Consider the following scenario: It's the end of December and as you stand in a line 30 deep at Target, your thoughts turn to money. You decide to seek the help of a financial advisor to see if your savings are on track. He's got a nice office -- perfectly aged leather wingback chairs and several handsomely framed official-looking documents trumpeting his credentials. You relax.

Moments after entering his office, he begins a cautionary tale about the ravages the health-care system can have on finances. He recommends that you purchase a whole life policy before the roads ice over. Oh, and while reviewing your finances, he notices what he considers a sub-par mutual fund in your portfolio. How about the Fat Cat Fund, he asks. Sure, you say. You don't want to be stuck with a bum fund when it comes time to retire. He neglects to tell you that the mutual fund has a front- and back-end load, and that he gets a nice commission for selling it to you.

Good help is so hard to find these days.

Advice for sale
The right financial professional can make all the difference in your future quality of life. The wrong one can ruin it.

Comforting, eh?

Let's start by considering the kind of financial guidance that's for sale. Generally speaking, you can get financial advice delivered to you in four flavors: through a traditional financial planner, full-service brokers, call center-based assistance, and specialists for things like writing a will or doing your taxes.

Financial advisors are the generalists in the field of money management. A financial advisor (also referred to as a "planner," or "CFP") assesses your overall financial picture, with an eye on your investments, savings, debts, insurance, and other big areas of your money life. Some are equipped to offer estate planning advice or input on your tax situation. Many make investment recommendations such as mutual funds or even specific stocks. The best ones can objectively put your finances into context and help you arrive at the best money moves for your future.

The sad fact is anyone can call herself a "financial planner" in most states. There is no licensing requirement and very little regulation. Your first line of defense in sussing out a pro is credentials (those official-looking designations embossed on the letterhead). The charlatans don't have and can't use these designations, so the credentials become your seal of quality.

Of course, credentials don't tell the whole story of how much skill an investment professional possesses, and if she is the one for you.

Your needs
Before you even pick up the phone, do a little financial soul-searching until you can articulate exactly what guidance you seek. Are you looking for a general checkup to make sure you and your family are properly insured and have an estate plan that's adequate? Do you want a portfolio analysis to see what you can do to retire earlier? Want stock advice? An assessment of your asset allocation?

Once you know what you want from your pro, find out what your pro wants from you. Those familiar with our schtick in Fooldom know that we're sticklers about understanding how financial professionals get paid. Does she charge a flat fee based on the amount of time she spends with you? Is there additional compensation based on the financial products you buy? Here's a general article on the mix-and-match ways of compensation.

The one thing that Fools should heed when hiring any kind of financial pro is this: The more you know, the more effectively you can work with the pro. We recognize that there is a common need for expert, affordable, independent advice on an as-needed basis. Heck, that's why we created TMF Money Advisor, a service that mixes and matches the best of all worlds of advice -- our education, a detailed online financial planning tool, and experts (free from the conflicts of interest their peers face) at your beck and call via phone. You won't find us shunning you for looking for a helping hand.

However, you might get the cold shoulder elsewhere.

Muzak to your ears
Looking for advice on specific stocks and mutual funds? Please hold.

That's a common refrain in these days of competition and waning profit margins at financial services companies. A recent Washington Post report on the state of financial advice revealed that it's getting hard for the little investor to get investment advice.

And how is "little investor" defined at the major brokerage firms? At Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER), that's any amount south of $100,000. Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MWD) has its eyes on clients with portfolios in the $1 million to $10 million range, according to the Post, and it is grooming 1,500 of its 12,000 brokers to hold their hands. At Piper Jaffray, just try to avoid the phone tree if you have less than 10 grand in your account. You'll be shuffled over to a call center where the firm can answer your questions without tying up its premium guys on the phone.

You, with your $32,578.19 account, are a losing prospect to many of the major firms. Don't bother trying to have a heart-to-heart with a broker about whether or not you missed the re-financing boat, or if you should cash out your aerospace stocks now to pay for Buffy's college tuition. Time is money. And if you don't have the latter, don't expect as much of the former as you might have enjoyed from your broker in years past.

When to downsize your pro
No matter where you seek financial advice, remember that it is your money -- and you are an at-will customer. In the end, you call all of the shots. If you encounter a third party who insists that you relinquish all the thinking to them (and that you give them "discretionary authority" to manage your money), then we humbly suggest that this may not be the best pro for you.

That's not the only reason you should consider laying off your financial counselor. When you ask questions of your pro, do you understand the answers? When you ask for clarification, does the subsequent explanation make more sense? If not, you might want to start interviewing other candidates.

Another warning sign is if a life insurance salesperson seeks out your business offering a free consultation. No, thank you. Trust us on that one.

Unless you are specifically looking for stock picks, be wary of an advisor who is preoccupied with them -- especially if they generate commission income by getting you to actively trade. Also, any discussion of investments should involve risk. If you hear the words "Sure thing" or are offered "exclusive access" to an investment, run, do not walk, towards the Exit sign.

Any person who provides financial planning services and manages investment assets of $25 million or more has to file Form ADV with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Those who manage less than $25 million in assets must disclose similar information with their own state's security agency.) Along the same lines, any professional who sells securities will have a Central Registration Depository (CRD) file. It gives you a 10-year history of the provider, including any disciplinary actions taken against that person. What if the individual provider or firm principal is not registered with the SEC or the state securities agency? See the last sentence of the previous paragraph, and do it in double time.

Your use of a financial pro also comes down to dollars and cents. If you don't have a lot of money, and your finances are not very complex, you probably do not need a full-blown, detailed financial plan or historical tax audit in exchange for $2,000 of your meager savings. And if you are looking to buy simple financial products, such as term life or automobile insurance, you can more easily and effectively research and purchase them online. The fees you would pay to a financial planner for these services are a waste of money.

Welcome advice
Let's re-tool the scenario we started with. It's the end of December and as you're shopping for stocking stuffers you consider the gift of college savings for your kids. Is there anything you should do right now before the calendar year ends? You decide to consult a financial planner, who, after explaining her fee structure, asks you lots of questions about the black-and-white financial aspects of your life and then delves into some of your less-tangible money wishes for the future.

Using the information you've given her, she prints out various college savings scenarios and specific account options, including fees, advantages, and disadvantages. She tells you that you have a few weeks to make a decision based on this fiscal year, and advises you to take a little time to review your options. She also notes that there are a few year-end tax moves that would be advantageous.

There are times in life when a second opinion is especially welcome: when dealing with estate issues after the death of a parent, handling complicated stock option decisions, making sure that your kids (not Uncle Sam) are the major beneficiaries of your estate. Do the right reconnaissance, and you'll find the financial professional or service that is right for you.

Shhhh, don't tell, but Dayana Yochim plans to get all of her family members subscriptions to TMF Money Advisor for their birthdays.