The top financial certifications you can earn


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Many financial professionals earn certifications to prove their expertise. While some of these designations, like the Certified Public Account (CPA) license, are quite common and mandatory for particular roles, relatively few individuals may pursue highly specialized certifications, like the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA).


Certifications signify various types of expertise within the financial services industry, though several relate to financial planning. After passing a credentialing process, professionals are qualified to perform specific work for their clients.


Here are the top 10 financial certifications professionals can earn:

1. Certified Financial Planner (CFP)

The Certified Financial Planner certification is one of the most popular financial credentials, and CFPs are qualified to handle a wide variety of financial services. About 1 in 5 financial advisors in the U.S. is a CFP.


Expertise: A Certified Financial Planner can handle a broad range of financial planning situations. They can help you with filing your taxes, manage your investments and plan for retirement — including creating a plan to save up for it and handle expenses once you retire. A CFP also can help assess your insurance coverage and plan for education expenses.


Requirements to earn: There are “4 E’s” for CFP credentialing: education, exam, experience and ethics. CFPs must complete coursework through a CFP Board-registered program, hold a bachelor’s degree, pass a 170-question CFP exam, have 6,000 hours of professional experience or 4,000 hours of apprenticeship, and complete an ethics requirement.

2. Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

A Certified Public Accountant is licensed to work as an accountant and prepare taxes. Some CPAs work with individuals who have unique tax needs and some work on behalf of large corporations. For tax professionals, a CPA is an industry-standard certification.


Expertise: A CPA can work in many tax-related roles, including as accountants, auditors and tax consultants. CPAs often use their expertise to work on topics related to tax accounting, including financial planning and consulting, even if they’re not necessarily working as an accountant.


Requirements to earn: CPAs must pass an exam containing four sections: auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting, and reporting and regulation. These professionals must complete at least 150 hours of relevant education and abide by certain state requirements, depending on where they do business. There are also ethics and continuing education requirements for CPAs.

3. Personal Finance Specialist (PFS)

CPAs who want to expand the types of services they offer can obtain a Personal Finance Specialist certification. After becoming a PFS, these accountants are credentialed to work in personal financial planning and wealth management in addition to tax accounting.


Expertise: A CPA who works on specific, granular tax accounting may not find a PFS credential especially useful; but for CPAs who work on taxes as part of an individual’s financial situation, a PFS credential can help them offer valuable financial planning services to their clients.


Requirements to earn: There are a few different options for gaining a PFS certification, but every pathway requires passing an exam related to financial planning. These individuals must also complete continuous professional education ahead of their exams. A CPA certification is a prerequisite for earning a PFS credential as well.

4. Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

Chartered Financial Analysts are qualified to work with investments and securities. They can manage investment strategies and portfolios for individuals or work for bigger wealth management firms.


Expertise: The CFA designation provides a broad range of detailed investment training, including quantitative methods for investing, the economics of the investing world, analysis related to investment performance, and more complex investment mechanisms like derivatives.


Requirements to earn: In order to earn a CFA, applicants must pass three levels of examinations, achieve qualified work experience, submit professional letters of reference and submit an application to the CFA Institute.

5. Chartered Investment Counselor (CIC)

The Chartered Investment Counselor is an additional credential that someone who holds a CFA can pursue. Issued by the Investment Advisor Association (IAA), a CIC means that a CFA is a fiduciary — meaning they’re an investment advisor who must provide the best possible advice to their clients.


Expertise: A CFA qualifies someone to work with investments and securities, and a CIC charter means that this individual has the legal obligation to work in the best interest of clients. These two types of professionals have the same areas of expertise, including broad knowledge of investing in the stock market.


Requirements to earn: In order to qualify to become a CIC, applicants must already hold a CFA designation, have a minimum of five cumulative years of work experience in eligible occupational positions, work for a member firm of the IAA, and spend more than half of work time related to investment counseling and portfolio management.

6. Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)

Chartered Financial Consultants offer a broad range of services, including financial planning, risk management, retirement and investment strategies, and estate planning. The American College of Financial Services offers the program and certification. ChFC courses also fulfill the education requirements for CFPs.


Expertise: A ChFC is qualified to work in the same areas as a CFP; broadly speaking, these professionals help individuals with financial consulting and can branch into more specific areas like retirement savings and tax strategies. These financial consultants take one additional class than CFPs, which is called Contemporary Applications in Financial Planning.


