For some people, mainly top executives of America's largest corporations, the services of financial planners are one of those ''perquisites,'' or special privileges, like private dining rooms and country club memberships, that automatically come with the job.
Now, many other Americans are finding out how useful they can be.
If they are good enough, they can turn an ordinary savings plan into a complex, effective investment system that leaves the lightest possible tax burden and ensures financial security throughout the client's life.
While many financial planners still concentrate their firepower on the highest-income echelons, a growing number are reaching down to people of more modest incomes.
But not too modest. ''I think $20,000 (annual income) may be a bit low,'' said Paul Meyer, coordinator of the financial planning program at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. ''At that level, you can't do too much with strategies for estate planning, pensions, and tax avoidance. It's at $30,000 and up that people have the extra income.''
Even this level, however, seems to be enough to push the profession into a fast-growth mode. While the Boston Yellow Pages listed only about a dozen financial planners five years ago, there are more than 100 today. The story is pretty much the same in every other large city.
Many of the people calling themselves financial planners, however, are actually doing this as a sideline to another full-time, possibly related, profession. They may be insurance salesmen, stockbrokers, accountants, or lawyers.
''Probably 75 percent of the people who hold themselves out as financial planners are either in, or come from, the securities or insurance industries,'' says John Dixon, a financial planner in Boca Raton, Fla.
This does not automatically disqualify these people as effective financial planners; but one should be aware that for many in this group, selling another product or service is as important to them as devising a good financial plan.
How, then, does one go about finding a good financial planner?
If you start with those Yellow Pages listings, or talk to any planner you haven't met or heard about before, be prepared to ask a lot of questions over the phone before you agree to your first meeting with the planner.
1. What are your credentials? The planner should have satisfactory experience with a variety of investing programs. He should also have some form of education , apprenticeship, or other training in financial planning, and a list of references.
While many financial planners received on-the-job training, an increasing number are graduates of formal programs. In addition to Adelphi, there are programs at Brigham Young University, Boston University, San Diego State, Georgia State, Tulane, and the College of Financial Planning, a correspondence school in Denver.
2. What are your fees? If the planner charges by the hour, rates can vary (often from $50 to $100 an hour). Other planners charge no fee, but collect a commission on products, like insurance policies or securities they sell. Others do both, charging fees and collecting commissions. Fees for financial planning, by the way, are deductible from your income tax.
You should also ask if the planner charges for the first consulting session. Many -- even some who only charge by the hour - do not charge for this ''exploration'' session, in which they take a cursory look at your finances and see if there is anything they can do to help you. After all, if you absolutely cannot afford to do more than put a few dollars a week in some type of savings account, you don't have much use for a financial planner.
3. How is the plan put together? This process should include a financial profile questionnaire, a detailed financial analysis, and budget assistance. For the questionnaire, some planners will present you with a booklet that can be as much as 40 pages long. This is probably not necessary. After all, you're preparing a financial plan, not an autobiography. Four to six pages should be enough.
4. What continuing services are provided? Can you and the planner periodically update and make adjustments in your plan as your personal needs and the overall economy change? Does the planner charge for minor adjustments?
5. What kind of investments do you concentrate on? Some planners stick to energy investments, some like the overall stock market, others like real estate. A few, mainly those with several associates in the firm, have fairly good expertise available in a wide variety of investments; but you will find most planners have their ''favorite'' areas.
6. Finally, a question for yourself: Are you comfortable with this financial planner? This will have to be decided after a face-to-face interview, but if you cannot work comfortably with a specific planner, it will be hard to have confidence in his or her decisions. Checking with some of the planner's other clients should help answer this.
One thing to remember when looking for a planner is not to bare your finances to the first one you find. And don't go to one who promises you spectacular results to rescue you from economic uncertainty.
''The economy and taxes have become so complicated relative to 10 or 20 years ago,'' says Arthur Williams, president of Financial Strategies Corporation, a planning firm in Dayton, Ohio. ''As a result, people are feeling a deep sense of frustration. So they start grabbing at straws.''
After you have found your financial adviser, what should you expect in return?
* For many people, the beginning of a financial plan is the budget. If the planner can't find a way to help you save more or spend less, he's not going to be able to help you find money to invest. So a budgeting plan you can live with is as important as knowing what investment is about to take off.
* If the size and extent of your investments merit it, you should have your planner present you with an annual or semiannual balance sheet showing your net worth, including savings, assets, debts, and the cash value of investments and insurance.
* With all the changes in the tax laws, the planner should be up to date on the tax benefits of various investment plans, tax-sheltered retirement plans, and the best way to receive additional income for tax purposes.
* Those new tax laws also require a good background in estate planning. Should your spouse receive the entire estate? Would a trust be a better idea? Who will be the executor of the will? Is there a guardian for the children? What about charities or other nonprofit organizations that might be mentioned in a will? A financial planner should be able to help answer these questions or help you find someone who can.
* Your insurance coverage is one of the most important parts of your financial plan. This may include life, property, disability, and health insurance. Do you have enough insurance for now and the future? Maybe you have too much. Maybe you don't have the right kind of insurance and could get the same coverage for less money. The financial planner should be able to help you figure this out.