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How to Find Financial Advice You Can Trust

Americans say it's tough to find good, affordable help to assist them in managing their money. Here's how you can.

By Andrea Coombes | MarketWatch | October 10, 2013

If you’re worried and uncertain about how to find financial advice you can trust, you’re not alone. Almost half of Americans said it’s hard to know which sources of advice to trust, according to a new survey.
 
Lack of trust is not the only problem: 40 percent of those surveyed said good financial advice costs more than they can afford, according to the survey of 1,000 Americans aged 18 or older by TIAA-CREF, a financial-services firm.
 
Many Never Seek Financial Advice

Maybe steep costs are one driver behind another of the survey’s findings: Fully 37 percent of the respondents said they never seek out financial advice.
 
Another 45 percent said they seek out advice a few times per year, 13 percent said they get advice a couple of times a month and four percent said they get advice every week. Meanwhile, 46 percent of the survey respondents agreed that “now more than ever, I need a trusted place to go for financial advice.”

(MORE: How to Find a Financial Adviser Who's Right for You)
 
It’s not that surprising people are unsure whom to trust. In addition to the many stories of fraudsters who bilked investors out of billions of dollars — Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford are just two that come to mind — financial advisers operate under myriad different rules and designations, and the method of payment can vary widely, too.
 
You might hire a certified financial planner, talk to your accountant or insurance broker, or work with an investment broker. You may pay that adviser an hourly fee, a percentage of your assets or an annual retainer, or that adviser may earn commissions on products you buy.
 
Increasingly, there are online-only investment-advisory options, too, such as Jemstep or Wealthfront, as well as companies that offer lower-cost access to financial planners, such as LearnVest and Rebalance IRA, among many others.
 
In the TIAA-CREF survey, among those who seek advice, 53 percent go to a financial adviser or consultant, 52 percent talk with friends or family, 40 percent use online tools, 35 percent go to a stockbroker or accountant, and 32 percent said “my primary bank.” (Those were the top five most popular responses; survey respondents could choose more than one.)

(MORE: Evaluating Your Financial Adviser)
 
The survey findings echo another recent survey, conducted for AARP, which found that just 23 percent of savers “completely trust” their retirement-plan provider’s investment advice. Read: 401(k) advice: Can you trust it?
 
It Takes Work
 
When seeking advice, investors must, at the least, ask questions to confirm the adviser will act with their best interests in mind.
 
“What exactly are the fees and expenses? What is the actual service you will be providing for me? How have those asset-allocation recommendations been generated?” said Dan Keady, a certified financial planner and director of financial planning at TIAA-CREF.
 
With trust, “A lot of it has to do with disclosure,” he said.

(MORE: Why Won't We Use Financial Advisers?)
 
Keep in mind, too, that registered investment advisers are held to a fiduciary standard — they’re required to act in the clients’ best interests. Most financial planners are investment advisers. Broker dealers are held to a lower standard: they must make sure the investments they recommend are suitable for your age and overall financial situation.
 
That’s not to say you can’t get good advice from a broker dealer, or bad advice from a registered investment adviser. But, given their legal obligations, you may reduce some of your risks by starting with an investment adviser.
 
For more information on picking an adviser, see this SEC page.

Where to Start
 
So, where does that leave retirement savers who just want some help managing their money?
 
Generally, it makes sense to find an adviser who isn’t facing any conflicts of interest when pitching products to you. Usually, that means a fee-only adviser — someone who isn’t earning commissions off what you buy.
 
If you’re worried about costs (the lowest you’re likely to pay for a one-on-one meeting with a financial planner is about $200 to $300 an hour, or 1 percent or more of assets annually), there are some other options.
 
“For the person who is doing nothing else, a basic asset-allocation strategy from an online tool or a newsletter or whatever it may be, is probably better than doing nothing at all to manage your money,” said David Kudla, chief executive and chief investment strategist at Mainstay Capital Management LLC, a fee-only financial advisory firm.
 
Asset Allocation Is Key

That is, you either pick an asset-allocation strategy you like and then put your money into each asset class yourself — for example, small-cap U.S. stocks — and then rebalance on a regular basis. Or, you pay one of the online advisory firms to divvy up and manage your money for you.
 
That’s far better than no plan at all, and if you stick to low-cost index funds, your fees will be minimal.
 
If even that is too much work for you, then a target-date fund — you plow all of your savings into one fund and let that fund manager take care of the asset allocation and rebalancing — is another option.
 
But beware: Target-date funds add a layer of fees. Read more: Does your target-date fund have a secret flaw?
 
The Advantage of Hiring an Adviser

Kudla says that the value of paying an investment adviser such as himself is that you move beyond the static asset allocation plan.
 
For example, Kudla said, he’s made a point of shifting his clients’ assets out of bonds that will go down in value as interest rates rise. That kind of tactical adjustment is unlikely at an online investment manager using a static asset-allocation model.
 
Of course, you’ll pay more for an investment adviser. For some, it may well be worth it. For others, even a static asset-allocation model is much, much better than none at all.
 
Note: “Financial Planning Days” are being held in about 20 cities nationwide through Nov. 2, with classes on personal finance plus one-on-one meetings with planners. Read more about it here. 

This article appeared originally on MarketWatch.com. Andrea Coombes is a personal-finance writer and editor in San Francisco. She's on Twitter @andreacoombes.

 


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