One thing that makes the rich different from everyone else, most people would agree, is money. They simply have more of it. One way they got it is through planning. And if they used financial planners, they were welcomed with open arms, red carpets, and hearty greetings. Most professional financial planners like to have a lot of money to make plans with: There are more options and more places to invest, and the planners can be more creative. This usually means people of more modest means must fend for themselves.
There is, however, a growing body of financial planners who have turned over all or part of their business to middle-income customers.
What is ''middle income''?
Most planners start their definition at about $20,000 to $25,000 for a family's annual income. For people below that level, they recommend reading books or subscribing to periodicals that will guide them through financial planning and ideas on saving.
They also recommend some sort of continuing savings program. The best is the employer-sponsored version, where part of your pay is taken out before you get the check and put into something like US Savings Bonds, a salary-reduction plan, or a credit union account.
But for those who do fit in the middle-income range, say $20,000 to $75,000, there are several services that can show you ideas previously overlooked. Fees range from $125 to $300, and the extent of service goes from a simple computer printout based on information on a questionnaire to several interviews and some assistance with investments.
Many of these services, in fact, are affiliated with brokerage firms, mutual funds, and insurance companies. One of their goals, then, may be to sell you one of their products. As long as the customer is aware of this and takes the time to check out the investment ideas with other sources, the financial advice these people give may be as sound and wise as anything available from a fully independent firm.
One such independent is the Consumer Financial Institute in Newton, Mass. For the past four years it has offered computerized financial reports costing $125. For that fee, says executive director George Barbee, the customer receives an analysis based on a 12-page questionnaire. Before this document goes into the computer, however, it is reviewed by a CFI account executive, who looks for anything that has been left out or any inconsistent information.
After the computer is done with it, the account executive examines the objective information and adds his own subjective analysis and makes recommendations about setting goals, savings plans, investment strategies, and tax planning. The report and a list of recommended books and periodicals is sent to the client, who can call or write back to the account executive for more information, if it is needed.
One recommendation that is not made is for any specific investment with a particular company, mutual fund, or brokerage.
''We avoid any perception of conflict of interest by not mentioning any proper names,'' Mr. Barbee said. ''We're not trying to sell anying except this service.''
For a little bit more - $150 - E. F. Hutton & Co. offers its Money Allocation Program, says Maynard Engel, Hutton's director of personal financial management. While the financial plan does come from a brokerage, Mr. Engel says the customer is free to carry out its investment recommendations wherever he likes.
A similar program, known as Pathfinder, is offered for $250 by Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. The fee pays for a 30- to 40-page hard-cover report; its length depends on the client's needs and financial situation, says Jay Rabinowitz, director of the program. The report takes a family's financial goals, suggests how much should be saved to achieve these goals, and offers ways of saving and investing to get there. Mr. Rabinowitz also claims some independence from the brokerage.
''A substantial number of our clients are already Merrill Lynch customers,'' he says. ''Obviously, we'd be delighted if those that are not would invest here, but our aim is long-term financial planning, not immediate investment objectives.''
Brokerages are not the only ones with fee-based services. A number of mutual funds also have them. One is the Personal Financial Analysis, a $250 program from Investors Diversified Services of Minneapolis.
Most of these services offer no guarantees of financial success. One that does is Multi-Financial Services in Weston, Mass. The firm guarantees to increase a client's annual retained wealth by five times the cost of the analysis. But since the analysis is only $150, that is not much of a challenge, admits Bruce M. Dayton, the firm's chairman.
''If I can't show someone how they can save $750, I'm not doing very much,'' he says.
Most private financial planners deal almost exclusively with upper-income clients. But some are trying to build a clientele that is not wealthy today but could be in the future. One of these is Philip Cooper, who heads his own planning firm in Boston. His $300 ''Basis'' program is ''designed to educate people who don't have lots of money about how to save it and invest it,'' Mr. Cooper says.