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What’s in a Name?

Name TagI recently had the privilege of speaking on financial planning to 150 CPAs at a Washington Society of CPAs conference. I began my remarks by asking how many in the audience considered themselves financial planners. Only two raised their hands.

That surprised me. I know that many CPAs help clients with some aspect of financial planning, from tax, retirement and estate planning to succession planning and wealth management. And, frankly, who better to help clients negotiate their financial futures than CPAs? Clients already rely on us to provide trusted advice on other financial matters.

The sparse response got me thinking back about my own experience coming to terms with the term “CPA financial planner.”

I, like many others, started out with a tax practice, happily providing tax and accounting services for clients for many years. My move into financial planning felt quite organic as it was happening, but looking back, I realize it was triggered by my father’s sudden death at age 64.

Financially sound, my father had just retired, bought an RV and was ready to take off touring with my mom when he was killed in a car accident. I still hold the vision of his brand new motor home in the driveway that he never got to drive around the block.

I began helping my mom secure her finances, and also found myself talking with friends and colleagues about what they were doing to prepare for their future, and their spouses’, and how they were allocating resources to pay for it.

At the same time, more of my tax clients were bringing up financial planning topics in offhand ways, asking me what I was doing to save for my children’s college, how long I planned to work and how I was planning for retirement. Those conversations evolved, eventually turning into engagements to help them map out their financial plans. And, finally, it dawned on me that I was doing financial planning.

In 2001, I left the tax practice and launched a financial planning firm with a colleague. We searched to find the right term to describe our services. Over the years, we used many terms: private client services, wealth management, financial advising and the like.

Then, three years ago, I realized that CPA financial planner was the best term to describe what we are. It’s definitely the term clients relate to. I know that from my own experience. And AICPA research confirms the term “financial planner” is what consumers use when looking for the services we offer.

So why the reluctance to use CPA financial planner? I think that, as CPAs, we tend to associate that term with selling. We think clients will think we’re trying to sell them something and that we’ll lose our fiscal objectivity if we do that. I think that’s a big hurdle for CPAs to overcome.

But in my experience, clients don’t automatically assume you are selling something.  And you don’t have to. Our firm chooses to manage investments, but it’s not a requirement. Many CPAs provide financial planning advice and simply refer the investment piece to trusted colleagues.

There are many reasons for CPAs to let their clients know they offer financial planning services.

Business-wise, it’s a huge area of potential growth for our profession. The need for personal financial advisers is expected to grow 30 percent over the next decade, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. Not surprising given the 10,000 baby boomers a day who are turning 65 (according to Pew Research Center data) and the enormous wealth that will be changing hands in coming years.

Using the term simply tells consumers you’re offering the services they seek, which makes good business sense.

On the personal side, I find it extremely rewarding to help my clients succeed, so I’m eager to let them know I can.

The person who was originally scheduled to speak before me at the Washington Society of CPAs conference was a client. He, like others, sought financial planning services not only to plan for his future but to ensure his spouse would know what to do and where to turn if something happened to him.

A few weeks before that conference, his wife called me to say he had passed away. When she came to our office to meet with us, she said. “There aren’t many places I want to be right now, but I was looking forward to coming to see you.”

If you’re interested in providing financial planning services, I encourage you to let your clients and potential clients know it. If you want more training or need a deeper understand about the roles and responsibilities of a financial planner, I’ve attended and recommend the AICPA’s Personal Financial Planning Conference. It will be one of six individual conferences offered at AICPA ENGAGE in Las Vegas on June 12-15. You can also learn more about calling yourself a CPA financial planner and access a toolkit here.

Call yourself a CPA financial planner and wear that term with pride. Let your clients know the person they already trust with their financial well-being can offer them so much more.  

David A. Stolz, CPA/PFS, is principal CPA and financial planner for Stolz & Associates in Tacoma, Wash. He is the past chair of the Personal Financial Planning Committee for the Washington Society of Certified Public Accountants and serves on the AICPA’s Personal Financial Specialist Credential Committee.

Name tag image courtesy Shutterstock.

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