A financial advisor is a professional who provides clients with guidance around money matters, personal finances, and investments. They may work as independent agents or be employed by a financial firm. They can offer services in a variety of areas such as tax or estate planning, paying for college, and investment management.
Many wonder what a financial advisor does. In general, these professionals help you make decisions about what you should do with your money, which may include investments or other courses of action.
A financial advisor is your financial planning partner. Let's say you want to retire in 20 years or send your child to a private university in 10 years. To accomplish your goals, you may need a skilled professional with the right licenses to help make these plans a reality; this is where a financial advisor comes in.
Together, you and your advisor will cover many topics, including the amount of money you should save, the types of accounts you need, the kinds of insurance you should have (including long-term care, term life, disability, etc.), and estate and tax planning.
The financial advisor is also an educator. Part of the advisor's task is to help you understand what is involved in meeting your future goals. The education process may include detailed help with financial topics. At the beginning of your relationship, those subjects may include budgeting and saving. As you advance in your knowledge, the advisor will assist you in understanding complex investment, insurance, and tax matters.
Step one in the financial advisory process is understanding your financial health. You can’t properly plan for the future without knowing where you stand today. Typically, you will be asked to complete a detailed written questionnaire. Your answers help the advisor understand your situation and make certain you don't overlook any important information.
A financial advisor will work with you to get a complete picture of your assets, liabilities, income, and expenses. On the questionnaire, you will also indicate future pensions and income sources, project retirement needs, and describe any long-term financial obligations. In short, you’ll list all current and expected investments, pensions, gifts, and sources of income.
The investing component of the questionnaire touches upon more subjective topics, such as your risk tolerance and risk capacity. Having an understanding of your risk assists the advisor when it’s time to determine your investment asset allocation. At this point, you'll also let the advisor know your investment preferences as well.
The initial assessment may also include an examination of other financial management topics, such as insurance issues and your tax situation. The advisor needs to be aware of your current estate plan, as well as other professionals on your planning team, such as accountants and lawyers. Once you and the advisor understand your present financial position and future projections, you’re ready to work together on a plan to meet your life and financial goals.
The financial advisor synthesizes all of this initial information into a comprehensive financial plan that will serve as a roadmap for your financial future. It begins with a summary of the key findings from your initial questionnaire and summarizes your current financial situation, including net worth, assets, liabilities, and liquid or working capital. The financial plan also recaps the goals you and the advisor discussed.
The analysis section of this lengthy document will provide more information about several topics, including your risk tolerance, estate-planning details, family situation, long-term care risk, and other pertinent present and future financial issues.
Based upon your expected net worth and future income at retirement, the plan will create simulations of potentially best- and worst-case retirement scenarios, including the scary possibility of outliving your money. In this case, steps can be taken to prevent that outcome. It will look at reasonable withdrawal rates in retirement from your portfolio assets. Additionally, if you are married or in a long-term partnership, the plan will consider survivorship issues and financial scenarios for the surviving partner.
After you review the plan with the advisor and adjust it as necessary, you’re ready for action.
Financial advising is a hot topic, and it pays to stay up to date on the Department of Labor's Fiduciary Rulings, as they may have a significant impact on the financial advising industry.
It’s important for you, as the consumer, to understand what your planner recommends and why. You should not follow an advisor’s recommendations unquestioningly; it’s your money, and you should understand how it’s being deployed. Keep a close eye on the fees you are paying—both to your advisor and for any funds bought for you.
Ask your advisor why they recommend specific investments and whether they are receiving a commission for selling you those investments. Be alert for possible conflicts of interest.
The advisor will set up an asset allocation that fits both your risk tolerance and risk capacity. Asset allocation is simply a rubric to determine what percentage of your total financial portfolio will be distributed across various asset classes. A more risk-averse individual will have a greater concentration of government bonds, certificates of deposit (CDs), and money market holdings, while an individual who is more comfortable with risk may decide to take on more stocks, corporate bonds, and perhaps even investment real estate. Your asset allocation will be adjusted for your age and for how long you have before retirement.
Each financial advisory firm is required to make investments in accordance with the law and with its company investment policy when buying and selling financial assets.
A commonality among firms is that financial products are selected to fit the client’s risk profile. Suppose, for example, a 50-year-old individual who’s already amassed enough net worth for retirement and is predominantly interested in capital preservation. They may have a very conservative asset allocation of 45% in stock assets (which may include individual stocks, mutual funds, and/or exchange-traded funds (ETFs)) and 55% in fixed-income assets such as bonds. Alternatively, a 40-year-old individual with a smaller net worth and a willingness to take on more risk to build up their financial portfolio may opt for an asset allocation of 70% stock assets, 25% fixed-income assets, and 5% alternative investments.
