The internet has only expanded the glut of information, and it’s not always clear which sources are the most reputable. Making matters even more confusing, there’s a slew of certifications for financial advisers. Maybe you only wanted to ask a few questions of a financial expert, but now you’ve got to wade through an alphabet soup just to figure out whom to ask.
Regardless of the credential, it's important to know two things about your adviser. How do they get paid? Many advisers collect commissions for selling you certain kinds of products. We prefer advisers who are fee-only, so everyone is clear about the incentives. It's also key that any adviser you use is a fiduciary, meaning he or she has a legal duty to act in your best interest. Why would you want conflicted advice?
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Here’s a rundown of some of the most common financial designations, and what makes them different:
Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®)
A certified financial planner™ has jumped through quite a few hoops and has real-world experience advising people on money. Every CFP® has completed courses on topics like insurance, estate planning, retirement, taxes and investing; passed the CFP Board’s ethical requirements; and has undergone a 10-hour, 285-question exam. In addition, he or she must have at least three years of job experience in the financial planning industry, or a two-year apprenticeship under a CFP®.
Bottom line: Certified financial planners™ are great generalists. They are qualified to advise you on almost any question about your financial situation, such as how to gain control over your budget, what kind of insurance you need, how to make sure your investment portfolio reflects your long-term goals and how to address your estate planning needs.
As we go over other designations below, you’ll see why the CFP® is our favorite broad-spectrum accreditation. While many other designations mean someone is an expert in a particular area like taxes or insurance, the CFP® designation is the most prestigious all-encompassing one around. (And that’s why all of the financial advisers working for LearnVest Planning Services' action program are CFPs®.)
Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
This is the oldest financial credential in America, for accountants. The CPA exam includes topics like accounting, auditing, bookkeeping, taxes and ethics. Note that all CPAs are accountants, but not all people who call themselves accountants are CPAs, so keep an eye out.
The CPA designation is all about accounting and doesn’t include training in other areas of personal finance. If a CPA wishes to gain a broader financial education, she can get certified as a personal finance specialist.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for a well-trained accountant, CPA is the way to go. CPAs can help you prepare your taxes, advise you on how to organize your investments and estate planning so you pay the least in taxes over time, and guide you on how to save for college and retirement in tax-favorable ways.
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If you need advice on anything beyond the realm of taxes, a CPA may not be the most qualified person to help you, unless she has the dual CPA/PFS certification.
Enrolled Agent (EA)
This tax designation is less prestigious than the CPA, but it’s perfectly legitimate for tax preparation and is overseen by an exam administered by the I.R.S. The test touches on personal, corporate and estate taxes, ethics, and I.R.S. rules. The biggest difference is that, unlike CPAs, EAs don’t have expertise in accounting, auditing or bookkeeping.
Bottom line: Going to an EA to prepare your taxes is generally fine, and EAs tend to be less expensive than CPAs. But if you have a particularly complicated tax return, a business return, or need any assistance with accounting, auditing, bookkeeping or planning out your estate in a tax-favorable way, it’s safer to go to a CPA.
Either way, make sure your tax preparer is certified as an EA or CPA—there are no official qualifications to be a “tax preparer,” and some big tax chains offer their own in-house courses that don’t have the same official test at the end.
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)
CFAs are true investing experts. This is one of the most prestigious designations out there, as it requires three years of coursework, an extremely difficult board exam and four years of professional work experience before you can qualify. Many people who earn a CFA end up working at financial institutions as money managers, or start their own investment management companies.
Bottom line: The CFA designation is extremely prestigious, but unless you’re looking for someone to run a hedge fund for you, you don’t need a CFA in order to get good advice on personal investing. Plus, if you need input on anything other than investing (like your budget, insurance, estate planning), a CFP® will have more experience in those areas.
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Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)
Chartered Life Underwriters and Chartered Financial Consultants are specialists in life insurance and estate planning. The main difference is that the CLU focuses most closely on life insurance, whereas the ChFC designation embraces more general financial planning principles. Both accreditations were invented by the life insurance industry and have some overlap with the CFP® designation. CLUs and ChFCs must take some of the same courses as CFP®s.
Bottom line: A CLU can do the trick if you’re trying to find the right life insurance policy, update your plan, establish a trust fund or manage your will and estate. Although the ChFC is a well-rounded financial advisory credential, we prefer designations that require board exams, so our advisers have a verified level of expertise.
Many CFP®s have the CLU designation in addition to their other accolades, so if you’re looking for insurance expertise, we think the best route is to look for someone who is both a CFP® and a CLU.
Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBS)
Certified Employee Benefit Specialists focus on selling and administering employee benefit plans. They’ve passed a curriculum of eight courses on insurance, retirement, pension, regulatory issues and other topics. There’s no comprehensive board exam for this designation, either, and a great deal of the coursework is also covered by the CFP® educational program.
Bottom line: This certification covers a subset of the CFP® knowledge base, focused specifically on selling or administering employee benefit plans. If you have questions about your company’s 401(k) or health insurance, a CEBC would be a great resource. For more well-rounded advice on your financial life, however, you’ll need a more well-rounded expert.
Certified Fund Specialist (CFS) and Chartered Mutual Fund Counselor (CMFC)
Both of these designations are mutual fund experts, who might advise you on which funds to invest in. Certified Fund Specialist designees receive training on a variety of topics related to mutual funds, like dollar-cost averaging and annuities, and they need to fulfill continuing education requirements to stay current. The coursework is a 60-hour self-study program that culminates in a final exam and an open-book case study.
Bottom line: These are mutual fund specialists, so they can advise on which funds are best for your portfolio. All the same, their coursework is less rigorous than some other financial designations, and if you want broader advice on your financial picture, a CFS or CMFC will provide just one sliver of the total pie.
Finding a Good Fit
In addition to searching for the right credentials, look for a personality match when seeking out a financial adviser. For example, a study by Allianz found that many women prefer working with female advisers. Is gender important to you?
Similarly, what’s your conversational style? If you value efficiency and get frustrated at people wasting time, then you’ll want a planner who feels similarly. If you value an emotional connection and don’t want to feel embarrassed to ask “stupid” questions, then think about that when you talk to your financial adviser for the first time, to see if you’re a good fit.
There’s nothing like professional guidance when planning for big life stages and financial goals.