Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Program Guide: How to Become a CFP, and the Job and Salary Opportunities You Can Expect

Finance is a world where you take what you can, when you can. When the market is hot, you don’t slow down to take stock and do career planning… you make contacts, build portfolios, and take care of clients.

And, sometimes the market goes in directions you didn’t quite expect. That’s the time to rebalance and consider positions that weren’t previously in your portfolio.

It’s really not all that different when it comes to making a mid-career course correction. When things aren’t tracking exactly the way you want, it’s a good time to step back and consider your options. And that means learning more about programs leading to the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) credential.

How to Become a Certified Financial Planner: Certificate Programs Leading to the CFP Credential

There are two major reasons to take a certificate program in financial planning. One is for the technical knowledge you’ll get in financial markets, investment management, tax law, and fiduciary duties related to wealth and trust planning…. The other is to fulfill the specific educational requirements outlined by the CFP Board to be eligible for the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) professional certification—the most widely recognized and respected credential in the field.

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A certificate program is not the same as becoming certified with the CFP credential, but the right one can provide the specific educational components you need to qualify for the CFP Exam. It’s entirely possible to take a certificate program – even one geared specially toward the CFP credential – without going on to take the exam and becoming a CFP. It’s the combination of the right education, meeting eligibility requirements, and passing scores on the CFP Exam that will put those three powerful letters that clients respect so much behind your name.

Under any circumstance, you need to hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum to qualify for the CFP, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the field of finance, and you don’t need to have it completed in order to enroll in a CFP certificate program or even to sit the exam.

Even though there are a set of uniform requirements that every CFP needs to meet, there are a number of different options for getting there depending on where you are in your career. Whether you already hold a bachelor’s or higher degree, are in the process of earning a degree, or haven’t even started yet, you can find a certificate program that gives you the exact combination of courses you need for the coveted CFP credential.

Different Types of CFP Programs: Baccalaureate-level, Graduate-level and Post-Master’s

Because students come to these CFP certificate programs from all kinds of previous educational and professional backgrounds, they fall into three general types depending on their intended audience.


Baccalaureate-level Financial Planning Certificates
These programs are the most common type, and are distinguished by a focus on fulfilling the basic course content required for the CFP. In some cases, they will require a current bachelor’s degree for admission, but many of them will accept students without any kind of previous college education.

Although the CFP Board ultimately requires that you have a bachelor’s degree to award the credential, it does not require that you cover the required financial planning coursework as a part of that program, or that you earn the degree prior to completing the coursework, so long as both occur within a five-year window.

These programs are aimed at individuals who either earned a bachelor’s degree in another field but want to switch to a career in financial planning, or who may already be practicing in the field but need to establish eligibility for the CFP by completing the educational requirement.

In some cases, these courses offer transferable college credits, or accept transfer credits in overlapping courses from bachelor’s programs so you don’t have to take the same course twice. Other programs consist of non-credit courses and are treated as continuing education classes.


Graduate-level Financial Planning Certificates
Graduate-level financial planning certificates not only cover the mandatory CFB Board subject matter, but do so at a more advanced level, commensurate with the high-level studies that you would find in a master’s degree in finance, business, or financial planning. In fact, you can often transfer or apply credits earned in these certificates to a master’s degree at some point.

Because of the more advanced coursework and higher-level studies, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree to enroll in these certificate programs. Depending on the program, that degree might need to be in a related field, although typically those restrictions are more relaxed than they would be for a full-fledged master’s program.


Post-Master’s Financial Planning Certificates
Post-master’s certificates in financial planning are the least common of these programs, but the most advanced. They require that you have already earned a master’s degree and assume students are coming in with a high level of knowledge and capability. They have the highest bar to entry, but they still fulfill the CFB Board requirements.

One important feature in post-master’s certificates in financial planning is that they care about where you have been as well as where you are going. Some certificates are aimed squarely at graduates who have already earned an MBA, or a JD, for example. This allows the programs to tailor their courses around a base of common knowledge.

