If you think about it, the people who really need financial advisors are the ones who can’t afford them. If you’re impoverished or firmly in the middle class and can’t seem to make it to the next level, you’re the one who could really use financial advice. If you’re wealthy, you know what you’re doing.
Yet many financial advisors simply aren’t interested in working with the middle class. "There has been a paradigm shift in the financial services industry just over the past four years with the increase in banking regulations and associated costs, which has led many major banks and broker-dealers to focus more on their bottom line and shareholder value, more so then their clientele," says Jon Ulin, a managing principal at Ulin & Co. Wealth Management, a branch of LPL Financial in Boca Raton, Fla.
Debra Speyer, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in investment fraud, concurs. She says many firms have stopped paying commissions to brokers for accounts that are considered small – and accounts ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 in assets can be considered small – according to Speyer.
[See a new tool to research and compare financial advisors.]
"Small investors considering firms that enforce these minimums face real challenges," Speyer says. "For these investors, many firms have created phone-based call centers, which carry risks," she adds, such as not having a dedicated broker. "It’s shocking that many brokerage firms won’t take clients with less than half a million dollars. It’s like a doctor who will only allow healthy people in his practice."
Firms that do take less than those minimums, she adds, often charge as much as 2 percent in annual fees (more typical is right around 1 percent).
So what should a middle-class investor do if they want a financial advisor? Here are some options.
Where to look. Asking friends, family or colleagues for recommendations is never a bad way to go. At the start of the process, you should think about what type of financial advisor you want to meet with: fee-based or commission-based.
"There are trade-offs," says Lisa Featherngill, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner in the Greensboro/Winston-Salem, N.C., area. "Some planners do not charge a fee but are paid commissions on the financial products you buy. Others are product-agnostic but charge a fee, which may be an hourly rate or a retainer."
Also think about what you’re looking for. Are you looking for help with investments and retirement planning, or simply someone to go to when you have questions? Some advisors include financial planning in their fees for managing your investments, while others charge a separate fee for advice.
And you may want to zero in on companies or professionals that make a point of catering to the middle class.
The following information is not an endorsement, but the Garrett Planning Network offers a map of the United States on its website where users can click on a state and find a listing of financial advisors who cater to the middle class.
MyFinancialAdvice.com is another site aimed at the middle class. Its certified financial planners work will clients over the phone and over email. Fees vary based on the planner and the client’s needs.
[Read: Is an Online Financial Advisor Right for You?]
Online service LearnVest has a one-time setup fee, ranging from $89 to $399, depending on your needs, and then charges an $19 a month, which includes unlimited access to a certified financial planner via email, and in some cases unlimited phone consultations.
Jemstep Portfolio Manager is an online financial tool that helps do-it-yourself middle-class investors with retirement. The site offers a basic and premium account. Both accounts are free, although if you have $25,000 in investments and a premium account, a charge kicks in. The fee is $17.99 a month for those with $25,000 to $150,000 in retirement assets, and then the monthly fee goes up, depending on the value of your financial portfolio. It’s constructed in such a way that you don’t have to transfer your assets to Jemstep, so if you do have an online brokerage or a financial advisor, you can still keep either.
Know what questions to ask. There are two things you should ask a financial advisor from the get-go, says Steve Lewit, CEO and founder of Wealth Financial Group in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
What standard do you adhere to, fiduciary or suitability? And what licenses do you hold?
"There are two standards of compliance in the financial industry, fiduciary and suitability," Lewit says. "Advisors who carry a fiduciary responsibility are legally bound to do the very best for you, to put you first in all their planning and product selection. A financial professional who has a suitability requirement is legally bound to provide products that are suitable, but which may not be the very best for you."
Lewit also recommends finding a financial professional who has a Series 65 license. "Any other licensing – for instance, a Series 7 or Registered Representative, carry suitability requirements. These folks are not called advisors and cannot do financial planning," Lewit says.
Lewit says registered investment advisors, investment advisor representatives and certified financial planners all carry fiduciary-level responsibility. You can easily spot these titles on business cards, websites and email signatures, if you look after the person’s name and see RIA (registered investment advisor), IAR (investment advisor representative) or CFP (certified financial planner). Chartered retirement planning counselor (CRPC) and accredited investment fiduciary (AIF) are other designations that indicate a fiduciary responsibility.
Stick up for yourself. A financial advisor is going to notice that you aren’t vacationing in Fiji every spring, so you might as well make that clear upfront. Not that you should sell yourself short, but there’s no harm in explaining your financial situation even if it’s shaky or you’re a beginner.
Not having a million or more in the bank doesn’t mean you should let yourself be treated badly. "If you get the sense that you are going to be just another number and won’t receive the advisor’s personal attention, move on and find someone who really cares about you," Lewit says.
If your potential financial advisor is still interested in talking to you once you’ve revealed your middle-class status, that’s a good sign. Listen to your gut feeling, recommends Kevin Worthley, vice president at Wealth Management Resources in North Smithfield, R.I. "If the advisor seems genuinely concerned with your objectives and spends a lot of time in discussion with you on these topics, chances are they may be ‘client-focused’ and not only looking to their own bottom line," Worthley says.
And at the same time, it’s helpful to remember that everyone pays something when they hire a financial advisor – and not everyone is out to get you.
As Ulin observes: "Middle-class Americans who were hit hardest by the recent recession are crying out for financial guidance, yet are the most skeptical people to trust a financial advisor or spend a dollar to get help."