How Do Normal People Find A Financial Advisor?

Gordon Achtermann |


Recently I was asked to answer a question for a Marketwatch reader inquiry response. I don't know if they are going to use any of my answer, but here is their question and my full answer:


Q: My husband and I are what I would describe as "normal" people. We don't have a lot of money, but we have some. We are good at a lot of things, but the financial ins and outs and investing are not among them. We need a financial adviser, but all the seasoned ones are always the ones that only help people with way more money than we have currently. We are afraid of the advisers who don't have any reputation and/or recommendations. We need somebody that is smart and that we can trust. How on earth do you find somebody like that? Or should we just stick the money in an online Fidelity account and hope for the best? We are getting the impression that we are not rich enough to be able to get any professional help. Most of the people we know are with [well-known broker that sends sales reps door-to-door], but they cost quite a bit, and I am not sure they are trustworthy either. We used that online investor finder tool, but that is just a marketing tool cloaked as safe and helpful. Any advice is welcome!


Dear Reader,

You are describing reality accurately, and you are wise to be concerned. Most seasoned advisors try to work with ever wealthier clients so that they can make more and more money themselves, but some of us do remain committed to accessibility.

In addition, the regulations around what advisors can call themselves and what conflicts of interest are allowed and are supposed to be pointed out to clients are often overlapping. Even when regulations are clear, they are difficult to enforce. FINRA, the SEC, State regulators, and professional organizations all have their say. It's no wonder many put their money in one-size-fits-all funds that target a retirement year. Fortunately, there are a few concepts that will help sort things out.

Fee-only vs. “Fee-based”: Fee-only advisors' only sources of income are fees paid by clients. “Fee-based” is a term that was invented in response to the advent of the Fee-only advisor and didn’t actually have any definition. Advisors that call themselves “Fee-based” may sell products for a commission or receive income from other interested parties that profit when they send them your business. Fee-only advisors do not have any such hidden financial relationships. 

Advice-only: the newest invented term is "Advice-only. These advisors are a subset of Fee-only, and they do not manage assets. Their only source of income should be project, hourly, or subscription fees. If you are able to implement the recommendations, advice-only advisors may be a good choice. If you are paying for advice under a subscription model, just make sure you frequently evaluate the value you are getting and be cautious about entering into a long-term commitment without the ability to cancel when you have gotten what you need.

CFP® professionals must complete rigorous training, which is the gold standard for education in financial planning, but their fiduciary oath has a loophole. CFP® professionals must uphold the fiduciary standard when providing financial advice, but clients are supposed to somehow understand when they stop giving advice and start acting in a sales capacity. 


In my opinion, the CFP® designation is necessary but not sufficient. Therefore I recommend people look at one or more of these websites to find a Fee-only or Advice-only advisor:

The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors ( NAPFA advisors must have the CFP® designation, but their fiduciary oath is airtight - no exceptions.

Fee-Only Network ( All members must be NAPFA members also.

The Garrett Planning Network ( Garrett members must be NAPFA members and either hold the CFP® or be CPAs who hold the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) designation.  All Garrett members must be accessible. "That means they all charge based on the time to provide advice, without requiring long-term commitments or minimum income, investment, or net worth requirements. While some advisors may offer and provide other Fee-Only services, the majority of their client work must meet this definition of accessible." (GPN website)

The XY Planning Network ( Like NAPFA, XYPN's fiduciary oath is airtight. XYPN members must be Fee-only, offer virtual services, and have a fee-for-service offering (i.e., an alternative to being billed sed on assets under management.)


All the Best,

Gordon Achtermann, CFP®