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How A Financial Planner Helped Ease My Money Anxiety

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Gulino.
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Money advice is quite literally everywhere. Wherever I scroll, someone or something on the internet is telling me how to save, spend, and invest my money, and the overload of info out there is enough to make me never want to look at my banking app again. Sure, I’ve heard of financial planners, but to me, they seem like a Big Deal — only reserved for the most affluent, like people who’ve won the lottery, or have come into an enormous inheritance, or are millionaires looking to purchase a yacht. But after some holiday money panic and a creeping sensation that this is the year I need to get my shit together, I caved and tried one myself.
What I’ve learned is that financial planners aren’t just for wealthy people who are able to spend thousands of dollars (maybe even more) a year on having someone sort out their finances — it can be affordable and accessible to people across the income spectrum, if you know where to look. Getting a financial planner is entirely up to you, your goals, and your comfortability with letting someone into your intimate financial life. While I didn’t go too deep into my monetary hopes and dreams, I really wanted to use a planner’s time to make sure that I’m currently on the best possible track for myself and my bank account.

What does a financial planner do?

Financial planners are professionals who provide recommendations and guidance based on their client’s financial situation and goals. “A financial planner is just someone who helps you map out your current existing financial picture, and then essentially creates a to-do list or a plan of action on how to get where you eventually want to be,” says Vivian Tu, founder of Your Rich BFF and author of Rich AF: The Winning Money Mindset That Will Change Your Life. And where you want to be can look different for everyone — from buying a house to saving for a wedding or retirement to learning how to invest for the first time — so your specific interactions with a financial planner will look different, too.
As their name suggests, their main shtick is to help plan out your finances. Technically, anyone can call themselves a financial planner, which can make this industry hard to navigate. “Once you get into financial services, there are about a million different abbreviations, acronyms, and titles that can come up,” says Kerrie Carden, founder of Equip Advisory and the financial planner I decided to work with. “You might come across someone who is officially an RIA, which is a registered investment advisor. That person is categorically different from a financial planner.” For example, RIAs will help their clients more with investing than planning. But people can really call themselves anything, from financial advisors to coaches to wealth managers, even if they may not have received any kind of certification. Carden, like many other financial professionals out there, is a CFP (aka a certified financial planner), meaning that she obtained a certification through the Center for Financial Planning — so that’s something to look out for when searching for a planner of your own.

The benefits of working with a financial planner

According to Northwestern Mutual’s 2023 Planning & Progress Study, 66% of Americans say that their financial planning skills need improvement, but only 37% say they currently work with a financial planner. The study also notes that people who do work with a planner are far more confident in specific financial areas including retirement, long-term financial security, and being prepared for monetary emergencies.
Even so, it’s hard to shake the feeling of a barrier to entry when it comes to working with financial professionals to help manage your money, especially in the realm of even being able to afford these services or whether or not someone is making enough money to warrant help, but according to Carden, everyone should feel comfortable using a financial planner’s services. “Financial planning is absolutely for everyone,” she says. “We should all have financial education, and we should all have the support of someone who knows how to look at that stuff and help us better reach our goals.”
Tu agrees: “When I really could have used a financial planner, or used a helping hand in my finances, is not now. It’s when I was in my early twenties and I just graduated from college and I was living in New York City for the first time and I didn’t know up from down, left from right, and I was making a ton of financial mistakes,” she says. “I think chatting with a professional earlier rather than later behooves you in so many ways because you get to avoid a lot of those pitfalls that people, like myself, make.”
My goal for using a financial planner was to get short-term advice for 2024 rather than, say, a detailed investing plan that spans years — I want to really bulk up my savings and have a robust emergency fund to fall back on in case of, well, emergencies. I’m planning on moving in July and will need some extra funds for that, especially when it comes to hiring movers, buying furniture, and paying for all other moving-related necessities.

