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Waiting for Godot: Financial planners for the middle class

Chris Farrell Nov 23, 2010

Question: I am searching for an appropriate financial adviser with whom I can work on such issues as Roth-IRA conversions, life insurance, retirement planning, saving for a university education for my daughter and modifying a trust, etc.

I have interviewed five persons/firms in the San Jose area working in the field of financial advising and it seems they all want to sell me something (e.g. life insurance, brokerage services) or don’t want to be bothered with someone with net wealth below $1 million. I made it clear at the outset that I am seeking advice and expertise rather than products which I can shop around for myself. (I am an economist and fairly knowledgeable about money matters.) Two of the firms more or less said that they didn’t have time for a client with a small account. (Maybe I live in a region that is too wealthy!)

Where can I find good, reasonably-priced expertise, advice and guidance on these matters? Salem, San Jose, CA

Answer: Your list of financial questions is reasonable, typical for a middle-income household with savings, a retirement plan, a home and children.. And it shouldn’t be so hard to find “good, reasonably priced expertise, advice and guidance” on how to deal with them. Yet your experience is the usual experience for middle income households. It’s one reason why I favor a DIY approach.

You also encountered a troubling reality in the financial advice industry: Almost anyone can call themselves a financial planner. Your list of financial questions is probably too braod for most planners to expertly cope with them. For instance, the so-called planner may really be a stock broker without any real knowledge about Roth-IRA conversions or a life insurance agent with little understanding of how to modify a trust.

Over the years I’ve emphasized that I favor fee-only certified financial planners (CFPs). They have the education and the knowledge to deal with all aspects of household finances. There simply aren’t as many financial conflicts of interest with a straight forward fee. The planner can look at your whole financial situation rather than slices. Problem is, not only is this kind of advice is expensive but the planners really want to work with high net worth households (despite their repeated protestations to the contrary; high net worth individuals and families are an inegral part of their business model).

You could check out the fee-only planners at the Garrett Planning Network. The planners do focus on middle income households. They do this by breaking down the financial planning advice into pieces. In your case that might mean looking into your retirement savings at one point and college savings at another. You’ll still have to find one you want to work with over time. Another fee-only network is the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors.

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