Let’s face it: Money management is hard, and most of us aren’t as good at it as we could (or should) be. From taxes to investing to debt-busting, there’s a lot that goes into financial planning. And while we’re all for learning to do it yourself, there are a number of reasons to enlist the help of an advisor.
Here’s when you might need one, where to find one and how to make sure you pick one that meets your needs.
When is it time to hire a financial advisor?
The basics of personal finance aren’t terribly difficult, and with a little research, you can master financial milestones like getting out of debt or even investing. But there are some specific instances in your life in which it might make sense to hire an advisor:
- You’re recently married. You’ll probably have a lot of questions about merging accounts, your responsibilities for the other person’s finances, communicating about money, filing taxes and so on. A financial advisor can lay down the basics and help you manage your finances as a married couple.
- You’re starting a new business. Or you’ve started freelancing. Rather than navigating the confusing maze of how self-employment taxes work on your own, enlist the help of a financial advisor and save yourself a lot of time and headaches. When you decide on self-employment—whether it’s freelancing or launching a business—talking to a financial advisor is a good idea.
- You’re switching careers. Financial advisors can help you prepare for the switch and stay afloat during the transition.
- Your family has grown. If you become a parent, there are a lot of financial considerations to make. How will your taxes change? How do you start saving for college? Do you need an estate plan? A financial advisor can help you answer those questions and more.
- You’re planning a big purchase. Buying a house is a common example—it’s a daunting process with a lot of little details to consider. An advisor can give you insight on the best place to park your savings or how to prepare for the mortgage process.
- You’ve come into a big windfall. Maybe you’ve won or inherited a huge amount of money—more than you’ve ever had before—and you have no idea how to start managing it.
- You’re nearing retirement. A financial advisor can help you make decisions about accessing and using Social Security, pension funds, Medicare and your retirement accounts as well as how to manage income during retirement.
- You simply need a professional opinion. If you feel overwhelmed at the idea of planning your finances or don’t have the time or brain space to manage your own money, an objective third party can help you get on track.
These are some of the most common scenarios, but you may have your own reasons unrelated to any major life event.
Again, it’s great to research and come up with your own financial plan, but an advisor can save you a lot of time and energy. Whether you feel lost, the DIY approach is stressing you out or you’re just really busy, there are plenty of valid reasons to seek help.
The difference between an advisor, a planner and all those other financial pros
You’ve probably heard the term financial advisor and financial planner used in the same context, so what’s the difference between the two?
Simply put, a financial advisor is a general term for any professional who gives you financial advice. And this can be used to describe a number of different financial professions, from wealth managers to financial life coaches. Unfortunately, there’s no single standard for what those who call themselves “financial advisors” can and cannot say, do or offer.
On the other hand, a Certified Financial Planner® is a little more specific: it’s a professional who’s certified by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc.—not just anyone can call themselves a CFP. And you probably want a qualified CFP dealing with your finances, because they have a fiduciary duty, meaning they’re legally required to act in your best interest.
That’s huge. A stockbroker, wealth manager or any other non-certified advisor or planner isn’t required to meet this standard (a rule requiring them to do so, at least for retirement advice, was passed in 2016 but overturned in 2018). That doesn’t necessarily mean all of those professionals aren’t worth their salt, but CFPs are usually very particular about their titles, and understandably so: their certification shows they’re reliable. If they mess up, they lose that certification.
To make things even more confusing, there are also CPAs—Certified Public Accountants. Most people know that CPAs help prepare taxes, but they can do more than that, and some of them may offer advising services. Generally speaking, though, CPAs are mostly hired for tax-related financial tasks, while a CFP can handle more of your financial planning.
How much an advisor costs
The cost of an advisor varies depending on what kind you choose. Again, financial advisor is a pretty general term, so the cost is going to vary from free to upwards of $300 an hour. Some advisors may charge a flat fee ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.
Some brokerage firms like Fidelity or Vanguard offer free or discounted financial advisory services. Of course, you get what you pay for, and they’ll primarily suggest you buy their own funds. That’s not always a bad thing, but take their service for what it’s worth—which is really just a reminder to invest with them. Plus, because they’re mostly interested in investments, they’re probably not going to help with basic budgeting or savings.
Commission and fee-based advisors
Other advisors, and even CFPs, work on commissions, and they’re essentially salespeople who get paid for recommending specific investment or insurance products, like annuities. For that reason, they’re not usually recommended.
Fee-based advisors can get commissions, too, and they also get paid according to a percentage of your investment accounts they manage. This is also known as “assets under management” or AUM commissions. It’s usually 1-2% of whatever amount is in your AUM.
It’s hugely important to ask your advisor how they’re paid. Ideally, you want a fee-only advisor.
Lastly, there are fee-only advisors, who simply charge a flat fee or an hourly fee for the time spent managing your finances. Because most CFPs are required to follow that fiduciary standard, they’re also fee-only and highlight the fact that they don’t accept commissions. While there are some reliable commission and fee-based firms out there, you probably want to find a fee-only CFP.
