Unless you already work in finance — and even if you do — you probably have some questions about the best moves to make when it comes to managing your money. Such as? How do you save for retirement and pay down debt simultaneously? Which investments or types of accounts could help you retire earlier? And what’s the best way to leave a legacy for your family and favorite charities?
All of these questions can be answered by a financial planner — but how do you find the right one for you? Under the umbrella of “financial advisors,” you’ll find about a dozen types of professionals who can offer you advice, each with their own area of focus, years of experience and a variety of certifications. You’ll also find financial coaches — who aren’t financial advisors at all, but can help you with many of the building blocks you need to tackle before you generally get to needing an advisor.
Here’s a look at the types of people you’ll come across most often and how they can help you:
- Financial Planner: A financial planner can help you create a long-term financial plan that incorporates all of the moving parts of your money life. This includes advice on retirement planning, estate planning, taxes, insurance, budgeting, etc. Beware: Anyone, regardless of background, can call themselves a “financial planner.” However they cannot use any of the professional designations without getting tested and certified. Which leads us to some of the designations you should look for before you hire someone…
- Certified Financial Planner (CFP): This financial planner has completed countless hours of coursework and passed a rigorous exam to earn the CFP designation from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. CFPs are considered to be the “gold standard” of financial planners. They must work assisting clients (under the supervision of a CFP) for three years before they can become accredited. They must also undergo a background check and they must adhere to an ethics code. They also must abide by the fiduciary standard, which means always putting their clients’ needs first. Some CFPs specialize in certain aspects of financial planning and might refer you to other experts for help completing certain tasks, like taxes or estate planning.
- Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC): There’s a lot of overlap in how CFPs and ChFCs are trained. The ChFC is a designation offered by the American College of Financial Services, and the training is rigorous. But instead of passing an exam at the end of training like a CFP, ChFCs must pass each training module one at a time. Also, unlike CFPs, they are not held to the fiduciary standard, which means they are not obligated to put their clients’ needs first, and may earn a commission on the products they offer. ChFCs-in-training can specialize in different kinds of financial planning needs, such as divorce needs, or small business financial (and succession) planning. Oftentimes, you may see financial pros with both sets of initials after their name: CFP and ChFC.
- Financial Coach/Counselor: Much like a tennis coach or a weight-loss coach, a financial coach (or counselor) is intent on helping you reach a goal. They mostly focus on the fundamentals of money management (saving more, spending less, paying down debt) and help people who have struggled financially tackle their fears, biases or unhelpful habits. A financial coach can be a good option if you need help corralling your finances, setting reasonable savings goals and sticking to a budget. Some types of financial counselors have particular specialties including credit counselors (who can help you get your credit back into shape after a bankruptcy) and housing counselors (who can help homeowners with financial education and foreclosure prevention). Financial counselors and coaches can earn the AFC (Accredited Financial Counselor) designation from the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education. They aren’t licensed to recommend specific products.
- Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA): CFAs focus on portfolio management and analysis. More than likely, you wouldn’t need to hire someone who is solely a CFA — that’s because people with only this designation tend to work behind the scenes at investment firms, banks and insurance companies. However, some CFPs also obtain a CFA from the CFA Institute, so you’ll often see this designation alongside others in the string of letters after a financial advisor’s name.
- Registered Investment Advisor (RIA): Typically referred to as investment advisors (or sometimes, again, financial planners) these are people who focus, typically, on managing investments. An investment advisor can put together the right mix of assets in your portfolio to help reach your goals while staying aligned with your risk tolerance. To become an RIA, an individual must pass the Series 65 exam and file certain disclosure forms with the SEC. Once they do, they are legally required to act as a fiduciary for their clients. If they manage more than a certain amount of money they must also register with the SEC.
- Wealth Manager: High-net-worth clients who require comprehensive, ongoing financial management and advice may hire a wealth manager to help manage their ever-growing portfolio of investments. There are several certifications available, including Wealth Management Certified Professional (WMCP) from the American College of Financial Services, and Wealth Management Specialist (WMS) from the College for Financial Planning. Wealth managers may also be RIAs or CFPs. Often financial advisors of all sorts who charge a percentage of the assets they manage for you call themselves Wealth Managers.
Weigh Your Options (And Shop Around)
Once you’ve decided which type of financial advisor you need, it’s time for the screening and vetting process. No matter who you choose to meet with first, check their credentials and see if there have been any disciplinary actions against them, and whether or not they may have conflicts of interest. The vast majority of financial professionals are committed to giving good, unbiased advice, but there are a few bad apples out there.
You can also check out some individual advisors using FINRA’s BrokerCheck tool. You’ll also want to ask any potential advisor these probing questions for a gut check — and to make sure you find the right fit. Good luck, and remember that if it’s not the right fit, it’s not the right fit. You can meet with as many advisors as you like until you find someone you enjoy talking with and feel great about managing your money.
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