If you’ve ever thought about asking for help with your finances – maybe trying to roll over your 401k without getting dinged by tax penalties or making sure you’re not taking too much risk with your life savings – you may have found yourself wondering what financial advisors actually do.

I mean, what do they do beyond telling you why a particular ETF is going to do well. That’s sales. It’s the “advice” part of the job description that eludes most people. Let’s take a look at what financial advisors really do.

What Kind of Advice Does a Financial Advisor Offer?

During my 20 years as an investor advocate and former advisor, I’ve seen with my own eyes that only about 15% of the investing public has enough confidence to make all their personal finance decisions, let alone invest all on their own.

 
 

The vast majority of consumers actually want to talk to a real person – someone they trust has the right expertise and their best interests at heart. They want guidance from an advisor who works only for them, gets paid directly by them, and is in the business of offering comprehensive financial advice – not someone selling investments for a brokerage firm or insurance company.

But the sales-driven culture has essentially hijacked our sense of what a financial advisor can and should be able to do. Where’s the advice part? Put it this way: Would you walk into a first-time appointment with a doctor and expect that the first thing out of the doctor’s mouth will be a lecture about the benefits of a specific prescription medication without even knowing if you need any meds?

It’s the same with financial advice. The professional advisor needs to get into the details to understand what makes you tick, let alone your cash flow needs before suggesting how you should invest.

Let’s Talk Financial Planning

A better way to understand what an advisor can do for you is to think of the advisor as your personal wealth planner because the process doesn’t start with investing. Rather, it starts with planning, which, in a nutshell, starts with the advisor listening to you talk about your goals, fears and plans.

A good advisor wants to find out what makes you tick in the financial sense, how organized you are and how hands-on you’ve been in managing your money. A real advisor wants to take the time to understand your whole financial world. This is the only way he or she can effectively plot a course to help you get from where you are now to where you want to be in five, 10, 20, 30 or more years. Investing is only a part of that conversation.

Financial advisors who offer planning use powerful software to model your cash flow and spending habits. Using those projections lets you see how much you’ll be able to spend today and years later after you retire. Taking this holistic approach allows you play with “what if” scenarios, like what happens to your future savings if you change careers or decide you’ll pay for two college tuitions.

It’s all about cash flow – near and long term. The whole reason you want to talk to a financial advisor is to get a clear picture of how much you’ll be able to spend throughout your life without taking the risk of spending all your savings. Since all advisors are not created equal, I make no secret of the fact that I recommend advisors who accept fiduciary responsibility for the advice they offer and are willing to put it in writing.

Holistic Planning Looks at the Whole Picture

You may be thinking that only the richest 1% of the country needs a financial plan, but that just isn’t the case. A teacher earning $45,000 a year needs a good financial plan much more than anybody who’s counted as part of the 1% of high net worth individuals.

If you’re breathing, then you need a plan for each stage of your life, and there are many benefits of having one created just for you. Plans need to include the components of identifying, understanding, and ensuring.

A planner can help you define your goals, identify financial mistakes you’re making and risks you didn’t realize you had. Other identification components include helping you whip your spending habits into shape and determining where you want to be one day and when you want to get there.

Understanding entails assessing what you own, including stocks, bonds and real estate, determining whether your goals are realistic, measuring your progress toward your goals, and getting fully educated about how the investing process works in combination with your goals.

A planner can also help with making sure you are properly insured, helping you invest to build wealth while keeping investing costs low, making sure you’re saving enough, and ensuring that you’re taking full advantage of very benefit your employer has available to you. It’s also important to consider your current age and net worth and what will happen to your assets when you pass away.

Ultimately, a plan that considers the whole picture increases your financial confidence.

What’s Advice Worth in Dollars?

According to Vanguard, good advice is worth a 3% bump up to your total returns. A couple of years ago Vanguard published a study called “Advisor’s alpha.” The whole point was to measure the value of having a relationship with an advisor who offers real financial planning.

Yes, the very same Vanguard Group, also known as the king of do-it-yourself investing, finds that investing all on your own often leads to major mistakes, big enough to damage your long-term financial future, and that a string of bad judgment calls leads to “wealth destruction rather than creation.”

In other words, we can’t get out of our own way. The key finding in this Vanguard research was that a good financial planner can add real value of your bottom line. But it’s not because these advisors are stock-picking gurus. Forget how the stock market behaves, to a large extent, it’s about how you behave in reaction to the market’s up’s and
down’s.

The extra value of the advisor comes straight from planning and having someone there to protect you from impulse-based decisions.

Have you ever used a financial planner or fiduciary? What was your experience? What kinds of questions did the planner ask in helping build a relationship and devise a plan? Please share in the comments.

Pam KruegerPam Krueger is the founder of WealthRamp.com, co-host of MoneyTrack on PBS and national spokesperson for The Institute for the Fiduciary Standard. Pam created the award-winning MoneyTrack TV series seen nationally on over 250 PBS stations, and launched Wealthramp to match consumers to qualified fiduciary financial advisors.

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