Do I really need a financial planner? Short answer: yes

I received a call from Don and Amy, who read several of my columns. “We’re confused,” Amy said. “What does a financial planner really do?” Don cut in. “Don’t you just tell people what stocks to buy? Like a broker?”

I pointed out that my columns haven’t focused much on investing. “I’m not a broker,” I said, “although guiding my clients’ investments is part of what I do. But I don’t sell anything. A financial planner simply helps people meet the challenges found at the intersection of money and life.”

I heard silence. “I’ll explain,” I said. “A financial planner helps people through the process of setting financial goals, finding ways to achieve them — including necessary changes in spending and saving habits — and monitoring what you do. It’s a process, and it can be learned.” Another pause. “Doesn’t sound easy,” Don said. “Exactly,” I answered. “So people hire financial planners. And for good reasons.”

First and foremost, as a certified financial planner I subscribe to well-defined principles, ethics and processes. I also practice with a fiduciary standard: I’m legally obligated to place my clients’ needs first and offer full disclosure regarding compensation and possible conflicts of interest.

What makes sound financial planning practices so important? There’s just not much formal education available when it comes to managing money.  A 2012 survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the CFP board determined that:

“People who plan feel more confident about their financial decision-making, manage to save more money, and feel better about their progress to date in saving for financial goals. Planners score higher in financial preparedness than non-planners across income groups. The benefits are not limited to those who are better off.”

If the financial planning process helps make people’s lives better, why doesn’t everyone do it? Don anticipated what I was going to say. “Why doesn’t everyone exercise or watch their diet or get enough sleep?” Amy’s follow-up couldn’t have been more on point. “All that’s easier than managing money.” Bingo!

Here, let me point out that you can manage your money, both short-term and long-term, on your own. You simply have to meet these challenges:

1. Find time to collect all the information that impacts your personal finances, starting with income and spending. Start with this article online: www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-71554.

2. Save money. Yes, find ways to actually spend less than you make. Then find the most effective savings and investment vehicles that fit your risk capacity and risk tolerance.

3. Monitor your personal finances. Couples need to do this together. And regularly.

4. Expand your horizons to risk management (insurance), estate planning, employee benefits, investing, retirement planning, career issues and specific savings goals, such as higher education.

5. Educate yourself continually to make better decisions.

6. Change your financial plan as conditions warrant.

“That’s a lot,” said Don. Amy cut in: “That part about educating ourselves? Where would we even start?” As it happens, books and websites abound. They can get you off to a good start, but they can’t approach the level of sound advice provided by personal interaction.

Of course, hiring a financial planner means incurring an expense. Ask about fees and make sure you understand what you will be paying for the services. Ask about fees for investment vehicles such as mutual funds and ETFs, and make sure the planner is selecting investments with the lowest possible fee.

For those with limited assets, there are low-cost alternatives to working directly with a financial planner.

Look for personal finance education workshops or classes offering unbiased information and not selling any product. Check out S.F. State’s College of Extended Learning, as well as other college extension programs in the Bay Area.

Check out www.betterdecisions.money. If you’re not yet ready to hire a financial planner, this is a first step toward understanding the challenges of managing your finances and solutions you can employ to make better decisions all around.

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Ira Fateman

Ira Fateman is a certified financial planner at SAS Financial Advisors in San Francisco. He can be reached at (415) 277-5955 or ira@sasdvisors.com.