The Tell-All Series:

How Do Advisors Get Paid?

In this article: Financial advisors get paid 5 different ways. The more closely aligned the advisor’s interest is to yours the better!

Published Aug. 1, 2017

Reading Time: 4 minutes.

The journey of using a financial advisor can be daunting for many. With this in mind, we created the blog series: The Tell-All about Financial Advisors. This post outlines the varied ways advisors get paid. Other Tell-All’s include: Brokers vs. Advisors, What Makes For A Great Advisor? and finally, Do I Need a Financial Advisor? 

Five Ways Financial Advisors Get Paid

There are 5 payment methods, each of which has its pros and cons for the client. The pros and cons mentioned here relate to the way in which each method helps to align the interests of the advisor with those of the client. The more closely aligned, the better.

1. Yearly fee as a percentage of the investment account balance

The advisor receives a yearly % on the balance of your investment account. These fees range from 0.25% to 1.5%, depending on the level of services. This type of payment is generally referred to as % of assets under management or AUM

Pro: The more your investment account grows, the more money the advisor makes i.e. the advisor’s incentives are better aligned with the client’s.

Con: Minimum balances of investable assets generally have to be upwards of $200K to make it appealing enough for a good advisor to provide this service, which means it’s not available to everyone.

2. Commissions paid per trade financial advisors

A financial advisor charges a commission every time they buy or sell any stock or bond on the client’s behalf. This commission is deducted directly from the client’s investment account and cash doesn’t change hands.

Pro: No cash needed. People that have limited cash on hand and can’t, or don’t want to, pay out-of-pocket, tend to gravitate towards this method.

Con: The more trades are made, the more money the advisor makes. The advisor is incentivized to trade a lot in order to generate fees. This often creates a trading mentality in which the advisor reaches out to clients to tell them about “exciting opportunities” or to provide color on the week-to-week market moves. 

3. Commission kickbacks from products sold to you

When advisors buy certain mutual funds or life insurance products on a client’s behalf, they collect an up-front sales commission or “trail commission” each year. Therefore, as long as the client remains invested in the mutual fund or owns the insurance, the advisor continues to receive their annual commission on product sales. 

Pro: Clients aren’t charged directly for the advisor’s service. For clients with savings under $200K and insufficient monthly income to pay an up-front fee for the service, this form of payment can be appealing (although not ideal).

Con: The advisor is incentivized to push a product onto a client that nets them the greatest commission, regardless of whether it’s the best product for the client. Brokers don’t win awards at their firms for best customer service, they win awards for most sales.

4. Flat Fee (Retainer Fee) Financial Advisors

The client pays the advisor a flat annual fee to provide them with financial advice and to invest on their behalf. “Fee-only” means that the only payment the advisor receives comes from the client. “Fee-based” means that most of the payment comes directly from the client. In many instances, fee-based payments may also include commissions on products sold. The yearly fee varies significantly depending on the complexity of the client’s case. Depending on how the planner or advisor works, this can be in the form of an upfront fee, a once-off fee, a monthly fee or an annual fee.

Pro: Since flat fee advisors do not have any other source of fees, besides the client’s, and the fee is not directly tied to the size of the managed investments, the advisor’s incentives are most aligned with the client’s, they will also refer to themselves as being fiduciary. For instance, if a client is deciding between buying a home or investing their savings, an advisor that is compensated out of a % of investable assets, might be more inclined to recommend that the client invests the money, whereas an advisor on a retainer fee is truly impartial on his recommendation, since he earns the same regardless. (That’s why it is important to clarify ALL revenue streams with the advisor.)

Con: Client pays an out-of-pocket fee every year, which is not only psychologically tough, but it becomes an expense from their annual income rather than from their savings.

5. Hourly Fee Financial Advisors

The advisor charges an hourly fee to the client.

Pro: The advisor’s incentives are well aligned with the client’s. This type of payment option is also great for a client with limited cash flow or savings.

Con: The client pays an out-of-pocket fee. There is also the possibility that an advisor overcomplicates advice in order to increase their hours.

What payment method is best for me?

You will need to consider both the payment method, the type of advisor, their competency levels, and your circumstances. For now, we will focus solely on payment methods, with the other factors coming up in the rest of the series.

The below chart illustrates the worst and best-aligned forms of payments for clients:

Payment methods for advisors

Please note these are general guidelines, alignment of interest depends greatly on the client’s specific situation.

Generally speaking, working with a “fee-only” financial advisor is often most suitable as it removes most conflicts of interest. The above is related to aligning the interests of the advisor and client, they are NOT recommendations on the advisors’ skills or abilities. However, by knowing how advisors make money, you can identify the payment options that are most suitable to you. With that knowledge, you can get a better sense of whether or not an advisor is a good fit from the get-go.

Disclosure: This blog is not investment advice and should not be relied on for such advice or as a substitute for consultation with professional accounting, tax, legal or financial advisors. The observations of industry trends should not be read as recommendations for stocks or sectors.

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