December 17, 2021

Are You an Expert? More Often Than You Think

Whether retired or not, we all tend to gravitate to experts. If we want help managing our money we find a financial planner or adviser. For our health, we consult not just doctors, but specialists. There are experts ready to tell you how you save your marriage or put the spark back in your love life. Websites have all sorts of places that list easy steps to solve every sticky problem in your life. Our society worships experts. If someone is an expert, whatever he or she says must be right.

Yet, time and time again, we rely on experts and find the advice doesn’t work the way we have been told it would. Then we question ourselves up and assume we must be incompetent because “it worked for all those other people.” Yet, the pandemic mess should be proof enough that what constitutes an expert is often open to personal interpretation. Your expert may be a quack to me and an oracle of truth to others.

Unfortunately, there are lots of people who try to separate older folks from their money with investment schemes that are little more than scams. A claim of legitimacy, a fancy title, a slick brochure, a four-color mailer, or a well-designed website is all it takes to separate lots of people from their hard-earned money.

My non-expert advice: don’t do this to yourself. Sometimes advice doesn’t work because it’s bad advice. Of the hundreds of personal development, financial planning, or retirement books I’ve read over the years more than a handful contained bad advice. The ideas and suggestions simply did not work for me in my situation. They produced zero results or even had negative outcomes. They were not just useless, but potentially harmful to me.

This doesn’t mean the authors were lying. In most cases, I could see a reason why the advice might have worked well for the author but wouldn’t work for me. We’re all different. What works for one person or even a group of people doesn’t always translate well to every individual. We can't out-source our life to others.

It really doesn’t matter how well schooled an expert is or what studies she has to back up her claims. Unless the author has spent time with you personally be suspicious of any advice that comes from averaging different types of people together. Do studies on “average” people apply to someone who isn’t average? Are you average, or are you a unique human being? 

Do you completely fit the average mold in terms of your genetics, diet, upbringing, education, finances, family situation, residence, hobbies, etc? Probably not. No one person does. That's why it is an "average." That means the step-by-step approach to solving your specific problem won't necessarily work like you hope it will.

At this point, stop and consider: experts certainly know less about you than you do. They want you to stop worrying and just do what they say, buy what they recommend, and live how they have determined is best. An expert is often self-declared. He may have no track record or experience to have earned that label. She has no idea what works best for you in your unique set of circumstances. Consider that maybe you are the best expert in figuring what is right for you. 

Study yourself as an individual, and use expert advice only as a general guide for new experiments of your own. Notice what works for you and what doesn’t. Trust your senses. If the experts say one thing, but your personal experience suggests the opposite, put more faith in your own experience. Stop listening to every talking head. Start listening to yourself. That will take you much farther down the road of a satisfying lifestyle.

How specifically could this apply to you? Without coming across as an expert (!), here are a few obvious examples to make my point:

Health care.  If any doctor said I need surgery or a course of treatment that is expensive, possibly debilitating, and risky I am going to get a second opinion. I am going to do my own research on the Internet. I am going to attempt to talk with others who have had the same medical issue. I very well might do what that first doctor suggested. But, not just on his say-so.

Finances. My financial adviser suggests I purchase something, sell something, or consider a new direction. Nothing happens until I have enough time to think about it, research it, and consider other options. It is my money and future at risk, not hers.

Blogging. There are thousands of bloggers ready to tell me and sell me something so I can be a "successful" blogger. They have a plan to add 10,000 new readers in a month, or 20,000 Twitter followers by tomorrow. All I have to do is buy their book or sign up for an online course, and I'll be the next big thing. Or, maybe it is better for me to continue the way I have been. After all, it has worked pretty well for over eleven years. Only I can decide what I want this blog to be and how to get there.

What decisions have you made and steps you have taken that were counter to "the experts?" Do you have examples of some piece of advice you followed that turned out to be all wrong for you? What is keeping us from trusting more of our own sense of what is right and wrong for us?

I have looked at "expert" advice, a life-time of experiences, and decided things work out best for me with a cautious blend of someone else's thoughts and my self-knowledge.


