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The High Price of Advice

Finding low-cost, trustworthy financial guidance can be a challenge

spinner image celia nathan sits on the couch in her home in maryland with lots of art on the wall
Celia Nathan, seen at her home in Maryland, struggled for years trying to decide on a financial advisor.
Lexey Swall

The problem

How do I find someone to help me with my ­finances? It’s a question I get a lot. Most recently, Celia Nathan, 66, wrote me looking for “a financial adviser whom I can trust, while not costing me a ton of money.” Nathan, who works at a Maryland assisted living facility, has $440,000 in retirement savings. She wanted personalized answers to all of her retirement planning questions, but like many people, she thought she wasn’t wealthy enough to afford that help. “We’ll find someone at a price you’re comfortable paying,” I told her. It was harder than I thought.

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The advice

To find a financial adviser, you can get recommendations from people you know — preferably people with similar finances. You can search a directory operated by trade groups (, and or private businesses (, and You may be offered help through your workplace or your bank or brokerage. Some advisers work on a project or on an hourly basis to create a financial plan, but most are looking for clients whose finances they can oversee for years.

Some of the many professional designations advisers can have — such as certified financial planner — indicate a certain level of competence. Regulatory exams, however, don’t test whether advisers actually give good advice, says Michael Kitces, cofounder of the XY Planning Network of advisers. For Nathan, that uncertainty has been paralyzing.

Costs can be another barrier. Investment advisers typically charge an annual fee based on the amount of money they manage; 1 percent of assets is common. Other financial planners might charge by the hour — $150 to $400 — taking eight to 12 hours to develop a financial plan that could cost $3,000. Finally, some advisers have launched monthly subscription services, typically amounting to $3,000 a year.

Why so much? Kitces points to the marketing expenses and hours of meetings required for advisers to land clients. “We end up charging fairly high fees because we have to,” Kitces says. “Imagine if the average doctor had to spend eight to 10 hours just to get a patient.”

I explained all this to Nathan, who had expected to pay $1,000. “I just got hit with sticker shock,” she said.

Hoping to address Nathan’s trust and cost concerns, I contacted advisers willing to be paid hourly or for a onetime plan. My tips for you:

  • Meet for free. Many advisers offer introductory meetings. Take them, so the adviser can explain fees, map out the planning process and perhaps give limited advice. Nathan managed to get a lot of her questions answered gratis.
  • Lay out your fears. Nathan worried that her financial plan would be a jargon-laden, 200-page doorstop. When she learned she’d get a simple two- to three-page summary along with supporting reports, her anxieties subsided.
  • Articulate your needs. If she had a plan, Nathan felt she could largely go DIY. She didn’t want to pay for quarterly check-ins, but she was interested in booking an hour of time if she had questions. “Would that be possible?” she asked.
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The outcome

It was. Nathan went with Massachusetts financial planner Kerry O’Brien, agreeing to pay $2,500 for a retirement-­focused financial plan complete with investment recommendations and a Social Security claiming strategy. If Nathan wants a checkup later, it will cost $250 an hour. She compared the unexpectedly high expense to what she paid to rid her condo of mold. “It helped me sleep at night,” she said. “That’s how I’m thinking about this. I am paying $2,500 for comfort.”

For more on finding an adviser, visit

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