Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

3 Financial Products to Consider Avoiding


Red and white sign to avoid construction zone

Before buying ANY financial product make sure that this product is right for you in terms of your unique, personal financial situation.  Financial products are tools and just like your projects around the house you should use the right tool for the job, not the tool that the financial rep wants to sell to you.

Here are three financial products that you should consider avoiding.

Equity-Indexed Annuities 

Equity-Indexed Annuities are an insurance-based product where the returns are tied to some portion of the performance of an underlying market index such as the S&P 500.  They are also called fixed-index insurance products and indexed annuities. Your gains are limited to a portion of what the index gains and there is generally some sort of minimum return to limit (or eliminate) your risk of loss.  As you can imagine these were pitched heavily to Baby Boomers and retirees after the last market downturn and are still being sold based upon fear today.

Two problems here are generally high internal expenses and surrender charges that keep you locked in the product for years. Worse yet, these internal expenses can be hard to isolate. If you decide to go ahead with the purchase of an Equity-Indexed Annuity be sure that you understand all of the details including the level of index participation, expenses, surrender charges, and the health of the underlying insurance company. Check out FINRA’s Investor Alert regarding Equity-Indexed Annuities for more cautionary information.

Proprietary Mutual Funds

It is not uncommon for registered reps and brokers to suggest mutual funds from the family run by their employer. In many cases they are incentivized or even required to do so. While some of these funds are perfectly fine, all too often in my experience they are not.  Whether via high fees and/or low performance these are often investments to be avoided.

A lawsuit against Ameriprise Financial brought by a group of participants in the company’s retirement plan alleged the company breached its Fiduciary duty by offering a number of the firm’s own funds in the plan and that these funds then paid fees back to Ameriprise and some of its subsidiaries as revenue sharing. The suit was ultimately settled.

JP Morgan also settled a suit by some retail investors over the bank steering clients into their more expensive proprietary funds over those of other families.

Load Mutual Funds

It is important that you understand the ABCs of mutual fund share classes.  In the commissioned/fee-based world reps often sell mutual funds that offer compensation to them and to their broker-dealers.  A shares charge an up-front commission plus a trailing fee (often a 12b-1) of somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.25% or more.

B shares charge no up-front commissions, but carry an additional back-end load as part of the ongoing expense ratio.  This can amount to an addition 0.75% or more added to the fund’s annual expenses.  In addition these shares also contain a surrender charge that typically starts at 5% if your sell the fund before the end of the surrender period.  B shares have been largely phased out by most fund providers.

C shares typically have a permanent 1% level load added to the fund’s expense ratio and carry a one year surrender period.

These sales loads ultimately reduce the amount of your investment and are an expensive form of advice. Nobody expects financial advisors or any other professional to provide financial advice for free. Unless the person to whom you are paying these pricey loads is providing extraordinary advice, this is a very expensive way to go.

The DOL fiduciary rules

The fiduciary rules introduced by the DOL (Department of Labor) in April of 2016 impose a far greater level  of disclosure on financial advisors. The rules require financial advisors to act as fiduciaries when providing advice to clients on their retirement accounts such as IRAs.

The fiduciary rules require advisors to have their client sign a disclosure document for many financial products with sales charges and trailing commissions if used in a retirement account. Load mutual funds and proprietary mutual funds will most likely require a BICE (Best Interest Contract Exemption) disclosure. Additionally Equity-Indexed Annuities were not exempted from these disclosures in the final draft of the rules as they had been in earlier drafts.

It will remain to be seen how the fiduciary rules will impact these three products, both within retirement accounts and overall. As an example, broker Edward Jones recently announced that mutual funds and ETFs will no longer be offered to clients in retirement accounts where commissions are charged.

Before making any financial or investment decision review your specific situation. Consult a fee-only financial advisor if you feel that you need financial advice.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

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4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing


The past year has been volatile for investors. Between a dip in the markets last year, a shaky start to the current year and the Brexit vote in the U.K. it has been quite a roller coaster ride for investors. In spite of all of this, major market indexes stand at or near record levels. In the course of all of this, your portfolio may have strayed from your target allocation and it might be time to rebalance.  Here are 4 benefits of portfolio rebalancing.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

Balancing risk and reward

Asset allocation is about balancing risk and reward. Invariably some asset classes will perform better than others. This can cause your portfolio to be skewed towards an allocation that takes too much risk or too little risk based on your financial objectives.

