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Financial Planning

When to Seek Help With Your Investments

We could all benefit from the guidance of professional financial planners from time to time. Here is a range of options, from free to comprehensive.

In a perfect world, everyone would make his or her own investing decisions. After all, no one knows you better than you do. Plus, being a do-it-yourself investor means you don’t have to pay someone else to invest on your behalf. But sometimes even savvy investors need help. “You have to know the limitations of your own abilities,” says Jeff Reeves, editor of the investing-advice Web site InvestorPlace.

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To invest solo, you need to be calm, disciplined and well educated about investment options, says financial planner Cicily Maton, of Aequus Wealth Management, in Chicago. You must also be able to set specific goals and track your progress. But most of all, you must have the emotional fortitude to suffer through market downturns without selling in a panic or suffering undue anxiety. “Ups and downs are as old as the market,” Maton says. “Even if you’re intellectually capable of investing on your own, you should get help if you find yourself worrying so much that you’re losing sleep.”

You can get assistance from many sources, but the costs and serv­ices vary widely. Here are some of the more attractive options:

Free

If you’re able to map out your plan but need help dividing up your assets and choosing specific investments, you may be able to get free advice from your discount broker or mutual fund company. Vanguard, for example, offers an array of online tools that help investors choose specific Vanguard funds based on their goals, risk tolerance and time horizon. Investors with more than $500,000 in assets can also get ongoing access to Vanguard’s financial advisers via computer-based video chats.

Inexpensive

Some online advisory firms, such as Jemstep and Betterment, also provide free portfolio evaluations and suggest ways to invest at a low cost—from a few dollars to about $250 per year if you have a balance of at least $50,000 (see Best of the Online Investment Advisers). These so-called robo-advisers are best for people who are just starting out. If you already have built up a portfolio of stocks and bonds, be careful. These sites may encourage you to sell your existing holdings because they don’t fit into their programs, which favor low-cost index funds. Selling what you’ve got—particularly when your investments are well considered—could be a mistake because you might trigger a tax bill and fail to improve your portfolio’s performance. The American Association of Individual Investors also offers model portfolios for the $29 cost of an annual membership.

Comprehensive

If you’ve amassed considerable wealth and need investment advice, you can pay for it in one of three ways: by the hour, via commissions or by letting an adviser manage your money and charge you a percentage of the assets. Each method has advantages and disadvantages.

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Financial planners who charge by the hour can help with almost any question and can map out a great blueprint for you. They’ll generally charge $100 to $400 an hour for their services. But they won’t execute the plan. If you don’t have the discipline to take the next steps, you may need more hands-on help.

Some advisers don’t charge you directly, but make money by steering you into products that generate commissions. They may make excellent recommendations. But because they only make money if you buy something, their advice can be tainted by their own economic interest. You should always ask these types of advisers how much they’re paid for the products they pitch you.

Fee-only planners usually charge a percentage of the assets you give them to manage. These fees often amount to 1% or more of your assets each year and come on top of the expenses you pay for the investments they buy on your behalf.

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Of course, these costs may be well worth paying if your adviser can keep you on track, rebalance your portfolio as needed, and stop you from making rash and potentially costly moves. But be sure to check your planner’s credentials. Securities regulators have an online tool that can help at http://adviserinfo.sec.gov. Type in the name of your adviser or the name of his or her firm, and you can learn if either has had any regulatory scuffles. The Web site will also lead you to Form ADV, which tells you how an adviser is paid.

It’s also wise to consider occasionally whether you’re getting good value for your money. Is your adviser easy to reach? Does he or she give you good advice and keep you from acting rashly? If not, look around for someone better. For more, see How to Pick a Financial Planner.

This item originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance.

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