Requirements to earn: A Chartered Financial Consultant must have three years of full-time business experience within five years of receiving the charter. They must also take 27 credits worth of education and then complete 30 credits per two-year period after receiving the charter and passing an examination.

7. Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA)

A Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst has a highly specialized focus in alternative types of investments as determined by the CAIA Association. These analysts have deep knowledge of alternative investments, including speculation in public equity and debt markets.


Expertise: CAIA coursework includes topics related to real assets, commodities, hedge funds, private equity, credit risk, and derivatives. Someone with a CAIA charter is more likely to work in a large firm with that type of experience rather than as a personal investment advisor.


Requirements to earn: A CAIA must pass two examinations regarding the asset classes and investment techniques covered in the coursework for the charter. The second assessment covers the knowledge learned in the first assessment in a portfolio context.

8. Financial Risk Manager (FRM)

Risk managers in the financial space often earn the Financial Risk Manager certification. These professionals have specialized roles in financial institutions, anticipating and adapting to risk issues facing various markets and industries.


Expertise: As part of their coursework, FRMs learn about financial markets and products, valuation and risk models, credit risk measurement, and current issues in financial markets. They’re broadly qualified to assess risk levels.


Requirements to earn: A candidate earns the FRM certification after passing two exams and demonstrating two years of relevant work experience. FRMs are encouraged but not required to earn 40 hours of professional development every two years.


9. Certified Investment Management Analyst (CIMA)

A Certified Investment Management Analyst works with many of the same types of individuals as a CFP or ChFC, but the CIMA certification is specialized for managing the portfolios of high net worth clients. As defined by the SEC, high net worth individuals are those with at least $750,000 under the management of an advisor, or a net worth believed to be at least $1.5 million.


Expertise: During their training, CIMAs learn about investment fundamentals and portfolio theory, as well as portfolio construction and investment consulting. These analysts can pair this certification with other specialized investment credentials if they work for a bigger firm.


Requirements to earn: A CIMA must pass online qualification and certification exams after completing the educational component. These analysts must have at least three years of financial service experience and complete 40 hours of continuing education after obtaining the certification.

10. Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU)

CLUs specialize in life insurance and estate planning. Many CFPs also choose to acquire a Chartered Life Underwriter charter so they’re more qualified to handle those specific elements of their clients’ financial situations.


Expertise: A Chartered Life Underwriter has extensive training in life insurance underwriting and related concepts. The specialization helps them inform clients about how best to approach risk management and estate planning in addition to their life insurance policies.


Requirements to earn: In order to earn a CLU designation, applicants must complete five core and three elective courses for a total of 24 credit hours. After passing an exam for each course, these individuals must complete 30 hours of professional development every two years.



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10 top career training programs


When it comes to getting a secure, well-paying job, it’s not always necessary to get a college degree first.


Some students may choose a career training program to learn the necessary skills for a specific job, often more quickly and for less money than a four-year college degree. These programs may also be referred to as career certificate programs, usually certifying the students to work in a particular role once the course is completed.


These programs can be completed after college, but many are designed to train people who haven’t attended college. Recent high school graduates or those who have attained their GED can often attend career training programs and get started on their careers after receiving their certificate.


Related: Building your career




Two big factors in choosing to go through a career training program before or instead of going to college are time and money.


Career training programs typically can be completed in less time than it generally takes to complete an undergraduate degree. Some programs can be completed in as little as four months, a staggering difference from the four years it might take to earn a bachelor’s degree.


In addition to being shorter term, they’re also less expensive. On average, a career certificate program may cost around $100 per credit. The average cost of in-state tuition at a public two-year institution is $3,412, and at a public four-year institution the in-state tuition averages $9,308.


At Minnesota State University, certificate programs consist of nine to 30 credits, which can be completed in one year or less of full-time study. If these programs cost the average $100 per credit, they would cost between $900 and $3,000. This is fairly affordable compared to the cost of tuition at either a two-year or a four-year institution.


Another reason some people choose a career training program is that they need to, or would like to, start earning money relatively soon after graduating high school.


A career training program could be a more direct route to employment than getting an associate or bachelor’s degree for people who are sure about their career path. This could also be a beneficial route for students who want to save money to attend college later in life.


