Brokers Offer Financial Planning -- but Be Careful

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BrokersWe all need to engage in some financial planning, but few of us are eager to do so. According to a study from the ING Retirement Research Institute, almost a third of us would rather clean a bathroom than plan for our financial future. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help us, though they're not all equally helpful.

The latest issue of Consumer Reports reviews the financial-planning advice offered by major financial companies. The researchers found that many major brokerages offered their customers solid "free, basic investment plans." From an investing point of view, this seems like a savvy move, as these companies can attract new customers with promises of free financial assessments and might retain existing customers with them. They may also be able to sell these customers some revenue-generating products as well.

E*TRADE Financial (NAS: ETFC) , for example, offers a free retirement-planning guide, along with access to Chartered Retirement Planning Counselors. As it's both a bank and a brokerage, it's aiming to offer a full spectrum of services while also improving its own financial health. Its loan delinquencies have been falling steadily for many quarters now.

Winners
Getting top marks among discount brokers for their financial advice in the Consumer Reports review were Vanguard and Charles Schwab (NYS: SCHW) . For full-service brokers, Edward Jones, Raymond James, and Ameriprise did well. Consumer Reports also singled out Citigroup (NYS: C) and T. Rowe Price for offering advice that was most appropriate for customers.

Cautions
It's not all a bed of roses, though, when you're seeking financial advice. Here are some things to be wary of:

  • Some advisors will try to sell you on investments that aren't best for you, such as variable annuities which can carry high fees, among other drawbacks.
  • Some advisors may receive commissions for selling you certain products, leading to a conflict of interest.
  • Many advisors are actually brokers and not Certified Financial Planners (CFPs), who have a fiduciary responsibility to put your interests first. Brokers only have to recommend suitable investments, so they may point you toward an expensive fund when a similar, cheaper one exists.
  • Some charts and graphs you're shown may be misleading, omitting fees from the results they brag about. Look closely.

Keep in mind, too, that you may be offered more services if you have more assets held by the firm. Many brokerages have been targeting the wealthy as a source for significant additional revenue.

As the folks at Bain have noted, Citigroup, HSBC (NYS: HBC) , and Wells Fargo (NYS: WFC) are zeroing in on customers with more than $100,000 in assets, aiming to cross-sell them investment and insurance products and to sign them up for "wealth management" services. Bain adds, "Firms such as Vanguard and Charles Schwab target self-directed investors by offering low-cost access to products, usually online or through call centers." They're often targeting those with $250,000 or more in assets, and while some brokerages, such as Schwab, offer face-to-face consultations at physical locations, in general offerings are online or via phone calls. And finally, traditional full-service brokerages often target those with $1 million or more, and let their financial advisors keep a big chunk of revenue generated.

It's good to remember that while you're looking out for your future security, financial-services companies are looking to grow their revenue and profits. Ideally they'll do that while serving you well, but that's not always the case.

What to do
There a bunch of things you can do to better position yourself financially. Here are some ideas:

  • When receiving advice from your bank or brokerage, remember that some or much of it may be one-size-fits-all, not taking into account your particular circumstances. Make sure that you receive and act on advice that meets your needs and priorities, such as aggressively growing a nest egg, protecting the nest egg you've grown, or saving for college costs as well as retirement. Consider whether the investments recommended are too conservative or aggressive for you.
  • Be vigilant. Ask questions about fees, commissions, restrictions, and best- and worst-case scenarios. The more you read up on investing on the side, the more savvy you'll be about evaluating the advice you're given.
  • Consult an independent financial advisor, in addition to whatever advice your brokerage offers. You can find a fee-only one (vs. a commission-paid one) via the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. You might even want to consult two or three advisors, to gather more suggestions and weigh various advice.
  • Don't sign up for any investments without looking into their fees and rules. Otherwise, you may end up locked into something costly and ineffective.
  • Don't assume that your brokerage is best for you. Learn more about other solid brokers and find the right fit.

Don't let these warnings deter you. Financial planning is critical if you want to end up with the most comfortable retirement possible. Cleaning your bathroom might be preferable to financial planning, but it won't do anything for your portfolio.

Find the best broker for you. Check out the Fool's Broker Center for more information.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article mistakenly mentioned USAA and Scottrade among top discount brokers for financial advice. While these brokers received the two top overall ratings in the survey, neither received a rating in the financial advice category, and Scottrade does not provide financial advice to its customers. The Fool regrets the error.

At the time this article was published Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian holds no position in any company mentioned. Check out her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of T. Rowe Price, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo and has created a covered strangle position on Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Charles Schwab. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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