Look for an expert with at least ten years of experience—you do not need someone using your money to learn on the job.
Meet at your adviser's office (not your home). If it's a wreck, your finances might end up looking that way, too.
If you have to ask about cost, you've chosen the wrong person. Search NAPFA.org for a fee-only adviser who isn't dependent on commissions from investments you make or products you buy.
Good advisers inquire about your entire financial picture, including your debts, if you own (or want to own) a home, and whether you have a will and trust. If they want to know only how much money you have, that's a red flag that they're primarily concerned about earning commissions.
If you don't understand or innately trust the person, don't hesitate to move on. And by all means, stay involved even if you find someone reliable; remember that what happens to your money affects your quality of life, not your adviser's.
Q: I've invested $400,000 in stock and bond funds through a 401(k) that earned 11 percent in 2012 and 4 percent in 2011. I'm considering working with a financial planner who wants to move a large portion of the money in my portfolio to a certificate of deposit [CD] that earns 8 percent as well as a real estate investment trust [REIT] that also has a guaranteed rate of return. Should I follow his advice, especially if I want to retire in the next decade?
Suze: Listen to me: There is no such thing as a guaranteed 8 percent return on a CD or in a REIT, and you should avoid any financial planner who suggests otherwise.
Let's focus on the CD claim first. Time deposits pay next to nothing right now because of Federal Reserve policies that have been in place since the financial crisis began in 2008. (In short, since banks aren't allowed to charge inflated interest rates, they're not offering high rates of return, either.) According to DepositAccounts.com, the best yield on a five-year CD was 3.05 percent at press time. So you need to ask yourself or, more to the point, the planner you consulted how he's found one that offers such a great deal. There's no way this is a plain-vanilla bank CD. Whatever this planner is recommending probably pays a fat commission to him and has strings attached for you.
As for REITs, the other "can't-miss" investments, let's remember that these trusts develop (and often operate) properties like apartment buildings and shopping malls that don't always go up in value. When the S&P lost 37 percent of its worth back in 2008, a broad REIT index lost 39 percent. The fact is, nothing is guaranteed.
Meanwhile, your 401(k) investments seem to be doing just fine. I don't know your exact allocation, but if you're thinking of retiring in ten years, I assume you have a 50-50 split between stocks and bonds. A portfolio like that typically returned about 10 percent last year, so you came out ahead. But you should ask your current planner about the fees you pay. Make sure you're taking advantage of exchange-traded and index mutual funds that charge an annual expense ratio (money that's deducted from the fund's assets to pay management and operational costs) of less than 0.25 percent. Low-fee investing guarantees you'll keep more of your money growing—no matter what's in your portfolio.
Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Create the Future You Deserve (Spiegel & Grau).