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7 Types of Financial Advisors & Professionals and When to Hire Them

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There are some jobs in your life that you can handle by yourself, and others that you leave to the pros. For instance, you probably do simple car repairs yourself, such as changing a headlight or an air filter, but take the car to a mechanic for big jobs.

When it comes to your finances, though, it can be trickier to figure out which jobs are DIY. You know you can handle simple tasks like paying your bills, but what about doing your taxes or making a will? Are these jobs you need to hire a professional for?

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Even when you’re sure you need help with your finances, it’s not that obvious where to look for it. There are all kinds of financial pros out there, with dozens of different titles – accountants, stockbrokers, money managers. It’s not always clear what they do, or what kind of problems they’re equipped to handle.

If you’re feeling out of your depth financially, your first step should be to learn who all these different financial professionals are – what they do, what they charge, and what alternatives there are to hiring them. Once you know that, you can make a sound decision about which ones you really need on your financial team.

Types of Financial Advisors & Professionals

You can think of different financial pros as members of a sports team, where each player has a different job to do. You don’t just want the members of your financial team to be good players – you want them to be good at the specific position you’re hiring them for. Here are some of the various professionals you can use from time to time to keep all the bases in your financial life covered.

1. Accountant

What They Do
The main reason most people hire an accountant is to help them prepare and file their tax return. An accountant can help you:

  • Fill out your tax return correctly to avoid an audit
  • Find deductions you might be missing out on, such as a home office or childcare deduction
  • File an extension on your taxes
  • Invest or donate to charities in ways that will lower your taxes later

If you own a business or are starting a side business, an accountant can do other jobs for you as well. You can use one to help you set up and manage your books, keeping track of all your income and expenses. Your accountant can also prepare financial statements or reports.

How Much They Cost
According to the National Society of Accountants, the average cost to have an accountant file your taxes ranges from $159 for a simple return to $447 for one that includes business income. If you want to hire an accountant for your business, the price you pay will depend on the size of the firm you’re dealing with and the accountant’s level of experience. A newly qualified accountant, working for a small firm (under $500,000 in annual earnings), earned about $80 an hour in 2014, according to the Journal of Accountancy. By contrast, a partner in a large accounting firm, with annual revenues of $10 million or more, made around $312 per hour.

How to Decide if You Need One
If your tax situation is simple – no income other than your wages and few or no deductions – you can probably file your own taxes without assistance. The simplest tax form, the 1040EZ, is only one page long and shouldn’t take more than an hour to fill out.

For slightly more complex returns, you can use tax software to help you fill out your return. These programs typically cost between $30 and $125, while an accountant will probably charge you at least $100, even for a simple return. If your income isn’t too high, you might even be able to file your taxes online for free.

However, if your taxes are highly complex – multiple income streams, foreign investments, lots of deductions – then it’s probably worth hiring an accountant. Besides saving you the hours of work needed to fill out such a long tax return, a good accountant can help you save money on taxes by making wise decisions throughout the year. And for small business owners, an accountant is important to help you stay on top of such matters as employee payroll, business deductions, and quarterly tax filings.

How to Hire One  
There are two kinds of accountants in the U.S.: regular public accountants and Certified Public Accountants, or CPAs. To earn this title, accountants must complete at least 150 hours of coursework, spend a year working under a qualified CPA, and pass a state licensing exam. After earning their license, CPAs must continue to take classes throughout their careers to keep their skills up to date.

If you’re going to hire an accountant, it’s worth looking for one with CPA qualifications. That way, you know you’re hiring someone with the right training and experience to handle your needs. Bankrate recommends checking with your state licensing authority to make sure the person you hire really is a licensed CPA.

To find a good CPA, ask for referrals from friends, family, or business colleagues. You can also check out the website of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to find CPAs with skills in particular areas, such as personal finance or employee benefits. Since you’ll have to work fairly closely with your CPA, take the time to meet with all the candidates in person and make sure your personalities are a good fit.


