into is one-size-fits-all. And as anyone who has been entangled in a cheap, Chinese-made ‘one-size’ top in a change room can attest, one-size does not actually fit all.

Take charge

To sum up, I would reiterate what I say on here all the time: you are responsible for your money. Educate yourself. Pick up the Barefoot Investor. Read http://www.financy.com.au or the Money section of the newspaper. Get engaged and involved. The more you know, the more control you have.

Four things rich people do … that you can too

There’s a section in my favourite gossip mag, ‘Celebs – they’re just like us’, where photos like Reese Witherspoon hauling groceries to her car make us feel good – as though there’s not much separating our humble lives from theirs.

Well, I’d like to propose a column called ‘Rich people – they’re just like us. Except not really’.

My career has thrown me in the path of many rich people (who, curiously, don’t call themselves rich most of the time).

They are like us in that they struggle with personal relationships, self-esteem and whether to eat dessert or avoid the calories.

But they are unlike us when it comes to money. I’ve noticed a few things that they have in common with each other, and it might help you too.

Like another favourite section of the gossip mags, here’s my version of ‘Rich People: steal their style’.

1. They spend money to make money

Wealthy people have wealth managers. It might be a financial adviser or private banker (probably both). They have an accountant to minimise their tax, a lawyer to set up trusts, and then they pay fund managers to invest their money. And they’ll pay a lot for these services, if they see value.

The reason for having a coterie of advisers is that each one has specialist skills to maximise return and minimise risk.

Key take-out for you? Don’t be afraid to invest in professional advice. A good financial adviser could make a difference of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over your life.

A good accountant will make your tax and investments work harder for you (and likely give you a way better tax return).

Even a good career or business coach can make a difference to your earning potential and success. (Mine pushes me to be tougher than I naturally am)

2. They don’t avoid risk, they manage it

I get it: you work hard for your cash so you don’t want to risk it in investments you don’t understand. But shoving your cash in the bank will not build your wealth these days.

Most bank deposit rates barely keep ahead of inflation. For example, inflation is running at around 2%, you’re getting 3% interest, so in fact you’ve only made 1% on your money.

The key is to understand risk management. Diversification is key to that – having your eggs in a few baskets. Another is paying attention to the fine print, so you are only taking risks you understand.

Related to the first point above, good advisers will help you manage risk according to your timeframe and goals. And I’ve written a whole post about risk here – check it out!

The other thing rich people do is insure the hell out of everything. There’s a place called Lloyd’s of London that’s been around since the 1700s, where you can go and get insurance for anything from a giant container ship through to J-Lo’s butt (true story).

It’s a global institution, because insurance has been at the heart of the economy since men were wearing wigs in an un-ironic way.

Insurance is a crucial part of risk management, so if you haven’t seriously looked at your income protection and life insurance, now is the time. (Oh wait, here’s a handy guide I wrote!).

3. They are masters of debt, not slaves

There’s a concept called ‘productive debt’ (aka ‘good debt’), and it’s worth understanding. It’s the debt you take on in order to invest and make more money.

A home loan is the most common form of this debt. But there are also investment loans, such as a margin loan to buy shares. Business loans are also in this class – borrowing to build and grow a business is a big driver of our economy.

‘Unproductive’ or ‘bad’ debt is borrowing money to buy something that just costs you money – a car loan for example. The car you have at the end of the loan will be worth less than you paid for it. Credit cards generally fall into this category too.

I know, you may feel like the investment you made in an Urban Decay Nude II palette at Sephora is productive and will improve your life. But unless you’re an Instagram sensation, or land a millionaire husband who was lured by your perfect eyeshadow contouring, you will not make money out of it.

Good debt still has to be carefully managed, as there are risks associated with borrowing. For example, if the value of the asset you bought goes down, it can create issues. But when used well, leverage (as debt is also known) can magnify your gains.

I’m not saying all rich people use debt to build wealth.  I’m saying that many of them use debt strategically and with a goal in mind … not just because they can’t manage their cashflow in between paydays.

You can learn from these people by thinking about debt as a tool, not as a fallback for bad money habits.

4. They pay attention to their finances

One thing you learn in consulting is this: big clients paying $20K a month have zero shame in questioning a $25 taxi fare you’ve added to their invoice. The same goes for rich people. Just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they’re careless with money.

In fact, they are generally the opposite. They won’t begrudge spending $20 on a cocktail, but they will check their bill in a restaurant. They won’t mind spending thousands to pay an investment manager, but they will expect strong returns.

And they will ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. The more money they are going to hand over, the more questions they’ll ask.

You should do the same. Whether it’s a phone bill, a bank statement, a payslip or an investment statement, pay attention to the details. People and companies frequently get things wrong. Some will deliberately rip you off.  Get ahead of them.

And more broadly, take just as much interest in your finances as you do in the ASOS sale email or the finer points of make-up contouring.

Ultimately, nobody will ever care about your money as much as you, so you’re in the driver’s seat.

 

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