Independence: it's not always a good thing

By Paul Wilson


Americans are, for the most part, a fiercely independent people. The hope of independence led us to flee England and settle on a promising but unwelcoming shore far from home. It fueled a war in which we fought our mother country despite grim odds. It inspires immigrant families to leave everything familiar to strike up a new life among strangers. Independent thought breathes life into great inventions, leads to critical scientific breakthroughs and fuels the entrepreneurship that helps create many of America's small businesses. Independence can be noble, brave and admirable. It can also be incredibly stupid.

After all, isn't it that same spirit of independence that discourages us from asking for directions when we're helplessly lost? That prompts us to ineffectively forge ahead on home improvement projects while ignoring the handy set of instructions lying right next to us? Even worse, Americans' stubborn independence now appears to be leading many of us down the road to financial ruin.

One of the most recent studies to spotlight this issue, conducted by the Consumer Federation of America and Primerica Inc., found that though two-thirds of Americans admit to having made at least one "really bad financial decision," fewer than half rely on advisors to help manage their finances.

Rather than asking the experts, 15 percent of those surveyed felt they were better off consulting the Internet and TV — both notoriously spotty sources of truth (but ones that can be accessed without the help of others) — for information and advice.

Another 17 percent of respondents said they "wouldn't seek any information or advice, and just make a decision."

According to Stephen Brobeck, one of the study's sponsors, "A strikingly high percentage of respondents in our survey said they wouldn't consult any information at all in making a decision."

But are the results really that striking?

These days, experts of all kinds are being disregarded and even disparaged by those who seem to think they can just wing it on issues as diverse as science, medical care and, yes, financial planning.

Americans are often celebrated for a spirit of independence that has helped them achieve great things, but there is a thin line between admirable individualism and merely sticking one's head in the sand.