2. Insurance Agent

What They Do
Most people carry at least a few types of insurance: health insurance for medical bills, auto insurance for car accidents, and homeowners or renters insurance to protect your home and property. Figuring out how much insurance you need, and which company can offer you the best deal, can be a tricky and time-consuming process.

That’s where an insurance agent comes in. Insurance agents make their money selling insurance policies, but that’s not all they do. Because they know all the ins and outs of the insurance business, they can educate you about the different types of insurance and what you need based on your situation. Some insurance agents can also help you compare policies from different companies to find the best deal.

How Much They Cost
The good news is that working with an insurance agent costs you nothing. These financial pros make their money from the insurance companies. Some work for just one company and earn a salary; others work independently and earn their money from commissions on the sales they make.

The downside of this is that your insurance agent isn’t really working for you. They’re getting paid to sell policies – the bigger the policy, the better. This means they have an incentive to sell you more insurance than you really need.

How to Decide if You Need One
In the past, if you needed insurance, going to an agent was the only way to get it. Nowadays, however, it’s possible to shop for insurance directly online. You can easily visit the sites of different companies to get quotes and compare them to see which offers the best rate. Easier still, you can use a comparison shopping tool, such as PolicyGenius, to enter your information and receive quotes from several companies at once.

Shopping directly is convenient, and it’s sometimes possible to find a lower rate this way. When insurance companies sell their policies through an agent, they have to pay that person a commission, and that extra cost gets factored into the price. When you shop directly, there’s no commission, and sometimes those savings are passed on to you.

However, buying your policy from an agent also has its perks. For one, a local insurance agent will know your area, so if you have a claim, the agent might be able to recommend local auto body shop for any services you might need. Agents can also accept cash payments – something a website can’t do. And many people simply appreciate the personal touch of being able to talk to an agent face-to-face and have their questions answered.

How to Hire One
If you decide to shop with an insurance agent, you’ll get a wider range of options from an independent agent. These agents sell policies from a variety of carriers, so they can help you compare prices and choose the policy that’s the best fit for you. Captive agents, by contrast, sell policies from only one company.

The best way to find a good insurance agent is to ask for referrals. Talk to people you know, such as friends and family members, and ask where they buy their insurance. If they’ve been going to the same agent for years and have always been satisfied with the service, that’s a good sign.


3. Attorney

What They Do
You might not think of an attorney as a financial professional. Most people’s images of lawyers are probably limited to the ones they see on TV: mainly courtroom lawyers defending criminals. In reality, there are many situations in your financial life where it’s useful to have advice from a lawyer. An attorney can help you:

How Much They Cost
Most lawyers charge by the hour for their services. Their rates vary based on location, experience, the area of law they work in, and the size of the firm they work for. According to LawKick, typical rates range from $150 to $500 per hour.

However, lawyers can also charge a flat fee for certain types of jobs, such as:

  • Wills. According to LegalZoom, the cost for a basic will ranges from $150 to $600, with $375 being the average. Nolo puts the cost somewhat higher: between $300 and $1,200, with the typical price close to $1,000. With a little research I found that you can get a will created from Trust & Will for just $69. You can add a spouse for an additional $60.
  • Estate Planning. LegalZoom says that if you want additional estate planning services along with your will, such as a power of attorney, you can expect to pay around $1,000 if you’re single. For married couples who need joint documents, the cost is about $1,500.
  • Living Trust. A living trust is a fund that holds assets and passes them on to your heirs after your death. This gives them some money they can access right away, instead of having to wait until after the probate process. Nolo says setting one up costs at least $1,200 to $1,500, while LegalZoom puts the price between $1,000 and $2,500. You can also complete this through Trust & Will for just $399.
  • Home Purchases. In some states, you’re required by law to have an attorney oversee the closing on a home purchase. In others, it’s up to you whether to hire a lawyer. If you do, Zillow says, it will probably cost between $500 and $1,500. In many cases, the buyer can get the seller to pay this fee as part of the closing costs on the house sale.

