Reader’s Perspective: Question and Answer with Mark Struthers, CFA, Founder of Sona Financial

By Paul Curley | | January 20, 2017

What is working for Mark Struthers, CFA, Fee-Only Investment Advisor and Founding Principal of Sona Financial, in terms of college financial planning?

This article features an interview with Mark Struthers, CFA, Fee-Only Investment Advisor and Founding Principal of Sona Financial. Based in Chanhassen, Minnesota, Mark’s insight as a self-proclaimed “Fiery Fiduciary” is built off of providing conflict-free financial advice to clients since 2008. Over that time period, he was a portfolio manager as an independent investment consultant, investment advisor with TruStone Financial, and more recently as a fee-only investment advisor and Founding Partner of Sona Financial. As part of his current role with Sona Financial, he provides public education sessions on funding college and retirement, college affordability and student loans. You can learn more about Mark Struthers and Sona Financial’s events at the website of Last but not least, thank you Mark for your time, insight and support for working with me on the article. Please read the question and answers to learn about his perspective on college financial planning, and hope that the article provides you with an opportunity to learn more from your peers.

Question 1 (Paul Curley, Editor of the 529 Dash): What is working for you in terms of college financial planning?

Answer 1 (Mark Struthers, Founder of Sona Financial): My holistic approach to financial planning allows me greater opportunity to help clients with college financial planning. It is worth my time to help my clients with their greatest financial concern of college financial planning, and to manage that goal alongside their other goals as well. All too often this holistic approach is missing from the industry as a whole, which allows me to differentiate my practice to clients from others.

Question 2: How do you integrate college financial planning into your discussions with a client?

Answer 2: Everything I do is holistic, and I would not be doing my job if I did not take care of a major concern of my clients who tend to be in their 30’s and 40’s. As someone that does holistic financial planning and taking the rising cost of education and the rising level of expected student loan debt into account, there is a critical need for us to plan for future college expenses as the critical goal that it is. As such, college financial planning needs to be done hand in hand with retirement planning. Stated differently, in order for me to do my job of holistic financial planning with tuition costs that are so high and the staggering levels of student loans debt, I need to integrate college financial planning as a part of every client discussion.

Question 3: How can product providers and states better support you?

Answer 3: For commission-based financial advisers, billing needs to be improved. This is especially the case as the compensation model for most advisers squeezes out the smaller accounts which may happen with 529s from time to time. Second, costs for 529s have come down since I last reviewed them, but the downward trend needs to continue. Lastly, public education, awareness and understanding needs to increase as it leads to confusion and non-use of 529s. Sometimes the education feels piece meal, and so perhaps more comprehensive educational pieces that explain 529s from start to finish may resolve this hurdle. Therefore while 529s help with college financial planning, there is opportunity to expand usage through enhancements.

Question 4: What key trends do you see in college financial planning going forward?

Answer 4: The issue of student loans and college affordability is at a tipping point. Enough is enough, and with rising urgency from the standpoint of government and families, I help prod people to act before it is too late. We need to increase the focus on the issue whether it be 529 tax credits from the state or federal government, or increased uniformity by 529 product providers and states. Building upon this, the volume of conversations around college affordability as led many to discuss income based repayments and has increased the demand for solid 529 prepaid plans that are available nationwide.

Editor’s Final Note: Thank you Mark Struthers for your time and insight for this article. Also, I would like to provide a special thank you to the readers for learning from your peers, for your support and your engagement.