More Americans than ever are seeking out the services of financial planners. But how do you find one who's any good?

There is no easy answer, no secret phone number to call. It makes me nervous even to offer guidelines, because of the wide range of competence and honesty within the field.

So call these merely "general ideas," for evaluating the planners you come across.

(1) Anyone can be a financial planner. There are no tests to pass, no educational requirements to meet. So ask a planner: What's your background?

Some schools give certificates in financial planning, most notably the College For Financial Planning in Denver. (the Certified Financial Planner designation, or CFP) and The American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. (the Chartered Financial Consultant designation, or ChFC).

These diplomas indicate that the planner has taken a variety of courses in such things as taxes, insurance, investments and estate planning, and should have more general knowledge than planners who haven't. But a degree is only a starting point. It doesn't say whether the planner is any good.

Some stockbrokers and insurance agents have reprinted their business cards to read "financial planner," but still focus on selling stocks and insurance policies. Some certified public accountants do financial planning. They're good for clients who need help principally with budgeting and tax planning.

The International Association for Financial Planning (Two Concourse Parkway, Suite 800, Atlanta, Ga. 30328) has a free registry of 814 planners in 45 states who, it says, have met high standards of competence.

But be warned: Even though they may know how to draw plans, they are not necessarily free from conflicts of interest. Most planners make their living by selling you things, which may color their judgment as to what you need.

If you want a planner for investment advice, choose one who is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as an investment adviser, and ask for a copy of his or her registration form (the ADV form, in two parts). Among other things, it gives you the planner's background and investment methods. Investors should stay away from unregistered planners.

(2) If the planner gives you little more than a list of investments or other products to buy, you are in the wrong place.

A good planner starts with your budgeting process, shows you how to save more money, advises that you set aside a reasonable portion of your money in no-risk investments like Treasury bills or bank CDs, protects you with low-cost life and disability insurance, advises against excessive debt, sends you to a specialist for such things as advanced estate planning, helps you plan for specific expenditures like college tuition and only then starts talking about other investments.

Many planners love to sell partnerships in real estate, oil, agriculture and other industries. One big reason: They love the fees they get for selling them. If your planner represents these deals as high yield and low risk, you are talking to the wrong person. Partnership investments are fraught with risk, especially for people who will need their capital back within a few years. This is the last kind of investment to buy, not the first.

(3) Ask the planner: How are you paid? Some charge you for the plan itself (maybe $250 to $500 or more). Some don't. In either case, they probably receive fees or commissions for selling you products. That's a built-in conflict of interest customers should always be aware of and a planner should fully disclose in your first meeting.

A few planners take no commissions, charging only for their advice. They should be the most objective. In most cases, however, their fees are high, so they're generally for clients with larger amounts of money.

Unfortunately, you cannot always believe a planner who tells you that he or she earns nothing by selling you products. He may say that you pay no commission for your mutual funds, insurance policies or limited partnerships. But in place of commissions, the planner earns fees that you, of course, finance. So the conflict of interest is still there; it's just hidden.

Always be willing to walk away, even if you've paid $500 for a plan. If the advice is bad, or you're being deceived about commissions, that planner will cost you a lot more before you're through.

(4) Finally, educate yourself before you go to a planner. The more you know, the better you can evaluate advice. It's an illusion to think you can dump your financial affairs into someone else's lap and get good results.