The Wall Street Journal
How to Find Low-Cost Investing Help
By MICHAEL A. POLLOCK
Getting high-quality investment advice at a reasonable cost might seem like a challenge, particularly for anyone with a modest nest egg.
But if you’re a mutual-fund investor with a smaller portfolio, take heart. Advisory fees have fallen significantly because of competition, changes in the way financial advisers package services and the arrival of low-cost Internet-based money-management services.
Individuals have a much larger range of advisory choices than ever before, says Matt Matrisian, an expert on advisory services at the wealth-management arm of Genworth Financial Inc., GNW -1.52% based in Richmond, Va.
Some advisers will craft a basic financial plan and suggest portfolio allocations for a flat fee of less than $1,000 in an effort to build a relationship with a client. Others might do it free, although you will pay continuing money-management fees.
There are some caveats. If you opt for a low-cost service, you may not have the option of calling someone for reassurance if stocks take a tumble. And as your portfolio grows and your life circumstances change, you probably would benefit from spending more on additional services such as educational, tax or estate planning.
But especially for people who have just started accumulating assets, a basic advisory service may be all you need. Here’s what you need to know about finding advisory services at a cost you can afford:
A full-service adviser will try to gauge your tolerance for risk and gather many details about your assets, debts and objectives before designing a portfolio. A really comprehensive financial plan—one that might include estate planning, for example—can cost $2,000 or a lot more.
On top of that, advisers traditionally have charged annual fees of around 1% to 2% of the amount in your portfolio to oversee it. Others get paid by steering investors toward funds that require an upfront sales commission, or “load.”
If you invest in funds—as most people with smaller portfolios do—you also will have to pay the funds’ expenses, which range from less than 0.25% for some index mutual funds and exchange-traded funds to 1% to 2% for some actively managed funds.
All in all, annual money-management fees could cost you around 2% to 3%, a good-sized bite in an era of low interest rates and uncertain equity returns.
HELP ON A BUDGET
Some individual planners and advisers may agree to work at lower fees if they think it will help them forge a long-term relationship with you.
Some may agree to work on an hourly fee basis—$300 an hour is a typical rate—or on a flat-fee-per-project basis.
You can find a financial adviser who might suit your personal needs through websites operated by trade groups such as the Financial Planning Association (fpanet.org), the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (Napfa.org) or the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors (ACAplanners.org). Another option is Garrett Planning Network (Garrettplanningnetwork.com), a network of fee-only advisers who charge by the hour.
Do some homework before calling a prospective adviser. Pull together your financial data and do some online research to learn about the services advisers offer and what they charge, says Lynn Ballou, a certified financial planner and managing partner of Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors LLC in Lafayette, Calif.
Be straightforward about what you believe you can afford, and don’t apologize for asking for a basic level of service, Ms. Ballou says. “You need to make sure you have the right fit” when hiring an adviser, she says.
Some mutual-fund firms provide no-frill advisory services to people who invest in their products, although there often is a minimum asset requirement.
For example, investors with portfolios of less than $50,000 can get a basic financial plan and allocation recommendations for a flat fee of $1,000 from fund giant Vanguard Group. That fee falls to $250 for people with at least $50,000 to invest.
USAA, a diversified financial-services firm in San Antonio that focuses mainly on U.S. military families, offers free financial planning and investment advice to anyone via telephone, without any minimum asset requirement, says Mary Stork, an executive in its financial-advice and financial-services group. However, USAA advisers will tailor a portfolio only with the firm’s own mutual funds, and you’ll need to have $250,000 to invest if you want a face-to-face meeting.
Discount brokerage firms, which have long served do-it-yourself investors, have started to provide advice and portfolio-management services, too.
People who open an account at discount brokerage Charles Schwab Corp.,SCHW -0.80% for example, can receive a free personal consultation, in person or via phone, and get a financial plan and recommended investment allocations, says Brennan Miller, a Schwab financial consultant based in suburban Chicago.
If you have at least $50,000 to invest, Schwab will create and manage a mutual-fund portfolio for you. The firm charges an annual management fee of 0.50% on the first $250,000 in assets, which covers all transactions and any rebalancing, but not management expenses charged by funds. Schwab also will create and manage a portfolio of ETFs for clients with at least $100,000, for an annual fee that starts at 0.75% of assets.
If you already bank and shop on the Internet, managing your money there might be a natural next step.
Wealthfront.com automates the process of creating a risk profile, recommends a portfolio of ETFs and periodically rebalances it. It requires a minimum of $5,000. Other than expenses charged by the ETFs it uses, it charges no advisory fee on the first $25,000. If you invest more, the fee rises to 0.25% a year.
Wealthfront users won’t speak with a human at the firm unless they encounter a problem that requires technical support.
The service mainly targets young professionals in the tech industry because those “who live their lives on the Web” are likely to be most receptive, says Andy Rachleff, president and chief executive officer. But the service is open to anyone and has attracted others who want to be like those in Silicon Valley, says Mr. Rachleff.
Another online service, Betterment.com, offer personal consultations to people who invest at least $100,000. Those take place with its chief executive officer, Jon Stein, who also is a chartered financial analyst.
Annual fees range from 0.35% for those with less than $10,000 to 0.15% for a portfolio of at least $100,000. There is no required minimum, but the service does ask users, at the least, to commit to arranging a $100 monthly transfer into their Betterment accounts.
“By simplifying the solution set, we believe we help people make better decisions,” says Mr. Stein.
Mr. Pollock is a writer in Ridgewood, N.J. Email him at email@example.com.