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Financial Planning

Pick the Right Money Manager

We walk you through the choices and tell you how to vet them.

You’re tired of going it alone. Who do you call? Since 2008, when nearly every investment category suffered declines, people have been clamoring for good advice. Some seek just a little guidance, while others want to leave virtually all of the decision-making to a professional. But with so many money managers offering their services—from banks to brokers to online sites—picking the right one is harder than ever. How do you find an adviser who’s right for you and your family?

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We’ll tell you how. Whether you want a one-time checkup on your financial life or an ongoing relationship with a money manager, we’ll lay out the many types of companies you can go to and tell you what kinds of serv­ices you can expect, how much you can expect to pay in fees, and the minimum amount you’ll need to bring to the table. (You might be surprised to learn that some firms will let you through the door with a pittance.) Then we’ll tell you how to drill down within the firms to find a good adviser and what questions to ask when you interview a prospective money manager. We list the kinds of investment managers in order of the minimum amount of money they require, starting with those that demand the least.

Online Outfits

The Web is exploding with sites that offer a variety of services, from tips on stock trades to full-service guidance from a financial planner.

See Our Slide Show: 10 Best Online Brokers

Some Web sites, such as Covestor, TD Ameritrade’s thinkorswim and Ditto Trade, allow you to follow or mimic the moves of a manager or a top trader. Other firms, such as Jemstep and FutureAdvisor, offer recommendations on mutual funds and exchange-traded funds based on your personal circumstances. You plug in data from your brokerage and 401(k) accounts, for example, and the Web services review your account holdings, flagging funds that have high expense ratios or that have lagged the broad market over time.

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Some online outfits, including Betterment, Hedgeable and Wealthfront, will manage your money for less than 1% a year. Betterment creates portfolios that contain only ETFs. Plug in your goals (say, “I need $2 million in 20 years, and I have $200,000 now”) and answer a few risk-tolerance-related questions, and Betterment sets your allocations to get you to your goal. Once a portfolio is established, Betterment periodically rebalances it to keep the allocations in line with the desired percentages. You can start with $100 and pay 0.35% a year (as long as you invest $100 a month); invest $100,000 and you’ll pay 0.15% annually.

Some sites, including LearnVest and NestWise, link you to a fee-only planner who comes up with a comprehensive financial and investment plan. LearnVest’s services cost $399 to start and $19 a month; NestWise charges $250 upfront and about $48 a month thereafter. At LearnVest, a budget-starter program costs $89 to begin and then $19 a month. The service allows you to connect to a planner, who will help you organize your finances and start an investing program.

Financial Planners

Planners do far more than manage your investments. They’ll give you advice on saving for retirement and for your kids’ college education. They can do estate planning and point you toward accountants who will prepare your taxes. They can discuss the wisdom of trading up to a bigger, more expensive house.

See Our Slide Show: 8 Financial Pros You Need on Your Side

In Monterey, Cal., fee-only planner Gifford Lehman and his three associates at Integris Wealth Management manage $165 million for 75 clients. He doesn’t require an asset minimum to become a client, but his fee structure works best for investors with at least $1 million. He charges between 0.5% and 1% of assets annually, depending on account size. (That fee is on top of any underlying fees for the investments he chooses.) In addition to the usual investing advice, Lehman offers estate and tax planning.

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Just because a firm is big doesn’t mean it requires a big minimum. Edelman Financial Services, based in Fairfax, Va., has more than 17,000 clients, $8.5 billion in assets under management and offices in 14 states. Some planners at Edelman will accept accounts of as little as $75,000, but the fees will be 2% of assets per year, compared with 0.75% annually for an account of $1 million to $3 million. Other big firms offer advice in small increments: Garrett Planning Network, a nationwide group of independent planners, can put you in touch with one of its more than 300 fee-only advisers, who charge hourly rates of $150 to $240 and can help on an as-needed or ongoing basis. Their target audience is beginners, middle-income earners and do-it-yourselfers. It typically takes eight to 12 hours to devise a comprehensive financial and investment plan.

Then there are brokers-turned-planners. Take John Burke: For 22 years, he was an adviser at big brokerage firms—Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley—plying their recommended funds and stocks. Now, he’s a financial planner and has his own firm, Burke Financial Strategies, in Iselin, N.J. Instead of making money on commissions, as he once did, he earns a fee based on the assets he manages. And his clients get more than just investment advice—they get comprehensive financial planning, too. The firm is tied to the Raymond James brokerage, but Burke says he doesn’t earn commissions on products he sells. His fee is 1% of assets under management annually. He works with clients who have more than $1 million, but two associates in his office—one is a certified financial planner and the other is a certified public accountant—take on clients with $200,000 to $1 million in assets. “If you exclude people with less than $1 million, you exclude most of America,” says Burke.

