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Financial Planning

The Best Financial-Planning Options for Families Saving for Retirement and College

When you have competing priorities, you may need more assistance sorting through your financial picture.

Illustrations by Giovanni Da Re

To help you decide what kind of financial advice is best for you, see if your situation is similar to this hypothetical client:

The Petersons are both 50, with two boys: one a junior in high school and one a freshman in college. They have $500,000 in 401(k) and taxable investment accounts. Their goals include saving and paying for college and saving for retirement. They would also like to pay off several thousands of dollars in credit card debt.

As they send their kids through college and save and plan in earnest for retirement, the Petersons would benefit from more-comprehensive services. Depending on how much hand-holding and in-person consultation they want, their best options range from a hybrid robo adviser that incorporates advice from a human to a certified financial planner or full-service brokerage firm.

Fee-Only Financial Planner

To get a broad financial plan and form a one-on-one relationship with an adviser, the couple should look for a CFP who has expertise in saving and investing strategies for retirement and college, estate planning, and ensuring appropriate insurance coverage.

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See Also: Kiplinger's Wealth Creation Channel

Bobbie Munroe, a fee-only CFP near Tallahassee, Fla., says she would start the couple with an hourly planning engagement ($250 an hour for five to six hours) to create a road map, which may include funding goals such as health care and travel in retirement, balancing retirement savings with paying for college, reviewing their investments for appropriate allocation and tax management, and assessing their need for life, disability and long-term-care insurance. If they wanted to extend the relationship with Munroe, they could continue on an hourly basis or for a yearly retainer of about $3,000 to $3,500. Other planners may offer a free (though likely less detailed) initial consultation followed by ongoing advice charged on retainer or as a percentage of assets under management.

A planner may also refer the couple to other specialists, as needed–for example, a lawyer to draft a will or a certified public accountant (CPA) to prepare a tax return and offer specialized tax-planning strategies. CPAs who also have the personal financial specialist (PFS) credential have passed a test on broader financial planning and may offer comprehensive services.

Broker or Investment Adviser

The Petersons may have enough investable assets to be eligible to work with a money manager at a brokerage firm and get advisory services. With at least $250,000 in investable assets, for example, the couple would qualify for the services of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, which offers a one-on-one relationship with an adviser whom clients meet face-to-face. Adviser fees with the Merrill Lynch service vary, but they are usually based on assets under management–typically between 1% and 2%. (Clients with at least $1 million will have an easier time finding bank wealth managers and registered investment adviser firms that will work with them, and they usually pay a lower percentage of assets; see scenario 3.)

Representatives at a full-service brokerage may be both brokers who sell financial products on commission and registered investment advisers. Keep in mind that when acting as a broker, a representative generally must meet only a suitability standard rather than the fiduciary standard, meaning that she must believe that the recommendation is suitable for you (but not necessarily in your best interest).

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Hybrid Robo Adviser

If the couple want investment-centric advice and don't mind working with an adviser (or group of advisers) remotely, a service that combines automated portfolio assessment and rebalancing with access to a human adviser may provide enough assistance at a lower cost. For an asset level between $50,000 and $500,000, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (0.3% annual fee for assets of up to $5 million) provides an advisory team, which may consist of CFPs or advisers who are working toward becoming CFPs.

Certain types of accounts, including 401(k), 403(b), 529 and UGMA/UTMA accounts, can't be managed under the service and don't count toward the $50,000 asset minimum, even if they're held with Vanguard (but can be considered in your overall plan). The adviser relationship centers around the investment portfolio, but planners can also help with college-savings strategies, estate planning, and other financial-planning tasks.

For an annual fee of 0.28% and with a $25,000 minimum investment, Schwab Intelligent Advisory offers online planning tools and access to CFPs–but you may not talk to the same planner every time. After you fill out information about your finances and goals through an online tool, a planner will do an initial consultation to discuss your situation and create a financial plan. Planners are available thereafter for unlimited consultation.

If you can't personally identify with the above scenario, perhaps one of these examples is a better match:

See Also: Do You Need a Financial Adviser?