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How to find a financial advisor: Make sure they meet the 3 E's

A behavioral finance expert weighs in on the importance of education, environment and encouragement.

kate_sept2004 | E+ | Getty Images
Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We earn a commission from affiliate partners on many offers, but not all offers on Select are from affiliate partners.

While the rules of personal finance may be pretty straightforward, they're not always easy to implement — actions like saving for retirement or investing in the market require certain behavior changes that can be easier said than done.

Dr. Daniel Crosby, a psychologist and chief behavioral officer at wealth tech and advisor solutions firm Orion, suggests that financial decisions in particular can be better made with the help of someone else. In this scenario, he says to look for a financial advisor who provides support across three levels: education, environment and encouragement.

Dr. Crosby's reasoning is that individuals, specifically investors, sometimes need multiple layers of intervention to impact their behavior. "Finance is 'simple but not easy,' which can lead to a gap between knowing what we ought to be doing and what we actually do," he tells Select. As a result, it's an advisor's job to educate, change the environment and provide relational encouragement.

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When engaging a financial advisor, look for someone who provides support across the 3 E's

1. Education

More than what you know, education entails knowing what you don't know, or what Dr. Crosby calls "meta-knowledge."

"It's not critical that you know how to fix your car, but it is critical that you know when your car needs fixing and when to look externally for help," he says. That same theory can be applied to your finances. We may know the basics, but what's arguably more important is knowing when our finances need professional guidance.

As part of an investor's education, for example, an advisor can also help them better manage expectations, whether they are too optimistic or not optimistic enough. "It's hard to get an investor to behave in an appropriate manner when their expectations are inconsistent with reality, and so education can provide a useful 'base case' here," Dr. Crosby explains.

Suppose that you're stressed about market volatility. An advisor can help provide context showing that volatility and adequate returns can indeed coexist. This simple intervention helps to prevent any fear-mongering and keeps an individual invested during downturns, which experts generally suggest doing. While the market doesn't always go up, it's in an investor's best interest to stay the course. Investing is a long game where you will most likely benefit from sticking it out over time.

"Education tells us what we ought to do, helps us understand what to expect from markets and lets us know when to look outside for help," Dr. Crosby says.

Looking outside for help? Those who have a brokerage account with a company such as Charles Schwab or Fidelity might already have access to a financial planner. Robo-advisor Betterment also allows users the option to pay for one-time advisor consultations, which cost a fee ranging from $299 to $399. Investors with a balance of $100,000 can upgrade to Betterment's premium plan, which offers unlimited access to real-life financial advisors for an annual fee of 0.40% of your fund balance.

2. Environment

Our behavior is highly based on our surrounding environment, which brings us to this next point of what to look for in a financial advisor. Dr. Crosby suggests advisors can help with two environmental influences — the way we build our portfolios and the way we consume information — which both have an impact on our financial, or investing, behavior.

"Environmental factors are often more predictive of actual behavior than intention, meaning we must be thoughtful about how we allocate our assets as well as our 'information diet,'" Dr. Crosby explains. "We have behavioral leanings that are more or less consistent, but extreme conditions can make us act in ways that would surprise us."

The way we build our portfolios, or portfolio construction, is only as effective as how we react to the market. "In short, the mathematically optimal portfolio is only actually optimal insofar as the client can endure the ride," Dr. Crosby says. He goes on to add that some of the best-performing funds of the recent past have had negative real returns for investors because of their tendency to enter and exit positions at precisely the wrong time.

The way we consume information, or information intake, includes the sources we turn to and how often. Constantly watching the markets, for example, is the No. 1 investing mistake we hear from financial experts. The markets are constantly moving and being in an environment where you are trying to follow along in real-time can negatively affect your behavior, leading you to continuously check or change your investments when you're better off leaving them alone for the long haul.

"The future is, on average, pretty average, and things that are newsworthy are definitionally deviations from average," Dr. Crosby says. "By watching every tick of the market, checking portfolios too frequently or tuning into melodramatic news sources, clients can create an environment that isn't conducive to calm, long-term thinking."

3. Encouragement

All relationships in life should provide some form of encouragement, and the relationship you have with a financial advisor is no exception. "Encouragement from an advisor can have a positive, holistic impact, improving both returns and behavior by some estimates," Dr. Crosby says.

Dr. Crosby points to research suggesting that those who work with advisors do significantly better than their "no advice" peers, even after accounting for a host of socioeconomic factors. According to the report he cites, those who had a long-term relationship, as in 15 years or more, with an advisor had 2.73X the wealth of DIY investors. He notes that this likely owes to a combination of higher returns — the study suggests 1.5% per year — and decisional and behavioral support. There's also evidence proposing that working with an advisor positively impacts an individual's quality of life broadly, reflecting positively a person's happiness and spousal communication.

Bottom line

When it's time to hire a financial advisor, look for one that can positively impact your behavior by educating you, reinforcing a healthy environment and encouraging you to succeed in all areas of life.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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