If you have trouble telling the difference between a CFA, CFP®, CIC, ChFC or any of the other financial certifications, you're not alone. How do you sift through this alphabet soup to find the best financial professional for you? Here we look at the nine most popular designations with a brief explanation of the education and expertise each designation signifies, and the kind of work done by the professionals holding them.

Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®)

Those with the CFP® designation have demonstrated competency in all areas of financial planning. Candidates complete studies on more than 100 topics, including stocks, bonds, taxes, insurance, retirement planning and estate planning. The program is administered by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. In addition to passing the CFP certification exam, candidates must also complete qualifying work experience and agree to adhere to the CFP Board's code of ethics and professional responsibility and financial planning standards. (For more on obtaining the CFP designation, click here.)

A financial planner works with individuals to help them understand their options and make financial decisions suited to their personal financial situation and goals. Since, because of the nature of their work, a lot of trust is placed in these individuals, the CFP Board posts information on the financial planning process and current licensees, allowing clients of CFPs to verify if their financial planners' designations are in good standing. The last thing anyone needs is to choose a CFP whose certification has been revoked.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA®)

This designation is offered by the CFA Institute (formerly the Association for Investment Management and Research [AIMR]). To obtain the CFA charter, candidates must successfully complete three difficult exams and gain at least three years of qualifying work experience, among other requirements. In passing these exams, candidates demonstrate their competence, integrity and extensive knowledge in accounting, ethical and professional standards, economics, portfolio management and security analysis. (For more on obtaining a CFA designation, click here.)

CFA charterholders tend to be analysts who work in the field of institutional money management and stock analysis, not financial planning. These professionals provide research and ratings on various forms of investments. (For more on the different types of analysts, see the article Analyzing The Analysts.)

Certified Fund Specialist (CFS)

As the name implies, an individual with this certification has demonstrated his or her expertise in mutual funds and the mutual fund industry. These individuals often advise clients on which funds to invest in and, depending on whether or not they have their license, they will buy and sell funds for clients. The Institute of Business and Finance (IBF), formerly known as the Institute of Certified Fund Specialists, provides training for the CFS, and the course focuses on a variety of mutual fund topics, including portfolio theory, dollar-cost averaging and annuities.

The knowledge these CFS designees hold is kept current through their continuing education requirements.

Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)

Individuals with the ChFC designation have demonstrated their vast and thorough knowledge of financial planning. The ChFC program is administered by the American College. In addition to successful completion of an exam on areas of financial planning, including income tax, insurance, investment and estate planning, candidates are required to have a minimum of three years experience in a financial industry position.

Like those with the CFP designation, professionals who hold the ChFC charter help individuals analyze their financial situations and goals.

Chartered Investment Counselor (CIC)

Given by the Investment Adviser Association, this is a designation that CFA charterholders who are currently registered investment advisors can study for. The focus of the CIC program is portfolio management. In addition to proving their high-level expertise in portfolio management, these individuals must also adhere to a strict code of ethics and provide character references.

Individuals who hold the CIC charter tend to be some of the major players in the financial world, such as those who manage large accounts and mutual funds.

Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA)

This designation focuses on asset allocation, ethics, due diligence, risk measurement, investment policy and performance measurement. Only individuals who are investment consultants with at least three years of professional experience are eligible to try to obtain this certification, which signifies a high level of consulting expertise. The Investment Management Consultants Association offers the CIMA courses.

Individuals who hold CIMA designations are required to prove their expertise through continual recertification, which requires CIMA designees to complete at least 40 hours of continuing education every two years.

CIMA designation holders tend to have careers with financial consulting firms, which involve extensive interaction with clients and the management of large amounts of money.

Chartered Market Technician (CMT)

To achieve this designation, an individual must pass three exams offered by the Market Technicians Association (MTA) and agree to adhere to the MTA code of ethics. Individuals with the CMT designation have a demonstrated expertise in the field of technical analysis. Often CMTs will work for hedge funds and money management firms.

Certified Public Accountant and Personal Financial Specialist (CPA and PFS)

Those holding the CPA designation have passed examinations in accounting and tax preparation, but their title does not indicate training in other areas of finance. So, those CPA holders who are interested in gaining expertise in financial planning in order to supplement their accounting careers need to become certified as personal finance specialists (PFS). The PFS designation is awarded by the American Institute of CPAs to those who have taken additional training and already have a CPA designation.

Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU)

This designation is issued by the American College, and those who hold it work mostly as insurance agents. The CLU designation is awarded to persons who complete a 10-course program of study and 20 hours of exams. The course covers the fundamentals of life and health insurance, pension planning, insurance law, income taxation, investments, financial and estate planning, and group benefits.

How Meaningful Are These Letters?

While certifications are not everything, you should give extra credit to investment professionals who have them. Most of these certifications require candidates to put in many hours of study and meet high ethical and professional standards. For instance, to get the CFA designation, candidates must put in approximately 250 hours of reading per exam, and there are three exams to pass. The tests are so intensive that approximately 64% of those who take just the level 1 exam will fail. Those who make it through all three levels and become charterholders are also bound to a code of ethics and rules of professional conduct, among other requirements.(For further reading, see Dispelling 5 Myths About Financial Planners.)

Although the exams can be intense and the hours can be long, these designations should only be one part of your criteria when deciding on a financial professional. (For more on this decision-making process, see Shopping For A Financial Advisor.)

The Bottom Line

If you have to deal with a financial professional, it's important that you know the extent of his or her expertise in different areas of finance. Now you have an idea of what some of the designations mean and what they require from those who hold them.

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