Taxes, estate plans, college funds, retirement, next month’s budget … financial planning is rarely easy, but it is worth it. Luckily, an entire field of the financial industry has dedicated itself to helping you define your goals and accomplish them. There are various certifications for financial planning. Two you’re likely to see frequently when searching for an advisor are certified financial planner (CFP) and accredited investment fiduciary (AIF). Here’s how they differ and how to tell which may better serve your specific needs.
If you’re looking for a financial professional, SmartAsset has a free matching service to help you find one.
What Is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP)?
A Certified Financial Planner (CFP) is a financial advisor who has received specific education, passed exams and acquired vast professional experience helping individuals and families set and achieve financial goals. In addition, they provide expert advice for financial mainstays such as investing, taxes and retirement.
CFPs must qualify through the “4 E’s” to receive certification from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. The CFP Board evaluates a financial advisor’s experience, education, exam and ethics and performs a background check on potential CFPs. Those seeking CFP status also divulge all past criminal activity, customer complaints and employment troubles to the CFP board.
For experience, CFP candidates must have at least 6,000 hours as a financial advisor under their belt. Candidates with 4,000 of experience at the apprentice level may apply if they meet other specific criteria.
A CFP must earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. The next step in education is to take a college-level program in personal financial planning, then finish with a CFP Board-registered capstone course of their choice. Candidates with a CPA or CFA might be able to bypass part of the educational prerequisites.
After education is complete, aspiring CFPs must pass the CFP exam. The exam is over 150 multiple choice questions long and takes several days to finish. The exam rigorously tests for competency in risk management, communication, professionalism and more.
CFPs must also demonstrate their commitment to ethics and the highest level of professional behavior. Furthermore, CFPs have a fiduciary responsibility to act in your best interest. Therefore, they work with integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, fairness and competence.
The CFP Board decides to certify candidates after qualifying through the “4 E’s” (it is possible for candidates not to receive certification if the Board thinks it has good reason to hold it back). Upon earning certification, CFPs must complete 30 hours of continuing education and reapply every two years to keep their CFP status. As a result, CFPs stay sharp and continue to prove their compliance with ethical standards throughout their career, allowing clients to place confidence in their abilities and conduct.
What Is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF)?
An Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF), which is a certification administered by Fi360, formerly known as the Center for Fiduciary Studies, is a financial advisor who has mastered specialized knowledge of fiduciary standards of care and how those standards apply to the investment management process. Besides studying financial planning, the training for this certification focuses on knowing and complying with all legal and regulatory mandates concerning an advisor’s fiduciary responsibilities.
AIFs prioritize their clients’ financial interests above their own. For example, while financial advisors paid on a fee-based basis can pour their clients’ dollars into high-commission products, AIFs implement best practices and keep detailed documentation to show they are managing their clients’ money in good faith.
AIF qualifications are less stringent than for a CFP. Aspiring AIFs must take the in-person or online training from Fi360. The class costs between $1,600 and $2,000. Upon finishing the course, candidates must pass an exam and earn six continuing education hours each year. Additionally, AIFs must pledge to follow Fi360’s code of ethics.
The training entails mastering what Fi360 calls “27 Prudent Practices,” which are organized under the “Five Steps.”
AIF vs. CFP: Which One Is Right for Me?
Though there is overlap between AIF and CFP competencies, they differ in the extent of their training and focus on fiduciary obligations. A CFP will have mastered more than 100 investment and money management topics. An AIF, on the other hand, will possess a virtually exhaustive knowledge of what it means to be held to a fiduciary standard of care for the financial well-being of clients, employees and beneficiaries. If investment advice is a person’s primary concern then working with a CFP may be appropriate. If being able to trust an advisor is a primary concern then working with an AIF may be appropriate. Keep in mind that many advisors possess both certifications.
That said, certifications aren’t the only factor to consider when deciding on a financial advisor. Some financial advisors have more experience or specialize in certain areas. Therefore, communicating your needs while shopping for a financial advisor will help you understand who can best serve you.
Additionally, some financial advisors act with fiduciary duty when speaking with you about some financial topics but not others, especially regarding products that earn them a commission. Therefore, understanding how your financial advisor earns money is vital to picking one you feel comfortable with.
Neither upfront fees nor commissions are inherently harmful. For example, the life insurance industry generally pays agents through commissions regardless of the product they sell. As mentioned above, CFPs and AIFs are fiduciaries that document their work so that you can verify the trustworthiness of their actions on your behalf.
Remember, people go into financial advising to make a living. Earning commissions by selecting the most advantageous mutual fund for a client is not the same as cheating an inexperienced investor with exorbitant fees.
The Bottom Line
CFPs and AIFs offer stellar reliability and transparency for their clients. AIFs give clients peace of mind because their certification displays their devotion to their clients’ needs. For clients also looking for the top level of investment and financial planning expertise, CFPs offer unparalleled knowledge and skill.
Tips for Choosing a Financial Advisor
Whether you’re looking for a CFP or AIF, the process of selecting a financial advisor can seem confusing. However, finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
The most important qualification to look for in a financial advisor is an adherence to fiduciary duty. By working with a fiduciary advisor, you ensure that they are legally bound to act in your best financial interests no matter what.
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