The right financial professional can make all the difference in your future quality of life. The wrong one can ruin it.

Comforting, eh?

Let's not dwell on the down side, and instead focus on figuring out what kind of pro is right for you.

Generally speaking, advice is available in four flavors:

Financial Planners

Financial advisors are the generalists in the field of money management. A financial advisor (also referred to as a "planner," or "CFP" -- Certified Financial Planner) assesses your overall financial picture, with an eye on your investments, savings, debts, insurance, and other big areas of your money life. Some are equipped to offer estate planning advice or input on your tax situation. Many make investment recommendations such as mutual funds or even specific stocks. The best ones can objectively put your finances into context and help you arrive at the best money moves for your future.

What a financial planner can do
A financial planner can help you answer questions ranging from "should I refinance my house" to "is it time to sell this stock?" Most CFPs can:

  • Answer specific questions
  • Organize and orient your overall financial picture
  • Shed light on budget realities and provide tips to reduce spending
  • Assess your retirement savings
  • Furnish a much-needed wake-up call regarding your debt or retirement savings
  • Check to be sure you have all of the basic insurance you need and if there are other holes in your financial plan
  • Make mutual fund recommendations

The average cost of advice from a financial advisor starts at around $175 an hour (depending on where you live and the advisor's credentials, of course). After that, the fee structure can get a little more complicated. Since the first meeting with a financial planner is usually free, we encourage you to print out the checklist of questions we provide. (We even include a cheat sheet to help you weigh the answers you get.) What to watch out for
The sad fact is anyone can call herself a "financial planner" in most states. There is no licensing requirement and very little regulation. Noting a pro's credentials (those official-looking designations embossed on the letterhead) is your first line of defense in sussing out a pro. The charlatans don't have and can't use these designations, so the credentials become your seal of quality. (On the right-hand side of the page is a list of common credentials and what they mean.)

Of course, credentials don't tell the whole story of how much skill an investment professional possesses, and if she is the one for you. There's something to be said for that gut feeling you get when you meet with a pro -- if you trust the advice being offered and feel the planner has a good understanding of your best interests. Don't be fooled by colorful graphs presented to you laminated and perfect-bound. The software most planners use is widely available to those in the industry. Instead, look for substance, and proof that the advice applies to your situation. You want to be wowed.

Also be aware that most financial planners choose investments based on a limited pool of investment products -- mostly mutual funds -- that their firm offers. While that doesn't mean all their recommendations are duds, it might turn out that there are better options out there for your money. You must decide if you're willing to do a little legwork to find out.

Investment Managers

Investment advisor, stockbroker, wealth advisor -- the title may vary, but the goal is the same. These professionals are paid to eke out the best returns for your portfolio by recommending stocks, mutual funds, bonds, and cash investments. Their qualifications -- again, see the credentials list at right -- indicate how much formal training they have and whether or not they can handle investment transactions for you.

You'll find these services offered at big investment houses such as Merrill Lynch, Salomon Smith Barney, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Even if the advisor doesn't work at one of these firms, he or she is most likely associated with them to be able to tap into the larger firm's investment products.

What an investment manager can do
Investment managers make specific recommendations, and keep an eye on the ups and downs of your wealth. Some will take over your assets completely so that you don't have to think about it while you're lolling on a beach at the Bahamas or trying to find a babysitter for Saturday night.

For clients with sizeable assets, money managers will take on the role of financial planner, as well, and make recommendations (or coordinate outside experts who can do so) for other areas of your money life, including insurance, tax issues, and estate planning.

To hire an investment manager, you must meet a minimum portfolio requirement ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 or more. For stock trades, you'll probably pay around $150 for the average trade done by the typical full-service manager, whereas discount brokers typically charge between $5 and $20 for an individual online trade.

Full-service firms often charge annual "maintenance" fees -- about $150 a year or more. Alternatively, full-service brokerages might grant "unlimited free trades" in an account, but will charge you around 1% to 1.5% of your total assets per year.

What to watch out for
In these days of competition and waning profit margins at financial services companies, it's getting harder for the "little guy" to get investment advice.

A Washington Post report on the state of financial advice found the definition of "little investor" varied at the major brokerage firms. Merrill Lynch defines it as someone with any amount south of $100,000. Morgan Stanley has its eyes on clients with portfolios in the $1 million to $10 million range, according to the Post, and it is grooming 1,500 of its 12,000 brokers to hold their hands. At Piper Jaffray, just try to avoid the phone tree if you have less than $10,000 in your account.

