32, divorced - in need of financial help

The choices are overwhelming if you're looking for help with your finances.

By Walter Updegrave, Money Magazine senior editor

NEW YORK (Money) -- Question: I'm 32, recently divorced and need help getting started in the right direction with my finances. What are my options and how do I find a trustworthy professional? - Claudia, Los Angeles, Calif.

Answer: One thing is sure: you'll have no shortage of options for getting advice these days. In fact, there are so many different ways you can go that the first thing you want to do is think about what sort of advice and how much attention you need - and what you're willing to pay. The answers to these issues will probably largely determine which option you choose.

If you want someone to take a truly comprehensive look at your finances - everything from budgeting to your investments to insurance to assuring you're on track to financial security overall - then you can go to a financial planner who will sit down with you, discuss your financial situation, create a comprehensive financial plan and help you carry it out.

This can be an expensive proposition, however. Many planners charge a percentage of the assets they're overseeing for you - often 1 percent to 2 percent per year - for this sort of service. And to be sure they're being compensated adequately for their time and effort, many will require you have a minimum level of assets (a couple hundred thousand dollars or more) or they may charge a minimum annual fee that could run a few of thousand bucks or more. Other planners may charge a relatively minor fee for the plan - say, $1,000 or so - but then charge commissions on the investments they put you into.

This sort of far-reaching advice and individual attention can be valuable, if you really need it and you can afford it. (In which case, you can look for financial planners in your area by clicking here and here.)

But for many people, especially those who don't have big bucks or whose financial issues aren't that complicated, this can be overkill.

Consider all your options

So what's the alternative? There are several. Instead of turning to someone to deal with all of your financial issues, you might narrow your focus to the ones that are most crucial to your financial health - and that most likely require the help of an adviser - and then seeking help on that issue.

For most people, retirement planning is probably the single most important topic they can use some help with, although saving for a child's education, setting up an investment portfolio and dealing with one-time tasks like rolling money from a 401(k) into an IRA are also the sorts of issues that lead people to seek advice.

One way to get help on more specific financial issues is to hire a financial planner on a more targeted basis, as a problem solver of sorts. Most planners don't like working this way - they prefer a long-term relationship as opposed to dating - but there are some who will work on a project or hourly basis. To find planners in your area willing to do this check out the Garrett Planning Network, which is an association of financial planners who work with clients on an as-needed basis and charge an hourly fee for their work.

A number of investment firms, such as T. Rowe Price and Vanguard, also have programs that offer advice on specific issues, such as planning for retirement or building a diversified portfolio.

The cost varies depending on the firm and what sort of service you need, but generally we're talking one-time fees in the neighborhood of $250 to $1,000 or so (The fees can be lower depending on how much money you have invested wit the firm). Fidelity has a slightly different approach in that it offers a suite of tools for no charge that address issues like retirement planning and building a portfolio that you can use on your own online or that you can work with a rep by telephone or in one of Fidelity's branches. (For a detailed look at how one person seeking financial advice fared at Vanguard, Schwab and Fidelity, click here.)

It think it's fair to say that, in general, you won't get the same level of hand-holding and face time as you would hiring a financial planner. But the truth is that for most of us our financial issues aren't really that complicated. What most of us are looking for is a good solution that we can put into place quickly and easily and get on with our lives. We're not looking to spend tons of time and money on these issues.

What to watch out for

You want to be careful, however, that you don't end up with someone who purports to be giving advice but is really just pushing (often high-fee) products, services and investments on you. Here, I'm talking about the "retirement planning specialist" who's really just an annuity salesman or the "mutual fund expert" who's pushing the funds that pay the highest commissions.

Unfortunately, distinguishing between someone who is seriously trying to do their best by you and someone who's putting their interests first (or, worse yet, trying to rip you off) can be difficult. Checking the background of an adviser with the appropriate regulators may be able to help filter out some of the incompetents or bad actors. (For more on how to do that, as well as some questions you can ask an adviser, click here.)

In the case of a large firm like Vanguard, T. Rowe or Fidelity, it's really the reputation and competency of the organization you're depending on more than the expertise of the individual rep, who is typically applying a software system or online that's used throughout the firm.

And be sure to heed your instincts. If an adviser seems less interested in hearing about your situation and needs and appears too eager to jump right to a product pitch, you may be better off moving on. The same goes if the adviser balks at discussing fees or is reluctant to even discuss possible alternatives to his recommendations.

Bottom line: While choosing an adviser isn't something you want to make your life's work, it's also not a task you want to rush through. So take the time to check out the Web sites of several firms, talk to a few advisers and try to get a feel for which one you would feel comfortable working with. That won't guarantee you end up with someone competent and trustworthy - nothing can - but it will greatly improve the odds that you will.

A get-started savings plan

Which has priority? My 401(k) or Roth IRA?

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