Your money: Financial advice does not have to be painful - do your research

Don't be sold an investment you're not comfortable with, says John Andrew
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The Independent Culture
In the past 10 years investments have been more actively promoted than ever before. Following the Government's campaign to encourage people to make their own provisions for retirement, more people than ever have sought financial guidance. However, as we are regularly reminded, thousands of people were mis-sold personal pensions in the process and the regulators are still attempting to sort out the mess.

This is certainly not encouraging. Have you ever thought about obtaining professional advice about your finances? Many people are, not surprisingly, suspicious of financial advisers and do not want to put themselves in a situation where they are not in control of what is a very important area - their future financial security.

To do nothing about your financial future is foolhardy. Nevertheless, for fear that a financial adviser will persuade them to buy all sorts of products that they do not understand, or feel they do not want, many people let inertia rule. Thankfully the regulation of the financial services industry is continually being toughened. Also, the hard sell can be avoided.

Unlike the past, advisers must undertake a formal training programme and pass professional examinations. Furthermore, the newly trained have to undertake a period under direct supervision until they are deemed competent to give advice without the watchful eye of a trained supervisor. The training is on-going throughout their careers.

Conducted properly, a financial review will take a couple of hours. This is because to be meaningful, the adviser will need a comprehensive picture of your present position - your employment and income details; details of your family; the amount outstanding on your mortgage; the amount of your savings and investments; any life cover and pension arrangements you may have; your budget and any major expenditure planned for the future, such as a family wedding or even a dream holiday.

Of course, not everyone wants "the full works". Some people know exactly what they want. It may be investing a lump sum upon retirement, or advice about planning for their retirement. Should you fall into this category, then set the ground rules at the beginning. However, whether you want a full review or specific guidance, the adviser will want to know your attitude towards risk.

They will appreciate that some people are risk-averse, which means that they do not want to be put in the situation of losing any of their hard- earned money. Some people like to take a very cavalier attitude and are prepared to take a high degree of risk in return for potentially greater returns. The majority of us take a middle course, having a cautious or balanced attitude to risk and will therefore want some exposure to the stock market, which in the longer term will give a greater return than "safe" investments such as savings accounts.

It is a strange fact, but whereas people will do some research when they buy a car, or a domestic appliance, when it comes to financial matters, they completely throw themselves at the mercy of a financial adviser. This is despite the fact that they feel uncomfortable with the situation. Indeed, one adviser for whom I have the greatest respect notes that however simply he explains his recommendations, his clients' eyes glaze over.

Do not be like this, just sitting back and letting the adviser drive a review - participate. Remember that you are the customer. Ask questions and if you want time to think about the advice offered, say so. Whatever the nature of the investment or protection you are contemplating, the most important thing is to fully understand its features, i.e. the period of your commitment, the risk to which you are placing your money, or if a policy is for critical illness or income protection, make sure you fully understand what it covers.

Should you discuss anything where your money will be channelled into the stock market via a unit trust, don't just sit back and accept it - ask for details of the fund's performance record. Of course, you will also want to know how it compares to the competition. This is particularly important if the adviser only sells the products of one provider. If the fund is a leader in its sector, he will be proud to reveal its position in the league tables. If it is below average, he will usually evade the issue.

However, there is a way that you can find out for yourself. Money Management (pounds 4.95) is a monthly magazine that may be ordered through newsagents. It contains performance tables of unit trusts, insurance and pension funds and shows how they have performed over various periods from six months to 10 years. Ideally you should choose a fund that has persistently done well over a period of time - the longer the better.

Independent financial advisers will recommend what they consider most suitable for you from all the products available in the market-place. An alternative course is to approach the provider of the product that you wish to purchase. The route that you decide to take has to be the one that you feel most comfortable with. However, remember, by asking a few questions and being prepared to shop around, you may be able to make more of your money.

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