Fee Based Financial Advisors vs. Fee Only Advisors


There is a lot of confusion over the difference between fee based financial advisors and fee only advisors. Is this really a question of semantics or is there really a difference between the two. And if there is a difference does it really make a difference?

As a matter of fact the distinction between fee based financial advisors and fee only is very important. The term fee is confusing to people looking for an advisor. Brokerage firms are capitalizing on this confusion – “fee based financial advisors” are something they created to lull people into thinking they have one thing – a fee-only advisor – when they in fact have something quite different.


Let’s look at the difference between a “fee based financial advisor: and a “fee-only financial advisor.”

Fee-only Financial Advisors

We’ll look at the “fee only” designation first.

Fee-only planners work only for the client and are compensated only by the client – the fee-only planner has no other interests.

A fee only planner will not –

  • Sell additional products
  • Receive commissions
  • Get compensation from mutual fund families for having clients use their products
  • Get compensation for referrals to other professionals, e.g. insurance providers, attorneys or loan experts
  • Get compensation for meeting quotas, e.g. selling a high volume of annuities or life insurance or the like

In other words, they are fiduciaries of the clients they work for. They are payed an hourly wage or some sort of fixed yearly fee for ongoing work.

Fee Based Financial Advisors

Advisors who put forth themselves as “fee-based” are not required to adhere to any one set of principles when determining how to charge their clients. Nor do they need to even adhere to any one set of principles about who to accept compensation from.

Fee based financial advisors may be compensated by the client and any of the earlier mentioned ways – commissions, bonuses for making quotas, kickbacks for referrals, etc.

You need to understand that fee-based advisors are not fiduciaries. Burn that into your brain. Brokerages use the term “fee” to deceive you. They want you to believe that the term “fee-based” indicates you are consulting with a Fee-Only advisor.

Not so!

What you are doing when working with a “fee based” financial advisor is working with an “advisor” that is part of the same old commission-based scheme and really a shill for other interests

For instance, they will have a real conflict of interest with the products they advise you to purchase because they make money from them, and the products that pay the highest commission are that way for a reason. They can’t sell themselves. So, these advisors get put in a spot where they need to choose whether to feed their kids or do the right thing by your financial future.

In addition, they can charge percentages of assets under management and put a real drag on your portfolio. Also, with buying bonuses they are incentivized to have you buy and sell frequently which incurs higher costs and taxes. Lastly, they often work for much larger corporations that limit what they can offer to only their company’s funds even if there is a better product available elsewhere.

How Do I Know I’m Working with A Fee-Only Advisor?

The best way to ensure you really are working with a fee-only advisor is to ask for their National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) creds.

NAPFA is the representative organization for the majority of “true” fee-only financial planners.

If an advisor wants to qualify for NAPFA membership, he or she must submit a financial plan, take an oath to be a fiduciary in all client relationships, and then comply with annual continuing education requirements.

This is not an easy membership to obtain! Not all fee-only planners join.

But you can rest assured that if your advisor is a NAPFA member, then they are a “real” fee-only advisor.

You can still hire a non NAPFA fee-only advisor – just ask him or her to sign a fiduciary oath for all of your financial transactions.

Fee-Only vs Fee-based Financial Planners

Fee-only financial planners are fiduciaries for their clients.

Fee based financial planners are not – they accept commissions, get compensated for using products and sell additional products.

To top it off there aren’t rules that govern the use of the description “fee-based”.

Make sure you get what you really want.  Check your advisor’s designation!


  1. Great post. People need to be aware of the designations and shouldn’t be afraid to ask the advisor before engaging them.

    The right advisor can be one of your most trusted professional relationships, but be 100% certain of the value they are bringing to you and your family.

    Thanks for sharing!

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