The Value of Objective Financial Planning

What is the value that people get when they work with an objective, client-focused financial planner?

Most planning firms are reluctant to toot their own horns—partly out of modesty, and partly out of a conviction that you probably have better things to do than read about how they help you with your financial life. But every once in a while, it’s a good idea to stop and think about what you get, for what you pay.

This list is organized in rough order of value, and if you feel you aren’t getting all of these benefits from your financial planner, you should let her or him know.

1) An independent financial planner helps protect you from financial predators.

It’s a touchy issue in the profession whether advisors who put their clients’ interests first should be “bashing the competition,” but in fact the Wall Street firms that pretend to offer financial planning guidance are seldom (if ever) looking out for the best interests of their customers. When you work with a broker (possibly also known, on their business card, as  “vice president of investments,”) you will be presented with separately-managed accounts that look like mutual funds, except they share their fees with the brokerage firm, plus a lot of investments that have to pay people to recommend them—never a good sign for the end investor.

And since the investment markets are extremely complicated, it’s usually hard for a layperson to know when there are much better alternatives than the “opportunities” being presented.

2) An independent financial planner helps you keep track of and make your financial affairs more efficient.

It is not uncommon for financial planners to talk with clients who once had a will drawn up, but they’re not sure exactly when. Now that you mention it, they’re curious about what, exactly, it says. There’s a life insurance policy in a drawer somewhere, and it may be a term policy or it may be a cash value contract; all the client knows for sure is that she writes a check to the insurance company every year. Upon inspection, it turns out the auto insurance policy she happens to own is way more expensive than the lowest rate available in the market, and the homeowner’s policy hasn’t been updated since the Clinton Administration.

And the investments are not uncommonly a hodgepodge of what a broker sold the client based on what he was told by his bosses to recommend at different times during the relationship.

Hopefully, this was never you. But it does offer a certain peace of mind to know that everything is organized, in one place, and that somebody is paying attention to the details. Because in your financial life, the details matter.

3) An independent financial planner will stand between his/her clients and the dysfunctional emotional decisions that everybody makes with their own investments.

Do you remember how it felt when Lehman Brothers went down, and the U.S. government was bailing out General Motors? Many people sold everything at the bottom, and then waited, and waited, and waited to get back into the markets until it was “safe.” To this day, I still get calls from people who left the markets near the bottom and never got back in. They never dreamed that the markets would go on six year bull run that would take us to new record highs, and want to know if it’s too late to get back in.

The Morningstar (research) organization has calculated the difference between investment returns and investor returns—that is, between the returns people actually get vs. what the markets (or individual mutual funds) have delivered. Results? It is not unusual, during various time periods, for individual investors to get about half the returns of the market. How is that possible? They may be moving the portfolio around, or buying an attractive-looking hot fund or selling a great fund that’s going through a rough patch. They may sell out at the bottom of a scary period, or go all-in when the markets are about to take a nasty tumble.

For many of us, the best approach is to find good, solid investments and stay the course through thick and thin, ups and downs. But it’s very hard to do those things on your own. An independent advisor provides a dose of objectivity right when you need it.

4) An independent financial planner is a strong advocate for your future.

You know the statistics about the savings rate in America (the 2000-2008 numbers hovered around 0% of income, spiked briefly after the Great Recession, and are now back in the 1% range again). But the keepers of these statistics don’t tell you that they probably overstated the actual rate, because they didn’t include things like increasing credit card balances or home equity loans. When people put money in their savings account, and at the same time run up more debt, they still counted it as an increase in their savings.

The problem for most consumers is that there is no voice in their environment advising them to pay themselves a fair percentage of the income that they earn. Instead, they’re bombarded by messages which make powerful arguments to do the opposite: to buy this, that, or something else. The entire advertising community conspires to take those dollars out of their hands before they ever hit an investment account.

Advisors become that rare voice speaking out in favor of saving. And in some cases, they help identify expenditures that are not in line with your stated future goals. Which leads us to:

5) An independent financial planner helps people identify what is important in their lives and prioritize their goals.

How many people do you know who have taken the time to identify what they really want out of life?

The incredibly sad truth is that the vast majority of people in our advanced, prosperous society have not taken the time to figure out what they really want out of the all-too-brief time they will spend on this planet. And because they don’t know their destination, they will never reach it. They are, in a very real sense, at the mercy of whatever agenda others have for them.

An independent financial planner will ask questions in your initial interview which help you recognize what you don’t know about what you want, and help you identify your most personal goals and desires. That, alone, can be a priceless service.

