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An advisor for the small investor?
I'm looking for a financial advisor. But without a big portfolio, will I pay through the nose?
May 28, 2003: 10:20 AM EDT
By Walter Updegrave, Money Magazine

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I haven't been doing too well managing my portfolio over the past few years and am considering turning my assets over to a financial advisor. Problem is, unless you've got a sizeable portfolio, you've got to pay through the nose for advice. What type of services are best for someone in the $25,000 and below range?

-- R. Kopcik, Phoenix, Arizona

There are several ways you can go. One is to work with an advisor who will help you create a portfolio, usually made up of mutual funds for accounts of $25,000 or less, and then provide ongoing assistance managing it. This is often referred to as a "wrap" account.

The problem with this approach, as you point out, is that it can be expensive. Many advisors will charge 1 to 2 percent of assets per year to create and oversee the portfolio, but that doesn't include the management fees on the funds themselves. Throw in those fees, and this approach can cost you upwards of 2 to 3 percent per year, which is quite a drag on returns.

Even then you might have trouble finding someone to manage a portfolio of $25,000 or less. (Actually, you'll probably find someone, but the question will be how competent that person is and how much attention you'll get.)

An alternative is to work with a broker or financial planner who sells mutual funds for commission, in which case minimum account sizes are less of an issue. But there are potential problems in this approach as well.

Although I certainly wouldn't say that there aren't any brokers or planners out there who can't do a good job for you, it's also true that you could run into someone who is more interested in moving you from fund to fund or into any number of other products in order to earn commissions. Again, the issue is how much of your money goes into commissions and fees rather than the investment itself.

There are other ways

There is another route to consider, however. And that is to get some upfront help in putting your portfolio together and getting it up and running, and then taking over the reins yourself. For a one-time fee of $250 to $500, for example, Schwab offers a Portfolio Consultation. Basically, you sit down with a Schwab investment consultant who helps you build a diversified portfolio of mutual funds or stocks and bonds (or all three) based on your goals and risk tolerance.

Vanguard offers a similar service through its Personal Financial Planning Services group for a one-time fee of $500.

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Or, you could simply go to one of the investment consultants at a Fidelity branch and ask for help putting together a portfolio at no charge. You aren't likely to get the same level of attention and detail you would with a fee service, but Fidelity will help you build a portfolio and then choose specific funds (Fidelity or non-Fidelity).

Of course, this approach of getting one-time upfront advice on building a portfolio won't provide ongoing management help with your portfolio. But I don't think that's too big a drawback.

Once you've got a portfolio and you have a sense of how and why the various investments in it were chosen (which you should have after going through the consultation process), "managing" is largely a matter of periodic rebalancing so the portfolio's proportions don't get too out of whack because one asset has vastly outperformed the others.

There may also be occasions when you'll want to jettison a fund for lousy performance. But, again, if the portfolio's been put together correctly, this shouldn't happen very often. Besides, if you feel things are getting out of control, you do have the option of going through another consultation every few years (although you'll incur another fee, of course).

And if you find that this approach requires too much of you, well, you can always go back to one of the options that offers more hand-holding, albeit at a higher price.

Walter Updegrave is a senior editor at MONEY Magazine and is the author of "Investing for the Financially Challenged."  Top of page

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