Q&A: Finding a fee-only advisor

Dear Liz: I need help locating a fee-only financial advisor. My search only comes up with advisors with investments.

Answer: It’s not clear what you mean by “advisors with investments.” Some fee-only planners charge a percentage of the assets they manage and often require you to invest a minimum amount with them. Others charge a monthly retainer (check XY Planning Network) or by the hour (visit Garrett Planning Network).

If you’re primarily looking for help with issues other than investing, such as budgeting or debt management, you could consider hiring an accredited financial counselor or accredited financial coach. Visit the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education. Another resource is nonprofit credit counseling agencies affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org.

Q&A: How the pandemic made working with a financial planner easier

Dear Liz: You often recommend in your column to seek the advice of a fee-only financial planner. Where would I find such a financial planner? Our understanding is that a person has to have at least $1 million of savings to invest before a “fee-only” financial planner will consult with you. Can you be more specific?

Answer: Once upon a time, it was difficult to find fee-only financial planners if you didn’t have a lot of money to invest. Many required you to invest at least $250,000 and charged 1% of those assets annually.

Today you have many more options.

There are now fee-only planners who work on an hourly basis (such as those affiliated with Garrett Planning Network) or who charge monthly retainer fees (the XY Planning Network).

There are also accredited financial counselors and accredited financial coaches (Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education) who often work on a sliding scale. The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners are two other organizations that represent fee-only planners.

One positive outcome of the pandemic is that many more planners now work virtually, which widens your potential options.

Also, many discount brokerages and robo-advisors now offer more affordable ways to get fiduciary advice. (“Fiduciary” means that the advisor is required to put your best interests first.)

Many use a hybrid model, with computer algorithms directing your investments plus access to a human advisor by phone, email or video call. The cost is typically 0.3% to 0.5% of the assets you have invested with the company, which is significantly cheaper than the 1% traditionally charged by financial planners.

Q&A: Weighing portfolio rebalancing costs

Dear Liz: I constantly read about the need to “rebalance” portfolios each year or more often to make sure you have a specific distribution of stocks, bonds and cash. However, selling stocks can create capital gains that will be taxed. An advisor rebalanced my portfolio and the result for me was an increase in capital gains taxes and an increase in my Medicare premiums. The extra taxes and costs to me seem to outweigh the benefit of hitting an exact asset target. Can extra taxes and Medicare costs be avoided while rebalancing?

Answer: Most of the advice about rebalancing is focused on people whose primary savings are in retirement accounts, where capital gains aren’t taxed.

Outside of retirement accounts, the costs of rebalancing must be weighed carefully. There often are ways to minimize capital gains taxes, such as selling losing stocks to offset winners, but in many cases the rebalancing should be done slowly, over time, to manage the fallout.

If your advisor didn’t discuss the tax and Medicare implications with you before taking this action, then it’s time to find another advisor.

Q&A: Finding affordable financial planning

Dear Liz: I’ve read your advice and that of many others to only use a fee-only financial planner. However, we’ve never felt like we could afford that expense, and many of the planners I’ve found wouldn’t take accounts as small as ours anyway. We’re in our mid-40s and feel like we’ve wasted many years waiting to be “ready” for a fee-only planner. Is it really better to have zero financial planning advice, rather than just using a free planner?

Answer: A “free” planner is typically an advisor who is paid by commission. You may not pay for the advice directly, but you could wind up with underperforming, overpriced investments because the advisor is not required to put your best interests first.

You can find certified financial planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network, and the XY Planning Network represents planners willing to charge monthly retainers. Many discount brokerages and robo-advisors offer access to certified financial planners, as well. You might also consider an accredited financial counselor or financial fitness coach, which you can find through the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education. Whereas many certified financial planners cater to higher income people, coaches and counselors handle issues relevant to middle- and lower-income Americans, including budgeting, debt management and retirement planning.

Q&A: Now is a good time to get a financial tuneup. Here’s how

Dear Liz: I’m hoping you could provide recommendations, referrals or tips on how to help me manage my money. I’m seeking a financial planner who can help me pay my bills on time, learn to budget and pay off credit card debt.

