Financial advice. We all need it. Even if you consider yourself a money whizzkid because you bury your head every day in the share prices section of the Financial Times, professional advice is not to be sniffed at.
Independent financial advisers (IFAs), however, are not always as independent as their title suggests. Some are tied to one company, others work for commission from a handful of finance houses. By law, all of them must inform you of this before pushing products. But if you want to take a helicopter view of the whole market, you need an adviser who is truly without ties.
These advisers work for a fee ranging from pound;75 to pound;200, or they may earn commission from the banks and investment companies they do business with on your behalf.
Crucially, they are not tied to them. So just how do you go about finding one of these? The best place to start is www.unbiased.co.uk, the website for IFA Promotion, the industry body responsible for promoting independent financial advice.
Here you can search the database of 16,800 independent advisers, check their qualifications and specify which financial area you particularly need help with. The register is updated every week to check that all the IFAs listed are authorised by the Financial Services Authority. Contact at least three, if you can, before making your final choice. (See the questions you should ask in the box on the opposite page).
"On the one hand we have never had it so easy in terms of getting access to financial information on the internet," says David Elms, chief executive of IFAP.
"But on the other, we live in a time-poor environment where professionals such as teachers haven't got time to take control of their own financial futures."
IFAP has tried to demystify the 43 qualifications across eight awarding bodies available to advisers over and above the basic Certificate of Financial Planning.
"We can't help it that these qualifications are confusing," says David.
"That's not of our making. But we can tell people what those qualifications actually mean."
The Personal Finance Society (www.thepfs.org) and the Institute of Financial Planning (www.financialplanning.org.uk) also have lists of advisers - but check whether advisers are tied to financial firms.
However you find your adviser, check that they are registered with the Financial Services Authority, the industry watchdog, which regulates all IFAs. You can do this by visiting www.moneymadeclear.fsa.gov.uk.
If your adviser is not registered with the FSA then you won't have access to compensation schemes such as the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) and Financial Services Compensation Scheme, if an investment goes belly-up.
The FSA even provides a list of unauthorised firms that are targeting UK investors as well as a section on scams and swindles. Remember, it's your hard-earned cash we're talking about and an IFA needs to know a lot about you, your money and your personal circumstances to be able to give sound financial advice. Make sure you do your homework and choose wisely. A good IFA will make your money work hard for you Visit www.unbiased.co.uk and download a voucher for a free 30-minute consultation with a local independent financial adviser
QUESTIONS YOU SHOULD ASK AN INDEPENDENT FINANCIAL ADVISER Are you independent or tied to firms you do business with?
What qualifications do you hold?
Why is the product or company you are recommending suitable? Are there other options?
How are you paid?
How much will the advice cost me. Will you negotiate on the cost, particularly for a large amount of business?
What else you need to do
Ensure your adviser understands your attitude to risk for the short, medium and long term.
Ensure that you understand what the adviser is telling you.
Ask them to clarify until you are sure.