Discount Brokers

Many discount brokerage firms offer tiers of advisory services—and each level typically has its own minimum. But the fees are generally 1% or less per year, depending on the amount of assets you have with the firm. To give you an idea of the array, we’ll go through the levels offered at Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard. At Fidelity, if you have $50,000, you can invest in model portfolios at annual fees of 0.25% to 1.7% of assets. But if you want someone to actively manage money for you, you’ll need a minimum of $200,000 in assets (or $50,000 in a retirement account), and you’ll pay between 0.55% and 1.5% annually, depending on how much money is in your account.

At Schwab, you have to decide how customized you want to get—and how much of the work you’re willing to do. On the low-minimum end, $25,000 gets you a professionally managed portfolio of funds or ETFs. You’ll pay 0.2% to 0.9% of assets annually, depending on how much money you have, plus the fees of the underlying funds. On the high end: $500,000 gets you into the firm’s Private Client program (in which a broker creates a plan and makes recommendations and you carry them out) or the Advisor Network program (you get assigned one member of a prescreened group of independent advisers, with average experience of 20 years).

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Vanguard, of course, is known mainly as a purveyor of low-fee mutual funds and ETFs, but it does offer brokerage services as a convenience to its clients. The fund sponsor and brokerage combination also offers a full range of financial advice. It takes $500,000 in assets to become a client of Vanguard Asset Management Serv­ices (the figure can include 401(k) money you have with Vanguard in an employer-sponsored retirement plan). Being a VAMS client means that you will have an ongoing relationship with a dedicated team of two salaried Vanguard employees—a financial planner and his or her associate. They’ll manage your investment portfolio, allocating your money to a mix of Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs, and help you with other aspects of your financial life, including dealing with such issues as when to take Social Security or how much long-term-care insurance you need to buy. Annual fees range from 0.2% to 0.7% of assets.

Full-Service Brokers

If you have $10,000, you can open an account at, say, Morgan Stanley, a prototypical full-service brokerage. You’ll work with a broker, who, for a fee of up to 2% of assets annually, will provide guidance on mutual fund investments. But to get more-comprehensive advice at Morgan Stanley—from an adviser who offers a range of services, from investing guidance to retirement and estate planning to banking services—you need at least $100,000. Fees are negotiable and may include commissions on investments, asset-based advisory charges or both. At Merrill Lynch, you’d need at least $250,000 to access that level of service.

But there is no minimum at Edward Jones, says Danae Domian, an adviser with the St. Louis–based firm, which has 10,000 offices in the U.S.—many of them one-broker shops in small communities. Charges depend on the type of investment products you buy and can include ongoing asset-based fees to manage the portfolio, as well as transaction costs or annual expenses of mutual funds. For that, clients will get advice that “spans 90% of their financial needs,” says Domian, including paying for a child’s education, preparing for retirement, generating income in retirement and estate planning.

As is the norm with brokers, the financial advisers at Edward Jones are held to the suitability standard, which means they must recommend investments that are suitable for their clients. By contrast, most fee-only financial planners have a fiduciary responsibility to their clients. That requires that they act in their client’s best interest at all times.

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Banks and Trust Companies

Technically speaking, a trust company is not a bank. A trust company is authorized to engage in trust powers—that is, you give assets to a legal entity (the trust) and permit a third party (the trust company) to hold and manage the assets on behalf of a beneficiary (you). But some trust companies, including Chicago-based Northern Trust, are also banks and offer full banking services, too. And some large banks, such as BNY Mellon and J.P. Morgan Private Bank, offer investment advice, financial planning and trust services. So does Vanguard, the mutual fund company.

Because the big banks and trust companies cater to wealthy individuals, we lumped them together. The minimum for full-service financial planning and investment advice is high: It’s $2 million at BNY Mellon and Northern Trust, for example. Wells Fargo asks for $5 million. But Vanguard’s minimum for trust services is just $500,000.

Big bucks can buy you lots of serv­ices. At Northern Trust, in exchange for annual management fees of 0.20% to 0.85% (depending on the amount of assets you have with the firm and the kind of trust accounts you set up), plus costs attached to investment products, the firm will act as your fiduciary steward for every aspect of your financial life, making sure that your best interests are always the top priority. Whether it’s your investments, your banking needs, natural gas reserves under a plot of land you own in Nebraska, the yacht you want to buy, or the art collection you plan to auction off at Christie’s, the firm has your back. Some additional fees may apply for specific services, of course. Being rich, apparently, can cost a fortune.