During robust periods in the stock market equities will outperform asset classes such as fixed income. Perhaps your target allocation was 65% stocks and 35% bonds and cash. A stock market rally might leave your portfolio at 75% stocks and 25% fixed income and cash. This is great if the market continues to rise but you would likely see a more pronounced decline in your portfolio should the market experience a sharp correction.

Portfolio rebalancing enforces a level of discipline

Rebalancing imposes a level of discipline in terms of selling a portion of your winners and putting that money back into asset classes that have underperformed.

This may seem counter intuitive but market leadership rotates over time. During the first decade of this century emerging markets equities were often among the top performing asset classes. Fast forward to today and they coming off of several years of losses.

Rebalancing can help save investors from their own worst instincts. It is often tempting to let top performing holdings and asset classes run when the markets seem to keep going up. Investors heavy in large caps, especially those with heavy tech holdings, found out the risk of this approach when the Dot Com bubble burst in early 2000.

Ideally investors should have a written investment policy that outlines their target asset allocation with upper and lower percentage ranges. Violating these ranges should trigger a review for potential portfolio rebalancing.

A good reason to review your portfolio

When considering portfolio rebalancing investors should also incorporate a full review of their portfolio that includes a review of their individual holdings and the continued validity of their investment strategy. Some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Have individual stock holdings hit my growth target for that stock?
  • How do my mutual funds and ETFs stack up compared to their peers?
    • Relative performance?
    • Expense ratios?
    • Style consistency?
  • Have my mutual funds or ETFs experienced significant inflows or outflows of dollars?
  • Have there been any recent changes in the key personnel managing the fund?

These are some of the factors that financial advisors (hopefully) consider as they review client portfolios.

This type of review should be done at least annually and I generally suggest that investors review their allocation no more often than quarterly.

Helps you stay on track with your financial plan 

Investing success is not a goal unto itself but rather a tool to help ensure that you meet your financial goals and objectives. Regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a big proponent of having a financial plan in place.

A properly constructed financial plan will contain a target asset allocation and an investment strategy tied to your goals, your timeframe for the money and your risk tolerance. Periodic portfolio rebalancing is vital to maintaining an appropriate asset allocation that is in line with your financial plan.

The Bottom Line 

Regular portfolio rebalancing helps reduce downside investment risk and ensures that your investments are allocated in line with your financial plan. It also can help investors impose an important level of discipline on themselves.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

Reverse Churning Are You a Victim?


One of the best things about being a freelance financial writer and blogger is that I often learn new things in the course of my writing. A reader recently left a comment on a post here on the blog and mentioned reverse churning. Until that time, I had never heard this term, but after a bit of research its’s one more thing that clients of stock brokers and registered reps need to be aware of.


What is churning?

Investopedia defines churning as “Excessive trading by a broker in a client’s account largely to generate commissions. Churning is an illegal and unethical practice that violates SEC rules and securities laws.”

Churning conjures images such as the boiler room in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross (actually they sold real estate) or the iconic 2002 ad by Charles Schwab (SCHW) in which a brokerage house manager is depicted as telling the brokers, “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig” in reference to a sub-par stock he wants them to pitch to clients.

What is reverse churning?

A 2014 piece by Daisy Maxey in The Wall Street Journal describes reverse churning as follows:

“The Securities and Exchange Commission says the practice of so-called “reverse churning”–putting investors in accounts that pay a fixed fee but generate little or no activity to justify that fee–is on its radar. Regulators will be watching for signs of double-dipping by advisers who generate significant commissions within a client’s brokerage account, then move that client into an advisory account and collect additional fees.”

Evidently this occurs in brokerage accounts that at one point generated significant commissions for the broker from the purchase and sale of individual stocks or other commission generating transactions. If the activity in the account tails off the broker makes little or nothing from this client.

As a way to generate continual fees from this type of client the broker may suggest moving to a fee-based advisory account, often called a wrap account.

Under this arrangement there is an ongoing fee based upon the assets in the account plus often trailing commissions in the form of 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds usually offered in this type of account. These generally include proprietary mutual funds offered by the brokerage firm or at the very least costly actively managed funds in share classes geared to offering broker compensation.

Fee-based is not fee-only

Fee-based is often confused with fee-only. I suspect the brokerage industry likes it this way.

