Do You Need a Financial Planner?


“There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?” – Woody Allen

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought you were going to have me help you?”

“I didn’t want to bother you. I found this guy — he’s the son-in-law of my hairdresser. A nice man.”

“But he’s a financial planner. You don’t need a financial planner.”

“Well, I need someone to figure out what to do with my money.”

“But you already told me. You want zero risk.”

“Yes and I told him that too.”

“But zero risk means — basically — insured, quality bonds.”

“Well, he’s got some of my money in bonds.”

“But you don’t want to pay someone to do just that … how much are you paying him?”

“I think it was 1-1/2 percent.”

“Let’s hope it was just that. You don’t want to pay someone even 1-1/2 percent to put your money in bonds.”

I explained to her that even if there were no hidden charges — and I’ll bet there will be some (I’ll let you know when I see the contract … she said it was 2 inches thick!) — she’ll be paying this guy about $500 a month to do what should cost her nothing.

I tried to explain this to her. She put her hands over her ears. “Don’t say anything more. You’ll just depress me.”

But I did tell her more, because her entire $400,000 nest egg — the money she worked her whole life to save — is now in jeopardy. Here’s what I said:

* Financial planners don’t work for free. You must pay for the advice they give you. The fees that you pay them must be enough to pay for their offices, their cars, their mortgages, etc. These guys often live very well. You are paying for that.

* Financial planners charge you in several ways. First, they can do what this guy did. They can charge you a portfolio-management fee — some overall percentage for “managing” your money. Second, they can charge you a percentage of profits if your portfolio performs well. Third, they can charge you a flat fee for consultation. And fourth, they can earn commissions and kickbacks when they sell you insurance or put you into certain investments.

* Of the four payment methods mentioned above, three work against you. What you most want — or should want — from a financial planner is good advice. But if the financial planner gets paid for selling you stuff, his objectivity is compromised. He may still give you good advice, but how can you be sure?

* You can’t be sure, because if there is one thing financial planners know how to do it’s to throw unfamiliar financial-planning jargon at you. Talk is the basis of their trade. By acting as if you should know what they are saying, they can bamboozle you into doing what is in THEIR best interest, not YOURS.

I don’t think my mother-in-law needs a financial planner. She needs to buy triple-A bonds and forget about them. If she did need a financial planner, I’d recommend that she hire a fee-only (as opposed to commission-based) planner, find out in advance (and in writing) what he was going to charge her (by the hour and in total), and then listen to what he has to say.

I’d make the same recommendation to anyone who asked me.

* If you need financial planning, pay for it.

* Don’t buy insurance from financial planners (or anyone they recommend).

* Don’t buy investments from financial planners (or anyone they recommend).

* Don’t turn over your retirement portfolio to a financial planner who wants to manage it for you.

I haven’t seen the contract my mother-in-law signed, but I do know this “nice guy” has already suggested that she buy long-term health insurance — a form of insurance that is widely reputed to be a scam. What I’m expecting to discover is that my mother-in-law has contracted away between $20,000 and $50,000 of her wealth — and I’ll bet he’s already received the lion’s share of that in commissions.

Maybe I can get it back for her. Maybe not.

Don’t make the same mistake yourself. Don’t get financial advice from salesmen — any kind of salesmen, including stockbrokers, insurance salesmen, or commissioned financial planners.

Don’t allow yourself to stay ignorant of money, as my mother-in-law did. Money is not the most important thing in the world, but it is important. If you don’t know anything about investing, it’s going to be easy for people to screw you out of it.

And, finally, don’t believe — for a second — that someone won’t take advantage of you because he seems nice or because someone he knows cuts your hair.