Finding the Right Financial Advisor

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By Mike DuBose and Blake DuBose

Can you imagine approaching your retirement years with little or no savings in the bank? Or having a financial crisis and lacking the cash reserves to help you through the tough times? These dismal images are an unfortunate reality for many Americans today. According to recent studies, large segments of the population are not saving enough to support themselves in their last decades of life. Some startling findings include:

  • Only 6 in 10 workers surveyed by the non-profit Employee Benefits Research Institute in 2017 reported they had retirement savings, and 3 in 10 reported feeling “mentally or emotionally stressed about preparing for retirement.”
  • U.S. Census researchers’ analysis of recent tax data found that only one-third of workers were utilizing their 401(k) or similar retirement plans.
  • In a 2016 survey conducted by GoBankingRates across diverse age groups, one-third of respondents said they had nothing saved for retirement.

Unfortunately, many Americans want it all: big houses, fancy cars, designer clothes, and expensive vacations. They envision themselves having plenty of retirement income and leaving their children substantial inheritances. This “American Dream” rarely comes true without hard, smart work and planning, however. To achieve their wishes, many are living from one paycheck to the next. If an unexpected disaster occurs—one of the partners in a marriage dies, loses a job, or experiences an expensive illness or disability—the “dream” turns into a financial nightmare!

Understanding how much money to put aside and where to invest it can be difficult and often risky. Many people don’t have the time or knowledge to research the countless options on their own and become discouraged. Fortunately, professional advice can keep even the least investment-savvy individuals from ending up struggling to survive. A good financial advisor can help determine how much money you will need to plan your future, habits you may need to break, and methods to best accumulate funds based on your age, short- and long-term goals, and current financial situation.

Many major life events can benefit from expert guidance, such as:

  • Applying for Social Security (there are more than 200 options!)
  • Planning for retirement
  • Merging finances, assets, and liabilities as a newly married couple
  • Developing and monitoring a budget
  • Reducing tax liabilities
  • Accumulating tax-exempt savings and college funds for children and grandchildren
  • Strategizing on ways to reduce or eliminate debt
  • Investing wisely and maximizing returns
  • Creating an estate, trust, and will (with the advice of a CPA and attorney)
  • Recovering financially from divorce or the death of a spouse
  • Starting a business (or altering an existing business’s structure)
  • Inheriting money

Ideally, you’ll want to choose a professional who specializes in the matters currently concerning you. (Of course, retirement savings apply to everyone, but with different strategies depending on the individual.) A good advisor can also help you create a plan to maximize your assets as you move through life, and will act not only as a guide, but also hold you accountable for your spending.

Experts estimate that more than 300,000 individuals in the U.S. call themselves financial advisors, and each exhibits varying levels of competency, skills, and experience. How can you make sure you find the right professional to fit your needs? Try these research-based tips to select a person who can help you address your unique situation:

Search for a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) in your area: There are many different terms out there—finance coach, financial advisor, and wealth manager, to name a few—but, according to US News and World Report, some designations simply require the person to take a few two-hour classes! Deborah Jacobs explained some common terms in a recent Forbes article:

Registered representatives, also called stockbrokers, investment representatives, and bank representatives, are paid commissions to sell investment and insurance products. Their primary sales licenses are Series 6 or Series 7.

Financial planners are a tough category. There are no licensing requirements for planners. Anyone can claim to be a financial planner whether it is true or not. Your vetting process should limit your selection to those who have earned the CFP, CPA/PFS or ChFC certification.

Financial advisors are Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) or Investment Advisor Representatives (IARs). They are compensated with fees and are financial fiduciaries so they are held to the highest ethical standards in the financial services industry.

Money managers have the same registrations and characteristics as financial advisors. Their distinguishing feature is that they make decisions for investors without their approval in advance.

Of all these designations, we recommend seeking a Certified Financial Planner (CFP). Almost anyone can call themselves a financial planner, but only professionals who are approved by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., display the CFP behind their name. A CFP is desirable because they are held to stringent standards and have a “fiduciary duty” to you—they are legally and ethically required to act in your best interest. In other words, they won’t steer you into making investments that aren’t right for you to earn commissions. (It’s important to note, however, that even certified professionals may not have the same skills, experience, values, ethics, and credibility as others, so it pays to “shop around” a bit!)

