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Behind the scenes: 3 case studies about money that will make you laugh, cry, & vomit

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I’m fortunate to hear a lot of interesting (and very personal) money stories, most of which cause me to either burst into a radiant smile or threaten immediate suicide.

Today, I want to pull back the curtain to tell you about 3 people I’ve heard from in the last few days.

Transfer of money

  • A 32-year-old woman who just discovered she’s been paying unnecessary fees to her financial “advisor” for the last 13 years
  • A 40-something female surgeon who makes $500,000/year but isn’t sure what to do with her money
  • A 24-year-old guy who negotiated $200 back with one phone call

At the bottom of each profile, I’ve added a “lessons learned” section.

#1: “Am I really allowed to ask what his commission is?”

Over the weekend, I was out for drinks with some friends and ended up sitting next to this girl who, once she heard what I do, started asking money questions. It turns out that she was very interested in investing, and had actually just bought a condo in San Francisco (with a $500 monthly HOA fee). You probably already know my thoughts on real estate as an investment, so I just kept quiet.

But then she mentioned that she’d also been investing in life insurance, and I started choking on my drink. Why does a 32-year-old with no dependents need life insurance, much less as an “investment”? But it gets worse. I found out she’d “locked up the money”…for the last 13 years. I almost had to stop myself from shaving down my tortilla chips to the fine point of a shiv and stabbing myself in the throat.

I tried to play it cool but she asked me, point-blank, “What do you think? Don’t sugar-coat it.” So I told her that her “advisor” was probably making a fat commission off her, and there’s virtually no reason for someone in her financial situation to be investing in life insurance. (I didn’t mention the condo — not much she could do about that now.)

She was receptive. And she was concerned that she was being taken advantage of. “I only call my advisor once a year,” she said. “And I’ve gotten my entire family into life insurance since that’s what he recommended to me.”

So I told her to go ask her broker what his commissions are — how he makes money — and why he chose life insurance for her. Maybe there was a legitimate reason, although I doubted it. She looked at me and said, “Am I really allowed to ask what his commission is?” Don’t you guys find that interesting? “Of course,” I said. “He works for you, and he’s probably making money off your money. You have the right to know.” She said, “Oh, okay. Because if someone asked me what my profit margins were, I wouldn’t tell them.”

Good point. But if you’re using a commission-based advisor (which you shouldn’t), you have the right to know. And you have the right to put your money in a more appropriate investment than life insurance for a young woman, larded up with unnecessary fees.

Lessons learned

  • Don’t dismiss this girl as stupid. She actually got engaged with her money, which is more than most people do. Unfortunately, she didn’t do her research and probably got taken advantage of by an unscrupulous advisor. Ironically, even though she got sub-optimal returns (and made a questionable real-estate “investment”), she’s better off than the vast majority of people in this country who never pay attention to their finances at all. She can get this back on track. And she’s already shown the initiative to take action
  • Her investment probably did fine — it just could have done better without the fees. Costs matter
  • Evaluate your investments and major expenditures each month. Chances are you’re getting ripped off somewhere. I have a super-detailed script on calls to make once/year as one of my Scrooge Strategy tips

#2: “Well, I made $500,000 last year…”

I was in Lake Tahoe a few weeks ago kayaking with a group (yes, some bloggers leave their room) and a woman came up next to me on the water. She had heard me speak and had no idea what to do with her money. She really caught my attention with this exchange.

Her: “The thing is, I earned a LOT of money last year, but it’s just sitting in the bank.
Me: “How much are we talking about, ballpark?”
Her: “I earned $500,000 last year. And I have $200,000 just sitting in a bank account.”
Me: (Stops rowing)

It’s totally fascinating to meet a woman who’s supremely alpha in one area but has no idea what to do in another. She was in her 40s, single, and a surgeon. She was considering buying a house (“for the tax deduction”…one of the few times this might actually make sense) but also because she didn’t know anything else about investing.

We started talking about other business stuff and a few minutes later she asked me, “What’s your consulting rate?” I told her and, without blinking, she said, “Can you just take care of my money? I can pay you.” Now, I charge a ridiculous amount for consulting, so the fact that she didn’t even FLINCH when I told her my rate was really surprising — and tempting.