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The most important thing to look for when choosing a career training program, whether it’s in-person or an online career training program, is accreditation. Accreditation verifies that an institution is meeting a certain level of quality. Usually, a certificate will need to come from an accredited institution for it to be considered legitimate.


Accreditation is done by private agencies, and most programs or institutions will list accreditations on their website.


The most up-to-date accreditation information can be found in the database of postsecondary institutions and programs compiled by the U.S. Department of Education or with the specific accrediting agency’s website.


Once it’s clear that the potential programs are accredited, students can begin to narrow down which one will be best for them. This will be a highly personal choice, but there are a few factors worthy of attention, including cost, course length, and type of instruction (online vs. in-person).


Job search assistance — which might include resume writing workshops, job fairs or interview prep — is another element that may help set students up for success.




In addition to career training programs having the potential to save students time and money, people want to know that they’ll be able to make a good living with those jobs.


Right now, these are the highest paying jobs for those opting to go through a career training program.




According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual income for a web designer is $73,760, with the educational requirements ranging from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree. This job is growing faster than average, so it has a promising future.





Paralegals and legal assistants make, on average, $51,740 per year. The required education for an entry-level job as a paralegal is a certificate or an associate degree. This job is also growing at a rate much faster than average, showing great potential for a long-term career.





Solar panel installation is a growing field with decent pay and a lot of projected growth for the future. The median annual pay is $44,890, with only a high school degree or a certificate required to begin working.





Training to become a licensed practical or licensed vocational nurse typically takes only one year of full-time study, and the median annual salary is $47,480.


This job is growing faster than average and is in a field that will certainly always exist. This could be a good choice for someone who wants to be in the medical field without the time and financial commitment it takes to become a doctor.





Working as a medical records technician usually only requires a certificate, and sometimes an associate degree. This job has a median annual pay of $42,630 and the potential to work from home.





The median pay for a pharmacy technician is $33,950 per year. This job is growing at an average rate and typically requires on-the-job training or a formal training program, most of which last one year. Some longer pharmacy tech training programs culminate in an associate degree.



lucigerma / istockphoto


The role of a computer support specialist can vary widely, which means the educational requirements may, also. Some jobs in this field may require a bachelor’s degree, but others may only require an associate degree or a certificate. The median annual pay for a computer support specialist is $54,760, and the field is growing faster than average.



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Professional certification, which can be gained after completing a phlebotomy training program, is the credential generally preferred by employers. This job has a median annual pay of $35,510 and it’s growing much faster than average.



Steve Debenport/istockphoto


Medical assistants have a median annual pay of $34,800, and the job only requires a certificate or on-the-job training. This job is growing much faster than average.


The median pay for this job is $52,910 per year and the only education required is a training certificate through a technical program. This job is growing at a rate much faster than average, which could make it a great choice for students who are ready to start their career shortly after graduating high school.


Just because career training programs are typically less expensive than college doesn’t mean they’ll be easy to pay for. Some programs last longer than others and will still end up costing a fair chunk of money.


One way to pay for a career training program is to save the amount of money needed before starting it. If the program is short or has a lower cost per unit, it may be possible to simply save up the necessary amount before beginning the course of study.


The program cost may be available on the school’s website or by calling the school. Paying in full with cash means no debt to worry about.


Another potential way to pay for a career training program is to apply for federal student financial aid, which may be available to students enrolled in eligible degree or certificate programs and who meet other eligibility requirements. Completing the Free Application for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)  is the first step to applying for federal student financial aid. After submitting the FAFSA, students will find out if they’re eligible for federal student aid, which could include federal student loans and/or work-study.


Students who aren’t eligible for federal financial aid or students who can’t cover tuition costs without financial aid may want to look for scholarships. There may be fewer scholarships available for certificate programs than there are for degree programs, but they’re out there!


The best place to start looking for scholarships is with the school the student is attending. Some schools set up their own scholarships. Alternatively, students can search for scholarships offered by professional organizations in their related fields.


A private student loan may be another option to cover the cost of a career training program. Loan terms will vary from lender to lender and applicants are encouraged to understand the terms of the loan before accepting one. Students should exhaust all federal student aid options before considering private student loans.




Students can be under a lot of pressure to go right into a four-year college or university after graduating high school, but career training programs provide an alternative that can also set students up for success, typically in less time and for less money.


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