Recently I underwent that procedure no one my age likes to talk about. As much as I dreaded the actual exam, it was nothing compared to what I went through to get ready for it. Just seeing those words on the office door made me want to cut and run: Certified Financial Planner.

But we did it. We spent several hours planning our estate with a professional, which is a pleasant way to say we talked about getting old and dying.

Actually it wasn't that bad. In fact now that it's over I'm so glad we did the hardest thing of all: we showed up. We've taken those first difficult steps required to create a realistic plan that will allow us to live the second half of our lives with joy and peace instead of fear and dread. We know specifically what we have to do in the next ten years and as our son often quotes that great philosopher GI Joe, "Knowing is half the battle."

Here's the question that started the ball rolling: "When would you like to have the option to stop working?" Selecting a date in the future gave Planner Bill a frame of reference to begin creating a plan that will allow us to do that. We pulled out the documents he asked us to bring to our appointment. He did not gasp in horror or even chuckle. This was all business for him and exactly the non-emotional approach we needed.

We left with a sizable homework assignment. Our venerable Living Trust is in need of an overhaul. We have no disability or long-term care insurance. Our investments need re-allocation as we've been using that ever popular hit and miss approach of self-directed investing. But unlike before when I could not have held a conversation about these things, I'm ready to roll because we've added a valuable member to our team in Planner Bill.

Through this exercise I've learned there are basically three types of financial planners, the difference being the way the planner is paid.

Fee-only. This type of financial planner charges a set fee, charging either by the hour as an attorney would, or a flat fee like a doctor. You will have your initial meeting and then a follow-up appointment when the planner hands you the customized estate plan developed just for you. Then he walks away. It's up to you

to implement the plan, which can be daunting.

Fee-based. This type of planning is the same as the fee-only arrangement except for the part about having to implement it yourself. With a fee-based plan the up-front fee is usually less. This is the arrangement we have with Planner Bill. Once our plan is written it's ours and he will work with us to get everything in place, up and running. If in doing that we purchase financial products like insurance or investments through his firm, Planner Bill will earn commissions. But we are not committed to buying only through him.

Product-based. In this arrangement the planner does not charge an upfront fee, but receives all of his compensation through commissions on the financial products he recommends.

You may be years away from needing the services of a professional financial planner. But you can, and should, start getting ready for your appointment now.

Get out of debt. If you are carrying unsecured debt, this is the first thing any planner worth his door plaque will tell you: Get rid of your credit card and all other unsecured debt. Easier said than done? Maybe not. I can teach you how to get out of debt quickly and relatively painlessly. Go to www.cheapskatemonthly.com and click on "RDRP Calculator Demo."

Start saving. You will need a savings account with at least six months of living expenses in it. Start saving now even if you are in debt, even if you think you can't. You can. You have to!