Fee-only compensation, which I wholeheartedly support, means that the financial advisor earns no compensation from the sale of financial products including trailing fees and commissions. Their fees come from their clients. These can be hourly, a flat-fee or as a percentage of the assets under management.

Fee-based compensation, also called fee and commission by some, is a mix of the two forms of advisor compensation. A common form of the fee-based model entails the client paying the advisor to do a financial plan and then if the client chooses to have the financial advisor implement their recommendations this will often be via the sale of commission-based products.

The version with fee-based advisory accounts associated with reverse churning by brokers and registered reps arose out of a 2007 rule that prohibits the charging of fees in brokerage accounts. Many broker-dealers have a registered investment advisor (RIA) arm which runs these accounts.

The fiduciary rule

The new fiduciary rules makes fee-based accounts more desirable for brokers and other fee-based advisors. These types of accounts will become even more prevalent with the disclosures required for retirement accounts under these new rules.

There has been a movement towards fee-based accounts in the brokerage world for several years now, likely in anticipation of the eventual issuance of these rules. This movement should accelerate in IRAs. In some cases, this will be a good thing as clients will fully know what they are paying in terms of fees.

In other cases, clients will find themselves paying 100 basis points or more in wrap fees for accounts where they were formerly trading infrequently on a commissioned basis. Whether the fee-based account will be a better deal will vary.

If all they are getting is an expensive managed account filled with bad to mediocre mutual funds that charge high fees on top of the wrap fee, this is not a good deal. If the advisor does little more than collect a fee, this sounds like the definition of reverse churning based on my understanding of the term. Much will depend upon the level and types of advice clients receive for the fees they will now be paying.

Buyer beware 

If you are working with a stock broker or registered rep and they propose moving to a fee-based or wrap account, you should take a hard look at what you are being offered. What is the wrap fee? What types of investments are used in the account? Are they expensive actively managed mutual funds that throw off 12b-1 fees in addition to wrap fees? What is the track record of the manager of the account that the advisor is proposing? What types of advice and service will you receive for the fees you will paying?

The Bottom Line 

I can’t recall hearing about a case of churning in recent years. Reverse churning is a new term to me, but from the perspective of a broker or registered rep fee-based advisory accounts make a ton of sense. They provide ongoing fee income and frankly require little attention from them. If your broker proposes a wrap account to you make sure you understand how this arrangement benefits you the client. Clients of brokers and fee-based advisors are likely to see more of these types of accounts proposed to them as the implementation of the new fiduciary rules nears.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes


Investing is at best a risky proposition and sometimes even the best investment ideas don’t work out. However avoiding these 9 mistakes can help improve your investing outcomes.

Avoid these 9 Investing Mistakes

Inability to take a loss and move on 

It’s difficult for many investors to sell an investment at a loss. Often they prefer to wait until the investment at least gets back to a break-even level. I think its part of our competitive nature. Investing is not a competitive sport, leave that for our Olympians.  When reviewing your investments ask yourself “Would I buy this holding today?” If the answer is no, it’s time to sell and invest the proceeds elsewhere.

Not selling winners

I’ve seen many investors over the years refuse to sell highly appreciated holdings, all or in part. There is always the risk that you’ll sell and the price will keep going up. But sometimes it’s best to protect your gains and sell while you’re ahead or at least consider selling a portion of the holding and reinvesting the proceeds elsewhere. The latter can be part of your portfolio rebalancing process.

Investing without a plan

When you take a road trip in your car you generally have a map to help you to get to your destination. Investing is a means to an end, a road map to achieve your goals such as providing a college education for your children or funding your retirement.

Without a financial plan how will you know how much you need to accumulate to achieve your goals?  How much risk should you take?  What types of returns do you need to shoot for? Are on track toward your goals?  Essentially investing without a plan is much like hopping in the car without any idea where you are headed. 

Trying to time the market

It’s difficult to predict when the market will rise and fall. Even if the stock market is following a general trend, there will be up and down trading days. Trying to buy and sell based on those daily fluctuations is difficult. While there are professional traders who do this for a living, for most of us this is a losing proposition.

Worrying too much about taxes

Taxes can consume a significant portion of your investment gains for holdings in a taxable account. While nobody wants to pay more tax than needed, in my opinion paying taxes on a gain is almost always better than dealing with an investment loss.

