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Financial advisors aren’t only for the very wealthy. People in all sorts of financial situations can benefit from professional financial planning services.
Whether you need to come up with a saving plan for retirement, manage your debt, diversify your portfolio or make your paycheck last longer, a financial advisor can help you set clear financial goals and map out how best to meet them.
Read on to find out how to find a financial advisor, from identifying your financial advice needs to choosing the right type of financial advisor for your situation.
6 steps to Finding the Right Financial Advisor
- Identify why you need financial advice
- Find the best financial advisor for you
- Know how financial professionals get paid
- Determine whether you need a fiduciary financial advisor
- Search for the financial planning you need
- Meet potential financial advisors or brokers
Step 1: Identify why you need financial advice
Finding the right kind of financial advisor is easier after you determine why you need one. Are you early in your career and want to know how much — and how — to save for your financial goals? Are you paying for your child’s education, or navigating finances during a divorce? There’s likely an advisor for your specific situation.
You may need more than one kind of financial plan, and that’s OK. Just make sure the financial professionals you’re considering have the skills, knowledge and experience to help you with your specific financial needs.
Here’s a list of issues financial advisors may help you with:
|Financial advisor services||How a financial advisor can help|
|Retirement planning||A financial advisor can ensure you’re maximizing retirement-specific tools like your 401(k) or Roth IRA so you can maintain your lifestyle after you retire.|
|Paying down debts||A financial advisor can evaluate your debts and create a repayment plan for you to follow, so you can prioritize those that should be paid down first and save money on interest in the long term.|
|Investing||Financial professionals can recommend specific products that make sense for your investment strategy. They can also help you rebalance your portfolio — for example, by moving you from stocks to relatively safer options like mutual funds or ETFs — to ensure it matches your level of risk tolerance.|
|Tax planning||The right financial expert can help you limit your exposure to taxes as you work toward other financial goals. They may evaluate your withholdings and suggest adjustments, if necessary, to help you get more money on payday.|
|Budgeting and saving||A financial advisor can pinpoint opportunities to help you reduce expenses. They can come up with a budget so you can use or save money more efficiently.|
|Getting insured||Whether you’re looking for home insurance, life insurance or even annuities, a good financial advisor can help you find the product that best fits your needs — and point out any holes in your coverage.|
|Estate planning||Financial advisors can help get your important paperwork — such as wills or revocable living trusts — in order. Advisors can also help you identify people to make decisions when you can’t, like a health care proxy and an executor.|
Step 2: Find the best financial advisor for you
A financial advisor is a certified expert that provides guidance on personal finances, tax laws, investments and asset management.
Within the realm of financial planning services, various professional designations exist. Some financial advisors fulfill a coaching role, helping clients make fundamental financial decisions and educating them on responsible spending, saving and borrowing practices. Others specialize in advanced investment portfolio management, executing stock and bond trades for their clients.
Here’s a summary of the main types of financial advisors out there:
- Personalized investment advice based on market knowledge
- Regulated by the SEC and state securities regulator
- No financial planning services offered
- Significant financial investment required for securities
Investment advisers may work individually or with a company. With their expertise in market conditions, they create a personalized investment plan that aligns with your financial goals. You pay them a fee for their advice about trading specific securities, such as equity securities (e.g. stocks) and debt securities (e.g. government bonds).
An investment adviser must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and a state securities regulator. Types of investment advisers include asset managers, investment counselors, wealth managers and portfolio managers.
It’s worth noting that an investment financial adviser is purposely spelled with an “e” instead of an “o," to specifically identify legally regulated investment professionals. The term is not interchangeable with financial advisor, which has a broader scope generally refers to brokers and is not bound to a fixed legal definition.
- Handles buying and selling of investments
- Regulated by Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)
- May recommend unsuitable investments
- Only full-service stockbrokers offer financial planning services
Stockbrokers buy stocks and bonds on behalf of their clients. They’re usually associated with a brokerage firm and can make trades for both retail investors (individual investors) as well as institutional investors.
