Financial advice isn't just for the wealthy.
In fact, the right guidance early in your financial life can have the biggest impact on your long-term success. Many financial advisors, however, simply aren't interested in working with the middle class.
Many firms in recent years have stopped paying commissions to brokers for accounts that are considered small, including accounts ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 in assets. Firms that do take less than those minimums sometimes charge as much as 2% in annual fees, though 1% is more typical.
So what should a middle-class investor do to find a good financial advisor? Experts recommend following these tactics.
How Much Will a Financial Advisor Cost You?
Financial advisors typically charge fees based on how much money you have with their firm, called assets under management, or AUM. The industry average is around 1% of AUM per year, although some firms can go up to 2% per year. This fee is typically deducted from your accounts on a quarterly basis. So if you have $250,000 with an advisor charging 1% per year, you can expect to pay $625 every three months.
How Do Financial Advising Fees Work?
Many firms will have a sliding scale for their fees. The more assets you have with them, the lower their fee. So while 1% is the average for $1 million accounts, smaller balances may pay closer to 1.2% on average. Larger accounts could pay 0.4%.
Other fee-only advisors may charge an hourly or per-project fee. Meanwhile, commission-based advisors receive commissions from the investments they sell. Some advisors, known as fee-based advisors, charge both a fee and commissions.
Some advisors include financial planning in their fees for managing your investments, while others charge a separate fee for advice. As for how much you'll pay, it will vary depending on where you live and the scope of the work you're requesting. Some advisors may charge a couple thousand dollars for a comprehensive plan. Others may charge around $100 to $400 an hour to dispense financial advice.
Stephanie Genkin, founder of My Financial Planner LLC and a certified financial planner in Brooklyn, New York, charges hourly -- as opposed to by AUM. Most fee-only advisors charge according to assets and therefore have minimum thresholds an individual needs to have in their investment account before they'll even consider the person as a client. How much is the minimum? It varies, of course, but often you'll need at least $50,000 before many advisors will consider working with you.
"That means most middle-class people are automatically excluded from service as they don't have enough in investments to manage," Genkin says.
Where to Start Looking for a Financial Advisor?
An advisor's compensation is about more than just how you're billed. A fee-based advisor is more likely to be a fiduciary, who won't be swayed by conflicts of interest, while an advisor who earns commissions may be incentivized to place you in investments that earn her the highest commission.
If you're working with a fiduciary financial advisor, he or she is legally bound to put your needs before their own. A financial professional who has a suitability requirement is legally bound to provide products that are suitable for your needs, but they may not be the very best for you.
That doesn't mean somebody who upholds the suitability standard isn't going to look out for you -- but it does mean that the rules for those advisors are less stringent.
Registered investment advisors, investment advisor representatives and certified financial planners all carry fiduciary-level responsibility. You can easily spot these titles on business cards, websites and email signatures. Chartered retirement planning counselor and accredited investment fiduciary are other designations that indicate a fiduciary responsibility.
When choosing a financial advisor, think about what services you're looking for. Are you seeking help with financial and retirement planning, or simply someone to help you buy and sell investments? If it's the former, you'd likely be better served by a fee-only advisor. With the latter, a commission-based advisor could help you keep costs down by not charging for unneeded services.
As for where to find a financial advisor, there are several places to look:
-- Use an online advisor search. U.S. News has an online database of financial advisors across the country. You can use the search to find advisors in your area and learn more about their specialties and experience.
-- Ask friends, family or colleagues for recommendations. Obviously, you'll be more likely to find somebody who will work with you if your friends, family members or colleagues are in a similar tax bracket as you are.
-- The Garrett Planning Network. Garrettplanningnetwork.com offers a map of the United States where users can click on a state and find a list of financial advisors who cater to the middle class.
-- The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. The association's website, napfa.org, allows you to find a financial advisor near you.
-- Robo advisors. You may want to consider an automated portfolio management service as a cost-effective option. For example, with Schwab Intelligent portfolios, you don't pay advisory fees or commissions, though you will need $5,000 to get started. Meanwhile, Wealthfront, another popular robo advisor, has a $500 minimum account requirement, and only charges an annual advisory fee of 0.25% on all assets under management.
-- Search engines. This one may seem like a no-brainer, but the power of search engines can't be overlooked. Chances are a search engine is how you found your way here. So if none of the above prove fruitful, consider a quick Google search for "financial advisor near me" or "financial advisor for the middle class." If you know you want someone to help with financial planning as opposed to just buying and selling, you may want to include "fiduciary" in your search terms. This way, you'll be able to locate fee-only advisors and not commission-based brokers.
-- The Accredited Financial Counselor website. "I would strongly encourage true middle-income people to look (at afcpe.org) for an accredited financial counselor," says Justin Chidester, who is both an accredited financial counselor and a certified financial planner -- as well as the owner of Wealth Mode Financial Planning in Logan, Utah.
You've probably heard of certified financial planners, but accredited financial counselors have been around for a while too, according to Chidester.
"They often have a focus on helping low- and middle-income people, at affordable prices, with topics relevant to everyone -- saving, budgeting, paying debt, improving credit, preparing to buy a home and working through poor habits with money," Chidester says.
He adds that they can't legally provide investment or insurance advice, but they can provide great education about any financial topic and point you in the right direction for those things.
What Questions Should You Ask?
Are you looking for help with investments and retirement planning, or simply for someone to go to when you have questions? Knowing what you're looking for in a financial advisor is the first step to finding the right advisor for you. Knowing how to match an advisor to your needs is the second step. Ask any potential financial advisors these questions:
-- What services do you provide?
-- What type of clients do you typically work with?
-- How will we communicate with each other? How often will I hear from you?
-- Are you a fiduciary?
-- How are you compensated? And how much will I be charged for your services?
As for what you might discuss with a financial advisor, it can run the gamut. In Genkin's case, she says, "I work with students and young adults saddled with student loans to help them create realistic debt repayment plans, self-employed individuals who need help figuring out what they can do to save for retirement and new families who have limited resources and would like to save for a down payment on a home and start a college savings plan for their baby at the same time."
She also points out that you may not need many hours, at first, with a financial advisor. If you're just starting this journey, you probably have fewer assets, and you just need that initial guidance. By the time you need more help to manage your assets, you'll presumably have more money, and paying for more financial advice won't be as challenging.
How Do You Avoid Getting Scammed?
To avoid getting scammed, make sure to get references and check out everything you can find on the financial advisor online first. And keep in mind, almost everyone pays something when they hire a financial advisor -- and not everyone is out to get you.
But after you find a financial advisor, you want to make sure you're in sync. You'll want to get a sense of whether your advisor has a financial philosophy that lines up with yours.
And the most important question of all? "Ask how they can help you reach your goals," says Brett Anderson, a certified financial planner and president of St. Croix Advisors, an investment advisory firm in Woodbury, Minnesota.
He also suggests asking the advisor, "Based on my personal situation, would I be a good client fit for your firm?" If the answer is no, that's OK. Just keep searching until you find the right fit, he says.
And if you're anxious that you don't make enough money for a financial advisor to work with you, just tell the advisor upfront what you earn and your overall financial health, Anderson says.
"Established advisors will want to have a dialogue even before they schedule an initial meeting with you," he says. "Be honest. Just lay it all out. You'll save everyone time and, most importantly, you'll find the right advisor for you."
And the more time you save in looking for a financial advisor, the faster you can get started making your money work for you.