Not paying attention to your investments

Your portfolio needs to be evaluated and monitored on a periodic basis.  You should reevaluate a stock when the company changes management, when the company is acquired by or merges with another company, when a strong competitor enters the market, or when several top executives sell large blocks of stock.

This applies to mutual funds as well. Manager changes, a dramatic increase or decrease in assets under management or a deviation from its stated style should all be red flags that cause you to evaluate whether it may be time to sell the fund.

Failure to rebalance your holdings  

This goes hand in hand with having a financial plan. Ideally you have an investment policy for your portfolio that defines the percentage allocations of your investments by type and style (stocks, bonds, cash, large stocks, international stocks, etc.).  A typical investment policy will set a target percentage with upper and lower percentage ranges for each style. It is important that you look at your overall portfolio in terms of these percentages at least annually.

Different investment styles will perform differently at various times.  This can cause your portfolio to be out of balance. The idea behind rebalancing is to control risk. If stocks rally and your equity allocation has grown to 75% vs. your target of 60% your portfolio is now taking more risk than you had planned. Should stocks reverse course, you could be exposed to over-sized losses.

Assuming recent events will continue into the future  

The first 15 plus years of this century have been tough on investors. The market tumbled during the 2000-2002 time frame and then again in 2008-2009. More recently the stock market dropped steeply and suddenly in the wake of the Bexit vote in the U.K. These events have instilled fear into many investors. It’s hard to blame them.

However this fear and the assumption that recent events will continue into the future might also be keeping you from investing in the fashion needed to achieve your financial goals. Taking the events of recent years into account is healthy, however letting these events paralyze you can be destructive to your financial future. This holds true for stock market drops as well as protracted bull markets.

Building a collection of investments instead of a well-crafted portfolio

Are you investing with a plan or do you simply own a collection of investments?  Great football teams like my beloved Green Bay Packers have a better chance of winning when everyone embraces and executes their role in the game plan for that week.  In my experience you will increase your chances for investment success when all of the holdings in your portfolio fulfill their role as well.

Nothing guarantees investment success.  Avoiding these 9 investing mistakes as well as others can help you increase your odds of being a successful investor.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  

Brexit and Your Portfolio


As you are most likely aware, the U.K. voted to leave the European Union. The so-called Brexit vote was a surprise to many and caused a swift, severe and negative reaction in the world financial markets.


On Friday June 24, the S&P 500 lost about 3.6% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost about 3.4% of its value. There may be more pain in the days ahead, only time will tell.

As an individual investor what should you do when the stock market drops?

This isn’t new 

While the Brexit is a new issue, we’ve seen plenty of market disruptions before. The stock market crash of October 19, 1987 saw the market drop 22.61%. The correction following the Dot Com bust and 9/11 was severe as was the market decline in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. The markets recovered nicely in all cases and even with Friday’s declines the S&P 500 is about three times higher than it was at the depths of the market in March of 2009.

A good time to do nothing 

While everyone’s situation is different, the vast majority of investors would be wise to do nothing in the wake of these market declines. Panicking and withdrawing money from your accounts may feel good now, but you’ll likely regret it down the road.

Investors nearing retirement who sold their equity holdings near the depths of the financial crises in late 2008 or early 2009 realized large losses, then sat on the sidelines during some or all of the ensuing market recovery. Their retirement dreams are in shambles because they panicked.

Some strategies to consider 

Once the dust settles a bit, here are a few things you might consider:

Rebalancing your portfolio. Especially if the markets continue their downward trend for a few more days or weeks it is likely that your portfolio will become underweight in equities. This is a good time to rebalance back to your target asset allocation. Rebalancing forces a level of discipline on investors, in this case buying when equities have fallen.

Tax-loss selling. In the course of rebalancing and reviewing your portfolio, you may have some holdings in your taxable account that have dropped below their cost basis. Look to sell some of them to realize the loss. Be sure to understand the wash-sale rules if you intend to buy these holdings back. Above all ensure that any asset sales make good investment sense, as the saying goes “…don’t let the tax tail wag the investment dog…”

Recharacterize a Roth conversion. If you have converted traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA and the value of these converted dollars has fallen you are entitled to a do-over or recharacterization. You generally have until October 15 of the year following the year in which the conversion took place. The assets that are recharacterized cannot immediately be converted back to a Roth, there is generally at least a 30 day waiting period. In other words if you did a conversion in 2015 you would have until October 15, 2016 (or the latest tax filing date including extensions).

