Boston — Anyone can call himself a financial planner. That charge is from . . . actually, it's from anyone you talk to about financial planning. And it is a key to understanding the problems people face in trying to find a financial planner.
Just five years ago, it was pretty clear who the financial planners were. They were former stockbrokers, insurance salesmen, tax accountants, investment managers, or other specialists who broadened their knowledge through additional reading or training and hung out a shingle as a financial planner. Many had received additional training through the College for Financial Planning in Denver, which permitted them to put CFP (certified financial planner) after their names.
For the most part, the planners' clientelle was well-to-do, usually earning $80,000 to $100,000 and up. Their job was to help people who knew how to make money but lacked the skills to manage it make decisions and plans for insurance, college-saving, investment, estate planning, and asset accumulation and preservation.
Those planners still exist and have multiplied. The better ones are the benchmark by which everyone else who goes by ``financial planner'' would like to be measured.
As the size and variety of these people and organizations have grown, so has the confusion about what financial planning is and where to get it.
``There's utter, total confusion existing right now,'' says Jerry Rosenbloom, a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. ``Everybody's bombarding the public with the message that they need financial planning.''
The most often-heard messages come from brokerages and insurance agents. But for these people, the purpose may not be to give a consumer a good financial plan but to sell a product.
Financial planning ``has become so `in,' we're getting some charlatans,'' says Claire S. Longden, a certified financial planner with Butcher & Singer, a Philadelphia brokerage firm. ``Also, there's a fair amount of confusion as to what a financial planner is.''
There's also a fair amount of confusion as to what financial planners do, partly because many of the ads give the impression they can do a lot. They almost certainly cannot eliminate tax bills. They cannot turn a disorganized person into a financially organized one. They cannot tell you what financial goals are most important to you. And they cannot make you rich.
So what can they do?
``For someone whose finances are very confused and needs some general guidance, they can be useful,'' observes Jeremy Siegel, another finance professor at Wharton. ``A good friend who knows their finances can also tell you a lot, though.''
Buying a financial plan is an exercise of the old adage ``you get what you pay for.'' You can pay $25 to $200 for a computerized plan from a firm like Sears/Dean Witter or a bank that has installed a consumer planning division. Or, you can pay several thousand dollars -- in some cases tens of thousands -- for a customized plan that includes hours of analytical interviews, the input of brokers, attorneys, and accountants, along with periodic follow-ups.
For many people, finding a financial planner may be the hardest part of the process. The Yellow Pages of many metropolitan phone books contain a daunting list of people who call themselves financial planners, but that is probably not the best place to start.
You can write to the International Association for Financial Planning (IAFP), 5775 Peachtree Dunwoody Road NE, Atlanta, Ga. 30342 and ask for a copy of a free booklet called ``Building a Capital Base.'' It looks at what a financial plan is, what a planner can and cannot do, and discusses the IAFPs Registry of Financial Planning Practitioners. Also, if you ask, the association will send a list of three registry-listed planners in your area.
The registry consists of planners who have been practicing for at least three years, hold the designation of certified financial planner (CFP), certified public accountant (CPA), or chartered financial consultant (ChFC).
Or, you can look for someone who has gone through a training program, such as that offered by the College for Financial Planning. Planning degrees are also awarded by Adelphi University, Golden Gate University, Brigham Young University, Drake University, Georgia State University, University of California, University of Sarasota, and the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Finding the right financial planner can -- and should -- take some time, says Thomas McFarland, a financial planner in Burlington, Mass. Mr. McFarland is past president and chairman of the Boston chapter of the IAFP.
Because of his location along Boston's Route 128 high-technology corridor, McFarland's practice tends to concentrate on high-tech executives or owners of closely held businesses. Such specialization is not unusual among financial planners, he says, and it may be preferable.
``If they talk to anybody and everybody, they probably don't do anything well,'' he argues. He suggests people look for planners who fit their needs. Some have more experience with young families building assets and starting college saving plans; others deal more with older couples nearing retirement who wonder what to do with pensions and how to live off accumulated assets; others, like McFarland, work more often with entrepreneurs.
Start with a few phone calls, McFarland says. ``See if they sound like someone you want to deal with.''
Then set up appointments with two or three who fit your needs. ``Most good planners won't charge you anything for a preliminary interview,'' he says.
At the interview, much of the discussion will center on the client. Topics will include a cursory look at income, assets, family size and needs, future plans and goals that require a financial planner, and your attitude toward money, investments, and some discussion of risk.
But the planner should be interviewed by the client as well, McFarland says. You might be able to see some sample plans (with names blocked out) of people in similar circumstances. Ask about both initial fees and charges for ongoing maintenance. A ``reasonable fee'' for a moderately complicated plan, which includes several hours of interviews, and consultations with outside experts like a lawyer or tax specialist, is around $2,000 the first year and $1,000 in succeeding years, he said.
``If you don't have ongoing fees, the plan becomes a one-shot affair and isn't worth very much after a while,'' McFarland contends.
You should also ask what is included in the initial and ongoing fees. ``Here, for instance, we do tax preparation for people who want it,'' he says.
McFarland also prefers the team approach to financial planning. Not many planners, he believes, can keep up with all the changes in tax laws, investment products, education financing techniques, and be the financial counsellor most people want.
``Find out who's on the financial planning team,'' he said. The tax specialists, lawyers, and estate planners should be people whose backgrounds and references can be checked out fairly easily, if you desire.