Chris Farrell: Hunting for a CFP requires research and diligence

Q: My husband and I are 67 and both still working, but need assistance to start thinking about a retirement budget and especially tax advice, given our savings. We are both taking Social Security — my husband takes his full amount and I am taking the spousal benefit, which increased our tax burden this year. Any more advice you could provide about finding a fee-based certified financial planner beyond the mantra “Find a fee-based CFP” would be great.

A: The way you framed your question suggests you’re up to speed on what you want from a planner. But, just in case, I think it pays to spend time doing your own research before meeting with a planner. The insights make for a richer, more satisfying consultation. Two resources I frequently recommend are the website Analyzenow.com and Mark Miller’s book “The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work, and Living.’’

Truth is, there is no easy way to find a professional planner even with the CFP credential. There are a lot of CFPs, almost 70,000 nationwide. Yet most, but not all, highly qualified financial planners don’t want to work with middle-class clientele. Many of the financial planning alternatives aren’t particularly satisfactory, however. Online advisory services are expanding their presence, from the offerings of giant mutual fund companies to independent entrepreneurial enterprises. I like a number of the online planners, but in essence the services are best for the DIY crowd.

With those caveats in mind, if you want to consult with a planner I still recommend working with a fee-only professional to minimize conflicts of interest. Another reason I like CFPs and comparable designations is that the adviser adheres to the fiduciary standard, the profession’s gold standard. A fiduciary is legally required to give you advice that fits your needs (which is what most people assume planners do anyway).

A CFP doesn’t have to manage your portfolio, although most would like to and offer the service. You can hire a CFP to come up with a recommended blueprint or guideline after a consultation or series of conversations. Many planners are willing to charge by the hour or as a package deal. The advice won’t be cheap, however — probably in the $1,500 to $3,500 price range for a broad-based plan.

How do you find a planner? The best method remains suggestions from friends, colleagues, and the network of people you trust, especially if they are at a similar stage in life. I would check out the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanning.com. The Garrett planners are CFPs willing to keep the cost of their advice down by breaking down the major financial questions into discrete tasks. The main website for finding highly qualified fee-only financial planners is the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org and the website for finding CFPs is www.fpanet.org. (But not all CFPs are fee-only.)

Comparison shop. Make sure you know how the planner is compensated and the cost of various services. You want a clear explanation of what the planner can and cannot do for you. You’ll also want to find a planner who is well versed in the personal finances of living in retirement. Check into his or her background (for CFPs the record of disciplinary actions is at www.cfp.net) and follow up on references. Good luck.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for “Marketplace Money.” His e-mail is cfarrell@mpr.org.

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