The best financial adviser you'll ever find is staring back at you in the mirror. But if, upon further reflection, you opt to hire one, here's how to make sure you hook up with someone top-notch:
Get three names. Ask friends and colleagues for referrals, and gauge how enthusiastic they are about their planner. Don't be swayed when a friend says, "My adviser is a really great woman! You'll love her!" Who cares if she has a sparkling personality? This is strictly business. Does the adviser make smart investment and financial planning suggestions? Does your friend hear from her all the time, even during down markets? That's all that matters.
If you can't rustle up any solid referrals from friends and colleagues, visit the Financial Planning Association Web site, www.fpanet.org, and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors Web site, www.napfa.org.
Do the research. Find out what sort of return the adviser's recommendations have delivered. The returns should have earned at least 3 percentage points more than a bank CD. For example, if over the last three years (long enough to get a fair picture of the adviser's investment talent) your friend could have earned 3 percent annually in a bank CD, the adviser's stock picks should have generated average annual returns of at least 6 percent.
Schedule a meeting. You should meet at least three potential advisers in person. You can start sizing them up on the phone: If you are married or in a life partnership, the adviser should make it mandatory that both of you come to the meeting. A good adviser understands how important it is to know your emotional and financial needs.
And give the adviser's office a once-over. If someone you are going to entrust with your finances can't keep her own records and documents in order, do you really expect her to take care of yours?
Listen for key information. If you walk in and the first thing the adviser asks you is how much money you have to invest, walk out. She is interested only in making a profit off you, not in working with you to build a strong financial future. An adviser should ask about your goals, your job security and health, whether you have a will or trust, if you currently own a home or plan to in the future, and what your outstanding credit-card debt is. If you have children, the adviser should talk to you about life insurance and what your plans are for their college education. A smart adviser will ask if you expect to receive an inheritance or whether you anticipate needing to provide financial support for your parents.
And when the conversation comes around to investing, she should ask questions that gauge your timeline (e.g., do you need to access your money in five years or in 30?) and your tolerance for risk. A professional will tell you her fee structure up front. Advisers are paid either by commissions they get from financial products you purchase or from flat fees you pay them regardless of what you buy. It's best to work with fee-only advisers - advisers who rely on a commission have a conflict of interest.