Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

The Similarities Between Buying Coffee and Choosing a Financial Planner

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Choosing a Financial Planner

A couple of years ago my family bought me a Keurig single cup coffee maker. I love the ability to make a freshly brewed cup on-demand; the convenience has served to fuel my already robust coffee addiction.

Our local Sam’s Club sells a variety of K-Cup brands; they typically are boxes of 80 for around $37. Starbucks recently entered the K-Cup market so when I saw their box for sale at Sam’s I bought one. It wasn’t until I opened it a few days later that I noticed there were only 54 individual units for the same $37 price. It was clearly marked on the box, but I was so used to boxes of 80 that I never noticed.

When looking for a financial planner it is also important to know what you are getting for your money before entering into any sort of relationship.

First you need to understand that anyone can call themselves a financial planner. This is no requirement that they have any particular training or credentials in order to hold themselves out as a financial planner.  Do they hold the CFP® certification or perhaps the PFS certification (the CPA’s financial planning certification)? There are an ever increasing number of certifications and designations in this field. Some are more meaningful than others so be sure ask many questions here.

Understand the services offered. Do they provide comprehensive financial planning; investment advice; or advice on an ad hoc basis? More importantly does the planner offer services that match your needs?

Understand how the planner will be compensated. Is this person truly a financial planner, or do they simply sell financial and insurance products? Are they paid an hourly fee, an ongoing retainer or percentage of the investment assets they will be managing for you, or some sort of fixed project fee? Is their compensation all or in part based upon the sale of financial products?

Understand the planner’s value proposition. What does he or she bring to the table that makes their services unique and right for you?

Just like my coffee buying experience, it is important that you fully understand who you are hiring as a financial planner, what they will and will not do for you, the benefits of hiring that person, and how much you will be paying for their services.

NAPFA (the largest professional organization for fee-only financial advisors) has published a guide to finding an advisor.

As always please feel free to contact me  if I can be of help.

Check out our Resources page for links to some tools and services that might be beneficial to you.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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Client Interests Shouldn’t Come First?

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The financial services lobby (primarily major brokerage firms and insurance companies) have vigorously fought a proposed Fiduciary Standard that would cover all who provide financial advice to consumers.

They have made arguments including one that many investors with smaller accounts might find themselves without access to advice as a result of an inability to charge commissions on these smaller accounts (an argument that is not necessarily true).

The bottom line here is that a financial advisor who acts as a Fiduciary is required to place the best interests of their clients first. Maybe I’m making this all too simple, but to me the opponents of a Fiduciary Standard for all advisors are saying that the interests of their clients shouldn’t (or don’t) come first.

If the client’s interests don’t come first, whose interests do come first? I’ll leave that as a rhetorical question for you the reader to answer.

I first wrote about this topic in 2009 in my post Why Should I Care if My Financial Advisor is a Fiduciary? Sadly this debate continues between the regulators, the financial services lobby, and groups who support a Fiduciary Standard for all advisors.

Some resources you can use in choosing the right financial advisor for your needs:

NAPFA’s Pursuit of a Financial Advisor Field Guide; an excellent resource to help guide you through the process of finding the right financial advisor for you.

6 Questions to Ask Your Financial Adviser, an article that I recently wrote for the US News Smarter Investor Blog.

As always feel free to contact me  if I can be of help.

Full disclosure, I am a Fee-Only advisor and a member of NAPFA, the largest professional organization of fee-only advisors in the country. We sign a Fiduciary Oath towards our clients when we join and reaffirm that oath annually upon the renewal of our membership.

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How is my Financial Advisor Compensated? – Fee-Only vs. Fee-Based

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Fee-Only is pretty straightforward. The client pays the advisor for his/her advice. The fees can take one or more of several forms:

• A flat fee for the services rendered.
• A percentage of the client’s investment assets or in some cases another metric such as net worth.
• Hourly

Additionally the fee can be for one-time or ongoing services. In no case will a Fee-Only advisor receive any compensation from sales commissions, trailing commissions, or any other form of compensation derived from financial product providers.

Fee-Based compensation is bit fuzzier and quite often very misunderstood by the public. A typical Fee-Based arrangement might work like this:

The advisor will charge a set fee for the initial financial plan. This is the “fee” part of the arrangement. However, in many cases, if the client wants to implement the advisor’s recommendations for investments, insurance, and other financial products this will be done via the sale of commissioned products.

