As you age, your financial needs tend to become more complex. This is often a result of taking on more responsibilities like having children, taking care of aging parents or owning a home, all while managing your own career, student loan debt and retirement savings. Naturally, it can be overwhelming to create a plan, update it and monitor it while maintaining a busy schedule. That’s where hiring a financial planner can be valuable.
What is a certified financial planner?
Financial planners can help guide you through complicated financial situations and use their expertise to help make tough decisions and manage your emotions. A financial planner may have a variety of qualifications or certifications, but one of the most widely known and accepted is the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation.
The designation was created in 1985 by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP Board) to promote “the value of professional, competent and ethical financial planning services, as represented by those who have attained CFP® certification.” CFPs must have have between 4,000 and 6,000 hours of experience, maintain high ethical standards, complete a rigorous set of education requirements and pass the CFP exam.
Those who have obtained the designation have mastered several key areas of financial planning including: retirement planning, income taxes, investment analysis, estate planning, ethics and insurance.
What does a financial planner do?
As mentioned earlier, financial planners help guide you through some of life’s most challenging financial decisions. When doing this, most financial planners will generally perform the following set of steps with each client. For many planners, this entire process could occur over several meetings and will not be completed in one sitting.
First, the planner will gather information and key details about your financial situation. This often includes a discussion about where you are financially and where you plan to be. A planner may also ask for some documents, including tax returns, any investment statements, trust and insurance documents. Next, the planner typically analyzes the data and determines whether there are any changes that need to be made and will present their findings to you.
After discussing the data and potential changes, the next step is implementing the items in the plan. Depending on the scope of your financial plan, this could be done in one meeting or over several meetings.
Lastly, you and your financial planner will typically agree on how often to monitor the plan and make changes. You may re-evaluate the plan every year or once a quarter, depending on the plan’s depth and complexity. However, most planners ask that you come in when major life changes occur like getting married, having a child or a experiencing a significant change in income.
The challenges in choosing a financial planner
It can be tricky to pick a financial planner, including finding someone with the right credentials and experience at a cost you can afford. In the following sections, we discuss some of the biggest challenges consumers face when looking for a financial planner.
The difference between a financial planner and a financial adviser
There is plenty of confusion around the term “financial planner” and “financial adviser.”
“Just about anyone can use the title ‘financial planner,’” said Dan Drummond, CFP Board’s director of communications. “There are also over 170 financial services designations out there — an alphabet soup of letters that may seem overwhelming.”
Not every person who calls him or herself a financial planner or financial adviser has the CFP designation, as the designation is optional and not required to practice. And someone who goes by the title, financial adviser can be a certified financial planner so long as they have completed the designation and are in good standing with the CFP board. CFPs will almost always have the “CFP®” behind their name.
Practically speaking, the differences between a planner and adviser are a bit more clear, though the terms are often used interchangeably. Typically, financial advisers spend the majority of their day focused on selling investment and insurance solutions to clients mostly (but not exclusively) for a commission. While financial planning is something that an adviser may do, it is often a service done on the side and not their main function. On the other hand, a financial planner’s main function is planning and less about selling products. Keep in mind that in this situation, both positions could still be called certified financial planners if they meet the board’s requirements.
Determining whether or not you need a financial planner
Whether you need a financial planner or not will be determined by the complexity of your situation.
The people in the following situations tend to see the most value in a financial planner:
- New parents and newlyweds
- Starting a family is not only expensive, it’s also easy to overlook some of your financial needs while you’re adjusting to all the changes you’re experiencing. For example: Newly married couples should check their beneficiary information on their accounts to ensure they are up-to-date and that their life insurance coverage is sufficient.
- Business owner
- If you own a business, you have a different set of financial tools at your disposal. One quick example is choosing the right retirement plan for your business. While most people have to choose between a Roth and traditional IRA, business owners have more options with different limits and requirements. Also, depending on how your business is set up, you may need a succession plan to exit the business as well.
- High-income earners and people with a high net worth
- Those with a high income or high net worth may find a financial planner useful when navigating tax liabilities and investments.
- Close to or in retirement
- If you’re getting close to retirement, a financial planner can help determine how prepared you are for it and how long your money may last in retirement. For those who are already retired, a planner may help you avoid running out of money.
- Complicated health or estate issues
- Health care can get very expensive in retirement. Health care expenses for retirees rose to an average of $275,000 per couple, excluding long-term care expenses, according to a 2017 estimate from Fidelity. This is an increase of $15,000 from 2016.
