I won’t be advertising for Personal Capital anymore, and I apologize for doing so.

I’m finally up to here with Personal Capital’s fear-driven marketing. As a former affiliate, I apologize for shilling for them.

In case you’re unfamiliar with PC, it’s a financial advisory company that runs an online personal finance tracker similar to Mint and Quicken. PC uses the account data you link to their system to generate sales leads from its family of services. I like the tracker and use it myself to manage the roughly $2.5 million aggregation of our assets and liabilities. However, it’s one of those “if the product is free, you’re the product” situations. You give PC your financial data so they can try to sell you products that “suit your needs.”

And to that point: now comes Jay Shah–PC’s CEO–with a cynical spin on the usual theme that Americans have unrealistic retirement expectations.

In an article entitled “Retirement reality: Many Americans will not be able to live out their dreams” as published by CNBC, he states that:

America is in the midst of a retirement crisis, and many people are in danger of not being able to live out their retirement dreams.

Which is spot-on, of course. One reason is:

…many investors [are] at risk of losing chunks of their savings to hidden fees and conflicts of interest from unscrupulous brokers — the very same people who Americans trust to help them achieve their retirement goals.

And he’s still right. Furthermore:

Sadly, 39 percent of millennials and 34 percent of Gen Xers have no retirement savings.

So given these problems, what’s the remedy?

First, Shah mentions in passing the maxing out tax-advantaged accounts. Great advice. Next he recommends becoming familiar with one’s financial structure and assessing long-term goals. Also great advice. But then–and not surprisingly for a financial services company–he extolls the prudence of hiring a financial advisor.

Good financial advisors can help you build out this comprehensive long-term plan and manage conflicting financial priorities. Not only will they help with planning, they’ll act as guides, helping you stay on track and manage unexpected roadblocks so you avoid emotionally driven decisions that can have an undesirable impact on your financial future.

There’s certainly no shame in selling somebody a service they’re unwilling/unable to perform for themselves. But this next quote is where Shah and I get crossed up:

When choosing an advisor, make sure you understand the fees you’re paying and how that person is being compensated.

I mean…sheesh. In one breath he’s telling you to make sure you’re not paying unnecessary fees, and in the next he’s trying to convince you to pay fees that may very well be unnecessary.

Puts me in mind of George Orwell, man. “Ignorance is Strength.” And I say that because understanding the advisory fees you’re paying by definition requires you to know whether you need to pay advisory fees AT ALL.

And as I said, you very likely don’t. Explanation to follow.

Another reason I don’t like this article is a pic in its sidebar. Benjamin Harrison—PC’s managing director and head of new business development—is quoted as saying:

The growth of Vanguard’s digital solution has largely been driven by their existing client base …Personal Capital’s growth has been truly organic.

Come on. Really? Who gives a flying rat’s ass whether Vanguard’s digital solution is customer-driven or organic?

I’ll tell you who: potential investors in Personal Capital. Venture capitalists and the IPO people at Morgan Stanley and suchlike. The proof is this: as a customer, give me a customer-driven digital solution any day of the week. PC’s growth model is literally irrelevant to me. So it’s straight-up disingenuous to use a quote like that in this article designed to grow sales.

From day one I’ve always known Personal Capital’s game was to sell people financial services. Again, there’s no shame in selling somebody a service they’re unwilling/unable to perform for themselves.

But here’s Shah cutting you so he can sell you stitches. You may not NEED stitches. What you definitely need is at least a modicum of financial self-knowledge and quite possibly a handful of low-fee mutual and/or exchange-traded funds…if that many. This is information you can acquire yourself off the web in one afternoon. You don’t need to pay PC an annual percentage of your assets for it.

I mean…check it out. If Harrison didn’t consider Vanguard–and by extension their low-fee funds–a major competitor, he wouldn’t be competing with Vanguard in his quote.


You know…articles like this fly thick and fast in the personal finance space, and it’s far from PC’s first one. Why did this particular one set me off?

