What Do Financial Advisors Actually Do?

This article first appeared on Forbes.com

What do I do for clients? I’ve run into this question a lot lately, and I understand why it comes up. The term “financial advisor” can mean lots of different things—different approaches, different expertise and different daily routines. Plus, we’re not cheap. It’s only natural that people want to know what they’re getting for the thousands of dollars they pay for financial advisory services.

My answer is that I help people put the jigsaw puzzle of their life together. I help them make the best decisions about their money so they can create the life they want now and in the future.

I love the jigsaw puzzle analogy because it’s so relatable. Almost all of us have struggled to reconcile the beautiful picture on the puzzle box top with the hundreds of scattered pieces inside. Most people come to me with many, many pieces. I help them complete their picture with a combination of the science of financial planning (that is, figuring out how their cash flow, taxes, insurance, investing and estate planning all fit together) and the art of planning (dealing with individual money mindsets, exploring emotional baggage with money and dealing with any behavioral blocks).

That’s the big picture. Now let’s look at the nuts and bolts. What is it like to work with a comprehensive, fiduciary advisor? These are some of the tasks my clients and I complete when we work together.

The science side

As a comprehensive advisor, I use my technical knowledge and skill in areas of cash flow, taxes, insurance, investing and estate planning to help my clients make the best money decisions for them.

I work with a lot of younger clients, mostly couples, and so a lot of our time is spent on cash flow — maximizing what’s coming in and what’s going out. I spend four core meetings to determine what’s important to them, the resources that they have and how to align those resources and goals. Then we set up a system that becomes automatic and intentional around how they spend their money.

From a practical standpoint that includes:

  • Completing a few values and goals exercises.
  • Reviewing and analyzing the last six months of their spending.
  • Discussing whether their current spending is aligned with what they value. And if not, what needs to change in order to get in complete alignment.
  • Creating a plan that works for both spouses in regards to funding the different buckets for now and in the future.
  • Determining how much each spouse contributes to his or her different accounts/buckets and setting up automatic transfers.

After the initial spending plan is set up, I also conduct a comprehensive review of the other foundational parts of their plan. That includes a review of the last three years of tax returns, a risk tolerance and capacity assessment, a comprehensive review of your health, life, disability, home and auto insurance and an estate plan review. These assessments then leads us to take action on the gaps in their planning that include tasks like:

  • Gathering information to file previous year returns.
  • Amending previously filed returns that are either missing information or filed in a way that negatively affects other parts of their plan.
  • Taking advantage of deductions like the adoption credit, charitable contributions for board expenses and suspended losses on rental real estate.
  • Reconstructing basis in a S-Corporation.
  • Diversifying an investment portfolio that was invested heavily in company stock.
  • Developing an investment policy statement that you can refer to when making investing decisions.
  • Maximizing access to Restricted Stock Units (RSUs) and Employer Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP).
  • Balancing a couple’s overall portfolio based on each person’s access to different savings vehicles.
  • Increasing life insurance to make sure all obligations are covered.
  • Obtaining renters insurance.
  • Adding retirement protection riders on current disability policies.
  • Helping retitle assets to fund trusts.
  • Updating beneficiary designations on different assets.
  • Connecting clients to trustworthy estate planners.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives you a sense of the technical aspects that are covered in this type of planning relationship.

The art side

The art side of the spectrum is much more abstract but just as important as the technical side. Many people seek an advisor because they’ve tried a variety of things on their own that never seem to work out. They are “all over the place” with their approach and don’t feel in control of their money. They can’t seem to stay on track with the goals they have set for themselves. Often they can’t seem to get on the same page with their spouses because the money conversations lead to fights.

So what does the art side look like?

  • Celebrating successes and working through challenges that come up.
  • Listening to both spouses’ viewpoints and developing a plan that works for both.
  • Discussing topics, including family history, and figuring out how that has influenced current spending habits.
  • Navigating discussions and walking through the steps towards creating a pre-nuptial agreement.
  • Guiding clients through emotional, difficult conversations about end of life planning so that they can address estate-planning issues.
  • Breaking big goals into smaller steps to ensure continued progress.
  • Providing client notes for reference and to help with retention.
  • Helping a client go after and get a dream job.
  • Quelling anxiety over moving across the country.

Most people come to me in the midst of changes, challenges and opportunities. They need guidance on the best next steps. They need tools and objective perspective to help feel in control of their money. So, whether I’m helping spur action where you were once stagnant or preventing action that may be detrimental, I’m here as an objective, non-judgmental guide who helps you get stuff done.

Is this worth it?

I get this question in a variety of ways. Will you make me more money than you cost me? What’s the return on investment (ROI) for your services? What’s the monetary value of what you do? In the end, each person is asking, “Is this worth it?”

While I think it’s an extremely valuable service and have seen some amazing progress and transformation, whether it’s worth it is actually up to you. I try not to convince people that they need financial planning because real change won’t be effective unless you’re ready for it.

I urge you not to just look at tax savings or investment gains (although those are definitely important and do occur) when determining whether it’s worth it to you. You’re also paying for wisdom, accessibility, organization, support, trust, time, tools and meaningful conversations that move your life forward.

I’m your advocate, looking ahead, helping you prepare, respond and stay accountable to who you are and what matters most to you. And I’m doing this with a focus on your best interest, rather than trying to steer you a certain way because it’s better for me.

This comes through in several ways:

  • Helping a client respond to a surprise $9,000 tax bill that ended up getting her a refund.
  • Urging a client to negotiate a raise to get what she’s worth.
  • Analyzing the financial implications of buying a new home versus renovating an existing one.
  • Providing relief and hope by showing how a couple can pay off debt and save for wedding faster than they thought.
  • Completing an annual review for all clients to show how far they’ve come and where they still have yet to go.

So think about what it’s worth to you to have less stress and anxiety over your spending, to feel organized and confident in the decisions that you make or actually achieve the goal that you want. Also think about what it costs you not to have the tough conversations, continue to tread water rather than move forward or spend time worrying about money issues when you could be with your family.

I hope this helps provide some concrete details on what working with comprehensive advisors looks like. I would love to here your thoughts or insights on other benefits advisors provide. Message, tweet or email me at the links above.