Q&A: How much should you pay your financial advisor?

Dear Liz: With my advisor’s blessing, I took one of my brokerage accounts and converted it from stocks to mutual funds that charge an aggregate fee of 0.26%. Not too bad, but my advisor insists that he still must charge his standard 1% fee on top. I know of other people whose advisors dropped their fees to 0.5% or even less in similar situations. What is a fair fee in this case, and is my only option to find another advisor?

Answer: For context, robo-advisors — services that invest and rebalance portfolios according to computer algorithms — typically have an “all in” cost of about 0.5%. That includes the advisory fee plus the cost of the underlying investments. Some robo-services offer access to human advisors for investment and financial planning questions, while others do not.

If you’re paying much more than 0.5% “all in,” you should be getting more in the way of investment and financial planning services. Is your advisor available to help with your questions about taxes, insurance, college savings, long-term care, retirement and estate planning? Did he create, and is he regularly updating, a comprehensive financial plan for you?

If you’re getting all that, then a 1% fee may be fair, especially if yours is a relatively small portfolio. (A survey of 1,000 financial planners by trade publication Inside Information last year found 1% was the median annual advisory charge for portfolios of $1 million or less, while the median fee for portfolios in the $5 million to $10 million range was 0.5%.)

If all you’re getting for your 1% is investment management, though, you might consider looking elsewhere if your advisor isn’t willing to adjust his fee.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Dear Young Girls – let’s talk about money. Also in the news: Why your teen should work this summer, a day in the life of a financial advisor, and why you should make student loan payments during your grace period.

Dear Young Girls: Let’s Talk About Money
Historical numbers.

Why Your Teen Should Work This Summer
Preparing for the job market.

A Day in the Life: Financial Advisor
Putting our money to work.

Why You Should Make Student Loan Payments During Your Grace Period
Tackling interest.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 signs you’re getting bad financial advice. Also in the news: What a financial advisor does, how Roth IRAs can help in an emergency, and why Wells Fargo customer should check their bank accounts.

5 Signs You’re Getting Bad Financial Advice
Who’s really looking out for you?

What Does a Financial Advisor Do?
Reaching your financial goals.

How Roth IRAs Can Help in an Emergency
An emergency backup fund.

Wells Fargo Customers Should Check Their Bank Accounts
There’s been a “glitch.”

Q&A: How to tell if you’ve got the right financial advisor

Dear Liz: I have met with a financial advisor, but he wants every investment to go through him. Although he is an advisor, he works for a company and wants me to buy their products. I’m a little resistant about this. What’s your advice?

Answer: Anyone can call himself or herself a financial advisor or a financial planner. There are no education, experience or ethics requirements for using those titles. A more accurate job description for this guy might be “product salesman.” He may not charge you upfront, but he’ll make commissions from those products and will recommend them even if there are better, cheaper options available.

If you want someone who puts your interests first, look for a fee-only advisor who’s willing to act as a fiduciary. “Fiduciary” means the advisor promises to act in your best interests. And don’t confuse “fee only” with “fee based.” Fee-only advisors are compensated only by their clients. Fee-based advisors may charge their clients while accepting commissions for the products they recommend. You can get referrals to fee-only advisors from the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com and the National Assn. for Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org.

If you want someone to give you comprehensive financial planning advice, make sure that he or she has the appropriate credential such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) and that you verify the credential with the group that issued it (the CFP Board of Standards for the CFP, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants for the PFS).

If all you want is help with investment management, though, you may not even need an advisor right now. “Robo advisors” offer automated portfolio management using computer algorithms. Robo-advising began with start-ups like Betterment and Wealthfront and it’s now offered by more established companies, including Charles Schwab and Vanguard.

Q&A: Paying an advisor vs. doing it yourself

Dear Liz: I started with a fee-only advisor 10 years ago. She moved to another company a few years after and I followed. She’s really done well for me. My question is, now that I’m getting ready to retire, should I manage my own accounts to avoid incurring commissions or fees? I don’t anticipate making any major changes to my portfolio.

Answer: If your advisor is truly fee-only, then you aren’t paying commissions on your investments. You’re paying fees to her plus fees for the various investments you own.

You can’t avoid fees. While you’re smart to want to avoid paying too much, you also need to consider the value you’re getting. Is your advisor a comprehensive financial planner who can answer your questions on most aspects of your finances, from budgeting to estate planning? Has she helped you stick to your investment plan in good times and bad? Can she serve as a watchdog as you age, monitoring you and your accounts for signs you’re at risk for fraud or bad decisions?

If you’re not getting your money’s worth, then you have two options: looking for a cheaper deal or an advisor who will give you more service.

For example, if your advisor is just providing investment management and you’re paying more than about 1% of your portfolio for her services, then you might well consider doing it yourself or turning to one of the many automated investing services that charge one-quarter to one-half a percentage point. Alternatively, you could look for an advisor who can be a comprehensive planner for the same fee, or less, than you’re paying now.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

2Today’s top story: 4 steps to managing your parents’ bank accounts. Also in the news: How banks boost overdrafts by counting big debits first, how to determine whether to pay down debt or save for retirement, and mistakes to avoid when choosing a financial advisor.

4 Steps to Managing Your Parents’ Bank Accounts
Taking the reins.

Many Banks Boost Overdrafts by Counting Big Debits First, Report Says
Putting transcations in a certain order can guarantee overdraft fees.

