The best way to pay for advice: The advantages of a fee-only financial advisor

A few weeks back, I wrote about having a financial health day at work. With the help of some of my Foolish colleagues, we've created a PDF that outlines how to host your own financial health day at work, including a checklist of what to consider accomplishing during the day.

Note: You can download this free special report here. [220kb PDF]

As you'll read, a key component of the financial health day was classes taught by experts we invited to Fool HQ, including several fee-only financial advisors from the Garrett Planning Network. Which brings us to the topic of today's post: how to pay for help from a financial professional. It all begins with my experience as one myself.

My Short Life as a Stockbroker

Way back when (in those crazy, hazy, dot-com-zy days of the 1990s), I put on a suit every workday and headed to the offices of Prudential Securities, where I was a (very junior) member of team that managed $200 million. I started off as essentially an office gopher, and ended up being a licensed broker in a span of about two years (at which point I left to join The Motley Fool).

The term “broker” is important; it means I earned commissions for sales of stocks and mutual funds. I also was a licensed insurance agent, and earned commissions for selling insurance products such as annuities.

Now, the fellows I worked work were smart and ethical, and I'd trust them with my own money. And they're not the only good brokers in the industry; I know plenty of them. But I saw enough to know that this is an industry driven, first and foremost, by people who want to make a lot of money for themselves. That money doesn't materialize out of thin air; it comes straight from their clients' accounts and into their own.

As part of my training, I spent three weeks in New York City. During the day, we heard from various representatives of the firm's departments — the bond desk, the equity analysts, etc. We weren't being taught how to choose better investments for our clients; it was more of an introduction to how the firm worked. Then, we'd learn sales techniques. At night, we practiced them by making cold calls while instructors listened in, giving us advice after the call on how to provide more “sizzle.”

When I joined the firm, I thought I'd be getting “the keys to the kingdom” in terms identifying the best investments. After all, this is a big-name Wall Street firm; they surely knew how to beat the market. Alas, it was not true. I learned more about investing from reading a collection of good books than I did from Prudential's training. What I did learn was that recommending certain investment products resulted in a bigger payday for the broker than recommending others — regardless of what was best for the client — and that many brokers weren't able to overcome (and loath to disclose) this conflict of interest.

The Fee-Only Way

Is there a way to get financial help without this conflict interest? Yes, there is — by hiring a fee-only financial advisor. Such an advisor gets paid by the hour, by the project, or — if they will be managing your money — as a percentage of the assets under management. These folks have just one incentive: provide good advice. You know they will recommend what they really think is the best course of action, because they get paid the same no matter what they recommend.

Here are a few other reasons why I like fee-only planners:

  • If you walk into your local Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, or some other brokerage, the advisor you speak with will care mainly about your investments, and maybe your insurance, because that's how they get paid. (Don't expect much guidance on the money in your 401(k), because they can't get paid for providing advice about that.) Fee-only advisors, on the other hand, take a look at the whole picture, from debt to cash flow to employee benefits to estate planning.
  • Many fee-only planners will work on an as-need basis. Perhaps you just need help answering one or two questions, such as whether you're saving enough for retirement. Or you'd like to continue handling your own finances, but you want an objective second opinion to make sure you're on track. An hourly fee-only advisor can help you. It's not exactly cheap — approximately $150 to $200 an hour. But not spending that money can be hundreds-wise but thousands-foolish.
  • Fee-only planners tend to have professional designations, such as Certified Financial Planner or Chartered Financial Analyst. Plenty of brokers have those designations, too, but not as many, percentage-wise. Such a designation doesn't guarantee good behavior or perfect advice, but it does mean the advisor knows enough to pass very rigorous exams and fulfill continuing education credits, including classes in ethics.
  • Most fee-only planners are fiduciaries, which means they are legally obligated to put their clients' interests first. Surprisingly, and appallingly, the typical broker is not a fiduciary, and is held to a lower standard. I won't bore you with all the legalese, but it has been in the news lately since it's a part of the debate about financial reform. Just know that it's a topic you should research and bring up with any financial advisor you consider hiring.

