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Market volatility during the past year was almost twice what it was for the same period in each of the three previous years as measured by the variability index developed by the

Chicago Board Options Exchange

. Home values, meanwhile, are dropping, and prices for consumer goods from bread to gasoline are rising.

Now, therefore, is as good a time as any to consult a financial adviser. He or she can provide a clear road map to reach your financial goals and help set your priorities. And later, the adviser can help you keep track of your progress, as well as reassess your direction as circumstances change in your life.

But trusting a stranger with your personal finances can be a leap of faith. It's wise then to do your homework when choosing an adviser.

Know what you want

The choice of planner will depend largely on whether you want someone to help develop a fully integrated plan for your financial future, or if you're just looking for advice on a specific topic, such as the best way to diversify your portfolio. Also consider whether you want to develop a long-term relationship, or if you just need some one-time information. Knowing ahead of time what type of services you desire will help narrow your choices.

Make a short list

Begin by asking friends and colleagues for references. When asking for recommendations, however, don't just ask for the names of ethical advisers your friends might know. Ask them about the type of relationship they have with their planner and what their needs were as a client, i.e., retirement help, estate planning, investment advice. Ask if they were happy with the amount of contact they had with their planner, as well as how much of their financial plan the adviser addressed.

You may want to restrict your search to certified financial planners. These professionals have passed certain exams and have a particular amount of experience as determined by the

Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards

. The organization offers a searchable database of CFPs by location.

Another common adviser credential is

certified financial analyst

, which indicates an individual has experience managing investment portfolios. And a

personal financial specialist

is a designation for certified public accountants with significant financial planning experience.

Before meeting with any of the planners on your list, check the CFP database to see whether they have been the subject of any complaints or disciplinary actions. Those with spotty records may warrant being crossed off your list.

Interview CFPs at several firms

Most CFPs offer a free consultation to discuss the client-planner relationship and how they might be able to help you. Ask them about their educational background, experience and specialties. Do they have access to other specialties such as taxes, insurance or estate planning, either within their firm or through referrals? How frequently do they communicate with their clients? Will they handle your affairs personally, or delegate most matters to an assistant?

Ideally, you'll want a planner who is ethical, has specialties that match your needs and access to other specialties that might arise, and who will hold your interests as a priority. But the most important part of your decision, of course, should be whether you feel comfortable talking to him or her about your finances.

Discussing payment

The first interview with the adviser also is the first opportunity to discuss how the adviser gets paid. Some planners work for an hourly fee, others on commission and some on a combination of the two. One-time advice is typically offered by firms that charge by the hour, while longer-term relationships often are structured on an annual fee or commission basis (often about 1% to 1.5% of the value of a managed investment portfolio). Also be aware of advice to buy certain products in which the adviser might have a direct financial stake, such as certain annuities and insurance products.

Make sure the size and scale of the fees aren't more than your budget can handle when establishing a sound financial plan.

"Everybody who is making an income or has assets is already doing some type of financial planning," says David Strege, a certified financial planner and chairman of the CFP Board of Standards. "But working with a financial planner can give you access to the knowledge and discipline that will help you reach your goals."

Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.