If it's stock picks you're looking for, The Motley Fool has a pretty set opinion of whether you should use a full-service broker or a discount broker. We favor the discount brokers, who execute trades for about one-twentieth the amount that full-service brokers often charge. For more on why individuals might be better off picking investments and handling the transaction through a discount broker, see our discussion on "What's Wrong With a Full-Service Brokers."

Call Center-Based Assistance

The Motley Fool has a three-pronged approach to providing professional financial assistance: full access to Fool educational materials, financial planning software, and expert advice on an as-needed basis through discussion boards. For those comfortable doing a little of the legwork themselves, Motley Fool Green Light can serve as a financial planner on retainer.

What it can do
Like a traditional financial planner, TMF Money Advisor will organize and orient your overall financial picture, looking at your income and outflows, investments and insurance. Instead of having a financial pro input your vital information into his or her program, the individual does it him or herself using an online financial planning tool powered by DirectAdvice. After answering a series of questions (it takes about an hour to fill out), users receive an assessment of their financial fitness and recommendations on ways to improve their standing. You can tinker with the plan's inputs at any time.

Subscribers also have carte blanche access to all of The Motley Fool online seminars and how-to guides -- covering everything from reading balance sheets and picking stocks to planning your roadmap to retirement and figuring out the best way to pay for a child's education.

Since there are times when we all could use a second opinion, or simply a verbal explanation about a complex financial product, we found The Ayco Company L.P. to offer members one-on-one advice from a financial professional. You can call any time during business hours (apologies to night owls who tend to stew over money issues at midnight). The minimum required education for each Ayco advisor is a 4-year degree and an NASD Series 7 license. They all possess, or are expected to pursue, an advanced degree or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. All advisors participate in ongoing training, and have access to in-house resources with specialties in tax laws, employee benefits, insurance and investments.

A yearlong subscription to TMF Money Advisor carries a flat fee of $195. What to watch out for
Since the individual seeking financial help is in charge of inputting the data into the DirectAdvice online financial planning tool, a certain amount of organization is required. At the very least, you should know where your important papers are. (They are the same ones you would need to meet face-to-face with a financial planner. Click here for a downloadable checklist.)

Those who prefer to meet with a financial planner in person do not have that option with TMF Money Advisor. Ayco financial advisors offer their services via telephone. With your permission, they can access the information you recorded with the DirectAdvice tool to use as a starting point for your conversation. You may request the same planner whenever you call (and they will call you back at your convenience). If you have a question outside of the range of expertise of a particular Ayco advisor, he or she will consult in-house experts for answers. However, you, the individual, will not be able to speak directly with these specialists.

TMF Money Advisor subscribers cannot purchase financial products through The Motley Fool or our partners in this program. Ayco financial advisors are well versed about a limited group of mutual funds which the company tracks, but they do not offer individual stock picks. Neither Ayco, DirectAdvice, or The Motley Fool receive commissions from any recommendations they make.


Life events -- marriage, bequeathing your millions to your grandkids, Uncle Sam's yearly payday -- often require financial specialists. Many financial planners have areas of expertise in insurance, investments, estate planning, and dog sitting. (Okay, we made up that last one.)

There aren't a lot of purists in the industry. So when it comes to getting advice on a specific money conundrum, find a specialist who frequently deals with that issue. Meaning, if you're a small business owner looking to hire tax help, find an accountant who works primarily with small business owners.

What they can do
Need a hand filling out that 1040 EZ form? No one's snickering. Even the IRS estimates it'll take the average taxpayer about 13 hours to fill it out its simplest form this year. If you need a helping hand figuring out this year's tax return, writing a will, setting up a trust, or consulting the stars, there are specialists to navigate the legal, financial, and spiritual aspects of all of these issues.

Specialists come in handy when unusual or infrequent financial decisions need to be made. If you've come into a windfall, become a homeowner, landlord, new parent, daring divorcee, or experienced a dramatic income change, you might find a pro's expertise invaluable.

Varies. Many charge by the hour. But make sure to ask about other fees, such as computer charges and filing fees. What to watch out for
When it comes to calling in reinforcements, it pays to be cautious. Consumer Reports looked into the tax help available and came up with a few recommendations, including: avoiding preparers who promise a large refund before looking at your information, and those who charge a fee based on the size of the return. Be sure to ask how the firm handles sensitive data (you're looking for the word "shred" in the answer).

Word of mouth is usually the best way to find a trusted financial specialist. But don't just rely on Aunt Lila's soaring words of praise. Be sure to look for all of the answers we outline in this rundown of questions.

Whatever the financial pro's specialty, make sure he or she is on top of the industry's latest issues. Many have continuing education requirements. Ask what the pro does to stay on top of the latest laws.