  1. The most frightening piece of "expert" advice we've ever received dates back to the late 70's when I worked in the accounting department of a small savings and loan. At the company Christmas party, Alan and I were telling one of my colleagues that we planned to build our own house right after we were married, paying cash for supplies as we went along. My colleague (a branch manager, older and theoretically wiser) was mortified. He told us in no uncertain terms that we needed a mortgage so that we could deduct the mortgage loan interest in our tax return. I can still hear him plain as day saying, "You need debt!" knowing he believed every word of it. Well, no, we didn't need (or want) debt. That was the whole point of doing the building ourselves. I can't imagine how many tens of thousands of dollars we saved in interest over the years by not listening to the expert.

    We have always told our kids that knowledge is power. In this situation, we were fortunate in that Alan had the knowledge and the skills needed to actually build our home. But there have been other situations, too, when we haven't listened to experts and have been more successful. (Investing and car buying come to mind). In my humble opinion, being willing to educate yourself on any topic and trusting yourself to find the right path for you and your family will beat expert advice in many situations.

    1. I welcome advice from various sources but reserve the right to make a final decision on my own. Your housing story is a powerful example: being able to write off mortgage interest can be a good thing, but completely misses the true cost of such a strategy. Unless the interest is a tax credit instead of a deduction, you are losing thousands a year in interest payments. For most of us, that is a necessary part of owning a house, not something to welcome.

  2. Identifying advisors you can trust is terribly hard. I've suffered my share of bad advice; maybe more than my share. In complex matters like surgeries, investments, legal entanglements, job searches, and the purchase or sale of a home, I'll only rely on advisors who have successfully helped close friends. I've learned that the hard way. And while I try to learn as much as I can about a subject, I don't counter the advisor's instructions. That's as foolish as picking a novice or an unknown quantity in the first place.

    1. Early on in our marriage I relied on a financial advisor who ended up getting me roped into a fraudulent investment. He didn't know because he hadn't done due diligence. I became a target of the IRS and had to pay back a bunch of money along with interest and penalties. And, for the next five years I was audited.

      Needless to say, I changed advisors, and became more questioning of a proposed deal.

  3. I took 1 year off from my job on 3 different occasions. I was never harmed financially and was always able to step into a better or equivalent position upon returning. Traditional advice would have been that I was committing professional suicide. I worked in a very fast-moving industry and the time off allowed me to recharge and keep going. I don't think I personally would have lasted without the breaks.
    I remember years ago explaining to a young engineer that due to the standard deductions the house loan he was considering would offer him precious little as a tax break. Always do the math yourself.

    1. One of the effects of Covid has been less concern about gaps in a resume. As you note, that used to be an issue in many careers. But, now employers din't care, they just need good employees.

  4. I usually follow the doctor's advice (but I agree, for big things get a second opinion). For financial advice I rely on John Bogle and Warren Buffett (low-cost index funds). I almost always follow my wife's advice. But, unfortunately, I often ignore the usually sensible advice I give to myself.

  5. Re: mortgage advice. Until our retirement and downsizing, I've always had a mortgage. Some smaller, some larger. California was eye watering, but it sure gave me nice boost coming back to the Midwest. But the idea of doing it for a tax deduction reminds me of my former boss. His take on doing something for a deduction was "You give me $10 and I'll give you back $3. And I'll do this all day as long you'd like." It was thought provoking to a young home owner. Of course, he was a VP, made enough money to have no mortgage, and was a little cocky to boot. ;-) And in fairness, he was one of the only C-level people in my company driving a 10 year old Mazda in near perfect shape. So...he did teach us a few lessons on finance.

    I trusted a few experts before figuring out they were all "expert" at my life.

    1. Your story is quite telling. I'd guess deciding a deduction is a good thing, without figuring out the actual cost of such a benefit, is a common mistake. Obviously, in certain situations like a mortgage, there isn't usually a choice. Then, the interest deduction makes often makes sense. But to invest in something just for the deduction in a financial no-no.

      Interesting that you noticed the car and understood the lesson he was teaching.