Image for What do the Different Certifications of Financial Advisors Mean?

What do the Different Certifications of Financial Advisors Mean?

When selecting a financial advisor, you want the finest around. But how can you be sure that they have the necessary skills, knowledge, and experience to deliver the results you richly deserve?

According to CNN, over a hundred financial designations are out there, but many are just meaningless titles.

You need to be able to identify which personal financial advisors hold genuine credentials. Designations should ensure that your personal financial advisor has met national standards and demonstrated their professional experience to a certain level of excellence.

This guide will help you differentiate between the different types of financial designations and recognize the most common certifications on the market. To protect yourself from being misled, always be sure to look for designations that demand rigorous requirements. They should be regulated by a reputable financial institution and take time to be earned.

All our financial planners at Phoenix Fee-Only have extensive experience and exemplary professional credentials. We are happy to discuss our qualifications with you.

Financial advisor certifications

Below you will find a description of each designation, its issuing organization, and requirements. And a discussion of what a financial planner with this certification can do to help with your financial goals. These designations are not required by any regulatory agency. They're purely voluntary and require rigorous education, examination, and work experience. We want you to be confident that your financial planner is qualified to provide you with the best advice.

CFP® - Certified Financial Planner™
CPA - Certified Public Accountant
CSLP® - Certified Student Loan Professional™
CWS® - Certified Wealth Strategist™
AFC® - Accredited Financial Counsellor™
RLP® - Registered Life Planner™
RICP® - Retirement Income Certified Professional™

What does a Certified Financial Planner™ professional mean?

Certified Financial Planner™ professionals are required to complete comprehensive training, pass a rigorous exam covering all aspects of financial planning, and adhere to a strict Code of Ethics. Only those with the official CFP® status have demonstrated the necessary expertise and knowledge in personal finance to guide you through the increasingly complex financial services industry.

The CFP® designation is issued and regulated by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

What requirements must a Certified Financial Planner™ professional meet?

A whole lot! That's why the CFP® designation is the gold standard in personal financial planning. To begin with, the prospective financial planner needs at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. After that, they must complete advanced education in the financial planning topics defined by the CFP® Board. Some of the subjects covered in the CFP® registered program include:

Before individuals can use the CFP® certification, they need years of financial planning experience. This is achieved either by 6,000 hours through the Standard Pathway or 4,000 hours via the Apprenticeship pathway (where they are mentored and supervised by an established professional in the CFP® program).

Next, there is a comprehensive exam. This is a significant challenge! The CFP® exam is six hours long with a brief break, and success is considered a significant professional achievement. Case studies and client situations put applicants' skills to the test, requiring them to analyze various financial planning issues in real-world scenarios. This test has recently been reduced from a two day, 10-hour exam – so ask your advisor which one they took.

To maintain CFP® certification, financial advisors must complete ongoing annual education programs (30 hours minimum) to keep their knowledge and skills up to date.

Finally, a CFP® must agree to adhere to the CFP® Board's Standards of Professional Conduct. This means they are ethically bound to provide you with unbiased advice in their fiduciary duty.

What types of financial planning does a CFP® professional do?

Financial planning is a comprehensive process that focuses on developing a financial plan for an organization or, more personally, individual investors. The job of a CFP® professional is to serve as your expert for financial advice, helping you achieve the most from your money (and preparing you for the future) by developing plans tailored to your needs.

A CFP® professional must act in your best interests. Because many are fee-only, they work only for the client and receive no commissions. Most CFP® professionals will design a financial plan for you. A comprehensive financial plan aims to enable the client to become more effective and successful in attaining their life goals by achieving their financial objectives. If this sounds like your situation, a CFP® professional is your best choice for unbiased, trusted financial advice.

Everyone in the Phoenix Fee-Only network is a Certified Financial PlannerTM professional. You can learn about the entire team here, or on their individual pages:

  • Dan VanDusen
  • Stephen Hazel
  • Robinson Crawford
  • Heather Townsend
  • Anthony Syracuse
  • Andrea Clark
  • Matthew Benson
  • Dale Shafer
  • Francisco Ayala

What does Certified Public Accountant mean?

Though technically not a certification, the CPA is a designation to help enforce professional standards in the accounting industry. The license distinguishes CPAs as expert advisors in tax preparation, business planning, and financial analysis. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) grants the CPA credential.

What requirements must a CPA meet?

Like the CFP®, gaining the CPA requires proven excellence in "The Four Essential Es": Education, Exams, Experience, and Ethics.

A successful applicant will have completed a minimum of a bachelor's degree with 150 semester hours of education. They will also have achieved 75% or higher in the Uniform CPA Examination, which covers advanced subjects including:

  • Auditing and attestation,
  • Business environment and concepts,
  • Financial accounting and reporting, and
  • Regulation.

Additionally, a CPA attends 40 hours of ongoing annual education programs and ethics examinations.

Do CPAs have a fiduciary duty?

CPAs still have a legal responsibility to act in the best interest of their clients. An accountant isn't necessarily a fiduciary, but there are similar standards of ethical conduct for CPAs as outlined by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Professional Code of Conduct, which every CPA follows. These include honesty, integrity, and freedom from conflicts of interest.

What's the difference between CPA and CFP®?

The CPA and CFP® designations are often confused with one another, but they aren't the same. They're differentiated by their field of study (taxes versus financial planning), the services they provide, and the types of clients in which they serve.

What types of financial planning does a CPA do?