Where do you find such a fee-only planner? The Garrett Planning Network is a start. Visit their locate an advisor page and click on your state to see if there's an advisor in your area. (In the interest of full disclosure, and revealing my own conflicts of interest, The Motley Fool has a partnership with Garrett, but no money has changed hands. It's more of a “we like each other, so let's spread the good word about each other” type of arrangement.) Another option is the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, or NAPFA. Finally, you can use the PlannerSearch tool of the Financial Planning Association, and specify “Fee Only” under the “How Planners Charge” link.

Fee-only advisors are independent, and have their own ways of doing business. So not every fee-only advisor will manage money, and not every one will work on an hourly basis. Determine what you need, and find an advisor who will work on your terms — and put your interests first.

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Mike Piper
Mike Piper
10 years ago

“When I joined the firm, I thought I’d be getting “the keys to the kingdom” in terms identifying the best investments…Alas, it was not true. I learned more about investing from reading a collection of good books than I did from Prudential’s training.” Replace “Prudential” with “Edward Jones” and you get my story. You’re right: Brokerage firms don’t teach you much about investing. On another note, I’d argue that there are still conflicts of interest with advisors who charge a percentage of assets under management (though it’s smaller than that with those who charge commissions). For example, what if you… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

I completely agree with this post. I work for a large, regional broker/dealer, and while it is not my primary job, I am a licensed broker and manage a few accounts. While I do enjoy this responsibility and want to do my best for my clients, I am bothered by the conflict of interest that comes from being paid by commissions. There is no direct financial incentive to manage the account well. This system promotes excessive trading and the selling of unsuitable products. It has even prevented me from liquidating poor performing positions quickly (like one is supposed to do),… Read more »

Aaron @ Clarifinancial
Aaron @ Clarifinancial
10 years ago

Coming at this issue from the insurance side of things (but a former investment advisor representative myself), I whole heartedly agree with this article. Part of the problem is that in the commission world, even if the advisor you meet with is trustworthy and puts your interests above yours, their perception and capabilities are often crafted by those far above him or her. Conflicts of interest can go far above the head of advisors on the front lines. @Mike Piper brings up a good point about fee-only advisors, though. Although most of them are more comfortable talking about conflicts of… Read more »

KC
KC
10 years ago

No one cares for your money as much as you do. I’m not sure why you’d need a financial adviser unless you have several million or some special circumstances. Educate yourself and hire a good accountant and you should be covered. The accountant is going to give you good tax advice when they are going over your taxes and is always glad to take a call about a 401k or some other short tax question.

Jen
Jen
10 years ago

CPAs are a good resource, but I find their viewpoint to be much different than a financial planner’s. In my experience, my CPA will tend to view things from a nickel and dime perspective – sqeezing out every little bit of savings. While some might think this is good, it can be done to excess. Whereas my financial planner looks at the bigger picture and thinks more strategically. I find them both a good resource for different perspectives on what to do with my money. They also good for answering questions such as “What should my withholding be?” Yes, I… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

KC has an excellent point. Be an educated consumer.

However, for those who’ve reached the point in life where their debts are paid down, their assets are growing, and they don’t have a lot of time to do the in-depth research, the fee-only adviser is great.

MrP and I went to an adviser last year, and found it very worthwhile. Really what we got was a “tune-up” of our existing financial plan, and an unbiased outside point of view.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

I think it’s worth paying for some professional services. I pay to get my furniture cleaned because I don’t want to do it myself. It’s well worth the money!

jeffeb3
jeffeb3
10 years ago

Do it yourself. If your question is where to invest, there are lots of good books about how to use index funds to balance risk-return for the long run. I like “Investor’s Manifesto”. If your question is how much to invest, all an advisor will do is the math, and you still need to make a decision based on your values. There are plenty of good calculators on the internet. Take them seriously. If your question is when, now. If your question is what, or who, then you’re in real trouble. One other point is that financial planners, and financial… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Thanks for this post! I imagine it won’t get 200+ comments, but it is one of those that is useful and I’ll be forwarding to a lot of people.

