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Financial Advisor Fees Are Irrelevant, If You’ve Already Paid Them

A reader writes in, asking:

“After reading your books and others on the Boglehead reading list, I think I’ve determined that my new money should go to Vanguard index funds. But I’m thinking about keeping my existing savings with the advisor I’ve been using for several years. I’m less optimistic than ever about his ability to beat index funds but it seems like leaving him would mean that all the money I’ve paid in commission and fees over the years would be a waste. Does this line of thinking make sense?”

To put it bluntly, no, that line of thinking doesn’t make sense.

In economics, the commissions and fees that you’ve already paid your advisor would be referred to as “sunk costs” (i.e., costs that you’ve already paid and which cannot be recovered regardless of which action you take). For decision making purposes, sunk costs are irrelevant and should be ignored.

This concept is often best explained with an analogy. Imagine that it’s Saturday afternoon, and you just spent $9 to see this summer’s latest blockbuster movie. Twenty minutes into the movie, however, you realize that it’s simply not for you. In fact, it’s terrible. At this point, the $9 ticket price is irrelevant. Sitting through the rest of the movie doesn’t get you your $9 back. All that matters is what you want to do with the next 90 minutes of your life. If sitting through the rest of the movie isn’t the option that brings you the most happiness, you shouldn’t do it.

Commissions and fees that you’ve already paid to an advisor are like that $9 movie ticket. You’re not getting them back. So the only question that matters is which route looks best going forward.

In other words, if there is no cost to make the switch (e.g., capital gains taxes), the only thing that matters is which you expect to perform better in the future: money that you have invested with the advisor, or the Vanguard index fund portfolio that you’ve planned. If you think the index funds would perform better, there’s no sense continuing to pay more fees just because you’ve already paid some fees.

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