I have no idea. Guilty conscience, maybe. Since I first started this blog I’ve earned…what, $2,500 in sales commissions from PC? Something like that, yeah. So I’m culpable, and for that I apologize. I’ve long since spent the $$$, but I won’t be chasing any more.

The other thing is: I have to give some thought to the auto-feed sidebar ads that I run. They’re cookie-driven, so I’m not sure I have any control over what you yourself see…but if you’re seeing ads that you think aren’t suited to your best interests, please let me know so I can bring the matter up with the company that pushes them.

And there you have it. By all means use Personal Capital’s online tracker–after twenty-five years of closely tracking my finances it’s the best one I’ve ever found–but don’t buy into their sales hype. To repeat: the odds are very good that you don’t need their services, or those of any other paid financial advisor. Assuming you’re a middle-class American you’ve got the tools right there on on your computer to evaluate whether that’s the case.

Go ye forth and do so.

Hi, ya’ll. Enjoy the crap I crank out? A free & effortless way to support The Work, as it were, is to shop on Amazon through the Early Retirement Dude gateway. Click this link, bookmark it, and use it from now on. Much obliged…

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit http://EarlyRetirementDude.com or email EarlyRetirementDude@gmail.com.

30 thoughts

  1. As you say, PC has an outstanding tool but I stopped using them last year when I could no longer live with the trade-off of giving my login information on all my accounts to a third party that (obviously) was using my data to market to me. Also, they called relentlessly (I know people say they stop if you talk to them once but I never wanted to even have the discussion). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame them; their model of producing a best-in-class financial tool and using it to attract and analyze potential customers is brilliant, I just don’t choose to participate anymore.

    Come to think of it, there was another reason: I was checking my net worth every day…not healthy. Now I keep a simple spreadsheet of balances by institution and update it monthly…OK I admit I cheat and update it at least three times a month but I’m getting better. I also do an asset allocation analysis about twice a year, which appears to be once too often. I miss the PC tool’s beautiful graphics but it doesn’t really matter for managing one’s money once you’re on track.

    p.s I’ve recently joined you in early retirement!

  2. >p.s I’ve recently joined you in early retirement!

    Stack!!! Wonderful news! As far as tracking your numbers…yeah, I’m still doing it just because it’s a convenient way to track my overall number and to verify my credit card transactions, but I’m definitely with you on not liking to give my financial data to third parties. Among other reasons, my dad always told me not to tell anybody how much I make. Did you get the same advice?

  3. Hey ER Dude!

    Hooray! Glad to read about your change of heart about Personal Capital.

    (It is easy to find many bloggers touting Personal Capital. It seems the lust for affiliate income has obscured the vision of many bloggers who normally seem clear-eyed about reality.)

    There is another major reason I steer clear of all the budgeting/net worth tracking/money management websites, PC included: SECURITY.

    All these websites say they are secure, and maybe they are, but it will take only ONE breach to expose all of a person’s financial info to hackers. Anyone who uses a website like that needs to be aware of the high-risk situation they are putting themselves into.

    I go in depth on this topic on my blog.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. >lust for affiliate income

      Understandable to want to earn money from your blog, and Personal Capital certainly does that for you. It’s $100 commission for a lead with assets in excess of $1,000,000, and $20 anytime somebody signs up through your link–millionaire or no. So it’s not an insignificant amount of income.

      Thanks for the link. Folks: please follow it and read the post.

  4. I’ve been wondering why there is so much porn on my iPad. Your auto-feed sidebar ads are obviously to blame. Mystery solved.

  5. Dude,
    Due to security, I don’t use third party such as PC. I have index funds with Vanguard and over the five years, I’ve notice that their web site has improved, especially the graphics. As for checking, I use USAA and they have a great tracking tool of all expenses, income etc so again, PC is not needed. However, I have an account with Wells Fargo and the transactions would need to be manually inputted and that would be especially painful especially if wait until tax time.

