Written by Jason Nickerson, CFP®, EA

Have you ever found yourself asking the question, “What am I paying for?”  That question can take many forms, but simply having the awareness to ask says something about your critical thinking skills.  I also find that in an ever evolving world of competitiveness fueled by human intuition and ingenuity, with a heavy dose of technology, transparency of what we are paying for should be ever so, well, transparent.  The information age is still upon us and continues to shape how we think, learn, operate and even evolve ourselves every day.  Access to information has never been easier and will only continue to get easier in my mind.  We walk around with ready access to the world of information in our hands or pockets.  Handheld computers (aka smartphones or cell phones) provide us a gateway to the world.  Yet, we still find ourselves asking that question I posed at the opening, “What am I paying for”.

It seems that as quickly as the world has worked to make information more accessible, those charging for goods and services have evolved to be more creative in labeling what they are charging the consumer.  Why?  Well, information and data are power.  In the future, our personal information and data will be currency.  I can also look at this in reverse; those who lack knowledge and information is currency to someone else.  We have been helped by various governing bodies that place policy and seek enforcement to give consumers the information they need to make educated decisions.  Then that creates a debate over another form of currency, time.  For decades and maybe centuries, we have been told time is money.  Our time is finite.  We only have so much in a day and in our life.  Where should we allocate that?  We have to be able to outsource some demands on our time to trusted partners.  That will come at a price.  If we know what that price is, we can decide if the value we are receiving is worth the cost of allocating dollars to that outsourced area of our lives.

So why are providers either intentionally or unintentionally obscure in defining their actual cost to you, the consumer?  Perhaps they don’t understand the actual cost to their client.  Maybe they understand the true cost and have a hard time linking that to the value they are providing. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.  Maybe there are many other explanations of such.

What is interesting as a dynamic that I have witnessed over the years is that when we as consumers fully grasp the actual dollar cost, we challenge it more.  It’s as if our ego, like another person in our body, tells us that the less you understand, the less you should question.  When in fact, it should be the complete opposite.  We challenge more what we understand versus what we don’t.  When the dollar cost is transparent, we have the duty as the consumer to understand the value it is bringing us.  Why did we seek this product or service in the first place?  Does it save us time (arguably one of the most valuable things we have)?  Does it enhance our life to the level we hoped it might when we started our search?  Can we trust the product or service because the process of learning what is offered has been highly transparent?

Notice the questions I am posing have nothing to do with dollars in return to us?  There are certainly ways to calculate some form of return.  The dollar value of time.  Returns in my investments if I turn them over to an advisor versus managing myself or value of found opportunities and optimization when working with a financial planner.  How about those things that dollars cannot measure?  Peace of mind, sleeping at night, time with family, time spent pursuing hobbies.  I could wrap these all up and call it Complete Value.  The value that we receive that completes us holistically.

Perhaps providers continue to find ways not to be as transparent because they already understand they are not providing complete value.  Maybe they know they cannot consistently provide value in the area(s) of focus they are charging you for a long time.  Maybe they know there are other more transparent providers that do provide the long-term value in the product or service we are seeking to purchase.

I will provide you with this thought to bring my esoteric rant to a summary.  We can all be better consumers, not just of what we buy, but of information.  Let us not just pose a question of cost and expect a response quoted in dollars.  Let us develop an understanding of complete value.  These are things we can control.  Should we be expected to develop an understanding of every product and service to the level of the so called expert we are sitting with asking these questions too?  Certainly not.  We should understand what value something will provide to us, complete value.  We should not just measure cost and returns in dollars.  We may not like those answers all of the time.  It doesn’t mean they are wrong or expensive.  That means we developed some preconceived notion of cost based on likely a comparison that is not appropriate or fitting to our situation.  It is easy for us to draw lines to connect the quantitative.  It is harder for us to connect qualitative value. We need to push ourselves and the provider to make this understood.  What is the value of the product, technology, and service they provide?  Can I connect with this person on a human level when I need it?  I believe these are things the information age has yet to provide data on, which are harder to measure by applying quantitative data.  That’s a good thing.  It means that humans still have a purpose in this world.  The quantitative can be streamlined, making the qualitative value measurement our focus.  It is not always about the cheapest cost or highest dollars in return.  It is not just about those things that fill our wallet quickly or empty it less quickly, but also those that fill our mind, body, and soul.  When there is that level of transparency and value communication between the consumer and the provider, our previous questions are answered. We are now asking, “What did I do without this all this time?”

In the spirit of transparency, I write this piece fully admitting that I am a part of a team that does just what I am opining on.  Trust and transparency are a cornerstone of our client relationships.  Our team works hard every day to prove value to our clients through a holistic approach.  To us, it is not just about the return on portfolios or income tax efficiency.  In today’s world, where we have more and more coming at us as humans, John G. Ullman & Associates is that trusted partner in our client’s financial lives and beyond.  Yes, we can draw the quantitative lines I mentioned, but we can also draw the qualitative lines.  Our service and cost for that service are steeped in that Relationship quotient that is hard to find.  We do not define ourselves by products sold (because we don’t sell them) and the dollar cost of those products.  We define our value in the Complete Value and total impact we can have on a family’s financial life.

If you are interested in understanding this Complete Value better, please reach out to us and schedule a no cost (that’s well defined), no obligation consultation with one of the talented members of our team.