5 Times You Need a Financial Adviser — and When the DIY Approach Is Fine

A man's hand points to a graph on some paperwork.
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When I decided to start investing for retirement, I had no clue where to start.

I had no 401(k), individual retirement account (IRA) or health savings account (HSA). I didn’t even have one of those apps that invest your spare change. I was starting from zero.

I assumed that to start investing you had to have a financial adviser.

So I made an appointment with one who would see my husband and me for free — how sweet of him! — and we sat for hours as he went over four investment options.

I left more confused than I came in. I just wanted to give him my money. But it had to pass through so many hands before it could enter the market, and for some reason, we needed another meeting.

At that second meeting, I found out how he got paid: a 5% commission on all of my contributions. I realized that if I did this on my own, even if my returns were worse, I might come out on top with all the money I’d save without his commission.

That was the first time I realized that I didn’t need to use a professional to start investing.

When Can I Do It Without a Financial Adviser?

If you’re just starting out and you don’t have any complex situations like a large inheritance or six-figure income, you can succeed for a while on your own.

But if you’re going to DIY your investments, you’ll need to commit to learning about investing. Luckily, there’s a wealth of information on the internet.

The Penny Hoarder has a lot of articles to help you get started saving for retirement that explain things like:

If you prefer a book to a computer screen, I recommend “The Simple Path to Wealth” by JL Collins. It explains everything you need to know to get a grasp on basic investing concepts while not putting you to sleep.

As long as you continue accumulating cash in your accounts and everything is smooth sailing, that’s the time when, if you feel confident, you can go it alone.

But what are the signs it’s time to pony up for a professional?

When Do I Need a Financial Adviser?

Financial advisor Paul Ruedi poses outside in front of greenery.
Photo courtesy of Paul Ruedi

I talked with three professionals in the planning industry who have fiduciary obligations — meaning they’re legally obligated to work in the best interest of clients. (I know: Why isn’t that universal yet?) They filled me in on when you really need to get professional help.

Paul Ruedi of Ruedi Wealth Management specializes in retirement planning. He thinks one of the best times to consult an adviser is before or during the transition to retirement.

“Transitioning into life without a paycheck requires making a lot of complicated decisions,” Ruedi said. “On top of that, people’s investment account balances are likely the highest they have been in their lifetime, which amplifies every little movement in the stock market and can turn investing into an emotional rollercoaster.”

When you’re making decisions like how to make your investments last for multiple decades, when to claim Social Security and how to best withdraw from those accounts, it’s time to get someone on board to guide you.

In some instances, you might need someone in your corner well before retirement.

Kayse Kress, a certified financial planner at Physician Wealth Services, poses outside.
Photo courtesy of Kayse Kress

Kayse Kress, a certified financial planner at Physician Wealth Services, said people often benefit from objective advice.

“Even if you are a really smart person, it can be hard to keep your emotions out of your financial decisions,” Kress said. “You could benefit from working with an adviser that will provide you with objective advice and help you make more sound financial decisions.”

The people who benefit most in Kress’ practice are those who are just too busy to find time to focus on creating a plan for their finances.

But a big reason people don’t find the help they need is that traditionally, it’s been difficult and expensive to work with someone.

“It wasn’t too long ago that if you weren’t sitting on a pile of cash to invest, then it could be difficult to get anyone in the financial services industry to work with you,” Kress told me.

But with the rising popularity of fee-only financial planners, people can now seek out the help they need at any point in their financial journeys.

Chris Hutchins, co-founder and CEO of online financial planning service Grove poses in his office.
Photo courtesy Chris Hutchins

Chris Hutchins, co-founder and CEO of online financial planning service Grove, has seen many circumstances when having a financial planner before retirement was necessary. Some examples include:

  1. You’re not sure how to figure out if you’re saving enough or whether you’re on track for your retirement goals.
  2. You don’t know what your goals are or how much you need to be saving for them.
  3. You’ve intended to do something about your finances for a long time, and yet they’re still in the same spot.
  4. You’ve had a sudden financial windfall (inheritance, your company was acquired, etc.).
  5. The stress of trying to figure out whether you’re on track or doing the right thing with your money is too much.

No matter how young or old, or investment savvy or not you are, there’s no excuse to not plan for retirement. For some, that might mean a DIY approach. But for others, it means seeking professional help.

Thankfully, there’s a place for everyone to get what they need.

Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She writes a lot about retirement and gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @savingwithspunk.