Choosing a Financial Guide

One of the questions I'm asked most often revolves around finding someone to trust in helping with financial matters. Whether you're looking for a banker, a broker, a financial planner, an insurance agent, a lawyer or an accountant, the number one thing you must have is a relationship.

Speak with friends and family. Ask them whom they deal with. Do they trust them? Do they like them? Does the advisor give good feedback? If none of your friends or family knows of anyone, ask the people at work. If your peers don't know of someone, your boss may.

At last you’ve got a name or two or three. Now you interview. The only way to get to know the person is to talk to them, preferably in person. And the only way to find out if they can do the job is to ask plenty of questions. Some of the questions you'll ask are basic service questions to see if the level of service the advisor gives matches your expectations:

  • How many times a year will you meet?
  • What kind of information will you receive on a regular basis?
  • How quickly will your calls be returned?
  • When can you reasonably expect to receive information that you've requested, or answers to questions you've asked?

Ask about the person's credentials and experience. While credentials will give you an educational overview, experience is far more important in terms of your day-to-day activities. If you are looking for an insurance agent to handle a disability insurance request, you need someone who has specialized in disability insurance. A life insurance agent who dabbles in disability insurance won't do the job well enough. The financial world is just too complex to expect one person to know it all.

You may choose to use a financial planner as your quarterback; he or she could then refer you to specialists as you need them.

I believe in the specialist. After all, you wouldn't go to an OB/GYN to have bunions removed, and you wouldn't seek advice from a car mechanic about how your computer is running. So why would you go to a commercial or real estate lawyer to draw a will? Or a banker for help with your investment portfolio?

A good question to ask your investment specialist is, "What types of investments do you hold, and why?" She should be able to explain the rationale for her own investment portfolio. This applies to whoever else is advising you.

Ask about fees. How will you be billed? Will the person receive compensation from any other sources? Advisors who collect commissions obviously have a vested interest in selling you a particular product. That's not bad if the product suits your needs. Uncomfortable with that concept? Go for a relationship with a fee-only advisor who will guide you financially, recommend the types of investments you should have and offer advice on where to get those products, but who isn’t compensated by anyone but you.

If you and your life partner will be using the same advisor, get the ground rules straight right from the start. You must both feel comfortable talking to him intimately about your money. It's no good working with someone your buddy thinks is great if you have doubts. And make sure the advisor knows that you are two separate clients. Yes, you will have similar needs. But you should expect all your information to be kept confidential at all times, unless you say otherwise.

Does everyone need a financial advisor? Probably. And at some point in your life you may need two or three at the same time, depending on what you're doing. The number of people on your financial roster depends on the circuit your life takes. Conceivably, you may need an accountant, an estates lawyer, a real estate lawyer for your home purchase, a banker, a broker for your investment advice, and a financial planner for your overall financial health. You might also seek specialized help in retirement planning, if your financial planner isn't an expert, but he or she should be.

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