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Navigating the Maze of Financial Credentials

Choosing the Right Professional For You

Finding the right financial professional can feel like trying to decipher a foreign language. What do all those letters after their names mean? And more importantly, which ones really matter for your unique needs?

This directory will help answer your questions. We have compiled and categorized an extensive, profession-wide list of credentials, ranging from Gold Standard (think intensive academic programs, years of experience, and grueling exams) to Easier to Obtain (shorter courses and less demanding commitments). Remember, difficulty often translates to deeper expertise, but don’t underestimate the power of a focused, accessible program or specialized training.

These are the definitions we have used to rate the various designations:

  • Gold Standard Certifications: Require significant commitments, often involving intensive academic programs (multiple semesters), extensive work experience requirements, and dedicated exam preparation, requiring a time investment of thousands of hours.
  • Moderately Difficult Certifications: Program lengths and study demands vary, but these largely require investing hundreds of hours and several months of dedicated effort, including classroom/coursework hours, self-study, and exam preparation.
  • Easier to Obtain Certifications: These involve shorter programs or courses and less demanding exam preparation, with the investment of dozens of hours. Some of these represent relatively superficial general knowledge, while others provide extensive qualifications in professional specialties.

 Financial Planning

Gold Standard:

  • Personal Financial Specialist (PFS): Exclusively for CPAs, merges accounting expertise with advanced financial planning. Requires a CPA license (bachelor’s degree, 120-150 credit hours, Uniform CPA Exam, relevant work experience), PFS program (120-150 hours), exam, 2+ years relevant experience, exam, and 120 hours of continuing education (CE) every 3 years.

Moderately Difficult:

  • Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®): Comprehensive financial planning for diverse clientele. Requires a bachelor’s degree, CFP Board-registered program completion, passing CFP® exam (400-600 hours study), 2+ years relevant experience, and 30 hours CE every 2 years.

Easier to Obtain:

  • Accredited Financial Counselor® (AFC®): Financial education and counseling to a broader audience. No bachelor’s degree required, AFC® program completion, 6 months experience, AFC® exam, and 30 hours of CE every 2 years.
  • Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC). Basic education in comprehensive financial planning. No bachelor’s degree required but three years of business experience. Complete 8 courses, exam, and 30 hours of CE every 2 years.

Financial Life Planning

Gold Standard:

  • Certified Financial Transitionist® (CeFT®): Blends seasoned financial planning expertise with deep clinical training, demanding knowledge and advanced skills in guiding clients through major life transitions. Requires a certification such as a CFP, PFS, CIMA, etc. , 12-month Core Training program (300-400 hours), exam (70-100 hours study), Code of Ethics, and 15 annual CE hours.
  • UGA’s Graduate Certificate in Behavioral Financial Planning and Financial Therapy: designed to prepare students in financial planning with knowledge of the psychological and relational aspects that drive financial decision-making in the financial planning profession.: Requires bachelor’s degree, 15 credit hours (220 to 300 hours), no CE.

Moderately Difficult:

  • Golden Gate University Graduate Certificate in Financial Life Planning: Integrates financial planning and coaching skills with a focus on life transitions and emotional aspects of money management. Bachelor’s degree required, 9 credit hours (135-180 hours study), no CE.
  • Kansas State University Financial Therapy Graduate Certificate: Provides a practical foundation in financial therapy concepts applicable to life planning. No bachelor’s degree required, 12 credit hours (180-240 hours), no CE.
  • Texas Tech University Master of Science in Personal Financial Planning with a Financial Health and Wellness Specialization: Requires bachelor’s degree. Non-thesis master’s degree requires a minimum of 36 credit hours, no CE.
  • Financial Psychology and Behavioral Finance Graduate Certificate: Examines how deep-seated financial beliefs established early in life can subconsciously drive financial decisions.  Requires bachelor’s degree, 15 credit hours, no CE.

Easier to Obtain:

  • Registered Life Planner® (RLP®): Combines financial planning knowledge with coaching skills, focusing on aligning financial decisions with life goals, identity, and purpose. No bachelor’s degree required, completion of a 3-course curriculum that takes 9 to 18 months including a 6-month interactive mentorship program, and 8 hours of CE every 2 years.

Investment Advising

Gold Standard:

  • Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®): In-depth investment analysis, portfolio construction, market acumen. Requires a bachelor’s degree or 4000 hours of relevant experience, passing 3-level CFA® exam (estimated 300-400 hours of study per level), adhering to ethics code, 20 hours of CE every year.
  • Chartered Wealth Manager (CWM®): Highlights expertise in managing wealth for high-net-worth individuals. Requires a master’s in finance or related field OR an MBA/PhD/CPA, PLUS 3+ years in wealth management OR Global Academy of Finance and Management completed program; training program, 2 exams, and 15 hours CE every year.

Moderately Difficult:

  • Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA®): Portfolio management for individual and institutional clients. Requires a bachelor’s degree, 5+ years relevant experience, passing CIMA® exam (estimated 200-300 hours of study), and 40 hours of professional development every 2 years.

