December 8, 2023

Bucks Blog: Talking Numbers With Your Children

Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and is the director of investor education at the BAM Alliance. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published this year. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog.

Few things will humble parents faster than when they realize they’ve made some dumb assumptions about their children. And twice in the last few weeks, my own children have shown me where I’ve gone wrong when it comes to teaching them about money.

I thought my wife and I were covering all the bases. We have talked about budgeting. We have talked about saving. We’ve even talked about why we made certain financial decisions. But guess what we never really talked about? Numbers.

You’ve probably done it, too. Let’s say your children know that you’re buying a new car. You probably wouldn’t talk to them about how much it cost.  After all, they could mention the number to your neighbors, and you wouldn’t want that to happen. So, here’s what I learned from my children. Hopefully, my own experience will help you have better conversations with your own children, as well as your spouse, or anyone else that you share financial decisions with.

1) Don’t hide the numbers

One Saturday afternoon, I decided to stop at the boat shop. I have fond memories of long summer days at the lake, and I wanted to see what it might cost to buy a boat for our family. The fact that we don’t really need a boat probably explains what happened next. But since I was feeling a little sheepish about the whole “needs versus wants” subject, I hid the price tag when my son asked me how much the boat cost.  And I compounded the mistake by making up some funny number, like 54 quarters, to try to throw him off.

I should have shown my son the price and explained: 1) why a boat costs that much; 2) why I think it’s worth that much money; and 3) how we saved as a family over the previous years to afford it (should we decide to buy it). In short, I would have helped my son put the buying decision into context, which leads me to the next lesson.

2) Don’t assume your children think the same as you

One of the best parts about being a parent is getting to watch my children make decisions and try new things. Little did I know that my daughter’s decision to explore soccer would be a lesson for my wife and me. After attending the orientation meeting, my daughter came home and explained what she’d learned, and my wife asked her about the costs to play.

My daughter replied “$20,000,” with just a slight hint of caution.

After seeing my wife’s shocked expression, she was quick to assure her mom that it covered two uniforms and an assortment of other things for the entire season. But, and I think you can see where I’m going, my daughter hadn’t made the connection between the crazy number and what she thought she was getting in return.

To be clear, the disconnect isn’t because we’re a family who uses money as paper towels. And our children know what it means to earn a few dollars doing chores. They have savings accounts. They have an allowance. But it appears that we haven’t taken the time to give my daughter a point of reference for a number as large as $20,000. Because a number this large was unfamiliar, and because she had never played soccer before, she didn’t have any real context to help her understand why it didn’t make any sense at all.

As it turns out, $20,000 was actually the budget for the entire team for the entire season. The cost per player was closer to 1/10th of that number. But my daughter’s experience made it perfectly clear that we had dropped the ball.

So, the next time you’re talking with your children, your spouse or anyone else about money, please make sure that you’re talking about the same thing. Don’t avoid talking about the numbers or the price. And please don’t make the same mistake I did, and assume that it’s not worth having a conversation that gets specific. Based on these experiences, I’m convinced that there would be fewer money issues in our families if we worried less about what people thought and more about what our families know.

I want each of my children to know what things cost so they can weigh the pros and cons of buying this versus buying that. I want my kids to understand just how much money $20,000 is so that they can make a fair judgment about the worth of something compared to what they’re getting in return. And perhaps most important of all, I don’t want my discomfort to stop me from providing my kids with the skills and information they need to make smart money decisions.

I bet you want the same things for your children, too.

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Bucks Blog: In Soccer and Investing, Bias Is Toward Action

Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and is the director of investor education at The BAM Alliance. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published this year. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog.

I recently attended a varsity soccer game at the local high school in Park City, Utah. It was the quarterfinals of the state tournament. At the end of regulation the game was tied, which meant overtime. After overtime, the game was still tied, which meant a shootout.

A shootout is when each team gets five penalty kicks, and the team with the most scored goals wins. For those of you not familiar with soccer, let me explain. A penalty kick is when a stationary ball is placed 12 yards from the goal line, leaving just the kicker and the goalkeeper.

It’s a tough and intense way to end a game. Because the ball is so close, and the goalkeeper can’t move before the ball is hit, the goalkeeper has almost no time to react. So the strategy has always been for the goalkeeper to pick a side and dive. The choice of which side to dive to is made without having a chance to read the ball — there just isn’t enough time.

