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Make a Financial Match Online


By Erin Burt
Kiplinger's Personal Finance


Finding the right financial adviser could be a click away. Compare five online financial-adviser networks to see which offer the best selection and services to fit your needs.

Whether you're looking for a long- or short-term relationship, you might find your perfect match online.

It may not be as fun as Internet dating, but just like the increasingly popular matchmaking sites, more and more financial advisers are putting their faces and fees online hoping to connect with the right someone.

Once a privilege reserved for those of sizable wealth, personalized money advice is increasingly available to people of more modest means.

More advisers are scrapping the traditional commission-based model or the practice of charging clients based on the size of their assets. The new vogue is fee-based advice, for which you pay about $100 to $150 an hour for the services rendered. So even if you don't have a lot of money, you can get the personal advice you need, whether you just have a quick question about your 401(k) or you want a comprehensive financial consultation.

And the Web has simplified the task of finding an expert next door or in the next state.

Pre-screened referrals

With thousands of financial advisers to choose from, it could take an eternity to narrow the field to a handful of candidates worthy of your consideration. The Internet can help you vet advisers based on their regulatory record, years of experience, and areas of expertise. In order to be listed with some online networks, advisers must meet certain standards. But no matter how rigorous the site's screening process, you should do your own homework to make sure the adviser lives up to your standards.

Take The Alliance of Cambridge Advisors, for example. This network of about 75 advisers in 25 states requires members to meet rigorous requirements. These include passing a peer review, completing a six to 12 month proprietary training course and updating their skills through regular industry conferences.

The search is basic and straight forward -- you simply plug in where you live and a list of advisers in your state pops up. Some of the recommendations our searches yielded simply listed the planners' contact info and certification with no mention of their areas of expertise, investment philosophy or fee structure. Others included a sentence or two about their specialties, but not much else. We would have liked more information to compare the advisers.

The Garrett Planning Network is a similar site, listing about 250 fee-only advisers by their location or expertise.

To find an expert, you simply click on your state, or enter your zip code, and a list of GPN-approved experts pops up. You can limit your search to planners within a specific distance from your home.

The GPN results are more complete, with bios, a photo, contact information, educational background and credentials. When you find a GPN planner you like, give him or her a call or send an e-mail. We found most got back to us the same day, offering to set up a free initial consultation either in person or over the phone and giving more detail about their fee structure.

Both Cambridge and GPN offer online resources to help you narrow in on a financial adviser that's right for you. Cambridge has a nifty "financial fitness wheel" that asks you 12 questions to help you identify which areas of your finances you might want to discuss with an expert, including tax matters, savings, record keeping and real estate.

On-the-spot advice

Myfinancialadvice.com takes its referral service a step further by acting as a mediator between you and the adviser, making sure the fees and objectives are clear before you enter a relationship. This site's focus is on-the-spot advice, though any of its planners would welcome a long-term relationship if that's what you are looking for.

The first thing you see on the site is a list of financial topics ranging from investing to insurance to employee benefits. Select an area that you want some help with, and you instantly get a list of knowledgeable advisers, in a table that's easy to read and compare. This includes a summary of their services, certifications, and preferred methods of contact (phone and/or e-mail). It also tells you how expensive the fees will be, ranging from one dollar sign (under $125 per hour) to four dollar signs ($180-$400 per hour).

Click on an adviser's name to get more detailed information, including the hours he or she is in the office. To get the contact info, you'll have to register with the site, but it's free of charge.

For e-mail inquiries, use the form provided on Myfinancialadvice.com to pose your question and send it to the adviser of your choice. The expert then sends a reply to your message center on the site presenting a proposal, including how much he or she will charge to answer your question, and when it will be ready. If you accept the proposal, the site prompts you for your credit card info and notifies your planner to go ahead with the project.

We asked one planner about borrowing money from our 401(k) to boost a down payment for a house. She got back to us a couple hours later and offered to give us a detailed answer within two days for $75. We asked a second planner a question about the impact of marriage on our credit rating. He got back to us the next day offering his advice for $20. When we asked a third planner about setting up a college savings plan for a young child, he got back to us the next morning with some follow-up questions. At first, he offered his advice for free, and we accepted. But later, he said he had mistyped, so he sent us a new pitch for $25, without charging us for the first.

You can get financial help quickly through this site because it focuses on finding you an expert anywhere in the country who can answer your question. (The search doesn't include a screen to find someone in your neighborhood.) The three planners we consulted were in Missouri, Florida and Maryland, for example. And you don't need to set up an initial meeting if you don't want to. You just ask your question and get an answer.

MyFinancialAdvice requires its planners have at least three years experience, a clean regulatory record and proper certification. And for the sake of full disclosure, MyFinancialAdvice has an advertising relationship with Kiplinger.com

Finding more leads

If you didn't find a good match from the sites above, you might take a look at Wiseradvisor.com. This site has a few quirks, but could give you a lead or two worth pursuing.

Wiseradvisor lists experts with at least two years experience and who have the proper licensing and certification. The site is easy-to-use, but a bit inconsistent. We searched for a fee-based planner in San Francisco who could help someone with a net worth of less than $50,000 with retirement planning. We asked for someone with at least two years experience and we didn't care if the planner was local or not. The next screen said it had narrowed the field from 1,558 advisers to 46 meeting our criteria. Then the site asked what size firm we wanted our adviser to work for, and what age we preferred the adviser be. We entered "no preference" on both, but our final results yielded only ten advisers. The other 36 mysteriously disappeared. We doubt that many advisers would deny our business because we didn't take an interest in their firm or age.

Then we changed our location to San Diego, but still said we didn't need the adviser to be local. The site returned seven hits, although our San Francisco search yielded eight whose profiles said they'd be happy to meet with clients outside their neighborhood via phone or e-mail.

Also, a few of the matches on Wiseradvisor missed the mark. On our original search, four of the advisers required a minimum portfolio size of $100,000 to $1 million. With our stated net worth of less than 50 grand, we could hardly afford those planners.

Paladin Investor Resources prides itself on a high level of quality. Of 14,000 advisers screened for the network since June 2004, only 820 have made the cut. All 820 derive some or all of their compensation from fees and have an average of 16 years of experience: 74% have multiple certifications. All registry services are free to investors. Paladin also offers a variety of resources, including information on finding, evaluating and interviewing advisers.

Do your homework

Using a Web site, no matter which one you choose, is only the first step in finding the right financial planner for you. No matter how rigorously the candidates are screened, it's important to select an adviser who works well with your personality and with whom you feel comfortable.

Most advisers will schedule a free initial meeting during which you should clarify the services they will provide and how you will be charged. You can print out a brochure from the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors entitled "How to Choose a Financial Planner," to help you prepare for an adviser interview. Among the suggested questions:

  • Are there financial incentives for you to recommend certain products?

  • Do you provide a comprehensive written analysis of my financial situation and recommendations?

  • Do you take custody of, or have access to, my assets?

  • Do you have clients who might be willing to speak with me about your services?

Also, it's important to evaluate the planner's personality, says GPN founder Sheryl Garrett. "Do you feel like they listen to you? Do they answer your questions in a forthright manner?"

You should run your own background check on the candidate or his or her firm -- even if you used a site that vets advisers' credentials -- to make sure they live up your standards. Advisers who manage clients' money, for example, are registered investment advisers and must file documents with the SEC or state regulators. You can use the SEC's Investment Adviser Public Disclosure site to find a candidate's form ADV, which contains the adviser's educational background, professional experience, method of compensation and disciplinary information. Or simply ask the adviser for a copy.

Back to the Special Report: Finding the Right Financial Help

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