Personal Finance > Ask the Expert
Looking for a good adviser
I need a good financial adviser who is knowledgeable, honest and treats me like a person.
June 19, 2002: 10:51 AM EDT
By Walter Updegrave, CNN/Money Contributing Columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I'm 50 years old and have $140,000 dollars spread over three accounts. I would like to consolidate them at one investment house where I can diversify and earn a moderate return with reasonable security. How do I find a good adviser who is knowledgeable, honest and treats me like a person not a number?

-- Frank Digiaimo, Paterson, New Jersey

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First, I've got to tell you that while $140,000 may seem like a lot of money to you -- and to most people it is big bucks -- it's not the kind of sum that is going to have financial advisers falling all over themselves to work with you and get you tons of face time with them.

Actually, let me re-phrase that. It's not the kind of sum that's going to have top financial advisers fighting their way to your door. You'll have no trouble finding someone to help you manage your $140,000. But you want to make sure it's not going to be someone who'll manage it ineptly or, just as bad, manage it more for their financial benefit than yours.

Look at your choices

With that caveat in mind, though, you should be able to find a competent adviser who will help you create an investing plan designed to help you achieve your financial goals and will help you periodically assess your progress, say, once a quarter or so. And, in fact, that amount of attention ought to be enough, assuming you find a knowledgeable adviser who puts your interests first. Basically, you've got two choices.

Many people in your situation go to a broker at a major or regional brokerage firm. These days, of course, the term "broker" has usually been replaced by something like "personal financial adviser" or "financial consultant" or even the incredibly grandiose title, "personal chief financial officer."

The idea behind these name changes is that, instead of just acting as a salesperson who loads you up with stocks or mutual funds and then calls you a few months later and tells you to sell what you've got and buy a new bunch, the broker is supposed to create a financial plan or roadmap for you, and then steer you toward the investments you need to navigate that roadmap. The question, of course, is to what extent this transition from transaction-oriented sales people to advice-oriented advisers exists outside the brokerage firms' TV ads and marketing brochures.

I'm sure there are many brokers out there with years of experience in creating portfolios designed to meet clients' specific needs. But I'm also sure there are plenty out there who don't think in terms of creating a portfolio of complementary investments designed to achieve a certain goal and instead sell whatever funds or stocks their firm is touting.

The other possibility is to go to a financial planner. As the name implies, a planner is someone who, ideally, takes a look at your entire financial picture, often including such things as whether you've got enough life and health insurance and whether you've got a decent estate plan in place in the event of your death. The planner will then help you create an investment portfolio based on such factors as your tolerance for risk and whether you're investing for a long-term goal such as retirement or something shorter term like funding your kids' education.

If you really don't want a comprehensive financial plan, you may be able to find a planner who will help you set up a portfolio of stocks, bonds and/or mutual funds and oversee it for you. But since your investment portfolio should reflect other aspects of your financial situation, many, if not most, planners would probably want to take a comprehensive look at your finances before recommending investments.

So, which is the better choice? If you're looking primarily for someone to set up and oversee a portfolio of investments, I think you could go either way. If, on the other hand, you're looking for more comprehensive advice, I'd be more apt to go with a financial planner who holds a designation such as a CFP (certified financial planner).

What I suggest is that you sit down with a few possible candidates and interview them to get a sense of whether you feel comfortable with their approach. I think it's important that you feel you're on the same wavelength as an adviser. You want to be sure the adviser understands your goals and concerns and that you're not getting some cookie-cutter plan or one-size-fits-all recommendations. Don't forget to get the names of a few current clients with portfolios roughly the same size as yours.

Don't forget the fees

At these interviews, you should also discuss fees -- i.e., how much their advice and recommendations will cost you. There are three basic ways advisers are paid. One is commissions. The adviser gets paid for each stock or fund or other investment you buy. So, for example, if you invest $20,000 in a fund that has a 5.75 percent sales load, or commission, the adviser would get a portion of the $1,150 fee.

Other advisers work on a "fee-only" basis. Instead of earning commissions on the products they sell, they charge you for their advice, either an hourly fee or, more likely, a percentage of the assets they're managing for you. This fee, which is charged annually, typically runs 1 to 1.5 percent or so, although in the case of "small" accounts like yours, such advisers might have a minimum fee of a few thousand dollars. Then there are fee-and-commission advisers who charge a flat fee or percentage of assets and deduct commissions, if any, from that fee.

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I'm partial to the fee-only approach because I feel it leads to fewer conflicts of interest on the advisers' part. But this approach may be too expensive for people with less than a few hundred thousand dollars in assets. Fact is, any of these approaches can work as long as the fees are openly disclosed, the recommendations are sound and the adviser is working with your best interests in mind.

Naturally, you'll want to do some background research on an adviser before signing up. For tips on how to do that, click here. And for a list of questions you might want to ask advisers during your interview, click here.

Finally, if you would like to get some referrals for financial planners in your area, you can go to the Financial Planning Association Web site or, for fee-only planners, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors Web site. I've done about as much as I can do. The rest is up to you -- and your adviser.

Walter Updegrave is the author of Investing for the Financially Challenged and can be seen regularly Monday mornings at 8:40 am on CNNfn.  Top of page