NEW YORK (AP) -- A young couple trying to figure out how to save for their children's education. A small business owner worried that he's not protected financially if something happens to his partner or himself. An elderly woman who wants to make sure her estate goes toward community projects.
All are people who have knocked on the door of Joel Davis, a financial planner with American Express Financial Advisors in Augusta, Maine.
''People need financial planners because stuff happens in their lives,'' Davis says. ''People get married. They have kids. They get divorced. They start companies. They inherit money. They deal with sick parents. They retire.''
A well-trained planner can sit down with a family and help make key savings and investment decisions. Davis calls it a ''holistic, evolving process'' that can lead to a long-term relationship with a client or the occasional financial tune-up.
Not everyone, of course, needs a planner. If you don't have much in earnings or savings, you probably don't. There also are a lot of people who choose to do their planning themselves, and these do-it-yourselfers can find an increasing array of tools to help traverse the money maze, especially on the Internet.
Among the Web sites that are free or charge nominal fees are www.efmoody.com, ihatefinancialplanning.com, adviceamerica.com, directadvice.com and financialengines.com.
But many families apparently believe they're candidates for professional help. A survey done by Harris Interactive Inc. for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants found that the majority of respondents say they are spending more time thinking about their finances, but less than a third are confident they can manage their money as well as they might with the help of a financial planner.
''My argument is that the most expensive thing you can do is not doing proper planning,'' said Laurence Foster, chairman of the AICPA's personal financial specialist credential and exam committee.
Without good planning, a couple can lose thousands of dollars to estate taxes, says Foster, a partner in the New York firm of Richard A. Eisner & Co. Or they can mishandle their post-retirement investments. Or they can come up short when they're hit with medical bills or college expenses for their children.
Planners, of course, cost money. Some charge flat fees for specified services. Others charge hourly rates. Still others work on commissions they earn from products they sell you. Is one method better than the other?
Patricia Houlihan, chairman of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, says the key is that whatever the form of payment, ''it should be disclosed -- fully and up front.''
Houlihan, who run her own financial planning firm in Oakton, Va., also notes that there are some 200,000 to 300,000 individuals in the United States who call themselves ''financial planners'' and that would-be clients should make sure the one they're hiring is qualified.
Among the many professional designations planners might have are Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Financial Consultant or Personal Financial Specialist -- all awarded after completion of training courses and exams.
A number of associations will help consumers find planners in their areas. They include the Financial Planning Association, 800-282-PLAN or www.fpanet.org; the AICPA, 888-999-9256 or www.aicpa.org; the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, 888-FEE-ONLY or www.napfa.org; and the Society of Financial Service Professionals, 888-243-2258 or www.financialpro.org.
Financial planning advice also is offered by experts in banks, insurance companies, mutual fund companies and brokerage houses. Some are generalists, while others specialize in the products their company is selling. Information can be found at www.investoradvice.org, the Web site of the Forum for Investor Advice, a nonprofit group based in Bethesda, Md.
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