Business Administration

Thinking About Becoming a Financial Planner? Here’s What You Need to Know.

Thinking About Becoming a Financial Planner? Here’s What You Need to Know.
Those who tend to succeed in this role have both analytical and interpersonal skills. Image from Death to Stock Photos
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry September 12, 2019

There are many career paths open to financial planners, whether you want to help people get out of debt or help them get rich. In both cases, you'll spend your days helping others meet their financial goals. You'll be able to achieve your own financial goals as well, thanks to your considerable income.

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If you’re the type of person who was born to be a financial planner, you may be surprised to learn that some people do not enjoy managing money, not even their own. The pleasure you take in creating a budget, or in figuring out how to grow assets while minimizing risk? They’d rather visit the dentist than face those decisions.

That’s why the world needs financial planners.

As a financial planner, you will help your clients develop long-term strategies to achieve their financial goals. Every client will have vastly different needs, and you’ll spend a lot of your time interacting and communicating with those clients.

Those who tend to succeed in this role have both analytical and interpersonal skills. Scott R. Schatzle, CFP® wrote on the Mutual Trust Advisory Group blog about his approach to work:
“I like to take the time to get to know each client on a personal level, understanding what makes them tick… I ask the questions many people haven’t considered and spend a lot of time listening. By developing and maintaining such close relationships with my clients, I have the greatest opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

The process to become a financial planner is pretty simple. You’ll start with a bachelor’s degree and end by earning one of the three certifications offered in the field. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What is a financial planner?
  • Financial planner versus financial advisor
  • Why become a financial planner
  • The skills you’ll need to become a financial planner
  • The educational commitment to become a financial planner
  • Licenses and certifications for financial planners
  • Becoming a fiduciary
  • Is this the right career for you?


What is a financial planner?

Financial planning is a specialization within the field of financial advisory services. Financial planners work with people across economic strata to create plans designed to achieve their short- and long-term goals. They do this by digging deep into their clients’ circumstances and then sharing financial advice that can help those clients do things like:

  • Get out of debt
  • Manage and even leverage debt
  • Invest money wisely for maximum growth
  • Save for large purchases, such as a home or college education
  • Build wealth for retirement

Many financial planners also offer other services, including income tax preparation, investment management, or estate planning.

When you become a financial planner, you may end up specializing in one or more areas of personal or family finance, like:

  • Education fund planning
  • Retirement planning
  • Investment planning
  • Estate planning
  • Insurance planning
  • Philanthropic gift planning

Financial planner versus financial advisor

Some people use the terms financial planner and financial advisor interchangeably, but that’s not quite right. The term financial advisor refers to any professional—including certified financial planners, as well as investment advisors, wealth managers, and debt and credit counselors—who helps people manage money. What sets financial planners apart is that they help people manage their money by creating actionable roadmaps that help them achieve their financial goals. Financial planners typically focus on long-term objectives.


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Why become a financial planner

Most people drawn to financial planning careers are inspired by either an interest in money and numbers or an interest in helping people. That’s because there are different types of financial planner careers. Some financial planners—often those with an affinity for math and money—will end up working for big companies, while others—the ones who feel driven to help people—may work independently with clients or for a small credit or debt counseling service.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal financial planners earn about $88,890 per year (approximately $40 per hour). According to, the average financial planner earns a little over $60,000 in salary and another $45,000 per year in commissions. You might make more if you work for a bank or investment firm, or less if you work with a non-profit organization that helps people get out of debt.

The skills you’ll need to become a financial planner

Financial planners need to have a wide range of real-world accounting and personal finance knowledge, but more importantly, they need to be comfortable dealing with people. When you become a financial planner, you’ll be doing a lot of listening and educating. People can get very emotional about their finances. At times, your clients will have trouble accepting your advice. Some will be distraught over their financial circumstances.