If the value of the assets that you converted has fallen appreciably, there can be significant tax savings to be realized here. These rules are complex so be sure that you know what you are doing or that you seek the advice of a knowledgeable tax or financial advisor.

The Bottom Line 

Event-driven market declines such as we’ve seen (and may continue to see) via the Brexit vote are often swift and severe in nature. For most investors the best course of action is no action. Once the dust has settled a bit review your portfolio and make adjustments and tweaks that make sense in a thoughtful, controlled fashion.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.  


The Bull Market Turns Seven Now What?


On March 9, 2009 the market downturn fueled by the financial crisis bottomed out as measured by the S&P 500 Index. On that day the index closed at 677. Yesterday, on the bull market’s seventh birthday, the index closed at 1,989 or an increase of about 194 percent. According to CNBC the Dow Jones Industrial Average has increased 160 percent and the NASDAQ 267 percent over this seven-year time frame.


With the bull market turning seven, now what? Here are some thoughts and ideas for investors.

How does this bull market stack up?

According to data from the most recent quarterly Guide to the Markets report from JP Morgan Asset Management, the average bull market following a bear market lasts for 53 months and results in a gain of 153%. By both measures this bull market is a long one.

Does this mean that investors should brace for an imminent market correction? Not necessarily but bull markets don’t last forever either.

There have been some speed bumps along the way, including 2011, a sharp decline in the third quarter of 2015 and of course the sharp declines we saw to start off 2016. Again this is not an indicator of anything about the future.

Winners and losers

A commentator on CNBC cited a couple of big winners in this bull market:

  • Netflix (NFLX) +1,667%
  • General Growth Properties (GGP) +9,964%

Additionally, Apple (APPL) closed at a split-adjusted $11.87 per share on March 9, 2009. It closed at $101.12 on March 9, 2016.

The CNBC commentator cited giant retailer Walmart (WMT) as a stock that has missed much of the bounce in this market, as their stock is up only 42% over this time period.

What should investors do now? 

None of us knows what the future will hold. The bull market may be getting long of tooth. There are factors such as potential actions by the Fed, China’s impact on our markets, the threat of terrorism and countless others that could impact the direction of the stock market. It seems there is always something to worry about in that regard.

That all said, my suggestions for investors are pretty much the same “boring” ones that I’ve been giving since I started this blog in 2009.

  • Control the factors that you can control. Your investment costs and your asset allocation are two of the biggest factors within your control.
  • Review and rebalance your portfolio This is a great way to ensure that your allocation and your level of risk stay on track.
  • When in doubt fall back on your financial plan. Review your progress against your plan periodically and, if warranted, adjust your portfolio accordingly.
  • Contribute to your 401(k) plan and make sure that your investment choices are appropriate for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Avoid 401(k) loans if possible and don’t ignore old 401(k) accounts when leaving a company.
  • Don’t overdo it when investing in company stock.
  • If you need professional financial help, get it. Be sure to hire a fee-only financial advisor who will put your interests first.

The Bottom Line 

The now seven-year bull market since the bottom in 2009 has been a very robust period for investors. Many have more than recovered from their losses during the market decline of 2008-09.

Nobody knows what will happen next. In my opinion, investors are wise to control the factors that they can, have a plan in place and follow that plan.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

20 Best Investing Blogs of 2016 – The College Investor


I am very flattered to be included in this list of the 20 Best Investing Blogs of 2016  compiled by Robert Farrington on his outstanding blog The College Investor, with it’s tagline “Investing and Personal Finance for Millennials.”

20 Best Investing Blogs of 2016

I know and follow many of these people and read their blogs on a regular basis. There were a few that were new to me and I plan to add their blogs to my regular reading list as well. If you like to read about investing and financial topics this list is a great place to start.

