Financial Planners, Advice for the Not So Rich
By ELIZABETH HARRIS
HEN you need financial help and have limited means, paying for advice may seem beyond reach. But getting professional guidance doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
Clearly, many financial advisers won’t take on clients who aren’t already rich. In a recent survey, 57 percent of registered investment advisers said they would not work with people who had less than $1 million in assets available for investment, according to the consulting firm Cerulli Associates.
And even when less-affluent investors find someone who is willing to advise them, the fees can be prohibitive. The cost of a comprehensive financial plan can start at several thousand dollars.
Yet a number of financial firms do focus on investors of modest means, and it is possible to get some personalized advice for less than $1,000. Specific services can include retirement and college planning, investment recommendations, analysis of appropriate insurance and even debt counseling. For families facing an emergency, or those who simply can’t afford to pay for financial planning, advice may be available at little or no cost through the Financial Planning Association, a national organization of certified financial planners.
“The options are absolutely growing,” said Dave Yeske, a certified financial planner at Yeske & Company in San Francisco and the chairman of the association.
Some mutual fund companies, including T. Rowe Price and Vanguard, provide financial planning that requires fees of $500 to $1,500 and no minimum investment. Charles Schwab, the discount broker, also offers retirement and financial planning for $2,000 and less. In addition, many independent financial planners focus on middle-income investors and charge hourly fees.
Several Web sites list certified financial planners, including those of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org), the Financial Planning Association (www.fpanet.org) and the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (www.cfp.net), which posts lists of its members. In May, Myfinancialadvice.com, run by a private company in Denver, started listing independent financial advisers who serve middle-income investors.
Five years ago, Patricia A. Cooper, then 61, wanted to know if she was on track for a comfortable retirement. She said she did not even approach many financial advisers because they required clients to have “many times the amount of money that I had.” In addition, she said, she did not want to pay annual fees, which are assessed by many advisers, based on the client’s assets.
SO, for a one-time fee of $500, Ms. Cooper, a retired investment banker who lives in Forest, Va., got an analysis of her retirement prospects, along with some recommendations, from a T. Rowe Price financial consultant. In 1999, when the company began offering this type of retirement planning, it assumed that investors with assets of $250,000 to $750,000 would find it most helpful, said Christine Fahlund, a senior financial planner at the company. Ms. Cooper’s portfolio fell within that range.
Ms. Fahlund said the company tried to supplement services offered by other financial planners. “We don’t feel like we’re in competition with planners,” she said. “Mostly we felt there wouldn’t be enough planners to go around.” In addition to retirement planning, the company’s services include help in rolling over I.R.A.’s, as well as portfolio reviews for all investors.
At Vanguard, financial planning covers an even broader range of topics. For a flat fee of $1,500 for people without accounts at Vanguard, and $1,000 or less for account holders, Vanguard’s certified financial planners develop individual plans, with advice on investments, estate planning and other issues. The consultations continue for as long as it takes to complete the plan, sometimes up to several months, said Ellen Rinaldi, a principal with Vanguard’s investment programs and services.
“Coming out of the bear market, people understood the risk of not being appropriately allocated,” Ms. Rinaldi said. “In the middle of last summer, we saw a spike as more people wanted to get some investment advice to make sure they weren’t going to be in the same situation again.”
Schwab also noticed that customers were looking for more help and began offering more low-cost options, said David F. McSpadden, a senior vice president. For example, it provides investors with a portfolio consultation and e-mail updates for a quarterly fee of $125. More elaborate services are available: for a minimum of about $1,000 a year, or 0.35 percent of assets, whichever is larger, investors can get a comprehensive portfolio plan with specific buy and sell recommendations, along with periodic updates. Schwab also offers comprehensive financial plans for a flat fee of $2,000, or retirement plans starting at $800.
Some independent financial advisers focus largely on the middle-income investor. One of those advisers is Sheryl Garrett, whose firm, the Garrett Financial Planning Network, operates in 45 states, charging $120 to $250 an hour. There are other regional firms as well, including Financial Focus, based in Wolfeboro, N.H., which helps clients at all levels of wealth. The proprietor, Susan MacMichael John, who has a stake in Myfinancialadvice, does not require a minimum amount of assets and says her rates are flexible. She usually charges $300 an hour, she says, but will lower that to $50 to $150 an hour on a sliding scale, based on ability to pay, or will charge a flat fee for a specific project. “Especially for someone in the lower-income area, I think they can really benefit from some personal advice,” Ms. John said.
Ms. Garrett said independent financial advisers, like those connected with her firm or Ms. John’s, tended to suggest a broader range of investments, and were equipped to deal with a broader array of problems than advisers employed by asset management firms that market mutual funds.
In Little Rock, Ark., four financial planners who had required an investment threshold of $300,000 or more created a separate company, the Financial Decisions Institute, to work with investors whose assets fell below that minimum. It charges $75 an hour for a financial plan, which usually takes three to six hours to complete.
In addition, families who are struggling financially can contact the Financial Planning Association for help donated by members, Mr. Yeske said. Members have volunteered to help families of 9/11 victims, he said, and have begun working with the Red Cross to help victims of natural disasters.
Ms. Cooper faced more routine problems, but they were still important for her financial future. “I wanted to make sure my money would last as long as I did,” she said. She has had annual financial checkups from T. Rowe Price and, so far, her mix of stock and bond funds has returned enough to keep her comfortable, she said. Considering the recent bear market, she said, “I think that my portfolio has performed very well.”