March 20, 2023

Bucks Blog: The Costs of Underconfidence

Carl Richards

We often talk about the problems that can come from being overconfident in making investment and financial planning decisions. What we don’t talk about as much is the high cost of being underconfident.

I often joke that you wouldn’t want an overconfident brain surgeon, but you don’t want an underconfident one either. The line between the two, though, can be fuzzy. So what does underconfidence look like?

1. I’m not worth that much.

The last time you applied for a job, how confident were you in negotiating your salary? Did you go in thinking I’ll be happy with whatever they offer or were you prepared to ask for more? Maybe you have lumpy income from freelance work. I know how hard it is to set a value on what you do. It’s more likely that we’ll go under than over. That underconfidence may end up costing you money. Humility is great, but it shouldn’t cost you an opportunity to earn what you’re worth.

2. I’m not sure I made the right investment decision.

Assuming that you’ve built a well-designed, diversified investment strategy based on a clear understanding of your current goals, you should feel confident. But even the best investment strategy will go through times of stress and second guessing. In fact, if we build our portfolios wisely — a diversified mix of low-cost index funds — by definition, parts of our portfolio are likely to be down when others are up.

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t second-guess our decision when stocks go up and part of our portfolio is diversified in safe fixed-income investments. But not having the confidence to stick with that plan can lead us to make the big mistake: bailing on the plan.

3. I don’t like dealing with money.

We often spend a lot of time focused on our investments because we think that they’re the most important thing. But in reality, the choices we make every day with money often have a much bigger impact on our success over time — things like how much we save, how much we earn and how much we spend.

And while we can get help from people about how to be smarter savers, the hard work comes down to us. It can’t be outsourced. We need to have enough confidence to say no to certain things so we can say yes to the more important ones.

The only person who can do that is you. It takes a certain level of confidence to know when to say yes and when to say no, especially when it comes to sticking with a spending plan when all our friends don’t seem to have one.

At times, it may feel as if you’re walking a fine line between being too confident and not being confident enough. But here’s the thing: If you’ve taken the time to think things through, to have the conversations about what matters most and then make a plan, it’s an easier line to walk.

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Bucks Blog: Tuesday Reading: To Simplify Life, Ditch All the Recipes

January 03

The Financial Lesson in Too Many Skis

In an excerpt from his new book, “The Behavior Gap,” Bucks contributor Carl Richards argues against complete precision in your own financial planning.

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Your Money: Turning a Lens on Ameriprise Financial

If you’re a company trying to persuade Americans to trust you with their money, the last thing you want is former employees accusing you of cheating them out of theirs.

But that is the odd position Ameriprise Financial, the largest employer of certified financial planners in the United States, finds itself in at the moment. Late last month, six people, including one current employee, sued the company, accusing it of stuffing its 401(k) plan with expensive, underperforming mutual funds that came from the company’s own investment management arm.

The law firm behind the suit, Schlichter, Bogard Denton, in St. Louis, now inspires fear and dread in employee benefits circles, since the suit is one of several it has filed against a variety of companies. Ameriprise was quick to dismiss this suit as a copycat.

But this is the first time that the law firm has gone after an employer that is a financial services company. It has to be frustrating for Ameriprise to see its menu of mutual funds splayed out for all of the world to see, complete with details on poor performance and a handy chart showing fees that are three to five times what they are at Vanguard.

If you are in search of financial planning, however, the suit is a test of sorts. If it turns out that Ameriprise didn’t even get its own 401(k) right, why would you put your financial future in the company’s hands?


Ameriprise has been around in one form or another since 1894. It eventually came to be known as Investors Diversified Services, or I.D.S. for short. American Express bought the company in 1984, then spun it off in 2005, at which point it assumed its current name.

To their credit, Ameriprise representatives, many of whom are independent franchisees, generally begin their relationships with customers by creating a financial plan. Traditional brokers don’t always do this and often worry only about investments, which is sort of like prescribing drugs without first taking a full medical history.

Once the plan is complete, however, things have sometimes gone awry over the years. There have been garden-variety problems, things that many brokerage firms have gotten into trouble for, like improper mutual fund trading, lost laptops packed with private customer data and the steering of customers to investments that provided extra commission to Ameriprise advisers.

But then there are the more unusual episodes. In at least three states, regulators fined the company because some Ameriprise advisers were forging client signatures. In New Hampshire, company representatives referred to their brief absences from the office, when they were supposedly rounding up signatures, as “taking a 10-minute trip to Kennebunkport.”

Then there is the Medical Capital fiasco, in which brokers at Securities America, an Ameriprise unit at the time, sold hundreds of millions of dollars in supposed medical bill receivables in what later turned out to be essentially a Ponzi scheme. Medical Capital had no audited financial statements and senior Securities America executives expressed concern about this, but the brokers sold the notes anyway, according to documents Massachusetts securities regulators released. In a statement, Securities America noted that audited financial statements were not a legal requirement in this instance.

Medical Capital used the money it received to buy a yacht and invest in a company that produced pornography sites for people who like bisexuals, bondage and gay Asians, according to Jeffrey R. Sonn, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney who represented Medical Capital investors. In April, Ameriprise paid about $150 million to settle the matter. As always with these sorts of things, the company neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing. Ameriprise recently sold Securities America.

In a perfect world, customers would never come close to ending up in these kinds of situations. This is how things are supposed to work at Ameriprise: You meet an adviser, you pay for a financial plan and then the adviser helps you carry it out. Ideally, any advisers in this situation, no matter where they work, then select the best investments and insurance on earth to put you in.

Here’s where it starts to get murky, though. Ameriprise’s combined revenue from its in-house insurance, annuities and mutual funds are much higher than what it earns from financial planning. So while advisers aren’t paid more to push the company’s own products than they are to sell somebody else’s, the company’s success depends in no small part on them doing that anyway.

“Can people work in that environment and give good advice?” said Dan Candura, a 20-year veteran of Ameriprise’s predecessor companies who ran an adviser quality initiative there. “They can. But they are not going to set sales records, and it’s easier to sell the bad stuff than the good stuff.”

In the J. D. Power Associates 2011 ranking of full-service brokerage firms, Ameriprise ranked a bit above average. It did better than Merrill Lynch but worse then Fidelity and Charles Schwab. Ameriprise says it has a 93 percent annual client retention rate, though it’s not clear how many of those people stick around because the terms of their insurance products make it uneconomic for them to switch.

The biggest potential red flag for Ameriprise customers, however, is adviser compensation. The representatives have a fair bit of leeway in how they charge, as the company’s own securities filing makes clear. It notes that compensation is “determined by a schedule that takes into account the type of service or products provided, the type of branded adviser affiliation and other criteria.”

So you have to ask for a “schedule” to figure out what’s going on here. And keep in mind that advisers may earn any number of fees from mutual fund companies whose funds they sell and commissions from Ameriprise’s own insurance and annuity offerings, though the company has recently opened its variable annuity platform up to a few other providers.

And about those annuities — again, from the company’s filings: “Variable annuities provide us with fee-based revenue in the form of mortality and expense risk fees, marketing support and administrative fees, fees charged for optional features elected by the contractholder and other contract charges.” And that’s before you pay fees related to any underlying investments.

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