Jim Blankenship, Financial Ducks In A Row

Josh Brown, The Reformed Broker

Ben Carlson, A Wealth of Common Sense

Kathryn Cicoletti, Ms. Cheat Sheet

Jim Dahle, The White Coat Investor

Sam Dogen, Financial Samurai

Eddy Elfenbein, Crossing Wall Street

Michael Kitces, Nerd’s Eye View

Larry Ludwig, Investor Junkie

Michael Piper, Oblivious Investor

Ben Reynolds, Sure Dividend

Barry Ritholtz, The Big Picture

Jeff Rose, Good Financial Cents

Todd Tresidder, Financial Mentor

Joe Udo, Retire By 40

Tadas Viskanta, Abnormal Returns

Roger Wohlner, The Chicago Financial Planner

The Dividend Guy Blog

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

The Mad FIentist

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

Denver Wins! Time to Go to Cash?


The Denver Broncos just won Super Bowl 50 and its looking like Peyton Manning will go out a winner. Good news and a feel good story? Not for investors. The Super Bowl Indicator says a win by an AFC team is a bad omen for the stock market for the year. 



Super Bowl Indicator

The Super Bowl Indicator says that if a team from the old American Football League (AFL) wins the Super Bowl that the stock market will finish down for the year.

This indicator has held true for 40 of the previous 49 Super Bowls played prior to this one, including the past seven years.

The New York Giants, one of the earliest teams from the NFL, won the Super Bowl in 2008 but as we all recall the stock market had its worst year since the Great Depression with the S&P 500 being down 37% for the year. I guess a little thing like the mortgage fueled financial crises trumps a “sure fire” stock market predictor like the outcome of the Super Bowl.

The January Effect 

The Stock Trader’s Almanac says that if the month of January is down then 75% of the time the stock market will be down for the year.

The January Effect says that stocks that were sold off in December for tax-loss harvesting purposes will rally in January when investors buy them at reduced prices.

With the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average both down over 5% for the month this clearly didn’t happen.

Time to go to cash? 

Clearly investors should not peg their actions to any type of indicator like the Super Bowl Indicator or any of the others of a similar nature that have cropped up over the years.

The best course for investors has always been to have a financial plan, have an investing strategy and stick to their plan.

The Bottom Line 

The Super Bowl Indicator is fun and part of the Super Bowl hype. At the end of the day there is really no correlation between the performance of the stock market and who wins the Super Bowl. Investors should invest based upon their goals, their time horizon and their risk tolerance. I will say this, however. The market will be way up in 2017 after my Green Bay Packers bring the Lombardi Trophy back to its rightful home, Lambeau Field. OK no predictions, I have no idea what the market will do after the Packers win (which is a sure thing, I hope).

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

6 Investment Expenses You Need to Understand


Investment expenses reduce your investment returns. While nobody should expect investment managers, financial advisors or other service providers to offer their services for free, investors should understand all costs and fees involved and work to reduce investment expenses to the greatest extent possible.


Here are 6 investment expenses you need to understand in order to maximize your returns.

Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios

All mutual fund and ETFs have expense ratios. These fees cover such things as trading costs, compensation for fund managers and support staff and the fund firm’s profit. Expense ratios matter and investors shouldn’t pay more than they need to.

Vanguard’s site, as you might expect, deals with this topic at length. In one example, it shows the impact of differing levels of fees on a hypothetical $100,000 initial account balance over 30 years with a yearly return of 6%. After 30 years the balance in the account would be:

$574,349 with no investment cost

$532,899 with an investment cost of 25 basis points

$438,976 with an investment cost of 90 basis points

These numbers clearly illustrate the impact of fund fees on an investor’s returns and their ability to accumulate assets for financial goals like retirement and funding their children’s college educations.

Mutual fund expense ratios are an example of where paying more doesn’t get you more. Case in point, Vanguard Growth Index Adm (VIGAX) has an expense ratio of 0.09%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap growth asset class is 1.21%. For the three years ending January 31, 2016 the fund ranked in the top 32% of all of the funds in the category; for the trailing five years the fund placed in the 19% and for the trailing ten years the top 17% in terms of investment performance.

Sales loads and 12b-1 fees

Front-end sales loads are an upfront payment to a financial advisor or registered rep. Front-end sales loads reduce the amount of your initial investment that actually goes to work for you. For example, if a rep suggests investing in a mutual fund like the American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX) for every $10,000 the investor wants to invest, $575 or 5.75% will be deducted from their initial investment balance to cover the sales load. Over time this will reduce the investor’s return versus another version of the same fund with a similar expense ratio that doesn’t charge a sales load.

