Even those of modest means can afford a financial planner

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It takes money to make money, at least with financial planners - many of whom like their clients to have net assets of $500,000 or even $1 million or more.

Christina Rohall fell far short of either mark. Still, when she landed a position in San Francisco that paid 60 percent more than her first postcollege job, she wanted advice on handling her money. Lo and behold, she discovered a secret: Some planners will work with clients who don't have gobs of cash.

"I'm sure they were hoping to land a bigger fish," says Ms. Rohall, who handles marketing and publicity for software companies. Still, the planner who drew her business card from a bowl at a restaurant took her on and produced a plan that six years later is still helping to guide her financial life.

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Financial planners help people build wealth and guide them toward financial milestones such as retirement, vacation homes, or funding children's educations. But they don't work free of charge. Some, like the one who worked with Rohall, charge an hourly rate for their advice. Many more charge a commission on the products they sell, so they want clients with assets to invest in order to generate fees.

If you're a commission-based planner, then, would you rather work with someone who has $50,000 to invest, or $500,000? The obvious answer explains why planners shy away from people with thin bank accounts.

It's a problem for both planners as well as clients. "The economic reality is that people who provide the advice need to get paid for it," says Dan Moisand, president of the Denver-based Financial Planning Association (FPA).

Even so, the position of his 28,000-member trade group, which hands out the certified financial planner (CFP) designation, is that everyone should have access to competent financial planning. The FPA has fostered pro bono work for people of lesser means in the wake of hurricane Katrina and for military personnel, Mr. Moisand says.

FPA is also looking at urban areas where they might set up storefronts where members could place younger, less-experienced planners to work with younger, less-wealthy clients.

To get that job done, planners could copy the blueprint developed in Little Rock, Ark., at the Financial Decisions Institute.

There, certified financial planner Rick Adkins says that he used to worry that turning away someone as a client might drive them to someone who would not do a professional job. (There is no governmental licensing of financial planners, and con men lurk in the industry.) So he and three competitors in Little Rock got together six years ago and formed the institute, which takes on people who don't have $1 million, or even $100,000.

"It's allowed us to serve a segment of the community that wasn't going to get advice," says Mr. Adkins. The institute charges customers an hourly fee, so planners don't have to sell clients a financial product in order to generate commission. Planners typically will be younger men or women who work under the supervision of Adkins and his partners. He has used some technological innovations to drive down costs.

By now, Adkins says that the institute has about 300 clients, with $15 million in assets. That's about $50,000 per client.

Adkins says his concept could work elsewhere; he has spoken with planners in Texas and elsewhere about copying it. But it could be a long time before every city has such a storefront, so most people in search of a planner must devise their own way to get their foot in the door.

An easy way is through family ties, such as a parent who already has a relationship with an advisory firm. If they're working on Dad's account, they might figure it's worthwhile to work on Junior's, too, if for no other reason than to keep Dad happy.

No rich relatives? Well, how about a job with a good earnings potential?

Cheryl Burbano, a certified financial planner in Tampa, Fla., says her clients typically have $100,000 to invest. But she also will occasionally take on people who have a negative net worth, such as newly minted physicians who carry hefty student loans. "You just have to build that [debt] into their plan," says Ms. Burbano. "Hopefully they'll get into a positive net worth."

A positive attitude helps, too.

Brian Jones, a planner in Fairfax, Va., says that he sizes up clients to see whether they're a good match for one another.

"Is this someone I'd like to have over for dinner with my wife?" Mr. Jones asks himself. Regardless of whether a potential client is worth millions, or thousands, Jones relies on a "gut feeling" when deciding who to work with. One of his best clients is a woman who started out with a net worth of practically zero, he says.

Investors also could call a planning company and see if they can work with a junior partner. It takes at least three years of experience and testing to become a CFP - longer for the Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) designation handed out by the American College. Advisers who have not yet earned those stripes might accept clients who are, like themselves, younger and leaner money-wise.

Rohall says that she learned quickly that the planner working with her in San Francisco was junior level. But he was in an office with more senior people. He also developed a plan that has helped her become a better budgeter and alerted her to the possibility of using an IRA to supplement her workplace 401(k) account.

"Even if you don't have a lot of money ... a planner can turn you on to basics such as creating a budget and five-year investment goals," says Rohall. "This is foundational work that I think every young person just starting off should know."

But planners aren't cure-alls, warns Mike Bischoff, a planner in Bloomington, Minn. The less money someone has to work with, the less there is that an adviser can do for them. People with budget problems, credit-card debt, and mortgage woes are mistaken if they think a financial planner can resolve their troubles. "We're not credit counselors," says Mr. Bischoff.

Still, if it's wealth management you're after, there are ways to form a relationship with a financial planner. It's just that if you're not Bill Gates, it might take some extra effort. "There is," as planner Jones notes, "somebody there for everybody."

The titles planners carry

On a recent blog entry on a financial advice website, the writer signed off with her name followed by these letters: CISP, CRC, CRPS, CRSP, APA.

At a minimum, this woman has spent a lot of time taking tests. More likely, she wanted to let readers know that she has credentials to back up her words of wisdom.

Each of these little abbreviations shows that she took a course, presumably to make her more expert at dishing out financial advice. That's good to know, because there is no government licensing of financial planners.

Certified Public Accountants must pass exams in states where they work, and Registered Investment Advisers need to register, but otherwise, pretty much anyone can call himself or herself a planner. They just can't call themselves a Chartered Financial Analyst, or ChFC, for instance, unless they have passed the course that is administered by The American College, a professional licensing organization.

Private education or trade groups are behind most other planner designations. They train their fellows or registrants, and see that they behave well enough to maintain their status.

Using financial advisers with one of these titles doesn't bulletproof you from bum advice. But it shows that they have spent time to learn something extra about their craft. And in most instances, they will have to take continuing education to maintain that designation.

Here are many of the more common designations that money experts might carry:

AEP - Accredited Estate Planner
CDFA - Certified Divorce Financial Analyst
CDP - Certified Divorce Planner
CEBS - Certified Employee Benefits Specialist
CFA - Chartered Financial Analyst
CFP - Certified Financial Planner
ChFC - Chartered Financial Consultant
CIFP - Certified IRA Services Professional
CIC - Certified Investment Counselor
CLU - Chartered Life Underwriter
CPA - Certified Public Accountant
CRA - Certified Retirement Administrator
CRC - Certified Retirement Counselor
CRSP - Certified Retirement Services Specialist
CTFC - Certified Trust and Financial Officer
CSA - Certified Senior Adviser
LUTCF - Life Underwriter Training Council Fellow
PFS - Personal Financial Specialist
REBC - Registered Employee Benefits Specialist
RIA - Registered Investment Adviser

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