How to Decide if You Need One
It’s not always necessary to hire a lawyer for a fairly simple job, such as making a will. It’s perfectly legal to write your own will, and you can buy kits online – ranging from $10 for a simple form to a few hundred dollars for a more elaborate set of documents – to make the process easier. However, LegalZoom cautions that these kits are fairly generic and may not be able to address all the complexities of your personal situation. If you decide to use one, you should double-check to make sure the forms pass legal muster in your state.

In general, though, if you think you might need a lawyer, you’re probably right. There’s no doubt that hiring a lawyer is costly, but it’s better to pay a thousand dollars now than risk losing many thousands in a lawsuit later on.

How to Hire One
If you’re hiring a lawyer for a specific job, look for one who one who specializes in that area of law. For example, if you need help with estate planning, find a lawyer who’s an expert in estate law. Hiring a divorce lawyer to write your will is like hiring a plumber to rewire your house – it’s just not the same skill set.

To find the type of lawyer you need, start by asking for referrals from family and friends. For instance, if you know anyone who has recently bought a house, you can ask that person where to find a real estate lawyer. If you don’t know anyone who can recommend a lawyer, you can use sites like FindLaw and LawKick to search for attorneys who meet your needs.

Once you have a list of recommended lawyers, use the American Bar Association member directory to check out their backgrounds. Make sure the attorney is licensed to practice in your state and is trained in the area you need help with.

Finally, before hiring any lawyer, find out up front how much their rates are. You don’t want to choose your lawyer based solely on price, but you also don’t want to be blindsided by a bill you can’t afford to pay.


4. Financial Planner

What They Do
A financial planner is to your money what your primary care doctor is to your health. Your financial planner is the big-picture person, the one you talk to first about any financial issues. They can help you make a plan to pay off debt, save for college, or invest for retirement. And if you have a particular financial need that calls for a specialist, such as an attorney, your financial planner can help you find one.

How Much They Cost
Financial planners are often paid by the hour. Hourly rates generally range from $150 to $300, according to Stone Steps Financial. However, in some cases, you can pay a flat fee to a financial planner for a specific job. Examples include:

  • Consultation. You can set up a one-time meeting with a financial planner to discuss a single issue. For instance, you could ask the planner to look over your investment portfolio or advise you about your employee benefits. For a meeting that’s one to two hours long, you’ll pay between $400 and $600.
  • Comprehensive Financial Plan. A financial planner can also help you set up a complete financial plan that covers everything – retirement savings, insurance needs, estate planning, and so on. The fee for this service is usually between $1,800 and $5,000. The more complex your financial situation, the more you’ll pay.
  • Ongoing Services. You can also hire a financial planner to provide advice on an ongoing basis. Typically, the planner will charge you between $500 and $2,000 up front to set up an initial financial plan. Moving forward, you’ll pay a monthly retainer of $50 to $300 to keep that plan up-to-date.

How to Decide if You Need One
As you can see, hiring a financial planner isn’t cheap. For most people, it’s probably not economical to use one on a day-to-day basis. If your financial situation is simple, it’s not that hard to manage on your own – and the amount a financial planner could save you probably wouldn’t be enough to offset their fee.

However, hiring a financial planner can be worth the cost in certain situations. These include:

  • Managing Wealth. The more money you earn, the more sense it makes to pay a financial planner to help you use it wisely. If you’re wealthy, the expense is probably less important to you than the hassle you save by letting someone else manage your money. A financial planner can help you coordinate all your accounts, save on taxes, invest wisely, and plan your estate – leaving you free to focus on earning more money and enjoying what you have.
  • Becoming Self-Employed. Working for yourself, as a freelancer or as a small businesses owner, has a lot of perks – but it certainly complicates your financial life. Your income is less predictable, making it tricky to budget. You have to deal with issues like self-employment tax, special tax deductions for the self-employed, and quarterly tax filing. You also have different retirement plans to choose from, such as the SEP IRA. And if you run a business, you have to figure out how to manage employees’ pay and benefits as well. A financial planner can help you sort out these issues when you first go into business for yourself so you can get off on the right foot.
  • Approaching Retirement. If you’re preparing to retire, there are several things you need to know before taking the plunge. You have to figure out how much money you need to live on during retirement, how to maximize your Social Security benefits, and how to withdraw money from your retirement accounts to make it last as long as possible. A one-time visit with a financial planner can help you sort out all these issues.
  • Starting a Family. Getting married and having kids are momentous events in your life that have a big impact on your finances. When you get married, you have to figure out such matters as how to combine your finances and whether to file your taxes jointly or separately. Having kids requires you to make adjustments to your budget and think about saving for college. And both events raise questions about your life-insurance and estate-planning needs. This is a lot to think about, especially when you’re also trying to deal with planning a wedding or getting ready for a new baby. Turning over the job to a financial planner can save you enough hassle that it’s more than worth the cost.

