I’m lousy with numbers. But that’s not why I have a financial adviser. I have one because I’m even lousier with emotions. I weep at bat mitzvahs. I laugh at lamebrain YouTube videos even before pushing the play button. And when the stock market plummets, so does my financial rationality. Which is why 15 years ago — when I had finally saved more than I could stand to see dissipate — I decided to let someone else take charge of my money.
But you don’t have to be a financial lightweight like me — or wait for a crisis — to need a financial adviser.
“Looking for a financial adviser is like trying to get inside the black box,” says Ivan Illán, author of “How to Hire (or Fire) Your Financial Advisor: Ten Simple Questions to Guide Decision Making.” People tend to wait until the moment of desperation to hire an adviser, he says.
Picking a financial adviser is the imperfect storm of art and science. The science, of course, is the all research that you put into it. The art is the cosmic connection that’s required between you and the person you’re putting in charge of your life savings. You need both.
Your decision about whether to retain one, though, should not be based on art or science — but on necessity. This is particularly true for the many dual-income families living in the Washington area. If you have a six-figure household income — and $250,000 or more in investments — it’s probably best to let someone else call your financial shots.
“Investing is not a passive strategy,” says Donna Patterson, president of Keystone Asset Management, a medium-size, regional wealth management firm in McLean, Va. “Most people who hire financial advisers are very good at what they do — but they don’t have the time to commit to managing their own portfolios.”
But someone must. Investors with wobbly emotions — that would be most of us — probably shouldn’t be steering our own financial futures based on whether we can withstand the willies we get every time the market rattles.
“Good financial advisers prevent investors from making decisions that would have devastating impacts on themselves,” Illán says. In other words, hiring a financial planner is less about making a bundle and more about not blindly stepping off the financial cliff.
Which may explain why the profession is multiplying faster than eggs at Easter.
There are 249,400 financial advisers nationally, and that number is expected to grow by a whopping 30 percent over the next decade to more than 323,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The D.C. metro area alone boasts 3,570 financial advisers. That’s one for every senator, congressman and lobbyist . . . with plenty left over for the rest of us.
What’s more, just about anyone — even you — could hang out a shingle and claim to be a financial adviser. Technically, no license or education is required.
That’s why John Waggoner, senior columnist at InvestmentNews, suggests that people look for an adviser who, at minimum, is a certified financial planner registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Waggoner tells the tale of one financial planner who handed out a business card with the impressive initials “HSG” etched after his name. A bit of inquiry, however, revealed what HSG stood for: high school graduate.
Even then, you don’t necessarily want to find a financial adviser the way I did. Most folks ask trusted friends, relatives or colleagues for names of advisers. More than 60 percent of financial advisers are hired through referrals from friends, Illán says.
But not mine. Here’s my true confession: I hired my first financial adviser because she worked for a media celebrity.
The first time I spoke with my adviser wasn’t because I was in financial angst. It’s because the world was. It was just a few days after 9/11. I was a reporter at USA Today, assigned to write a trend story for the Money section about consumers who were — in a burst of patriotism — buying American-made stuff. I contacted Diane Rehm, the NPR host, whom I’d heard discussing the topic on the air. She told me that for her 65th birthday, she bought an American-made car. Rehm also told me that she’d phoned her financial adviser and asked her to buy stock in an American company.
I asked Rehm if I could interview her adviser, too. The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article because she doesn’t want unsolicited calls, said that she also bought herself shares in an American high-tech company on that day.
She is no longer Rehm’s adviser. But she is mine. I phoned her about a year after 9/11, when my daddy duties as the father of two young girls were overtaking my free time.
Technically, I did everything wrong. I didn’t interview her much. I didn’t ask for references. I didn’t even double-check to see whether she was a certified financial planner. I filled out a bunch of paperwork and, it turns out, I became virtually her smallest client. At the time, my portfolio was struggling to achieve six figures. So I was a financial pipsqueak. She worked mostly with seven-figure portfolios.
