When you’re starting out on the road trip of life, a dusty, third-hand compact car might serve you just fine. Ten or 20 years later, you could be driving a brand-new, all-electric luxury car off the lot.
Similarly, your financial-planning needs are likely to change over time. Maybe you’re currently managing your own investments. That’s all well and good. But eventually you might face big-picture money questions — and many online brokerages don’t offer the types of experts you need to answer them.
That’s where wealth management might come in.
What is wealth management?
Wealth management is the top tier of financial planning services — it includes comprehensive investment management and financial guidance. Wealth managers generally aim their services at the highly affluent and may have expertise in the types of financial questions that affect the ultrawealthy, such as how to avoid the estate tax. They often coordinate services among different experts, such as working with a lawyer or an accountant on your behalf.
What do wealth managers do?
A wealth manager should be able to assist with all of your financial-planning needs, up to and including, for example, managing the tax ramifications of business income and setting up a donor-advised fund for your charitable contributions.
Financial planners may offer similar services to wealth managers, but often they’ll let you purchase services on an “a la carte” basis. For example, if all you want is help figuring out how you’ll meet your retirement income needs, some financial planners will work with you to create a retirement income plan, and you pay solely for that service.
Wealth management vs. portfolio management
Wealth management offers more complete financial planning than portfolio management. It includes comprehensive guidance on a client’s financial situation, including investment management, estate and tax planning, accounting, retirement planning and even legal guidance in some cases.
Portfolio management refers to a service or person who crafts an investing strategy on behalf of a client. Portfolio management involves picking investments that minimize risk and maximize returns, but typically does not include other financial planning services.
Do you need wealth management?
If you’re looking for a full-service financial-advice firm, then a wealth manager might be right for you. In addition to brick-and-mortar wealth-management shops, many online brokerages offer several tiers of planning services, including wealth management.
But wealth management services often require steep account minimums. For example, Fidelity’s “private wealth management service,” where you have an entire team of financial professionals working on your behalf, requires at least $2 million invested through Fidelity Wealth Services and $10 million or more in total investable assets.
Fidelity also offers a simpler “wealth management” service, where you work with an individual advisor and requires a $250,000 account minimum.
Vanguard, another online brokerage, offers a range of financial advice services; the one it describes as “wealth management” requires a $5 million minimum.
An alternative: online financial planning services
If those wealth-management minimums are more than you bargained for, then you probably don’t need wealth management. While some financial planners also focus on ultrawealthy clients, there’s a growing cadre of financial advisors who work with both affluent and middle-income folks. Some of these advisors operate online.
Online financial advisors offer portfolio management (also called investment management) and in-depth financial planning, including access to a human financial planner. Often, these services are delivered entirely over the phone or by video conference. While you may not meet in person, you’ll work directly with a financial advisor who can help you build a holistic financial plan or reach a specific goal.
The services offered vary by provider. Facet Wealth, for example, offers unlimited access to a dedicated advisor who is a certified financial planner. You’ll pay a flat annual fee, which varies depending on the complexity of your financial needs, and the service includes investment management.
At Personal Capital, clients with more than $200,000 invested get access to two dedicated financial planners; that service and investment management is included in the 0.89% fee. (Personal Capital is currently offering NerdWallet readers two months of free financial advisory services.)
Other providers, like Betterment’s Premium tier, offer unlimited access to a team of finance pros. Those professionals will answer your financial questions and help you create a financial plan, but you won’t speak to the same dedicated advisor each time.
» If you’d rather meet a planner in person, read about how to find the best financial advisor for you
Some providers will help you with specific financial questions but not others — for example, complex questions around the taxation of self-employment income might be beyond the scope of some companies.
Given all the variety, it’s important to shop around to find the service that best meets your needs. Here are some of our favorite advisory services that include access to a human financial planner: