Expecting the Expected

Like a midlife crisis or the car going on the fritz as you're on the first leg of a long-awaited road trip, some things in life you can count on. The key is to be prepared, whether you're getting serious about buying a house with your new bride, your son declares a new major the semester before he's supposed to graduate, or the market takes a dive just as you start to build your retirement getaway.

It's times like these when a second opinion is especially welcome. Having a financial plan -- one that you consult on a regular basis -- can take the guesswork and stress out of managing your finances, no matter what life stage you're in. It will help you project future costs, see how your current savings match up with them, pinpoint current and future financial issues, identify weak spots, and provide a much-needed wake-up call regarding savings, spending, and orthodontia costs.

There are a lot of ways to formulate a financial plan. You can do it on your own with a few self-help books. You can hire an outsider to occasionally check in with. (We created TMF Money Advisor for this purpose. Take it for a free spin.) Or you can hire a special someone to be at your beck and call. (Here's a comparison chart that sets up different types of professional advice help available.)

No matter what kind of help you choose, when you need expert advice, you want to be certain you have found a person competent to give it -- and one who will be acting in your best interests rather than his own. When it comes down to it, your money, like your health, is your responsibility. The more you know, the better off you'll be.

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