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Recently, the financial services industry has come under scrutiny for hidden and unexplained costs. These fees are not only unfortunate but are also besmirching the reputation and integrity of the industry. For financial planning to become a respected profession, we need complete transparency of fees. In other words, NO HIDDEN FEES, NO UNDISCLOSED COMMISSIONS, and NO UNEXPLAINED COSTS. Advisor fees should be clearly communicated to clients so that they can make informed decisions with their money. This post will explain how advisors are typically compensated.

Advisors typically hold themselves out as being either commission-based, fee-based, or fee-only.

Commission-based advisors earn income based on a percentage of the product they sell. For example, if you buy an American Funds “A” share fund, you will usually pay a 5.75% commission to the advisor. On a $100,000 investment, you pay the advisor $5,750 for one transaction. The benefit is that it is a one-time fee, and you do not have to pay any more advisor fees. The downside is that you may never hear from the advisor again unless they want to sell you another product for a commission. In this type of relationship, the advisor works for the company of the product they are selling.

Fee-based advisors advise clients for a fee based on the amount of assets they manage AND can make a commission when they suggest a particular product, such as life insurance or long-term care insurance. This form of compensation puts the client at the mercy of the advisor. A good advisor will charge a fee for most investment advice and ONLY charge a commission when the product is ABSOLUTELY necessary for planning purposes, like when life insurance is necessary. IF the advisor charges a fee for managing the investments AND receives a 5.75% commission from the sale of the funds, they would receive $5,750 upfront, followed by an annual percentage, or about $1,0oo. (According to a recent Financial Planning Association Research Center study, 60+% of fee advisors charge 1% or greater.) This is a worst-case scenario. What’s also concerning is that the advisor is working for both you and the company whose product they are selling. This causes a conflict of interest as to their loyalty. Whose interest are they putting first? What is most important with a fee-based advisor relationship is that the advisor discloses ALL their compensation so that you know if they are double dipping by charging fees and commissions.

Fee-Only Advisors are the only advisors that are paid STRICTLY by the client, therefore eliminating many conflicts of interest and introducing objectivity. Fee-only advisors can be compensated in a few different ways:

  1. Hourly – The advisor charges an hourly rate for time spent working on a project. Typical hourly rates range from $100 to $500 an hour.
  2. Fixed Fees – The advisor quotes a fee for a project based on the number of hours he thinks it will take him to complete the plan. Costs range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the situation’s complexity.
  3. Retainer – The advisor charges a flat annual retainer fee for services rendered yearly. Retainer fees range from $2,500 to $30,000 a year.
  4. Percentage-Based Fees – The advisor charges a percentage fee based on the Assets (investments) Under Management, often called AUM.

Hourly and fixed fee payment methods are most utilized by the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and beginner investors seeking a second opinion on their personal finances without a long term commitment. This also keeps the costs down long term because you can get your advice and save money implementing the advice yourself.

Retainer and AUM Fees are mostly utilized by investors with complex situations, such as drawing down income tax efficiently for retirement. Typical retainer and percentage-based clients are well into the accumulation phase of life, or retired investors are in the preservation phase of life.

Retainer fees are reasonable because you can easily judge whether you are getting your money’s worth. The downside is that it doesn’t give the advisor incentive to do any additional work.

Percentage-based fees are reasonable because they align the interest of the client and the advisor to either maintain or increase the value of your portfolio. The downside is that the advisor may suggest planning techniques, like not paying down debt, that maximize the amount of money they manage, or worse, they may take too much risk in order to increase their fees.

All forms of compensation have their conflicts. Finding the right form for you depends on how much advice you need. If you are new to investing, you might consider doing it yourself using online resources. If you are nervous about making these decisions, hire a fee-only advisor hourly, or seek a commission-based advisor and pay a one-time fee. As a seasoned investor, you might delegate your investment, financial planning, and tax needs to a retainer or percentage-based advisor. Or, you could do it yourself and not hire an advisor at all. It all depends on how comfortable you are making decisions that can impact your golden years.

As an advisor, I’m biased toward using an advisor. One reason I am biased is because a good advisor can navigate the HIDDEN FEES in Investing.

Originally published August 11th, 2011. Updated for accuracy 8/11/2023. 

Rich Feight, CFP
Rich Feight, CFP

Hi, I'm Rich Feight I'm a fee-only Certified Financial Planner, successful business owner, and self-made millionaire that knows how to beat the system and become wealthy. I have a lot of clients that have done it too. I'm also pretty good at finding that ever-elusive work/life balance so many of us strive for. Lucky for you I have an abundant mindset and give all my knowledge away on my blog. So if you want to know what it takes to become a millionaire, follow me.

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