Certified financial planners
- Holistic, long-term approach to financial planning
- CFPs who give investment advice are regulated by the SEC
- Fees could outpace returns on small investments
- Not all CFPs are fiduciaries
Certified financial planners (regulated by the CFP Board) help clients create long-term wealth management plans, taking into account their entire financial life: retirement and investment goals, insurance, taxes and more. They work with individuals but also often with specific types of clients, such as small businesses.
- Lower-cost financial advisor option
- Hybrid advisement with personal interaction is possible
- Without personal interaction, advice may be less personalized to your financial needs
Robo-advisors are digital investment management services that use algorithms and data about your financial goals to give you tailored suggestions about where and how much you should invest. Many advisors use a hybrid model which combines some personal interaction with robo-offerings.
Robo-advisors can cost much less than a human advisor. However, some experts are critical of robo-advisors, alleging that they can’t have the customized approach to risk management a human would.
If you’re attracted to this low-cost option, industry insiders recommend picking a hybrid model — such as Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium or Vanguard Personal Advisor Services — to combine the ease and low cost of a robo-advisor, and still have access to a human advisor that can help tailor your strategy.
- End-of-life planning ensures financial health of your loved ones
- Proper estate planning can save you money on fees such as taxes and court costs
- You're responsible for informing your estate planner about changes to beneficiaries or your financial situation
It’s easy to put off planning for your death, but it’s also necessary to ensure your loved ones are taken care of. Financial advisors can help get your paperwork, like a will or revocable living trust, in order. Advisors can also help you identify people to make decisions when you can’t, like a health care proxy and an executor.
Identify why you need a financial plan. You may need more than one kind, and that’s OK. Then make sure the financial professionals you’re considering have the skills, knowledge and experience to help you.
Step 3: Know how financial professionals get paid
It’s important to know the fee structure of the financial services you will use, as the rates could relate to specific factors, such as your total assets or the scope of service that will be provided.
There are various ways an advisor makes money — like a commission for selling products, an annual percentage of an investors’ assets, or an hourly rate — so you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for the details.
“Different payment structures might create different incentives,” says securities attorney, Alan Rosca. “If somebody is paid only to sell investments, it means if he doesn’t sell you anything, he doesn’t make any money.”
Here are some ways traditional financial advisors may get compensated for their time and expertise:
- Hourly rate: You could pay advisors for their time like you would an attorney. Hourly rates range from $100 to $400 per hour, according to financial advice site SmartAsset.
- Flat or annual fee: Financial advisors could collect 1 to 2% annual percentage of your assets under management. So, for instance, if your assets total $100,000 you would have to pay between $1,000 and $2,000.
- Commissions: Advisors could collect commissions on the financial products they recommend to you.
- Fixed rate: Advisors could charge a fixed fee of between $1,000 and $3,000 for a service such as creating a full financial plan
- Retainer: If you have a complex financial situation, sometimes a financial advisor will work on a retainer model, and charge you either monthly, quarterly or annually. Since this is not asset-based, it can help minimize conflicts of interest and keep the focus on advice.
Some financial advisor fee structures combine two of these methods. An advisor could operate as fee-based while also collecting commissions on sales of new products.
When considering how to choose a financial advisor, think about whether or not you need advice for a specific problem. You may not need a long-term relationship with investment management, so an hourly rate financial advisor could be ideal.
Robo-advisors are worth looking into as an affordable alternative. The best robo-advisors charge as little as 0.15% in annual management fees and some don’t even have account minimums.
Critics note that robo-advisors rely on the information you provide to make generalized recommendations through an algorithm, whereas traditional advisors may be able to catch nuances and make stock moves based on your specific needs.
However, robo-advisors have been a great starting point for many beginning investors with more limited budgets.
Step 4: Determine whether you need a fiduciary financial advisor
You might think all financial advisors would put their clients’ needs first and avoid conflicts of interest — but that’s not always the case.
What is a fiduciary?
