More Americans are seeking professional help when it comes to managing their money.
The percentage of people who used a financial adviser grew to 40 percent in 2015 from 28 percent five years earlier, according to a survey by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. Those people said their decision had less to do with recent economic crises than with their desire for better financial guidance.
However, reliable financial advisers are becoming increasingly hard to find, and more investors have grown distrustful of the profession as a whole. In the same 2015 survey, the board found that 60 percent of Americans thought their adviser valued his/her company’s interests over those of the consumer, compared with 25 percent in 2010.
Jessica Parker, 23, is particularly wary. The first time she met with a financial adviser, she believed she was interviewing for an internship. Instead, she was given an hours-long investment pitch and left the meeting having unknowingly signed an insurance policy.
“They made it sound so appealing,” says Parker, who works as a senior analyst for Johnson & Johnson in Raritan, N.J. “They had all of these metrics, graphs and data. They 100 percent lied about what it was going to be.”
Whether lies are serious or more mundane, they can take a toll. Having an untrustworthy adviser can mean serious damage to your stock portfolio, your retirement plan or any number of other investments. Knowing the lies some financial planners will tell you can help you avoid being tricked into a decision that could put your money in jeopardy.
“Trust me, this is your best investment option.”
When speaking with your adviser, it’s important to know he or she has your wallet in mind, rather than his/her own.
Julie Rains, 57, a writer in Winston-Salem, N.C., says she met with a financial planner who suggested an investment option that wasn’t in line with the type of portfolio she wanted. After refusing the offer and complaining to the brokerage, Rains said, she eventually discovered that the investment would have made her adviser a large amount of money.
“His recommendation was complex and confusing, and would have resulted in a huge, unnecessary tax bill,” Rains says. “But the solution would have benefited him greatly with a large annual fee.”
Ben Jacobs, a financial planning analyst based in Athens, Ga., says conflicts of interest are common among advisers who earn commissions for their services.
Jacobs recommends seeking a financial planner who is registered with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), with some 3,000 members nationwide and high standards for membership.
NAPFA members earn their money through a consistent client-paid fee instead of earning a commission from a percentage of the financial products they sell to customers, such as mutual funds, life insurance and annuities. As a result, fee-based planners have no financial incentive to sway you in any one direction, because they’ll get paid the same amount regardless.
“Fee-only means you don’t pay me for the work.”
Still, fee-only advisers, who receive a set fee from clients and do not earn commission on the products they sell, can be just as misleading when it comes to how they’re paid. Jacobs says confusing pay structures are common in the industry, with consumers often misunderstanding how their financial planner calculates their total service charge.
“You'd be surprised at the number of people who think they aren't paying their financial adviser,” he says.
The cost of working with a financial planner can vary depending on the planner’s experience and where you live.
Vid Ponnapalli, founder of Unique Financial Advisors in Holmdel, N.J., says people should be weary of additional costs when making any agreement with a financial planner. These extra, sometimes hidden expenses can range from your adviser earning a percentage of your bond sales to 12b-1 fees — an annual marketing fee tacked onto some mutual fund agreements.
You should read through any contract before signing, especially if you’re unsure how your adviser is making money from your business, he says.
“My credentials show that I’m an expert.”
Many advisers take on titles and certifications that have little to do with their actual skills. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found more than 50 designations for senior-specific advisers in a 2013 study of financial problems facing senior citizens.
However, the CFPB also found that the educational and professional requirements for using those titles varied greatly, and that some could be obtained with little to no training or effort.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) maintains a database of professional designations and the prerequisites for earning them. Some of these titles — such as Behavioral Financial Adviser, Disability Income Advocate, and Retirement Plans Associate — require almost zero qualifications.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released a formal warning against deceitful titles in 2014, encouraging consumers to “look beyond a financial professional’s title when determining whether he or she can provide the type of financial services or products you need.”
The titles that matter most, such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC), involve accreditation by national standards agencies that often hold professionals to certain ethical standards. FINRA maintains a list of these designations, and you can also use the organization’s BrokerCheck tool to search for advisers who hold these titles.
“I can help with all of your financial needs.”
Even when their credentials are legitimate, planners may try to emphasize skills they don’t have. For example, advisers may claim they’re qualified to sell you insurance despite having little knowledge of the subject.
Rains, who runs a website called Investing to Thrive, says she thinks advisers are attempting to seem more versatile and appeal to a large client base.
“Certainly, some are qualified to handle a broad range of functions, but many have a specialty,” she says. “It's good to be aware of the strengths, and limitations, of whoever you might hire to help you.”
Even financial planners with highly respected designations can have their blind spots. For example, Jacobs says the CFP exam doesn’t include certain specialized topics—such as divorce settlement and disability planning—that advisers may need to seek separate training in order to properly cover.
In order to ensure that he could meet the needs of prospective clients, Ponnapalli began offering free, hourlong consultations before doing business with them.
“I can guarantee you big returns on your investments.”
Parker says it’s a bad idea to trust advisers who say they’re only concerned about making you money. Nothing is ever certain in finance, and consumers should be suspicious of planners who promise them a specific return on their investment.
Advisers have the responsibility to set realistic expectations, and promising clients a specific payoff “can lead to huge problems,” Ponnapalli says.
“The big myth is that we are moneymakers,” he says. “We have to explain to (clients) that money management is one small part of our job.”
Tips for finding a reliable financial planner:
- Look for a fiduciary. As a fiduciary, a financial adviser is required to take a formal oath stating that he or she will work in the best interests of clients. When looking for a fiduciary, start with the NAPFA, which requires each of its registered financial planners to renew the Fiduciary Oath every year. Also, MagnifyMoney has reviewed some financial planners, including online options Stash Wealth and the XY Planning Network.
- Compare advisers. Finding a financial planner who fits your specific needs can take time, and it may involve meeting with many in person. Rains recommends looking for substance over flash and charm. “Personally, I'd choose the smart person who's good with money but slightly clumsy with conversation over the one who's a smooth talker,” she says.
- Do your research. As important as in-person meetings are, you also need to do your homework. According to a 2016 study at the University of Minnesota, 7 percent of financial advisers at the average firm have a record of misconduct (the figure reaches 15 percent at some of the largest firms), with almost half of these individuals keeping their jobs after they were caught or disciplined. To help with this, the SEC has an online database where you can do a background check on most registered financial planners.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Once you pick an adviser, you need to make sure you’re both on the same page. When meeting with your planner for the first time, it’s good to come in with a long list of questions, as well as a full brief of your own financial situation. “Do your research on what type of plans they offer,” Parker says. “When you’re in there, be very clear on your intentions of what you want to do with your money, otherwise they might try to steer you another way.”