Skip to main content
portfolio strategy

Part of being a good personal finance columnist is to know when the help of a specialist is required to answer questions about money.

One of these situations came up in The Globe and Mail financial boot camp we've been running all week . A bunch of recruits asked questions about retirement that came down to this: "Have I saved enough?" It's gratifying that people trust a personal finance columnist enough to answer questions such as this, but I suggest they see a specialist.

That would be a financial planner, ideally one who works on a fee-for-service basis. Planners of this type charge either a flat or hourly fee for a consultation and advice. They don't sell investments, just expertise.

If you click on the boot camp link, you'll find a retirement section that includes a link to a very good online retirement income calculator. It's a worthwhile start in seeing how set you are for retirement, but it's no substitute for speaking to a financial planner.

Cary List, president and CEO of the Financial Planning Standards Council, says a properly accredited planner will attack the question of whether you've saved enough from multiple perspectives. To start, there's the question of how much income you'll need based on your spending habits and the lifestyle you plan to live in retirement.

A planner would also consider your expected lifespan and whether you anticipate any dependents in retirement – adult kids or aging parents. If you haven't thought about the need to help your parents, be sure to read a story we ran this week on a 67-year-old semi-retired man who is helping to support his 93-year-old mother with dementia . He saved well, but his mom's health-care costs exceed her income by a significant amount.

Two other planning considerations mentioned by Mr. List were tax issues, specifically whether you will be in a higher or lower income-tax bracket once retired, and the question of whether you want to leave money to your children or a favourite charity. "There's a whole lot of discovery that needs to happen between the planner and client so that the planner can conclude whether the client has saved enough," he said.

People have questions about whether they've saved enough for retirement, and planners have answers. So why did people turn to a financial boot camp with their retirement questions rather than seeing a planner? As head of an organization that oversees about 17,000 certified financial planners (CFPs) in Canada, it's Mr. List's job to try and understand this disconnect.

Part of the issue is that people can be reluctant to pay out of pocket for expert help, Mr. List said. "If we didn't have free medical care in Canada, how many people would actually go to the doctor if they had to take out a chequebook and pay?"

Another challenge is that it's difficult to find a true financial planner. Outside of Quebec, the title means nothing in terms of accreditation or training. Some planners plan, others are basically mutual fund sales people. To further complicate things, the term planner is sometimes used interchangeably with financial adviser or consultant.

Mr. List suggests being very clear in telling a planner or adviser that you want a financial plan about retirement, or something more broad. Ask what the cost is – will you pay directly for the plan, or will you compensate the adviser and his or her firm directly by buying investments used to put the plan into action?

The beauty of fee-for-service planning is that it cuts investment sales out of the picture, thereby putting the focus squarely on planning as opposed to products that generate fees and commissions for the seller. Unfortunately, fee-for-service planning is hard to find. Mr. List estimates that there are fewer than 1,000 of these planners in the country.

You'll find a link to an online database of fee-for-service planners on our boot camp web page. You can also try googling the phrase along with the name of your hometown, and calling financial planning firms and planners in your area to ask if they do fee-for-service work.

If the answer is yes, your next question is how much the fees are. It would be nice to be able to say that fee-for-service planners are leading the way on transparent fee disclosure, but that's not always the case. Only some, for example, have a fees page on their website.

One planner who does list her fees openly is Sandi Martin of Spring Personal Finance in Gravenhurst, Ont. A couple that wants a retirement consultation and has all the pertinent information in hand – documentation on personal investments and company pensions, if applicable – would pay $750. That covers an exploratory session lasting an hour or so by phone or Skype (Gravenhurst is in cottage country north of Toronto), preparation of a plan and a follow-up meeting of 60 to 90 minutes.

In discussing retirement, Ms. Martin said she goes over a client's anticipated spending in retirement and expected income from government sources – Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement – as well as personal savings and company pension. She then does a cash flow projection to gauge whether the client can expect sufficient retirement income. "I don't think there's any way to say, 'I guarantee you won't run out of money,'" she said. "But I can say that based on the risks that you're most worried about, this is the plan that will protect you from those risks to the best of our knowledge and assumptions about the future."

Financial planning doesn't have to be limited to retirement matters. Shannon Simmons of Simmons Financial Planning is happy to accept millennials as clients and charges as little as $190 for a session with an individual lasting an hour or two. "I cover everything from making a basic budget to saving for a house," she said. "A huge part of what I do is financial planning with new families."

The FPSC website has a search engine to help people find a CFP, but it doesn't let you zero in on fee-for-service planners. "It's something that we continue to look at and as there's a greater demand for it, we would certainly consider it," Mr. List said.

Let's try and make it happen. E-mail to say you'd like to be able to find a financial planner who works on a fee-for-service basis. Tell them I sent you.

Finding the right fit

Here's a game plan for finding a financial planner to answer this question for you. You need to ask:

1) What are your credentials?

Preferred answer: Certified financial planner (CFP), registered financial planner (RFP) or personal financial planner (PFP) – a legitimate planner can be in the process of earning one of these designations.

2) Do I have to buy investments from you to get a financial plan?

Preferred answer: No, you can buy a financial plan or consultation a la carte (called a fee-for-service arrangement); some planners also sell investments, others just plan.

3) How much do you charge your clients?

Preferred answer: An hourly, per-session or flat rate geared to what you need; could be as little as a couple hundred dollars for a single meeting to a few thousand for a full written plan; some planners will do the plan for you and receive compensation through commissions and fees on investments they sell.

4) What type of planning work do you generally do?

Preferred answer: Services scaled to your needs.

5) How does your planning process work?

Preferred answer: Something along the lines of a fact-finding meeting, preparation of a plan or oral presentation followed by another meeting to discuss the plan.

6) Do I get a written plan?

Preferred answer: It depends on what you want and need.

7) Can you discuss my investments?

Preferred answer: There really isn't one – many fee-for-service planners are not licensed to discuss specific investments and can address only basic portfolio-building matters such as the appropriate mix of stocks and bonds for your needs.