Where Fee-Based can become even more confusing is in the case of a broker or registered rep using a wrap program as a means to implement investment recommendations. A wrap involves investment management services for a percentage of the assets under advisement, a structure similar to that used by many Fee-Only advisors.

What differs in most cases is that the Fee-Based advisor and their broker-dealer will also receive compensation from the underlying investment vehicles (mutual funds, etc.) in the form of 12b-1 fees or a similar form of trailing fee, or in the form of commissions on stock trades executed exclusively through the advisor’s brokerage firm. Additionally it has been my experience that often the assets under management fee for these wrap programs is higher that charged by most Fee-Only advisors for similar asset levels.

I am a Fee-Only advisor and am admittedly biased. My point in writing this post was not to disparage those advisors who are not Fee-Only, although I do remain convinced that this is the most client-friendly compensation structure. Rather, I want to reiterate that clients and those looking for a financial advisor need to understand what they are paying for, how much they will be paying, and how they will be paying for financial advice and any financial or investment products they will be purchasing.

For more please see my prior posts:

How is my Financial Compensated? 

Why Should I Care if My Financial Advisor is a Fiduciary? 

The idea for this post originally came from a recent post and some of the subsequent comments on the Oblivious Investor Blog:

How Much Does a Financial Advisor Cost? 

Wondering where you can find the names of Fee-Only financial advisors in your area? Check out NAPFA’s website and click on the Find An Advisor button on the left side of the site.

Please feel free to contact me with your questions. 

Please check out our Resources page for more tools and services that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

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Characteristics of a Good 401(k) Plan

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My last post discussed some really sub-par 401(k) plans. I’ve also been fairly vocal in discussion groups on LinkedIn about some of the issues and problems I see in many plans.

So what does a good 401(k) plan look like? Here are some of my thoughts based upon my experience as a consultant to a number of small to mid-sized plans (typically in the $3 million to $75 million range). Some of the characteristics of good, well managed plans are:

An active and engaged Investment Committee is essential. Several committees I deal with are comprised of the company chairman, president and the top financial executive. One committee is made up of the president, the senior finance and human resources executives, as well as three members of the union from the company’s manufacturing operations. What these committees have in common is an interest in the plan and a desire to offer a top-notch plan for their fellow plan participants.

An investment process governing the management of the plan. The major piece of this process is a written Investment Policy Statement (IPS). Think of the IPS as the “business plan” for the 401(k) plan. Included in a good IPS are things such as a definition of the types of investment vehicles permitted; asset classes to be considered; criteria for the selection of the investments offered; criteria for monitoring those investments; a process for the review and possible replacement of any investments that fall outside of acceptable criteria. Additionally the IPS should specify that the Investment Committee will review expenses associated with administration, custody, and related services, as well as the quality of those services.

A well-documented investment process does two things. First it is a vehicle for the plan sponsor to document that they are running the plan in a fashion consistent with their fiduciary obligations. Second, this type of process, if followed, will ensure that there are solid investments being offered and that expenses are being reviewed.

A menu of solid, well diversified investment options is offered. A provider can offer the greatest website and all of the bells and whistles available, but at the end of the day what really matters is that the participants have a diversified menu of very solid investment choices that are selected and monitored in accordance with the IPS. The investments should cover most or all of the nine Morningstar domestic style boxes as well as at least one fixed income, money market or stable value, and at least one international equity choice. Balanced options, lifestyle, or target funds that allow the participants to delegate the allocation of their assets should also be included. These choices should be scrutinized, monitored, and reviewed in the same manner as the other plan investment options. Depending upon the preferences of the Investment Committee, the company’s census demographics, and other factors, options in other assets classes might be included as well.

Overall plan expenses are monitored and controlled by the investment committee. Investment expenses are an obvious aspect of this, but the plan sponsor is responsible for all plan expenses. This also includes all expenses associated with record keeping, administration, and custody. The sponsor should know what is being charged for all services and how these total expenses compare with plans of a similar size. If there is revenue sharing involved, the plan sponsor should receive a full accounting at least annually of all revenue sharing paid to the plan provider and how that revenue sharing was spent. This is after all the participant’s money, accounting for these dollars is a fiduciary obligation of the plan sponsor.

In the future hopefully plans will offer their participants the option of having an unbiased, unconflicted Fiduciary Advisor manage their individual 401(k) accounts. This goes far beyond the education currently offered by some plans and, in my opinion, gets to the real heart of what participants need.

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