How to find the right financial adviser
Many people could use help from a talented financial planner, but they don't know where to begin when looking for one, says Mike Garry, an attorney and certified financial planner.
An estimated 300,000 people in this country call themselves financial advisers, and there's a wide variety of skill levels among them, says Garry, author of Independent Financial Planning: Your Ultimate Guide to Finding and Choosing the Right Financial Planner.
He owns Yardley Wealth Management, a fee-only registered investment advisory firm in Yardley, Pa., as well as a law firm Yardley Estate Planning. Garry worked as a financial consultant for Merrill Lynch.
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USA TODAY's Nanci Hellmich talked to him about how to find a financial planner.
Q: Why do you think people need a financial planner? Are planners just for the rich?
A: People get so much conflicting financial advice, and they don't know what to do, so they may not do anything, or they may accumulate cash, which doesn't earn anything. Most people who reach out to me are in their late 50s and early 60s. They know their work life is short, and they get worried enough that they'll actually call for help. A good financial planner can help you clarify and prioritize your goals and help you make the most of your money.
Financial planners are not just for rich people. Everyone, no matter where you stand financially, can benefit from the advice and guidance of a qualified financial planner. For those with modest means, even a one- or two-hour session with a planner can make a huge difference in their lives.
Q: What should people look for in a financial planner?
A: Many financial planners belong to professional organizations that certify them. The most notable one is the Certified Financial Planner Board (www.cfp.net), which is an independent professional regulatory organization that owns the CFP and Certified Financial Planner trademarks. To become a CFP Certificant, a financial planner must meet all the requirements, including extensive study and a comprehensive test on the financial planning process, investment planning, income tax planning, retirement planning and employee benefits and estate planning. Other prominent financial planning designations include the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) and the American College of Financial Services' Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC).
Q: How do you find the right financial planner?
A: Many different websites will help you track down a person in your area, including the Certified Financial Planning Board (cfp.net), the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (findanadvisor.napfa.org) and the Financial Planning Association (fpanet.org). What matters is how well you click with your prospective adviser, how well he or she understands your situation and how skilled he or she is in the areas that you need expertise. It's probably a good idea to get three to five names of financial planners and call them. If you have a friend or relative who has a recommendation, I would consider that suggestion. See if the planners are still taking on clients, and see if they have experience and work with people whose situation is similar to yours.
After going through that exercise, pick two or three advisers to visit in person and go spend an hour with them to make sure you have a good fit. If someone is taking on new clients, they will probably talk to you on the phone and meet with you for an hour or so at least once without charging you. Ask them lots of questions to make sure you understand their process and feel comfortable with it.
Q: How much do independent financial planners charge?
A: Fee-only financial planners have different billing structures. They may charge an hourly rate, a yearly retainer or a percentage of your investment assets, which is usually 1-1.25% a year. Some charge a fixed fee per service. The amount they charge really varies. But they don't receive a commission on your investments.
Q: What are the pros of working with large financial services companies?
Large financial services companies include full-service brokerage firms, online and discount brokerage firms, mutual fund companies, insurance companies and banks. There are plenty of good, honest, hardworking professionals in these fields. Some of these companies are household names, and clients often appreciate the familiarity and security of working with a major investment firm. The firms' size creates an additional sense of security. Clients often find comfort in knowing their assets are entrusted to a big name. Full-service firms offer multiple branches with similar quality of service.
Q: What are the cons?
A: No matter how good your representative is at the company, his chief role is as a salesman. In most cases, their employees are not allowed to give their clients independent advice. Their advice has to be tied to the sale of specific products, and they often receive a commission for those sales. You might ultimately buy his product if it makes sense for you. But when you go to an investment professional, you are really looking for advice, not a product.
Q: Why do you prefer fee-only independent investment advisers?
A: Fee-only independent investment advisers have no financial incentive to steer you towards a financial product that is not in your best interests. They don't sell any products and can't receive any commissions. Most of the people who I have seen come in to my office who were wary of working with a financial planner feel that way because at some point in their lives, they were sold something that they regretted buying. In looking at their situation, it was usually an inappropriate product for which someone received a pretty good-sized commission.