Of course, there is a third option: stand in the middle. As I watched the goalkeepers dive, I was reminded of when I played over 20 years ago. We did the same thing then, too. In fact, I remember thinking, “If they’re going to dive, why risk going wide by aiming for the corners? Just kick it hard right down the middle because the goalkeeper won’t be there.”

A few of the players this weekend in Park City had the same idea. Kick the ball straight down the middle while the goalkeeper dives heroically to the side.

In an odd coincidence, a few days later I learned of a study focused on decision making and penalty kicks. The analysis covered close to 300 penalty kicks. It looked at both the goalkeepers’ decision in terms of where they chose to dive, as well as where the ball was actually kicked.

As it turns out,  the goalkeeper picks a side and dives 93.7 percent of the time and just stands in the middle only 6.3 percent of the time. There was a clear bias toward action. The kicks themselves are more evenly spread across the net, and here’s the clincher: Almost 30 percent were kicked to the middle of the net. Without boring you with the numbers, the result showed that goalkeepers could almost double their save percentage by doing nothing. In other words, just standing there was the optimal strategy.

What goalkeeper is going to do that? Can you imagine how silly that would look? Everyone is expecting action. Every other goalkeeper in the world dives to a side of the goal. Just standing there would be embarrassing.

We do the same thing with investing.

We all know that once you build a low-cost, diversified portfolio, you should avoid making changes every other day. We’ve heard Warren Buffett say things like, “Benign neglect, bordering on sloth, remains the hallmark of our investment process.”

We know that time in the market is the key, not timing the market.

Despite all that, we often chose to do something instead of just standing there. According to Dalbar’s 2013 Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior, the average time we hold a stock mutual fund — by definition a long-term investment — is just less than three and a half years. I know three plus years may feel like a long time, but seriously? On top of that, we now have people talking about how great exchange-traded funds are, often citing that they’re low cost (good) and that you can trade then any second of any day (shouldn’t matter).

It’s all a bit crazy. But we feel that we must do something with our investments for the same reason a goalkeeper dives.

Everyone else is moving, trading, talking. Why not us? It’s what investing is all about, right?


That is called entertainment. If you want a term to justify it, you can call it trading. But the evidence is clear that it doesn’t work. So this is one of those rare opportunities to improve your results by being lazy. Build a portfolio that matches your goals, and forget about it.

Maybe for years.

Try it. If you have a well-diversified portfolio, just try doing nothing for a month, and then two, and then three. Start an “I’m doing nothing streak.” See how long you can make it. In fact, go one step more and practice Mr. Buffett’s strategy. Learn to feel good about benign neglect. Brag about the fact that you have no idea where the market is, and you haven’t even looked at your investments for a long time.

And yeah, on top of giving you something to talk about, not to mention gaining a lot of time and energy back, your results will probably be better, too.

Doing nothing may be one of the best decisions you ever make.

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Bucks: The Dull Task of Decoding 401(k) Fees Matters

Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and is the director of investor education at The BAM Alliance. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published this year. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog.

I know it’s been in the news, but if you haven’t seen the recent “Frontline” program “The Retirement Gamble,” you have to take an hour and watch it. I know, it doesn’t sound like as much fun as watching reruns of “Seinfeld.” But sometimes adults have to do things that aren’t fun.

There are so many important points in this show I could talk about. But I want to focus on one narrow but incredibly important thing: Investment fees matter…a lot!

To set this up here, there is a conversation that happens about minute 32 that had me out of my chair I was so mad:

Martin Smith, “Frontline” correspondent: The problem is that these fees are not paid by the fund company. The bill is passed to you and me. Here it is, buried deep in my 401(k) plan documents. It took me about an hour to find the reference.

[On camera] Do you think the industry could do a better job of making people aware of the effective fees on their savings?

Karen Wimbish, retirement executive, Wells Fargo: I think we could make people aware of the effect of every pressure that they have on their accounts.

Martin Smith: What stands in the way of doing that better job?

Karen Wimbish: [laughs] I— what I would tell you is, it’s— sometimes, it’s very difficult to get people to focus on something that seems complicated and dull and boring. So could we do a better job with helping consumers understand all the things that are tied to what they just bought, whether it’s financial services or the riding lawn mower? Yes. It’s too complicated.

Let me repeat one phrase from Ms. Wimbish:

…it’s very difficult to get people to focus on something that seems complicated and dull and boring.

Let’s start with complicated.

