Do you need a financial advisor? The short answer is no — you don’t need one. With enough research and know-how, you can do much of what a financial advisor does on your own. The real question to ask is this: Will a financial advisor help you achieve your financial goals? The answer to that question is more complicated.
What does a financial advisor do?
A financial advisor does just what the title implies — they provide advice regarding your money. That advice can cover every aspect of your financial life, from investments and retirement savings to budgeting, tax planning and beyond.
It’s important to note, however, that not all financial advisors have the same qualifications and experience, and there’s little regulation regarding who can use the title. Pretty much anyone who offers financial advice can call themselves a financial advisor.
If you’re considering hiring someone, you first want to do your homework, check out their qualifications and consider your needs. To help, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) provides a list of professional designations so you can see the meaning of any letters that might follow the name of a financial professional.
Beyond human advisors, there are legions of robo-advisors available these days. These online services provide personal financial advice using algorithms based on information you provide. The trade-off for the lack of a human factor typically is lower fees.
Speaking of fees, they can vary a great deal depending on the services you want and the advisor or firm. Some financial advisors charge a flat fee, while others take a commission on the products they sell. Some charge a combination of fees and commissions. Be sure you understand how an advisor makes their money and what your costs will be before choosing who to work with.
What a financial advisor can help with
Scott Stevens, a registered financial advisor with California Wealth Transitions in San Diego, said financial planning goes beyond numbers and generally encompasses three things: goal setting, goal planning and goal reaching. He said that while it’s true people can attempt to take on these tasks by themselves, most people aren’t aware of all the options available to them when it comes to financial planning and don’t have the expertise to make the most informed decisions.
“Having the expertise and seeing what other people have done and helping them through those situations is an important part of what we offer as financial advisors,” Stevens said. “There are things we see and things we think about that other people don’t when they’re goal planning.”
Here are some of the areas in which a financial advisor may be able to help you achieve your financial goals. Not every advisor will offer all the services on this list, so make sure you ask potential advisors about their specializations before committing.
Even if you’re early in your career and retirement seems forever away, there are things you can do now to make a big impact in the future. A financial advisor can look at your company-sponsored retirement plan to make sure you’re taking advantage of any matching contributions (free money!) and making the best choices when it comes to designating your funds.
“Many people default into a target-date fund, which is based on 30 or 40 years in the future,” Stevens said. “Sometimes that’s a good option, but other times, it’s not because of how they’re run and managed.”
A financial advisor also can help you evaluate options beyond your employer’s plan to so you can build the nest egg you envision.
Have some funds to invest but aren’t sure how to do so to earn the best return? You can study the market and make educated guesses, but if that’s not where your interests or abilities lie, this may be a good time to find a financial advisor. They can help you decide not just how much to invest to meet your goals but also where to invest and how aggressively to do so based on your circumstances and goals.
For example, Stevens said he sees many younger clients who have become great savers after watching their parents struggle in the financial crisis of 2008. Their means of savings, however, often is a bank account in which they receive only a small amount of interest each year. They could invest that money more aggressively for a bigger potential payoff down the line.
An advisor can present the full scope of options, which many people may not be aware of, as well as advice on which options are best for your situation.
While some people live by the rule “no debt is good debt,” that may not always be the case. A financial advisor can help you evaluate your debt-to-income ratio and create realistic strategies to pay down what you owe.
“It’s about coming up with a plan to accomplish their goals but not ignoring other important aspects of their finances,” Stevens said. “Tightening your belt is fine, but you have to still be able to contribute to your 401(k) and savings and emergency fund. Those are all parts of a goal plan that a lot of people don’t incorporate.”
Planning for big financial goals
Paying for your house or saving for your children’s college education can feel daunting. While every family is different, experienced financial advisors have walked many people through the same decisions and can offer the insight and experience they have gained in doing so.
Stevens said that sometimes means having tough conversations. For example, parents may want to pay for their children’s college education so the kids don’t have to take on any debt. While that’s admirable, it often leaves parents in debt, he said, when it’s the kids (who have many more years of earning potential) who probably should take on the debt. That might not be easy to hear, but the objective perspective from a financial advisor can help families make wise decisions.
While there’s no way to avoid paying taxes, a financial advisor can help you evaluate various strategies that may help you pay less in taxes. For example, if you’re in a lower tax bracket now and expect to be in a higher one come retirement, then a Roth 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA) may be a better investment vehicle than a traditional account. An advisor can take a look at your goals and situation and try to provide you with the best tax strategies.
Again, the breadth of knowledge an advisor has can help you choose from options you may not have been aware of.
Not sure if you need life insurance or how much you might need? An advisor may be able to help you take a holistic look at your situation so you can mitigate risk and plan for the financial stability of your family.
No one likes to think about what will happen when they die, but it’s important to take certain steps to ensure that you leave behind the legacy you intend. An experienced financial advisor can help you evaluate options such as trusts, wills and other tools to make sure the people and causes you care about are taken care of according to your wishes.
While there often are emotional decisions involved in estate planning, a financial advisor can offer objective advice based on their experience and expertise.
Beyond your company’s retirement plan, there may be other benefits your employer offers that a financial advisor can help you evaluate. For example, Stevens said many people don’t take advantage of health savings accounts (HSAs) or even know that they can be a significant source of savings.
Do I need a financial advisor?
You don’t need to hire a financial advisor. There are plenty of ways to get free financial advice in all the areas listed above and more.
But when you’re deciding if you will benefit from a financial advisor, the bottom line essentially comes down to three things: your knowledge and willingness to take on some of these tasks yourself, the breadth of the financial decisions you’re facing (that is, how much money and other assets you have to work with), and the amount of money you’re willing and able to spend.
If you decide a financial advisor is right for you, do your research and get referrals to make sure you find one who can meet your needs and help you achieve your financial goals.