I recently promised a series of financial themed posts. Perhaps I should start with the common-sensical approach of paying off your debt, saving liquid, or ready-cash for emergencies (or opportunities), and a forming realistic budget with money set aside for your investment goals. But I’m going to assume you’re smart enough to grasp that truth, and move on to HOW to begin laying a good foundation for a Biblical and responsible financial plan. A GREAT article on how to stop living Paycheck to Paycheck, and start working out the basics of budgeting and planning can be found here.
My worldview on economics is a unique complementary clashing of my previous career as a Financial Advisor, and my experiences of learning to view God as my provision, and not money or a job. Naturally, I see financial situations as something interesting to figure out, but I also know that many times, there simply is no natural solution, and that God must work things out for us. And I think you’ll see this reflected in much of what I write as we begin this journey. And I think that’s a great thing to call it. I wrote in a previous post about my family’s financial hardships, and we’re just now getting the big pieces back together in our financial plan. We’re making these financial and investment decisions as I write them . . . so I can’t say for sure what turn these posts will take, but I hope you find them interesting.
I’ve spoken with many Christians who shy away from “investing,” viewing it as a tool of Satan’s influence on the economy, or a testament to man’s prideful ascension to worldly prosperity, at the cost of his soul. They distrust companies, and assume that either Obama or crooked CEO’s will steal from them whatever they invest. And while Obama will probably do his best to screw up the economy, I think it’s mostly out his control. The Bible, itself, tells us that God wishes to us to “lend and not borrow.” I believe that this is a mandate of God’s view of prosperity – don’t go into debt, invest money in profitable ventures, and give liberally. Even in the parable of the talents, the master was angry that the wicked servant didn’t at least put the money in the bank to earn interest. God wants the church today, as he wanted Israel in the Old Testament, to be the center of blessings for the world.
I’m writing this as sort of a beginner’s beginner tutorial. Basically the same way I’m explaining it to my wife, as we go through the process together. Whether or not we intend to buy stock, bonds, mutual funds, or some other investment vehicle (more on those in the next post), we need a brokerage account. This is the “holder” for whatever type of investing you do. Most types of investments (and all types that we will be considering) can be housed in a typical brokerage account. There are tons of investment companies out there, and we need to consider a few things to decide which account is right for us.
First of all, there are two options in determining HOW we want to invest. You can use a Financial Advisor or a trusted Broker, or use a discount service, like ETrade, Scottrade, etc. There are pros and cons to each, but it boils down to 2 issues: Are you going to educate yourself on your investments enough, and monitor them closely enough, to go it alone, or do you need a little help? Since I’ve got a decent amount of investment knowledge, and I want to save on transaction costs on what will initially small investment amounts, we’re using a discount service. Also of consideration is what type of investing you want to do. Were we planning on developing a long-term savings, with little trading, we’d probably go Mutual Funds, and probably use a Financial Advisor to find just the right mix of funds for us. We plan on buying common stocks and being moderately active traders. (Again, in my next post, we’ll be discussing what each type of investment is and which will work for you). The breakdown follows:
The Financial Advisor
- Get expert advice on your investments before you put your money into it
- Benefit of a second pair of eyes watching your investments
- Professional planning / diversification should help diminish your risks
- Advice on tax-friendly accounts (IRA’s, Roth’s, etc)
- Con: Pricey Transaction Fees (up to $35)
- Con: Unless you have a large amount to invest, some aren’t interested in your business, or won’t give the service you’re paying for
- Con: Typically push Mutual Funds and managed accounts
- Con: Guilt (maybe it’s just me . . . but I hate withdrawing money from an account when a Financial Advisor is making his living with it being there)
Financial Advisors can be a mixed bag. If you get a good one, he or she will make your life and finances much better off. If you get a bad one, you might as well start a fire and throw your cash in. Most career advisors are good though, and unless you want to become an expert in market strategy, it wouldn’t hurt to enlist the services of a good one, if you can afford it, or if you have enough money to get their attention. Avoid insurance products in most cases (insurance and annuities), and be very specific with your advisor about what your goals are. Also, I strongly recommend asking a LOT of questions. You’re giving a substantial portion of your net worth to these people, you NEED to know things like:
- How long have they been in business (steer clear of rookies, who will usually push you towards investments that make them the most money)
- Do they have a clean U-4 (sort of like a complaint report for financial advisors). You can see your advisor’s U-4 at the FINRA Broker Check.
- What types of returns have their clients gotten over the last year
- What types of clients do they normally service
- Do they have clients that will give them a recommendation
Using a Financial Advisor can be a great tool in managing your investing. But just do your homework before you go, and it helps if you check with friends and family and see what their experiences have been.
Going It Alone
Your other option is to basically do your investing on your own, with no insight, other than what you can glean from the news and market publications. I think it’s a fine idea for 3 people:
- Financial Professionals, or people with an advanced understanding of investing principles
- People who want a “play” account, with disposable money, that they don’t mind losing. This would be in addition to a serious “planned” brokerage account
- Small-time investors who just want to get started, who may not invest regularly (or invest small amounts very often), and who are concerned with costly transaction fees.
I fall into categories 1 and 3. And I have the feeling that many of you fall into one of those categories as well. Investing doesn’t have to be scary. And you don’t have to pay exorbitant fees to someone because of it. We’ll be discussing soon how to go about picking your first investment. But let’s wrap this up with a few choices for opening up your account.
- Etrade – low cost transactions, $500 minimum account value to open, and a great mobile app with streaming market data make this a very attractive solution. Also has some professional market tools for reasonable pricing, or available for free to frequent traders.
- TD Ameritrade – Has great research, and similarly advanced trading tools as Etrade.
- Scottrade – $7 trades! Not much else. Local branches also . . . but why?
They come in all shapes and sizes, and some independent ones are better than the big named companies. Go in with a list of important features for your account. Want online trading? Many independents may not provide that. Also, ask if online trade fees are less than fees if you call and have your broker execute the trade (they should be).
- Merrill Lynch
- Ameriprise – very planning focused. If you need help getting started, I would suggest starting here
- Morgan Keegan – owned by Regions Bank. If you’re a Regions’ customer, their bank brokers generally are very good at helping get just the right products for you. Some interesting online tools are available also.
- Bank of America – yes, they have investing too. If you’re a BOA customer, this may be a comfortable place to get started
To finish up, I strongly encourage to not underestimate the importance of WHERE you do your brokerage, despite the fact that you’ll be able to purchase the same things from anywhere. Do your research to find the right account and service for you. Meet with a few advisors, to find the one that suits you best, if you choose to use one at all. And be encouraged that as God blesses you for being a good steward, he will also lead you in making these decisions of what to do with that money. We prayed together about whether we should invest, and how we should begin doing it. We went with ETrade because it offers some great tools, decent pricing, and it is a name that we felt most comfortable with.
In closing, I’ll leave you with some places to avoid…despite the fact your high-school drop-out friend might be selling for them:
- Woodmen of the World
- Insurance Agents in general (despite the fact they want you to believe they can do it all . . . just no)
- World Financial Group and Investment Advisors International
These places typically allow anyone with the money to get licensed to bill themselves as “Financial Advisors” and invest all your money. Many of them give horrible advice, in order to focus on more costly and illiquid insurance based investments. World Financial Group is basically an MLM company that sells investments, also. Chances are, after they’ve taken your money, they’ll also try to convince you to become a “Financial Advisor” as well. The responsible people working at these companies just distribute canned advice, but some actually believe they’re smarter than career brokers out there, and will sell you all kinds of crap. Avoid at all costs.