It’s true that Wall Street has made it way too hard for us to figure out what we’re paying for the privilege of investing our own money for retirement. And while I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming the victim, the average American adult is likely to think nothing of spending 10 hours a week watching TV, another 10 hours surfing the Web, and another 10 tweeting on Twitter. But then he or she complains that figuring out the expenses in our 401(k) is too complicated and not entertaining.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I know there are hidden fees. I know it’s hard to read a prospectus and the other materials that come when you sign up for a 401(k). I agree that the 401(k) might be a failed experiment, and yes, we need reform and change. In the meantime, it’s what we have. And the benefits of tax deferral are still worth it, particularly if you’re lucky enough to get the rare employer match.

I refuse to believe that the average American adult can’t figure it out.

Now, how about dull and boring?

Yes, taking the time to figure out the lowest fee options in your 401(k) might not be as entertaining as watching football. But does something as important as our retirement have to be entertaining for you to concentrate on it?

This is important enough to just grit your teeth and figure it out. If you think this is dull and boring, imagine for a minute how dull and boring retirement is with no money.

It’s boring in the short term to figure out how to lower your expenses by an amount that appears so small. After all, aren’t we talking about 1 or 2 percent here?

Sounds like no big deal, and in the short term it isn’t a big deal. But as we’ve all heard, it adds up. The compound effect of 1 or 2 percent over 25 or 30 years is huge. It’s worth the time.

Please accept that you have a responsibility to do the hard work of learning to understand this stuff before it’s too late. Like the two retired teachers in “The Retirement Gamble” say:

We never planned on learning about investments, until we got slammed in the gut.

Getting slammed in the gut seems like something we all want to avoid.

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Bucks: The Perils of Investing in What You Know

Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and is the director of investor education at The BAM Alliance. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published this year. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog.

If you’re my generation or older, you probably remember Peter Lynch.

He was the famous manager of Fidelity’s Magellan Fund from 1977 to 1990. While Mr. Lynch’s track record covers only 13 years, it’s easy to see why many consider him to be one of the greatest investment managers of all time.

When he took over the fund in 1977, it had only $18 million in assets. But when he retired in 1990, the fund had grown to $19 billion in assets. Over those 13 years, Mr. Lynch managed to achieve a compounded average investment return of 29.2 percent, while the Standard Poor’s 500 Index only rose 15.8 percent

On top of being a great manager, Mr. Lynch was also a prolific and talented writer. It was said that his approach to investing was so simple and clearly written in his books —  ”One Up on Wall Street” and “Beating the Street” — that he inspired many do-it-yourself investors and future managers.

I have a favorite Lynch saying: “Never invest in any idea you can’t illustrate with a crayon.” I think my reasons for liking that particular one are obvious. But I’m seeing a troubling trend related to another one of Mr. Lynch’s ideas: Invest in what you know.  People are using it to justify dangerous investing decisions.

This brand of investing was made famous by the great stories that Mr. Lynch told, particularly about individual stocks. For instance, he once told a story about how his wife loved a new Hanes product so much — L’eggs pantyhose — that he bought Hanes stock. It became the largest portion of the fund, and fundholders eventually enjoyed a 30-fold appreciation in the stock.

As fun as it can be to hear these stories, when they are viewed in isolation they can be incredibly dangerous for investors. And Mr. Lynch isn’t alone in being taken out of context. Warren Buffett has offered similar advice about how you should never invest in businesses that you don’t understand.

But here’s the thing we need to remember: Whatever the advice, it’s just the starting point for investors like Mr. Lynch and Mr. Buffett, not the end point. Yes, they may have started with things they knew. But they also did a bunch of research, and it’s this second part that’s missing from many investors’ decision-making process.

It seems crazy to assume that buying what you know should replace research, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping people. I’ve heard more than one person justify a decision to buy Apple stock because they really love their iPhone. That’s about as wise as buying Crumbs’ stock because you love their cupcakes. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped individual investors from buying shares of Apple. As a Times story noted last week:

The investment firm SigFig estimated last fall that 17 percent of all retail investors owned Apple stock, four times the number that owns the average stock in the Dow Jones industrial average.

If you pick and invest in individual stocks, what you’re really doing is focusing on just one piece of Mr. Lynch and Mr. Buffet’s advice. And for most of us, that’s just too risky. It makes more sense to invest in diversified, low-cost index funds. (In fact, Mr. Buffet bet that an index fund would beat a set of hedge funds; he’s winning that bet.)

And even though Mr. Lynch and Mr. Buffett clearly stand above the rest of us mere mortals, one piece of their advice doesn’t replace the other requirements of good investing behavior.


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Bucks Blog: A Financial Self-Defense Guide for Older Americans

The board that oversees the certification of financial planners has developed a guide to help older Americans avoid fraud and abuse.

