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Portfolio Management vs. Financial Planning

I often hear from investors who are in the market for a financial advisor, but who, despite interviewing several, are struggling to find one who meets their needs. One of the most frequent causes of this difficulty is a failure to understand the difference between advisors who provide portfolio management services and advisors who provide financial planning services.

Portfolio management involves doing the actual portfolio maintenance: setting up the portfolio, rebalancing when necessary, tax loss harvesting, etc. (Just to be clear, portfolio manager is not a technical term, so these people might refer to themselves as wealth managers, money managers, investment managers, or something else entirely.)

In contrast, financial planning is about answering questions: Can you afford to retire? How much can you spend per year in retirement? Is your asset allocation appropriate? When should you claim Social Security? How can you reduce your taxes? Do you need to buy long-term care insurance? Things like that.

What confuses many people is that:

  • From a regulatory perspective, both portfolio managers and financial planners are probably registered investment advisers (RIAs) or representatives thereof, and
  • Either of them can have the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation (but neither is required to have it).

Some firms do financial planning. (Examples would include members of the Garrett Planning Network, or Allan Roth’s firm Wealth Logic.) Some firms do primarily — or exclusively — portfolio management. (Examples would include Rick Ferri’s firm Portfolio Solutions or Bill Schultheis’s firm Soundmark Wealth Management.) Many firms do both.

The story I hear over and over from readers is that, having been in the market for financial planning services, they contacted a local CFP and set up a meeting. But, once they arrived at the meeting, it became clear that the CFP was not really interested in providing one-time financial planning services. Rather, the CFP’s goal was to get the investor to sign up for ongoing portfolio management services — something in which the investor has no interest.

The key is to know ahead of time who you’re contacting — what type of business does this advisor usually do? If their website speaks a great deal about their wealth management services and doesn’t say anything about hourly consultations, that should be a good clue. If the advisor’s website doesn’t make it clear, you can check their Form ADV II. (When researching an RIA, checking this document is a good idea anyway.) Or, you can always call the advisor, telling them very explicitly what services you are and are not interested in, and asking if they would be a good fit.

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