Since I was 21, I have always loved learning about personal finance. One could see me in the Business section of bookstores, devouring books on investing, retirement, taxes, insurance, and estate planning as though they were pieces of dark chocolate for my soul. Every now and then, I considered studying this field more rigorously in a college financial planning program, but the thoughts gave way to other responsibilities. I became a math teacher after earning my bachelor’s, and then an editor at a large publishing house. But the financial planning itch never subsided. Often I would come home from work to read Kiplinger’s or Money Mag, flip through articles on Morningstar.com, or even tune into Suze Orman. Learning about personal finance was akin to having a secret mistress.
Work life was going pretty smoothly until spring of 2007, when I became disillusioned with my editorial job and rumors of layoffs circulated. I contemplated doing something else with my life, or at least learning something else. That was when the financial planning bug resurfaced. One evening, I attended an orientation on Boston University’s Financial Planning Program for future CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM professionals, or CFP® professionals. In spite of my fear of returning to school after so many years being away from it, I decided to enroll and started taking summer classes in May, all the while working a full-time job. Finding the pace of the classes too slow, I shifted to the online version of the program and self-studied. By Thanksgiving, I had completed all of the courses, a feat that would have easily taken me two years under the traditional classroom format.
The educational component was the easy part. The giant monster was the examination, a 10-hour love fest integrating everything I learned, replete with financial computations and lengthy individual case studies. My exam was scheduled for March 28-29, 2008. I used a Kaplan study package consisting of several volumes of books as my main review material. I studied on the train to work, during lunch breaks, on the train home, during dinner time, even while waiting in line at the grocery store. Going against the advice of CFP® practitioners, I elected not to take the popular 2-day review workshop. It was simply too costly. I didn’t even have a study group. I depended solely on myself, and there were moments when I doubted my ability to get through the exam.
On January 24, 2008, I was laid off from my editorial position. So traumatic was the experience that I forgot to call my father that day to wish him a happy birthday. At the same time, I realized that the layoff was the ideal time for me to devote my energies to the exam. I made a detailed plan of what I was going to study each day (and I still have the day planner to prove it). I even told a friend that I was going to swear off sex for all of March, and it actually came to fruition. I was that focused. To prevent burnout, I scheduled the gym for the evenings, and I made sure to see friends during the weekends. As the exam date drew closer, I felt more determined to pass, and my confidence strengthened.
Then March 28th arrived. I couldn’t sleep the night before. My friend Eric picked me up at some God-forsaken hour like 6am to drive me to the exam site, Phoenix University in Burlington, Massachusetts. Because the exam was scheduled for two days, I had arranged to stay at a nearby hotel for the night after Day One. Eric dropped me off at the hotel, where I stayed until the exam time of 12:30pm. Twice at the hotel, I went to the bathroom to relieve myself of “nervous bowel movements.” I walked over to the site before noon to encounter what seemed like a hundred fellow test-takers, none of whom I knew, of course. I overheard a conversation in which one person said, “If we pass this test, it’s going to be because of our Professor.” Some people I spoke with told me they were glad they took the 2-day review workshop. The confidence I built over the weeks began to deflate. Then we were all segregrated into different rooms to take our exams.
The first day of the exam lasted 4 hours, and I was left completely exhausted. The questions were all a blur, though I barely remember several questions on “modified endowment contracts,” a topic that I didn’t spend much time studying. I went back to my hotel and watched TV while eating delivery pizza. I went to the hotel fitness room to briefly work out the stress of the day. I went to bed early that night, only to find myself parched. At 2am, with no water in the room, I walked around the entire hotel until I finally found a drinking fountain on a different floor. That night, I had about 4 hours of sleep.
Day 2 of the exam lasted 6 hours, split into two 3-hour blocks with a lunch break in between. For some reason, this day felt easier for me. There was a fair number of investment questions involving calculations (good for the math geek in me), a block of questions on Social Security (which genuinely interests me), and estate planning techniques (which I had studied fervently). I even saw a question that looked almost identical to one in my Kaplan study guide. As in the previous day, my strategy was to look at each page and tackle first the questions that looked quickest to read, then go back and deal with the paragraph-long questions. When I read the case study of a wealthy married couple, their investment portfolio, and business details, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Do these kinds of people really exist? At least in my world they don’t.” After the exam, my friend Luis picked me up from Burlington and took me back to Boston. That night, I slept for at least 12 hours. I went to the dentist the following morning, and when I arrived back home, I slept for a few more hours.
Six weeks later, I received a one-page letter from the CFP Board stating that I passed the exam, an accomplishment that only 57% of the test-takers achieved. The only requirement left was to acquire 3 years of related experience. I had only about 1 month’s worth preparing tax returns over the winter while studying for the exam. After a short stint at a bank, I landed a position as the financial/tax counselor and money management program coordinator for a nonprofit that serves the needs of low to moderate-income households. I started this job on December 1, 2008, and I currently hold this position. In January 2012, I reported to the CFP Board that I met the work experience requirement.
On February 10, 2012, after agreeing to abide by a high standard of ethical conduct and client service (and paying my initial certification fee, of course), I joined a group of more than 64,000 professionals in the United States who hold the one designation that I coveted for 15 years- the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM certification. What new doors will open for me now? That is an open question. One thing is certain: My journey, which seems to have ended upon earning those three letters, has really just begun.