Solicit recommendations: Ask friends and colleagues in your area if they have a financial planner they recommend. This is particularly useful because friends are often in the same age range, meaning that their investment goals may mimic yours. Another source to consider is the Certified Financial Planner Board, which maintains a searchable CFP database at www.CFP.net. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.findanadvisor.napfa.org) and the Financial Planning Association (www.fpanet.org) also offer resources searchable by region.

Check their backgrounds: After collecting several names of promising finance experts located near you, perform research to confirm that they are certified, ethical, and honest. Google their names to ensure they’re not linked to terms like “fraud,” “lawsuit,” or “scam.” Search the registry provided by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) at https://brokercheck.finra.org/ to ensure their certifications are current and see if there have been any disputes over their conduct filed by former clients. If your candidates are featured on websites, their bios can also give you an idea of whether their specialties and interests align with your needs.

Interview your finalists: Once you have confirmed that their records are clean, call several promising professionals to speak to them in person. You’re seeking a professional who genuinely considers your concerns, needs, and wants, spending more time listening and asking questions than they do talking. Every person’s financial situation is unique, and you need an advisor who won’t try to force you into a one-size-fits-all plan.

The following are questions that the National Association of Professional Financial Planners and other experts recommend you ask during your conversations with potential financial planners:

  • How are you compensated? Some charge by the hour; others take a percentage (usually, 1-1.25%) of the total value of your investments with them per year. Automated or semi-automated services such as Schwab and Vanguard charge between .25 and .50% of the value of your investments per year.
  • What are your specialty areas? Some advisors focus mostly on retirement, while others may have expertise in multiple categories.
  • If you accept commissions, will you itemize the amount of compensation you earn from products that you recommend to me?
  • Do you accept referral fees?
  • Are you held to a fiduciary standard at all times? Note that some advisors can act in a fiduciary role during the financial planning stage, but can then switch to a broker role when buying commission-based stocks on your behalf.
  • Have you ever been disciplined by the SEC or FINRA?
  • Do you provide comprehensive financial planning or just investment management?
  • Do you have many with similar circumstances or qualities to me? Most planners provide services to individuals within ten years of their age.
  • How will you help me reach my financial goals?
  • What happens to my relationship with the firm if you leave?
  • How often should we meet? Most advisors will hold an initial planning session and send you off with some homework and forms to complete so they have a good idea of where you stand. Then, you will have some follow-up meetings. The number of times you meet each year is dependent on your needs.
  • Will I work with you or a team of professionals?
  • Do you have a minimum investment amount? Some planners will only work with clients who have assets valued over a certain amount. The Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com) is a group of certified planners who guarantee they will work with all types of clients.

In addition to paying attention to the candidates’ answers, note how the conversations make you feel. Financial decisions have an important impact on your life, and you should never work with anyone who makes you feel rushed. Scratch individuals who pressure you into buying anything or acting on “limited time offers” from your list! Also, make sure that you select an advisor who will explain complicated terms for you, rather than speaking in industry jargon that you don’t understand.

Inquire about their fees: Determine how your contenders will be paid. We prefer using independent CFPs who charge an hourly rate rather than individuals employed by large companies who work on commission. As the Wall Street Journal’s “How to Choose a Financial Planner” guide notes, “You typically want to avoid commission-based advisers. Planners who work on commission may have less than altruistic incentives to push a certain life insurance package or mutual fund if they’re getting a cut of that revenue.”

Beware of extravagant promises: Use common sense when speaking to prospective financial advisors. Looking at the past 30 or more years, the average annual stock market return (adjusted for inflation) is about 7 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal. If someone promises you a rate of return that seems too good to be true…it probably is. You’re trying to select a competent professional who can help you meet reasonable objectives, not someone who will razzle dazzle you with big talk and then fail to deliver when you need them!

The bottom line: As we often say within our family, “Hope for the best and plan for the worst!” Finding the right financial counselor is an important part of preparing for the future. It’s one investment guaranteed to reap benefits over the years!

About the authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose Family of Companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2017 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com and briefly explain how the article will be used; we will respond promptly. Thank you for honoring our hard work!

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