Despite the rising popularity of new fee-for-service financial planning service models, remarkably little has actually been published about how financial advisors price their services. Which is an important topic for both consumers – who want to know what a plan might cost – and for financial advisors themselves, who may want to benchmark whether the pricing for their financial plans is “reasonable” relative to their advisor peers and competitors (rather than solely setting the price based on its time-and-labor cost to the advisor), especially in an environment where fees on financial products have been under intense price competition and fee compression!
In our latest 2020 Kitces Research survey on “How Financial Planners Actually Do Financial Planning”, we examined both how financial advisors are charging and how much they are charging their clients for financial planning services. Although there has been concern that the fee compression evident with financial services products would also apply to financial planning advice, we found little evidence that this was the case. On the contrary, our data suggests that the median fees in 2020 significantly increased, relative to 2018 fees, for standalone fees (12.4% increase) for retainer fees (25% increase), and for hourly fee rates (25% increase). Median AUM fees, though, remained relatively steady, with no apparent increase (though there was an 8% increase at the 10th percentile and an 8.7% increase at the 90th percentile for fees charged for a $1 million portfolio).
We also observed pricing trends by industry channel, with advisors in the RIA channel charging higher median fees than those in the B/D channel for work completed on a standalone or retainer basis, as well as for a complete financial plan billed on an hourly basis. Similarly, financial advisors with a CFP designation generally charge higher fees than those who are not CFP professionals.
When it came to team structure, there was not much difference in standalone fees charged by solo advisors, solo advisors with support, and ensemble advisors, although silo advisors do appear to charge lower standalone fees than other team structures. For financial plans completed on an hourly basis, silo teams had the highest median fees and solo advisors the lowest, while there was the opposite trend observed for retainer fees, with the highest median fees charged by solo advisors and the lowest median fees charged by silo teams.
Because advisors provided us with detailed information about their business practices and pricing, we were also able to compute implied hourly rates for advisors using non-hourly billing models, which can be helpful in understanding what “reasonable” rates are for hourly advisors. At median levels, we found that primarily AUM advisors are generating revenue at rates that would imply hourly fees between $350 and $800. This is in stark contrast to the $100 to $300 implied hourly fees generated by advisors operating on a primarily hourly basis, and speaks to the challenge of building an hourly practice that is as financially successful as advisors operating on an AUM basis at common fee levels. Furthermore, when we look at top-earning AUM advisors (defined here as those between the 85th and 95th percentile), we find that these advisors are generating implied hourly fees in the $950 to $1,600 per hour range.
Ultimately, the key point is that there does not appear to be any overall trend of decreasing financial planning fees, despite common claims that fee compression is coming for financial advisors. Rather, the trends we actually see in our financial advisor research are increasing fees. Furthermore, these trends are observed consistently across advisor fee models. Which suggests that, despite strong proclamations to the contrary, financial planning fee compression may be largely a mirage.