If you want to be a personal financial planner, set your sights on the most impressive acronym of them all: PFS.

There are a lot of other financial planning certifications that are great letters to have behind your name, but the PFS—personal financial specialist—is the only designation that tells the world you’re a CPA with unmatched financial planning skills. Only a CPA is qualified to be a PFS. So, yeah. People with this credential mean business.

What it really means

Having your PFS tells the world that you’re uniquely qualified to help people in the areas of estate and retirement planning, tax, investments, and risk management, among others. You may notice that you come across the PFS designation less frequently in the financial planning industry compared to, say, the ChFC (chartered financial consultant) or the CFP (certified financial planner). That’s because only the PFS requires that planners be CPAs as well, making it a more elite designation. More and more people are looking for a person they can trust to handle their money for the long haul, and they’re increasingly on the lookout for six letters that tell them they’ve found the right person: CPA/PFS.

What you’ll do

As a PFS, you’ll learn what people’s life goals are and help design a financial strategy to help them reach those goals, whether they’re saving for retirement, looking for smart investments or planning for a child’s education. You can be a general financial planner or choose to specialize in an area like asset protection or retirement. Personal financial planners are an important part of their clients’ lives, right up there with the family doctor.

Where you’ll work

While there are plenty of options, most personal financial planners work for themselves as sole proprietors, or as part of a smaller firm focused on personal financial planning. There are also opportunities in mid-sized and large accounting firms as well as banks.

Is this for you?

If you’re becoming a CPA to help people manage their finances in the realm of public accounting, you should have your PFS. Can you practice without it? Sure. The CPA profession gives you a load of support through the Personal Financial Planning Section which caters solely to the needs of financial planners who are CPAs by providing resources to help them build their technical expertise as well as to run their practices successfully. Going a step further to distinguish yourself with the PFS credential strengthens your confidence when advising your clients.You also get PFS specific marketing support, from training opportunities to Web tools and search listings.

Skills you'll need
  • People skills. This is a job that puts you in close contact with people day in and day out. Like many jobs, there’s some solitary work involved. But there are also a lot of phone calls and personal meetings with clients. They’ll want to keep you around if you’re warm and personable.
  • Curiosity. Being a financial planner gives you a highly personal window into other people’s lives. If you’re naturally curious about others, that will come in handy when you’re trying to find out what makes people tick—and how that affects their finances. Curiosity is also an important part of staying on top of changes in the industry. You need to stay a step ahead of new regulations and other changes to make sure your clients are on the cutting edge.
Lifestyle you can expect
  • Personally rewarding. When you help people reach their personal milestones, the feeling of accomplishment can be contagious. Helping them put their kids through college, making sure they have what they need for retirement, preparing them for unexpected emergencies—this isn’t abstract, this is real. And your clients will appreciate the impact you have on their lives.
  • Balanced. Most personal financial planners enjoy a lot of control over their work life, determining how many clients to take on, what hours they want to work, and so on. They have the control they need to make sure their lives are balanced.
How to make it happen

Once you become a member of the PFP section of the AICPA, receiving your PFS designation only one step further. All you have to do is demonstrate your experience and capabilities in a few key areas. After you’ve worked as a CPA focusing on personal finance, the qualifications should come naturally to you. Here’s what you’ll need to have in the bag:

Two years’ worth of hands-on experience (or 3,000 hours) in at least one of these areas:

  • Personal financial planning
  • Retirement planning
  • Estate planning
  • Personal income tax planning
  • Risk management & insurance planning
  • Charitable planning
  • Investment planning

At least 80 hours of relevant education, such as:

  • Continuing professional education in Personal Financial Planning
  • Attendance at financial planning conferences hosted by either the AICPA or state CPA societies
  • Authorship of technical papers of research on financial planning

You'll also need to pass a comprehensive personal financial planning exam and the PFP section provides everything you need to prepare for it.Once you’ve got that stuff, the application itself takes about an hour. And it’s worth every minute.

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