What's in a good financial plan?

Estate plan

A solid financial plan starts with protecting your assets. Such a basic first step is known as an estate plan, and it begins with a will. A will dictates how your assets will be dispersed after your death. An estate plan will probably include insurance protection and may feature trusts or other elements.

Retirement plan

Once an estate plan is in place, a retirement plan is the next step. Having clear goals for retirement will help you know how much to save during your working years. Retirement plans should also address the need for long-term care if you or your loved one can no longer live independently.

A budget

The next step, a budget plan, ensures that you set aside enough money to meet your long-term goals without taking on too much debt.

College and other goals

The final step in a solid financial plan is nonretirement savings. You may want to set aside money for a child's college or establish a trust to benefit a charity, for instance.

Basic ways to invest or save

Savings are a major part of a solid financial plan. The financial market offers multiple vehicles for saving and investing, each with pros and cons. Many financial planners will recommend that clients balance their portfolios with multiple products.

Stocks

Stocks are investments that allow an individual to buy a share in a company. The investor earns or loses money based on how well the company does. Bonds work like a loan to a company or government entity; they are repaid with a set amount of interest.

Mutual funds

A mutual fund takes multiple stocks and bonds and packages them into one investment option. These provide a measure of protection for the investor, because generally at least one of the investments within a mutual fund will perform well.

Real estate

Another investment option is buying properties to rent or later sell. As long as the real estate market is growing or properties can be bought at low prices, real estate can be a profitable investment.

Basic accounts

Savings and retirement accounts are some of the simplest savings vehicles. Typical retirement accounts offer tax advantages, while savings accounts may offer only a small interest payment. College savings accounts may offer additional incentives, such as tax advantages or prepaid tuition options.

Hiring a financial planner

Ideally, a financial planner works as a neutral third party, providing honest advice and guidance. If you're considering working with a financial planner, consider these tips:

Look into the planner's training and credentials. Financial planners certified by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards undergo extensive training and experience requirements. They also agreed to adhere to the principles of integrity, objectivity, competence, fairness, confidentiality, professionalism and diligence when dealing with clients.

Check the individual's history. Ask your planner about her or his experience and years in the industry. Though past performance of financial securities isn't indicative of future performance, check Angie's List for reviews on planners in your area to get an idea of how they've interacted with other customers. Interview several planners to get a sense of how they communicate and the services they offer.

Be clear about how the planner is paid. Some financial planners are independent advisors who provide objective advice and are generally paid for their time or package of services. Others may represent particular investment products and are paid by commission. Independent advisors typically can offer a wider range of products for their clients and have less incentive to push something in particular. If you hire a commission-paid advisor, be sure that the products he or she represents are ones you want.

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