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Financially Speaking

Can You Really Trust a Financial Adviser?

Here’s what to look for — and what to avoid

First on my list of risky choices would be people presenting themselves as some sort of "senior specialist." There are more than 50 different "senior" designations — impressive initials strung after the adviser's name. They purport to show that the adviser is "chartered," or "certified," or "accredited" for seniors due to some special course of study. Mostly, the designations are merely marketing tools that the advisers paid for, with little or no serious study. For actual expertise, look for a CFP (certified financial planner) or RIA (registered investment adviser). For more on senior designations, check the report by the Consumer Financial Protection Board.

Next, stay away from free lunches for seniors, even if you think you're strong enough to go only for the food. These lunches are purely sales pitches for expensive products, not genuine advice. You can't even count on getting truthful information.

Third comes the difficult question of financial salespeople at banks, brokerages and financial planning firms who earn commissions. They're the most common source of advice for people with average earnings and savings. You know that you're paying for the financial products you buy, which is fine if the advice is good. But is it really, or are you always buying the costliest products in the shop?

To protect themselves, consumers are typically told to ask what the salesperson earns on the product or its total cost. But as Sah's study shows, disclosure could make you even more vulnerable to a pitch for high-commission investments such as variable annuities and the firm's own, branded mutual funds. So instead, test your adviser by the products he or she suggests. You want good diversification, lower-cost index mutual funds that follow the market as a whole and a philosophy of buy-and-hold, not buy-and-switch.

The simplest form of protection is to work with advisers who charge only fees, not sales commissions. To find someone local, try the Financial Planning Association (check the fee-only box), Garrett Planning Network (geared toward the average saver) and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (generally, for the more affluent). Fee-only is no guarantee of good advice, but it's much less likely to be bad. That's a comfort in itself.

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW. She writes regularly for the Bulletin.

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