Mary Beth Franklin is the 2022 InvestmentNews Trail blazer winner. This award is made to InvestmentNews’ own innovators and coincides with the 11th anniversary of Franklin’s establishment in these pages as the industry’s leading analyst and commentator on Social Security policies, practices and pragmatism. Her incisive analysis has permanently changed the industry’s understanding of Social Security programs as a cornerstone of financial planning and income security.
Change is seldom easy, usually frightening, and often rewarding. In my case, it was all three. After more than three decades as a financial journalist, I decided to pursue a certified financial planner certification and I have never looked back.
I have been based in Washington, DC, my entire career, and I always written about money in some form, ranging from federal tax and budget policies to personal finance issues for a leading consumer magazine. But the 21st century brought major changes to the media industry, including the birth of the 24-hour cable and internet news cycle and the death of many newspapers and magazines.
When my employer, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, sold its flagship headquarters — a 10-story building down the street from the White House — and moved its staff across town to one floor of leased office space, I knew it was time for Plan B.
In my many years of interviewing financial experts for magazine articles, I was often impressed by financial advisers who had earned the CFP designation. I thought: “I could do that.” When the University of Virginia established a satellite campus a mile from my home and offered a CFP program, I took it as a sign that the universe agreed with me. At the time, my goal was to become a better financial journalist.
STUDYING FOR A DEAD END?
I signed up for the seven-course program, which I completed at night after work over a three-year period. I received my CFP certificate in mid-2013. That cost about $10,000 in tuition, fees and books. Then the really hard part began — prepping for the 10-hour CFP exam that November. I registered for a CFP review course, plopped down another $1,200, and spent several months studying review books, creating flash cards and slogging my way through 1,500 test bank questions in preparation for the exam.
The reward was sweet. I passed the CFP exam on my first try. The national pass rate for the Nov. 13 CFP exam was 63%. It was an enormous accomplishment that culminated three years of study and a substantial financial investment.
While I valued the knowledge that I had gained through my financial planning courses, I didn’t think I would ever be able to call myself a CFP because of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standard’s narrow definition of eligible work experience at the time. The board required three years of full-time qualifying experience, or the equivalent of 6,000 hours, to satisfy the work experience requirement. Apparently, my 30-plus years as an award-winning personal finance writer didn’t hold a candle to three years of qualifying personal finance work experience. Short of quitting my day job and signing on with a wealth advisory firm, I didn’t see how I could ever clear that final hurdle.
WIDER CRITERIA CLEARED THE WAY
But the universe was on my side again. A year later, the CFP Board expanded its definition to include “support activities.” In a Dec. 30, 2014, news release, the CFP Board said that it would “now review activities and responsibilities reflecting financial planning knowledge and competencies that indirectly support the financial planner and/or the financial planning process.”
I submitted documentation showing that I spent an average of 35 hours a week counseling consumers and financial advisers about Social Security claiming rules, Medicare enrollment and tax-efficient retirement income strategies, in addition to writing weekly columns and conducting in-person and online seminars on those topics. The CFP Board concluded that I had met the 6,000 hours of work experience requirement since joining InvestmentNews in January 2012.
On July 15, 2015, I received an email from the CFP Board that said: “Congratulations! You are now a certified financial planner.” I was thrilled.
As I honed my expertise in Social Security, Medicare, and tax-efficient withdrawal strategies, I realized that the CFP designation provided added gravitas to my credentials. I was writing for and speaking to financial professionals — and they were listening — in part due to my training and largely thanks to the highly visible platform that InvestmentNews afforded me.
DIVERSITY LEADS CUSTOMER BASE
The financial planning profession has often been derided as “old, male and pale.” It desperately needs to become more diverse and inclusive. There’s a solid business case for expanding the ranks of advisers to be reflective of an increasingly diverse client base. Midcareer shifters like me can be part of the solution but onboarding mature candidates requires help in the form of outreach, mentoring, updated compensation models, a supportive work environment and in some cases, financial aid.
I am proud to call myself a CFP. It was hard. It was exhaustive. It was expensive. And it was worth it. If I could do it, so can you.
(Questions about new Social Security rules? Find the answers in Mary Beth Franklin’s 2022 ebook at MaximizingSocialSecurityBenefits.com.)