Financial counseling adds new area of expertise to financial advice industry

RIAs are embracing the 'softer side' of financial planning

Apr 21, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

Most financial advisers are well versed in areas like asset allocation, tax management and performance calculations, but tend to be less fluent when it comes to talking to clients about things like spending habits, budgeting and a general relationship with money.

This so-called softer side of financial planning is increasingly viewed as the next component of truly holistic financial planning.

Financial counseling, as opposed to financial planning, is adding a new area of expertise and opportunity to the advice industry. And it is one where digital platforms will have a hard time matching services.

(More: 5 counseling steps to make better financial planning clients)

"When we really think about the counseling aspect of what we do, the most important thing is to be able to help somebody identify what they need to be focusing on and then help them deploy assets, resources and energy to help them get where they want to be," said Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network.

"Counseling is so much more than just the mathematics, and I think there's a huge opportunity, regarding the continuum of care," she added. "Whenever I've heard there's a need in my community it's almost always the need for counseling, not financial advice. I think counseling has a huge future as planning becomes more holistic."

While the origins of financial counseling can usually be traced to services provided to military and low-income families, the concept has migrated closer to the financial planning profession, where it is starting to become a part of traditional planning services.

Despite the parallels between financial advice and financial counseling, Mary Carlson, principal at the financial counseling firm Silverbell Solutions, said, "What I do is very different from what an adviser does."

"I don't give financial advice, or investment advice or tax advice," she added. "We operate much more like a therapist operates."

Ms. Carlson, who has a doctorate in financial planning with an emphasis in financial therapy, worked as a lobbyist for the Financial Planning Association before opening her counseling business in 2014.

Counseling services range from budgeting and debt management to actually digging deep into a client's historical association with money and spending.

And as counseling moves deeper into the financial planning space, it is finding clients across the spectrum and is even creating new financial planning clients.

"We see people making $50,000, and we see people making a half-million-dollars a year," Ms. Carlson said. "You can have millions in investable assets and good cash flow, but if you're not managing it properly you will no longer be a good financial planning client."

Ms. Carlson, who charges $200 an hour for counseling relationships that are designed to last no longer than a year, sometimes gets clients that are referred from financial advisers.

Jeffrey Tomaneng, financial planner at Lincoln Investment, has fully embraced the counseling aspect by becoming certified through the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, AFCPE.

"I try to help people develop good habits, whether that involves saving or how they are spending money," he said.

Mr. Tomaneng, who has worked as a financial planner for 21 years and became certified as a counselor five years ago, does some pro bono counseling, but also uses the counseling to help develop more clients for his planning business.

"The counseling helps with all clients, because you're really trying to help people work on their behavior," he said, recalling a couple that had a good income but was spending upwards of $10,000 a year attending New England Patriots' football games.

Mr. Tomaneng didn't want to deny the couple their passion, but he did focus on convincing them to spend less money on expensive stadium food and souvenirs.

"A few years later, I saw them at after game and they told me they made their own sandwiches and didn't buy any shirts that night," he recalled. "The client has to want to change."

Doug Bellfy, a financial adviser at Synergy Financial Planning, is also leveraging his counseling abilities to expand his planning practices deeper into the underserved middle-class market.

"We wanted to serve a different market and help people who might be dealing with a lot of debt," he said. "The middle class is where we found they could afford to pay the counseling fees but financial planning wasn't really a fit for them."

Mr. Bellfy, who charges counseling fees starting at $140 per hour, described an ideal counseling client as somebody who is "making decent money, but maybe living pay check to pay check, because they're paying high interest rates on too much debt."

"Before they can become financial planning clients, they need to get that debt under control," he added. "My main practice is financial planning, so I don't take on a lot of financial counseling clients because it's quite laborious."

Rebecca Wiggins, AFCPE executive director, defines financial counseling as "more in depth and looking at the problems underneath the financial issue."

"Counseling is a good compliment to financial planning," she said. "We take your worst client and get them ready to be a financial adviser's client."

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