Anybody can say, ‘I’m a financial planner.’ Here’s how to dig deeper to tell what that really means. – MarketWatch

There’s no shortage of people with impressive-sounding job titles who want to help you reach your financial goals. They may call themselves a financial adviser, financial planner, money coach, financial counselor or financial educator.

These people can obtain certifications from a long list of professional associations, universities and other entities. Look for the string of initials after their name. If you’re unsure what the alphabet soup of letters signifies, search the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) website to get the details.

Just about anybody can set up shop as a money expert. The barriers to entry vary: advisers who earn a certified financial planner (CFP) designation must pass a series of rigorous exams and meet other professional criteria. Others may or may not have such solid credentials to back up their billing.

For consumers seeking to hire a financial pro, the cast of characters can get confusing. Definitions tend to blur. A financial educator, for example, may primarily teach classes on money issues while also operating a private practice on the side — coaching clients to manage debt, buy a home or increase their knowledge of investments.

“Some financial educators market to individuals,” said Vince Shorb, chief executive of the National Financial Educators Council, a Las Vegas, Nev.-based organization that offers a financial education certification program. They may have a social media presence, and invite people to sign up for courses on topics such as creating wealth or controlling spending. They may also write blogs. self-help books and give speeches.

The challenge is identifying the value these professionals deliver and whether it’s worth the cost. Scrutinize their background, training and compensation structure so that you understand how they run their business.

Financial advisers (also known as financial planners or wealth managers) usually offer comprehensive financial planning along with investment management services and products. They may charge a percentage of assets under management, a monthly or quarterly retainer or a flat fee. Some earn commissions on the products they sell — and they may require asset minimums to accept new clients.

Some advisers operate independently; others work for a financial services company. In addition to crafting a financial plan and managing a client’s investment portfolio, they often handle retirement planning, tax preparation and estate planning.

As a rule, coaches, counselors and educators do not sell investment products or oversee someone’s portfolio. They might teach people to make informed investment choices so that individuals are better able to decide for themselves how to proceed.

“Financial educators aren’t diving into someone’s personal finances,” Shorb said. “It’s more about teaching groups of individuals” about money matters.

Shorb’s organization offers the “certified financial education instructor” (CFEI) designation, which combines money management principles with teaching skills that practitioners need to lead classes for everyone from children to high school students to young professionals.

“After getting their financial education, [young professionals] may reach a point where there’s a handoff to a financial adviser,” Shorb said. “That’s when they may need to see someone about their investments or a tax person or an insurance person.”

More than 2,000 people have obtained the CFEI credential, Shorb says. Unlike the CFP credential (which requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university along with some work experience in personal financial planning), there are no educational prerequisites to apply to become a CFEI. You just need to complete 40 hours of coursework and pass an exam.

While financial educators can solicit business from individual clients, they’re more apt to work with nonprofits, schools, faith-based groups and other organizations. For example, the National Financial Educators Council partners with a minor league basketball group, The Basketball League, to provide financial education to its professional players.

If you’re shopping for financial advice, note the distinction between advisers and educators. Some financial educators call themselves financial planners, but they won’t manage your investment portfolio or handle transactions such as stock trades.

“One thing advisers and financial educators have in common is to help people achieve their financial goals,” said Lori Hendrickson, who oversees the University of Minnesota Extension’s financial educator certification program. “Our goal is growing an individual’s skills and knowledge, which can lead to behavior change. A financial adviser would help you strategize to get to your more specific goals.”

Hendrickson, an extension educator in family resiliency, says that graduates of the 10-module course receive a certificate through the university but it’s not affiliated with other programs.

She adds that some financial educators enter the business to distill lessons learned from their own struggles. “A lot of people have overcome their own financial issues, like getting out of debt,” she said, “and now they want to share what they’ve learned so that others don’t have to go through the same problems.” 

More: What to watch for — and watch out for — before giving your money to a financial adviser

Also read: This financial adviser helps people rebound from hard times. She knows what that’s like