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Need financial advice? If you're not willing to hand over the management of a six-figure portfolio, good luck. In fact, you may need a seven-figure portfolio just to get a call back.
The dirty, little not-so-secret of the mainstream financial-services industry is that middle-class America need not apply. Many of the big-name brokerages have high account minimums, and many of the brokers within those firms have set their own, higher account minimums. The same goes for many independent advisory firms.
According to an InvestmentNews article from last fall, Smith Barney -- a joint venture of Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) -- "has instituted a new household minimum of $75,000 for transactional business and $25,000 for advisory accounts. Brokers won't get paid on accounts that don't meet these minimums." At Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , the minimums are similar (or higher) for most of their investment "solutions."
If you have less than $250,000, you'll likely only get phone access to a call center advisor at Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) Merrill Lynch. A recent Bloomberg article, which told the story of how one of JPMorgan Chase's (NYSE: JPM ) new hires is CEO Jamie Dimon's father, also explained the firm's "plans to add 150 advisors in the U.S. and 200 overseas to serve 'ultra-high-net-worth' clients in the next three to five years. The brokerage has about 500 advisors who work with clients with a minimum net worth of $20 million."
In other words, if you're just the average -- or even slightly above-average -- American trying to save for retirement and you walk into the local "full-service" brokerage for some help, you're either going to get the newest broker in the office, or no help at all.
So what do you do?
You can do it all on your own, of course. That's something The Motley Fool has been championing for years (actually, soon to be decades). And given the fees charged by the full-service brokerages, and the very mixed results on the services they provide -- after all, if these geniuses couldn't have saved themselves from losing hundreds of billions in the economic meltdown, how much good are they going to do you? -- maybe most investors would be better off without them. (Read Michael Lewis' new book, The Big Short, to learn how clueless the likes of Merrill Lynch and Citigroup were. You'll also hear about how Morgan Stanley's Howie Hubler lost more than $9 billion in one trade, and still walked away with tens of millions of dollars in compensation.)
The truth is, however, that not everyone has the time, expertise, or inclination to do everything on their own. For these people, fortunately, there is a middle way. It's called fee-only financial planning. You pay by the hour or by the project, not by commissions (which inject a conflict of interest in the financial-planning process). A fee-only financial planner can help you answer questions such as:
- Are you saving enough for retirement?
- What kind of college will you be able to afford for your kids?
- Do you have enough, and the right type of, insurance?
- Should you take your pension as an annuity or a lump sum?
- When should you begin receiving Social Security benefits?
- What's the best allocation for your employer-sponsored retirement plan (401(k), 403(b), etc.)? Full-service brokers won't help you with this account since it can't be transferred to their firms, and thus they can't get paid for giving you the advice.
- How can I reduce my tax bill?
- Do I have all the important legal documents I need to protect myself and my family?
- How does my overall portfolio look?
With the right fee-only planner, you can get just one of these questions answered -- or all of them. Or you can just get an objective, independent second opinion -- perfect for the do-it-yourselfer who wants to make sure everything's on track.
Where do you find such an advisor? One option is the Garrett Planning Network, an international network of fee-only financial planners. We at The Motley Fool have long championed Garrett's pay-as-you-go model. And for a limited time, most of the network's planners are offering a limited-time 10% discount to Fool readers. Visit the Locate an Advisor map, click on your state, and look for the Motley Fool logo to identify participating advisors.
There's no need to feel bad about not having enough to get "the financial advice you need, when you need it" from Merrill Lynch (as proclaimed in its slogan). After all, many of these folks were so good at wealth management, they had to be bailed about by Bank of America and no longer exist as a separate company. Come to think of it, even if you do have enough to do business with these big Wall Street companies, do you really want to?