Time to take stock
Question: My wife and I are approaching our mid 30s. Up to this point, our lives have been a blur of trying to build a future with two incredible children. Now that we have a house, two rental properties and situated ourselves in our careers, we really need to start planning further ahead for retirement and our children's future. We are really not sure what to do next and feel that we should turn to a financial advisor. At this point, I am completely overwhelmed as I don't even know how to go about finding one. I have started to do some research online but am still struggling with this next step. Any suggestions that could help point us in the right direction would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Jeff, Ballston Lake, NY
Answer: Where does the time go when setting up a household? You're smart to want to take stock of where you are financially and where you'd like to go.
In theory, the solution of meeting with a financial planner is sensible. You want some expert advice. The problem is the gap between theory and reality. It's a lot harder to accomplish what you would like to do in practice. A major reason is the difficulty middle-income families have with finding someone with the kind of broad financial expertise they need and yet who also charges a reasonable price for their services.
What's more, almost anyone can hang out their shingle and call themselves a financial planner. In many cases, the actual expertise is quite narrow. For example, the so-called planner really may be a stock broker without any real knowledge about home equity financing. Another planner may be well-versed in the intricacies of insurance products but doesn't bring much insight to questions about saving for college.
The way I have dealt with the gap is to 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 conflicts of interest with a fee, either. The drawback is that CFPs are expensive. Planners prefer working with high-net-worth households. It's why I end up favoring a DIY approach for most people.
So, the first thing I would do is look at a book like Jane Bryant Quinn's Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People. Or my book, The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better. I would write down what questions you didn't you get answered reading these books. What is it you want to ask a financial planner? What concrete differences in your household finances do you expect to change within a year after consulting with a financial planner? I laid out an approach to dealing with a planner in this blog post. Check it out.
Now, let's say you want more than DIY. You still want to go the planner route. The best way to find a competent one is through referrals from people you know and trust. Networking is a powerful resource. However, networking isn't always an option, and we have to start our search online. I would go to the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Financial Planning Association and the Garrett Planning Network. (The members of the last network tend to work more with middle-income households by breaking down their situation into discrete problems or questions.)
It will take you time to find the right planner for you. That's okay. Money involves many intimate details about goals and values. You want to carefully research your options to find a professional that isn't only competent but that you're comfortable talking to about intimate issues.