What to Know About Financial Advisor Fees and Costs

You wouldn’t get your oil changed or your hair cut without knowing the cost, and yet 17% of investors don’t know what they pay in investment fees, according to a survey by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. Another 14% don’t even know if they’re paying any fees at all, and 60% of those who work with a financial professional don’t think they’re paying for that advice.

If you’re working with a financial advisor (whether of the human or the robo variety), you can be sure they’re getting paid for the advice they provide, says Kyle Ryan, a certified financial planner and executive vice president of advisory services at Personal Capital. How they’re getting paid determines how much that financial advisor costs.

Whether you are already working with a financial professional or are trying to figure out whether you should hire a financial advisor, these are key questions to ask:

— How much does a financial advisor cost?

— How are financial advisor fees charged?

— What are commission-based financial advisors?

— What are fee-based financial advisors?

— Is paying for a financial advisor worth it?

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How Much Does a Financial Advisor Cost?

Generally speaking, 1% per year is a reasonable fee to pay for financial guidance, Ryan says. This should include financial advisor fees, plus any fees on the investments you use.

“Unfortunately, we see quite a few that are double that when you add them together,” he says. Personal Capital found that a 1% higher fee can cost a typical investor nearly $240,000 over her lifetime.

Every investor should know how much their financial advisor costs. Otherwise, how can you evaluate whether the service is worth the money?

It would be great if financial advisors wore the fees they charge pinned to their chests like price tags. Unfortunately, this likely won’t ever be the case. So it’s up to you as the client to ask about a financial advisor’s fees. Even fiduciary advisors, who are required to disclose all fees and conflicts of interest, can do so in the fine print.

Here are questions to ask financial advisors about their compensation:

— How are you getting paid?

— Do you earn commissions?

— How much money are you and/or the company making to put me in this investment?

— What are my total costs for working with you?

Advisors should give you clear, straightforward answers to all of these questions. If they don’t, go elsewhere.

Of course, a financial advisor’s cost will vary based on how you receive guidance. Robo advisors, for instance, are considerably less expensive than human financial advisors, with hybrid advisors that combine robo and human guidance falling in between. Here are the average fees charged by various types of advisors:

— Human financial advisors: 1% to 2% per year.

— Robo advisors: 0.2% to 0.35%.

— Hybrid advisors: 0.5% to 1.5%.

How Are Financial Advisor Fees Charged?

There are three ways financial advisors get paid:

— Fee-only advisors charge an annual, hourly or flat fee.

— Commission-based advisors are paid through the investments they sell.

— Fee-based advisors earn a combination of a fee and commissions.

The most common fee-only financial advisor structure is to charge a percentage of the assets under management, commonly referred to as AUM. In this case, advisors deduct their fee from your account, usually on a quarterly or monthly basis, based on your account balance. If you have $1 million with an advisor charging 1% of AUM, you’d pay $10,000 per year in fees, or $2,500 each quarter.

“Personally, I prefer this because the better my client does, the better I do,” says Lisa Bamburg, investment advisor representative and co-owner of Insurance Advantage & LMA Financial Services in Jacksonville, Arkansas.

Advisor fees are often charged on a sliding scale, so the more assets you have under management, the lower your fee percentage will be. You may pay 1% of AUM for a $1 million account, but 0.85% for a $5 million account, or $1.2% for a $50,000 account.

Robo advisors also use the AUM fee structure. Most robo advisors charge between 0.2% and 0.35% per year for digital-only advice, on top of the fees you pay for the investments they use. When coupled with personalized advice, those fees can rise to 1.5% per year.

AUM financial advisor fees are based on the starting value at the beginning of the year, says Mark Charnet, founder and CEO of American Prosperity Group in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. If your $1 million account is worth only $800,000 at the beginning of your second year, the financial advisor would charge $8,000 for that year rather than $10,000.

Since fees are typically reassessed each month or year based on the account balance, you could pay more one year or less another. “If the account is dropping, the fees will be a lesser total for the year as opposed to the prior year when the account value was stronger,” Charnet says.

“Many people aren’t comfortable paying fees on losses,” adds Charnet, who uses a commission-based structure. There’s also the reverse argument where some investors don’t like having to pay more as their account grows.

The Department of Labor would tell you this is a good thing: If financial advisors’ fees grow with your account balance, it’s clearly in their best interest to help you make money. This is why fiduciary advisors must be fee-only.

