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Should you pay for financial advice?

One in Four Americans Has No Emergency Savings – WSJ, June 23, 2014

Retirement crisis: Over one-third of Americans haven’t saved a penny – Yahoo Finance, August 18, 2014

Economic recovery? Americans are feeling worse about their financial situation – Deseret News, September 23, 2014

Headlines can scream all they want about the financial troubles Americans are having, a new study shows that the vast majority of us are still not interested in hearing (or taking) financial advice. Research from TIAA-CREF shows that although the number of Americans who are interested in financial advice jumped from 24% last year to 35% this year; for 65%, the topic is a non-starter.

Why is that? Among the reasons most listed: People think good advice will cost more than they can afford (44%), that the information available won’t suit their needs (39%), and that looking for advice will take time they don’t have (35%). But the top reason? Sixty-four percent of respondents say it’s hard to know which advice to trust; that number is up 16 percentage points from last year’s survey. (More on this in a moment.)

People don’t like to take advice in general, explains psychologist Art Markman, author of Smart Change, but financial advice is harder to stomach than most. “Financial advice is almost always about doing something differently in the short term in order to preserve money for the long term,” he explains. That’s tough for humans who are “really wired” to do the opposite.

The problem is financial advice has been shown to pay off. According to the TIAA-CREF research, 62% of respondents reported changing their spending habits after receiving financial advice and 46% increased the amount they’re kicking in for retirement. So if you’ve been reluctant, do you get yourself to belly up to the advice bar?

Ask yourself: Why do you go to the dentist? Or the car mechanic? “You go to the dentist because he knows about teeth,” says Markman. “And you bring your car to the mechanic because they can make sure it stays running well. You do that in part because you don’t want to have to be an expert in teeth or cars.” So the question that follows is, do you want to spend the time necessary to become an expert in personal finances? “If the answer is no, you’d rather spend your time worrying about something else, it’s time to engage services that will help you.”

Imagine you, circa 2034: One big reason many of us aren’t ready to hear financial advice (or health advice for that matter) is that we’re not really aware of what our future selves are going to need. In other words, whether you’re 35 years old or 50 years old, imagining what your 70- or 85-year-old selves feel like is like imagining a completely different person. “It’s hard to want to do anything for that person, even if that person is you 35 years from now,” says Markman. The key is to try to make yourself feel closer to that person by imagining life at that point and being as visual as possible. (Note: Merrill Edge’s Face Retirement app, a free aging app available for both iPhone and Android, enables you to see what you’re likely to look like decades from now. It’s a little frightening – hint from my experience, don’t take the picture in your car — but in this case that’s a good thing).

Look for questions, not answers: Finally, for all those people who aren’t exactly sure how to know if advice is trustworthy, financial advisor Carl Richards, author of Behavior, says the designation the advisor sports is far less important than how the advisor behaves. “There’s a big debate in the industry about what designation you need. We can keep having that debate but real advisors – what I call real financial planners – just act that way.” says Richards, who points out that he has a financial advisor of his own to help him get a grip on his own goals and to keep him on track to meet them. (For the record, I have one for similar reasons.)

In many ways, a good financial advisor is like a good doctor, Richards notes. If a doctor spends the first 15 minutes trying to tell you how few people they’ve killed, you’d leave. If a financial advisor spends the first meeting trying to sell you, you should do likewise. A good doctor – like a good financial advisor – tells it like it is, which is often not what you want to hear. And both good doctors and good financial advisors listen very carefully and they ask a lot of questions. Otherwise, he points out, making a decent diagnosis is next to impossible.

Correction, September 29, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Merrill Edge Face Retirement app.