If the mirror doesn’t remind me enough of my advancing years, the mail certainly does.
Every few weeks or so, for the past several years, in addition to the promos offering me AARP membership and insurance, I receive a nice invitation, inviting me to a local desirable restaurant for a delicious free dinner. All I have to do in return, the invitation says, is to listen to a financial planner talk about the best ways to invest for my retirement.
When I joked about it to my sister one day, she said that she, too, receives the invitations on a regular basis, as I am sure most people of pre-retirement ages do. We began comparing the restaurants on our cards — Springfield Country Club, Drexelbrook, Dilworthtown Inn, Anthony’s — when we realized that we had both recently received an invitation to a financial dinner at Trattoria Giuseppe in Edgmont. She said, “We should just meet there and check it out, enjoy our complimentary dinner and listen to the free no-obligation financial education. What do we have to lose?”
A few weeks later, there I was sitting in Giuseppe’s next to my sister, with none other than at least five members of my high school graduating class who also happened to receive an invitation to attend the mid-week dinner. It was a nice surprise to see them and catch up on how life is treating us.
“I love their pasta here, so I couldn’t resist coming to this,” one of my former classmates confided with a laugh when I asked her if she comes to these events often.
I had to chuckle to myself at this unexpected mini-high school reunion at a pre-retirement financial dinner, for goodness sake. Personally, I had my major doubts about going to this dinner, with visions of the ’80s and ’90s in my head. Remember the lures of free cameras, luggage and Visa gift cards, just to hear about a timeshare in Orlando or a Pocono Mountain home in a resort, that were so popular in those decades? Even with all this in my head, I went to the Giussepe’s seminar anyhow, believing there’s no harm in just listening.
After chitchatting with my fellow alums, I realized that I was the new kid on the block, the only one who had never before gone to one of these financial planning dinners. The others at our table seemed to make attending these dinners a repeat event on their social calendars. The alums and their spouses said that would pick out one of their invitations, usually a restaurant that they liked or one they had been wanting to try, and off they would go for another financial presentation, followed by a dinner. They said you can’t beat the offer. You not only get fed, but you absolutely learn a lot from the presenters. Two of the couples that I spoke with said that they ended up investing with the presenters. I’m sure many others must, too, or these dinners wouldn’t be such a hot commodity for financial planners. After all, why else would they spend the money for all these dinners and invest their time on these sessions if they don’t expect people to make follow-up appointments and hear them out on an individual basis and eventually invest through them.
For those who never went before, let me tip you off that you have to listen to the entire financial presentation before they feed you. They don’t risk that you’ll listen while you dine and then leave before dessert. However, they were gracious enough to serve appetizers so you didn’t pass out from starvation until meal time, which came about 8 p.m.
The presentation, at least the one that I attended, was not high-pressure sales as I had feared. Instead, it seemed like a lot of “dangling carrots,” talking about investing in high-return insurance annuities and other high-yield investment options, how to save on taxes, get the right type of IRA, how and when to start taking withdrawals from those retirement accounts, how to reap the highest amount from Social Security and all kinds of other financial topics. The presenters discussed all of these subjects without really giving away any specific information on what the audience was likely doing wrong. They told us that traditional investing was almost like putting our money in a mattress. They told horror stories about the stock market and the risk in the average person’s portfolio. They promised — if we made an appointment — they would help us prepare for our retirement with low-risk, high-return, tax-free investing.
Afterwards, the presenters asked the diners to fill out a card on the table for a follow-up, a more personal, one-on-one consult appointment to be held in the weeks following the dinner. That came as no surprise. My sister and I chose not to fill out the cards. My fellow alums, the ones who identified themselves as “regulars” at these free dinners, said the one-on-one appointments, which they attended in the past, go heavier on the sales techniques to get prospective clients to invest. Somehow, that wasn’t a surprise either.
My sister and I both agreed afterward that we learned a few things at the dinner and the presentation, which lasted about 90 minutes, was interesting and harmless. Everyone was pleasant, and there was no strong-arming us into setting up the appointment if we didn’t want it. We never received a follow-up phone call, or even an email, afterward.
About a week or so later, my sister called me up and told me about another invitation she received. Since all these invitations allow you to bring a friend, she asked me to go again.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I told her. I’m not ready to join my alums in making the dinners a part of my monthly activities, although these financial planners surely do pick some nice restaurants to do business, I joked. She went without me and later told me the presentation wasn’t too much different than the first one, but the presenters seemed more well-versed and persuasive, although the dinner was better at the first seminar.
“Now we’re rating and comparing free financial dinners?” I laughed like a bratty little sister, with a hint of sarcasm. “I’ll let you know when I get another good one for you to mark on your calendar.”
I then told her, if she really wants to amp up the fun this month, that I had just received an invitation in the mail from a funeral home, inviting me to a pre-planning presentation and free lunch at Springfield Country Club.
As tempting as that sounds — eating lunch while talking about my funeral — I think I’ll have to pass, I joked. I wondered aloud, with a chuckle, if I would meet more of my fellow classmates at this luncheon since retirement and funeral planning events seem like all the rage once you hit the big 6-0.
All joking aside, although the financial seminars are advertised as “educational, and meant to provide information on how to make the most of retirement income and assets, make no bones about it — they are set up to sell you something. They are modeled with the concept of reciprocity — if we give you a complimentary dinner, you will reciprocate and sign up for an individual appointment to hear more about our investment strategies.
I’m not saying all retirement investment seminars are good or bad or worth the time or not worth the time. I’m sure there are very reputable financial planners who host these dinners and share their skills and the whole setup is win-win for presenter and attendees. However, if these guys are really crackerjacks at saving us taxes and advising us how to invest and use our retirement funds, why do they need fancy dinners to woo us? We all know how word spreads when someone in skilled at their trade.
After attending just one dinner, I can’t help but hope that anyone who signs up for session No. 2, the one-on-one consultation, goes with caution and common sense as their companions and doesn’t invest in anything that they don’t totally understand. That’s my two cents worth of advice, but who knows? Maybe I’m being the overly cautious, paranoid one, not wanting to attend any more of these dinners, and the others will be having the last laugh all the way to the bank. I guess that is the chance that I will just have to take.
Curiously, after attending the recent event, I did a little research to see if these dinner seminars are scams or what the story is. There are dozens of articles about them, and I hope diners will google the subject before letting the stuffed flounder or the steak au poivre cloud their vision. A columnist in Forbes Magazine had this to say: “The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) has issued an alert to all investors. Beware of the ‘free meal’ seminar, no matter where it is or who seems to be presenting it. … FINRA, the SEC and state regulators conducted more than 100 examinations involving free-meal seminars. They found that in half of the cases, the sales materials contained claims that appeared to be exaggerated, misleading or otherwise unwarranted. And fully 13 percent of the seminars appeared to involve fraud.”
Remember, our parents always told us that there was no such thing as a free lunch? I guess there’s no such thing as a free dinner either — except for a few of my former classmates. They seem to be dining for no dollars, all around Delco, on a regular basis. Hopefully, with all the ways and resources at our fingertips these days to check things out to be sure they’re legit, people will proceed very slowly, with eyes wide open, and not make important financial decisions, based only on the quality of a fancy free meal — even if it does come with a yummy dessert!