CPAs are known for their extensive role in the business world. Income tax preparation, auditing, bookkeeping, and managerial accounting are some of the services offered by an experienced CPA. They can also specialize in other areas, like forensic accounting. Typically, only an attorney or enrolled agent can represent clients before the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). However, CPAs may do so with additional training.

Heather Townsend CPA is your top choice if you're looking for a CPA with CFP® accreditation in the Phoenix Fee-Only network.

You can learn about Heather and contact her here. Dave Grant also has a CPA package included in his Wealth Management services.

Image for What does a Certified Student Loan Professional™ do?

What does a Certified Student Loan Professional™ do?

Student loans are a specialized personal finance subject. The CSLP® designation is for those who have knowledge of federal and private student loans. This title is issued by the Certified Student Loan Advisors Board of Standards.

If you have student loans, engaging a CSLP® can optimize repayment plans and help make sense of your financial situation. They'll look over any consolidation options and, if necessary, assist your application for student loan forgiveness.

To get on top of student loan issues and improve your financial future, contact Heather Townsend, CSLP®.

What does a Certified Wealth Strategist™ do?

CWS® is a designation recognizing expertise in helping the most affluent clients develop and execute wealth management plans. A Certified Wealth Strategist™ advises clients on investment allocation, risk assessment, estate planning, insurance needs, and tax strategies. A CWS® helps clients towards retirement readiness while maintaining the highest standards of living, with all the luxuries they expect.

The Cannon Financial Institute currently awards the CWS® designation. To be eligible, an investment advisor must:

  • Complete a 4-year undergraduate degree from an accredited school
  • Attain three years of experience in financial services
  • Sit multiple monitored exams in 10 study modules
  • Initiate self-directed study on wealth management issues
  • Undertake a capstone project on investment research
  • Commit to 33 hours of ongoing education every two years

A Certified Wealth Strategist® is much like a CFP®, with added training especially focused on advising more affluent clients (typically those with a net worth of $1 million or more in liquid assets). Financial advisors with this designation also specialize in portfolio management, retirement planning, estate planning, and high net worth investment counseling.

If you have a substantial net worth and wish to develop a wealth plan with retirement as its foundation, please get in touch with Jonathan Bird, CWS®, for more information on how he can assist you in creating and implementing a comprehensive wealth strategy.

What is an Accredited Financial Counselor™?

Accredited Financial Counselors™ frequently deal with lower-income clients looking to achieve financial stability. An AFC® can assist them in dealing with such subjects as money management, budgeting, debt, and savings. The Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education® (AFCPE®) offers this credential to advisors who have over 1,000 hours of financial counseling experience and pass the exam.

Like all fee-only advisors, an Accredited Financial Counselor™ is dedicated to the integrity of their profession and giving trusted advice. Services include helping clients to:

  • Understand money management
  • Manage debt
  • Navigate public benefits and assistance agencies
  • Make a budget and set financial objectives and
  • Work out a plan to achieve those goals!

Financial counselors may also specialize in certain areas, such as military pay and benefits and assisting people with disabilities with their finances.

If your personal finance goals need that extra boost, Andrea Clark is an AFC® who specializes in working with the military community.

What does a Registered Life Planner® do?

An exciting newer designation is the Registered Life Planner™ (RLP®). This visionary concept combines deep listening and interpersonal skills with professional expertise and knowledge. In short, your RLP® is like a financial guru. This designation is offered by the Kinder Institute of Life Planning, whose founder - George Kinder - says of the initiative:

"Human beings, their values and aspiration, are the true focus of financial planning. Advisors we've trained put their focus where it is meant to be—on their clients, not on products."

This mission statement accords neatly with the fiduciary status and client-centric services of fee-only financial advisors.

The RLP® certification is achieved through attending workshops, completing a six-month mentoring period, and a commitment to the principle of the Kinder Institute. A financial advisor with this training is primed to help clients reflect on their values, dreams, and goals - and then use that information to plan the finances to live the life they want to lead.

If you are seeking an integrated approach that emphasizes the 'personal' in personal finances and encourages clients to connect where they are with where they want to be, then Heather Townsend is here to assist.

What is a Retirement Income Certified Professional™?

Like the RLP®, the RICP® represents the new generation of investment specialists who aim to align their clients' investments with their values and goals. RICP® refers to a financial professional specializing in retirement income planning (although they must already have a comprehensive financial planning background and credentials). The RICP® is awarded by The American College of Financial Services.

Successful awardees must have three years of experience creating and executing client-centric investment plans and strategies in the field of retirement income planning. Additionally, they must follow an extensive training program, covering:

  • Retirement Income Process, Strategies, and Solutions
  • Sources of Retirement Income
  • Managing a Retirement Income Plan

RICP® applicants then must pass a closed-book 100-question exam in each course. Once qualified, RICPs can advise retirees and near-retirees on the best ways to use assets they have accumulated for retirement to live comfortably within a realistic budget and generate a lasting income.

If this sounds like the kind of tailored retirement plan you would benefit from, Dave Grant can help you ensure your golden years are bright ones!

Choosing a qualified financial professional is one of the most important life decisions you can make

Some of the most highly regarded designations that Phoenix Fee-Only advisors have received are listed in this article. Every member of the Phoenix Fee-Only network is qualified to provide financial planning and investment advice and has pursued these additional professional certifications as part of their continuing commitment to excellence.

To learn more about working with a fee-only advisor, visit our contact page and start the conversation about your financial future today.