But no, I told her. “I don’t do portfolio management. I rarely say this, but you should really talk to a financial advisor. You can find a good, fee-only advisor at http://www.napfa.org/ or I can recommend one by email.”

Why did I recommend a financial advisor for her and not the earlier woman? Because in my book, I mention there are only a few categories of people who generally should use financial advisors in the 20-35 year-old range (typically people who are earning a tremendous amount, need more sophisticated money-management strategies, and are too busy to do this on their own.) Not only does this woman fit the description by being busy and very successful, she’s older and likely won’t do anything without someone helping her.

I’m thrilled to tell you that she’s started to take control of her money. But the lessons learned with this woman are very interesting.

Lessons learned

  • A high income solves most financial problems. People don’t like to hear this because they like to judge people’s financial behavior, but it’s true. Yes, she’s in her 40s. Yes, she missed the prime time of her life to invest and compound her growth. But at $500,000 per year, she can catch up quickly and have a very good quality of life
  • Paying for value is a sign of successful people. She caught me off guard when she offered to hire me as a consultant, but when I was thinking about it later, it didn’t surprise me. Most of the successful people I know are willing to pay for value. They pay for training courses and understand that you can’t out-frugal your way to being rich — you sometimes have to spend money to earn money.

    Compare this philosophy to people who believe there’s only a limited amount of money (and they have to protect theirs) or people who expect everything to be free. Though she hadn’t started investing, the fact that she’s she’s dominated her career and is willing to pay a significant amount of money to handle her money — and she falls into a category of really busy professionals who could benefit from a fee-based advisor — means can quickly ramp up on the financial side

#3: “I was charged with $200 in overdraft fees”

DaveDavid Howe, 24, emailed me from D.C.

“I made a mistake in my checking account, I thought I had transferred money to cover pending transactions but I didn’t “confirm” the transfer. I was charged with $200 in overdraft fees.

I called the bank using your template, and I think there were 3 consecutive lines you suggested in your book.

After the first line she credited me $70.

After the second line she credited me $105. I repeated the second line again almost verbatim and she credit me $120.

Then I used the third line, $150, the third again $200.

The funniest part was she responded to every line almost in the exact way you said she would in the book!! I just found it comical (and I’m very glad to have the $200 back!) Maybe I’ll use it to open a Roth IRA…”

Lessons learned

  • My negotiation tips are fucking awesome. I literally have hundreds and hundreds of people who have negotiated significant amounts back from banks (here are just a few). If you don’t have my book, buy it now — there is a lot of completely new stuff you’ve never seen in there. Order I Will Teach You To Be Rich (includes negotiation scripts and a 6-week plan to dominate your finances)
  • David knew to negotiate like an Indian — meaning he recognized that he has more control in his relationships with companies. While many people simply sit back and take it, he called them and got $200 back within a few minutes. Once you do this with one company, you realize how much power you have to do it with many companies.

Hope you guys enjoyed these profiles. I’m always hearing interesting money stories, so if you like these, I’ll try to share more of them.

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63 Comments on "Behind the scenes: 3 case studies about money that will make you laugh, cry, & vomit"

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R.S.
7 years 19 days ago
A fun post to read Ramit. I’m curious as to what reason the financial adviser must have given your first case to convince her she needed life insurance at her age with no dependents. The surgeon’s story does not shock me one bit. I am in graduate school for a medical field and whenever I talk about opening a ROTH IRA, dollar cost averaging, or the nearly nonexistent returns in real estate (inflation adjusted) my classmates start thinking of me as some financial genius who “needs to teach a class to the rest of the school.” All doctors excelled in… Read more »
Baker
7 years 18 days ago

This was a great cross-selection of stories. An ease and fun read that at times really did make me want to laugh and vomit… although I never felt like crying ;-).

It must be EXTREMELY validating to know that real people are using the negotiation scripts word-for-word and having results. That’s awesome to hear. It’s all cool that you can have a lasting effect on the first two woman, even though they are at different places in the financial journey.

Fun read… good work.

