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Cary List is chief executive officer of the Financial Planning Standards Council.

As the recent Globe and Mail series on Canada's emerging consumer debt crisis shows, Canadians need a realistic and prudent approach to saving, investing and spending. Financial planning provides such an approach. Unfortunately however, when it comes to sourcing a trustworthy financial planner, Canadians are confused and at risk.

While consumers should rightfully expect that anyone presenting themselves as a financial planner is qualified, competent, ethical and accountable for the advice they provide, today's reality is that, with few exceptions, anyone in any province except Quebec can call himself or herself a financial planner. There are no competency or ethics requirements specifically for financial planners, other than through voluntary certification.

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Today's unregulated financial planning environment leaves consumers vulnerable to receiving advice from individuals who have not had to meet any qualifications based on accepted common standards of competence, ethics and practice.

Further complicating this issue, the term "financial planning" is often used as a means to sell products, and the title "financial planner" is used haphazardly throughout the industry. The majority of the 80,000 "financial advisers" in Canada are individuals whose qualifications relate specifically to the products they are licensed to sell and the advice they may provide related only to their licence. Such individuals however, have no requisite training or qualifications for broader, more holistic financial planning advice – advice Canadians so badly need. Expertise gained through securities, mutual funds or insurance licensing does not equate to competence in financial planning. Unfortunately, most consumers don't know the difference.

When you have the right financial plan for your circumstances, you can balance what you need and want today with your goals for the future. A good financial plan will help Canadians live the best life they can with the resources they have.

Not surprisingly, most consumers don't understand how to identify a qualified financial planner and what to rightfully expect when seeking their services. In fact, not only do survey results indicate Canadians feel they have insufficient knowledge to adequately plan their financial futures, they are also unaware of the lack of regulatory standards in place for financial planners who could help them properly plan to meet their current and future life goals and needs.

Not all the news is grim. Progress is being made toward establishing explicit requirements for those wishing to call themselves financial planners.

Since 2009, the Financial Planning Standards Council (FPSC) has been a proud member of the Financial Planning Coalition, whose other members include the Canadian Institute of Financial Planners (CIFPs), Institute of Advanced Financial Planners (IAFP) and Institut québécois de planification financière (IQPF). The coalition has been advocating for the establishment of financial planning as a distinct profession.

The coalition proposes a solution that is simple in nature but profound in impact – implement clear, singular and enforceable standards of competence, ethics and practice for all who wish to hold themselves out as financial planners.

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In the meantime, in the absence of statutory or regulatory requirements for financial planners, the FPSC continues to take measures to help ensure that Canadians are getting the help they need and to provide them with information they can trust. In addition to public awareness campaigns to help consumers understand the importance of working with a Certified Financial Planner professional, the FPSC has launched a new consumer-focused website – FinancialPlanningForCanadians.ca – a source for consumers to access commercial-free and unbiased information and resources about financial planning.

Awareness of money management issues and their broad effects on our well-being is a vital first step in tackling a problem that plagues our society. Ultimately, the solution is to be found in sound financial planning services from qualified professionals.

Escalating consumer debt levels and gaps in workplace wellness programs have left our citizens in the most financially vulnerable and precarious position that we have experienced in decades.

The bottom line: Canadians deserve professional financial planning from qualified financial planners. It's a matter of trust.

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