Meeting with a financial planner for the first time can be a stressful experience. Many times it is the first time that you may be opening up about your finances. The great news is that most financial planners truly enjoy helping people and like most things that we stress out about, it ends up being a significantly better experience than you would expect.
Most people work with their financial planners for the rest of their lives due to the unique relationship that is formed by trusting each other to tackle important life goals. With that in mind, it is important to make sure you have a planner that is going to be a good fit for you. The variation in choices and fits are as unique as the options of bread that you can choose at most supermarkets. To help you determine the right fit with a potential planner, here are the top ten questions to ask your financial planner.
For each of the questions below, I will flesh out the thought process behind each question and share my answer for each.
1. How are you compensated?
There are primarily two ways that someone who calls themselves a financial planner may be compensated: commission (paid by a company) or fee (paid by you the client). To make things a little more blurred many planners may be considered a hybrid where they can operate on either side. It may help you think of it as someone that is paid commission is selling while the planner paid by fee is collaborating with you. Which one would you prefer? (You can see more details on How to Choose the Right Financial Advisor Strategy Guide)
I am extremely biased on this debate and am proud to be fee-only. I share my fee structure openly on my website to be as transparent as possible, fees are primarily based on the complexity of my clients’ situation.
2. Are you required by law to act in my best interest?
Remember the commission-based planners? Their obligation is to their employer and not you, the client. They are not required to act in your best interest and many times your best interest may make a significant impact on their compensation or standing within the company.
There was actually a big hoopla over this issue in a fight to require by law that anyone who puts themselves out as a financial advisor/planner to be a fiduciary (Wealthmanagement.com article). Fiduciary is just a fancy word for having the duty to do what is best for those you have a planner relationship with. Do you want your planner to be required to have your best interest in mind?
I am a fiduciary for my clients as mandated by multiple associations I have chosen to align myself with NAPFA and the XY Planning Network. I look forward to the day when this actually does become a requirement for all financial planners.
3. Do you provide additional value outside of my investments?
Another goofy thing about the financial services industry which has never made sense to me is that practically anyone can use the terms financial advisor or financial planner with very limited restrictions. I impose my own reasoning on this confusion. If only investment management is being provided then they are NOT a financial planner.
Financial planners, in my opinion, should be doing more for their clients, though this could take many different forms of value depending on the clients. This is important to have clarity on because, by most logic, investment management only should cost less than investment management with actual planning and additional value-added services. Fees can range dramatically so the answer to your first question should be weighed against the answer to this question.
Although my initial interest in investments is what kindled my desire to explore financial planning, it is not nearly as exciting as all of the cool aspects of my clients’ lives and what motivates them to build a great life. As a result, I only work with those who want and need more than just investment management.
4. What is your investment philosophy?
Most financial planners pick a side of the following: active investment management or passive investment management. They also may choose to blend these philosophies. Similar to most points that have ever been made on any topic, there is research and statistics that could support either. However, what is most important is that they use a well-defined process.
A process is powerful because it gives you clarity and direction, which also breeds confidence. Unfortunately, some planners do not rely on processes and rely on gut feelings or emotions. If that is the case, you might want to run the other way. Think about it. Markets become volatile and that can be extremely scary for an individual. How do you think someone without confidence in a process is going to react with 50-1000 clients relying on their gut to make rational decisions without a process?
My investment philosophy is passive. My reasoning for this is that most active managers underperform the general market and active management has a higher cost. For a 50/50 probability of beating the market at a premium, that is not a bet my clients need to make. As far as process, I will just provide the summary:
- Complete review of the current situation and provide a strategy guide to attain future goals.
- Investor composure analysis completed for all members of the household.
- Investment discussion, which consists of mostly education but also reviewing all of the potential possibilities of investment returns (the awesome, the likely, and the worst-case scenario).
Only after this process can I be confident that my clients are educated in how investments may help them achieve their goals, but also understand that there is nothing magical or voodoo about how investments work.
Investor Composure Assessment ~2 minutes
5. How often will we meet?
The few times when clients do end up leaving their financial planner it is often due to lack of attention or at least an understanding of how much attention they will have. This varies substantially depending on the service model, the number of clients a planner has, and how much free time the planner wants to take. The main point here is to make sure the answer is authentic and fits your expectations and needs. I once met a gentleman who said he really likes his “financial planner” because he just takes care of everything and so they do not need to talk.
Clearly, the gentleman above would hate working with me. In the first year, I meet with my new clients a minimum of 6 times. Often it is a lot more. You would be shocked at how many significant changes occurs over the course of a year for young families navigating this crazy and exciting world. In future years I expect a minimum of two meetings to at least check-in. I also empower my clients to contact me on my cell or use the direct link to my calendar to jump on a meeting at any time. Those meetings are always about some exciting new development, but sometimes maybe a negative event. In any case, I get so pumped that I am able to kind of be a superhero in my own nerdy planning way.