What happens when you work with a financial planner

Everyone’s situation will look different, but your first meeting with a financial planner is predominantly for information gathering — it’s a time to discuss your goals, concerns, current financial situation, and any specifics you want your planner to get into. You’ll share information with your chosen planner to help them create a comprehensive financial picture for them to look at. For example, I sent Carden my bank statements, my credit card statements, and alerted her about any other accounts I have, such as my 401k — which, to be honest, made me feel like I was in the middle of a naked dream: stripped down and exposed with nowhere to hide. Having my financial cards out all on the table for a stranger to dig into is nerve-wracking (I swear, I only use DoorDash when necessary!) but luckily Carden made me feel comfortable after our initial conversation. She was able to answer every question I had about financial planning without making me feel confused, seemed to really care about how to best serve her clients, asked me thought-provoking questions about my own relationship with money, and had an overall sense of calming energy that made me trust her.
Carden set me up with a few things to check off my to-do list, including opening up a high-yield savings account to put my existing emergency fund money in — I thought my savings account was fine, but she pointed me to an article from NerdWallet and apparently, my bank’s annual percentage yield (APY) was not cutting it. She also told me to automate $300 per paycheck to deposit directly into that account, prioritize spending on my Chase Sapphire credit card (I have two Europe trips in 2025 that I plan to — fingers crossed — book all of my flights with points for) and setting up a notification on my phone to alert me when my credit card balance reaches $2,000 for the month, just as a heads up.
After two weeks, Carden and I met again for a touch base and to see where I was at with those to-do items. I did almost everything: I set up a new high-yield savings account, set an alert for my credit card, and began to consciously think about how to best use my Chase Sapphire card for my upcoming trips. What I didn’t do, though, was immediately allocate $300 per paycheck to go into my savings — with holiday spending and my December credit card statements feeling just a little too steep for comfort, I just wasn’t ready to commit to that number.
But Carden assured me that financial planning steps don’t have to be done all at once, and told me not to punish myself over not totally completing her recs. “Recommendations are recommendations based on numbers and based on goals. You’re doing the lived experience,” she tells me. “That part will come, it’s on your radar. But really, measure yourself by those incremental steps… You’ve been doing things for a certain way for a really long time, that change is not going to happen overnight.”

How to choose the right financial planner for you

Finding a financial planner is kind of like finding a therapist or a hairdresser or even a job — there are many out there, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right fit for you. Not only do you have to trust them, connect with them, and feel understood by them, but you also need to make sure that they are qualified to help you. The first thing on your list is to check if they are a fiduciary financial planner. Fiduciaries are people or businesses that are legally obligated to act in your best interest. And if they don’t, there are legal ramifications.
Every expert that I spoke to for this story emphasized the importance of doing your research, both in finding a financial planner and narrowing down what it really is you’ll be asking for before you commit to one, since some planners may have more expertise in certain areas. You can ask your friends, family, and coworkers for recommendations, and you can also search databases such as the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Association of African American Financial Advisors, and directly from the CFP Board.
If someone is not a fiduciary, Tori Dunlap, founder of Her First 100k and author of Financial Feminist, says they’re not a financial planner — they’re an insurance salesman. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but they make their money by selling you things instead of focusing on what’s best for you. “They’re recommending things that they’re going to get a huge commission cut on … But are typically not actually a good move for folks and [are], in my opinion, a complete scam,” she says. To find out whether or not a financial planner is a fiduciary, Dunlap says to just ask them.
While someone being a certified financial planner or CFP is ideal, Carden says it’s not always a necessity — there are people out there who are financial coaches, and they could also be equipped to fulfill your needs. I think of it maybe as the difference between like a dietitian and a nutritionist. A dietitian is a degree, and a nutritionist has different training to get that. Not every nutritionist comes from the same background,” she says. “Similarly, as a CFP, we have a set of standards that we have to abide by for that certification [while] financial coaches come at it from a slightly different lens. But I think there may be scenarios where a financial coach might be more appropriate for someone.” Again, it’s important to meet with a few different people who are in this realm of service, and then from there decide on what sort of expertise and support you’re looking for.
When it comes to payment, Dunlap says to ask a potential planner what their fee structure is and how they make money. Some planners charge fees for consultations; others make small commissions from your investments “Are you making money by recommending things to me? Are you taking a percentage of my portfolio?” Dunlap says. Overall, she recommends working with fee-based planners. “You want to pay them $50 to $100 an hour rather than 1% of your entire portfolio, because that’s a huge chunk of your money as you hopefully grow your wealth,” she says.
Another important aspect, of course, is whether or not you actually vibe with this person. Tu likens finding a financial planner to dating. “There are great people out there, and there are terrible people out there, and then there are great people out there that aren't for you,” she says. Many financial planners will offer free consultation calls, so this is your chance to feel them out. Do they understand your identity, your personal background, your experience in the world? Can they use that knowledge to help you deal with your money in a way that makes the most sense for you? Feeling seen and heard can go beyond a basic financial conversation, and having a sense of trust is a significant part of these relationships.
For example, Carden specializes in providing services to BIPOC, queer, and trans people, and agrees that having a financial planner who affirms your identity is valuable. “Oftentimes what I recommend is to find a financial planner that you might be able to identify with,” Tu says.

