Q&A: How to make sure your financial planner is looking out for you

Dear Liz: As a recent retiree, I opened an IRA with a well-reputed, independent financial planner. I was assured of our fiduciary relationship and told “besides, it will soon be law” that advisors will have to put their clients’ interests first when offering advice about retirement funds.

I guess that whole “soon to be law” thing is out the window along with many other consumer protection regulations. My question is, should I ask my advisor to reaffirm our relationship formally and if so, is there a mechanism available to me to assure this relationship?

Answer: Technically, the U.S. Department of Labor fiduciary rule for advisors is still scheduled to begin taking effect in April, despite fierce opposition from the financial services industry. The Trump administration, however, has asked for a review to see if the rule should be modified or scrapped. That has been widely taken as a signal that the rule may never be enforced, even if it does go into effect.

So yes, retirement savers should continue to be skeptical. One way to make sure that your advisor is ready to put your interests first is to ask him or her to sign the fiduciary oath that you can find at www.thefiduciarystandard.org. The oath was created by a group of financial advisors who think that advice should always be in the clients’ best interests.

Q&A: What to do when a financial planner gives bad advice

Dear Liz: I personally like my fee-only financial advisor, who has been managing my portfolio (gained as inheritance) for the last six years. But she has me invested in bonds and gold only and insists that we wait until stock prices fall to get back in the stock market. We have been waiting for six years! My portfolio was not making much but now is declining with projections of interest rates increasing and the new administration’s potential financial implications. My current balance is only half of what it could’ve been had I stayed in my previous portfolio, set up by my previous advisor, of 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Is it time to change advisors again, or should I continue to trust my advisor’s advice? I’m one to five years away from retirement.

Answer: Your advisor is trying to time the market, despite ample evidence that market timing doesn’t work. You’ve missed out on a lot of growth, and your portfolio could take an outsized hit because bond prices suffer when interest rates rise. Big investments in gold are also problematic, given how volatile the prices of this commodity can be.

Increasing your stock exposure now comes with its own risks, of course, since the long-running bull market could end at any time. Still, you almost certainly will need the inflation-beating growth that only stocks can offer if you want a comfortable retirement. If your advisor isn’t willing to admit that she blew it, then you may want to start interviewing her replacement.

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: Mixing family and finances

Dear Liz: I have a relative who is a certified financial planner. He suggested we invest in annuities from which he will make commissions. When I asked him about his commission amount, he said he doesn’t feel the need to disclose that information because the fees don’t come out of my investment, therefore making them irrelevant. He says his fiduciary responsibility makes disclosing his commissions unnecessary. Is this correct?

Answer: Your relative needs to review the CFP ethical requirements. He wasn’t required to disclose dollar amounts or percentages of compensation until you specifically asked for that information. Once you did, he’s obligated to tell you. He (and you) can learn the details on the CFP Board of Standards site (www.cfp.net).

Commissions are far from irrelevant, especially when the product is as expensive and complicated as an annuity. Before you invest in any annuity, you should run the investment past a fee-only certified financial planner. Fee-only planners are compensated only by fees their clients pay and not by commissions that could influence their advice.

Q&A: How much does a fee-only financial planner cost?

Dear Liz: You frequently suggest consulting a fee-only financial planner, such as those who are members of the Garrett Planning Network, which seems like great advice. Can you provide any guidance on how much one should expect to pay for the services of this type of planner? We are a couple living in Los Angeles looking for a pre-retirement evaluation. That would probably include evaluation of existing investments, insurance needs, Social Security, long-term care, etc. How should we evaluate a quote of $3,000 for a full review estimated at 10 hours or $300 an hour?

Answer: The cost for a comprehensive financial plan varies depending on where you live and the planner’s experience level, among other factors. Nationally, the range is typically from $150 to $300 an hour, so $3,000 for 10 hours in Los Angeles is at the high (but not unreasonable) end of the scale, assuming the planner has several years’ experience.

