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financial advisor definition

Unlike other professionals like lawyers and medical doctors, financial advisors do not have to earn specific degrees or pass licensing exams to advise clients. The term financial advisor is a catchall phrase for financial professionals filling a number of different roles and performing a number of different tasks. Generally speaking, a financial advisor provides financial advice and guidance to clients tailored to their situation and goals. This includes estate planning, managing investment portfolios and drawing down assets during retirement. If working with a financial advisor is something that interests you, make sure you know what financial advisors do and how they can help you.

What Is a Financial Advisor?

A financial advisor is a financial professional who helps clients with topics related to their personal finances. While financial advisors are generally thought of in terms of working for individuals, many financial advisors also provide services to institutional clients like pension plans, charitable organizations, municipal governments and corporations. Some even advise other financial advisors. For the purpose of this article, though, we will focus on what financial advisors do for individuals.

Financial advisors all help clients with money issues, but the exact services they provide will depend on their specialty and training. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of financial advisory services: financial planning and asset management. Some advisors do only one of these while others do both.

What Financial Advisors Do: Financial Planning

financial advisor definition

One service that many financial advisor provide is financial planning. Financial planning generally refers to the non-investing aspects of wealth planning.

This can mean a lot of things, but some of the services you can expect include:

  • Tax planning – help you minimize your tax payments and possibly to actually file your taxes
  • Estate planning – help you leave your estate in good shape and with minimal taxation to your family when you die
  • Retirement planning – ensure you’ve saved enough to retire comfortably when you’re ready
  • Philanthropic planning – help you give back in a tax-efficient way
  • Insurance planning – make sure you’re adequately covered and get the best option for your situation
  • Budgeting – make sure you know what you should be spending and saving each month

As noted earlier, financial advisors are not required to get specific degrees to call themselves financial advisors. That said, many do get specialized training to be certified in topics like accounting, investing and life insurance. Some of the most common certifications are: certified financial planner (CFP), certified public accountant (CPA), chartered financial analyst (CFA) and chartered life underwriter (CLU).

What Financial Advisors Do: Asset Management

Asset management, on the other hand, is when financial advisors help you with your  investments and manage how your money is working for you.

There are two basic types of asset management: discretionary and non-discretionary. Discretionary asset management means that your financial advisor has complete control over your money and will make investment decisions for you. Non-discretionary asset management means your advisor has to get your approval before making any trade or investment decisions.

Each advisor who does asset management will also have a unique investing style. Some will focus on mutual fund investments and index investing. Others will be all about bonds. Some will make stock picks, while others specialize in Treasurys. If you are choosing an asset manager, make sure you know their style and that you agree with their investing strategies.

Types of Financial Advisors

There are a number of more specific financial professionals you’ll find under the financial advisor umbrella. These include:

  • Registered Investment Advisor (RIA): RIAs are registered with a state or federal agency to give investment advice. They can help with buying and selling securities and other investment practices. RIAs are bound by fiduciary duty.
  • Financial planner: Financial planners are a more general advisor who helps with the creation of a holistic plan for your finances. They can help with areas like retirement planning, education funding and budgeting.
  • Wealth manager: Wealth managers tend to be for those with more assets, especially high-net-worth individuals. These professionals help with areas like risk management, capital gains and estate planning.

How to Choose a Financial Advisor

Working with a financial advisor can be beneficial to people in many different financial situations. As we covered above, financial advisors can help you with a wide range of tasks, from strategically investing your assets to creating a financial plan to keep you on track to achieve your long-term goals.

Once you’ve decided you want to work with one, you have to find a financial advisor who meets your needs. This is sometimes easier said than done. Consider using your network to get recommendations. Your family and friends may have an advisor they know and trust, or a firm they like. If you’re already a client of a major bank, you could consider using that bank’s advisory arm. Alternately, you can use SmartAsset’s free financial advisor matching service.

As you evaluate your options, it’s important to do your research and ask questions. Make sure you know what services your advisor offers and understand how he or she makes money, which we discuss below.

How Financial Advisors Make Money

financial advisor definition

There are two types of fee structures that financial advisors generally use. Fee-only financial advisors exclusively make money from the fees they charge for financial advisory services. Investment advisors most commonly charge a fee based on a percentage of assets under management. Other common types of fees include fixed fees, where you pay a single predetermined fee for the services you are receiving, and hourly fees, where you’re charged based on the time your advisor spends on your account.

Fee-based advisors also charge asset-based fees or work on a flat-fee or hourly basis. Additionally, they may act as insurance agents or representatives of broker-dealers and collect sales commissions or brokerage fees from third parties. This arrangement can present potential conflicts of interest. If you’re concerned about this, you may be better off working with a fee-only advisor.

The Bottom Line

A financial advisor is a professional who helps individuals and institutions manage their money and other financial concerns. Financial advisors may provide financial planning, asset management or some combination of the two. Two types of fee structures exist: fee-based and fee-only. Because financial advisor is generally a catchall term rather than a specific one, make sure you know exactly what services a financial advisor does and does not offer before you sign up to work with one.

Tips for Finding a Financial Advisor

  • SmartAsset’s free financial advisor matching service can help you find the right financial advisor for you. You just answer a few questions and we match you with up to three advisors in your area, all free of disclosures and fully vetted. Then, you talk to each advisor and make a decision about how to move forward.
  • When you talk to the advisors, ask them if they are fiduciaries. This means they put their clients’ interests before their own and their firm’s. If they aren’t fiduciaries, they must only make suitable recommendations.

Photo Credit: © iStock/AndreyPopov, © iStock/Jirapong Manustrong, © iStock/seb_ra

Ben Geier, CEPF® Ben Geier is an experienced financial writer currently serving as a retirement and investing expert at SmartAsset. His work has appeared on Fortune, Mic.com and CNNMoney. Ben is a graduate of Northwestern University and a part-time student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). When he isn’t helping people understand their finances, Ben likes watching hockey, listening to music and experimenting in the kitchen. Originally from Alexandria, VA, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
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