By timestaff
July 1, 2008

If you don’t have the time or the skills necessary to manage your portfolio, it might be worth hiring a professional financial adviser.

Question: A year and a half ago I hired a financial planner for some guidance about my upcoming retirement. In addition to advising me (well, I think) on insurance, estate and tax matters, he helped me set an appropriate asset allocation and then recommended low-cost index mutual funds and ETFs. But now that I’ve been retired about six months, I question whether the 1% of assets fee that I’m paying to the planner really adds value. What do you think? —Mike, San Francisco

Answer: I’m sure there are some people out there saying, “You’re quite the guy, Mike. You seek out this planner when you’re anxious about your looming retirement. He gives you solid advice in several key areas and gets your portfolio up and running. And you want to repay him by reneging on the deal. Whatever happened to loyalty?”

Well, I can certainly understand that reaction (especially from financial planners and other advisers). But I think it’s perfectly legitimate for you to consider whether you should continue an ongoing relationship with your planner. In fact, I think people who work with advisers are remiss if they don’t periodically re-assess the relationship.

That said, however, I’m not quite sure what sort of resolution you envision. Are you questioning the value of having an adviser at all? In other words, are you considering managing the portfolio yourself?

Or are you more concerned about how much you’re paying the adviser? In which case, maybe you want the services your planner is offering (or something comparable), but at a lower price.

If you’re really not sure that it’s worthwhile paying an adviser to run your retirement investment portfolio, then the question you have to answer is whether you’re up to doing it on your own. Now that the adviser has put together the template of a portfolio for you, keeping it in shape may seem like a fairly easy task. But there are some things you have to know how to do and be willing to do.

When it comes to pulling money from your portfolio for living expenses, are you okay with deciding which investments to draw from? Will you rebalance your portfolio every year to bring it back to its target mix? How about shifting your allocation more toward bonds as you age to reduce the volatility of your portfolio later in retirement? And making sure that the combination of your investment strategy and withdrawal rate gives you enough assurance that your assets will last throughout retirement?

I don’t want to suggest that individuals can’t do these things on their own. I think most people can, if they know enough about investing and managing money and they want to do it and they know that they’ll actually follow through.

Only you can assess your abilities and commitment, but you need to be realistic. If you feel you can handle this and will exercise prudent oversight, fine. But if you’re not up to it or you’re not particularly diligent, then the money you save by cutting your adviser loose could be lost to mistakes or neglect. Which means you could find yourself in the later stages of retirement with a much smaller nest egg than you anticipated.

For that matter, even if you’re a whiz at managing your money, you have to decide whether you’d rather spend your time and energy doing that or enjoying retirement.

Depending on how large your portfolio is, you may very well be able to find a planner who will manage it for less than 1% of assets a year. Or you may want to consider a different arrangement, such as paying a planner an hourly fee for advice on an as-needed basis or paying a flat fee every year to review your portfolio’s allocation and investments and recommend any changes that may be necessary.

To explore such options, you’ll have to contact planners in your area and see what they’re willing to do and what they’ll charge. Be aware, though, that most planners prefer an ongoing relationship that involves regularly scheduled fees. Some, however, will work on an hourly or project basis.

Once you’ve done this fieldwork, you’ll have a better sense of whether you can get the services you want at a lower cost. Assuming that’s the case, you would also be in a better position to go back to your current planner and discuss a reduced fee or different model for getting advice. In fact, working out a new arrangement with your present planner may be the best solution, since this is a person who has already done a good job for you and apparently earned your trust.

For any relationship to work both sides have got to be happy with it. In this case, your adviser must feel he’s being compensated fairly for his time and effort, and you must feel you’re getting your money’s worth for the fees you’re paying.

Based on your question it’s clear that at least one party has doubts. So one way or another you’ve got to resolve this issue, the sooner, the better.

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