To succeed in this career, you’ll need:

  • A keen ability to focus on details while still seeing the big picture
  • A talent for building and maintaining strong relationships
  • An aptitude for numbers and data analysis
  • The ability to explain complex ideas simply
  • The confidence to advise people on critical life decisions

The educational commitment to become a financial planner

You’ll need a bachelor’s degree to become a financial planner. No specific major is required, although any of the following will undoubtedly bolster your skills and knowledge:

  • Finance
  • Accounting
  • Business
  • Economics

These majors will also serve you well when it’s time to take your certification exams, should you choose to do so. You might also want to look for bachelor degree programs that offer electives in:

  • Investing
  • Retirement Planning
  • Real Estate

A few schools offer an undergraduate financial planning major. They include:

In order to sit for Certified Financial Planner certification exam, you will need to have completed coursework in the following areas:

  • General principles of financial planning
  • Education planning
  • Risk management and insurance planning
  • Investment planning
  • Tax planning
  • Retirement savings and income planning
  • Estate planning

You can find a list of CFP Board-registered undergraduate programs on their website.

A master’s degree should bolster your credentials, both with clients and potential employers. Look into Master of Science in Financial Planning (MSFP) programs like the one at Golden Gate University – San Francisco – or Master of Science in Financial Services (MSFS) programs. Don’t be surprised when you don’t find very many.

It’s more common for financial planners pursuing graduate study to opt for MBAs with a concentration in financial planning or financial management, or a Master of Finance.

Licenses and certifications for financial planners

Anyone can hang out a shingle, buy a nice paperweight, and call themselves a financial planner—you don’t technically have to be a finance expert. If you’re serious about becoming a financial planner, however, it’s a good idea to earn your Certified Financial Planner (CFP) certification.

The CFP certification is offered by the Certified Financial Planner Board and is considered the gold standard of certifications for financial planners.

Earning this certification requires:

  • Three years of work experience
  • Completing an education program
  • Taking a certification exam
  • Meeting continuing education requirements
  • Abiding by the CFP code of ethics, rules of conduct, and practice standards

Certified financial planners are always fiduciaries (a term we’ll discuss more below), which means they are legally obliged to put the needs and interests of their clients ahead of their own. CFPs are qualified to help clients with everything from debt management to investing to estate planning.

There’s also the Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) certification offered by the American College of Financial Services. You’ll need to take nine courses focused on topics like retirement planning, estate planning, insurance, investments, and income taxes to earn this certification.

If you are already a certified public accountant and you want to branch out into financial planning, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) offers a Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) certification. It’s a good certification to have if you’d like to work with clients on tax issues.

Some financial planners also sell investment products. If that’s part of your long-term career plan, you’ll need to pass certain exams given by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). If you think you’ll sell any insurance products like annuities, you’ll ALSO need to have your insurance license in the state where you’ll be working.

You may also want to become a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA). This professional association for financial advisors only accepts fee-only advisors. Members must adhere to the organization’s code of ethics and take an annual fiduciary oath. Being a part of NAPFA is an easy way to demonstrate to your clients that the advice you give is unbiased. The organization offers continuing education resources that will help you maintain your CFP certification.

Becoming a fiduciary

A fiduciary financial advisor is one who has pledged to act solely in the best interests of their clients in all situations. A fiduciary advisor may not recommend an investment or product simply because it is more profitable to the advisor. Non-fiduciary advisors are not similarly constrained, which is why many clients prefer fiduciary advisors.

Fiduciary duty minimizes the potential for conflicts of interest because fiduciaries have to:

  • Seek out the best financial products for clients
  • Communicate all relevant facts to clients
  • Disclose all potential conflicts of interest
  • Avoid using client assets to benefit themselves

There are, of course, unethical fiduciary advisors out there, but most take their professional obligations seriously. When they don’t, the regulations governing their practice make it easier for clients to take action against them.

The National Association of Certified Financial Fiduciaries is the certifying organization for financial advisors who want to demonstrate to clients and colleagues that they always put client interests first.


Is this the right career for you?

That depends. If you’re thinking about becoming a financial planner because you love numbers and money, you might want to consider becoming a wealth manager or investment manager instead. People come to financial planners with all sorts of issues—not just a desire to grow a nest egg—and so in this role, you may find yourself occasionally serving as a crisis counselor or therapist.

There’s no denying that it can be a great job; US News & World Report ranked financial advisor as theeighth-best job in 2018. However, helping people means being there for them in bad times as well as good. To succeed, you’ll need to have not only financial knowledge but also a little empathy and a whole lot of integrity.

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