Financial Planning

My Search for a Financial Adviser

Despite being a money expert himself, Kiplinger editor Mark Solheim found the advice industry to be a labyrinth of credentials and opaque fee structures when he went looking for financial guidance from the pros.

My wife and I live in a 1,000-square-foot house in Washington, D.C. That's no typo. The house is tiny. We've thought about buying a bigger place, but we love our neighbors, the Metro is a 10-minute walk away, and we are across the street from a park. So a few years ago we started thinking about building an addition. We talked about it ... and talked ... and talked some more. I was in favor of financing it with a fat home-equity loan; the thought of taking on that debt made my wife cringe.

We decided to consult a financial planner to help us sort through our options. We had other reasons for seeking help. We wondered what would happen to our retirement accounts after the bull market skidded to a halt. We were looking for tax planning strategies. We needed a push to update our wills. And, frankly, we wanted someone to help us budget better and set realistic savings goals for things such as family vacations (and the home renovation).

A frustrating search. The advice industry is a labyrinth of credentials and opaque fee structures. Some planners’ compensation is based on commissions from selling mutual funds and insurance products, some charge a fee based on a percentage of assets, and some charge fixed fees. Commission-based advice can work fine, but it gets a bad rap because some planners have pushed high-fee products. Kiplinger’s prefers fee-only planners, and among the many designations they may hold, the certified financial planner credential is the gold standard. CFPs must act as fiduciaries, putting their clients’ interests above their own. But even searching for a CFP means jumping into a rabbit hole of client-adviser relationships and fees.

My own search was one impetus for our cover story, “The Right Advice at the Right Price,” by senior editor Sandy Block and contributing editor Lisa Gerstner. My wife and I interviewed three advisers with three different business models. The first was an independent money management firm that would invest our money and offer comprehensive planning for an annual fee of 1% of our assets. We spent a couple of hours at the firm’s plush offices answering questions about our finances and goals, then returned for a personalized presentation—which was when we realized we didn’t want to pay thousands of dollars a year to invest in the firm’s model portfolios.

The next stop was a firm that would draw up a comprehensive plan for $5,000. My wife and I would have to complete a long questionnaire about our finances and our money styles, then sit through a series of interviews with the planner. About three months later, we’d get a road map to financial nirvana. The fee may have been worth every penny, but we weren’t prepared to make such a deep commitment.

The third time was the charm. Lori Atwood, a CFP, charges by the hour, with no minimum time or financial commitment. Her overhead is low— she will come to you or meet at a downtown office building where she rents space by the hour. “I want people to have access to unconflicted advice not based on assets under management,” she says. “The demand is huge.” Atwood also just launched a personal finance platform and app ($6.99 a month) based on the system she uses with clients. Check it out at FearlessFinance.com.

We met with Atwood three or four times to track our income and outgo and come up with a budget to help us save for our goals. We put the plan in place and, a year later, we’re going back for a checkup—and finalizing the blueprints for our addition.

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