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How to Choose a Financial Pro

Looking to hire a professional to help you manage your investments -- for general savings, the kids' college, or your retirement? These tips will help you find someone you can trust.

Find someone you can trust with your savings.

Just a few short years ago it seemed easy to make your own investment choices: just drop everything into the stock market, and you were sure to gain. Now, though, two years of a down market -- peppered by corporate blowups and untold losses -- has led many individuals to seek professional help.

Working with a financial planner can do a lot of good -- they can help you determine your goals, assess your comfort with risk and even suggest specific investments. But they won't solve all your problems; you alone are responsible for your investing decisions. All the more reason you need to find a planner you can trust. To that end, here are a few tips to keep in mind while looking for some help:

  • Know what you want. You should have a fair idea of what you'd like a planner to help you with. Are you looking for a retirement plan? Or do you have other goals you need to reach before retirement, such as buying a home or paying for college? "A lot of people walk into a planner's office, drop everything and say, 'How can you help me?'" says John Markese, president of the nonprofit, Chicago-based American Association of Individual Investors. "Ask yourself this basic question first: What are you trying to achieve?"

American Association of Individual Investors

  • Get referrals. Ask friends and family for suggestions as to who they'd recommend. You can also check with other professionals you've used; for example, if you liked the lawyer that drew up your estate plan, chances are he or she works with a financial planner they'd be happy to recommend. Same goes for your accountant or banker. They won't refer you to anyone who will reflect poorly on them.
  • Know your expert letters. There are several designations for financial planners; most of which indicate a certain level of education and experience. The most common is the Certified Financial Planner (CFP), issued by the CFP Board. There's also the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) designation that only CPAs (Certified Public Accountants) can get. Both represent a high level of education and continuing requirements. If you want your planner to make specific investing choices, make sure he or she is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA); this designation is administered by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

CFP Board

Securities and Exchange Commission

  • Do they have the right experience? Few financial planners can do it all. If you're looking for tax planning as well as investment advice, for instance, you may have to go to two different specialists, or work with a firm that employs, say, a CPA, an experienced equities investor, and a general planner. You'll have to determine the complexity of your request -- for instance, whether you want someone to draw up a basic asset allocation plan or rework your financial goals -- and find someone with a history of that type of work.
  • Strive to be an average client. Ask a potential planner who their typical client is, and ask for client referrals. You want your planner to be very experienced with your financial profile and economic level. If you're looking for help managing a $50,000 portfolio, you don't want to go to someone who primarily works with high-net-worth individuals -- and vice versa.
  • Find out how they'll charge you. Financial planners fall into two broad categories: fee-only and commission-based. Generally speaking, fee-only planners are considered to be more objective about their advice. However, if you want your planner to manage your money, many will charge an annual asset-based fee, typically 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent of assets under management. That's in addition to whatever fees the underlying investments (such as mutual funds) will also charge you. Make sure you understand the specifics of how you'll be charged and get it in writing. Then shop around some more.
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