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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