Certified Financial Planner: Definition, How to Become a CFP

CFPs can help you create a comprehensive financial plan — and they have the education and experience to back it up.
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Written by Alana Benson
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Reviewed by Raquel Tennant
Certified Financial Planner®
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A couple works with a certified financial planner, or CFP, to receive financial guidance.

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Nerdy takeaways
  • To earn a CFP certification, financial planners must show proficiency in risk management, investment, tax, retirement, income and estate planning.

  • Certified financial planners are held to a fiduciary standard, meaning they must act in their client's best interests.

  • On average, it takes between 18 and 24 months to become a CFP and can cost a minimum of $925.

What is a CFP?

A CFP is a certified financial planner, an advisor who possesses one of the most rigorous certifications for financial planning knowledge. They must have several years of experience related to financial planning, pass the CFP exam and adhere to a strict ethical standard as set by the CFP Board of Standards.

Unlike some other types of financial advisors, certified financial planners are held to a fiduciary standard, meaning they are obligated to act in their client's best interests.

Certified Financial Planner Board. The Standard of Excellence. Accessed Jul 14, 2022.

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What does a certified financial planner do?

Financial planners who earn a CFP certification must demonstrate proficiency in risk management, investment, tax, retirement, income and estate planning

Certified Financial Planner Board. What You'll Be Tested On. Accessed May 18, 2023.
. This means that they can work with clients to provide comprehensive services across a broad spectrum of financial planning concerns.

CFPs who provide holistic planning can help you to create and maintain a financial plan by determining your financial goals and discussing your current financial situation and appetite for risk. They can also advise on retirement planning, saving for short- and long-term goals, choosing investments and tackling debt.

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Some CFPs specialize in a certain area, such as divorce or retirement planning, while others tend to work with specific clients, such as small-business owners or retirees. Because of this, it’s helpful to have an idea of the services you need before you choose a CFP.

There are more than 100,000 CFPs in the U.S. The board reports that 23.8% of CFPs are women, 4.2% of CFPs are Asian or Pacific Islander, 3.1% are Hispanic, and 2% are Black

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. CFP® PROFESSIONAL DEMOGRAPHICS. Accessed Jul 12, 2024.
. The CFP Board is working to serve more people by both recruiting more women and people of color, as well as educating current CFPs on the diverse needs of consumers.

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How to gain CFP certification

On average, it takes between 18 and 24 months to become a CFP and can cost a minimum of $925 if you already have an undergraduate degree and can bypass the coursework requirement.

Candidates who don't hold existing financial designations typically also need to fulfill an experience requirement, which can take from 24 to 36 months to complete. Here’s what else you'll need to do:

1. Complete the education requirement

The CFP Board requires completion of specific coursework on financial planning and a bachelor’s degree or higher. Applicants have up to five years from the date they pass the exam to receive their bachelor’s degree. Those who have completed related courses in the past — or who already hold certain types of professional credentials or designations — may be eligible to skip the CFP Board–mandated coursework.

Certified Financial Planner Board. Eligibility. Accessed May 18, 2023.

2. Pass the exam

The exam consists of 170 multiple-choice questions to be completed in a total of six hours. According to the CFP Board, an average of 67% of first-time exam-takers passed in 2023.

Certified Financial Planner Board. Exam Statistics: Historical Stats. Accessed Oct 16, 2023.

3. Gain professional experience

To meet the experience requirement, prospective CFPs need to complete either 6,000 hours of professional experience related to financial planning or 4,000 hours of apprenticeship that meets additional requirements. These hours can be completed either within 10 years before taking the exam and/or within five years after passing it.

4. Adhere to the ethical standard

The final steps of becoming a CFP are to sign the Ethics Declaration, in which you commit to acting as a fiduciary for your clients, and pass a background check conducted by the CFP Board.

How much does working with a CFP cost?

Not everyone needs help with their finances, but for those who do, having a CFP in your corner can be invaluable. If you aren't sure how to organize your finances, navigate investing or balance your financial priorities, a CFP can help.

The 2023 Kitces Report on financial planning found that CFPs charge, on average, $2,125 to $3,657 for a comprehensive financial plan, and $250 for hourly services

. And while there is no set fee that CFPs charge, it’s usually more than what a non-certified advisor might charge.

Online fiduciary financial advisors, some of which offer access to CFPs, typically charge a small percentage of your assets under management, often between 0.3% and 1%. (Read more about how much a financial advisor costs.)

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How do I find a certified financial planner near me?

The CFP Board offers a directory of all its certified CFPs, which makes it easy to find an in-person advisor in your area

Certified Financial Planner Board. Find a CFP® Professional. Accessed Jul 14, 2022.
. This site also allows you to check a CFP’s certification status and check for any instances of disciplinary action. Some online financial planning services offer virtual access to CFPs for less than what an in-person advisor charges.

What is the difference between a CFP and a CFA?

The various designations financial advisors hold can cause some confusion. More often than not, a financial advisor who is a CFP will be able to help you with your financial planning needs, but other advisors may be able to better assist you in certain areas, such as tax planning. Some advisors even have multiple designations, making them more competitive within their field.

Here are a few common designations an advisor can have.

Chartered financial analyst: CFAs specialize in investment analysis and portfolio management. While CFPs typically help individual clients with their financial planning, CFAs often serve as financial advisors for corporations.

Certified public accountant: CPAs are a bit more distinct from some of the other financial advisory certifications. The CPA certification is common among tax preparers and accountants (even though CPA has the word "accountant" in it, not all accountants have CPA certifications). If your financial advisor has a CPA, they may be able to help you optimize your tax situation.

Chartered financial consultant: While ChFCs are less common than CFPs, the two certifications require similar coursework, and recipients of each are likely headed down the same career path: financial advisory and planning services. ChFCs may have more training in modern financial planning topics, such as behavioral finance, planning for same-sex couples and planning after a divorce, but CFPs have more stringent academic and examination requirements.

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What is the difference between a CFP and a financial advisor?

The main difference between a CFP and a financial advisor is that CFPs hold a certification that ensures they have several years of experience and are held to a fiduciary standard. The term financial advisor, on the other hand, does not necessarily denote a specific credential. It's an umbrella term that refers generally to the many different types of financial advisors.

Remember, if you have any doubts about your advisor’s CFP status, you can check their status on the CFP Board website.

It's also important to consider how exactly your advisor is getting paid. This is determined in part by whether they are a fee-only advisor or a fee-based advisor.

Fee-only vs. fee-based financial advisor

Fee-only advisors are solely paid by their clients, creating fewer opportunities for conflicts of interest.

Fee-based advisors can receive a commission on products they sell, which can sometimes create those conflicts, such as suggesting a worse product over a better one because they would receive a commission.

Bound by their fiduciary duty, CFPs have to put their clients’ needs first regardless of their fee structure (though it’s always a good idea to ask any advisor, CFP or not, what their fee structure is).

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