Financial planning means to set goals for attaining financial independence, and financial independence means to take control of your own life: Your decisions may depend on external factors, but no one makes those decisions except you.

Given those definitions and with nothing less at stake than how you will live the rest of your life, when and where do you start the monumental undertaking of financial planning?

"Attaining financial independence is a growing process. It's an educational process people need to start optimally when they're young adults, but certainly when their own 'clock' says they're ready," says financial consultant Susan Eisenberg of Chevy Chase.

That's simple, of course; simple and difficult.

"That's a huge first step," Eisenberg says. "How long it takes to get to that point of saying to yourself, 'I've got to do something about this!' Then the amount of time and energy it takes to find out where to go and what to do . . . in itself is a major commitment.

"Many people almost can't think about it. Just the thought of it becomes overwhelming. 'I need to do something, but where do I go, what do I do, who do I talk to?' ".

When your financial alarm clock rings, you can put yourself in a productive frame of mind, Eisenberg believes, by thinking of yourself as a business, with profits to be made and goals to reach.

Then find what Eisenberg calls your comfort level, that point where what you want to attain financially and what you are willing to risk to attain it mesh.

When you are comfortable with the idea of transferring some part of your cash into a different type of investment, into a different type of asset, whether it be long-term or short-term, then you're ready to make your plans, Eisenberg says.

You're ready, but you admit you don't know everything about planning for financial independence. So you seek out a professional -- a stock broker, accountant, attorney, financial planner.

"When you don't have the background and experience yourself, you need someone to tell you 'That's an alternative' or 'These are your choices.' " Eisenberg says. "Financial management consultants don't give answers. They give alternatives.

"One thing I make very clear with clients: When they come to me, they are making the decisions. What they retain me to do is to share with them their alternatives, give them the pros and cons of the alternatives they have . . . help them respond to the profitability of each alternative.

"What I do is similar to what a superstructure does. Something else is doing all the work, but it's just there for that little extra support."

She helps people seeking to plan their financial futures "get in touch with their comfort level, based on the alternatives they have" financially. "Then they're home free. Then it's their responsibility, and usually their pleasure, to make the decisions," she says.

"The people I work with want to have a little more control over their decisions and their investments . . . All I do is offer some professional support."

One of the first actions Eisenberg and many financial consultants insist a client take is to put themselves on paper.

"There are many times I have met with people who say, 'But I don't have anything; I don't have assets. Where would I begin?' And I recommend the exercise -- it's a good one -- of putting yourself on paper.

"Usually those same people are extremely surprised at what they do have . . . a car . . . a boat . . . a retirement plan where they work . . . a whole-life insurance policy. There are things that they don't perceive to be assets or . . . capable of liquidation," Eisenberg says.

She studies the technical aspects of the client's situation, the tax picture and cash-flow picture. Then she comes up with alternatives that will lessen the tax bite and maintain relatively low risk. "I look at what you have now and where you can best put what you have now to get the most out of it as quickly as possible.

"You can start in the stock market, you can start in the real estate business or you can start in the interest-bearing accounts," Eisenberg says. "Cash is the lowest-risk asset you can hold. Anywhere you go from there, you're going up the risk ladder." But it has to be a comfortable climb, she reminds.

And you don't have to be a financial wizard to have realistic plans for your financial future, whether future means next year or in 40 years. But Eisenberg emphasizes you have to evaluate what is being done for you by the professional you consult.

"You have to take that bottom-line responsibility," she says. "You have the lawyer or accountant or stock broker or financial consultant . . . You have to keep them honest. You can't allow them to make decisions for you.

"What you can allow them to do is to give you the full range of your alternatives and what each alternative means to you and for you. Use their skills to help you come up with the best alternative.

"That's what you use professionals for. What I see as the shortcoming of so many people who are starting to plan is that they use professionals to tell them what to do, rather than use them as this resource bank . . . so that the investor can make the decision," Eisenberg says.

"What happens at the end -- if in fact the person has allowed the professional to make the decision -- if it's the wrong decision, that person has no recourse. The lawyer, or the accountant or the stock broker says, 'I'm sorry. I made a mistake.'

"Better you make your own mistakes. People know instinctively what they can live with," she says.

"When you make a finacial decision after you've gotten all your data and you know what your risk factor is, and you still want to do it, you're your own person. If it loses, you can still say to yourself, 'I did the best I could'," Eisenberg says.

"I think making your own financial decisions enhances your position of taking responsibility for your own actions, and that's the name of the financial game."