Some will argue that this load is a one-time payment to the advisor and their firm for their advice. This strikes me as dubious at best, but investors need to decide for themselves whether the advice received in exchange for paying a sales load warrants this drain on their initial and subsequent investments. This share class has an expense ratio of 0.89% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.21% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).

Deferred sales loads associated with B shares are largely a thing of the past. Carrying the American Funds example forward, the EuroPacific Growth B (AEGBX) which has been closed to new investors since 2009, was purchased at NAV with a deferred sales charge of 5%. The fund carried a surrender charge over a period of years whereby if the investor sold the fund during this time they would be assessed a surrender charge (see below for more on surrender charges) on a declining basis. In order to compensate the advisor for not receiving an upfront sales commission the fund’s expense ratio is 1.69% which includes a 0.99% 12b-1 fee which compensates the advisor. After a set period of time B shares are supposed to convert to the lower cost A shares. If you are still in a B share of any fund you should aggressively ask why this is and demand to have the shares converted to A shares if eligible.

Level loads are associated with C shares. The American Funds EuroPacific Growth C (AEPCX) fund has a level load of 1% in the form of a 12b-1 fee and an overall expense ratio of 1.61%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for eight years until the funds convert to a no load share class of the fund. There is a 1% surrender charge if the fund is redeemed within the first year of ownership.

12b-1 fees are a part of the mutual fund’s expense ratio and were originally designated to be marketing costs. They are now used as trialing compensation for financial advisors and reps who earn compensation from selling investment products. They can also be used to provide revenue-sharing in a 401(k) plan. While 12b-1 fees don’t increase expenses as they are part of the fund’s expense ratio, typically funds with a 12b-1 fee will have a higher expense ratio than those that don’t in my experience.

401(k) expenses

For many of us our 401(k) plan is our primary retirement savings vehicle. Beyond the expense ratios of the mutual funds or other investments offered, there are costs for an outside investment advisor (or perhaps a registered rep or broker who sold the plan) plus recordkeeping and administration among other things. If your employer has these costs paid by the plan they are coming out of your account and reducing the return on your investment.

Add to this mutual funds that may be more expensive than needed to compensate a brokerage firm or insurance company and all of a sudden the expenses associated with your 401(k) plan are a real drag on your investment returns.

Financial advice fees

Fees for financial advice will vary depending upon the type of financial advisor you work with.

Fee-only financial advisors will charge fees for their advice only and not tied to any financial products they recommend. Fees might be charged on an hourly basis, on a project basis for a specific task like a financial plan, based on assets under management or a flat retainer fee. The latter two options would generally pertain to an ongoing relationship with the financial advisor.

Fee-based or fee and commission financial advisors will typically charge a fee for and initial financial plan and then sell you financial products from which they earn some sort of commission if you choose to implement their recommendations. Another version of this model might have the advisor charging a fee for investment management services, perhaps via a brokerage wrap account, and receiving commissions for selling any insurance or annuity products. They also would likely receive any trailing 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds used in the wrap account or from the sale of loaded mutual funds.

Commissions arise from the sale of financial and insurance products including mutual funds, annuities, life insurance policies and others. The financial advisor is compensated from the sale of the product and in one way or another you pay for this in the form of higher expenses and/or a lower net return on your investment. Additionally, financial sales types are incented to sell you products for which they are compensated, it is highly unlikely they will push a low-cost Vanguard index fund.

Investors need to understand these fees and what they are getting in return. In fact, a great question to ask any prospective financial advisor is to have them disclose all sources of compensation that they will receive from their relationship with you.

Surrender charges

Surrender charges are common with annuities and some mutual funds. There will be a period of time where if the investor tries to sell the contract or the fund they will be hit with a surrender charge. I’ve seen surrender periods on some annuities that range out to ten years or more. If you decide the annuity is not for you or you find a better annuity the penalty to leave is onerous and costly.


Taxes are a fact of life and come into play with your investments. Investments held in taxable accounts will be taxed as either long or short-term when capital gains are realized. You may also be subject to taxes from distributions from mutual funds and ETF for dividends and capital gains as well.

Investments held in a tax-deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA will not be taxed while held in the account but will be subject to taxes when distributions are taken.

Tax planning to minimize the impact of taxes on your investment returns can help, but investment decisions should not be made solely for tax reasons.

The Bottom Line

Fees and expanses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate a sufficient amount to achieve your financial goals. Investors should understand the expenses listed above and others and take steps to minimize these costs.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.