This Calculator Will Tell You Whether to Pay Down Debt or Save for Retirement
Which should you choose?

3 Mistakes to Avoid When Picking a Financial Advisor
Selecting the right one for your needs.

Q&A: Where to find help with managing your finances

Dear Liz: I am a mid-30s single woman who needs accountability in managing my finances and paying down debt. I have about $7,000 in credit card debt and $9,000 in student loans and I earn $55,000 a year. I feel as though I may have the financial means to do this but require a knowledgeable, structured approach. I’d like to work with someone to set up a plan and help me stay on track with it. I’ve considered trying LearnVest as well as smaller privately owned financial planning companies and a financial coach. Do you have any recommendations for finding assistance that could best suit my needs? Does what I’m looking for even exist?

Answer: It’s not always easy to find a fee-only financial planner who will help with budgeting and debt repayment. Many advisors cater to high net worth individuals who typically don’t have the same cash-flow issues as middle Americans.

The Garrett Planning Network offers referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. These advisors have the certified financial planner credential and, unlike many other fee-only planners, don’t have minimum asset requirements for new clients. You can interview a few prospects by phone to get an idea of the cost, but expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars to get started and then hourly fees for ongoing help.

If you’re OK not meeting with your advisor in person, LearnVest offers email access to a dedicated advisor who is either a certified financial planner or a registered investment advisor representative. For a $299 setup fee and a $19 monthly fee, you’ll get a customized financial plan as well as step-by-step instructions for implementing it.

Another option to consider is a nonprofit credit counselor. These agencies offer debt management plans for those who struggle to pay their credit card bills, but many also offer budgeting classes and financial coaching. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. Your initial meeting with a counselor will be free. If you opt for a debt repayment program, the enrollment cost is capped at $75 and the monthly fee at $50, although many agencies charge less.

Q&A: How does a lottery winner find a financial advisor she can trust?

Dear Liz: I’m a middle-aged, single, childless woman who won a very nice lottery prize. I took the “cash value” option and after paying federal tax, I was left with $1.2 million. I would like to pay cash for a home, have a tidy nest egg put aside and have money for travel and other occasional luxuries. I also receive a disability pension of $1,800 a month, which includes medical and dental benefits. Do I need a financial planner at this point? I was figuring I knew what to do, but may need an expert to help me go about doing it.

Answer: One of the things you’ll notice, if you haven’t already, is how people will come out of the woodwork to “help” you with your money. Some position themselves as advisors, while others will be offering “business opportunities” or just looking for handouts.

You would be smart to seek out a trustworthy fee-only financial advisor to help make the most of your money and to deal with all those who want to part you from it. The phrase “That sounds interesting — let me run it past my financial planner” can short-circuit a lot of importuning.

The planner can help you determine a safe spending rate for your windfall and discuss some issues you may not have considered, such as the need for more liability insurance (since you’re now a bigger lawsuit target) and a plan to pay for long-term care.

The advisor you want won’t be found at your doorstep or in your email box, begging for your business. The best planners are too busy advising to run after lottery winners. You can find referrals to fee-only planners at the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org) and the Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanningnetwork.com). Interview at least three and make sure they’re willing to sign a fiduciary oath to put your interests first.

Q&A: Dealing with a big lottery win

Dear Liz: My brother-in-law won a good chunk of money playing the lottery. He is waiting for the check to come any day now. He is willing to give me $2 million. The question for you is how I can maximize that amount of money short term or long term?

Answer: If your brother-in-law has any sense at all, he’ll realize he shouldn’t have promised any gifts before he assembled a team of professional advisors. And they almost certainly will have a dim view of him giving you a seven-figure sum.

Handouts that large have gift tax consequences. Anything over the annual exemption amount, which this year is $14,000 per recipient, has to be reported on a gift tax return. Amounts over $14,000 count against his lifetime exemption limit, which is $5.45 million this year. Once that limit is exceeded, he’ll owe substantial tax on any gifts.

Also, the $5.45-million limit is for gift and estate taxes combined. Any part of the exemption he uses during his lifetime for gifts won’t be available to shield his estate from estate taxes when he dies. Although, given his apparent generosity, he may not have enough left at his death to trigger an estate tax.

It’s not uncommon for those who receive large windfalls to wind up broke, especially if the amount is much larger than they’re used to handling. More than a few professional athletes and lottery winners have wound up in bankruptcy court. They spend or give away money at a clip that simply isn’t sustainable.

Which may be the road down which your brother-in-law has started. You can take advantage of your relative’s ignorance by holding him to his pledge or you can do the right thing, which is to encourage him to hire fee-only advisors — including a CPA, an estate-planning attorney and a comprehensive financial planner who’s willing to sign a fiduciary oath — to help him deal with this windfall.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

how_to_build_an_emergency_fundToday’s top story: How two extra years in college could cost you close to $300,000. Also in the news: How a financial advisor can help with life insurance, tips for paying off student loans if you didn’t finish college, and why 66 million Americans don’t have an emergency fund.

2 Extra Years in College Could Cost You Nearly $300,000
An incentive to graduate on time.

How a Financial Advisor Can Guide Clients’ Life Insurance Decisions
Seeing the bigger picture.

Tips for Paying Off Your Student Loans if You Didn’t Finish College
Strategic repayment could save you money.

66 Million Americans Have No Emergency Savings
A recipe for disaster.