    Vanguard also allows you input information from another account so you can consolidate and this is what I use to track my TSP (military 401k).

    Oh, I’m anxiously waiting for your series on the 401k. When will you publish the next segment?

    Semper FI,

    1. Hi, Luis…always good to here from the Devil Dogs…thanks for writing in.

      >Oh, I’m anxiously waiting for your series on the 401k. When will you publish the next segment?

      It’s about three-quarters in the can. Taking my time and being careful to get everything right.

  6. I think that’s a pretty harsh piece on a company that provides a great service for free. They’ve also done an excellent job managing one of my seven figure accounts and in providing tax and estate advice. And unlike you, they have never paid me a cent for promoting them. I’m just a satisfied customer.

    1. Hi, there…
      Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. The online tracker IS a great service, and the price is right. Sounds like you’ve got a more complicated financial situation than most people, and if they’re treating you like you want, it’s not my place to throw shade. My comments in this post are limited to cautioning people to do their homework and decide for themselves whether they need to pay for financial advice, rather than succumbing to fear-based marketing. Sounds like you’ve already gotten past that point, which is great. Thanks for the comment.

  7. After reading JD Roth’s excellent post leading to this one, I was excited and curious to know what nugget of wisdom you were going to share about PC that set you off.

    I’m still looking!

    I guess I don’t understand what set you off. You said:
    “There’s certainly no shame in selling somebody a service they’re unwilling/unable to perform for themselves.”. I agree. Mowing lawns, amputating pinkies, investing money. Do it yourself or choose to pay someone else to do it. Your choice.
    But when PC said: “When choosing an advisor, make sure you understand the fees you’re paying and how that person is being compensated.” you got upset. Now my head is spinning! I have to tell you, that PC quote should be verbatim law for all investors. You said he was trying to convince you to pay the fees that may very will be unnecessary. I think he’s simply saying to be aware of them. He even specified “when choosing an advisor”.

    If you’re going to get financial advice, you’re going to pay for it in some shape or form. And you agree getting financial advice is an OK choice, so I have to assume you agree it’s not only OK but a great idea to know how much you’re paying before you start?

    For the record, by their third call to me I told PC that if they called again I’d need to cancel out my account. I never heard from them again.

  8. Hey–glad to hear from you.

    >But when PC said: “When choosing an advisor, make sure you understand the fees you’re paying and how that person is being compensated.” you got upset.

    It wasn’t so much that particular statement as it was the chain of logic that led up to it. “Your results are possibly being sandbagged by financial advisors because of their fees” followed by “when choosing an advisor make sure you understand how much you’re paying” followed by “pay us.”

    My dander started rising–and I have a dander the size of a fire hydrant, by the way–when I thought about how if the average US-type investor who’s got something like $95K saved for retirement (quickly googled that just now), truly understood fee structures and the correct asset mix for their own particular situations, they’d likely gravitate to low-fee funds. And this is information they can glean from the web in a couple of lunch breaks.

    Yes, you’d still be paying Vanguard or whomever for advice, but you’re paying, like, 17 basis points instead of 200. Struck me as disingenuous, which led me to the obvious question, “Well why am I shilling for these people, then? Obviously it’s for the commission. Does that make me any less disingenuous? No. So let’s remove the commission motive.”

    1. I agree with Ron and you. I don’t think there is anything wrong with them suggesting a financial advisor for some people as long as they understand the fees involved. If my parents didn’t have me helping them, they would definitely be better off paying an advisor than just letting their money sit in a bank account, which is what they would do if they didn’t have a real live person telling them otherwise. They don’t google at all and they are only 58 years old! But if you, ER Dude, are personally against paid advisors then I agree that you shouldn’t market for them.

  9. “If you’re sitting at the table, and you don’t know who the sucker is….*you’re* the sucker”.

    I tried PC. I got extremely nervous about all that login info. I started doing an Excel spreadsheet….works just as well.

    1. > I started doing an Excel spreadsheet….works just as well.

