This is the golden age for the do-it-yourself investor. Corporate filings and stock analysis litter the internet, and trading is practically free with a discount broker.
Those who don't want to pick stocks and bonds themselves have thousands of funds to choose from, some that automatically do the tricky work of annual rebalancing and shifting to more conservative holdings as retirement gets closer.
But even these fire-and-forget options take some research. And coming up with a master plan can be daunting. How much should you try to save each month? How much will you need in retirement? How do you minimize taxes? What investment return should you reach for? How do you balance college savings against prepping for your sunset years?
Maybe you'd better hire a pro after all.
Life happens. But how do you know when you need a professional financial advisor and how do you choose someone who's right? Usually, there's a wake-up call, says Ryan Kwiatkowski, director of marketing at Retirement Solutions in Naperville, Illinois.
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"Typically, there is some life-changing event that really pushes someone to go and seek the professional advice that they need," Kwiatkowski says.
Many people who just want to manage investments can do it on their own, but a good financial advisor will do much more, says Jaycob Arbogast of Arbogast Advisers in Chico, California.
"I've called creditors to negotiate better rates on behalf of my clients, I've researched car safety ratings and MPG statistics to help clients choose their next vehicle," he says, "and I've helped my clients track their spending, going as far as to meet with them every week for a month to make sure they were staying on budget."
Some people have what it takes for DYI financial management, others not so much, according to Jeff Weeks, a planner with ATX Portfolio Advisors of Austin, Texas.
"The three things I focus on when determining if someone may benefit from hiring me are inclination, discipline, and time," he says.
If you don't like managing finances, a pro may be the answer, he says.
What kind of advisor is best? Selection of an advisor depends on what you need and are willing to pay. Many experts say the process should start with devising a master plan that looks not just at investing for retirement but at the whole range of financial issues, including budgeting, insurance, life goals like saving for college and a new home, even estate planning.
People just starting out often have little choice but to use a traditional broker, since many brokers will take on small accounts while many other advisors won't touch an account unless it's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, says Ryan McGuinness, founder of CTR Financial in Lincolnshire, Illinois. But traditional brokers specialize in trading stocks, bonds, funds and other products, not necessarily in designing a master plan, he says.
Full-service brokers are paid commissions charged for each trade, and that can be many times what you'd pay at an online discount broker serving do-it-yourselfers.
"The bottom line is that when someone gets paid on commission, they are selling products, not advice," McGuinnes says. "So keep that in mind. Any advice they give should be viewed through the lens of 'Does this make them more money?'"
Seeking a broad view. David Walters, portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Portland, Oregon, prefers full-service advisors who can look across the client's entire financial life.
"Most people start by looking for an advisor who has experience in the areas that most concern them," he says. "While this is important, proper financial planning should not be done in isolation."
A good advisor, Walters says, will coordinate with your tax preparer and other experts, such as an estate lawyer, and bring to light areas you may not have considered.
"Financial planning works best as a long-term relationship," he adds. "The longer you remain with the same advisor, the more you build trust and establish a relationship that will grow in depth and scope over time."
Many experts recommend advisors with the certified financial planner label granted by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. That marks a level of training sufficient to cover a spectrum of financial issues, and it requires the candidate to adopt a fiduciary standard, which puts the client's interests ahead of the advisor's and firm's.
Before hiring anyone, check his or her credentials and disciplinary history through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or the government's Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website.
Understand the fee structure. Be sure you know up front how your advisor will be paid, Walters says. "Be wary of advisors who work for big brokerage firms, because they will often recommend products and funds that lead to higher revenue for the firm," he says.
To prepare a master plan, an advisor may charge by the hour or offer a flat rate, creating a blueprint clients can implement on their own or with the advisor's help.
Many advisors charge a percentage of the value of the client's holdings. Asset-based charges average around 1 percent for accounts of $1 million or less, while a flat-fee master plan should cost about $2,200, according to Russell Robertson, an advisor with Alidade Wealth Partners in Atlanta.
Paying 1 percent is OK if it covers all trading costs and you get a well-designed plan coordinated with other pros. But it doesn't make sense to pay an annual fee on holdings that require little or no ongoing management, like a large block of index funds that just track the market.
Also, question the reason for every recommendation to avoid conflicts of interest, McGuinness says.
"The one conflict is when it comes to 401(k) rollovers," he says. "An advisor under this model has an incentive to get you to roll the money over so they can invest it for you and charge a fee."
Ask the advisor what benchmark will be used to assess investment performance. And remember that whopping returns aren't always the main goal. The plan may be designed to preserve your assets in a downturn or to make sure you leave something for your heirs.
Also, find out if your candidate is accustomed to serving clients with needs and assets like yours, and ask how your advisor will keep you informed, Robertson says.
[Read: 7 Great Stocks That Cost $10 of Less.]
"You should expect communication with your advisor at least quarterly to review your accounts and make sure everything is on track," he says. "Once a year, expect a more in-depth meeting to review goals, priorities, and expectations for the relationship going forward."
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