How To Compare Financial Advisors

Think fiduciary first—and don’t settle for surface-level answers to questions on investing philosophy, performance and personalization.

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In 1 minute

“Financial advisor” is kind of a gray area in the professional world. Many different types of professionals share this title, despite having very different qualifications, regulations, and motives. Bottom line: you want a financial advisor who is also a fiduciary. Fiduciaries are legally bound to act in your best interest and disclose conflicts of interest upfront.

But even then, it’s worth taking time to learn about their approach to financial advice. What’s their philosophy? What tools do they use to help you reach your goals? How do your goals affect their decisions?

Some financial advisors are more accessible than others, too. Ask what you should expect from your interactions with them. How often can you adjust your portfolio? Will they adjust your risk as you get closer to your goal?

Every financial advisor should be able to talk you through how they measure performance and what you should expect from them. But don’t settle for surface-level answers. Challenge them to tell you about performance at different levels of risk, using time-weighted returns.

Ultimately, you want a financial advisor you can trust to help you reach your goals.

In 5 minutes

In this guide, we’ll explain:

  • Financial advisor fees
  • Approaches to financial advice
  • Evaluating investment performance
  • Tax advisors

You want to make the most of your finances. And you probably have some financial goals you’d like to accomplish. A financial advisor helps with both of these things. But choose the wrong advisor, and you may find yourself going backward, with your goals getting further away. (At the very least, you won’t make as much progress.)

Many people focus on historical performance as they compare potential advisors. That‘s understandable. But unless you’re looking at decades of performance data and net investor returns, you’re not getting a good look at what to expect over time. And there are plenty of other factors that affect which advisor is right for you.

For starters, let’s talk fees.

Take a closer look at their fees

Fees can have a major impact on how much money you actually take away. And it’s not just management fees that you need to consider. There could be fees for every trade. Or additional costs for trades within a fund. Plus you’ll want to look at expense ratios—the percentage of your investment that goes toward all the fund’s expenses.

These costs can vary widely between robo-advisors, traditional advisors, do-it-yourself ETFs, and mutual funds. And you have to pay them every year. Basically what it comes down to is: how does your financial advisor get paid? Put another way, how will you have to pay for their services?

Compare their qualifications

Unfortunately, “financial advisor” is a bit of a catch-all term. It describes professionals who may have a variety of certifications and backgrounds. Not everyone who calls themselves a financial advisor has the same regulations, expertise, motivation, or approach.

In fact, some aren’t even legally required to act in your best interest! They can choose the investments that benefit them the most instead of the ones that are most likely to help you reach your goals. A fiduciary, however, is a type of financial advisor that’s legally obligated to do two things:

  • Make decisions based on what’s in your best interest
  • Tell you if there’s ever a conflict of interest

If you’re going to work with a traditional advisor, you should ask them about their qualifications. At Betterment, we recommend engaging with a fiduciary who is a Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®), a designation that has requirements for years of experience and continuing education – and has a high standard in quality and ethical financial planning advice.

Consider their approach to financial advice and investing

There’s more than one school of thought when it comes to investing and financial planning. And there are many different investment vehicles a financial advisor could use to manage your money.

So two excellent fiduciaries may have very different ideas of what’s in your best interest. For example, hedge funds work well for some investors, but they’re too risky and expensive for many people.

The main thing is to find an advisor whose approach aligns with your goals. How do they ensure that your risk level fits your timeline? How do they diversify your portfolio to help protect your finances? How do they respond to market volatility as prices rise and fall? You want an advisor who makes decisions based on what you’re trying to accomplish, not what’s best for some cookie-cutter investment strategy.

It’s also important to learn more about what working with them looks like. How often will you interact? How frequently can you review and modify your account? What ongoing actions do you need to take? The answers to these questions will vary depending on advisor service levels, so make sure they sound realistic to you. For example, Betterment recommends you check-in on your investment allocations once per quarter. If you feel more comfortable with having an in-depth relationship, you can opt for our Premium plan, which offers unlimited calls and emails with our team of CFP® professionals.

Evaluate portfolio performance

Financial advisors should be transparent about performance. They should have clear explanations for discrepancies between expected and actual returns of an investment. But if you only ask generic questions about what a portfolio returns, the numbers may sound better than they actually are.

Ask each financial advisor to walk you through the returns associated with portfolios at various levels of risk. Additionally, consider using time-weighted return statistics when comparing investments. Time-weighted returns aren’t affected by the amount and timing of deposits and withdrawals.

The harder an advisor makes it to understand performance (and your net returns), the less likely it is that your investments will meet your expectations.

What about tax advisors?

A good financial advisor should also be able to structure your investments in a tax-efficient manner. As a few examples, Betterment offers strategies such as tax loss harvesting, HSAs, municipal bonds, Roth IRA conversions, and more.

However, there is a distinction between a tax-savvy financial advisor and an actual licensed tax professional. Most financial advisors are not trained or licensed to actually file your taxes for you, or to give advice on all areas of the tax code.

For that level of detail, you would be wise to consider working with a true tax professional in addition to your financial advisor. When searching for a tax professional, the designations to look out for include a CPA, Enrolled Agent or a licensed tax attorney.

Lastly, your financial advisor and your tax professional should be transparent with one another. You want to ensure both are on the same page and aren’t catching one another by surprise. For example, if your financial advisor is tax loss harvesting for you, it’s probably wise to inform your tax professional about that.

Financial expertise you can trust

At Betterment, our investing experts and technology help clients build a diversified portfolio that’s right for them, then keep it optimized all year long. To top it all off, we’re a fiduciary—we always focus on your best interest. While our technology combines automation with personalization, you can also get one-on-one advice from our financial experts with an advice package or our Premium plan.

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