While taking into account the firm’s investment philosophy, your personal portfolio will also fit your needs. It should be based on how soon you need the money, your investment horizon, and your present and future goals.
Once your investment plan is in place, you’ll receive regular statements from your advisor updating you on your portfolio. The advisor will also set up regular meetings to review your goals and progress and to answer any additional questions you may have. Meeting remotely via phone or video chat can help make those contacts happen more often.
In addition to regular, ongoing meetings, it’s important to consult with your financial advisor when you anticipate a significant change in your life that might impact your financial picture, such as getting married or divorced, adding a child to your family, buying or selling a home, changing jobs, or getting a job promotion.
The average base salary of a financial advisor, according to Indeed.
Anyone can work with a financial advisor at any age and at any stage of life. You don’t have to have a high net worth; you just have to find an advisor suited to your situation.
The decision to enlist professional help with your money is a highly personal one, but any time you’re feeling overwhelmed, confused, stressed out, or scared by your financial situation may be a good time to look for a financial advisor. If you cannot afford such help, the Financial Planning Association may be able to help with pro bono volunteer assistance.
It’s also fine to approach a financial advisor when you’re feeling financially secure but you want someone to ensure that you’re on the right track. An advisor can suggest possible improvements to your plan that might help you achieve your goals more effectively. Finally, if you don’t have the time or interest to manage your finances, that’s another good reason to hire a financial advisor.
Those are some general reasons you might need an advisor’s professional help. Here are some more specific ones.
Because we live in a world of inflation, any money you keep in cash or in a low-interest account declines in value each year. Investing is the only way to make your money grow, and unless you have an exceptionally high income, investing is the only way most people will ever have enough money to retire.
Even the best investors lose money when the market is down or when they make a decision that doesn’t turn out as they’d hoped. But, overall, investing should increase your net worth considerably. If it’s not doing that, hiring a financial advisor can help you find out what you’re doing wrong and correct your course before it’s too late.
A financial advisor can also help you put together an estate plan to make sure your assets are handled according to your wishes after you die. And if you aren’t properly insured (or aren’t sure what insurance you need), a financial advisor can help with that, too. Indeed, a fee-only financial advisor may be able to offer a less biased opinion than an insurance agent can.
Follow these simple steps in order to choose the right financial advisor that provides strategies and services that fit your goals and needs.
A rule proposed by the Department of Labor (DOL) would have required all financial professionals who work with retirement plans or provide retirement plan advice to provide advice that is in the client’s best interest (the fiduciary standard), as opposed to simply suitable for the client (the suitability standard). The rule was passed, its implementation was delayed and then a court killed it.
But in the roughly three-year interval between President Obama's proposal of the rule and its eventual death, the media shed more light than it had previously on the different ways financial advisors work, how they charge for their services and how the suitability standard might be less helpful to consumers than the fiduciary standard. Some financial advisors decided to voluntarily move to a fiduciary standard or more heavily promote that they already operated under that standard. Others, such as certified financial planners™(CFPs), already adhered to this standard. But even under the DOL rule, the fiduciary standard would not have applied to non-retirement advice.
Under the suitability standard, financial advisors typically work on commission for the products they sell to clients. This means the client may never receive a bill from the financial advisor. On the other hand, they could end up with financial products that charge higher fees than other similar products on the market. These same financial products may result in the advisor earning a high commission.
Under the fiduciary standard, advisors either charge clients by the hour or as a percentage of their assets under management (AUM). A typical percentage fee is 1%, while a typical hourly fee for financial advice ranges from $120 to $300. Fees vary by location and the advisor’s experience. Some advisors may offer lower rates to help clients who are just getting started with financial planning and can’t afford a high monthly rate. Typically, a financial advisor will offer a free, initial consultation. This consultation provides a chance for both the client and the advisor to see if they’re a good fit for each other.
Financial advisors can also earn a combination of fees and commissions. A fee-based financial advisor is not the same as a fee-only financial advisor.
A fee-based advisor may earn a fee for developing a financial plan for you, while also earning a commission for selling you a certain insurance product or investment.