The fiduciary standard of care — also known as fiduciary duty — is a rule that requires financial advisors put their clients’ best interests ahead of their own, even if that means recommending strategies that could reduce their own compensation.
Many different financial professionals fall under the designation “financial advisor,” but only some of them must adhere to the fiduciary standard.
Registered investment advisors have this obligation while critics say brokers do not, despite a recent regulation that was intended to strengthen these standards.
Meeting the fiduciary standard matters most when you’re hiring a financial advisor to invest and choose financial products on your behalf. If you’re simply seeking help building a monthly budget, this issue is likely not as crucial.
In either case, don’t be shy about asking potential financial advisors whether they are fiduciary financial advisors. Ask about how they’re compensated, too. It’s your net worth and financial future at stake, after all.
Step 5: Search for the financial planning help you need
Alan Rosca jokes that people will travel to faraway gas stations or appliance stores to find the cheapest gas, dishwashers, or dryers. They’ll spend hours at car dealerships before buying a car. But they’ll rely on a quick Google search to find the right financial advisor.
“We should spend the same amount of time before we give somebody our hard-earned money,” he adds.
While you could always use the internet to find financial advisors in your area, you have more precise search tools available:
BrokerCheck is provided by Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s (FINRA). You can do some digging into someone’s experience and see whether prospective advisors have faced any disciplinary actions.
Investment Adviser Public Disclosure (IADP)
The SEC’s IADP website is a database that can help confirm that a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), be it a firm or an individual, has the certifications they say they do.
The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA)
NAPFA is a professional association of fee-only financial advisors. (Fee-only advisors are paid a fixed rate and don’t earn commissions.) You can use their Find an Advisor search tool to find fiduciaries in your neighborhood.
Step 6: Meet potential financial advisors or brokers
Once you’ve identified some potential advisors that meet your requirements, start making calls and set up appointments.
Whether it’s knowing more about your financial advisor’s credentials or a detailed explanation of their pay structure, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. After all, your life’s savings are at stake.
Questions to ask a financial advisor
Here are some questions you can ask:
- Who are your typical customers?
- How will we communicate with each other?
- How much will I pay and how is that number determined?
- How are you compensated?
- Are you compensated for recommending certain products?
- How do you choose investments and products for your clients? If charged an annual percentage, will it be billed quarterly or monthly?
- Do you charge by the hour?
- Do you have a fiduciary duty to your customers?
You should also ask questions about your specific situation:
- Say you’re a person who is brand new to financial planning. Does the advisor have other clients in the same boat?
- If you’re a small business owner, do they have experience with that specialization?
- Maybe you’re a gig economy worker looking for tax advice and ways to create more wealth. Can they help?
If an advisor doesn’t want to discuss these details, move on to someone else. It’s important you choose an advisor who is transparent about how they’ll handle your finances and answer any questions you might have.
Financial advisor vs. Financial planner
While the titles financial advisor and financial planner are sometimes used interchangeably, the two professions are not the same. The table below details some key differences in scope of practice, certifications and fee structures.
|Financial advisor||Financial planner|
|May cover a broad range of services, including those of a financial planner, plus others, such as tax advice, investment portfolio management, financial planning, insurance products||Typically only provides financial planning, e.g., analyzing budgets, short and long-term financial goal-setting, retirement savings plans, estate planning|
|Works with individuals, businesses||Works with individuals, businesses|
|Some common certifications include Certified Financial Planner (CFP), Certified Public Accountant (CPA), Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA)||Regulated by the CFB Board, most common certification is Certified Financial Planner (CFP)|
|Variety of fee structures, including commissions on financial products, flat fees and percentage of assets under management (AUM)||Rates are usually hourly or flat fee|
COVID-19 and financial advisors
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, finance experts prioritized in-person meetings with their clients and the bulk of the counseling was still done face-to-face, but this has changed with the pandemic.
Stay-at-home orders pushed professionals to turn to video calls in order to keep their business relationships running and help the increasing demand of clients in need of advice.