      I’m glad to hear it. I ran Lotus/DOS and Excel/Windows and Excel/macOS sheets for something like twenty years, and by the end of it the sheer complexity gave me a subdural hematoma. And I’m no Excel slouch, either–most of the stuff was automated. Like I said, I’m glad it’s working for you. If you want to FIRE, spreadsheet skills are MANDATORY.

  10. Just discovered your site thanks to POF. I like what I see and love your writing style!
    I tried PC. Found it to be a little clunky (I’m very fussy about my graphs and info organization) and definitely didn’t like the sales push by email and phone call.
    Like some others, I was also concerned about the security of my entire financial world being posted there.
    Kudos to you for no longer being one of their hucksters.
    Anyone with a modicum of excel skills and a little determination can do a better job on their own. Plus digging in deep helps to really “own” and understand your finances.

    1. >love your writing style!

      That really made me smile. Thanks. I’ve worked very hard at it.

      >Anyone with a modicum of excel skills and a little determination can do a better job on their own. Plus digging in deep helps to really “own” and understand your finances.

      I agree, yeah…online trackers are all well and good, but when it comes to forecasting/modeling you have to keep your own counsel.

  11. So basically you’ve profited off them long enough, but you’ve realized that the bigger benefit to you at this point would be to shit on them? Nothing they’ve done has changed. Nothing they’ve marketed has changed. It’s the exact same company as before. You just realized you could get more clicks than the amount of revenue they would generate for you. Congrats, but sorry it took you this long.

    1. >you’ve realized that the bigger benefit to you at this point would be to shit on them

      >You just realized you could get more clicks than the amount of revenue they would generate for you.

      That’d be a negative. The bigger $$$ benefit by far would’ve been to keep advertising for them. Revenue on this blog went down substantially when I quit. Forty percent, maybe?

      I’m not sure what you think a “click” is worth, and of course it varies from place to place, but traffic here earns about $2.80 per thousand ad views. I make $10-$15 a day that way. A PC sign-up that meets PC’s higher sales lead criteria pays $100, and a sign-up that meets PC’s lower criteria pays $20. I was getting $200-$250/month in PC commissions alone.

      Don’t get me wrong, though…this is the webernetz, after all, and I think your skepticism/cynicism is justifiable.

  12. Just found your site today. Very interesting so far. I especially enjoyed your thought provoking article on the meaning of life as I have about 4 contracted years before I can “retire early” and the impending what to do next question has been on my mind.

    I did want to point out that this post comes off as somewhat contradictory to another post you had where you discussed your relationship with Rand and the fees, successes, and missteps you went through while utilizing his financial services. I’m on my phone so it’d be difficult to go find that article while writing this to verify but I believe you indicated there were a significant amount of individual stock picks (Facebook, Amazon, etc.) that were $150 round trip” expenses. Not to mention the fees on assets which seemed like they were more than what PC charges (.89% from what I remember from my call with them, I declined their service).

    Bottom line, i don’t think dropping your affiliation was worth it.

    One, it’s an income generator for you. Two, it’s a fantastic and free tool that provides an overview of assets and allocation that most people won’t get elsewhere. Three, you could have easily reinforced the fact that their services outside of the free tools are *optional*. I can’t imagine PC dropping you as affiliate for saying something along the lines of what you stated in this post that you can learn an effective investment strategy on the internet in a few hours and even reiterating what they said; you should understand how advisors make their money.

    Anyway, I could go on and look forward to continued reading. Cheers!

    1. >Very interesting so far.

      Thanks! I hope you continue to enjoy it.

      Wrt Rand: very much an example of how my thinking has evolved since launching this blog (and even before.) I haven’t traded individual equities since…oh, maybe 2014? I wrote the article about the relationship with him and his brokerage well before I finally thought about the implications of PC’s approach to selling its services.

      >Two, it’s a fantastic and free tool that provides an overview of assets and allocation that most people won’t get elsewhere.