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
10 years ago

@KC: “No one cares for your money as much as you do. I’m not sure why you’d need a financial adviser…” Certainly there are many GRS readers who might think the same; however there are also many people who find great value in paying an adviser one percent of assets to gain something more valuable than money — time — for pursuing meaning and purpose in life. Also, I manage investment assets (fee-only) for two CPA’s. Even accountants like to free their time for meaningful pursuits and they are not all equipped to help themselves (or others) with investments! “Money… Read more »

jg
jg
10 years ago

“Do it yourself.” – I do. However, I’m at a point in my life where my assets are increasing fairly rapidly. I’m not looking for someone to manage my money for me; however, I am starting to think that it might be good for me to have a one-time (or,say, every 5 years) meeting with a professional. Call it a “physical” for my accounts. Sure, you may get a lot of your health info from the web, or from books, but every so often, you’d like for a professional to make sure there’s nothing you missed. Ditto for me and… Read more »

BankVibe
BankVibe
10 years ago

I also used a very well known brokerage (wont name names) but they were definitely far too concerned with pushing what was best for them. What makes this scenario potentially worse is that if you happen to be one of their smaller clients, you’ll likely get a lower level employee that is probably intent on pushing these products even harder as to make a name for him/herself within the organization.

I would personally look into individual broker’s blogs/websites then find one you trust and either follow their free advice online or contact them privately about services.

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

I don’t trust any of them! My mother had a fee-based financial advisor (very well-regarded, by the way) who lost 40% of her portfolio in 18 months during a downturn. We sued and recovered the money because the advisor had her in aggressive growth investments. (He knew she was retired and ill). You should do your own research and understand all of your investments! If we had done so, we could have saved ourselves a year and a half of litigation, and the time and energy it entailed. I know this is an extreme example, but all the same, no… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I love my fee-only financial advisor. The first meeting my husband and I had with him was like going to a marriage counselor about money. It really helped us solidify our goals and and form a strong plan on how to get there. I can’t say enough good things about them.

http://www.merceradvisors.com/services/financialplanning.php

sora
sora
10 years ago

I am with the “don’t like anyone” group; we paid about 8K to a fee only FP for a year of services, but don;t feel like we got much out of it other than focussing on the $$ while we were working with her. She just did created some fancy spreadsheets for us, wrote out our wills & powers of attorneys etc (well almost – there was some issue with language & they are still sitting in draft form in our files) & set up accounts for us to earmark funds for our sons education, separate from the 529 funds.… Read more »

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
10 years ago

As a fee-only financial planner, I just want to thank you both (J.D. and Robert) for running this article. The more the public can learn about the differences among financial professionals the better. I only charge on an hourly or flat fee (retainer) basis, so I might be a little biased. But I tend to agree with Mike Piper (#1) regarding advisors who charge a % of your assets under management. Aside from Mike’s points, I have two reasons for this view: 1. In the firms I’ve worked for, everyone gets pretty much the same level of service unless they… Read more »

scott douglass
scott douglass
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul Williams

Paul, could we talk by phone? I liked your comments and wondered if we could speak about same.

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

The fact that an advisor charges a fee does not necessarily mean that he is free of bias. For-fee advisors want to make their clients happy. That gives them an incentive to tell you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear.

The best financial advisor is one who has shown the courage to tell the straight story even when it makes his clients unhappy to hear it.

Rob

leslie
leslie
10 years ago

I am in the same place as JG (#8). Although my life circumstances are different (married, kids, house) I am thinking that a financial “check up” with a financial planner every 5 years or so at this point in my life might be appropriate. I have been managing everything on my own up to this point and I am perfectly comfortable continuing to do that. However, I think that it is probably a good idea to get a professionals opinion on things specific to our goals and circumstances. It is very possible that they could point out things that I… Read more »

joejoeice
joejoeice
10 years ago

Although probably not intended, Suzanne (#9) makes a point that goes in favor of fee-based advisors. Her mother’s family could sue and recover the investment because the fee-based advisor had a legal obligation to do what was best for her client. If her mother had lost the same amount of money with a broker, the different rules that a broker must follow would have made it harder for her mother to have won the case.