A fee-only financial advisor earns no commissions.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed its own fiduciary rule called Regulation Best Interest in April 2018. In some ways, it was considered to be less strict than the DOL’s fiduciary rule, while also addressing some of the concerns of the critics of the DOL's fiduciary rule. At the same time, the SEC's rule was more all-encompassing because it would not be limited to retirement investments.
|How Different Types of Financial Advisors Get Paid|
|Earns money when you buy specific investments||No||Yes||Yes|
|Earns money when you buy a specific insurance product||No||Yes||Yes|
|Earns money based on how well your investment portfolio performs||Yes||Sometimes||No|
|Has a conflict of interest||No||Yes||Yes|
A digital financial advisor, also called a robo-advisor, is a tool that some companies provide for their customers. A robo-advisor uses computer algorithms to manage your money based on answers to questions about your goals and risk tolerance. Robo-advisors don’t require you to have much money to get started, and they cost less than human financial advisors. Examples include Betterment and Wealthfront. These services can save you time and potentially cost you less money.
However, a robo-advisor can’t speak with you about the best way to get out of debt or fund your child’s education. It also can’t talk you out of selling your investments out of fear or help you build and manage a portfolio of individual stocks. Robo-advisors typically invest clients’ money in a portfolio of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and mutual funds that provide stock and bond exposure and track a market index. It's also important to keep in mind that if you have a complex estate or tax issue, you will likely require the highly personalized advice that only a human can offer.
|Which Type of Financial Advisor Is Best for You?|
|Human Advisor||Robo-advisor||Digital Advisor|
|Services||Holistic financial advice, including budgeting, estate planning and investing||Investment advice only||Different levels of service based on your assets under management|
|Typical Fee||1%||0.24% to 0.50%||0.89%|
|Best For||Anyone who wants to meet with their advisor in person; clients with complex circumstances; high net worth clients||Anyone who prefers a fully automated online experience with no consultations; clients with simple finances; low net worth clients||Anyone who wants a mostly automated digital experience, but the opportunity to speak with an advisor online or by phone|
A financial advisor is not just someone who manages your investments. An advisor can help you figure out your savings, how to build for retirement, help with estate planning, and others. If however you only need to discuss portfolio allocations, they can do that too (usually for a fee).
Financial advisors can be paid in a number of ways. Some will be commission-based and will make a percentage of the products they steer you into. These types of positions have been heavily criticized as the advisor may not have your best interests in mind if they are trying to make a commission. Most financial advisors work for a percentage fee based on the amount they are responsible for. Some, like hedge funds, will make a percentage of your profit as well.
Financial advisors are almost never "free." Even though you may not be responsible for any upfront fees, a financial advisor can make a percentage of your principal, commissions on what products they sell you, and sometimes even a percentage of your profits. Very high net worth individuals may be offered "free" advisor services, but more often than not these advisors are tasked with subtly steering the individual into products or services that benefit the institution. This isn't to say the person using the advisor is losing anything, but the advisor, and who they work, for will always find a way to profit.
Not all financial advisors have the same level of training or will offer you the same depth of services. So when contracting with an advisor, do your own due diligence first and make sure the advisor can meet your financial planning needs.
Check out their certifications as well, and be sure you understand, agree with, and can afford their fee structure. Also, investigate their regulatory history with your state regulatory agency, FINRA’s BrokerCheck, and the SEC’s Investment Advisor Public Disclosure database.
Finally, be aware that finding an advisor who is the right fit for your personality is key to developing a successful, long-term relationship.
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Do you need help managing your money? If you’re like many Americans, you might need a hand. According to the National Financial Education Council, a lack of personal finance knowledge costs the average American $1,200 a year.
Finding a good financial advisor can help you avoid these costs and focus on goals. Financial advisors aren’t just for rich people—working with an advisor is a great choice for anyone who wants to get their personal finances on track and set long-term objectives. Follow these steps to find the right financial advisor for your needs.
Before you speak to a financial advisor, decide which aspects of your financial life you need help with. When you first sit down with an advisor, you’ll want to be ready to explain your particular money management needs.
Keep in mind that financial advisors provide more than just investment advice. The best financial planner is the one who can help you chart a course for all your financial needs. This can cover investment advice for retirement plans, debt repayment, insurance product suggestions to protect yourself and your family, and estate planning.
Depending on where you are in life, you may not need comprehensive financial planning. People whose financial lives are relatively straightforward, like young people without families of their own or significant debt, might only need help with retirement planning.
People with complex financial needs, however, may need extra assistance. They could be looking to establish college funds or trusts for their children, navigate aggressive debt payment situations or solve tricky tax problems. Not all types of financial advisors offer the same menu of services, so decide which services you need and let this guide your search.
There’s no federal law that regulates who can call themselves a financial advisor or provide financial advice. While many people call themselves financial advisors, not all have your best interest at heart. That’s why you have to carefully evaluate potential financial advisors and make sure they are good for you and your money.