Over 15 years, she’s done me quite well — mostly by preventing me from doing all of the dumb things that I would have done on my own. That is the most compelling argument for hiring a financial planner. The alternatives for future retirees aren’t so swell. And it’s too easy to stray from the path of good sense.
“Opening a restaurant is a really bad retirement plan,” Waggoner says. For folks without much investment savvy — that’s most of us — hiring a solid investment adviser “can offset your Uncle Fred, who keeps browbeating you to buy that red-hot stock.”
But here’s the rub: It will cost you. If you opt to hire a financial adviser who works for a fee — typically, but not always, 1 percent — you’re essentially starting out 1 percent behind the market. If you opt to hire a broker — who typically works on commission — there’s always that gulf of uncertainty about whether the commissioned investments are in your best interest or your broker’s.
Illán says the fee always trumps the commission: “If I’m getting my advice from an adviser who gets his sales target from some asset management company, I have to ask myself, ‘Are they making choices because it’s right for me, or to hit their sales target?’ ”
Good question. The federal government is asking the same thing. The Labor Department, which oversees retirement plans, is taking steps to nudge advisers to hold client interests higher than their own. It has written final rules that would apply a “fiduciary standard” more broadly for 401(k) plans, IRAs and other retirement plans.
But let’s not get caught up in the legal mumbo jumbo.
“Don’t hire anyone who sells you products,” Patterson says. “They aren’t even on the same side of the table as you — they are on the opposite side.”
In the broker vs. fee-only adviser debate, Waggoner says he always would opt for the fee-only adviser. But it ain’t cheap. If you’ve lucky enough to have the magical $1 million to invest and you’re paying a 1 percent commission, that translates into a cool $10,000 in annual fees. “That’s something your basic journalist will never have to worry about,” Waggoner jokes.
Waggoner points out, however, that there is a third option for folks who can’t swallow the fat fees: sitting down annually with an adviser for an agreed-upon hourly fee. If that fee is $150 to $200 per hour, the advice probably won’t exceed $1,000. Think of it as an annual physical for your investments. It’s simply a matter of showing your investments to an expert and saying, “Here’s what I’ve got — what do you think?” Waggoner says.
Because so many folks in the Washington area are federal employees, many have their savings in managed plans that might not need a pricey adviser offering second opinions, he says.
Not surprisingly, Patterson, the financial adviser, strongly disagrees.
“Emotion is the big factor,” she says. “Individuals who try to do it themselves often do exactly the opposite of what they should do. They buy and sell at exactly the wrong times.”
That’s me to a T. It’s why I mostly pay the quarterly fees without blinking — except, of course, in those quarters when the market tanks.
Then again, don’t ever hire an adviser who claims to be adept at projecting market direction. “If your adviser says they know which way the market is going — get another adviser,” Waggoner says.
You should get to know your adviser personally, just as they should get to know you, Patterson says. You need to tell them the tough stuff about very private issues — such as about your recent divorce or the expensive cosmetic surgery you want to plan, or, yikes, those weekly QVC binges on Lenox Dinnerware.
The best advisers don’t just move stocks around, Waggoner says, but review everything from your will to your real estate holdings to your insurance policies.
But, Illán warns, don’t fall asleep at the switch. “If there’s one emotion you should suppress when you first meet with your financial adviser, it’s complete trust,” he says. “Trust — but verify everything.”
As for those intriguing invitations to steak dinners that some financial advisers in search of new clients mail out — well, think hard before you RSVP.
Although that pricey dinner for 100 guests might cost the adviser $7,000, it can earn him ten times that — up to $70,000 in billable compensation, Illán says.
Should you still opt to chow down with the dinner-waving investment guru, he advises, “Treat it like dinner theater — for entertainment purposes only.”
Oh, and don’t forget to bring a doggy bag.
Horovitz, a freelance writer, is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist.