In terms of financial literacy, we Americans are a pretty sorry bunch. Only 37% of Americans who took part in FINRA's National Capability Study were able to post passing scores on basic questions regarding money. Perhaps that's why we're so ready and willing to blindly hand our money over to others who could pass the test.
But for those willing to put in a little bit of time and effort, there can be staggering benefits to managing your own money. Below, three of our Foolish analysts weigh in with what they think is the single biggest advantage to managing your own money.
It's so easy to be taken advantage of
Brian Stoffel: My family and I are in the middle of moving houses. In the interim, we've crashed at my parents' house. That's allowed us to spend some time conversing late at night after my three-year old goes to bed. Last week, my mom used the time to show me her 403(b) statements, and asked me what I thought.
What I found was astounding.
While the advisor provided by her employer had appropriate investments with regards to a stocks-to-bonds ratio, the fees she was paying were pretty outrageous -- averaging about 1.5% per year. After calculating what similar low-fee investments offered by her employer would have accomplished, I realized that she was paying more and getting poorer results with her current funds.
In fact, she was paying 18 times more money in fees with her investments. Needless to say, we've made an appointment to meet her advisor, and I'll be going with her this time. The takeaway is clear: when you manage your own money and educate yourself, it's much harder to be taken advantage of.
You can outperform the professionals
Selena Maranjian: Over long periods, most professionally managed stock mutual funds are outperformed by simple low-cost index funds. According to the folks at Standard & Poor's, for example, as of the end of June 2016, fully 87% of all domestic stock mutual funds underperformed the S&P 1500 Composite Index over the past 10 years. And 85% of large-cap stock funds underperformed the S&P 500.
How can that be? Well, fees are a big part of the explanation. Index funds can be found that charge very tiny amounts in fees. For S&P 500 index funds, you can find expense ratios (annual fees) of 0.09% for the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) and 0.16% for the Vanguard 500 Index fund (VFINX) -- and those are just a few of many examples. As of 2015, meanwhile, the average actively managed stock fund charged 0.84% per year. That difference can seem small, but remember that over many years and applied to many thousands of invested dollars, it can result in big differences. And that 0.84% is just an average, too -- plenty of managed funds charge 1% or 1.5% or more.
Even Warren Buffett has endorsed index funds as perfect for small individual investors. Indeed, he says that in his will, he offers these instructions for the money left for his wife: "Put 10% of the cash in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard's.)"
Control over your tax bill
Brian Feroldi: One underappreciated advantage of managing your own money is that you gain far more control over your taxes. That's important, as gains on an investment that are held for less than a year are taxed at your top marginal tax rate, which could be anywhere from 10% to 39.6%. Since taxes on investments that are held for longer than a year are far lower, it can sometimes make sense to alter the timing of your buying or selling in order to minimize your tax bill.
I've personally used this tactic to great success over the last few years. On the rare occasion that I sell, I try to balance my winners against my losers so that I keep my net taxes owed around $0. This strategy might not be available to you if you outsource your investment planning.
Another point that is worth noting is that most mutual fund managers do not care about taxes at all. After all, the funds are not responsible for paying taxes on any gains. That responsibility falls to the funds' shareholders. As such, mutual fund managers are incentivized to maximize their returns before taxes, so they are not penalized by the government for trading frequently.
While we here at the Fool don't suggest that newbies dive in and take control of all aspects of their finances immediately, we believe that lifelong learners will profit from taking control of their finances. If you're willing to put in the time, the endeavour can be amusing, educational, and enriching.