      Absolutely. That’s why I continue to use it and believe in it. It’s their fear-driven marketing that grits up my craw (or whatever the expression is.) Despite how I feel about the tactics PC uses to sell its services, I still encourage people to check it out. Best online tracker out there IMO.

      Oh, and: you wrote all that on your phone? That’s above-and-beyond, my friend…

      1. Fear sells, my friend… we have multi-billion dollar industries in the US and worldwide that are based on fear.

        Just my opinion, but I feel like if everyone got punched in the face once or twice and had everything taken from them at some point so they might recover, the world might be a better place, financially and otherwise…. I could go on…

        Anyway, I figured as much with the dichotomy of the two posts that it was representative of an evolution of thought on the process. I too have hired and subsequently left a couple different financial advisors in my time.

        Lesson learned: no one cares about your money as much as you do.


  13. Eek, almost forgot…

    I find it ridiculous that people bother to mention security on websites for banking/investing.

    They have mandated encryption standards! Yes of course nothing is safe and nothing is unhackable but wow! People literally blanket the Internet with their feelings, location, meal preferences, political leanings and a thousand other details with little to no forethought on the fact that this is all collected and processed by algorithms that are designed to profit off of you.

    Point being, if you are that concerned, only take cash, buy gold and bury it in your backyard. Jeez….

  14. First time reading your blog but I love your writing style.
    I disagree that Pers. Cap is a problematic company. They are fairly soft-sell for their management service. Not everyone, despite a great wealth of information on the blogs will feel comfortable managing their own finances (case in pt, my mother).
    The free service for many DIY managers is fantastic and provides a public good.
    I found nothing objectionable in the article.
    Disclosure: I have never been paid by PC but I use their free services. I don’t own a blog. I don’t shill. for anyone.

  15. First, this article really hits home (I know I’m 2 years late to this party haha). I wanted to find a Mint alternative and gave PC a try. Their sales guy was nice enough at first, then went straight to condescending when I said I didn’t think the fees were worth the service, and then acted annoyed and me when I gave a firm no (think he even hung up on me haha).

    But to a broader point: Having a financial blog or free service is really tough. It’s easy to give good advice, but it’s difficult to monetize it. Because the financial services with the most money to spend on advertising can rarely truly have the end-user’s best intentions.

    Mint will tell me “wow, you’re doing great financially” and then advertise some horrible day trading app or credit card that would cost me money.

    After hearing the PC sales spiel, I decided to investigate it myself. I was really grossed out by all the clearly affiliate-driven posts talking about how great they are. Then digging in deeper you see the people with long-term at heart talking about how those fees are going to being a constant suck at your gains.

    Last, I also really loved the PC sales guy telling me both that they can beat the market gains I’m getting, but also telling me I should’ve diversified out of the stuff that has gained the most. I agree with the latter, but there’s no way they could’ve beat the gains without them. Why are you pretending you have some miracle solution and telling me you’re a fiduciary with my best interests in mind?

    They totally grossed me out.

  16. Somewhat off topic, but I had a 2nd call with a PC advisor today. He showed me a presentation with their “Smart Investing” or whatever it’s called beating out the S&P 500 if you look at the last 30 years. But he said PC has only been around since 2009, so does that mean they developed the asset allocation recommendations in hindsight from 1990-2009? Seems like you can always look in hindsight and adjust the asset allocations to beat historical performance. Unless I’m looking at it wrong. I see a lot of these graphs from financial advisors so was curious if they are really a good predictor of future performance. My call with PC ended with him getting really pushy about me scheduling a call with him while on the phone. Too salesy for me.

    1. Yeah, I had much the same experience. They basically backfit the numbers but only revealed it in the small print after they’d trumpeted their return-beating strategies. When I called the rep out on it, he definitely got uncomfortable. I asked him not to call me back and they never have.

  17. I fell for their marketing spiel 2 years ago and signed on to their advisory service. I truly regret that decision. After dealing with them for 2 years, I’m finally closing my investment account with them for good.

