7 key questions dentists should ask before hiring a financial advisor
Not asking these questions can cost you years of work, savings, and peace of mind.
On a crisp, spring day in 1982, two friends graduated from dental school. Jim and Bill were their names. They had a lot in common—both were top in their class, personable, and ambitious.
Thirty-two years after graduation, I’m sitting down with these two seasoned dentists answering a few of their financial questions. They are still very much alike! Both are happily married, they have children and grandchildren, and they each enjoy great reputations in their community.
There's just one difference: their retirement plan. Jim is thinking of adding a fifth workday to increase collections. He is actively trying to increase his income and put away essential cash before he's able to retire.
Bill, on the other hand, is in the process of finalizing his retirement. He is spending fewer days at the practice and more days fishing, traveling, and skiing with his grandkids. Bill's associate is already in place and ready to purchase the practice, which will add a little extra cushion to Bill’s already substantial retirement nest egg.
So, what made the difference? They both had similar incomes almost every year since graduation. The difference wasn't about having more financial knowledge, more skill, or dedication to their craft. It wasn't even about luck. Jim and Bill were both excellent dentists, and the difference was simple:
Bill had a great financial advisor. Jim didn't.
Is it really that simple?
From my perspective, it was just that simple. And honestly, it’s sad for me to watch.
Bill is worth far more money today. He made small, above-average financial decisions during his 30-year career, resulting in a higher personal worth at an earlier age. It wasn’t a stroke of luck, a matter of privilege, or rocket science — it was financial science.
Where it all went wrong for Jim was when he failed to do his own due diligence when seeking a financial advisor. He defaulted to working with his brother-in-law, primarily because he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. He made small, below-average financial decisions during his career, never knowing what he was really missing out on. Jim wasted precious years traveling down the wrong road.
Because there is such a low barrier to become a “financial planner,” you’ll find a wide gap between good and bad advisors who carry all kinds of titles and credentials. Some “advisors" have very little financial background and are largely self-proclaimed experts.
My point is this: So what if he's a friend! So what if he's a family member or a nice guy with a fancy car. So what if he's written a book, taken you out for sushi, or bought you tickets to the Denver Bronco's game! (Ok, that one might win me over.) Don't get caught up and underestimate the impact these decisions have on your future. None of these said credentials matter when it comes to backing up your financial future and your ability to retire when YOU want. Who are you listening to? Who is shaping your financial outlook and decisions? Who do you trust?
I'll give it to you straight from the horse's mouth. Here are questions you need to ask your financial advisor so that you can go to sleep tonight knowing you're working with the best financial advisor for you and your family.
Question #1: Can you describe the types of clients you work with?
As a dentist, it’s important to select an advisor who understands your unique career and all of its challenges. The best financial advisors have the ability to anticipate problems you will experience in the future, not just the problems that are currently on your mind. Find someone who has worked with dentists and specialists of varied ages and income levels.
Many financial advisors you meet will have experience in subjects that apply to everyone. Things like retirement planning, investments, insurance, personal budgeting, etc. But the best advisors have experience in subjects that only apply to you—things like equipment and real estate financing, practice transitions, practice profitability analysis, income tax budgeting, corporate and personal retirement plans, staff benefit issues, disability insurance, and liability protection.
Why does someone need a specialist advisor? Because these dentist-specific, practice-related issues affect your retirement in ways the generalist financial planner simply can’t see. If your advisor hasn’t worked with multiple dentists and specialists at different phases throughout their career, you may not be in the best hands.
Specialist advisors tend to work closely with accounts, attorneys, equipment & supply vendors, practice management consultants, tech & marketing companies, and other dental industry specialists. These synergies can often help you save money and improve the coordination between your personal and practice finances.
Question #2: How do you make money?
Advisors hold different types of licenses. Most planners are paid through one of the following:
• Commissions for products they sell (commission-based)
• Mostly fees you pay them, plus commissions on products they sell (fee-based)
• Only fees you pay them (fee-only)
I recommend dentists work with a fee-based or fee-only advisor. The best advice comes from independent advisors who are not employed by a company that has a product-sales focus. In other words, work with John — a fee-only financial planner (flat fee, hourly fee, or % of assets under management), rather than Doug — a commission-based salesman who works for XYZ insurance, bank, or mutual fund company.
Just because someone is a fee-based or fee-only financial advisor doesn’t mean he is a great advisor. And just because someone is a commission-based salesperson, doesn’t mean she is a predatory shark. But I would limit your search to someone who is fee-based or fee-only, as I think you’ll find this pool of advisors to be some of the most experienced and trustworthy in the industry.
