Boston — For many people, the experience might seem like climbing a mountain to hear the sage words of a financial wise man. and to hear his advice, they must tell this stranger all their financial secrets -- their income, their debts, the value of their home, their spending habits -- an idea that may make them feel as vulnerable as standing on that snowy, wind-swept peak in a swimsuit.
Nontheless, a growing number of middle-income people are turning to a fairly new group of money experts known as financial planners.
The new group of clients coming to these consultants are not the rich and well-to-do who have thousands of dollars stashed in bank accounts waiting for shrewd investments. Nor are they the hapless overusers of credit cards who have charged themselves into near-bankruptcy and need a financial lifeguard to pull them out.
Instead, they are people who are earning $15,000 to $50,000, more or less, and cannot seem to get into spending and savings habits that will permit them to set money aside for things they want: the children's college expenses, a vacation, a retirement fund, or a small financial pool for investments.
"The idea behind financial plannign today is to say that the very same capabilities that are valuable to 50-year-olds who have sizable assets are just as valuable to 20- and 30- year-old couples who want to start saving and investment programs," says Jane King, a financial planner with Keystone Massachusetts Inc., a Boston investment firm.
As demand for their services has increased, the ranks of Miss King's profession have grown rapidly to meet it. When the College of Financial Planning, a Denver-based correspondence school, was founded in 1972, fewer than 50 students were enrolled, notes Diana Rampy, executive director of the Institute for Certified Financial Planners, an organization made up of graduates of the college.
Today there are over 1,800 members, and about 200 new students enroll every month, she said.
Another organization, the International Association of Financial Planners, based in Atlanta, includes trained financial consultants as well as investment advisers, insurance salesmen, even coin and stamp dealers, all exchanging information and ideas. This group has some 8,000 members, and Vernon Gwynne, its executive director, expects it to have more than 25,000 in five years.
The reason more people are turning to financial planners can be summed up in one word: inflation. "Everyone is looking for ways to make their dolalr go a little further, . . . especially if inflation pushes them into high tax brackets ," Miss Rampy explains. With prices rising faster than most people's incoems, they are much more willing to seek professional advice if it will help them cut expenses, save more money, or legitimately avoid taxes.
As their name implies, financial planners do not just give financial advice: They help people make long-range savings plans leading to a nest egg the client thought was impossible before. Unlike the relative or friend who may have some good (or not-so-good) financial advice for a particular situation, financial consultants have access to lawyers, accountants, estate specialists, investment advisers, and other professionals who can help come up with answers for particular needs.In fact, many financial planners already are lawyers, accountants, or investment advisers who wanted to broaden their services and have taken additional training.
Fees for financial planners range from nothing to a few thousand dollars.The free services usually come from large brokerage firms that hope their advice will give clients more money to invest, and give the planner a new source of commissions. But this does not always happen.
"I've had people coem to me for months and never give me a penny of business, " said Ahmad Fakhr (pronounced "far"), a senior vice-president and head of his own financial planning unit at the Boston office of Paine, Webber, Jackson & Custis Inc. "But if I give them good advice, they might tell their friends or relatives about me."
Another large brokerage firm planning to expand its financial planning service is E. F. Hutton. Sometime next year, says Maynard Engel, a vice-president and director of the personal financial management department at the firm, E. F. Hutton will introduce a computerized service designed for those in the $20,000-to-$50,000 income bracket. It will be an extension of the planning E. F. Hutton already does for those earning over $50,000.
But people who want the semblance of imaprtiality may prefer someone who is not affiliated with any firm and charges a fee. These fees are not for rich folks only. Some charge a flat fee, ranging from $200 to $500. "You can get a pretty good financial plan for $300," Miss King says.
Some independent financial consultants charge 1 to 2 percent of the client's gross income. Thus, a person making $25,000 would pay $250.
Whether there is a fee or not, the planner will have the client fill out a long financial data sheet, conduct a lengthy interview, perhaps plug the information into a computer, consult the firm's experts, and come back with the financial plant the client can use as he sees fit. This can include rejecting all or part of the pl an and perhaps going on to another planner.