Answer: When you’re struggling with the basics, a financial fitness coach or an accredited financial counselor may be a better fit than a financial planner.

Financial coaches and counselors specialize in budgeting, debt management, retirement planning and creating better money habits in general. Coaches and counselors in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, which grants both credentials.

These accredited financial professionals also are employed by the military, credit unions and other organizations to provide services for free or low cost. You can start your search at https://www.afcpe.org/.

Q&A: Finding a financial planner

Dear Liz: Your column on delaying Social Security suggests using a certified financial planner on an hourly basis to review one’s retirement plans. I have struggled to find one who charges this way. They almost all want to control your money for a fee. The one I found after some effort charges $500 to $600 an hour. Please make some recommendations. I don’t mind if the CFP is not local. I just want someone who is certified, reputable, with a reasonable hourly fee.

Answer: There are a growing number of options for people who want “advice only” financial planning from a fee-only, fiduciary advisor:

XY Planning Network is a network of planners who offer flat monthly fees in addition to any other options, including hourly or assets-under-management fees. Monthly fees are typically $100 to $200, with some planners requiring an initial or setup fee of $1,000 to $2,000.

Garrett Planning Network represents planners willing to charge by the hour, although many also manage assets for a fee. Members are either certified financial planners, on track to get the designation or certified public accountants who have the personal financial specialist credential, which is similar to the CFP. Hourly fees typically range from $150 to $300, with a consultation on one topic such as Social Security-claiming strategies or a portfolio typically taking two or three hours. A comprehensive financial plan may require 20 hours or more.

Advice-Only Financial is a service started by financial blogger Harry Sit to connect people with fee-only advisors who just charge for advice and don’t accept asset management fees. Sit charges $200 to help people find fiduciary CFPs who are either local or willing to work remotely. The planners typically charge $100 to $400 an hour.

Another option for those who don’t have complex needs would be an accredited financial counselor or financial fitness coach. Those in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education.

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.

Q&A: What to do when a financial advisor doesn’t act in your best interests

Dear Liz: I hired a fee-only financial advisor a year ago. The advisor’s firm also included a CPA who prepared my 2017 tax return.

My tax liability was 100% more than what I paid via my W-2 withholding because the advisor traded constantly, incurring short-term capital gains. He authorized 45 trades in a three-month period. My capital gains for 2017 were more than I have ever earned annually in my 40-plus years of filing returns, yet the overall gain in my account was negligible.

I am 67 and soon to be retired. I do not believe he was acting in my best interests as his client. Is there any action I can take?

Answer: If you’re considering legal action, you’ll need to consult an attorney. If you want to take your beef to a regulatory agency, you can start by contacting the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Just because an advisor is fee-only does not mean he or she is competent or is a fiduciary (someone who is legally required to put your best interests first). Most advisors are held to a lower standard of “suitability,” which basically means their recommendations can’t be unsuitable, given the client’s situation.

Giving an advisor authority to make trades in your account is risky business. When you don’t know an advisor well, it’s better to start with a non-discretionary account that requires your approval for any trades.

If the advisor earns your trust, you can consider switching to a discretionary account that allows trading — but first you should have an investment plan that makes clear, in writing, what your goals for the account are, what investments are appropriate and how often the advisor expects to make trades.

Most people are best served by passive investment strategies that seek to minimize fees and match various market benchmarks. Attempting to beat the market with frequent trading is usually futile, and costly. That’s especially true in taxable accounts because short-term capital gains are taxed at regular income tax rates, while investments held long term can qualify for lower capital gains rates.

Q&A: How to pick a fee-only financial planner when family’s finances suddenly increase?

Dear Liz: I have had a fairly predictable financial life. I’m a school administrator, and my husband is a nurse.

We now have three properties. Two are income properties, and the third is a home that has sat for eight years in mid-construction. When finished, the home could be rented for $4,500 to $5,000 per month. Altogether the properties could bring in about $200,000 per year.

Additionally, my salary has doubled in the last two years. Bottom line, we will be making about $500,000 a year but are woefully unprepared with low financial IQs. You write about picking a fee-based financial planner, but internet searches leave me still wondering if we would be entering shark-infested waters.

