Sunday, July 8, 2012

Part 1: How and Why I got a financial advisor

My mom and boyfriend and some of my close friends will tell you that I can sometimes be annoying when asking for advice.  I’ll ask, they’ll give me a suggestion, and then I decide to do the opposite thing.  Sometimes you don’t realize what it is you want until you’re confronted with doing something entirely different, you know?  In that sense, their advice is critical even though I don’t necessarily follow it.  I once spent an hour (no exaggeration) on the phone with my boyfriend trying to decide whether to hop on a pricey Amtrak train to go to New Haven for a day after some last-minute scheduling crap came up (and took his advice to go, natch).

I’m independent but don’t exist or think in a vacuum.  I was successful in college, but not because I was really smart.  I took advantage of so many resources that were offered, went to nearly every single professor’s office hours, got peer tutors, developed friendships with my advisors, and lived at the career center my senior year.  Re-reading that sentence, it sounds like my college years can be deconstructed into a series of calculated decisions to engage my network and maximize my utility.  And that sounds like I’m an economist.  Neither is true – I’m just drawn to smart, intelligent people and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn from them.  I feel similarly about my many awesome, intelligent friends.  I’m always in the best mood after hanging out with my group of HS girlfriends – they’re just so damn talented and being around them gives me a high.

In the last year, I’ve spent significant time thinking about my goals, evaluating my life, and trying to learn about personal finance and investing.  There is a lot I see in our culture that I don’t like.  I hate that credit card debt is acceptable.  How in the hell do people spend money they don’t have? (I’m not talking about people making minimum wage who legitimately need to use credit cards to purchase necessities.)  Why do people feel entitled to luxuries like cable and pricey clothes while disregarding mountains of student debt?  Most Americans are under-saving … and this is not meant to devolve into a judgmental rant (though it has). My point is just that in a lot of ways, my mentality and priorities are divorced from mainstream American culture.

I have wanted to talk with a financial advisor since I started working.  Saving for retirement can be complicated, planning for a timeframe that’s way longer than the amount of years I’ve been alive is a large amount of work.  It didn’t seem to me that paying for professional advice was unreasonable, and I knew that it was something I would benefit from.  It’s like having big news – the news feels bigger and more real once you’ve told someone.  Similarly, I wanted to share my thoughts with someone in a professional capacity, and get their advice and approval.  I found my advisor through a website that lists fee-only financial planners, saw that he was rated highly by the Washington Post, and gave him a call.

Before moving forward, we decided to meet for half an hour in his office to talk.  I felt incredibly stupid calling Tom in the first place, as here I was fresh out of school, with essentially no money to my name.  But I’m happy to be weird in this regard, so I did.  His office is in a fancy building – clearly, image is everything, and he works with a number of very wealthy clients.  I am his youngest client, though he is working with a few recent graduates.  We talked about a lot, for an hour and a half instead of the intended half hour.  I told him about my life, my job, my tentative grad school plans.  We talked about good books we’ve read, behavioral finance, mistakes he has seen his female clients make.  He talked about his background, variety of clients, what he typically does for them, his investing philosophy.  He told me he saw his role as making sure that I didn’t make any huge mistakes, and that I was already miles ahead of my peers.

Apparently the big mistake he’s seen female clients consistently make, is buying a house.  He’s seen plenty of women buy a house because they like the stability of having a home, of being part of a community.  Now these same women have underwater houses, albatrosses around their neck.  Some of them have met boyfriends and husbands and are looking to live with them, and the house is an additional complication.  I’m really excited that Sebastien has stopped talking about buying a house in DC when he moves here, because I generally think that doing so in our position is a mistake.  I can see the appeal, but a house is not an investment.

People have told me that sharing dollar figures (my rent, my salary) is obnoxious and off-putting.  Suffice it to say, I paid Tom much less than I feel his services are worth, and probably more than you would.  I went into our introductory meeting hoping I had found someone that would be valuable in my life.  I am against speculative investing and management fees, favoring index funds and other passive investments for the most part.  I needed someone who was also conservative, someone who had worked with people in my position (little money, lots of ambition), but also assists people like future me (still ambitious, just with way more money).

I found someone who not only fits the bill, but also is interested in educating me.  When I finished high school, I remember talking to my teachers and telling them about my future plans.  The way they looked at me and responded to my college plans, it just seemed like they thought I had everything in the world to look forward to, like they knew I would accomplish something.  It was the best feeling in the world, and not one you get to experience often.  I felt that way in Tom’s office – he was pragmatic, reasonable, experienced, and thought highly of me.  And he also told me I was too smart not to go to go to grad school – a little flattery goes a long way.

I have so many more specifics to share, and I’m obviously not getting fully into the reasons why I chose my financial advisor.  I think I’ve already talked too much, ending on a light note seems appropriate.  Be honest with me – do you think I’m crazy for having a financial advisor?  Have you thought about having one, or do you think they’re useless? 


  1. Financial advisors are not useless at all. In my experience, they often have the bigger picture in mind instead of a short term picture (buying a house, car, reckless spending) and can deter clients from making stupid decisions which might cost them a lot of money. I've noticed that many of my peers spend money they anticipate in the future, which, like you mentioned, is a dumb thing to do. As an added bonus, their commission fee is probably worth the thousands you'll save with smart planning and the potential hours spent doing research.

    1. Couldn't agree more ... Asian engineer. (Whoever you are - too many people I know fit that description.) =) I agree that good financial advisors have the experience and knowledge that enables them to better look at the large picture. That was one of my concerns -- retirement, grad school, potentially buying a house, travel -- were all goals to save for, and each has a different time frame and thus potentially very different vehicles to use. I think that for relatively smart people who are willing to take time to learn about finance, advisors who charge a flat rate for management (say, 2% of investments) are a terrible deal. A fee-only advisor is tremendously helpful, much much less expensive, and you retain full control (and responsibility) of your money. And every time I have a weird thought or question (such as the 'cheapness' of stocks relative to bonds that I wrote about earlier), I can email my advisor and get his thoughts. Definitely agree about the hours saved -- he was able to analyze all of the funds in my accounts and utilize expensive software/research I don't have access to.