Is the cost of financial planning worth it?

The amount of money financial planning services will cost you is kind of all over the place, and there’s usually two buckets that they fall into: fee only, and fee plus commission. Fee-only financial planners don’t sell services and don’t receive commission from those services — they usually just charge you based on an hourly rate. Fee plus commission, on the other hand, is when someone might charge a set amount for their financial planning but then they might also receive a commission from, for example, signing you up for an account with a particular financial institution as part of those recommendations, according to Carden. Some financial planners, like the RIAs we mentioned before, are an entirely different world. They take the money you plan on investing, invest it for you, and then make money on however much money you give them to invest.
Carden is a fee-only financial planner — which is what most experts recommend looking for — and she doesn’t receive commission from selling her clients services. Her rates are set on a sliding scale, and she tells Refinery29 that her prices are lower than average. “For me, that’s about access. The communities I serve tend to be communities that have been disenfranchised and marginalized from wealth,” she says. ”Right now, my sliding scale for a comprehensive financial plan which is kind of the big sit down, goes from $225 to $450 and that’s a one-time fee, and my individual hourly rate then goes from $100 to $175 an hour. When clients sign up with me and choose their own rates, they choose them before I see anything about their finances. You could be super wealthy and say that you want to pay the bottom of the range — that’s up to you.”
Again, prices vary — like, a lot — so do your digging when it comes to exactly what kind of services you can afford, and with who. “Depending on your level of wealth, you could be paying your financial planner $10,000 a year, $20,000 a year. A lot of it is going to be relative to how much you make, and I think that’s part of what drives that perception of it being just for wealthy people because the numbers are really kind of startling,” Carden says.
Carden says that sitting with someone and coming up with a plan ideally would be in the lower three figure range for hourly rates. “If people are getting more involved in the skunkworks of your accounts and stuff like that, the numbers tend to go up,” she says. “And then, of course, the wealthier you are and the more money that you’re moving around, that tends to add up into that four, or even five, figure range.”
How much you pay your financial planner depends on your goals and what you’ve actually employed your planner to do — maybe it’s a one-time ordeal to get your shit together, maybe you have a quarterly check in to see how your finances are stacking up and what progress is being made. “Some clients I have, we come up with recommendations and a plan and I talk to them once a year,” Carden says. “Other clients might be working on something specific where we need to be tracking in, let’s say, every three months for six to nine months because that situation is ongoing and evolving, and therefore, we need to touch base every quarter to make sure that we’re still on track for what we’re trying to accomplish.” If you’re working with a planner who’s more involved with money management and investing, Carden advises that you communicate with them on a monthly basis, at the very least.
“99% of people don’t need a financial planner,” says Dunlap. And she may be right — there’s hoards of accessible information out there on the internet for you to dive into and try to apply to your own finances, and if you already feel like you’re on the right track, shelling out hundreds of dollars might not be worth it. But if you’re someone who doesn’t want to dig through the layers of online advice, then hiring a financial planner lets you skip a few steps and get down to business.
“There is so much financial advice and really good financial content out there, I like to think I’m one of the people producing it, that is able to get you on the right track before you start — pun intended — investing in someone to give you that information,” Dunlap says. “If you are feeling those emotions of desperation or panic or anxiety about money, that’s completely normal, but I would curb those emotions with, can I do some sort of research or some sort of decision making on my own before I immediately default to, I just need somebody to help me.”
“Financial services as a field tends to focus on people who are already wealthy, and I think, honestly, that’s a flaw of our field,” Carden says. “I specifically focus on working with people who are struggling to make ends meet, people who have pre-existing and maybe a lot of debt, people who make under $200,000… That’s rare in the field, but I don’t think it should be because everyone needs the kind of guidance and knowledge that a financial planner or financial coach can help them with.” If a financial planner isn’t for you, that’s totally fine —  it’s still important to have a grasp on your personal financial picture. Even if you choose to turn to an expert, having your own knowledge on what works for you and your situation can only help you in the long run.
After working with a professional, I feel more in tune with the relationship between me, my money, and my financial future. But, like any relationship, it’s still a work in progress — one that I’ll definitely be reaching back out to Carden for help with.

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