3 Financial Planning Lessons from the Cincinnati Bengals


Long-time readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a die-hard football fan and avid supporter of the Green Bay Packers. Come playoff time, I try catch all of the games as they are often memorable. The game this past Saturday between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals was memorable for the wrong reasons if you are a Bengals fan.

Rarely, if ever, in my 50 years of watching NFL games have I ever seen a team give away a game (especially a playoff game) in such a bonehead fashion as did the Bengals. Besides some just plain dumb moves, the level of dirty play and bad sportsmanship was disgusting.

What can we learn from the Bengals about financial planning? Here are 3 financial planning lessons from the Cincinnati Bengals.

Protect your downside 

The Bengals had gained the lead in the final quarter after being held scoreless for the first three quarters of the game. On what should have been a routine running play, (in the Steelers end no less) to try to run the clock out, the Bengals’ running back fumbled. In this situation ball security should have been his first priority, not gaining any yardage.

Unless you are very young, most investors are wise to diversify their portfolios in order to dampen the impact of market declines like the financial crisis or even the market volatility that we’ve seen since the start of the new year.

Keep your emotions in check 

Cincinnati linebacker Vontaz Burfict made a key interception that looked like it might seal an improbable comeback win for the Bengals. After the fumble mentioned above, he proceeded to make one of the absolute dumbest and dirtiest hits to the head of a Steelers receiver resulting in a key 15-yard penalty.

His teammate (and I’m sure fellow Mensa member) Adam Pacman Jones then garnered another 15-yard penalty for shoving a Pittsburgh assistant coach during an on-field altercation that set-up a chip-shot game winning field goal for the Steelers.

Burfict is known as a loose cannon and has been fined in the past and Jones is not a choir boy either. Both personal fouls can be attributed to a combination of bad judgment and a failure to keep their emotions in check in a key situation.

Investors need to stay calm during periods of upheaval in the economy and the financial markets. So far 2016 has started off with roughly a 5% loss in some the major market averages.

Back in 2008 and early 2009 the financial press was filled with stories of investors who panicked and sold out of their stock holdings, including mutual funds and ETFs, at or near the bottom of the market. Many of these investors stayed out missing all or most of the six plus year rally we’ve seen since the lows of March 9, 2009. Sadly, for those who were near retirement they booked substantial losses and never gave their portfolios a chance to recover.

Investors need to stay calm. One way to help in this area is to have a plan. Have an asset allocation that that reflects your situation including your time horizon for the money and your risk tolerance. Review your portfolio at regular intervals and rebalance as needed. A plan does not eliminate market volatility or the stress that it can bring, but it can help to prevent you from acting on your emotions, usually to your detriment. 

Build a team that you can depend on 

While both Burfict and Jones are talented players, both have a history of issues. Jones has been in trouble with the NFL for off-field activities and has been suspended by the league in the past. Burfict was suspended for this hit and has been fined for prior transgressions. He was undrafted, many say as a result of a reputation for being hard to deal with.

As a viewer of the game I would say these two players let their teammates and fans down at the most critical point in the most important game of the season. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1991 and their comeback to take the lead and put themselves into a position to win was heroic, only to be destroyed by the lack of self-control of these two.

In the course of accumulating money for goals such as retirement and college for your kids, many of you will seek advice along the way. In doing so it is important to build a team of advisors and partners that you can trust.

If a financial advisor is needed be sure to choose a fee-only advisor. This isn’t to say that one who derives some or all of their compensation from the sale of financial products isn’t competent, but someone who doesn’t have the conflict of interest inherent in the sale of financial products starts out as more objective.

Find an investment custodian who has reasonable fees and offers the types of investments and accounts that meet your needs. Free ETF platforms are nice, but who cares if the ETFs on the platform are not the ones that are right for you.

Other advisors might include a CPA or an attorney to handle estate planning matters.

In all cases don’t be afraid to ask questions. In the case of a financial advisor it is important to understand if they have worked with clients in similar situations as you and to understand what you will receive for the fees paid.

The Bottom Line 

As I’ve written here in the past, football and the world of financial planning and investing have some similarities. Learn from the Cincinnati Bengals and be sure to protect your financial downside, keep your emotions in check and build a team that you can trust. These steps will put you on track towards achieving your financial goals.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email.