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Free financial planning with no strings attached

Americans could all benefit from financial advice, but most don't want or can't afford to pay for it. But free assistance from financial planners -- who ordinarily may charge $150 or more per hour -- is available to just about anyone.

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Thousands of financial planners nationwide spend anywhere from a few hours a year to a few hours a month participating in seminars, clinics and even one-on-one consultations without charging a dime.

With financial how-to books and magazines jamming the shelves of bookstores, the scores of personal finance Web sites and the 24-hour parade of talking heads spouting advice on CNBC, you'd think we'd all be wizards when it comes to managing our finances. But by most measuring sticks, Americans are increasingly a mediocre bunch at saving and planning for immediate financial needs, much less future ones.

Financial-advice sessions conducted by financial planners are happening in places as small as libraries and community halls to giant civic centers and hotel ballrooms. In some cases those seeking advice must meet income restrictions, but, for the most part, the services are free for the general public.

These free sessions present a unique opportunity to ask questions specific to your needs. While some planners may ask that you stick to general questions, many will try to help you with information tailored to your situation. You won't walk away with a complete road map to financial bliss, but you could get on the right path to overcome one or, perhaps, more of the things that are tripping you up moneywise.

No pitching allowed
Don't expect to be fed and watered at these events. What we're talking about shouldn't be confused with offers you may receive in the mail: "Enjoy a steak dinner on us while we show you how to plan for your financial security!" No. By and large, the experts who present at these free seminars must pledge to not try to sell anything or to sign up participants as clients. In some cases they're prohibited from even handing out business cards.

"Our speakers are purely educational," says Heather Almand, spokeswoman for the Financial Planning Association, or FPA. "The planners sign a letter of agreement that they won't sell products and that they'll speak in an objective manner."

Ed Gjertsen, a Certified Financial Planner and vice president of Mack Investment Securities in Glenview, Ill., spends two hours each month at the local library doing two one-hour, one-on-one planning sessions.

"People can come in with any questions they want," he says. "That keeps me on my toes. Questions range from 'What's the importance of investing in a 401(k)?' to 'I have a sick mother, what do I do?'

"I enjoy it. You meet a lot of interesting people and it reinforces my mission, if you will, of trying to get financial planning out there as much as possible. The fact that everyone needs it is never more clear than when you sit and talk with people."

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