If you listen to some journalists, you could convince yourself that there's a conspiracy afoot among financial-services companies. Earlier this week, MarketWatch's Paul Farrell argued that most people are saving too much for retirement and that the blame should fall squarely on money-management firms that stand to gain from increasing assets under management.
This isn't the first time this idea has appeared here on the Fool; an academic study indicated that, for Americans who are close to retirement age, the overall retirement picture looks pretty good. Yet Farrell's position is much more sinister, suggesting that financial-services companies are using unethical methods to scare people into saving more than they need.
Conflicts of interest
Of course, money managers are interested in getting as much of people's assets as they can. Since mutual funds and ETFs charge fees based on a percentage of assets under management, more assets mean higher fees. Therefore, it's good to be somewhat careful when relying on tips from particular advisors.
Still, that doesn't mean the numbers from these firms are worthless. In theory, how much you save and what asset classes you invest in are choices independent of the particular investment vehicles you use to reach your retirement-savings goals. For instance, if you use Vanguard's financial-planning services, Vanguard may well recommend that you invest solely in its mutual funds. However, you can take those recommendations and seek out similar investments elsewhere without greatly compromising the value of the plan you received.
Calculators: garbage in, garbage out
Financial calculators have become ubiquitous in retirement planning. You can find calculators that span the range of complexity, from simple programs that require only a few pieces of information to sophisticated algorithms that ask you to provide much greater detail about your past and future finances. The output of these calculators also varies greatly, from a one-line conclusion to a full report with numbers, graphs, tables, and charts to answer every question you could ever think to ask.
Unfortunately, financial calculators are only as good as the assumptions they make. For instance, one rule of thumb is that after you retire, you should plan on spending about 70%-85% of what you earned before you retired. There's nothing wrong with that as a basic assumption, but it may be totally inappropriate for your individual situation. If you live below your means and save large portions of your income every year, you may be spending far less than 70%-85% of your earnings now, and you might be completely comfortable with much less income in retirement. If so, then financial calculators that make the wrong assumptions will give you bad results.
Do your own due diligence
Yet to suggest that this is a conspiracy among financial-services companies is silly. While no one will argue that Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch
You have many options you can use to manage your own assets. With index mutual funds and ETFs, you'll pay just a fraction of what you'd pay for an actively managed fund. By picking and buying your own stocks through a discount broker, you can save even more, essentially eliminating the fees you'd pay a money manager to pick stocks for you. That's part of why The Motley Fool started its newsletter services: to give do-it-yourself investors access to exceptional stock-picking ideas without having to pay thousands of dollars in management fees.
As an investor, you have to stay on your toes. But don't give in to conspiracy theories that threaten your ability to meet your financial goals. If you're not comfortable with the companies that offer you financial services, then use that discomfort as incentive to take charge of your finances yourself.
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger took charge of his finances two decades ago and hasn't looked back. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy is absolutely free.