The guide, “Financial Self-Defense for Seniors,” was developed by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, a nonprofit group that administers the credential for “certified” financial planners. To earn the “certified” designation, financial professionals must meet certain requirements for education and experience and pass a difficult exam on a variety of financial topics.

The new guide lists “red flags” to watch for, and offers advice for vetting financial professionals before you sign up to work with them. It suggests, for instance, asking if, in offering advice, the adviser is required to use the “fiduciary” standard. That standard obligates the professional to put the client’s interests first and to fully explain any conflicts of interest that might affect the advice provided to you. (All planners with the “C.F.P.” designation must adhere to the fiduciary standard, the board says.)

Here are other tips from the guide:

  • Ask the professional what organizations supervise his or her services. Brokers, for instance, are supervised by FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Those who offer investment advice are overseen by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission or a state securities regulator. You can check with those organizations to see if the adviser has a disciplinary history. (The guide offers a list of resources, including steps for filing a complaint.)
  • If you don’t understand a product, don’t buy it. Ask what risks it involved, and make sure you understand the answers.
  • Don’t allow a professional to visit you at home. If you’re considering working with someone, go to the business location — and take a friend or family member with you, to listen to the conversation and discuss it later.
  • Get a written description of the risks and benefits of any investment you are considering.
  • When filling out paperwork, don’t leave blanks that could be filled in without your knowledge or consent. And make sure you request a copy stamped “final” for your review.
  • Ask the professional, “What do you get paid if I make this investment?” The fact that adviser gets a commission doesn’t necessarily signal a problem, the guide says, but if the benefits to you aren’t sufficient to justify the payment, you may want to look at other options — and for someone else to work with.
  • When considering a reverse mortgage to tap into home equity, make sure it is backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

Have you had an experience in which you were misguided by a financial adviser? What did you do?

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Bucks Blog: Financial Tips for Younger Adults

An article on Friday in The Times focuses on the financial challenges facing younger Americans, who are accumulating wealth at a much slower pace than their parents did.

With stagnant wages, a tough job market and heavy student debt, American under about age 40 have accrued less wealth than their parents did at the same age, even as the average wealth of Americans has doubled over the last quarter-century, according to a new study by the Urban Institute.

The situation is of concern to financial planners and advisers because of what they call the “time value” of money — that is, the earlier you start saving and investing, the more time you have for your assets to grow. If you get a later start, you’ll have less time to catch up. So by getting behind now, young people may find themselves short when they near retirement.

Greg Dorriety, a certified financial planner near Mobile, Ala., said he often advises young adults who are the children of his older clients, and he stresses with them the need to start saving — even if it’s as little as $10 a month, if money is tight — to get in the habit. With the uncertainty about the future of Social Security benefits, he said, “There’s a high likelihood they’re going to be personally accountable for their own retirements.”

Younger people who are able should do the obvious things like contributing as much as they can to their 401(k) or profit-sharing plans, he said, if their employer offers it.

He also advises younger adults with higher incomes not to aim to buy a big, expensive house right away, because they are likely to move around before settling down. Ditto for fancy cars. But if they want the cars, he said, he urges them to buy “gap” insurance, which will cover the difference between what they owe on their car and what it’s worth, if the car should be totaled in accident.

Timothy Maurer, a financial planner and personal finance educator in Baltimore, said younger adults often get caught up in instant gratification, buying cars, furniture and electronics on installment debt as soon as they get their first job and apartment. When added to their student loans, the burden can become crushing, leaving little for savings. He said he encouraged young people to reframe the way they think about debt and savings.

For instance, he said, he suggests taking only as much college debt as they can reasonably expect as their first year’s salary in their chosen field. And rather than simply trying to save 10 percent of their salary indefinitely,  he advises saving more — 20 percent — when they are in their 20s. When they get married and have children, it will get harder to save, and they may struggle to save even that 10 percent.

Jonathan Geiger, an adviser with Charles Schwab in Manhattan, said he urged younger clients to have a written budget: “Know what your expenses are.” If your cash flow isn’t covering your expenses, you need to cut back — perhaps on treats like dining out and daily coffees. He said he also recommends that young people pay down high-interest rate debt, like credit card balances, first, and consider transferring the balance to a card with a lower interest rate if they can’t pay it off monthly. If clients work for a company that doesn’t offer a workplace retirement plan, they can consider an I.R.A.

If you are under 40, let us know if you are able to save and invest for the future — or is it too difficult right now?

