Some people need professional help–not the type I’ve been told to find–but financial help. I’ve met many of these people firsthand. Over my years working as an advisor, it was difficult watching people walk into my office grossly underprepared for a meeting with an advisor know what to expect. I could tell by the look in their eyes that they hoped I was honest and actually knew what I was doing.
I know the look because it’s the same one on my face when I’m talking to an auto mechanic.
Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. There are five questions that are important to ask a financial advisor.
But is that all I need to ask? Five questions?
Nope. Hopefully these start you on the right track to building a dialogue with the advisor about your personal financial circumstances and dreams.
Whether you’ve found the name of an advisor from a friend (good idea), by their reputation (scary), or even through an internet, mailing or yellow pages search (most frightening), you’ll want to still ask these specific financial advisor interview questions. You have seen in the media that well respected names with degrees, certifications and mountains of clout have ended up as bad people. Although these questions won’t make sure that you won’t get ripped off, they will give you a better idea regarding your advisors methods and whether they’ll fit with your long term and short term plans.
- Tell me about your education. Listen to their experiences, any testing they’ve taken and professional credentials, such as a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) or one of a host of other designations. For “vanilla” financial planning, the two listed above (CFP and ChFC) are the two broad certificate designations. Others, such as a Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor (CRPC) or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) either are more narrow designations or focus on one aspect of a financial plan.
- How long have you been practicing? Suze Orman recommends hiring an advisor who’s been practicing for at least ten years. Back when I started, I thought that advice was complete baloney. Once I’d been an advisor for ten years, I completely agreed with her. Why? Because there are so many nuances and situations that are new in the wide world of financial planning that for the first ten years you’re often running into brand new situations. Your financial life is important enough that you shouldn’t have your paid professional help “practicing” on you.
- How does your financial planning process operate? Here’s the scoop: you can throw investment darts as well as any advisor, so you aren’t hiring him for that purpose. People hire an advisor not for the 80 percent of stuff you can do easily yourself, but for the 20 percent that he can do with far more accuracy and efficiency than you.
- The base of any advisor’s work should be encompassed in a written financial plan that’s backed up by hard data. You’ll use this to mark your progress toward your goals and to hold the advisor accountable to their promises.
- This plan can only be written if you’ve taken home some type of survey about your expenses, income, assets and liabilities.
- Finally, you don’t want an advisor who’s only concerned with your assets (unless that’s all you’re concerned about….but I dare anyone to tell me that your budget, estate plan, insurance needs and tax situation don’t all tie into your asset mix). Your plan should place weight on those areas of your financial house that need work now. If you’re talking budget and he’s talking Roth IRA, you know it isn’t a match.
- Who will be working with me? In larger practices, experienced advisors often have less-knowledgeable associates who work with some clients. I don’t want to hire one advisor only to find out later that I’ll end up working with another. Make sure you know how the relationship will work before entering into an agreement. The advisor might also have specialists that help out in areas outside their knowledge base. Ask how referral arrangements work between the advisor and any other professionals they recommend.
- How are you compensated? Advisors are paid three different ways:
- Fee only. Some people prefer these advisors because they’re only paid to dispense advice. You decide whether to take it or not and generally implement solutions on your own. Although I understand this thinking in a perfect world, I’ll tell you that the people who hired me did so NOT because they weren’t smart enough to plan on their own. On the contrary, I worked with people who were CEOs and CFOs of corporations, experts in taxation, engineers and entrepreneurs. These people had drive. I learned that they didn’t just hire me for knowledge. They hired me to make sure they took the time to implement the plan.
- Fee based. These advisors charge a fee for planning, but may charge an additional fee for managing assets OR receive commissions for some products. I was this type of planner, charging anywhere from $750 per year to $5,000 per year, then collecting both fees and commissions. Critics say these types of advisors “double dip” on charges, and you can end up paying large sums of money. That’s all correct, if my client wanted it that way. I ALWAYS told my clients how to avoid my fees and commissions, and often helped them set up accounts at other places. Once again, it depended on the client. My job was to identify strengths and weaknesses. If they wanted me to babysit their money or there was a product through me that helped better than those elsewhere….I was paid for that additional support.
- Commission only. These advisors will perform financial planning analysis for free, and are only paid when you implement solutions through them. Critics (like me) believe that these plans have to be slanted toward the methods supported by the advisor’s company, because that’s the only way they’re going to bring home a paycheck. I must say, though, that I knew some commission-only advisors who were top people in their field. They would only support a product they sold in the correct situation, and would actively refer people away from their product if it didn’t fit the need.
As you can see, it’s difficult to find a “perfect” set of financial advisor interview questions for your needs. But by asking these five questions, you’ll gain an understanding of the process the advisor uses, their fee structure and how their practice operates. You’ll also see the advisor’s personal history and gain an understanding of their personal feelings. This is a good start. Once you’ve asked these five questions, move toward your goals and find out how you like the advisor’s answers. It’s like hiring a coach: if you don’t listen to them, it was a big fat waste of money.
Want more questions? Try these resources:
NAPFA.org (National Association of Personal Financial Advisors) How to Find a Financial Advisor
CFP.net (Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards) Questions to Ask When Choosing a Financial Planner (.pdf document)
That’s my story, now it’s your turn: have you interviewed an advisor before? Any good questions or stories from that experience that our readers might like?