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Financial planning can be the secret to a building a happy life, yet it's too often treated as just that — a secret. Only 21 states require some kind of personal finance curriculum for high school students and just 25 mandate that students take an economics course. Understanding your money isn't rocket science, but it's important to learn the basics.
At the same time, more and more Americans are grappling with stagnant wages, high unemployment and rising cost of living. It's no wonder so many aren't saving enough for the basics, like retirement and emergencies, let alone making a clear plan for their future.
"Personal finance is something that should be taught at all levels and all grades," says Washington, D.C.-based financial planner Alicia R. Hudnett Reiss. "But traditionally people think of a financial planner only when they are going into retirement or are in retirement."
But the benefits of meeting with a financial planner when you're young can make a difference. New graduates and people in their early careers should look for financial planning support as soon as they start earning an income, Hudnett Reiss tells CNBC Select.
Even if you're already well into your career, it's not too late to talk with a financial expert for help navigating other significant life events, whether that's changing jobs or saving for your kid's college tuition.
Here are some of the many occasions when it could be helpful to work with a financial advisor:
- Starting your first job
- Getting engaged or married
- Planning for a baby
- Saving for your child's education (private K-12 and/or college)
- Switching jobs/careers
- Buying a house
- Losing your job
- Going back to school
- Getting divorced
- Starting a business
- Coming into an inheritance
- Making plans for your estate
- Planning a sabbatical or leave of absence
If any of the above scenarios apply to you, you would probably benefit from speaking to a financial planner or money coach. Thankfully, there are many different services and options for varying income levels and budgets.
Before you look for a financial planner, think about what you really need. If you simply want help with setting goals and making a budget, you can likely find lots of free resources for that. If you want to discuss long-term plans, such as debt payoff, retirement, estate management, life insurance and real estate, a certified financial planner (CFP) is qualified to give comprehensive advice for nearly all of those topics.
To begin your research, look through online directories, such as the CFP Board's online database, which lists a number of qualified professionals who work in your area as well as virtually. And before you trust anyone with your goals (not to mention your personal information), use these directories to check their credentials. If a professional claims to have license or certification (often noted with a three-letter designation after their name), make sure they are legitimate by heading to that licensing board's website and doing a search.
If you're ready to start investing, it can be good to work with a financial planner who is qualified to give advice about the stock market. A qualified investment advisor must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and/or Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). (You can use FINRA's BrokerCheck tool to research this.)
Keep in mind that, before you venture into investing, you should have an adequate stash of cash to use for short-term needs and wants, including an emergency fund. Most experts advise saving up three to six months' worth of expenses in an easily-accessible fund so you don't have to tap into your investments.
CNBC Select recommends using a high-yield savings account so you can earn better than average interest (APY) on your money, but still be able to access it easily if an unexpected expense comes up. Withdrawing money is easy with the Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings account, which has no minimum balance requirement, no monthly fees and a strong APY.
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When you need a la carte money advice, a fee-only financial planner can be an affordable choice with no strings attached. Some people have steady, lifelong relationships with their financial planners, but the vast majority of people just need an expert to weigh in on the big decisions from time to time.
"It's not like the dentist," Hudnett Reiss explains. Your financial planner doesn't expect you to meet with them every six to 12 months, but only when you need it. Most planners and coaches offer as-needed services in addition to monthly retainers just for this very purpose.
And there's an important benefit to hiring a fee-only planner versus working with a free planner who is employed by a financial company, like a bank or insurance company: Fee-only planners are paid for their time and advice, so they usually don't make commission when you sign up for certain financial products.
For instance, when Hudnett Reiss recommends life insurance plans to her clients, she does not receive any extra payment, whereas a free planner who works for the life insurance company most likely earns a commission.
To avoid any conflicts of interests, it's important to vet your fee-only planner. Ask them what their business model is and whether they earn money on their recommendations. A trustworthy professional will disclose this information so you can decide for yourself if it's a deal-breaker. You should also ask whether they are a fiduciary, which is a legal and ethical term to signify that a financial advisor is committed to putting your needs over their profit incentives.
Try out free workshops
Look around your community for a nonprofit organization that offer free or low-cost financial workshops. Often taking classes in a group setting lowers the cost (compared to one-on-one appointments), and you can meet others in similar life stages as you. Another option is to sign up for online mailing lists, join free Facebook groups and follow social media accounts to take advantage of free information. Check out our list of five online personal finance communities to get you started. Just remember to research the credentials of the organization or professional before you take free advice and don't pay for services until you trust they are the right fit.
Check with your brokerage account
If you have a brokerage account with a company like Charles Schwab or Fidelity, you might already have access to a financial planner.
Traditionally, brokerage companies are known for setting high minimum investment requirements in order to access their advisors, but many are increasingly making basic services available at no cost, says Hudnett Reiss.
For example, Charles Schwab offers all account holders the opportunity to make a free financial plan when opening any account, even those with no minimums. Likewise, Fidelity shares a few free resources on its website, including a budget checkup tool and a financial checkup survey.
Keep in mind that basic financial planning is different than investment advice and wealth management. To work someone who can give you ongoing recommendations about investing in the stock market and growing your assets, which extends beyond financial planning 101, you'll probably be charged a percentage of your stock market earnings and/or require higher minimums to get started.
Vanguard, for instance, requires a minimum of $50,000 in investment assets before you can work with an advisor fee-free.
But don't be discouraged by high minimums. Increasingly, there are good resources for people looking for financial advice at every income and asset level if you do your research. And the advice you receive might very well be priceless if it sets you on track to achieving your financial goals.