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You’re the Boss Blog: Selling a Business? It’s the Details That Count

Creating Value

Are you getting the most out of your business?

When we last left Holly Hunter, she had sold her business. She had received her down payment but the following payments had stopped after about a year. And it was obvious she had made some mistakes.

While Ms. Hunter’s mistakes are easy to spot in retrospect, it’s also easy to understand how sellers fall into these traps. She was ready to move on. She thought she had a good deal. She was paid about a third of her selling price of $1.4 million in cash and the rest was held as a seller’s note. And for about a year, things went well, at least on the surface.

But there were problems brewing, starting with the new owner’s decision to change the nature of the business. This is hardly an unusual thing. I generally advise selling business owners that they should expect to be disappointed by what the buyer does with the business, and that certainly proved to be the case for Ms. Hunter.

Some of the problems were related to an important hire Ms. Hunter had made before selling. The hire, a certified financial planner, was in tune with Ms. Hunter’s method of operation and investment advice. As time went on, however, this person became more and more disenchanted with the type of service and products being offered by the new owner. The employee felt she was being pushed to sell products that weren’t appropriate for her clients, and she didn’t think the new owner was interested in her concerns.

Eventually, the employee left the firm — and took along most of its staff and clients. This could not have happened had Ms. Hunter retained ownership. She had made sure that her employee signed a covenant promising not to compete, and the agreement made sure that the employee understood that Ms. Hunter’s clients and staff belonged to Ms. Hunter and the firm. There was clear legal language in place stating that both were off limits if the employee were to leave.

When the firm was sold, however, the transfer of the non-compete agreement to the new owner slipped through the cracks. As discussed in previous posts, Ms. Hunter had hired a business broker who did not represent her interests exclusively. We also know that her lawyer was not an expert in mergers and acquisitions. That, combined with Ms. Hunter’s inexperience in business sales, made it easy for this issue to be missed.

From the outside, it looks as if the new owner was not keeping his eye on the ball. It’s pretty hard to lose most of your clients and employees and not know that trouble is afoot. As a result, both he and Ms. Hunter became big losers. With both employees and clients gone, there was no cash left to pay the note that was owed Ms. Hunter. The buyer declared bankruptcy, and there were no assets left for Ms. Hunter to attach. She did try to sue her ex-employee but was informed that the covenant was not transferred and as a result there was no legal remedy.

When you sell a business, it’s often the seemingly small details that become crucial, especially if the seller doesn’t get paid in full and chooses to accept a note or an earnout, which is the promise of future compensation tied to the performance of the business (I’m not a big fan of earnouts!). Ms. Hunter learned these lessons the hard way, losing more than 50 percent of the purchase price through non-payment of her note. She found there was no remedy, only additional legal bills that she would have to pay.

Unfortunately, Ms. Hunter’s story is not unusual. When owners sell their businesses, they routinely enter transactions in which they essentially agree to serve as a bank for the buyer. The new owners get to run the business as they wish, and they rarely are interested in hearing advice from the selling owner. Several months down the road, if things start falling apart, the problems surface when the new owner “forgets” to pay the old owner. Suddenly, it becomes clear that years and years of work are not going to pay off the way the selling owner expected.

Do any of these lessons resonate with you? Have you done anything in your business to make sure that, when it’s time to leave, you manage to protect the value you have spent years building?

Josh Patrick is a founder and principal at Stage 2 Planning Partners, where he works with private business owners on creating personal and business value.

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Bucks Blog: An Election Probably Shouldn’t Change Your Financial Plan

Carl Richards

Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah, and is the director of investor education at the BAM Alliance. His book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published this year. His sketches are archived on the Bucks blog.

New information is scary. When things change, we often don’t know what to do. We may have had a plan before things changed, but things are different. So now what?

With the election last week, we suddenly have lots of new information, or at least it feels like we do. A little less than half the country is surprised and even disappointed. And unless you’re living in a cave, you’re now hearing about the uncertainty surrounding the looming budget showdown.

At times like these, there is a tendency to act now and ask questions later. Before you do, take just a moment, a small pause, and walk through a few steps to avoid making a big mistake.

1. Do you have a plan?

I’m assuming you do. You have a clear idea of where you are today, where you want to go and you have spelled out the investment process that you think will get you there.

2. Does this new information change that plan?

Any investment or financial plan most likely has risk built into it. Uncertainty is not new. Of course, this time might indeed be different, but don’t bet on it. Instead, make sure that the level of risk you’re taking matches your goals.