How to Hire One
First, you want to make sure your financial planner has the right qualifications. Most people prefer to hire a certified financial planner, or CFP. People with this title have completed a rigorous course in finance and passed a series of exams dealing with topics like insurance and estate planning. CFPs are also fiduciaries, which means they’re legally obligated to act in your best financial interests, even if they make less money this way.

However, there are also skilled financial planners with different titles. For instance, a personal financial specialist (PFS) is a CPA who has extra training in financial planning and acts as a fiduciary. Hiring a PFS could make sense if you need help with taxes or other accounting needs in particular.

The best financial planner for you is one who works with clients whose needs are similar to your own. Ask around for referrals from other people who are in the same financial situation as you, such as small business owners or new parents. You can also find advisors by searching the sites of financial organizations, such as:

  • NAPFA. Members of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors are all fiduciaries and work on a fee-only basis. Business Insider recommends them for high earners and self-employed people.
  • Garrett Planning Network. This is a national network of financial planners who work on an hourly basis. Business Insider and Bankrate both recommend this site, especially for people planning for retirement.
  • XY Planning Network. This organization is for locating CFPs who work with people of all income levels. Business Insider says it’s a good choice if you’re self-employed or starting a family.

Garrett Planning Network


5. Investment Advisor

What They Do
Many people don’t understand the difference between financial planners and investment advisors – partly because articles often use the term “financial advisor” for both roles. However, an investment advisor has a different, much more specific job. While financial planners look at the big picture, investment advisors focus solely on helping their clients choose the best investments. You can get advice about investments from your financial planner, but you wouldn’t get advice about taxes or estate planning from your investment advisor.

How Much They Cost
Some investment advisors are “fee-only,” which means they make all their money directly from you. They can charge an hourly rate, but more often, their fee is based on the amount of the assets they’re managing for you. For instance, if you have a portfolio worth $250,000, you might pay an advisor 1% of that, or $2,500 per year, to manage it for you. This system gives your advisor an incentive to help you grow your assets as much as possible, since the more you have, the more they make.

According to Chrome Asset Management, fee-only investment advisors typically charge between 0.5% and 2.5% of the assets under management each year. This rate often varies based on the size of the portfolio. Advisors charge a smaller percentage to clients with a lot of assets to manage because their business is worth more.

Other financial advisors are “fee-based.” This means they make part of their money from fees and part of it from commissions they earn on the sale of securities, such as stocks. You could pay lower fees with this type of advisor, but there’s a downside: They have an incentive to sell you products you don’t need just to earn the commission.

How to Decide if You Need One
The more money you have to manage, the more you have to gain by making sure it’s managed well. That’s why most investment advisors focus on wealthy clients. According to U.S. News and World Report, in 2013, 65% of all clients with financial advisors had at least $100,000 in investable assets.

If your portfolio is any smaller than this, it’s probably not worth hiring an advisor to manage it. In the first place, you can’t as easily afford to spend 1% of all your assets on fees each year. In the second place, you probably don’t have as many different investments to manage, so it’s easier to do it yourself. You’re better off handling your own investments, possibly with occasional help from a financial planner.

How to Hire One
Some investment advisors – both fee-based and fee-only – are fiduciaries, who must put their clients’ interests first. Others conform to a much lower standard called “suitability.” This means that they are only required to make recommendations that are generally appropriate for your needs.