6) An independent financial planner can help people turn seemingly impossible goals into a routine that can achieve them.

After years of running retirement planning spreadsheets, and working with successful individuals in the community, advisors eventually master one of the truly magical lessons of life: that any enormous goal can be broken down into manageable, monthly increments, and achieved by routine and persistence. You save X amount of dollars every month in a portfolio that gets something close to what the market offers, and you will retire with a sum of money that seems impossible to you now.

Clients who have goals that they don’t believe they can achieve are put on a schedule that will get them there as a matter of routine.

Of course, this list doesn’t include specialized services like making retirement planning projections, charitable planning, creating special needs trusts for a disabled child, reducing overall taxes, social security planning, evaluating disability and long-term care insurance—and it doesn’t mention the comfortable knowledge that you can call an expert for advice on virtually any financial subject, and you’ll get an answer that is not tainted by a sales agenda.

The point is that the services offered by an independent financial planner can have enormous value to people who are motivated to enjoy successful, prosperous lives. An independent planner’s only goal is your success and prosperity, which should not be—but is—unusual in our financial world.

If you would like to review your current investment portfolio or discuss possibly hiring us as your financial planner, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

TheMoneyGeek thanks guest writer Bob Veres for contributing to this post

How to Choose a Financial Advisor

You know the importance of saving for retirement, but do you have the time and know-how to accomplish your financial goals? In an increasingly busy world, it’s possible that keeping close tabs on your investment accounts isn’t exactly realistic.

Seeking the help of financial professionals has become more important to investors according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation, as nearly one quarter (22 percent) of investors report relying more on a professional investment advisor following the recession.

Even if you have a good handle on your investments, you may find that hiring a financial advisor — who can put the time and energy into making sure you and your family plan for a secure financial future — may be a worthwhile investment. By hiring an independent registered investment advisor — commonly referred to as an RIA — you can make sure your investments are managed on a full-time basis by a professional advisor, while still having control.

Of course deciding to put someone in charge of your hard-earned money is not a process to be taken lightly.  Our preferred custodian, TD Ameritrade,  and we offer these tips to consider as you choose an independent financial advisor or RIA:

* Just as it is wise to do research on the background of anyone who would take care of your children, you should investigate the person or company you enlist to handle your money. The Securities and Exchange Commission, Inc. (www.adviserinfo.sec.gov), Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (www.finra.org), Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (www.cfp.net), National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (findanadvisor.napfa.org/Home.aspx), and Financial Planning Association (http://www.fpanet.org/PlannerSearch/PlannerSearch.aspx), as well as your own state securities agency all collect background information on financial professionals that can be accessed through their websites. Use these sites to make sure the advisors you are considering haven’t faced disciplinary action for dishonest practices and are in good standing with regulators.

* Know the difference between working with an independent RIA and a stock broker, or other financial services provider. Independent RIAs, for example, are bound by law to act in their clients’ best interest. Brokers, on the other hand, are held to a “suitability” standard, meaning the advice they give must be suitable to that client’s situation. If you are looking for objective, comprehensive money management, you might want to consider an RIA.

* While RIAs are required by law to act in your best interest, there are other ways that you can ensure they will do what is best for you. One is to ask how they are compensated. Fee-only compensation generally minimizes conflicts of interest and means that your advisor is paid only for the management services and advice he or she offers, and only by you, not by investment product providers. When an advisor is paid on commission, there’s a greater chance he or she will make choices with your money that serve not only your interests, but their own as well. That’s not to say that advisors do not work fairly under this model, but potential conflicts of interest are something to consider as you choose an advisor.

* When looking for referrals from friends or relatives, the most valuable referrals may come from those in similar situations. It’s also a good idea to ask potential advisors if they specialize in working with certain types of clients and choose one that fits your unique profile.

* A third party custodian should also handle all your deposits, to ensure checks and balances. An independent custodian like TD Ameritrade can help ensure the safety and security of your assets, and will provide you with a clear, concise statement every month. A duplicate monthly statement is also sent to your advisor. Make sure this is also a legitimate and upstanding business.

Working with a trusted independent fee-only RIA can help you realize your financial goals, while allowing you to spend less time worrying about and managing your investments. If you need help and would like to talk to a fee-only planner with no sales pressure, cost  or obligation, please visit our web site at http://www.ydfs.com or call YDream Financial Services, Inc. at (615) 395-2010 or (734) 447-5305.

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