CFP Certificate Program Curriculum

All CFB Board Registered programs are required to cover at least 15 credit hours in the same 9 areas. The depth and specific aspects covered in those areas can vary depending on the level of the certificate program. At the most basic level, you’ll become familiar with:

Professional Conduct and Regulation – Financial planners have a fiduciary responsibility to clients that requires very detailed and specific record-keeping and conduct. These courses will help keep you out of the slammer by teaching you the right ethical and legal conduct to adhere to.

General Principles of Financial Planning – An overview of the planning process, with coursework to teach you modern theories of investing and portfolio planning.

Education Planning – With college becoming a major expense for many families, learning how to evaluate and structure funding plans is key information that you’ll learn in these classes.

Risk Management and Insurance Planning – Risk in both life and investing requires insurance, both structural and formal. Course in this area teach you how to evaluate risks, explain them to clients, and mitigate them with professional planning.

Tax Planning – Just as sure as death are taxes, and a key element in financial planning is understanding the American tax system and methods for staying legal while minimizing client obligations.

Retirement Savings and Income Planning – Retirement is the major concern for many who consult financial planners, so these classes give you the kind of analytical tools you need to help structure savings and disbursements to ensure clients can live the life they want to live without running out before the end!

Estate Planning – The other half of the death and taxes equation, estate planning provides assurances for clients that their survivors will be provided for through tools such as trusts and bequests.

Financial Plan Development (capstone course) – A required course in all Board-registered certificate programs, this class is designed to synthesize all the knowledge delivered in other.

Many certificates also structure the delivery of these courses into modules built around other pedagogical or curricular methods, rather than laying them out class-by-class. This allows them to fit into formats that are more conducive to the evening and weekend format that is common for these programs.

The good news is that you don’t need to pick apart the specific curriculum  of the programs you’re considering. All you really need to do is verify that it is registered with the CFP Board, which you can find out on their website listing of Registered Programs.

Are Online Certificate Programs in Financial Planning a Good Idea?

Online programs are becoming more and more common, and are a better and better option for professionals that need to fit their education in around a jam-packed career in financial services. The market doesn’t slow down for you to get your act together… you’ll have to fit your education in around the demands of clients and coworkers, and an online program is one of your best options.

Most of these online certificates have enormously flexible attendance requirements. They are conducted asynchronously, which means that you can interact with your instructors and other classmates through chatrooms, emails, or other collaborative websites without being online at the same time. That means you can do your homework at the kitchen table at 2 am and still be at the office by 6!

It also means you don’t have to relocate or add commute time on to class time. This saves time and money, but still gets you the education you need to move to the top of the profession.

What Kind of Jobs and Salaries Can You Expect with a Certificate in Financial Planning?

Financial planner certificate programs are usually fine-tuned toward getting your CFP and either offering your services as an independent wealth manager and financial planner, or otherwise landing or advancing a job as a representative of a firm. Like a lot of jobs in finance, the only limit to your income and title is your ambition, hustle, and intelligence.

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You can’t really generalize about what kind of job you could land after completing one of these certificate programs. They’re aimed at professionals who plan to offer their services independently, as well as those vying for jobs in a wide range of areas and with different levels of experience – from those just getting into the industry to those who have been climbing the ladder for years.

For financial planning and management analyst professionals, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found the following:

Personal Financial Advisors:

  • New York: $166,790
  • District of Columbia: $150,310
  • Illinois: $142,440
  • Connecticut: $137,440
  • Massachusetts: $137,050

Management Analysts:

  • New York: $112,280
  • Massachusetts: $110,390
  • District of Columbia: $107,000
  • New Jersey: $106,380
  • Connecticut: $105,480

Apart from experience, those differences can be explained by other factors, including the size and clientele of the firm you are working at, the specific field of financial advising you specialize in, and any other special talents you bring to the table.

Also consider that in the world of financial planning, salaries only come into play when you’re on a company payroll. If you make the leap to register an independent investment advisor firm and name yourself as the representative of that firm, you’ll be able to charge a percentage of all the client money you have under management.

(Salary data for Management Analysts and Personal Financial Advisors reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019. Figures represent state data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed March 2021.)