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Ryan
7 years 18 days ago

I gave the same advice (asking point-blank what the margins were) to a friend of mine who was going to subcontract through a firm that was offering him lower rates than he would make going full time at the company in question. They never responded to him, because they’re a big bag of dicks.

It’s amazing how people don’t realize they can ask about how someone else is making money off them. As a contractor, it never occurred to me NOT to do that.

Tyler
7 years 18 days ago

I’ve been in the shoes of the first and third person but I can only dream of having the problems of contestant number two (the extra $200,000)! I like how you emphasize that the first woman was better off than most Americans because she is doing SOMETHING. I audit 401(k) plans for a living and it is amazing how many people just decided to stop contributing during the bear market or, even worse, took money out.

Writer's Coin
7 years 18 days ago

A high income solves most financial problems.

Amen Ramit, Amen. Most bloggers don’t like to say this because they feel it alienates their readers, but this is right on. If you’re making half a mil, you’re going to have A LOT less to worry about than the rest of us.

Traciatim
Traciatim
7 years 18 days ago

My only question, is where are you finding all the single ladies with lots of money around and nothing to spend it on? 😉

Jason
Jason
7 years 18 days ago
I have been reading your blog for quite some time now (and have read your book too). Although I have never been in the situation where I needed to negotiate fees, my girlfriend was hit with some pretty significant bank fees. After a little fight I finally was able to convince her to call the bank and try to get the fees waived. She finally agreed, probably just to stop the argument, and after about five minutes on the phone she hung up and wouldn’t look me in the eyes. That is when I knew your advice worked, and that… Read more »
Brian
Brian
7 years 18 days ago
I have a question on the life insurance issue. On the question of fee-based advising I can fully see that there is a conflict and that makes perfect sense. My question is whether there are other factors at play with this woman? I ask because I am in my 20s and buy life insurance. I do this b/c I have concerns about family illnesses etc. that may make it difficult to buy insurance down the road. I’m basically eating the cost of it now so that it is available at a reasonable price later. This makes some sense to me,… Read more »
David Spencer
7 years 18 days ago

I’m interested in your characterization that the third person knew how to “negotiate like an Indian.” If you submitted another ethnic group there, the statement would be considered offensive by many. Do you feel you are making a fair generalization of Indian culture (culturally people from India feel more comfortable in confrontation-heavy negotiation situations than people from the US) or is this just stereotyping?

I ask because I’m honestly curious.

James
James
7 years 18 days ago

These stories are great – You should definitely share more of them!

Al
Al
7 years 18 days ago
Most of the advice you gave them was reasonable. My problem is with what you consider “successful”. You say — “Not only does this woman fit the description by being busy and very successful” while also saying — “She was in her 40s, single, and a surgeon” How is this woman, single, close to 50, (most likely without children) successful? Just because she has a ton of money that she doesn’t even know what to do with? When will we get off the notion that a big bank account = success. Is she happier than a teacher making 50,000$ with… Read more »
Andrea
Andrea
7 years 18 days ago
Al and Ramit, Would you have wondered the same about a 45 year old, kayaking/vacationing, handsome single man or would you be high-fiving him after he told you of his life and/or exploits the night before? Maybe this woman who chose the life of a surgeon perhaps made a conscious choice not to have kids…I never assume everyone wants that life–I know several people that never did. (For the record, I am a happy mom of 2 so have no skin in this game.) Not trying to spark a debate about gender differences here, just pointing out what I see… Read more »
Douglas
Douglas
7 years 18 days ago

Ramit! you dropped the F bomb! haha awesome.
Your negotiation tips ARE awesome, but for some reason when ever i get more than one overdraft fee they will only refund one, and they don’t budge. How did this guy get more than one refunded?? and is that common?

Moneymonk
7 years 18 days ago

I agree with Al, we all need human assets at some point, not just money.

I love the way you write Ramit, you add a dose of humor which makes reading your blog interesting. Keep it up

Bill
Bill
7 years 18 days ago

I wish you would refrain from the use of obscenities.