Although face-to-face meetings with financial consultants have returned as the pandemic has slowed, video calls and other digital means of communication are expected to stay in place even after a return to normalcy.
People looking to hire a financial advisor online will find it increasingly easier, as many agencies and self-employed professionals are adapting and growing their online presence and services.
The fiduciary standard isn’t always simple
The fiduciary standard — the rule stating that financial advisors must place their client’s interests before their own — isn’t always as clear-cut as it sounds. Consumer protection advocates have long been pushing for a more strict and clear fiduciary standard across the industry. But they’ve been disappointed with many of the moves made to further the protection of individual investors.
- Only recommend products that are in the customer’s best interest
- Clearly identify any possible conflict of interest or financial incentive the broker-dealer may have.
The problem with the new regulation? The SEC didn’t clearly define “best interest,” says James Watkins, attorney and managing member of InvestSense. It, therefore, doesn’t protect investors to the extent that a true fiduciary rule would.
The SEC said it will be defined on a case-by-case basis, but lack of clarity “only serves to create unnecessary uncertainty and unnecessary risk exposure for both advisors and investors,” Watkins says.
How do you protect your best interests?
The best way to protect yourself is to choose a financial analyst who voluntarily minimizes the conflicts of interest in their business model and voluntarily adheres to a fiduciary standard higher than the one the SEC enforces, says Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America.
Look for advisors with the CEFEX certification, which audits firms and advisors and certifies them as meeting a true fiduciary standard.
It’s also important to keep in mind that brokers may have a different pay structure than advisors. They may make money by selling you products that are okay for you (and will offer them a bigger commission) but are not necessarily the best for you.
Don’t be shy about asking prospective advisors how they’re compensated. Watkins also recommends asking whether an advisor is “open architecture” or “closed architecture.”
Open architecture means that the advisor can sell anything to you. Closed architecture, conversely, means the advisor is limited in what they can sell, often because they’re receiving some sort of compensation from whoever is marketing the investment, like a mutual fund manager.
It may be best to actively find someone who is “open architecture,” and seek out advisory firms that are fee-only, paid exclusively by the client. This way, you know third-party incentives aren’t involved at all.
How to avoid falling victim to fraudulent practices
When you’re looking for how to find a financial advisor, scammers will ultimately invade your search. They can easily pass themselves off as financial advisors or experts, lending an air of legitimacy to their scheme.
You can use some of the search tools mentioned above, such as FINRA’s Brokercheck and SEC’s IADP, to see whether prospective advisors have any lawsuits or disciplinary actions filed against them, and ensure they’re registered with the SEC and FINRA.
That being said, “real” registered financial advisors can also engage in investment fraud. So even if you are meeting an advisor with a seemingly legitimate practice, you should know what practices are considered fraudulent and what signs to watch out for.
A legitimate, trustworthy financial advisor will:
- Fully disclose potential conflicts of interest
- Set realistic expectations when it comes to earnings (as opposed to grand promises of consistently above-average returns)
- Give you an accurate assessment of the risk associated with each investment
- Always act in your best interest
Steer clear if you notice any of the following:
- High-pressure sale tactics
- Use of phrases like “once in a lifetime opportunity” or “breakthrough technologies”
- Cold calls from unregistered and unsupervised salespeople claiming to be brokers
- E-mails from unknown senders promising a great investment opportunity
- Refusal or delay in sending information about an investment in writing
- Advice to keep the investment opportunity “confidential”
- Pressure to make a quick decision
Watch out for these common investment frauds
When looking for investment opportunities, you may encounter fraudulent practices. Unsolicited advice and pressure to invest are two potential signs of a scam. You should also be especially cautious when investing based on advice sourced from social media, discussion forums and investment newsletters.
Always check the background of a person selling investment products. You can use Investor.gov to find out more about specific people, including any disciplinary actions against them.
This scam exploits the trust between tight-knit communities and specific groups of people (ethnic, religious, professionals, the elderly, etc.). A scammer will approach and convince a trusted member to invest, who then unwittingly encourages more people from their community.