    If you don’t want to manage balancing your own index funds and stock/bond allocations and tax optimization, I recommend going with a cheap robo-advisor like Betterment, which I’ve used happily for 6 years. Here’s why I’m fed up with PC:

    1. Personal Capital charges 6 times the fee of Betterment. They justified the significantly higher fee by telling me that their returns outperform Betterment, and that they provide a financial advisory team that can help me with retirement planning and other financial advice.

    2. I don’t know where they get the data saying they outperform Betterment, but when I crunched the numbers, they definitely don’t. Both during strong market rallies and market crashes, they’ve underformed Betterment.

    3. The most infuriating feature of PC and the primary reason I’m closing my account for good: you can’t withdraw funds from your PC investment account without going through their advisory team first! I actively invest in alternative assets such as real estate or business loans, so a few times a year I need to move funds. Betterment lets you withdraw whenever you want with a few clicks in their online portal. PC forces you to make an appointment with them (and you will almost never be able to book a same-week appointment). I understand making appointments for financial planning, but this is just a simple transaction to withdraw some funds! During the appointment they’ll make you discuss your situation and why you want to withdraw and they’ll try to talk you out of it. They tell you to think on it and schedule another follow up appointment next week. It literally used to take me 2 weeks to be able to withdraw funds from the account! They even once FORGOT to make the transaction until I asked them more than a week later why I didn’t see the withdrawal being processed. After I asked to close my PC account because I was fed up with these immense barriers to make such a routine transaction, they finally agreed to not force me to make appointments anymore, and told me they’ll process a withdrawal if I write them an email or directly call their advisory number (but I have to specifically state in the email or on the call that I don’t want to discuss my reasons for the withdrawal). This worked a few times, but now I just get the answering machine for 2 days straight, and no one responds to my emails. Since they’re forcing me to once again only speak to them via appointment, my next appointment will be to close my account with them forever.

    4. PC’s promise of providing you a team of financial advisors seems like it would be worth the higher fee, but it turned out to be entirely useless. They told me they could provide me investing advice. When I ask them for advice (for example, about my alternative investments), the only advice they will give is to tell me to liquidate my assets and transfer those funds into my PC investment account. They even told me more than once to get rid of my crowdfunded real estate investments because “we have REITs in our portfolio so you don’t need other real estate investments”. It was laughable when one advisor tried to scare me out of my alternative investments by claiming “they likely charge very high fees”, and I informed him that PC’s fees are 3x higher. Before I signed on for their advisory service, they also had promised that their financial advisors could help me with retirement planning. I’ve repeatedly tried to get them to help with that, and they keep just pointing me to their free retirement planning tool (you don’t need a PC investment account to use it). I told them I’ve already tried the free retirement planning tool but it makes a lot of assumptions that don’t fit my situation, which is why I wanted a financial advisor in the first place. They basically told me tough luck, our tool isn’t designed for people who want to retire as early as you, and we can’t provide you any help beyond showing you how to use the tool. So what the hell am I paying these advisors for???

    PC’s “human touch” (their supposed advantage over robo-advisors like Betterment) have proven to be nothing but an impediment, a barrier to making simple transactions. Good riddance when I finally can close the account.

    1. Oh, and initially they tried hard to make me open a traditional IRA with them and rollover my 401k into it. I thought a fiduciary was supposed to give advice that is in my best interest, not for their own profit! Given that they had already asked about my income, a supposed financial expert should know that a person with my income level can only contribute to Roth IRAs via the Backdoor Roth, so it would be extremely unwise for a person of my income level to rollover her 401k into a traditional IRA due to the heavy tax consequences it would cause for future Backdoor Roth conversions. Luckily, I have a fair bit of financial knowledge and didn’t fall for what would have been a horrendous trap, but this isn’t common knowledge for everyone, so it was either downright unscrupulous or incompetently ignorant for a financial advisor to push such a move!

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