For instance, suppose you are choosing between two similar investments that are both reasonable for you. A fiduciary advisor would recommend whichever one is better for your situation. A suitability advisor, by contrast, is free to recommend whichever one gets them a higher commission. For this reason, it’s probably worth choosing an advisor who meets the fiduciary standard, even if you have to pay a bit more.

One way to make sure your advisor meets this standard is to choose a Registered Investment Advisor. People and firms bearing this title are registered with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and are legally bound to act as fiduciaries. You can find one by searching the SEC website.

SmartAsset has a useful tool where you can answer a few questions and they will match you with three potential financial advisors who would be the best fit.


6. Debt Counselor

What They Do
Debt counselors, also known as credit counselors, help people deal with debt that’s gotten out of control. They can help you draw up a budget and develop a plan to pay off your debt. They can also give you advice on loan refinancing and debt consolidation.

If nothing else works, the counselor can negotiate with your creditors to set up a debt management plan (DMP). This agreement makes the debt counselor an intermediary between you and your creditors. You pay a certain amount each month to the counselor, and they distribute the money to your creditors. In some cases, when the counselor sets up the DMP, they can negotiate with your creditors to get you a lower interest rate or waive penalties for previous late payments.

How Much They Cost
The cost of debt counseling depends on what kind of service you use. Many companies that offer debt counseling are nonprofits – either stand-alone agencies or part of another organization, such as a credit union. These companies offer many services for free, including initial consultation, group meetings and workshops, and advice on budgeting and money management.

However, other debt counseling agencies are for-profit businesses and charge a fee for these services. In some cases, these fees can be quite high – and the companies don’t always disclose them up front. So, before working with any debt counselor, it’s important to ask what fees they charge.

If you sign up for a DMP, you will always have to pay a fee – even with a nonprofit company. Generally, there is a one-time fee for setting up the DMP, which is usually between $25 and $75. On top of that, you have to pay a monthly fee for the service, which depends on the amount of your debt and the number of creditors you have. In most cases, this fee is no more than $50.

How to Decide if You Need One
Obviously, you only need debt counseling if you have debt. It also needs to be an amount of debt that you can’t easily manage on your own, and a type of debt that a credit counselor can help with. Here are a few ways to tell if debt counseling is a good idea for you:

  • DTI. Your debt-to-income ratio, or DTI, is the amount you owe divided by the amount you make. According to experts, if your DTI is below 15%, your debt is at a manageable level. If it’s any higher than that, that’s a sign that you’re a good candidate for credit counseling.
  • Credit Score. Having a good credit score – at least 700 – means you have more options for dealing with debt. For instance, you can refinance your loans at a better interest rate or take advantage of low-interest and no-interest balance transfers. But if your credit is poor, a DMP is often your best option.
  • Type of Debt. Debt counseling services are especially useful for dealing with credit card debt and medical debt. Counselors know how to negotiate with these types of creditors for concessions like lower interest rates.
  • Financial Situation. There are certain types of problems that debt counselors deal with regularly. In particular, they often help people with financial problems due to income loss, unemployment, increased expenses, poor money management, or divorce. If any one of these factors is hurting you financially, there’s a good chance a debt counselor can help you.

How to Hire One
To avoid paying a fee for basic services, look for a nonprofit debt counseling agency that’s accredited by either the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Financial Counseling Association of America. Any reputable agency should be willing to give you information about itself and its services without asking for any financial details from you.

Once you find an agency that looks reasonable, start asking questions. Find out what services it offers, whether it’s licensed to practice in your state, and what qualifications their members have. If you need to deal with a specific type of debt, such as mortgages, student loans, or medical bills, you can look for an agency that specializes in this area. Also, ask about the debt counselor’s fees and get a quote in writing.

Follow up on the information the debt counselor gives you. If the agency claims to have any special certification or affiliation from an outside agency, check with that agency to make sure it’s valid. Also, check with your state Attorney General or the Better Business Bureau to make sure the agency has no complaints filed against it.

Finally, make sure the debt counselor who’s assigned to you feels like a good fit. Just like a financial planner, a debt counselor is someone you’ll need to work with closely, so find one you feel comfortable with.