3. Should you change course?

After reviewing your plan in light of this new information, the key question to ask is whether a change is warranted. The primary reason for making changes to a sound plan depends on changes in your life and goals, not changes in the markets or politics. So if your goals haven’t changed, and you have a rational plan to get there, stick with it.

If, on the other hand, this new information has you reassessing your goals and the level of risk required to get there, it might be time to revisit your plan. Do it deliberately and with care, because history has shown that selling when worried can be a bad idea.

And all this process requires is that you pause and ask a few questions before acting. It seems like a small thing to do to avoid making the same painful mistakes over and over again.


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Bucks Blog: Why You’re Waiting Too Long to Fix Money Mistakes

Carl Richards

Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah. His new book, “The Behavior Gap,” was published earlier this month. His sketches are archived here on the Bucks blog.

Avoiding Painful Financial Decisions

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about why we avoid facing painful financial decisions. These conversations have got me thinking about the time between the first sign of trouble and the moment when we finally decide to face reality.

Sometimes that space needs to be long — we need time to sort out all the options or maybe we just need to be patient and wait for a new path to open. But most of the time we’re just delaying the inevitable.

So why do we take so long to act?

Being wrong isn’t fun. When there’s a problem, it’s often because we’ve made a mistake. We’ve been conditioned to believe that making a mistake is something shameful. Embarrassed, we tell ourselves stories to avoid recognizing that we’re in trouble. We tell ourselves that things aren’t actually that bad. We tell ourselves that things will get better. We even look for others to blame.

No one likes losing. For most of us, the pleasure we get from gain, like our investments doing well, is dwarfed by the pain we feel from loss. While this pain can be chronic from a continuing issue, it becomes acute when we decide to face the facts and do something about it.

Think about the last individual stock you bought that went down after you bought it. You didn’t do much research, and on an intellectual level, you knew that buying individual stocks without any more research than your brother-in-law’s suggestion was a bad idea. You knew that you should sell it and move on.

The pain is there, like a low-grade headache. Then one day, you decide to do something about it. And the process of actually facing the fact that you just realized a loss by selling represents finally admitting that you were wrong. Now you might even have to explain it to your spouse or, even worse, your accountant. That is painful!

We’re busy. Often we know we need to make a change, but we just put it off because we tell ourselves we’re too busy to “research” it right now. We’re all busy, and I don’t know very many people that put facing their current financial reality very high on their list of things to do next weekend. And of course, we tell ourselves that we need a lot of time to research all our options, which might be true.

But big mistakes almost always start as small mistakes. Then we delay doing something about them, and they grow until we find ourselves in a hole that we thought unimaginable just a short time before.

You’ve probably heard the old saying that your first loss is the best loss. I’m not sure who said it first, but I did see that Jim Cramer has it as commandment number two, which means something. Based on my experience this is true. When things go wrong, it is often best to act quickly and move on.

So when you realize that you’ve made a mistake, think about the space between the mistake and the solution. Decide if this is one of the rare mistakes that take time, or the more common that ought to inspire immediate action. If it is the latter, it’s time to stop making excuses and to start seeking solutions.

The tough decisions won’t go away on their own, and like compound interest, the size of our problems will only grow over time. Ultimately, we’re only doing ourselves a favor by shortening the space between when we know we made a mistake and when we finally decide to do something about it.

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Bucks Blog: LearnVest, Merrill Edge and Financial Planning for the Middle Class

Stephany Kirkpatrick, left, and Mina Black of LearnVest.Marilynn K. Yee/The New York TimesStephany Kirkpatrick, left, and Mina Black of LearnVest.

In this weekend’s Your Money column, I return to a topic that I’ve come at in various ways in recent years: The question of how the merely middle class and semi-affluent among us can get good, ethical, reasonably priced financial advice without having to watch our backs and our wallets.

Wealthy people have plenty of people clamoring to help them, and yet they need help the least. Everyone else is all too often left to work with people who say they do financial planning but are, in fact, insurance salesmen or seeking to earn big commissions from mutual fund companies.

LearnVest aims to change that, as I explain in the column, though they cannot yet help you with your investments. Merrill Lynch has its Merrill Edge program, but it’s pretty investment-centered. I was particularly intrigued by LearnVest’s fledgling efforts to help people with basic financial planning by pairing them with a real certified financial planner for a reasonable price.

If you’re tried LearnVest’s program in the time that it’s been open, please tell us about it below. Ditto for those of you who’ve had personal experience with Merrill’s call centers and its Edge program.

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