Financial Advice: Who Gets It?

Americans most in need of formal financial advice are the least likely to seek it, as access to affordable, professional guidance remains out of reach for those with lower income and education levels.

“The advice market does not serve the vulnerable populations — the low-income populations, minority neighborhoods, as well as, other parts of the market. It’s an issue. The marketplace is not equal in terms of access,” says Michael Collins, director of the Center for Financial Security and author of the recent research paper “A Review of Financial Advice Models and the Take-Up of Financial Advice.”

Individuals with higher income levels and at least a college education are more willing to seek debt advice. Guidance on saving and investing is less sought after by men, but increases when income levels rise, the paper notes, citing research from FINRA’s 2009 Financial Capability Survey. Among women, African Americans and Hispanics, financial literacy scores were lower than average, which is correlated to negative financial behavior.

Collins notes that although vulnerable populations aren’t seeking traditional models of financial advice, that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for guidance. “We need to recognize that people get lots of informal advice, whether it’s peers, friends or family. And we need to recognize that those forms of advice are valuable — they might not be accurate, so I think there are a lot of issues about how people get that information,” Collins says.

The perception of one’s own financial health also plays a role in who seeks advice. Most Americans believe they are on top of their day-to-day finances, yet nearly half of the 1,488 respondents in FINRA’s survey had problems covering their monthly expenses and paying their bills, Collins writes.

Perceptions of the industry as a whole take a backseat in motivating those who need help the most. “It’s not as if lower-income or lower-financially literate people distrust advisers; they find advisers too expensive. Certainly, the less income people make, the more they think advisers might be too expensive,” says Collins.

The paper defines financial advice as a ” third-party services that help consumers make financial decisions,” and categorizes the service providers into four main areas:

* Technical expert: a professional with credentials such as a CFA or CFP* Transactional guide: a professional who may have a sales-based focus on providing advice such as a broker* Counselor: an adviser on acute financial problems such as a credit counselor* Coach: a new category of advice that focuses on helping consumers achieve their financial goalsThe correlation between higher financial literacy levels and frequency of professional consults sets up a “babysitter model” where individuals pay advisers to provide a service they are capable of doing themselves. However, Collins notes there are some points in a consumer’s life when an adviser is warranted, regardless of their level of financial literacy. “There may be certain points in our lifespan where having an adviser or a counselor are very important, especially if there’s technical information or if we’re under stress,” he says.

The conclusion? Collins writes:

If broadening access to advice is a policy goal, more efforts might be needed to increase the availability of low-cost, objective, high-quality advice for households with low educational attainment and low incomes. There is a high correlation between advice seeking and financial literacy. As such, the demand for financial advice may increase if financial literacy levels increase across the population.

“Overall, we need to think of financial advice as being a compliment to financial literacy and financial education, not a substitute,” Collins says.