Okay, so let’s say an advisor charges an hourly, fee-only rate. That alone doesn’t tell you much. How long will it take them to complete the work? Obviously, advisors vary, but you can probably expect to spend upwards of $1,500 total.
For example, if your $150-per-hour advisor spends 12 hours meeting with you and developing your financial plan, that’s $1,800. Bump that fee up to $300 an hour, and you’re looking at $3,600.
Again, these are examples, but they give you a ballpark idea of what you can expect to spend.
What to expect when you visit a financial advisor
Once you hire a financial advisor, their first order of business is to get a clear idea of your financial health. You’ll get a questionnaire asking about the following:
- Assets and accounts: How much money you have, what kind of debt you have
- Income: What your salary looks like, whether you have any additional sources of income or gifts
- Tax situation: Withholdings, deductions, and all other tax details
- Estate planning: Your will, beneficiary information, etc.
- Investing: Your investments, risk tolerance, retirement goals.
Once your advisor has a thorough idea of your financial situation, that’s when the advising comes in. They’ll recommend a course of action, and after talking to you about different areas of your finances, they’ll draft a plan. According to Investopedia, this should include a summary of the most important findings from your questionnaire. The plan will also account for your net worth, assets and liabilities, and include the goals that you discussed with the planner—whether they are investing goals or simply saving up an emergency fund.
If it applies, the summary should also include a thorough analysis of your investment risk tolerance, estate planning details and other info related to your financial plans. You can also expect to see a potential best and worst-case scenario for your retirement savings, along with detail on how you’ll withdraw the money at retirement.
Once your advisor comes up with a plan, they’ll work with you on implementing it, and they’ll periodically monitor your financial health and send you a report.
If your financial planner handles investing, they might help you open and fund an investment account, too. They’ll come up with a customized portfolio that includes specifics on what kind of assets you should have (stocks, bonds, alternatives, real estate funds, etc.). Every firm has a different investment policy, so the approach may vary. Some firms only work with one fund company and limit your investments to that company.
It pays to do a little research on your own, because some firms may charge fees for your investment return. At the very least, learn the basics of investing on your own. You want to make sure to vet your advisor carefully, and part of that is finding out how they invest your money and how they’re paid.
Where to start your search
A good recommendation from a trusted friend or family member can go a long way, but if you want to vet the reliability of your advisor (and you do), you should start with NAPFA, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. All advisors listed their database are certified, fee-only, and each year they sign and renew a Fiduciary Oath. The Financial Planning Association is another good option for finding CFPs.
To start your search, you’ll want to pick a few potential candidates, then do a little research. Check their company website and bio. NAPFA recommends specifically reviewing their Form ADV (registration with the SEC). You can do this at the SEC website, but many CFPs will offer the form on their site.
Once you narrow down your list to a few advisors, you’ll want to call and schedule quick phone interviews. The FPA suggests meeting with at least three advisors before you decide.
How to interview your potential advisor
When you talk to a potential advisor, there are a handful of important topics you’ll want to cover. Again, you should have them clarify how they’re paid. Specifically, ask about their fee structure. Even if you’re sure they’re fee-only, get them to confirm it.
Obviously, you want to look at their accreditation, too. Beyond making sure you’re working with a true CFP, if the advisor sells an investment product, you also want to make sure they’re registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). If they’re managing more than $100,000 in assets, make sure they’re registered with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC).
- Do you provide comprehensive financial planning or just investment management?
- How will you help me reach my financial goals?
- What happens to my relationship with the firm if something happens to you?
- Are you held to a fiduciary standard at all times?
In general, talk about your specific financial needs and make sure they’re able to help you with them. However, you also want to weed out a good financial advisor from a bad one. In doing this, discuss these topics during the interview:
- Their length of service: Do they have a proven track record?
- Their typical client: You want to make sure they’re used to working with clients with needs similar to your own.
- Their investing philosophy: This is why it helps to learn the basics of investing. We recommend a long-term buy and hold portfolio, and so do most personal finance experts. You want to make sure your advisor’s investment philosophy matches your own.
A good financial advisor will do more listening than talking. They should also ask questions about your situation and offer insight. If your advisor does any of the following during your meeting, walk away:
- They promise to destroy the market. If your advisor guarantees a high investment return, it’s probably time to move on. The stock market averages about 6-7%, and even that’s not guaranteed.
- They give you advice without knowing your full financial picture. This goes hand in hand with the 90% of the talking thing. They should have a thorough idea of your financial health so they can offer a customized plan of action.
- You feel rushed or pressured. If the planner is urging you to get back to them by a specific deadline, or they urge you to act on a limited-time opportunity, they’re probably trying to sell you something beyond a solid financial future.
You should always look out for red flags like this, but vetting a fee-only CFP will help you ensure you don’t have much to worry about.
It can be intimidating disclosing and handing over your finances to someone else. But sometimes doing so makes sense, and there are plenty of experienced and skilled advisors out there who can help manage your money. Take your time with the process—and do your research—and it shouldn’t be too hard to find one who’s reliable.
This piece was originally published in September 2015 and updated on June 23, 2020 by Emily Long. Our updates include the following: updated links and resources, changes to match current Lifehacker style, a new first paragraph and a new lead image.