The Pride of Ownership in Financial Decision-Making

You may not realize it, but many of your clients have preconceived ideas of what the best financial plan might look like.

By Justin Reckers and Robert Simon,

Originally published by MorningstarAdvisor.com December 15th 2011.

Over the next couple of months, we will talk in detail about a general concept we refer to as the Pride of Ownership. There are many ways our clients develop the Pride of Ownership and many ways that the biased thought processes it creates can derail economically rational decision-making. We will talk about irrational financial decision-making thanks to the Endowment Effect, Not Invented Here Bias, and what Dan Ariely calls the Ikea Effect.

Selling the Experience
From baked goods to BMWs, marketing experts have long understood the power of ownership. Humans feel a sense of pride when they have created something. Whether we create ideas or customized luxury vehicles, we tend to overvalue, from an economic perspective, things we have had some hand in creating.

Betty Crocker takes much of the difficult preparation out of making brownies but knows its customers well enough to understand the company should not be doing all the work. It wants to make sure the cook puts in some work to develop the Pride of Ownership based on the effort they exert. Most people will not have the time or skills to make perfectly moist fudge brownies from scratch, so they are willing to have a little help. The delicate part is determining just how much work people need to put in to create the Pride of Ownership without requiring so much work that they simply choose to forgo the brownies and grab the Chips Ahoy.

Similarly, luxury automakers allow us to pick the exterior color and trim, the performance features, and interior luxury accoutrements like misappropriated wood and bright red leather seats–all because they are selling the ownership experience, not the hunk of metal itself. There would be no reason to offer more than one version of a car if we cared only about the usefulness of it, so marketing experts aim more toward the experience factor and rarely talk about usefulness factors.

Try this tag line–Chrysler: We’ll get you from point A to point B. It certainly doesn’t make us want to buy. But when the marketers sell an experience, suddenly customers can imagine themselves pulling into the driveway of their brother-in-law’s house in a new luxury vehicle equipped with heated, reclining, lumbar-supporting, comfort-memorizing, bright red leather bucket seats. Who wouldn’t be proud of having seats that need seven or more adjectives to describe them?

Again, the Pride of Ownership kicks in. If the marketing experts were not able to make consumers feel the Pride of Ownership before buying, they may have problems convincing them to buy in the first place. This is why they sell the experience, not the product.Homo economicus would make choices based only on functionality and not care about the experience. But humans care more about the Pride of Ownership they gain as part of the overall experience.

Scientists, researchers, and counselors even have a cute way of alluding to the Pride of Ownership. They say theories are like tooth brushes; everyone has one and no one wants to use someone else’s. Apparently it is a common problem in their world if they have their own cliché.

Pride of Ownership in Finance
We all, including our clients in case you did not know, have thoughts and ideas about how best to manage money and make financial decisions. For example, we had a client tell us that the only possible way he could pay off a home equity line of credit is by using the proceeds from a life insurance policy he still owned on his former spouse. Our idea to use the large sums of cash he held in bank accounts, which were losing money after inflation, was instantly refused. There are many other reasons behind this extreme example, but the reason the client was able to immediately refuse our idea was because he had convinced himself that his idea was best, and the Pride of Ownership in that idea made it very difficult to convince him otherwise.

We have had clients argue that investing millions of dollars in hypothetical bonds earning a hypothetical yield of 3% is the best possible way to invest their money, forgetting the effect of inflation, the value of diversification, and the opportunity cost of not participating in the equity markets. They have no experience managing money, only ideas of how it should be done that they are very proud of and reluctant to let go of.

We also have had prospective clients refuse to yield to professional management of their financial assets because they are unable to separate themselves from the Pride of Ownership in their mediocre historical returns. They are proud of the 5% annual rate of return they attained, even if they know they have underperformed the 7% they might expect from a professional manager. The Pride of Ownership and the opportunity to perpetuate that Pride of Ownership looms far too large to give up, so they pass on 2 percentage points of annual performance.

Getting Past the Pride
So how can we beat this scourge of economically rational decision-making called the Pride of Ownership?

Step one is brainstorming options. Clients who are hell-bent on pursuing their own ideas may simply need to be enlightened about the myriad other possible options.

You, as an advisor, are relied upon because of experience and education. Use this experience and education to generate options from which your clients may choose a path that best fits their needs and, based on your projections, reaches their goals. They may still love their own idea, but they can probably appreciate the existence and possible value in the options you help generate. You can then lead them through the process of choosing the option best for their family.

As you review the options, be sure to check in with yourself and your clients to determine how your very vague preliminary ideas might be made less vague and tailored to fit a client’s individual financial reality. You must find the thin line where your clients are engaged enough in the process to facilitate the Pride of Ownership without letting them do it all to the point that they might decide they don’t need your help. Take a lesson from Betty Crocker.

We will talk more about the Pride of Ownership next month–specifically its use in marketing and how advisors should use it in creating the architecture for financial decision-making with clients.

Justin A. Reckers, CFP®, CDFA™, AIF® is Director of Financial Planning at Pacific Wealth Management® and Managing Director of Pacific Divorce Management, LLC based in San Diego, CA. www.pacwealth.comwww.pacdivorce.com

Robert A. Simon, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist, trial consultant, expert witness and alternative dispute resolution specialist based in Del Mar, CA.
www.dr-simon.com