Money Magazine Ask the Mole

Retired? Build your own portfolio

You might have financial planners banging down your door, but that doesn't mean you should open it. Building a diversified portfolio of low-cost investments is likely a better option.

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By The Mole, Money Magazine's undercover financial planner

Have future topics for the Mole to address? E-mail him at

NEW YORK (Money) -- Question: I'm about ready to retire and I'm worried about rolling over my pension and my 401(k). Do you recommend self investing with one of the low-fee investment companies like Fidelity, Charles Schwab, etc. or one of the high-end fee companies like Smith Barney, UBS, AG Edwards etc. to get more for my buck in the long term and for the rest of my life? Is 1.4% to 2.5% a reasonable annual fee?

The Mole's Answer: Get ready for some sales pitches from financial advisers. You are the key demographic being targeted. I'm going to suggest you go it alone, though getting some occasional professional advice may also be in order.

First of all, as a financial planner, I get sent tons of materials on courses and marketing campaigns on how to capture the retiree market. According to some, I can have retirees like you beating down my door to give me your money. Sadly, it's probably true.

With your pension money and your 401(k) suddenly free to move out of your company's plan, it's an easy capture for some advisers, not to mention quite lucrative for us. Pitches you will probably hear from those advisers claiming to want to help you are:

  • Investing is complex and you can't go it alone.
  • The stock market is too unpredictable and you can't do it without a safety net.
  • You don't want to run out of money so you need guaranteed income for life.

My advice is to resist those pitches, and follow these simple steps:

Keep fees low: First of all, depending on how much of your money is in stocks or bonds, you might expect your portfolio to beat inflation by one to four percent annually, in the long-run. So when you ask whether a 1.4% to 2.5% annual fee is reasonable, the answer is an adamant NO! You are giving up all of your inflation-adjusted real return. And I'd bet heavily that the total fees would actually be far more than those stated fees since there are hidden fees and virtually no transparency.

Regarding your question of getting more for the buck by using a high-end firm, the answer is, again, no. Many of the so called "high-end firms" have demonstrated how good their investment advice is by now needing to write off billions of dollars in sub-prime derivatives they purchased with the delusion that providing mortgages to people with no ability to pay back the loans had little risk.

Unfortunately, I've also seen some "independent" financial planners charge even higher fees and get low returns for their clients. So it's not a matter of whether you use a large or small firm, it's more a matter of getting the right portfolio with the lowest fees possible.

Decide where to keep your money: Before deciding to go to a low cost brokerage firm, I think you first need to determine whether you want to move the pension and the 401(k) from your employer. That decision depends on many factors, such as the imputed rate on the pension payout and the quality and costs of the fund choices within your 401(k).

Your employer may offer you services to advise you on this and this would be a good place to start. An outside adviser may also be able to evaluate your options, but you'll have less objectivity here. Both commission-based advisers, and fee-based advisers who charge a percentage of assets, have the built-in incentive to tell you to move your assets to them. They'll make more money from you.

I happen to believe an hourly-based adviser would provide the most objective advice for you in this scenario. They could help you develop the portfolio whether you remain in your employer's plan, or you move it to a low cost company. I'm an hourly adviser so my views could be a bit biased here.

Building the portfolio: If you do decide to move your funds from your employer, I've found that Fidelity, Vanguard, and Scottrade have proven to be good places to keep your money. They offer low-cost vehicles and don't seem to up-sale their clients into more expensive, managed alternatives.

Building a diversified low-cost portfolio is actually simpler than you may think. You can buy a global diversified portfolio with only three funds.

  • Total U.S. Stock Index Fund
  • Total International Stock Index Fund
  • Total U.S. Aggregate Bond Fund

These are available with either Fidelity or Vanguard index mutual funds or exchange traded funds from Vanguard or iShares. You can build a portfolio with annual costs below 0.20%. An even more diversified alternative that is a bit more complex can be built using only seven investment funds.

Once you have built the right portfolio, you can then sit back and enjoy your well-deserved retirement. When you get that irresistible urge to change the portfolio, let it pass.

So though I can't tell you what is the right portfolio for you without knowing more about your individual situation, I can tell you that any portfolio with high fees will be the wrong one.

The Mole is a certified financial planner and certified public accountant who - in the interest of fairness - thinks you should know what goes on behind the scenes in financial planning. Want to make contact? E-mail

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