6. Do you include both myself and significant other in meetings?
This can go either way. There may be a more financially dominant player in your household and maybe that person takes point on these types of meetings. Maybe the other spouse refuses to attend the meetings like it is the dentist. Most planners do not realize, but there still is a huge issue where the planner only talks to the male counterpart of the conversation. I can only imagine how alienating of an experience that could be for the other spouse.
To me, it is important that married or partnered couples both engage in the financial planning process, at least when we are talking about all of the major things like goals for the household and critical recommendations. I make it a point to include both clients in the collaboration of their plan, as I view my wife very much my equal and I would be pretty upset if she was not treated as such in meetings.
7. What happens when you (the planner) retire?
With the average age of financial planners being 51 (according to Forbes), it is very possible that your planner may not be the one to guide you throughout the rest of your life. Obviously, this may be fairly easy to estimate by the age difference. Just because they may not be your forever planner does not mean you need to make a change. It would be helpful to understand what the possible future could look like. The options that are available are to close shop and you find a new planner, sell to another planner, or they may be grooming an internal employee to take over.
Retirement for me is likely 35-40 years out if I have my way. Currently, Level Up Financial Planning is still in the launch phase. The likelihood that I will need to add staff is still another year away. I am also, open to the idea of grooming young talent as my business and current clients mature. Providing access to true financial planning for those in their early and mid-career is something that I will always consider highly important.
8. Will you shoot straight with me?
Hopefully, your planner has been passing all of the questions to your individual preferences thus far. Unfortunately, our built-in lie detectors are not entirely accurate and many experienced planners have cut their teeth on the sales side of the business, which may sharpen their smooth-talking abilities.
Ask them point-blank and see if your lie detector spikes. Shooting straight is also hugely important from an education and coaching side of value. You need accurate information in order to make informed decisions and you may need someone to hold you accountable if your goals are unrealistic or if you need a kick in the butt.
I know a lot of my value-added on top of what other planners provide is being respectfully honest with any situation even if it means that it is a difficult conversation. Thinking about my clients’ perspectives is something I analyze and try to craft my wording so that it is clear and actionable. The great thing is, once you know that something needs to change, we can start brainstorming on a strategy that may work.
9. How did you obtain your experience?
Besides the compensation question, this is the most under-asked question. It is important to make sure that your planner knows at a minimum more than you and has resources to fill in any gaps. Remember that practically anyone can call themselves a financial planner. The fact that they are licensed does not mean a whole lot as the testing process for basic licenses have virtually no planning component.
Do they have a certification or degree that is specific to your needs? Were they trained to sell or did they have a more comprehensive training or education? Did they have a mentor or are they just responding with generic phrases and googling responses between meetings?
I recently surprised a planner whose podcast I made a guest appearance on because my path to becoming a financial planner was a more intentional one. He said to me “it’s interesting that you actually went straight into financial planning, usually, planners bounce around the sales side of the business before making their way to the real planning”. Although I know that I am very fortunate for the path I took, it still shocked me as such a surprising thing.
I will try to summarize my experience as succinctly as possible. I worked nine years between a community bank and a credit union as a teller and personal banker. That is how long it took me to find financial planning and graduate from Colorado State University’s financial planning program. This allowed me to work with a highly regarded “real” financial planning firm that worked with engineers in tech. Due to unique circumstances, I was required to fill in for the owner often in client meetings over the course of three years. My education, passing a ridiculous test (about a 60% pass rate), and experience allowed me to receive the Certified Financial Planner™ designation in 2016.
10. Why Should I Choose You?
Hopefully, they were able to ask you questions and allow you to talk throughout this initial feeling out process. At this point, you probably have a good feeling of whether they are a good fit for you. This gives them the opportunity to confirm that fit.
I truly believe in the impact I have on my clients’ lives and their futures. My main objective is to improve your financial situation as dramatically as I can and hopefully inspire you to believe that reaching your goals is possible and it can be a little fun strategizing to achieve them.
Should you ask all ten of these questions to your financial planner? I would focus on the ones that matter most to you and what you need to have answered to have confidence in your decision. Many of these answers you may be able to find on their website or through email prior to meeting for the first time. I hope you have found this strategy guide informative and empowering.
In case you do not have a planner in mind. I would love the opportunity to meet with you if any of my responses resonated with you. If not there are literally 1000’s of planners to choose from. I hope you find the best fit to help you take your financial confidence to the next level!
Lucas Casarez is a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional serving tech professionals virtually out of Fort Collins, CO