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Pssst! Wanna Know a Secret about CE Credits?

This simple but seldom-followed guideline can revolutionize your continuing education experience.

David J. Drucker, 09/21/2006

We all need them--continuing education credits, that is.

We all need other commodities, too--groceries, gasoline, and other goods. Yes, I think of CE credits as commodities, consumed in the form of hours. And like most commodities, we should seek the lowest price. (Sure, there are some differences in quality, but the analogy works well.)

The cost of this particular commodity is time and money. We can't just pay for CEs because they are always accompanied by a time requirement. We must sit in a conference session or take an exam, making some expenditure of time to justify the award of one hour of CE credit, even though we also paid money for this good.

So seeking the lowest price means buying the CE credits that make the lowest demands on both our wallets and our time.

I think I hear the purists among you starting to squirm in your seats a bit. It sounds untraditional and maybe even a bit unprofessional to approach CEs as a mere shopping experience, right? Not at all.

Just consider the whole professional conference experience and how most advisors approach it. Three things happen at conferences: 1) you attend technical sessions that earn you CEs; 2) you attend practice management or technology sessions that earn you few if any CEs; and 3) you network in the hallways, which definitely earns you no CEs.

Yet, for all but the newest of advisors, the quality of the conference experience is indirectly related to the amount of the CEs he earns. What I mean is that veteran advisors almost invariably say they learn more comparing notes with their peers in between sessions than they do attending sessions. And providing the next greatest value for the veteran advisor is practice management sessions. Why? Because you already know how to incorporate GRATs, CRUTs, IRAs, ETFs, LLCs, IRDs, and AMTs into your financial planning for clients. Going to enough technical sessions to get all the CE credits we need means going to sessions to hear things we already know.

Some people don't mind. In fact, they'll only attend a conference if it offers lots of CE credits. Forget that the conference might offer a much more valuable experience if the whole CE thing could just be managed more intelligently. This is, by the way, a problem for presenters and conference organizers as well as advisors. When advisors demand CE credits, presenters of "soft" information are forced to skew their talks away from their real topics, and conference organizers are forced to include sessions on topics attendees could just as well learn by picking up a book. If it's a general conference that has multiple tracks--most of them on technical topics--the CEs aren't a problem for conference organizers; but try to do something a little out of the ordinary, like a conference that focuses primarily on practice management or technology, and attendees' demands for CEs just get plain annoying.

So here's a different way to think about CEs, not to mention an infinitely cheaper way to buy them. There's knowledge you need to run an advisory practice and serve your clients. And there are CE credits representing the knowledge you need to keep your credentials. The two aren't always the same. So get the CEs you need and get the knowledge you need but don't necessarily try to do both at the same time.

Here's how I do it. Every month, I read professional journals (which I would do anyway), and I take the CE exams at the end of each journal. You can't beat the price (free), and the time commitment is not all that great (you do know how to speed-read, don't you?). If you take, say, four exams a month, that's 48 CE credits a year. Think that will hold you?

Next, you figure out what knowledge you need. Let's see, I've been in the biz for 20 years, so my requirements are about 20% technical (new stuff and brushing up), 60% practice management, and 20% peer interaction. Where can I best get these--monthly FPA chapter meetings, NAPFA study group meetings, regional conferences, annual conferences? I look at the prices and the content of the conferences available to me and I choose a few each year--based not on the CEs I need, but on the knowledge I need. I might also buy a few books instead of going to a conference. Again, it's all based on where best to find the knowledge.

Once we all start doing this, conference organizers can put on the sessions they really want to put on, which we hope are the sessions we really want to go to. You can save a bunch of money and time getting CEs the smart way. And you may just spend a little more time reading those trade journals. There really is some good stuff in them occasionally.

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