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Household Finances Financial literacy gone berserk: People are too edgy about investing fees

Finding the lowest fee for the service level that will make you a successful investor won’t always be the cheapest option.

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Three facts about financial literacy:

1) You need to understand the cost of all the financial products you own and use.
2) Lower is better when it comes to cost – it means less of your money is being transferred to the financial industry.
3) Value is nearly as important as cost in determining whether you have the right product, and that includes investment advice.

November is Financial Literacy Month, so expect to hear all kinds of messages about how to be smarter about money in the weeks ahead. Here's my contribution: Be ruthless about finding out the price of investing products and advice, but understand that a race to the bottom on costs may deprive you of the help you need to reach your goals.

A lot of Globe readers ask me these days about exchange-traded funds, which are basically very low-cost mutual funds that trade like a stock. Often, these readers are fuming about the fees they pay for mutual funds or for the services of an investment adviser. They're convinced their fees are too high and that ETFs are the answer.

ETFs are the lowest-cost way to build an instantly diversified portfolio, but you need to know some investing basics to work them properly. For example, you must be able to set a mix of bonds and Canadian, U.S. and international stocks that works for your needs, then keep that mix in line over the years.

As you age, you'll have to adjust the mix to reflect approaching retirement. Then, you'll need to make major renovations to your portfolio as you move from the saving phase of life to living off your retirement income. On top of all this, you need to be comfortable using an online broker and choosing ETFs from a selection of hundreds.

An ETF portfolio would be a much lower-cost way to invest than having an investment adviser and a somewhat cheaper avenue than using a robo-adviser. But if you can't manage those ETFs effectively, the higher costs of robo and human advice can be a good value.

Find the lowest fee for the service level that will make you a successful investor. Sometimes, this won't be the cheapest option.

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Calling all seniors
Some colleagues and I are looking at when various generations reached milestones such as buying a house, getting married, having kids and retiring. We've heard from lots of people in all age groups – except those of you aged 65 and older. If you're in that group, please help us out by filling out our short online survey.

Rob's personal finance reading list…

The top 10 perks of debt-free living
Life is better when you're out of debt.

The overdressed investment portfolio
My experience interacting with investors tells me this advice is right on the money – stick to the basics in building a portfolio and avoid trends and new flavours.

Equifax deserves the corporate death penalty
Many more Americans were affected by the security breach at the credit reporting company Equifax than Canadians. But that still doesn't explain how much angrier Americans are about this lapse. Here's an example – a call for the company to be dissolved.

Wedding costs have gone crazy
A woman looks at what her parents $2,000 wedding in 1974 would cost in 2017 dollars. The inflation-adjusted cost would be $10,000. The actual cost is different story. Warning: Some foul language is used here. It's just the vernacular of young personal-finance writers.

Today's featured financial tool Wondering how much you can safely withdraw from your savings every year when you're retired? Try the Big Picture, an online tool that you can access for free through a 10-day trial.

Ask Rob The question: "In a registered retirement income fund, do you think the iShares Canadian Financial Monthly Income ETF (FIE-T) is a good choice? What factors should one consider in making this decision?"

The answer: "FIE has a high dividend yield of about 6.4 per cent, so I get why I've been asked a few times about it lately by readers. A couple of things to watch out for: the high management expense ratio of 0.94 per cent and the concentration on financials, a sector to which many Canadian investors are already over-exposed. FIE is almost like a balanced fund, with a mix of dividend stocks, preferred shares and corporate bonds in the financial sector. As an alternative, what about a more broad-based Canadian dividend ETF, with exposure to financials and other market sectors as well?"

Do you have a question for me? Send it my way. Sorry I can't answer every one personally. Questions and answers are edited for length.

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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