09/22/2011 12:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

Financial Planners not Just for the Wealthy

It's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of important decisions we need to make concerning retirement accounts, investments, college savings and other complicated financial issues. That's one reason more and more people -- wealthy and middle-class alike -- turn to professional financial advisers to help them navigate an increasingly complex economic world.

Some people simply require a one-time, objective opinion about whether their current financial plan will meet their future needs, whether it's saving for retirement, buying a home or building a sufficient emergency fund. Others haven't even started a plan and don't know where to begin.

Here are a few suggestions for finding the right financial adviser:

Ask yourself a few fundamental questions about your finances:
  • When do you plan to retire and how well-prepared are you?
  • What is your tolerance for risk?
  • Do you understand how your 401(k), IRA or other accounts are invested?
  • Are you expecting a large inheritance; or at the other extreme, are you having trouble saving or overcoming debt?
  • How might marriage, divorce, a new child or caring for aging parents impact your financial situation?
  • Do you need a savings strategy for a mortgage, college tuition or other major expenses?
When searching for a financial advisor, look for someone well-qualified in their field, whose ethics and professional behavior are above reproach and with whom you can be comfortable discussing intimate financial details. Seek someone who asks probing questions, listens to your needs and concerns, won't try to sell you unneeded products or services, and can explain in plain English the potential risks and rewards of every recommended action.

Ask for referrals from trusted friends, relatives, coworkers and professionals like accountants and lawyers. Find out what factors they used to choose their financial planners and how satisfied they are with the results.

Interview at least three candidates. Most professionals will provide a free or low-cost initial consultation and may ask you to fill out a detailed questionnaire beforehand to help guide the discussion. And be prepared with your own questions, including:

  • Work experience -- how long practicing, types of clients, areas of specialization, etc.
  • Qualifications, including education, licenses held, credentials and other certifications. (Ask what courses they take to stay current.)
  • Fee structure -- are they paid an hourly rate, a flat fee per task, by commission, or a combination of fees and commissions?
  • Services and products offered -- e.g., tax, estate and/or retirement planning; develop a written financial plan (for an additional fee?); insurance or investment product sales (some believe it's a conflict of interest for advisors to earn commissions for products they recommend, so ask for full disclosure if they aren't "fee-only").
  • How many clients do you have and how much money do you manage?
  • References from current and past clients.
  • For additional questions to ask, visit these Securities and Exchange Commission, Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards and AARP websites.

Many types of professionals call themselves financial planners, but training and specialization vary widely -- in fact, some are essentially salespeople. Common designations include: Certified Financial Planner, Certified Financial Consultant, Certified Public Accountant/Personal Financial Specialist, NAPFA-Registered Financial Advisor, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, Chartered Financial Analyst, Accredited Investment Fiduciary, but the list goes on.

Most groups that certify financial planners have their own credentialing requirements, regulators and ethical guidelines, but education and experience requirements vary. Good resources for learning more about the different types of financial planners, as well as locating local professionals, include the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Garrett Planning Network and Alliance of Cambridge Advisors.

Before hiring a financial advisor, investigate his or her background and disciplinary history, as well as that of their firm. The CFP Board provides links to the appropriate regulatory agencies. Other good places to search for public disclosures include the Better Business Bureau and BrightScope.

Many considerations come into play when hiring a financial planner, but it's worth the effort. You wouldn't entrust your health to a doctor in whom you don't have complete confidence, and the same should apply to the expert giving advice on handling your hard-earned money.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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