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Want A Financial Adviser? Here Are Some Things To Look For

Picking someone to help you plan for retirement can be challenging. The fees can add up quickly. But a good adviser can help protect you from your instincts when markets turn volatile.
Annette Elizabeth Allen

The first thing to realize about financial advice is that it's not free — and it often costs more than you think. That's what Morra Aarons-Mele found when she decided to find a financial adviser after she inherited an IRA from her father.

"I felt like I wanted an adviser because I was uncertain about — I never had any money before, frankly, and I really wanted to be a good steward of it," Aarons-Mele says.

She found an adviser who charged her a yearly fee of 1 percent of the value of the IRA. That's pretty standard. But after receiving some quarterly reports, she started feeling uneasy about all the added fees.

"The fees were all over the place, so that even though my fee that I had agreed with my adviser seemed completely reasonable — obviously I wanted her to be able to earn a living," she says, "it was that there seemed to be all these hidden fees in various funds."

So in addition to paying her adviser 1 percent a year, Aarons-Mele was paying a lot to the managers of the mutual funds in her portfolio. The average U.S. mutual fund charges just under 1 percent in fees. That may sound like small change, but the impact can be truly dramatic.

Over 30 years, paying 1 percent annually for advice and another 1 percent for your mutual funds could cut your retirement gains almost in half.

So keeping fees much lower than average is critical, says Kate Fries, a retirement adviser at The Family Firm based in Bethesda, Md. Fries also charges 1 percent for her advice, but she's all about keeping the other fees to a minimum.

"The vast majority of the time, whether in an index fund or even more inexpensively via an ETF [exchange-traded fund], it should be well under a half a percent," Fries says.

An ETF is a basket of stocks traded like a single stock in the stock market.

Often, investors pay too much in fees because their advisers get commissions from a mutual fund company to steer business to their high-fee products. But Fries is a fiduciary, which means she is required to put her clients' interests first. (That's something you should insist on when you seek financial advice.)

Of course, even paying close to 1.5 percent could cut significantly into your investment returns, so why not just invest on your own or in one of those cheap roboadvisers online?

Fries argues it can be worth it to pay for a human adviser. She says they can help you work through how to organize your finances to achieve your goals, and when you're ready, how to structure your retirement. And, she says, she protects her clients from themselves.

"It's really hard when the market is as volatile as it was this past August and to not knee-jerk react and decide, 'Oh, gosh, is now the time to sell? I don't want to lose everything,' " Fries says.

Experts say that sitting down and creating a plan of action makes us 10 times more likely to achieve our goals — especially if we tell friends about our plan to create some gentle social pressure to follow through. Here's a worksheet to help with that.
Annette Elizabeth Allen / NPR
Experts say that sitting down and creating a plan of action makes us 10 times more likely to achieve our goals — especially if we tell friends about our plan to create some gentle social pressure to follow through. Here's a worksheet to help with that.

But here's the problem for the vast majority of Americans: They don't have enough money to access Fries' advice. Her firm requires a $600,000 minimum investment.

There is a new model for providing less expensive advice being offered by a number of firms. A recent startup called Rebalance IRA uses a hybrid model that keeps costs low by combining human advisers on the phone and technology online.

"Rebalance IRA charges a half of 1 percent for retirement investment advice for our clients," says Scott Puritz, a managing director for the firm.

That's half the cost of a traditional investment adviser. And Rebalance IRA builds investment portfolios of index funds and ETFs that add just 0.2 percent to the fee.

"So our clients experience all-in, everything-type cost of [0.7] percent per year," Puritz says.

But Rebalance IRA's minimum investment is $100,000, and Vanguard's similar service requires a $50,000 minimum. That still excludes the majority of Americans. To fill that gap, a new network of financial planners has sprung up. It's called the XY Planning Network. Cristina Guglielmetti of Future Perfect Planning is one of them.

"We are all planners who are trying to deliver quality fiduciary financial planning services to clients who have traditionally been cut out of financial planning," Guglielmetti says.

Her clients are often younger people — freelancers, new parents and newlyweds merging their finances. Guglielmetti charges them $500 for an initial plan and about $100 a month to help them define goals, track expenses and begin investing for retirement. And like some other planners in her network and elsewhere, she'll work for an hourly fee.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.
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