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My Path to CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Practitioner: A Journey of Perseverance

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In March 2019, after two years of studying, preparing and testing, I successfully completed the Certified Financial Planner™ (or CFP®) certification.  In an industry that is predominantly male, I find it important to share my story – why I chose to pursue the CFP® certification, the ups and downs of my journey, and how I plan to use my certification to improve our community.

Why a Finance Career?
While in college, I began learning about finances and how you must be thoughtful with spending.  I encountered first-hand just how expensive tuition was and didn’t feel I was adequately prepared for that.  This led to my desire to help future generations prepare for the rising costs.  Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with finance major, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do aside from helping people.

After some searching, I landed my first “grown-up job” working for a regional bank as a customer service representative.  It was in this role that I really began to uncover my “why”.  The why shapes everything we do from how we interact with others to holiday traditions to career paths.  My why is attributed to growing up in Bellaire, OH, a small town where everybody knows everybody.  Being a LaRoche (my maiden name) and working in Bellaire, you always came across people who knew at least one of your family members or who remembers you as a child.  While I didn’t always know these people, I felt connected to them.  This connection further fueled my desire to help others and become a CFP® professional, which led me to my current role as an associate financial strategist with McKinley Carter Wealth Services.

Being relatively new to the industry with only a couple years of banking experience, I was intimidated by just how much went into financial planning…but I enjoyed the challenge.  I soaked up every bit of knowledge sent my way and spent countless hours with mentors, including MCWS President/CIO David McKinley, CFP®. David made sure I was involved in investment strategy and advisory meetings from the start.  

As a newcomer to the finance profession, I didn’t realize I was somewhat charting new territory — not only was I much younger than my counterparts but I was also female. Did you know only 16 in 100 advisors are female*? Neither did I!  While the gender gap is beginning to shrink, you’re initially at a disadvantage and need to do something extra to gain credibility.  I knew the CFP® certification would not only enhance my knowledge and ability to help people, but it would also boost my credibility with clients.

My CFP® Practitioner Journey
I began my CFP® practitioner course in the fall of 2016, two years after joining the firm.  Each of the five courses in the program covered various areas of financial planning (from Investment Planning and Risk Management to Tax Planning and Retirement Saving), included seven to ten 100-page books to study, as well as online class two times per week, hundreds of review and practice questions, plus a final end-of-course exam.  Upon successful completion of each exam, I was automatically enrolled in the next course – often starting just two weeks later.  I estimate all of this took nearly 1,000 hours to complete. 

After I successfully completed all five courses, I then turned my attention to completing the financial plan development (capstone) course, which consisted of designing an actual financial plan and presenting it to a mock client – all captured on audio for submission to the review committee. 

Then once I officially “graduated” from the education coursework, I was ready to participate in a three-day comprehensive review that “put all of the pieces together” with the help of a live instructor.  This  review was also robust: two pre-study books (about 100 study hours in all) followed by four 8-hour instructional classes where I received yet another book of comprehensive overview material.  Then, after all the final class review was over, I was expected to put in as much study time and complete as many practice questions as possible until my chosen test date, which could be anywhere from 1-4 weeks away.

Test Day and More Preparations
Then came test day.  Because there is no testing center near me, I had to travel about an hour away to take the  exam.  The mandatory reporting time to my exam site was 7:30 am, so I opted to book a hotel room near the center for the night prior, just to avoid possible complications with rush hour or construction traffic.

Already feeling stressed, staying in a strange place added to my nerves. I was told not to study the day prior to the exam, which made me even more anxious.  All day long I tried to free my mind of anything financial planning-related, but it was an impossible feat.  Furthermore, going to sleep at a decent hour was a challenge. 

The CFP® Certification Examination consists of 170 multiple choice questions.  It is a 6-hour exam, divided in two parts and separated by a mandatory 40-minute break.  It is grueling.  You enter the room with two pencils, two sheets of scratch paper, and a non-programmable financial calculator.  You go through security and fingerprint scanning.  If you wore a hooded sweatshirt or had pockets, those were searched. 

After completing part 2, you’re ready to hit “submit.”  As if your heart isn’t beating fast enough from hitting “submit,” you must take a short survey about your experience prior to receiving preliminary results.  Because I was taking my exam during the CFP® Board’s periodic update of material, I did not receive a preliminary result.  Instead, I received a notice of completion and would not find out my results for 4-6 weeks.  Brutal.

Four weeks later I received an email with the benign subject line “Your Result Report is Available.”  But in tiny print was the word “Congratulations!”  I cried and nearly fell over.  All the hours of studying and missed family time had paid off.  I had achieved what I set out to do and no one could take it away from me.  More importantly, it was now time to take everything I had learned and apply it in the work-setting with clients.

While I know that I cannot be an expert in all areas of financial planning at this point in my career, my goal is to be able to at least identify potential gaps in a client’s situation, and then to assemble the correct team of colleagues to lend support and expertise. Professionally, I strive to be proactive, not reactive, in helping clients.  By being proactive, I will be able to shape the next generation and help them pursue their financial goals.

Reflecting Back
Chelsea and Sam CleggWhile attending class and studying may not seem like a huge commitment when you’re in college, it is when you’re out of college and starting your full-time professional career, juggling personal and family responsibilities, planning your wedding (see our photo at right), and running a household.  If I’m being honest, pursuing the CFP® certification was pure exhaustion – both physically and mentally. There were times when I considered quitting the program because the pressure was just too much. But I didn’t – I was determined. I was driven to succeed for myself, my family, my co-workers, and my clients. 

You see, when you’re fortunate to have a huge support system, you dig deep to find your “why” – you brush the tears from your eyes, and you persevere. For the times when I was feeling overwhelmed, someone was always there to pick me up and say a kind, encouraging word or do something special for me.  I honestly cannot put into words how much my family means to me and how much they’ve shaped my life.  Despite having to miss family weekends and special gatherings, my family was always there for me. They understood it was a temporary absence and that my commitment would pay off in the end.

And just as important to my success was my McKinley Carter family.  Not only did every employee support my CFP® certification journey, each one was there every step of the way providing on-going encouragement and lending an ear if I needed to vent my frustrations.  Having six other CFP® professionals among our team, I trusted their guidance and knew I had the right tools to achieve the designation and enhance my identity.  Never underestimate the power of being present and how just simply being there for someone speaks volumes. I will always be grateful for my coworkers.

Without my twSuccess Graphic o families, I likely would have quit long ago.  The path to becoming a CFP® professional is full of ups and downs and tests of strength and determination.  The image at left accurately depicts my journey…but it’s a journey that I would never trade.  I know I have what it takes to represent CFP® professionals; and through my continued education, I believe I will be able to shape the next generation and make a difference.

I hope I inspire other female advisors, whether they choose to pursue CFP® certification or not.  Females may be in the minority in our industry today, but I’m confident that will change in the future. Our passion to help others just can’t be diminished.

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