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Financial advisor, financial planner or robo-advisor? Here's how to find the right help to manage your money

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If you are looking for professional help with your finances, it may be hard to figure out where to start.

From sorting out industry certifications to understanding fees, the process can seem confusing.

For one, you have to make sure anyone you are considering hiring is capable of handling your money and investments. Professional designations like certified financial planner, or CFP, can help you sort through the available options because recipients receive training, testing and continuing education through their respective organizations.

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"Unlike a medical degree or getting your JD [Juris Doctor degree], there is no consistent foundational education in financial advising, which is why paying attention to some evidence of capability through a designation can be very important," said Michael Finke, himself a CFP and a professor of wealth management at The American College of Financial Services.

Then, there are the management fees involved, which vary. There are fee-only advisors, who generally charge a percentage of assets under management — typically about 1% a year — or an hourly fee, which averages about $200 to $400. Others make a commission off the products they sell, while others, known as fee-based advisors, may take both approaches.

Check for advisors who are regulated as fiduciaries because they are required by law to look out for their clients' best interests.

"You need to interview the advisor," he said. "Ask them what their process is.

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"Ask them how they are compensated," Finke added. "You want to look for some evidence of capability."

In addition, seek someone who has been actively advising clients long enough to have experienced a down market, like the 2008 financial crisis, said Winnie Sun, co-founder and managing director of Sun Group Wealth Partners in Irvine, California.

"They can help give you some advice on how to manage your money in good years and bad years," said Sun, a member of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council.

Sorting through designations

The CFP designation is generally held up as the gold standard in financial planning, since rigorous training and testing is involved. CFPs look at your entire financial picture and put together a comprehensive plan based on your needs.

Those who may not have a lot of money should look for someone who charges an hourly rate since those advisors who bill based on assets under management may have a minimum asset requirement.

Hourly planners are also good for those who don't need an ongoing relationship with an advisor, said CFP Ben Jacobs, senior financial planner at Elwood and Goetz Wealth Advisory Group based in Athens, Georgia. He also chairs the National Association of Personal Finance Advisors' committee for new advisors.

If someone says they are CFP, you can vet them on the CFP Board's website, which will not only confirm if the person has the designation but will also list any possible disciplinary actions taken against the individual.

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Another comprehensive financial planning designation is chartered financial consultant, or ChFC, which has a similar curriculum as the CFP credential. You can check someone's designation through YourAdvisorGuide, offered by The American College of Financial Services.

Some planners also get additional specialized certifications, such as wealth management, retirement income or special needs planning.

Meanwhile, registered investment advisors are also fiduciaries and are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or their individual states. They may have additional credentials such as the CFP.

You can see a full list of financial professional designations on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's website. It also provides links to the various credentialing organizations, which may be helpful in vetting an individual.

Fee-based vs. commission-based

Some financial experts advise staying away from advisors who are solely commission based because they are not legally obligated to have your best interest at heart.

"Taking commissions really introduces a really large conflict of interest," said Jacobs.

That said, there are instances when it makes sense, The American College of Financial Services' Finke said.

He likens it to a mortgage broker, who gets a commission for selling a loan but also does his or her homework and recommends a product well-suited to your particular situation. In investing, that can include annuities and mutual funds.

"Some consumers would be better off in a product that has a one and done expense," Finke said.


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Another option is a robo-advisor, which is a digital platform that provides financial planning services that are largely driven by algorithms.

"If saving for retirement is your primary goal, then a robo-advisor can handle that planning process for most average workers well enough to give them everything that they need," Finke said.

The annual management fee typically ranges from 0.25% to 0.5% of your assets, according to Bankrate.

Sun understands the importance of robo-advising for certain clients, like those starting out or with straightforward needs, and has incorporated it into her practice.

"It helps them have their money properly managed, with the idea that when they are ready they can then transition over to full service," she said.

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