The investment generally turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. By the time people are wise to the scam, the money is long gone. Always be skeptical of an investment opportunity and analyze it thoroughly, no matter who presents it.
Your broker makes an excessive amount of selling and trading with the goal to increase their commission earnings, disregarding your best interests. Watch out for unauthorized or frequent trading, and any suspiciously high amount of fees in your portfolio, as it could be a sign that your broker is defrauding you. Be especially wary of advice to buy variable annuities, as they have very high fees, and are commonly pushed by brokers who want to earn higher commissions.
Promissory notes fraud
Promissory notes are a legitimate form of investment. Investors lend money to a company, which in turn promises a fixed return. However, promissory notes are commonly used to scam individual investors so before investing in these types of securities, you must check out their legitimacy.
A promissory note must be registered, either with the SEC or with the state securities regulator. You can verify a promissory note online with the SEC’s EDGAR database or by calling the state securities regulator.
Pump and dump
This scheme artificially raises the value of a company (“pump”) by spreading misinformation, with the goal to increase demand and inflate the value of the stocks. After the stocks have gained their temporary, artificial value, the scammers will sell their shares (“dump”) at the inflated price, and profit. After that, the stock goes back to its true value and the other unknowing investors lose their money.
You can notify the SEC of any suspected securities fraud by using their Tips, Complaints and Referrals Portal. If eligible, you can apply for whistleblower status and earn additional protections and confidentiality guarantees.
How to Choose a Financial Advisor FAQ
What is a financial advisor?
How much do financial advisors cost?
Compensation for financial advisors varies depending on the expertise and services they offer. However, they can charge an hourly fee, an annual percentage of the assets under management (typically 1 to 2%), a fixed rate, commissions or a retainer fee.
Robo-advisors, on the other hand, are much more affordable, charging as little as 0.15% annual management fee or a fixed monthly fee.
Do I need a financial advisor?
This depends on your financial profile and goals. It doesn't make much sense to pay for a long-term financial advisor if you don't have a lot of assets, investments or overwhelming personal debt. However, anyone can benefit from meeting with a financial advisor to map out a strategy for specific goals, like retirement or large expenses.
It's key that you're clear on your financial goals and needs to find the appropriate professional for the task. This could mean scheduling a one-time session with a counselor to optimize your finances or it might mean having a certified investment adviser on retainer to manage your assets.
How do financial advisors make money?
Payment structures vary depending on client needs and the services offered by the financial advisor. A financial advisor may work for a firm and therefore earn a salary, or they may make an hourly rate independently. Other advisors may earn money from a single payment for one-time service, such as creating a financial plan for a client.
Some financial advisors collect a flat fee in the form of a percentage (usually 1% to 2%) of the assets under management (AUM). For advisors who sell financial products, their earnings are commission-based. For clients who require recurring financial services, a retainer may be paid to them monthly, quarterly or annually.
Note that advisors could make money from a combination of the aforementioned payment types.
What to ask a financial advisor
Identify the type of financial advisor you need first. Once you've picked a potential advisor, find out if they're a good fit for you by asking questions such as: What certifications do they have?, Are they a fiduciary?; What is their fee structure?; What services do they offer?; What kind of results can you expect?
Thoroughly convey what it is you're looking for in a financial advisor. Don't settle for just any financial advisor — make sure you've found a good match to ensure the best results.
Summary of Money’s How to Choose a Financial Advisor
From helping you save for retirement to managing a complex investment strategy, a financial advisor can make your financial life much easier. That being said, when you’re looking for how to find a financial advisor, there are a few factors to remember.
First, consider your needs. There are many types of financial professionals, such as stockbrokers, certified financial planners and investment advisers, who provide a variety of services. It’s also important to ask about their fee structures and check that the advisor you choose has the proper credentials or certifications.
It’s a good idea to meet a few advisors before settling on one. If your first choice does not inspire confidence or you disagree with their recommendations, don’t be afraid to say no or search for a new one until you find the right fit. See our guide to how to hire financial advisors for more tips.