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What Is a Personal Financial Specialist (PFS)?

Sarah Fisher
What does a Personal Financial Specialist do?

The Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) certification helps Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) demonstrate an expertise in all aspects of wealth management. A PFS is someone with a CPA who also offers financial planning services. There are many requirements before getting the PFS designation beyond having a CPA and taking an exam. Professionals with the PFS designation may work for consulting or accounting firms, or run their own firm. Read on to learn what it takes to become a PFS, the benefits of holding the certification and the difference between a PFS and other types of financial professionals.

Becoming a Personal Financial Specialist (PFS)

The issuing body behind the PFS certification is the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). In order to become a PFS, you must have a current CPA certification issued by a state, receive recommendations from colleagues and clients and be an active member of the AICPA. You must also have at least two years of full-time professional or teaching experience (or the equivalent of 3,000 hours) in personal financial planning. You’re also required to earn a minimum of 75 hours of continuing professional development within the five-year period before applying for a PFS certification.

There are two ways to receive the certification if you meet those qualifications. One way is to pass the exam requirement that covers all of the planning processes and professional responsibilities that make up personal financial planning. Those areas include estate planning, investing, insurance and retirement planning.

The second way is if you have already passed the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) exams. Professionals who have passed these exams have already met the exam requirement to become a PFS.

For first-time test takers, the exam costs $300 for Personal Financial Planning (PFP) Section members of AICPA, $400 for AICPA members and $500 for non-members. Retaking the exam costs $100.

Preparing for the Exam

According to AICPA, the key to passing the PFS exam is a combination of relevant work experience in financial planning and the education outlined in the PFP Body of Knowledge. The amount and type of exam preparation depends on each individual’s prior knowledge and work experience.

AICPA offers several exam preparation courses. There is the PFP Boot Camp course, which can be done online or in person. The course offers a quick review of all areas. It may help refresh your knowledge and allow you to identify areas where you may want more in-depth education. This course is for experienced CPAs.

If you are a less experienced CPA, AICPA recommends starting with the “Essentials of PFP” publication that covers all areas. After that, consider using the online learning resources to strengthen your knowledge of areas where you haven’t previously worked. Once this is complete, you’ll likely be prepared for the PFP Boot Camp course.

The online, self-study boot camp course can be purchased as bundle, or each of the seven individual sessions can be purchased separately. Each bundle correlates to a PFS certificate exam, so if you are experienced in some areas and less in others, you can choose specific modules to focus on. The cost for the complete self-study boot camp ranges from $479 to $749.

The in-person boot camp covers all of the areas, and the classes are held annually in May or June and October or November. The boot camps are held before the PFS exam so that students can sit for the exam shortly after taking the in-person boot camp. The cost of the in-person boot camp could cost over $1,000.

Taking the PFS Exam

What does a Personal Financial Specialist do?

The PFS exam questions and answers are not published and candidates are not allowed to remove any exam materials from the testing site. Test takers are allowed access to a reference sheet of the appropriate tax rates and limits during the exam, as well as a financial calculator. The calculator is required and must be a Texas Instruments TI BAII Plus or TI BAII Plus Professional; a Hewlett Packard 12C, 10B, 10B II+, 17B II+; or a Victor V12 or Victor 10.

The exam has 160 questions, about half of which are standalone multiple-choice questions. The other half are case studies followed by relevant multiple-choice questions. Candidates are allowed five hours to complete the exam. AICPA provides a video tutorial with a practice exam session.

Certificate Program

There is also a new PFP certificate program to meet the PFS exam and education requirements. There are four technical certificates (investment, retirement, risk management/insurance planning, estate planning) that need to be earned before you can receive the certification. You can purchase a complete education bundle for each certificate and pass the online proctored certificate exam at home or at your office.

The certificate exam is also available for purchase by itself if you believe you have enough prior education or experience to pass the exam without the education bundle. You can get the certificates in any order. As of 2019, the cost to purchase the exam with the online education package was between $529 and $669. The cost of just the exam was between $149 and $189. There is a fifth certificate – the PFP Practical Applications Certificate – that does not require you to pass an exam. All you have to do is complete the online education course. As of 2019, this fifth certificate costs between $399 and $499.

In order to maintain the designation, you must complete 60 hours of continuing professional education every three years. You also need to pay an annual fee of $149 (as of 2019) in addition to AICPA member fees, which vary based on occupation.

PFS Benefits

There are many benefits to holding a PFS certification. Additionally, anyone looking for a professional to help guide their financial plan may find a PFS valuable.

For Professionals

  • You’ll have the ability to display your expertise and knowledge of all aspects of financial planning, potentially attracting more clients.
  • The certificate can improve job opportunities, professional reputation and overall income.

For Clients

  • The PFS has a comprehensive knowledge of financial planning, as well as a CPA and extensive tax expertise. This could be valuable based on your personal financial needs.

PFS vs. CFP

What does a Personal Financial Specialist do?

There are a few key differences between a PFS and a Certified Financial Planner (CFP). A PFS certification helps CPAs strengthen their knowledge of financial and wealth management. A CFP is a type of financial advisor. This designation is given out by the Certified Planner Board of Standards, Inc.

CFPs have a fiduciary responsibility to work in the best interest of their clients above all else. They must agree to follow the Certified Planner Board of Standard’s code of ethics and professional conduct. The Certified Planner Board also does a background check and candidates must disclose all past criminal activity, employment problems and client complaints.

In order to obtain a CFP designation, candidates must prove that they have 6,000 hours of professional experience. (You may be able to qualify with 4,000 hours of experience as an apprentice.)

Candidates need to hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college and are required to take a college-level program of study in personal financial planning, plus a CFP Board-registered capstone course. Candidates may be able to skip the additional program of study and capstone course if they hold a CFA, CPA or higher business degree. This aspect is similar to the PFS, in that certain requirements can be waived if you already have certain designations or degrees. However, unlike a PFS, the CFP doesn’t require you to already have a certification.

After you prove you’ve completed the requirements, you can take the CFP exam. The exam tests what you’ve learned and how you can apply that knowledge to different financial situations. Unlike the CFP, the PFS exam doesn’t require proof of coursework to complete it. The PFS gives you the option to just take and pass the exam, provided you’ve already met the educational requirements.

The Bottom Line

If you’re considering becoming a Personal Financial Specialist (PFS), do your research to ensure it’s the right designation for your career. On the other hand, a PFS may be the kind of planner you need in order to achieve your financial goals. Either way, understanding how a PFS certification affects one’s career and expertise can be helpful.

Tips for Finding the Right Financial Planner

  • There are many different types of financial planners and advisors, including the PFS. Take the time to research the various designations to ensure you’re working with the right one to manage your money.
  • A financial advisor can help you plan for a strong financial future. Finding the right financial advisor that fits your needs doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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