Lauren
Lauren
10 years ago

@Suzanne, I agree, you should do your research and bad financial advisors do exist.

However, they’re not all bad! People do need help managing their assets. It can get difficult. You’d also be surprised about how many people do not have a budget… sometimes a visit to a fee-based financial advisor can open your eyes up to a lot.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

My dad was a CFP and lost a ton of money (for me and for himself) in the tech meltdown of the 90s. The stocks I picked for myself, on the other hand, gained big and when I finally rolled over all my accounts into my new 401(k), I had $130K accumulated. BUT the biggest point I’d like to make as a tack-on to this article is, the majority of the money is still money that went in – it’s not money that grew. Putting the money aside is the first key to investing. If you can’t save, don’t even… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

Even a free advisor can make mistakes. 🙂 My dad was a CFP and lost a ton of money (for me and himself) in the tech meltdown of the 90s. The stocks I picked for myself, though, gained big and when I consolidated everything this year, my total account stood at $130K.

I’d like to point out, though, as a important consideration, that the majority of the money in my retirement account was deposited there. It didn’t grow there. So the first key is putting the money aside. If you can’t save, don’t even think about “investing.”

brooklyn money
brooklyn money
10 years ago

JG, I’m in same boat as you. Right now I have a bunch of cash sitting around that I need to find a home for and since I’ve given up the idea of buying a place, I can take more risk with it. I’ve toyed with going to an adviser for ETF/fund recommendations for my spare cash.

I Stop for Pennies
I Stop for Pennies
10 years ago

We discussed this very topic in my Business Ethics class in a MBA program. Several of my peers believed that ultimately it is your money and up to YOU to check out your investment advisor’s advice. However, most people do not have the time to study investments and do proper due diligence. This is why they went to the broker in the first place. I think we walk a fine line between personal responsibility and trusting advisors who hold themselves out to be our trusted-advisor. One thing I will note, as did the post, is that many brokers do have… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

JG, that’s where we are, too – we do it ourselves but it would be nice to have a professional look it over and give some advice. Also we have some permanent disagreements between the two of us that it would be good to get a third opinion on. Most of our friends have no investments at all, or have all of them in a limited list of options presented by their 401k managers – the only people we know with other investments, and investment advisors, are people who work in the industry and went with friends or the companies… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

I agree about using the fee-only advisor FOR ADVICE, and then making one’s own decisions.

The advice our last CFP gave us was that we wouldn’t lose money on a house if we held it for 5 years. That was in 2005. 😛 (And we kinda knew better . . . )

Greg
Greg
10 years ago

I know I’m going to get ripped for saying this, but what the heck… If I were looking for an innovative (i.e. using Innovation Theory as described by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Solution) way to make money by disrupting the financial services industry, I would look at new models where services are strictly fee-for-service (NOT based on a percentage of assets under management). This is an innovation that is badly needed and would, in my humble opinion, really help society as a whole. I know there are many good, ethical financial advisors out there, many of whom I’m sure… Read more »

jeffeb3
jeffeb3
10 years ago

@Kent, #7. I can tell you’ve overcome that objection more than once! In reality, one percent is not a small amount. Considering I’m hoping to get 8% to turn my minuscule investment into millions, you’re wanting 1/8th of my returns! That’s just for the up front fees. Never mind the fact that a lot of financial planners (even fee based ones) still recommend funds that cost another 1+%, and then they have transaction costs that further reduce my returns. I find that I actually have less work now that I’m doing my own research. Yes, I do have to read… Read more »

Dennis Gravitt
Dennis Gravitt
10 years ago

Excellent article Robert!!! Financial Planning is much more than just investing for retirement. It’s about understanding what you have to work with in the present, and living within your means. It’s about putting your money toward its “best use”. It means getting a handle on your present situation. It Includes budgeting, chipping away at debt, and starting a saving’s plan. While Brokers and Advisors are eager to talk about managing risk, and investment allocations, few understand (or have an incentive) to assist folks in these other areas. It’s almost like we’re putting the cart ahead of the horse. I am… Read more »

