What’s the difference between a financial planner, broker, and investment advisor?

Workers in the financial industry go by dozens of different monikers—some of which indicate the individual’s qualifications and educational achievements, while others are merely descriptive. Brokers, financial planners, and investment advisor representatives all provide different services. For example:

  • Broker
    • A person or company that buys and sells stock or other securities. These individuals must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the independent, not-for-profit organization Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and work for firms called broker-dealers.
  • Investment advisor
    • A person (investment advisor representative) or company (investment advisor) that provides investment advice to clients. Investment advisors must be registered with the SEC or the Wisconsin securities regulator, the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. These professionals may also be referred to as asset managers, investment counselors, investment managers, portfolio managers, and wealth managers.
  • Financial planners
    • Unlike investment advisor representatives, there is no precise definition of a “financial planner.” Instead, financial planners engage in a variety of financial activities: some assess a client’s comprehensive financial situation while others sell clients specific investments only. Although financial planners who give investment advice must be registered investment advisor representatives, financial planners can also be brokers and hold insurance licenses.

In addition to the titles listed above, financial professionals also frequently list one of dozens of professional designations on their business cards and firm websites. For example, a person whose business card reads Jane Smith, CFP (Certified Financial Planner) indicates that Jane Smith has (a) a bachelor’s degree; (b) three years of full-time personal financial planning experience; (c) completed a CFP-board registered program or hold, for example, an attorney’s license or CPA; and (d) passed a certification examination. Be sure to look up the designations on FINRA’s glossary of professional designations.