David Howe
David Howe
7 years 18 days ago
#15, Douglas… I’m the “guy” from Washington, D.C. If you have the book on pg 66-67 is where you can use this template. Each of the three questions uses a slightly longer preface or explanation for the request. I’m sure many people start with putting everything on the table, I’ve been a good customer, etc, can you refund this? It’s a mistake because the extra info is a negotiating chip you can use later and follow up asking the same question again So if you say can you refund this? Then I see the fee, I think it’s excessive, what… Read more »
Monevator
7 years 18 days ago
What do these people who earn $500,000 a year and only have $200,000 in the bank do with their money? I don’t mean that spitefully — good luck to her. I just am genuinely bewildered. She’s a surgeon, so she’s presumably she’s pretty busy based on the medical folk I know. At the least she doesn’t jetset around the world 365 days a year. I’ve saved 20% or so of my salary since I started working and it didn’t take long for my savings to exceed my salary. What’s she been spending her money on? I’m certain I’d have a… Read more »
Mike Levy
Mike Levy
7 years 18 days ago

Ramit, please continue to share these stories. They validate what you say and write and trigger new ideas in my mind for things I can try or further research.

Ben
Ben
7 years 18 days ago

Re: Brian Post 9
There is a huge difference between buying a 20 year term life policy and using life insurance as an investment. My 20 year term policy (bought at age 28 because I have wife, house, 2 kids, but no white picket fence..yet) costs me $260/yr. My wife’s policy is $115/yr which is cheap insurance if I have to dump the kids in daycare while I work. Buying life insurance as an investment with guaranteed returns, options for increased returns when markets increase, and the ability to pull money out without actually dying was around $350/MONTH.

Steve O
Steve O
7 years 18 days ago
Ramit, I disagree with your philosophy that ALL commission-based financial advisers should be avoided at all costs. I sold products based on commission for a couple years, and most people in that field wouldn’t have given a damn what anyone bought if they didn’t get reimbursed for helping their company out. I did my job well because that’s what I was paid to do. Fee-based advisers also aren’t necessarily cheaper! But yeah, I’m not sure why anyone would get life insurance before they’re married…although Brian makes a good point that the prices are much cheaper if you buy when you’re… Read more »
Steve O
Steve O
7 years 18 days ago

I think a number of people are confused about the second lady’s situation. I think her comment sounds like $500K is a LOT of money to her, ergo she hasn’t been making that much in years past. Also, many people who make 6 figures spend a ridiculous percentage of their salary and end saving the same amount or less than people with much smaller incomes.

Early Retirement Extreme
7 years 18 days ago

I hate to say it, but I can’t help myself reading these ongoing reality shows.

I’d have to agree with some of the other commentators that having 200k in the bank on a 500k salary is not a whole lot. It’s only 5 months. On an absolute scale, it’s a lot, but that doesn’t matter much for a person who may and I say “may” only know how to live at a burn rate of 300k/year. In that case, she might be an alpha surgeon, but financially, that’s delta, like so many others.

melissa
melissa
7 years 18 days ago

Ramit, I’ve always wondered what exactly you faxed all of those car companies when you bought your car and got dealers into a bidding war over you, like you talked about in your book. Is there a car-buying fax script/template you could share with us?

Andrew
Andrew
7 years 18 days ago
Life Insurance…a couple disclaimers: I do not sell life insurance and do not work in the insurance industry. This very commonly promoted mis-conception that life insurance is not needed when you have no dependents is just dumb!!! And non-term insurance if purchased the right way is very inexpensive and useful. A personal life experience a great friend I went to college with was diagnosed with a disease that makes him uninsurable he was 28 at the time he is now 35 with young children but noone will give him life insurance. If he was smart he would have purchased insurance… Read more »
Susan
Susan
7 years 18 days ago

Re: “ONLY” $200K in bank.

High salaries = cripplingly high taxes.

alex
alex
7 years 18 days ago

“Am I really allowed to ask what his commission is?”

People need to stop treating these financial advisors like their boss. THEY WORK FOR YOU PEOPLE!!!!!