Question #3: How do you invest money for your clients? How do you invest your own money?
Ask the advisor to explain how he invests money for clients. Then follow up by asking what influences (academic and professional) have helped shape his opinions over time. Everyone has influences—especially as it relates to investing money.
Beware of advisors who claim to be able to forecast the future, especially if they have a sort of smartest-guy-in-the-room mentality. Trying to anticipate future events is not sustainable, and it is very, very risky. Likewise, be cautious if an advisor begins to place too much credibility on his own personal acumen or proprietary models that he has developed. Investments perform well based on forces that are far greater than the financial advisor’s ability to control or predict.
Question #4: What happens to me if something happens to you?
If an advisor were to have an accident and become unable to perform his duties, who would continue to service you and your practice? How much of the advice is documented into a system or format that can be easily understood by the succeeding advisor? Good financial advisors have a process in place for easily transferring all of your information, recommendations and financial planning goals and objectives.
Beware of advisors who are solo practitioners, working without the support of a team. A team-based service approach allows for your individual needs to be handled, even if something happens to your primary advisor. Some advisors keep too much of your information inside of their head and put your hard-earned money in jeopardy as a consequence. Whether you work with a big or small firm, each advisor should build a process to protect your security by having a good backup plan.
Question #5: What is your educational background?
Advisors often pursue many different professional credentials. Some credentials have rigorous, graduate-level testing requirements that set advisors apart from their peers in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, many credentials are nothing more than a weekend crash course that grants a fancy title.
Some credentials are good baseline measures of competence, due to their overall rigor, time commitment, and ethical standards. If I were looking to hire a financial planner with broad experience, the CFP® would be the most meaningful credential to me. If I were looking to hire an investment advisor or money manager, the CFA® credential would be the most meaningful to me.
No amount of professional credentials or higher education can compensate for a bad business model. But if your financial advisor has no professional credentials, you should ask why. If your financial advisor has a credential I haven’t listed, you may want to do some additional research to determine the relative rigor.
Question #6: What is your process for clients? Can you describe how you do your work?
If the advisor is offering to help you reach your financial goals, find out more about the process they follow to help their clients. If someone asked you this question about your dental practice, you could probably describe in some detail what they would experience. Your advisor should be able to do the same.
The more concrete, proactive, and explicit the process, the more likely you are to be happy with your advisor.
Is the service an "a la carte" menu or a comprehensive financial planning model? How do they learn about updates to your situation? What information do they track about your finances that helps them have a good picture of your situation? How do they quantify the progress that you are making? What kind of reporting should you expect? What financial subjects do they address with clients? What things do they not address?
The point of this question is to help you gauge the level of experience and competence of your advisor (or prospective advisor). Qualified advisors will go into great detail about why and how they service their clients a particular way. Not everyone has the same process, but good advisors know why they do things the way they do.
Question #7: Are you a fiduciary?
A fiduciary is a fancy word for an advisor who is legally bound to put client interests before his own. Strange as it may seem, many advisors are not legally bound to operate under the fiduciary standard. Such advisors have licenses that only require them to follow a “suitability standard.” In other words, some advisors are held to higher standards than others.
We recommend using a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) because these individuals have a fiduciary duty to act in your best interest and are legally bound to invest funds accordingly. Stockbrokers and insurance agents do not have this higher fiduciary duty. Advisors held to a fiduciary standard have higher legal requirements and are generally more cautious and measured about their advice.
Dentists need good financial advisors they can trust. Today’s financial landscape is as exciting as ever but very complex. Your advisor will either become a great asset or a heavy burden to your finances, and you deserve the best service available.
The right advisor provides unbiased education, unparalleled insight into your career and finances, and has the confidence to make tough decisions during difficult times. The wrong advisor will employ manipulative sales practices, lack transparency, and cast a cloud of doubt over your future. Selecting the right advisor helps you become smarter and more prepared for the challenges you’ll face as a business owner. Selecting the wrong advisor can put you in the dark for decades and make decisions that hurt you and your family’s ability to be self-reliant and independent.
Take the time to inquire before you hire.
Reese Harper is host of the Dentist Money Show, a weekly podcast dedicated to helping dentists make smart financial decisions. He is also founder and CEO of DentistAdvisors.com, a registered investment advisory firm which focuses exclusively on dentists and specialists. His trademarked planning methodology called Elements is used by dentists all over the country to plan, invest, and retire better.
Also by Reese Harper: Top 10 mistakes dentists make on their way to retirement.