Answer: Plenty of sharks do lurk in the financial advice world. Too many people calling themselves advisors are actually salespeople without the comprehensive financial planning background to give truly good, objective advice. Advisors who call themselves “fee-based” typically charge fees but may also accept commissions, bonuses or other incentives to recommend investments that may profit them more than you.

A true fee-only financial planner accepts compensation only from clients. You’ll want one who has an appropriate credential such as certified financial planner (CFP). The planner should be willing to be a fiduciary and put that in writing. “Fiduciary” means the planner promises to put your best interests first.

In the past, you may have had trouble finding a fee-only financial planner willing to work with you. Although your income is high and you have substantial real estate assets, you may not have a ton of “investable assets,” such as stocks and bonds.

Many of the best fee-only planners used an “assets under management” model, in which they required clients to have a minimum level of investable assets — say, $500,000 or more — and charged them about 1% of those assets in exchange for investment management and advice.

There are still plenty of fee-only planners who use that model, but a growing number now offer different fee structures, including monthly or quarterly retainer fees or hourly fees that aren’t based on investable assets.

For example, the XY Planning Network is a network of CFPs who offer ongoing, flat monthly fees that are typically $100 to $200, with some planners requiring an initial or setup fee of $1,000 to $2,000.

Garrett Planning Network represents planners willing to charge by the hour and who are either CFPs, on track to get the designation or are certified public accountants who have the personal financial specialist credential, which is similar to the CFP. Hourly fees usually range from $150 to $300.

You also can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the oldest fee-only group of CFPs.

Interview at least three planners before choosing one and make sure to find someone with whom you have a good rapport. If you’re not financially savvy, you’ll want someone willing to take the time to answer your questions clearly and not talk over your head while helping you deal with your increased level of prosperity.

Q&A: You need a planner for personalized advice

Dear Liz: I have five questions. I have enclosed five sheets of paper with each question printed at the top. Please feel free to simply write your advice on each page, and then insert them into the addressed and stamped envelope I have enclosed. This is my attempt to make it easy for you to respond.

Answer: Thank you, but it’s not the lack of paper or a stamp that prevents columnists from replying to private inquiries. Questions of general interest may be answered here, but you’ll need to seek out a financial advisor for personalized advice.

You have many options for finding fiduciary, fee-only advisors. Fee-only advisors accept fees only from clients rather than accepting commissions or other compensation based on products the advisors recommend. Fiduciaries are advisors who promise to put clients’ best interests first. The following organizations can connect you to fee-only advisors who are fiduciaries:

—The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors. NAPFA advisors must be certified financial planners (CFPs). Many NAPFA planners charge a percentage of the assets they manage (called an “assets under management” or AUM fee) and have minimum asset requirements, although some charge hourly or retainer fees. A typical fee is around 1% of assets under management.

—XY Planning Network. Advisors must be CFPs and offer the option of flat monthly fees, although they may offer other arrangements including hourly or AUM fees. Monthly fees are typically $100 to $200, with some planners charging an initial fee of $1,000 to $2,000.

—The Garrett Planning Network. Planners must be CFPs or on track to get the designation, or CPAs who have the personal financial specialist (PFS) credential. Hourly fees usually range from $150 to $300.

—Assn. for Financial Counseling and Planning Education. This group offers two credentials for advisors: accredited financial counselor (AFC) and financial fitness coach (FFC). Both focus on helping middle- and lower-income people get a handle on the basics, including budgeting, debt management and retirement planning. Counselors work with clients in financial crisis or who need help with spending plans, eliminating debt, building savings and improving financial stability, said Rebecca Wiggins, the association’s executive director. Coaches focus more on helping clients understand how effective money management can help them achieve life goals, with a focus on changing financial behavior using goal setting, accountability and monitoring, Wiggins says. Many counselors and coaches work for the military, credit unions or other organizations and offer their services free or at reduced cost. Coaches and counselors who have private practices typically charge $100 to $150, but many work on a sliding scale.