Another way to get a feel for going rates is by interviewing a couple of other fee-only planners in your area. If the cost you’re quoted is dramatically lower, though, make sure the planner isn’t accepting commissions as well. Some planners are “fee based,” which means they accept both fees from clients and commissions on the products they recommend. You can ask for the planner’s Form ADV, a form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Part II of this form contains information about how the planner is compensated.

Beware your financial planner

Financial planner Allan Roth has a pretty good piece in the latest issue of AARP the Magazine on “The Two Faces of Your Financial Planner” (renamed “How to Choose Your Financial Planner,” a much snoozier headline, in the online version). Although it’s geared for older readers, it should be read by anyone who gets professional advice. The piece discusses the inherit conflicts of interest with every method of compensation, from commissions to assets under management to hourly, and points out that the people you trust with your money may not be worthy of that trust:

My point is this: Bad advice is epidemic in my industry, and it doesn’t come only from villainous fraudsters such as [Bernie] Madoff. It also comes from pleasant, empathetic folks who are merely responding predictably to my industry’s perverse incentives and self-serving ethical standards.

We financial planners are masters at persuading ourselves that what’s in our best interest also happens to be the moral thing to do. By and large, we’re good people, which is why we can be so convincing — and so potentially dangerous to your money.

The conflicts inherent in a commission-based model are pretty apparent. If a planner gets a big payday when you buy a specific investment, but less of a payday or none at all if you buy another, that’s a pretty good incentive to rationalize putting you in the investment that will do the most good for him or her.

There are also conflicts that come with the hourly model (the potential to run up the bill) and the assets-under-management model, although I don’t quite agree with the example Roth uses: “That’s why few of us will ever tell you to pay off your mortgage: Using $100,000 to discharge a loan rather than investing it could cost us $1,000 a year in fees.” Actually, the reason fee-0nly planners typically don’t recommend mortgage prepayment is that most people have much better things to do with their money than pay off a low-rate, tax deductible loan–things like catching up on their retirement savings, paying down every other debt and making sure they’re adequately insured, among others.

The article offers some excellent advice for how to get the best money advice, including checking credentials, refusing to commit to a plan or investment on the first meeting, asking what the penalties are if you want your money back from an investment and requesting the planner to put in writing why he or she thinks an investment is suitable and the total cost you’ll be paying.

Is a money manager worth the cost?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are nearing 60. The company where we both have worked for over 30 years recently merged with another firm. The money in our retirement accounts, which totals several hundred thousand dollars, will be distributed to us, and we need to figure out how to manage it.

We took your advice to interview several fee-only financial planners, and all of them are pushing for wealth management. They would manage the money in exchange for a percentage of the assets. How do we find an unbiased opinion of whether it is worth it to spend over $10,000 a year for this service rather than putting that money toward our retirement?

I find it doubtful that any of the planners can earn a return that would be worth at least $10,000 a year. We’re with Vanguard’s Target Fund 2020, which we currently use for retirement funds we have gathered outside of work.

Answer: You’re right that a financial planner — or any money manager, for that matter — is unlikely to offer returns substantially above what you would get in passive investments that seek to match the market, rather than beat it. Study after study shows that few investors, professional or amateur, can consistently outperform the stock market averages.

What wealth management should provide is a suite of services to help you in all areas of your financial life. You should get a comprehensive financial plan as well as assistance with your taxes, insurance needs and estate planning.

Your investments should be targeted to your specific needs, time horizon and risk tolerance. Your planner should advise you about sustainable withdrawal rates once you retire, so that you minimize the risk of running out of money.

Your planner should be willing to act as your fiduciary, meaning your needs come first, so you don’t have to worry about the conflicts of interest that may arise when an advisor is recommending products that pay him or her commissions. The best wealth managers, in short, provide a one-stop shop that alleviates the need for you to try to coordinate all these services yourself.

If you don’t feel you need this level of service, however, seek out a fee-only planner who works by the hour. You can find referrals to this type of fee-only planner from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.