How and why did I become a CFP®?

The S&P 500 was around 150 when I graduated from high school in 1983. It was about 250 when I graduated from college in 1987. And, it was in the neighborhood of 350 when I left a “Big Eight” accounting firm to join a Wall Street investment firm in 1991. I had a leather briefcase, a few suits, a pregnant wife, and no guaranteed paycheck.

But, they said you could make a lot of money in commission sales. The first question they asked in the interview was, “Do you want to be a millionaire?” My answer was, “Not necessarily,” at which point I received a strange look. I explained that if becoming a millionaire happens as a result of doing the right thing for your clients, I suppose it could be a fringe benefit. When I further explained that money didn’t motivate me, I received more of a “are you in the right place” look. I was sure I was in the right place, however, because I had spent the last three years thinking about it.

I liked helping people. I wanted to try to add value to people’s lives in another way. I am wired to be a consultant. I see myself as a consultant, not a salesman. I had explored the financial services industry and felt very drawn to financial planning. I knew it was for me but had to start somewhere. This place was known for having the best training program in the industry. I asked about whether I could do financial planning and explained that I didn’t want to “sell” products. I was told yes. I was always the trusting type.

As a rookie stock broker, I remember rummaging through the sales material closet and running across a book that fascinated me. It was a very organized, hard-bound financial plan. It had Mr. and Mrs. Sample engraved on the front cover. I opened it. It was a dream come true for me, and I was sure it would be for the Sample family, as well. It had their financial statement of current condition, which included all of their assets and what they owed. It had a list of all of their goals and life ambitions. Mr. and Mrs. Sample had a way to document their dreams and, as a result, would have somebody tell them how to work toward achieving those dreams. This is exactly what I had anticipated. The book included their insurance coverages in the event something mild or catastrophic were to happen. It showed Mrs. Sample that she would be financially sound in the event Mr. Sample passed away prematurely. It showed a plan of how to secure enough resources to educate their two children at universities of their choice. It explained how to have a steady income stream in retirement that would last 30 years living in dignity and respect. It even had a section that explained how their wealth could be perpetuated to future generations. It was incredible. It showed them how to be philanthropic and how to reduce their income tax burden. It should have been labeled the “Peace of Mind” book, in my opinion.

I grabbed it and left behind all of the other sales pamphlets, fact sheets on the stocks of the day, and I ran to the manager’s office. “This is what I have been looking for,” I exclaimed in utter excitement. This may not be a direct quote, but what I remember was a response very close to “go put that up and go sell some s**t.”

Disheartened is probably the best description of how I felt after hearing that response. I now knew the answer to the interview question, “Are you sure you are in the right place?” That answer would be confirmed the day I approached him again. I had read about a financial designation called the CFP®. It stood for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™. It required a lot of time because it was a broad curriculum. It was a distinguished credential in the financial services industry. What you would learn in attaining a CFP® license would serve clients very well, I thought. I ran those aspirations by my manager and told him I was very interested in obtaining my CFP®license. “We don’t have time for that. Now go sell some….” A few weeks later I resigned. I took my leather briefcase, walked outside that building and began to pursue my CFP® designation.

Here is how I know it was the right thing for me. Instead of Mr. and Mrs. Sample, I had a real-life Dr. and Mrs. Anonymous come in to talk to me. Dr. A had just sold his practice and had the largest windfall he would ever see. He had come in to invest his money with me. I pulled out Mr. and Mrs. Sample’s plan and asked Dr. and Mrs. A if they had ever done one of these. They said no, but they might be interested later. Today, they wanted to invest. I asked a few more probing questions. Minor things like: Do you owe any money at this point? It turns out that they did – a first mortgage, a second mortgage, two large car notes and some debt on a boat. As if that wasn’t enough, if you were to add all of the minimum amount dues found on each of their 8 credit cards, you would easily determine they didn’t have the discretionary income to even pay all of those minimums. Here they were wanting to “invest” their money with a rookie stock broker who had been hired to sell them some products, but their financial planning needs dictated otherwise. I couldn’t continue on a path where I wasn’t putting my clients’ best interests first at all times.

I knew financial planning was going to be the basis of every investment recommendation I would ever make. Getting a CFP® would be the first step of knowing how to make those recommendations. I’m proud to have a CPA license, but I believe my CFP® license is especially beneficial to my clients. I think and hope it serves them well.