Jeremy Freelove
Jeremy Freelove
7 years 18 days ago

I don’t think that was Susan’s point, Ramit. The taxes comment was a defense of the numerous comments that say Susan’s savings of $200k wasnt very much. I would be surprised if less than $200k went to taxes, leaving $300k net. Saving 200 out of 300 is quite impressive, more than I would likely save.

K
K
7 years 18 days ago
I’m 25 and my employer set us (myself and the one other employee) up with a IRA through her financial advisor. Our employer is contributing a flat amount every month regardless of our contributions. Since we also want to start our own retirement savings, he is opening up ROTH’s for us. We don’t pay him and our employer doesn’t pay him so how is he earning money? I know that amount that we’re investing now isn’t enough for him to be making a large commission. He also has had phone conversations with us to set up savings plans so we… Read more »
RStewie
RStewie
7 years 18 days ago
Ramit/Al, I’d just like to throw out there that it’s perfectly natural to see a single, 40 year old professional woman as “successful” as opposed to “rich”. Just because she doesn’t have a man and some kids doesn’t mean she is not successful. Considering that the average female surgeon makes roughly 40% of what a male surgeon makes, I think the fact that she is going on kayaking expeditions and making $500K annually can realistically be chalked up to “success”. I’m sure I’m not the only woman that read Al’s response to the article with a little bit of annoyance,… Read more »
K
K
7 years 18 days ago

I just asked my boss and she said she pays him so since we are now his clients he advises us for free.

Thanks for all your advice!

Douglas
Douglas
7 years 18 days ago
David Howe, thanks for you comment about my comment. My credit union does keep track of my past calls, and what i disputed. I have 3 overdraft fees in the 2 years i have had an account with them. The first time they refunded it no problem (thanks to Ramit’s wise advice) the second time they hesitated a little because it was not a “credit union error”. The last time was actually 2 overdraft fees in one day (i stand corrected i have had a total of 4 OD fees in 2 years) and they were only willing to waive… Read more »
Al
Al
7 years 18 days ago

In response to some of the comments that were annoyed with my comment. Yes, I personally feel the same way if it were a man. My point was directed at what society considers successful. I don’t consider some 45-50 year old bond trader, who’s making 1 million per year, still playing ladies as successful. That’s me. I think Ramit understood my point, though I can understand where others are coming from.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtSE4rglxbY&feature=channel_page

Ramit, keep up the good work keeping the money in our pockets with helpful tips and advice.

Wayne
Wayne
7 years 18 days ago

In regards to the surgeon, she probably didn’t get done with school until her mid-thirties. While the last few years of schooling were paid, they were not paid much above minimum wage.

Then she gets out, and either needs money to buy a practice, or money to start one.

Then, as she’s been living like a poor college student for 15 years, she buys the nice house, car, etc, and often pays off any student loans as well (maybe $200-300K).

It’s actually fairly common for MD’s to not start saving for retirement until their 40’s.

JT
JT
7 years 18 days ago
I think Wayne hit the nail on the head…for all the people who are “complaining” about the surgeon who “only” saved $200k…she probably had a ton of student loans from her education to tackle first, then, yes, after all that work she probably did want a nice house & car. I don’t know of many surgeons that drive around in beat up Fords. Now whether or not our society really needs to be paying surgeons a half million a year when we’re struggling as a nation to figure out how to pay for health care…that’s another debate for a different… Read more »
Kevin@OutOfYourRut
7 years 17 days ago
The surgeon with the half million dollar income was the most interesting profile, and there’s a lot to be learned from her story. Successful people not only buy value, but they delegate. They don’t micromanage every aspect of their lives, but find trustworthy people to take care of the details for them, freeing up their time and their efforts to concentrate on the bigger picture elements of their lives that make them successful in the first place. Concentrate on too many details and no matter how important they may be, you’ll end up stuck in the weeds of life. I… Read more »
alex
alex
7 years 17 days ago

Ramit and Ferris always have good quality posts……….i heard your little webcast speal with Tim………….didn’t pick me for any trip and dinner…..pupupupu 🙁

Matt
Matt
7 years 17 days ago

Stop cussing in your post. It’s tacky.