7. Money Coach

What They Do
Like a financial planner, a money coach is someone who can help you with the big picture of your finances. The main difference is that money coaches look at your finances as just one part of your overall life. They dig into the ways your personal habits, behaviors, and beliefs affect your ability to earn money, save money, and invest wisely. In some ways, they’re like a cross between a financial planner and a psychologist.

A money coach can help you:

  • Determine what your financial goals are
  • Figure out where your money is going now and where you can cut back
  • Develop a budget and monitor your spending to stay on track
  • Uncover unhealthy spending habits and get them under control
  • Explore personal issues that could be holding you back, such as unwillingness to take risks or fear of being seen as stingy
  • Learn how your finances relate to other parts of your life, such as your health and family life
  • Make financial decisions that are in tune with your values

How Much They Cost
Fees for money coaches vary widely. J. Money, who blogs at Budgets are Sexy, says he charged his first money coaching client only $50 for a one-hour call – a rate that others have advised him is “way too cheap.” By contrast, Todd Tresidder of Financial Mentor charges clients either $1,750 for three coaching calls per month (usually over the first two to three months with a new client) or $1,200 for two calls per month. U.S. News & World Report says a typical rate for money coaching is at least $150 per hour.

How to Decide if You Need One
Some people hire a money coach because they feel like their finances are out of control. They want to learn how to rein in spending, get a handle on their debt, or make a plan for saving. Others are doing okay, but they want to take their financial life to the next level – earn more money, start a business, or even achieve financial independence.

Some of these goals are the same kind that a financial planner can help with – but not in the same way. Financial planners can assist you with specific financial needs, such as investing, while money coaches teach you the skills you need to handle your own money wisely. Basically, if you know what you want from your money and just need advice on how to achieve it, you should talk to a financial planner. But if you’re trying to get a handle on your relationship with money and you aren’t ready to start thinking about the specifics, a money coach would likely be of greater benefit.

Of course, it’s also possible to educate yourself about money and how to use it. There’s no shortage of books, websites, and workshops that discuss money and finances from just about every possible angle.

However, a money coach can provide something these resources can’t: accountability. You feel much more motivated to work hard at improving your finances when you know there’s someone looking over your shoulder, paying attention to how well you’re doing. So, if you’re the kind of person who’s good at keeping yourself motivated, there’s a good chance you can be your own money coach and learn the skills you need on your own. But if you find it helpful to have someone holding your hand and cheering you on, hiring a money coach could be a worthwhile investment.

How to Hire One
Unlike many financial professionals, money coaches don’t need specific qualifications or training. There are various coaching courses out there, but no formal licensing process – which means there’s nothing in place to stop anyone from calling themselves a money coach. If you want to hire a money coach, it’s up to you to figure out what skills the person needs to bring to the job.

To get started, ask friends for recommendations, or do an online search on “money coach” or “financial coach” with the name of your city or state. Check out the websites or blogs of the coaches you find and look for more information about their experience and training. You can also ask for references and contact them to find out how these current or former clients are doing financially.

Once you find a money coach who looks promising, meet with them personally to see if you’re comfortable with their personality and approach to finance. Also, make a point of asking them up front about their rates. Many money coaches don’t disclose this on their websites, and you don’t want your first bill to come as an unpleasant surprise.


Final Word

You probably don’t need all these financial pros on your team, especially not all at once. For example, people who are wealthy enough to need an investment advisor probably don’t need a debt counselor. Similarly, most people won’t want to work with a money coach and a financial planner at the same time.

In fact, it’s possible you don’t need any of these financial professionals right now. After all, most of the things these financial experts can do for you are things you can do for yourself. As long as you’re comfortable doing your own taxes, creating your own budget, or choosing your own investments, there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, there’s also nothing wrong with getting some help when you need it. Even if you prefer to handle most of your financial needs yourself, it can be useful to call in a pro for a specific job, such as planning for retirement or writing your will. Think of these financial teammates as pinch hitters – waiting in the dugout, ready to step in when you need a hand.

Which financial professionals do you use?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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