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Janine Firpo
Janine Firpo

My Life as a Client: A Patchwork of Advisors

A lot can be learned listening to clients’ experiences working with financial advisors—good and bad. We talked to Janine Firpo, a retired international development executive in Oakland, Calif.

About 15 years ago, I decided I should be smarter about my money. I needed someone with that kind of experience who could work with me to make intelligent financial decisions. So, I started down the path of looking for financial advisors. I talked to people I knew, did some web research, came up with a short list of advisors and interviewed them. I found that they basically all told me the same thing—they didn’t do a very good job of differentiating themselves.

About the same time, I decided I wanted to invest my money in impactful ways. I had already moved out of my first career in tech to work in an area more in tune with my values. But that kind of investing was available only to extremely high-net-worth individuals.

Finally, I found an advisor who told me he would help me invest in a way that aligned with my values. He told me, in general, what he would do. And we agreed we would approach this as a partnership. Then the advisor became very busy with other people, because I wasn’t that wealthy. And, he told me this junior person was going to take care of me. That was not what I signed up for. I had sold a lot of my stocks, because we were going to move into other investments. My money sat in cash for nine months while the stock market went up.

When I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere, I went back to square one, did my homework again and found advisor No. 2. My money did well with that person. She’s really sharp. But while some of my money was aligned with my values, a lot of it wasn’t. Part of that has to do with the fact that, at that point, there were fewer products than there are now. To the best of their ability, they did try. But it wasn’t enough.

I moved some of my money to a friend who was also an advisor. When he left the firm, I was assigned to someone else. That’s when I realized different financial advisors have different strengths. For me, anyway, no one advisor is going to do the whole package really well. Some of them are good at stock picking. Some are more fixed income–focused. Others are strong in private equity. This latest advisor is really good at private stuff.

For fixed income, because of my research—I’m writing a book aimed at helping women invest based on their values—I’ve encountered a cadre of good female advisors. Through that work, I met a really great advisor who handles my fixed income assets.

When I retired two years ago, I took a lot of my assets back under my own control. I don’t need to pay an advisor 1% to put my money in stock funds. And I have been investing myself to get my money aligned with my values, because no one has truly done that for me. I use my advisors to get me into investments that are closed to me as an individual.

A few years ago, I sold a piece of real estate and asked one of my advisors where I could move my money that would be values aligned. I was told cash wasn’t important. Well, it is important. So I figured it out myself. As research for my book, I put my cash into four financial institutions to see how different places treated me. Now I’m consolidating to fewer accounts, including a values-aligned bank that gives loans to small businesses in my community.

I’ve really had to work at this, at trying to make these changes with my money. And I don’t think it should have to be so hard. But I’m closer to my goal now.

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