Investing for the old and foolish

Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and ...

I’m pretty tired of hearing about scams involving the elderly that paint older people as doddering children. (It’s a corollary of the cultural motif of “Dad is a Doofus”). But lately, there have been some respectful public service announcements with intelligent looking older people (finally!) warning you to check out any investment advisor and be careful. Great idea which I totally support.

However, like many research projects, the devil is in the details. It just isn’t the easiest thing to find out who is trustworthy and knows what they’re doing. Not any different with a doctor, lawyer, or accountant, really. So here are some ways:

One that doesn’t work is checking out Yelp, endorsements or testimonials on the advisor’s website or LinkedIn, etc. Fee-only advisors are not supposed to have any of these, and you’ll note that there aren’t any on the website you’re currently viewing. In fact, if you see testimonials you can be pretty certain you are looking at a broker’s website, not a fee-only advisor. If you see a tiny footnote on a page mentioning anything about the sale of securities, you’re on a stockbroker website.

You can check to see if the advisor has any complaints registered here.(There’s a corresponding one for brokers, but you shouldn’t be looking for one if you listen to me.) But as any landlord who runs credit checks can tell you, just because nobody has registered a formal complaint doesn’t mean the advisor is trouble free. Worth a look, though.

Check out and read the profiles on the Garrett Network and NAPFA. Okay, I’m biased because I belong to both of these organizations. But they are the leading membership organizations for fee-only advisors. Many Garrett members are one or few-person operations dedicated to helping people with everyday financial questions, personalized for the specific situation. NAPFA members range from one-person shops on up, and some are more focused on investment management. Their profiles will indicate this.

Next, talk to the advisor! Many offer a free get acquainted meeting so you can get a feel for their philosophy and methods. Most people in this industry are convivial, so being “nice” isn’t a reason, alone, to hire any of us. But ask some hard questions:

  • what would you do if I wanted to be more conservative/aggressive in investing than you recommend?
  • How did you arrive at your projected return for me?
  • Give me some examples of tough planning problems you’ve worked on.
  • What if I don’t like some of your recommendations?
  • Why do you recommend X?
  • How did you get into financial planning?
  • What would you advise if my portfolio took a dive?

NAPFA and Garrett both have information on what to ask an advisor, and tons more information on what to look for.

And here are some dumb questions—I’m answering them now so you don’t have to ask me:

  • Where do you think the market is going? Who knows? Not me and not your brother in law and not Jim Cramer.
  • How did you do last year? For whom? I don’t have a canned portfolio for everyone, and many of my planning clients are concerned about many more issues than investment portfolios. In any case, one year tells you nothing.
  • I have a great investment that will make me 10-15-100%, guaranteed. What do you think of it? Um, call me back when you lose it all.

But let’s return to investing for people over, say, 80 years old. Most likely, this is not a portfolio that has to last another 30 years, or that needs to support the purchase of a new BMW or extensive and frequent travel. If so, of course we can plan for that. But for most people at this age or above, the portfolio needs to help support a decent lifestyle, quality medical care, assistance when needed, and perhaps leave a legacy to children, charity, or both.

No matter what age, a portfolio should take the least risk necessary to achieve the investor’s goals. Sometimes I see a conflict between children who would like their inheritance to be larger and feel the parent is managing too conservatively to maximize return, but only the owner is really entitled to define the degree of risk that is tolerable. Sometimes it’s the opposite—the elder is scrimping in order to leave a larger legacy, at the cost of reasonable comfort and care.

Other tips:

  • Don’t get desperate or greedy. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  • Know what advice is costing you. As I once told my dad, nobody gives you advice for free just because you’re a nice old guy. Nobody works for free, but know how your advisor is getting paid.
  • Keep learning. There are plenty of tried-and-trues in financial planning, but some things do change. You should always understand how you are going to make money from the investment, and what the rules are (watch out particularly in insurance).
  • Don’t believe someone because they’re nice. Believe them because they know what they’re doing and because they’re honest.
  • Check out the information the advisor puts out. Does the website seem canned? If they blog, does it reflect any personal attitudes and are you comfortable with that kind of advice? Or does the entire website seem like it was put together by corporate headquarters or a production company?
  • Read the advisor’s ADV. It’s a document designed to protect you, the consumer, by giving you information about how the advisor does business, and what investment philosophy he or she promulgates. Also, you can get information about what the advisor charges, and what type of projects they handle. Generally it’s on the website, but the advisor is required to provide it to you so just ask. (Mine’s on this page.)

As with most thorny decisions, you have to seek a reasonable balance, get advice from someone who has background and expertise, and be guided by that expertise while still using your own common sense. BTW, Warren Buffett is nearly 84. I don’t know anyone that thinks he’s old and foolish.

About the author

Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.

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