Can you really do your own financial planning and bypass what is often expensive professional help? Do-it-yourself financial planning isn't exactly like painting your house or scooting under the car to change the oil. It takes a lot of pencil scratching and rummaging through financial records. It means sitting down and thinking about goals. And like the paint job, you have to be careful, but the process will teach you something - and many times will save you money.
''Chances are, if you've done this (analyzed your own finances), you'll know a lot more about yourself - and you may find you can solve your own (investment) problems,'' says Thomas Porter, author of the ''Touche Ross Guide to Personal Financial Management'' (Prentice- Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. $19.95) ''Or if you use advisers,'' he adds, ''you'll be able to use them more cost effectively.''
There are plenty of financial planning tools around. Bookstores are stacked with manuals to guide people through the process. Investment newsletters abound. Some magazines and newspapers devote themselves to the subject. Community colleges and adult education centers are jumping at the demand and offering personal finance classes.
Professionals in the field - but not financial planners - say there's another good reason to take the self-help approach. ''Anyone can put an ad in the paper or hang out a shingle and call themselves a financial planner,'' warns Timothy Sullivan, chairman of the finance department at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. There are no federal requirements for becoming a financial planner, although certified financial planners (CFPs) are graduates of the College for Financial Planning in Denver.
Personal money management works in stages. It begins with gathering data about yourself: Finding out how much and where you've been spending, saving, and investing, and figuring out your net worth. The second stage is to set goals: the life style you would like to maintain in retirement, provision for your children's education, buying a house, reducing tax payments. There is no way to get around these steps, because even if you go to a financial planner you will be asked for this information.
Next, it's time to fit data and goals together - to analyze your present situation and see how it matches objectives. Then comes strategy: figuring out what percent of income should be invested where, whether it makes sense to borrow to invest, and how much risk you are willing to take. It looks like the whole process is over when the investment transactions actually take place, but because financial needs change throughout a lifetime, it will become necessary to update the plan yearly and maybe make major adjustments three or four times in your life. Because now is the time that most people are doing their taxes and tracing spending, now is the best time to investigate financial planning.
Do-it-yourself financial planning can involve just a few, or all, of these stages. Guidebooks on personal finance help with data gathering and goal setting , walking you step by step through various forms that take up such specifics as net worth. But guidebook quality varies when it comes to explaining investment goals (estate planning, tax planning, retirement planning) and in helping you establish a strategy.
It's difficult to assess the savings of self-help financial planning vs. going to an adviser. ''In some situations you are saving money and in some you are not. That's because there's no standard package or fee arrangement (that planners) charge,'' explains Gary Tagtmeier, an accountant and president of Financial Awareness, a Downers Grove, Ill., firm that gives financial planning seminars at corporations.
Some financial planners charge by the hour, and their rates are usually comparable to the going rate for local accountants and lawyers (which can range from around $50 to $250 an hour). Other financial planners may charge a set fee for a certain number of sessions, or a fee and then commission on the the investments they recommend. Some offer the planning free of charge and only rely on commissions for income. The best chances of saving money, says Mr. Tagtmeier, is when you are working with a planner who charges by the hour, simply because the more homework you've done, the less time you'll spend in the planner's office.
There is the question of just how much planning you can do on your own. The initial stages of putting together your financial profile and assessing goals are not difficult. Advisers may be necessary for more complex planning, the most complex being estate planning.
Financial advisers argue that even if a person is self-motivated and determined to keep up with the latest investments, he or she will still need help. ''The financial area has become so dynamic. New products come out constantly,'' says Richard Bandfield, director of personal financial planning at Prudential-Bache.
''The trouble is,'' he continues, ''a person doesn't know what they don't know. An individual will go ahead on incomplete knowledge. They may not know of a recent case in the courts that has been decided in a way that has an impact on them.'' Pru-Bache does not charge for its planning services, but rather relies on commissions. A person using the brokerage house's planning services is not obligated to follow through and use Pru-Bache's brokerage or insurance services.
Some individuals may not have the ''get up and go'' for self-help financial planning. For them, there are services like the Pathfinder report of Merrill Lynch. For $250 (largely tax deductible), a person still fills out questionnaires, but the reward is a bound report that summarizes your financial situation and lays out an investment strategy for meeting goals. (If your goals seem unrealistic, the report tells you and makes alternative suggestions.) Merrill Lynch advisers are available by phone or in person.
The Pathfinder report usually ''doesn't make any great revelations'' about a person's finances, says Jay Rabinowitz, Merrill Lynch vice-president and manager of financial planning, but it ''does force people to get organized.''
But for ''most of Middle America,'' as Mr. Tagtmeier puts it, financial planning is not that complicated. ''What the consumer needs is just some basic explanation of facts and terms. The problem with the financial field is that they have different names for the same types of products. I'm under the attitude that people can take their own financial planning to the nth degree and get complete diversification at minimum cost just by going through a no-load mutual fund.''
Whether you choose to stick to planning basics or map out your own investment strategy, you still get a financial education from the process. That itself is valuable, Tagtmeier says, because ''a consumer should never put money in an investment that he doesn't understand.''