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Well-written and insightful article. Personally, I do not feel my household will be in need of an advisor for several years. I know I need to retire all consumer debt, retire hefty student loans, build an emergency fund and save a downpayment for a home. I also like several large-cap stocks, that I acquire through Sharebuilder, for dividend income, which will be apart of our retirement portfolio. I also want to have a CD ladder. I do not feel like the needless debating about what someone else thinks is best. Nor, am I looking to abdicate control over our hard… Read more »

Duke
Duke
10 years ago

As an advisor myself, this article points out the key difference that made me avoid the brokerage world.

The comments here are also good. Yes, too many planning tools overestimate. I like E$Planner, which you can do for free online.

As for fees, our firm seeks to provide a positive, market-beating return after expenses. If we didn’t work for that, we’re no better than an index fund.

Look for those advisors who seek that, plus manage risk for you. Make sure to learn from Suzanne’s experience.

John Gay, CFP®
John Gay, CFP®
10 years ago

Greg (#27) said: “Imagine the amount of REAL value creation that would occur if the financial services industry was completely disrupted into a fee for service model. Would the actual overall returns be any worse? No, they would actually be much higher because less money would be going to financial advisors, investment managers, stockbrokers, insurance commissions, etc.” Amen, brother! There are a small but growing number of financial practitioners out there who don’t believe a fair price is determined by “how much we can get away with.” Sooner or later, that pricing model implodes under its own weight; consumers eventually… Read more »

Chris Hooper
Chris Hooper
10 years ago

Fee only advice is totally the way to do it. I am practising as an accountant; and I see so many clients getting slogged with ongoing advice fees or commissions of up to 4% of period contributions. Getting an adviser to set up a managed fund (which you could have done with a few hours and some research) can cost you thousands!

We are no offering our fee for advice services at our firm, alas many people are still looking for the no-money-down alternative, even if it costs them 10 times more in the long run.

Ryan
Ryan
10 years ago

I have had similar experiences. I have worked as a financial advisor for both one of Canada’s largest banks and a full service broker. The companies focus was on sales, not advice, the companiing training was around selling not providing advice and the advisors goals were messured by sales, not advice. After seeing the the conflict of interest first hand I decided to open s financial planning company of my own, and I use the fee only modle as it is clearly the best for the client. It can be more difficult as a fee only advisor bieng up front… Read more »

Doug Michie
Doug Michie
10 years ago

After 5 years in the financial services industry I finally discovered NAPFA and the Garrett Planning Network. I immediately joined. The commission conflict is so overwhelming that it is impossible to make objective decisions – the “commission question” is always hanging overhead like a black cloud. Fee only is THE only way to ever engage a financial advisor or planner. It has its own conflicts, but everything is on the table and transparent. I don’t understand why anyone, with even a little concern for their finances, would ever do business with an advisor being paid on commissions.

Trust Deed Investing
Trust Deed Investing
10 years ago

We do trust deed investing in California and I have been banging my head against the wall trying to get these financial planners to look at trust deed investments. I mad ethe mistake you talk about here. ANy advice from anyone regarding approaching financial planners with a new investment opportunity? We only work with real estate rehabbers so these trust deeds aren’t people in distress like other hard money lenders. The fee-only leads I’ve chatted with so far have been more open yet still cautious. They have the tools they feel they need and that’s all they’re interested in seeing.… Read more »

Jim Peters
Jim Peters
8 years ago

Very good post. As financial planners always striving to provide the best solutions and advice to our clients, I appreciate the information provided by you. Fee-only financial advisor is definitely a worthwhile option for those looking to invest and not managing money on the whole. Of course there will be a divided opinion on that, and not without a reason. We have seen people with money to invest but no real direction and useful advice to invest that money is welcome. Although a planner and fee-only advisor may have different perspectives on managing money, the latter is definitely as important.… Read more »

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