But aligning your advisor’s incentives with growing your account is only a benefit to you if growth is your primary objective, says Kurt Hemry, founder and president of Ironwood Wealth Consultants in Portland, Oregon. Investors living in retirement are probably more interested in preservation or income than growth.

Other fee-only financial advisors charge hourly or an annual or quarterly retainer that’s not based on the size of your account, or a flat fee for each service. For instance, a flat-fee advisor may charge $2,000 to create a comprehensive financial plan. If the advisor isn’t licensed to sell investments, and many flat-fee advisors are not, it’ll be up to you to implement that plan and manage your investments.

Advisors can also charge a flat annual fee, which ranges from $1,000 to $5,000 per year, or an hourly fee, which ranges from $100 to $400 per hour, Bamberg says.

Since flat-fee advisors have no affiliation with the investments you use, they’re often seen as the most unbiased financial advisors, Hemry says.

Average fee-only pricing structures for advisors in 2022 are as follows:

Fee type Average 2022 cost
AUM 1% per year
Flat annual fee or retainer $2,450 per year
Fee for a standalone financial plan $2,400
Hourly fee $193 per hour

You can see how much your fee-only investment advisor costs in Part 2 of the firm’s Form ADV, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. These forms are available online, or you can request a copy from your advisor.

What Are Commission-Based Financial Advisors?

Commission-based advisors are paid through the investments you buy. They’ll receive a percentage of your investment dollars from the investment provider.

“While it might be tempting to hire a financial advisor who is being paid by someone other than you, remember that being commission-based could also mean your best interests aren’t their top priority,” Ryan says.

Annuities are notorious for heavy hidden commissions, but they aren’t the only culprit. Any investment could carry a commission. Mutual funds can carry sales loads up to 8.5%, and brokers may take 1% to 5% off a bond’s value for themselves.

Commissions are sneaky: Since they’re paid to the advisor by the investment provider, investors don’t see them coming out of their account balance on each statement. But make no mistake: You are paying your advisor’s commission.

For this reason, commissions have taken flak for misaligning investors’ and advisors’ incentives. It’s obviously in the advisor’s best interest to recommend the highest-paying product, which may not be the best product for the investor. But it’d be inaccurate to say all advisors who work on commissions are putting their own best interests before their clients’.

“There’s not a good thing or bad thing in the financial world,” Hemry says. “It’s like saying there are bad tools in my toolbox. No, I just don’t need a pipe wrench to change a tire.”

He used to offer his clients the choice between a flat fee for a one-time financial plan and an ongoing commission-based relationship. Every client chose the commission-based arrangement.

There is a place for commission-based financial advisors. The question is whether the place is on your financial team. If it is, the challenge becomes making sure it’s someone you can trust to keep your best interest at heart.

What Are Fee-Based Financial Advisors?

Financial advisors who get paid both a fee and a commission call themselves fee-based advisors, as opposed to fee-only advisors. This is an important distinction: Fee-only advisors do not collect commissions, whereas fee-based advisors do.

This is probably the most common compensation structure, Ryan says. Often a fee-based advisor will charge an AUM fee while also earning a commission on the investments sold.

A lot of firms are dually registered as fiduciaries and broker-dealers, Ryan says. “So at times, they can have their fiduciary hat on, and at others, can take that hat off and sell you products on commission.”

It’s not enough to ask whether your financial advisor is a fiduciary. If working with a fiduciary is important to you, you need to ask: “Are you required to act as a fiduciary 100% of the time?” Ryan says.

Is Paying for a Financial Advisor Worth It?

Given the impact of fees on investment returns, you have to wonder whether financial advisors are worth the cost. The answer comes down to value.

Financial advisors can add value in more ways than achieving higher returns. For instance, the advisor may use tax minimization strategies to reduce your tax bill. Or the advisor may add value by ensuring that your portfolio is rebalanced appropriately. Perhaps the biggest benefit of working with a financial advisor is making sure you don’t make poor emotional decisions with your money.

“Having a financial advisor might sound expensive, but if you don’t have time to manage your portfolio, that can be more costly,” Bamberg says. “Statistics show that most of the time, a financial advisor will make your portfolio grow more, even after fees, than an individual can do themselves.”

The biggest question when evaluating a financial advisor is whether they’re giving you greater confidence that you’ll meet your financial goals, Ryan says. He suggests asking the advisor to articulate her value for you. The advisor should be able to list all the things that will be done on your behalf to earn the fee. Then you can decide whether a financial advisor is worth the cost.

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What to Know About Financial Advisor Fees and Costs originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 09/22/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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