Easier to Obtain:

  • Accredited Behavioral Finance Professional℠ (ABFP℠): Understanding of the psychological aspects of financial decision-making. No bachelor’s degree required, ABFP™ program completion (estimated 60-80 hours), exam, and 16 hours of CE every 2 years.
  • Accredited Asset Management Specialist℠ (AAMS℠): Understanding of the basics of asset allocation. No bachelor’s degree or prerequisite certification required.  Complete a 20 to 30 hour online program (must be completed within 120 days), pass an exam, and 16 hours of CD every two years.
  • Accredited Portfolio Management Advisor℠ (APMA®):  Understanding of the basics of portfolio creation, augmentation, and maintenance. No bachelor’s degree or prerequisite certification required.  Complete a 20 to 30 hour online program (must be completed within 120 days), pass an exam, and 16 hours of CD every two years.
  • Financial Risk Manager (FRM®): Expertise in risk management within financial institutions. No bachelor’s degree, 2+ years relevant work experience, passing two exams (estimated 200-300 hours of study), adhering to ethics code and standards of practice, and no CE.
  • Chartered Portfolio Manager (CPM®): Portfolio management expertise. Requires a bachelor’s degree in financial services (can substitute some education with experience), 3+ years relevant experience, no study courses, no exam, adhering to ethics code and standards of practice, and 15 hours of CE every year.
  • Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA): Requires a bachelor’s degree or four years of experience, passing Level I and Level II CAIA exams on alternative investment strategies (estimated 3-6 months of study per level), and no CE.
  • Certified Cryptocurrency Trader™ (CCT): No formal education requirements. Completion of a 5-hour online program. No experience required for the program, but 1 year of relevant experience for certification. No CE required.
  • Chartered SRI Counselor™ (CSRIC®) Guides clients towards investments aligned with their social and environmental values, focusing on a specific niche within financial planning. No bachelor’s degree required, completion of a 28-hour course, exam (estimated 135 hours of total study), and no CE required.Wealth Management Certified Professional© (WMCP)© No bachelor’s degree required, 3 courses, exam, 30 hours of CE every 2 years.
  • Chartered Market Technician® (CMT®): No bachelor’s degree or certifications required, 3 years of investment related experience, 3 courses and exams, No CE required. +

Financial Coaching and Therapy

Gold Standard:

  • Certified Financial Therapist-I™ (CFT-I™): Integrates financial planning with therapeutic skills. Requires license in therapy or formal training or certification in personal financial planning, CFT-I™ program completion (200-400 hours), passing CFT-I™ exam, and 20 hours of CE every 2 years.
  • UGA’s Graduate Certificate in Behavioral Financial Planning and Financial Therapy: designed to prepare students in financial planning with knowledge of the psychological and relational aspects that drive financial decision-making in the financial planning profession.: Requires bachelor’s degree, 15 credit hours (220 to 300 hours), no CE.

Moderately Difficult:

  • Kansas State University Financial Therapy Graduate Certificate: Provides a practical foundation in financial therapy concepts applicable to life planning. A bachelor’s degree is required, 12 credit hours (180-240 hours), no CE.
  • Financial Fitness Coach™ Certification. Prerequisite certifications like a CFP, CFA, CPA, etc., and 100 hours of experience; 68 hours of classroom training, code of ethics, and 40 hours of CE every 3 years.

    Easier to Obtain:

    Specialties

    Moderately Difficult:

    • Chartered Trust and Estate Planner (CTEP®): Advanced knowledge of estate planning, trusts, wills, and asset protection. Requires JD or LL.M. degree, CTEP program completion, 3 years of experience, passing CEP exam, and 30 hours of CE every 2 years.
    • Chartered Special Needs Consultant® (ChSNC®): Comprehensive training in legal, financial, and emotional aspects of supporting individuals with disabilities and their families. Requires completion of ChSNC® program (80-120 hours), passing ChSNC® exam, 5 years of experience or bachelor’s degree, and 24 hours of CE every 3 years.
    • Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA®): Equips financial professionals to guide clients through the complex financial implications of divorce, including asset division, alimony, and post-divorce financial planning. Requires completion of CDFA® program (40-60 hours of study), 3 years of experience, exam, and 30 hours of CE every 2years.

    Easier to Obtain:

    • Military Qualified Financial Planner (MQFP): Must hold a recognized certification like a CFP, AFC, CPA, CFA, etc. Military service required, no training course, exam, and 4 hours of CE every year.
    • Certified Retirement Counselor (CRC™): Must have a bachelor’s degree or 5 years of experience. No training course, exam, and 15 hours of CE every year.
    • Certified Elder Planning Specialist (CEPS): ). No formal education requirements. Complete a two-day training course, open-book exam, and no CE.
    • Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor (CRPC). No formal education requirements. Complete a CRPC course, exam, and 16 hours of CE every 2 years.
    • Chartered Life Underwriter® (CLU®): No bachelor’s degree or any prerequisite courses, 3 years of experience in the insurance industry. Five course, exam, and 30 hours of CE every two years.

    Choosing the Right Professional

    1. Align their expertise with your needs. Consider your financial goals, risk tolerance, and current life stage. For example, if you’re nearing retirement, a Certified Retirement Coach could be valuable, while a Certified Financial Planner™ might be more suitable if you are younger and aiming for long-term wealth building.
    2. Research their credentials. Verify their certification status and understand the level of expertise implied by each credential. Don’t hesitate to ask clarifying questions about their specific experience and areas of specialization.
    3. Seek personal recommendations. Ask friends, family, or colleagues for referrals to financial professionals they trust. Online review platforms can also offer valuable insights, but conduct your own due diligence before entrusting your finances to anyone.
    4. Schedule consultations. Most financial professionals offer initial consultations to discuss your needs and assess whether they are the right fit. Use this opportunity to ask questions, gauge their communication style, and decide whether you feel comfortable with their approach.

    Remember, this is not an exhaustive list, and new certifications emerge regularly. The key is to be informed, ask questions, and choose a professional whose expertise and approach align with your unique financial goals and aspirations.