What Do Financial Advisors Actually Do?

It’s Not the Fiduciary Rule – It’s the Fiduciary Standard that Matters
March 31, 2017
My new collaboration with “Sixty and Me”
September 20, 2017

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, beyond someone 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. What advice?

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 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 by 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 your savings.

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, including:

  • Helping you define your goals
  • Making sure you’re saving enough
  • Identifying risks you didn’t realize you had
  • Planning what will happen to your assets when you pass away
  • Understanding whether your goals are realistic, especially when it comes to your current age and net worth and where you want to be one day and when you want to get there
  • Helping you whip your spending habits into shape
  • Making sure you are properly insured
  • Identifying financial mistakes you’re making
  • Increasing your financial confidence
  • Measuring your progress toward your goals
  • Ensuring that you’re taking full advantage of very benefit your employer has available to you
  • Helping you build wealth
  • Getting fully educated about how the investing process works in combination with your goals
  • Enabling you to live more comfortably

What’s advice worth in dollars?

I’m glad you asked because 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 about 3 percentage points to the value of your investment portfolio net of all fees. (And those fees tend to average about 1 percentage point). The report shows you come out ahead when you have an advisor. But it’s not because these advisors are a stock picking gurus, the extra value comes straight from planning and having someone there to protect you from impulse-based decisions. 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.

Since all advisors are not created equal, let me emphatically recommend that you make sure you’re working with what’s known as a fiduciary advisor. You want a financial advisor who is working only for you as your advocate. In other words, he’s not also getting paid by a brokerage firm or insurance company to sell their products. You pay an independent advisor directly. Ask him right up front to put it in writing that he and his firm adhere to the fiduciary standard. If he cannot agree to accept fiduciary responsibility, then it’s likely he’s working as a salesman for someone else.

Independent Financial planners (or advisors) typically charge fees that amount to less than 1% of the total value of your investment portfolio. So if your whole portfolio is worth $500k, you can expect to pay less than $5,000 a year for ongoing advice and holistic planning. You may also be able to pay an advisor or planner by the hour, by the task or on a retainer basis. Maybe you just want a one-time retirement analysis to give you some peace of mind that you won’t run out of money if you stop working. A fiduciary advisor will provide the plan and be fully transparent. He will want you to understand all fees and expenses because you’re working together and are on the same side of the table.

By understanding the advice you really want, it will be easier for you to see what kind of financial expert you have and can decide how much the service is worth to you and whether you have the right professional.


  1. John Carson says:

    Having trouble finding someone to hire on retainer. Maybe it’s where I live?

  2. Pattie says:

    I’ve always wondered how they charge for their services. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be

  3. Georgina Paulson says:

    I thought a financial advisor was a little different from a financial planner, and from this, it sounds like there is a difference. Would there ever be a situation when someone might have both?

    • Judith says:

      I have a comprehensive firm that does planning and advising on finances. Two guys, they’re partners and fiduciary…

  4. Rick Martin says:

    Pam is on the money with her comments. As a comprehensive financial (also fiduciary) planner, it is the relationship and adjustment to life events that separate me from those that just provide investment management. Building your plan around your financial goals and tying assets to those individual goals can make it easier to follow your plan which also means that you are more likely to stick with the plan. Sticking to the plan can be difference between success and failure. Look it up on the internet!

    • J. H. says:

      How long do I stick with a plan that doesn’t seem like it’s working? I’m not sure whether to fire my planner or stick with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *