I’m Andrea Clark and I have a problem. Numbers. I love them, and I’m proud to admit it. I graduated from college in 1992 with an engineering degree but entered the workforce at a time when virtual careers and telecommuting were not options. So, as a young military spouse, I spent years bouncing around the Air Force teaching entry-level math classes at community colleges too numerous to mention. Over time, I realized that students paid attention when you could relate math problems to their real lives—car loans, home buying, the break-even for their catering business, the true cost of student loans, to name a few. Those of you who are AFCs are quite familiar with these conversations.
I finally bit the bullet in 2009 and applied for the FINRA Military Spouse Fellowship to become an AFC. I finished my coursework and exams in about four months and was fortunate to find a wide variety of practicum experiences which included tax training and working for H&R Block and assisting the financial readiness program manager at an Army Community Services program. I finished my AFC in September 2011 and have been a Personal Financial Counselor on contract with Zeiders Enterprises for more than five years.
The AFC designation is well-recognized and appreciated within the military and non-profit communities, but I did not envision that it would have always been easy to find employment as we continued moving around the country. Additionally, as my experience grew in working with clients, I started to realize that I wanted to provide a full continuum of financial care, beyond emergency financial needs, basic budgeting, and credit management. I felt that I couldn’t really offer what many middle-class clients needed, which is investment, tax, insurance, and retirement planning.
My quandary became how to acquire further professional credentials like the Certified Financial Planner™ (CFP®) designation without drifting away from the educational aspect of financial counseling. I knew my bachelor’s degree and AFC experience would be enough to get me in the door at one of the big investment or insurance companies, where I would get the training I needed to be able to acquire my FINRA securities licenses and perhaps the hours needed to become a CFP. However, I knew I didn’t want to sell products that people didn’t need in contracts they didn’t understand that seem to benefit the salesperson more than the client.
Then I learned about The American College Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs (see article by Ted Digges in this issue). Through the encouragement of my Facebook friend Adrienne Ross, a fellow military spouse, AFC and scholarship recipient from The American College, I found myself applying for and receiving the scholarship for everything I needed to complete the CFP and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC) education in an online, self-study format. The application and interview processes were straightforward and efficient. The scholarship included hard copy and digital versions of textbooks for each of the required courses, audio and video lectures for each class (audio available for download on iTunes U), practice exams and quizzes, all required course testing at a professional testing center, and live webinars or in-person course reviews.
Everything about the program was military friendly. We moved when I was halfway through the tax class, and requested additional time to complete the class which was granted. I even registered for and took exams in three different states during the course of my studies. Hesitation to start a program because of the lack of flexibility or support or an impending PCS (or two or three), should not deter any applicants. I have an enormous sense of gratitude towards Ted Digges, all the staff at TAC, and the corporate scholarship donors who make this opportunity so readily available to the military community.
I started my coursework in late March of 2016. On November 7, 2017, after eight weeks of intense review studies (approx. 20 hrs/week), I sat for and passed the national Certified Financial Planner (CFP) exam. (I still just LOVE being able to say that!) The required courses prior to the exam include Principles of Financial Planning, Income Taxation, Investments, Retirement Planning, Insurance Planning, and Estate Planning, plus a Capstone Course that pulls it all together. I averaged approximately 10 weeks on each course and put in anywhere from 60-80 hours of study per course, with about 25% of those hours being concentrated in the week before the exam. Each course requires passing a culminating exam with a score of at least 70%. Let me say that again. You only need a 70%. The content of these courses will be overwhelming compared to the AFC, and you will experience growing anxiety about being able to “know it all” come time for the test. You don’t have to, and in the real world, you will go back to your resources and professional network in order to best serve your clients.
With the educational component behind me, I’m working on knocking out the 6000 experience hours, (3 years full-time in the aggregate) required by the CFP Board to use the CFP designation. Those hours can be counted in the ten years prior to taking the CFP exam and the five years after. Most of the AFC practicum hours fall into one of the categories that will count for the CFP. For those who work for Zeiders Enterprises or similar government contractors, those can also be qualifying experience hours. Even volunteer hours can be added to the total needed if another CFP can verify them. The world of financial advising is recognizing more and more the value added by the AFC community of professionals.
I recently heard a great way of describing the intersection of the AFC and the CFP designations: Financial advisors turn runners into marathoners, but what about the Couch-to-5K program? Without that “training base”, there is nowhere for a financial advisor to start. The AFC certification equips us to help clients develop the positive habits they need to take charge of their money, whether they have a little or a lot. We all know those high income earners who live paycheck to paycheck; we do not just work with low income households. AFCs educate and empower all households to make the most of the assets they have available to them. As they grow in that education, I’m happy to have more tools in my toolbox to help them continue protecting and growing those assets and putting it all together to serve the long-term financial goals of their families, communities, or favorite charities.
Andrea Clark is an AFC® and Candidate for CFP® certification, awaiting final state registration approval for her independent virtual practice, The Table Financial Planning. She works for Zeiders Enterprises, Inc. as a Personal Financial Counselor. She can be reached at email@example.com with any questions.