You’re not alone if you have trouble telling the difference between a CFA, CFP, CIF, ChFU, and any of the other financial certifications. How do you filter through this alphabet soup to find the best planner for you? Here is our list of the eight most popular designations and a brief explanation of what each does:
Certified Financial Planner (CFP) – Those with the CFP designation are trained to have a broad knowledge in each major area of the financial world. Planners take exams on a wide range of subjects including stocks/bonds, tax implications, insurance, retirement planning, and estate planning. A major advantage is that the CFP Board posts information on current licensees for you to research. The last thing you need is to choose a CFP whose certification has been revoked.
Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) – This designation, given by the Association for Investment Management and Research (AIMR), measures the competence and integrity of financial analysts. Candidates are required to pass multiple exams on accounting, economics, money management, and security analysis. CFAs tend to be in the field of institutional money managing and stock analysis, not financial planning.
Certified Fund Specialist (CFS) – As the name implies, these focus on mutual funds and the mutual fund industry. The Institute of Business & Finance, formerly known as the Institute of Certified Fund Specialists, provides training in a variety of mutual fund topics, including portfolio theory, dollar-cost averaging, and annuity topics.
Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) – ChFCs are required to have a minimum of three years experience in a financial industry position, and must pass an examination on areas of financial planning, including income tax, insurance, investment and estate planning.
Chartered Investment Counselor (CIC) – This is a designation given by the Investment Counsel Association to those holding CFAs and currently working as investment counselors. The major scope of this program is portfolio management. CICs are usually the big boys, managing large accounts and mutual funds.
Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA) – An investment consultant must have three years of professional experience before being eligible to obtain this certification. The Investment Management Consultants Association teaches the CIMA courses.
Certified Public Accountant and Personal Financial Specialist (CPA and PFS) – CPAs have already passed examinations on accounting and tax preparation, but their title does not indicate training in other areas of finance. If a CPA is interested in financial planning, they will also need to become certified as a personal finance specialist (PFS). The PFS designation is awarded by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants to those who have taken additional training or already have a CFP designation.
Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU) – This designation is issued by the American College and is held mostly by insurance agents. The CLU designation is awarded to persons who complete a ten course program of study and 20 hours worth of exams. The course itself covers the fundamentals of life and health insurance, pension planning, insurance law, income taxation, investments, financial and estate planning, and group benefits.
While certifications are not everything, you should give extra credit to investment advisors who have any of these designations. For instance, to become a CFA you must put in approximately 250 hours of reading per exam, and there are three exams you must write. The exams are so extensive that over 35% of those writing fail! Charter members are furthermore bound to professional conduct and ethics codes, and they are required to complete a minimum 25 hours of continuing education per year.