Part of learning about the different types of advisors is understanding fiduciary duty. Some, but not all, financial advisors are bound by fiduciary duty, meaning that they are legally required to work in your financial best interest. Other people who call themselves advisors are only held to a suitability standard, meaning they only must suggest products that are suitable for you—even if they’re more expensive and earn them a higher commission. (The SEC is trying to regulate this, though, by limiting the use of “advisor” to those who hold themselves to a fiduciary standard.)
Regardless of which kind of advisor you choose, you should make sure you know how they earn money. This helps you determine if their recommendations are actually better for you—or for their wallets.
Here’s how to think about the different types of financial advisors:
Fee-only financial advisors earn money from the fees you pay for their services. These fees may be charged as a percentage of the assets they manage for you, as an hourly rate, or as a flat rate.
Almost all fee-only advisors are fiduciaries. Generally speaking, they have chosen to work under a fee-only model to reduce any potential conflicts of interest. Because their income is from clients, it’s in their best interest to make sure you end up with financial plans and financial products that work best for you.
Some financial advisors make money by earning sales commissions from third parties. Among financial advisors that earn sales commissions, some may advertise themselves as “free” financial advisors that do not charge you fees for advice. Others may charge fees, meaning they derive only part of their income from third-party commissions.
Either way, financial advisors who earn third-party sales commissions derive some or all of their income from selling you certain financial products. If you choose to work with a financial advisor who earns sales commissions, you need to take extra care.
Commission-only advisors are not fiduciaries. They work as salespeople for investment and insurance brokerages, and are only held to suitability standards. In contrast, some fee-based financial advisors are fiduciaries, though it’s important to determine if they’re always acting as fiduciaries or if they “pause” fiduciary duty when discussing certain types of products, like insurance.
Keep in mind, commissions aren’t bad in and of themselves. They’re not even necessarily red flags.
Some financial products are predominantly sold under a commission model. Take life insurance: A fee-based planner who receives compensation for helping you purchase a life insurance policy may still have your best interests at heart when advising on other financial products.
“To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with paying the commission for life insurance,” says Karen Van Voorhis, a fee-based certified financial planner (CFP) and Director of Financial Planning at Daniel J. Galli & Associates in Norwell, Mass. “That’s how the structure of that industry works.”
Purchasing financial products via financial advisors that earn commissions may be a matter of convenience, especially if someone will receive a commission regardless of where you buy the product. What’s important is understanding the difference. And if you work with a fee-based financial advisor, understand when they are acting as a fiduciary, especially when they help you purchase financial products.
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Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) are companies that provide fiduciary financial advice. RIAs employ Investment Advisor Representatives (IARs), who are bound by fiduciary duty. An RIA may have one or hundreds of IARs working for it.
IARs may call themselves financial advisors, and may be fee-only or fee-based. Some may have additional credentials, including the certified financial planner (CFP) designation.
“The certified financial planner designation is really the gold standard in the financial planning industry,” says Van Voorhis. A CFP designation indicates a financial advisor has passed rigorous industry exams covering real estate, investment, and insurance planning as well as has years of experience in their fields.
Because of their wide range of expertise, CFPs are well suited to help you plan out every aspect of your financial life. They may be particularly helpful for those with complex financial situations, including managing large outstanding debts and will, trust, and estate planning.
Robo-advisors offer low-cost, automated investment advice. Most specialize in helping people invest for mid- and long-term goals, like retirement, through preconstructed diversified portfolios of exchange traded funds (ETFs).
“For younger people who are really tech savvy, a robo-advisor just to manage retirement funds could be a perfect solution,” says Brian Behl, a CFP at Behl Wealth Management in Waukesha, Wisc. “I don’t think they’re going to get as in-depth advice on insurance and retirement and taxes.”
People with complex financial needs should probably choose a conventional financial advisor, although many robo-advisors provide financial planning services a la carte or for higher net worth clients.
“While the robos have really disrupted the industry…I do think there’s still a place for human advisors right now,” says Corbin Blackwell, a CFP at robo-advisor Betterment.
Betterment, for example, allows clients to purchase individual financial advising sessions, and Personal Capital, Wealthsimple, and Betterment provide regular financial planning for clients with higher account balances for a management fee.
Services offered by financial advisors vary from advisor to advisor, but advisors may provide any of the following:
In addition to investment management and financial planning, financial advisors also offer emotional support and perspective during volatile economic times. During the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020, for instance, client demand for financial advisor contact increased by almost 50% .
“I think that during these times, we can be a source of reason,” says Blackwell. “We can weather the storm. We’ve built this portfolio for a reason.”