Bobby
7 years 17 days ago

Great entry, Ramit. Spent some time backpacking in India and I’ll confirm the Indian generalization. Stepping off the plane in Kolkata, I realized I was very undergunned when it came to negotiating with the auto-rickshaw drivers. After six months, I could hold my own. This came handy when I got back and had to deal with a large credit card bill. Folks don’t realize that you (or a pro acting on your behalf) can negotiate with credit card companies to reduce your balance. It starts with a phone call.

CR
CR
7 years 16 days ago

Funny that you call the first woman a “girl” — when she’s 32 — when you wouldn’t even consider calling the 24-year-old man a “boy”.

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
7 years 16 days ago

CR (46)–Actually, considering the non-reciprocal rules of gender-speak, I think he handled it correctly.

HP
7 years 16 days ago

Thanks for the advice. Love the information.

Luis
Luis
7 years 15 days ago

Brian,

You are absolutely correct on buying insurance being young, at your age is when you need to start, because as you said you eat the cost today at a much lower rate that 10 years down the road; obviuosly the person who wrote the article has no idea about insurance, being insured is a priviledge not a right.

Please don’t waste your time reading this guy…

Holly
Holly
7 years 14 days ago

I have to agree with Andrea in that if the 40-year-old surgeon was a man, there wouldn’t be much question over whether they were “successful” or not. She’s obviously good at what she does to make that much money a year; I don’t see how that couldn’t be successful. Having a husband and children doesn’t mean you are successful, it just means you’ve done something almost everyone else does.

Business Pandit
7 years 13 days ago

Do you guys in the US have to buy life insurance early because the rates would increase if you buy later? Even considering that the insurance premium is zero when you are not insured? From an Indian perspective, I made the following study and it came out to be huge savings if you get insured only when you really need to be, and not before that:

http://businesspandit.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/i-dont-need-life-insurance/

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Aaron
7 years 13 days ago

I don’t read religiously but have been following you for quite a while now, so I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. When you declared the quality of your negotiation tactics I about fell out of my chair. I was a bit shocked, but not in the moritfied way. That was absolutely hilarious! Thanks for making my day.

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
7 years 13 days ago
The 3rd story on negotiating was something we all need to read. Most of us avoid this because we think we aren’t good enough at it or because we’re afraid of confrontation. It’s always worth it to at least give it a shot. Some companies actually are interested in keeping you happy and keeping your business, and there are enough of them to make it worth doing. One thing we should all try to avoid is attempting to negotiate on EVERYTHING. A $50 or $100 issue may be worth fighting for, but if we find ourselves chasing two or three… Read more »
Russell Abravanel
Russell Abravanel
7 years 12 days ago

Great info! Watch your banks they are sneaky fee bandits!

Matt
7 years 11 days ago
I do a lot of reading and consider myself fairly open minded. You have to understand that Ramit writes to his persona. If you find yourself offended do not buy his book or read his blog. If you are going to comment it should be constructive and further the cause of helping people to learn and succeed in finance. Hell, go to my website, I am gender neutral and do not use any swear words. I am just saying that finance is not taught in our schools so the burden is on us. If you do not find his advice… Read more »
Lynda
Lynda
6 years 11 months ago

All three articles were very interesting until I got to the bottom and read under “Lessons Learned”.

Why do you or anyone else for that matter use profanity? Why couldn’t you have used the word “Heck” or any other non profanity word to state how GREAT your products are?????

Aaron
6 years 11 months ago

Lynda, did the article truly become less interesting, or did you just become less interested? Because I don’t find that the use of one profane word took anything away from the content of the post. Did it distract you so much that you couldn’t take anything away from it? I am not alone in thinking it made the post more interesting, I about fell out of my chair with laughter.

However, what riles me up is when somebody is too lazy to put a comma where appropriate.

Lynda
Lynda
6 years 11 months ago

The profanity did not take away from the interesting articles. I have read your site for many months now and I hadn’t read any profane words in the pass. In the comments section yes but not from your writings or maybe I just read them too fast to notice.

Did I not put a comma where needed?

You also made me laugh visualizing you falling out of your chair.with my first comment. Glad I made you laugh.
Lynda

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