- For those who own multiple properties and businesses, a financial planner may be able to help determine the types of wills, titles or trusts needed to ensure your assets are distributed according to your wishes.
How much does a financial planner cost?
It can be difficult to compare the costs for a financial planner. This is because each planner may base their cost on different metrics (see below). In some cases, they may charge a flat fee based on a percentage of your total assets, also known as assets under management (AUM), or just a flat dollar amount. The important thing here is that your planner is transparent and upfront with their costs. One way to ensure this is by asking if your financial planner is held to the fiduciary standard. This standard requires that the planner act only in your best interest when providing recommendations.
Commission-based: These planners only receive payments through commissions on products they sell. These products could include life insurance, mutual funds or annuities. This can present a major conflict of interest. They’re incentivized to sell products whether or not those products make sense for you.
Fee-based: Fee-based advisers can earn commissions off product sales, but they also offer services for flat fees paid by their clients. While this eliminates some conflicts, fee-based service models still leave the door open for a planner to make a recommendation that isn’t necessarily the best for their clients.
Fee-only: Fee-only financial advisers are not the same as fee-based. Fee-only advisers are paid a set fee by their clients for the services they provide. They do not earn commissions off product sales. For this reason, there are inherently no conflicts of interest between you and your adviser if they’re fee-only. Fee-only planners are only getting paid by you to provide advice.
How to choose a financial planner
Choosing a financial planner goes beyond picking someone based on their credentials alone. Though the CFP is widely regarded as the gold standard, there are many designations that make it difficult to accurately compare one planner to another. You should also take experience and compatibility into account. Your financial planner should have experience with dealing with clients that fit your profile (e.g. income, business ownership, age) and needs.
Some also prefer planners who have had experience investing in down markets. Additionally, you should seek out a planner you trust — one you feel comfortable speaking openly with and one who listens to you.
Questions to ask a financial planner
The following questions are designed to help you not only understand your financial planner’s background but find out what areas they specialize in and if those areas fit with your goals.
- What kind of designations do you have?
- Common designations other than CFP are the certified public accountant (CPA), Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU), Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC). If they do not have a designation, you may want to ask if they are working toward them. Many of these designations require three years or more of industry experience and certification tests that are only offered a few times per year.
- What services do you offer?
- Not every financial planner will offer the same services, and can vary significantly based on the planner’s comfort level, team and experience. You will want to ask this information early in the conversation to ensure they can help you meet your needs.
- What is your specialization?
- Some financial planners choose to specialize in a particular area such as taxes or estate planning. If your situation is more complex, you’ll want to seek out a planner who specializes in your needs.
- Do you work with any outside specialist? If so, are you compensated for that?
- Some areas of your financial plan cannot be executed by your planner unless they are an attorney. This includes things like wills and trust agreements. You’ll also want to know if they are being paid by that outside specialist, as this could be a conflict of interest.
- What kind of clients do you work with?
- This will give you more information on the planner’s experience level and expertise.
- Are you a fiduciary?
- A fiduciary is required to act in the best interest of the client. If the planner answers no, you should ask them to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
- How are you compensated?
- Generally a financial planner’s compensation will fall into three categories: commission based, fee-based, fee-only (discussed in detail above).
- What happens if I am unable to get in contact with you?
- Is there a 24-hour hotline you can call to get help? Is there a backup staff? When you have a financial emergency and your planner is not available, you will still need guidance. Your planner should have some system in place.
- How often do you communicate with clients?
- Having a planner is not valuable if you do not communicate with them. At a minimum, you should be having an annual sit-down with your financial planner.
- What is your investment philosophy?
- The answer to this question will help you assess your fit with the financial planner. Your financial planner’s philosophy will depend on their investment experience and any additional credentials they may have.
- How are you evaluated?
- Some financial advisers are evaluated by management solely on the amount of commissions they generate or the amount of money they manage. Others are evaluated by client surveys or a combination of all three. Ask how they are evaluated, and this should give you insight about how you will be treated as a client.
How to find a financial planner
Now that you know what to look for, your next step is to find a financial planner. Each of the following are all groups who feature fee-only financial planners that uphold the fiduciary standard.
XY Planning Network: XYPN is the leading organization of fee-only financial advisers who specialize in serving Gen X and Gen Y clients. All of their members can work virtually, which means you can choose the best adviser for you regardless of physical location.
Garrett Planning Network: GPN is another organization of fee-only planners who serve clients from all walks of life. Their advisers offer planning services on an hourly basis.
National Association of Professional Financial Advisors: NAPFA is the largest organization of professional advisers who meet the highest set standards in the financial planning industry.
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