When choosing a financial advisor, make sure they offer the services you’re looking for in your financial and non-financial lives.
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It used to be that financial advisors charged fees that were a percentage of the assets they managed for you. Today advisors offer a wide variety of fee structures, which helps make their services accessible to clients of all levels of financial means.
Commission-only advisors may seem free on paper, but they may receive a portion of what you invest or purchase as a payment. These “free” financial advisors typically are available through investment or insurance brokerages. Remember, these advisors may only be held to suitability standards, so they may end up costing what you would pay for a similar financial product suggested by a fiduciary financial advisor—or more.
Fee-only and fee-based financial advisors may charge fees based on the total amount of assets they manage for you (assets under management) or they may charge by the hour, by the plan, through a retainer agreement, or via a subscription model. Common average financial advisor fee rates are listed in the table below:
Because financial advisors come in many forms with many different specialties and offerings, you need to thoroughly research potential advisors. You want to make sure the person guiding your financial decisions is trustworthy and capable.
You can find good financial advisors a couple of ways. Ask friends, family and peers for recommendations. Alternatively, look for financial advisors online. Many professional financial planning associations provide free databases of financial advisors:
When evaluating advisors, be sure to consider their credentials as well as research their backgrounds and fee structures. You can view disciplinary actions and complaints filed against financial advisors using FINRA’s BrokerCheck. And remember, just because someone is a part of a financial planning association, that doesn’t mean they’re a fiduciary financial advisor.
In your first meeting with a financial advisor, make sure you learn the answers to these questions and that you’re comfortable with their responses.
Because of the ambiguity in the industry, you have to exercise caution to make sure you get the right financial advisor who meets your fiduciary and financial needs. That said, when you find the right financial advisor for you, they can help you achieve your financial goals and financially protect your loved ones and their futures.
“So much of what I do in a life-centered approach to financial planning and wealth management is walk out life with people,” says Wes Brown, a CFP at CogentBlue Wealth Advisors in Knoxville, Tenn. “I think there’s value in an ongoing relationship where somebody can help you walk through the various waypoints you’re going to come to.
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Becoming a financial advisor can be a lucrative move — in 2019 the median annual salary for personal financial advisors was $87,850 — but what’s the process actually like? While there are technically no requirements to call yourself a financial advisor, some relevant education will help you reach your goal. Here’s how to become a personal financial advisor:
1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. While not always required, many personal financial advisor job postings list it as a desired qualification. It helps to have a degree in finance, economics or another related topic.
2. Gain experience. If possible, try to find an internship that will help you get some firsthand experience. Many advisory firms also offer on-the-job training for the first year a new advisor is working with them.
3. Get licensed and/or certified. Depending on the types of products you plan to sell or the specific field you’d like to work in, you may need to earn a license or certification. For example, if you plan on selling insurance, you’ll likely need to get licensed by a state board. Having a certification pertinent to your field can help you grow your reputation, gain more clients and earn a higher salary.
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Stephanie Mullins has been Chief Financial Officer and Associate Vice President of Financial Affairs since September 2016. As CFO, Mullins manages the departments, systems, and delivery of communication and training related to UAB financial policies, guidelines, and procedures.
The CFO serves as the direct point of contact for the Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration to the University of Alabama System Office, UA System Office of Counsel, UA System and UA sister campuses, as well as other affiliated entities as it relates to the financial integrity and fiscal responsibility of UAB.
Solid long-term performance. Over the past 30 years, the financial sector’s earnings have grown significantly faster than the economy as a whole, allowing financial companies to pay above average dividends to their shareholders and creating solid price-to-earnings ratios. While past performance is no certain of future success, it can be helpful to look backward when gauging investment opportunities.
More regulated after the Great Recession. The financial crisis of 2008 exposed problems in the financial sector that governments around the world have worked to address with regulation. Today, financial firms are required to take more measures to avoid trouble, like holding higher minimum capital levels to protect against losses. This reduces their risk compared to the sector in the past.
Chance for government support in recessions. The health of the financial sector has a direct bearing on the health of the global economy. As a result, financial firms can count on special support during a recession or a financial crisis. When banks ran into financial trouble during the Great Recession, for instance, governments bailed many of them out.
Benefit from rising interest rates. Today, interest rates are near historic lows. When they go up, however, banks, credit card companies and other lenders could increase their earnings by charging higher rates. Insurance companies can also earn more from their fixed income investments as bond interest rates go up.
Innovation from fintech. Financial sector stocks have benefitted from innovations like blockchain, mobile payment apps and robo-advisors, laying the groundwork for more sector growth.
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