Do You Really Need a Calculator for the CFP Board Exam?

Good to Know

We’re financial professionals, right? So let’s analyze the question posed in this article’s title. The CFP Board exam (the exam) consists of 170 questions. Anecdotally, the average exam has from 8 to 12 calculation questions which rank from moderately difficult to highly difficult. It’s been said (but not by us!) that studying calculations should not be a high priority. We could not disagree more and we’ll support that strongly held conviction as follows:

  • Calculation questions are not subjective,
  • It’s a huge risk to toss out 6% of your potential points,
  • CFP Board provides many formulas, and
  • There’s a core group of calculations that are frequently tested.

Calculation Questions Are Not Subjective

The answer is objectively obvious if one knows the calculation. In stark contrast, many of the non-calculation exam questions are nuanced. For example, you could see questions such as “Which of the following is the best approach?” All of the answer choices may be technically correct, but there’s a subtle nuance in the fact pattern that makes one of the choices a slightly better match for your client’s goals.

The Trouble With Tossing Away Points

If your exam has 10 calculation questions, that’s 6% of the 170 questions (scoring opportunities). It is rumored that the average passing score is between 70% and 80% although that is purely rumor—CFP Board assigns a passing score for each exam based on a number of factors relating primarily to competency in the content tested. But here’s what we do know—the points you score on calculation questions can mean the difference between passing or failing.

Core Group of Key Calculations

What is one of the top goals of young parents with children? Depending upon what survey you believe, about 8 of every 10 middle-to-high-income parents place saving for college as their first financial priority—even ahead of retirement savings! How about your middle-aged clients? Over two-thirds of middle-aged and older clients place retirement funding as their #1 priority.

Question: Do a majority of clients nearing retirement fear running out of money more than death?

Answer: Yes! Here’s a sobering observation—more than 6 of every 10 clients approaching retirement fear running out of money more than death itself!

It should come as no surprise that CFP Board is well aware of these imperative client goals. But what exactly does that mean for you? Do not be surprised to see college and retirement funding calculations on your exam. These formulas are not provided to you on the exam. For example, you’re expected to know:

  • How inflation and income taxes impact real return,
  • The pros and cons of the primary college and retirement savings strategies,
  • How to guide your client in selecting the most effective strategy for achieving their goals.

While no one can predict the exact topics or calculations you’ll be tested on, we believe that calculating the life insurance need, risk-adjusted return, investment risk measures, margin call price, and much more are also among the “must-know” calculations. Be aware that CFP Board provides certain formulas and tax information in appendices D and E of the CFP® EXAM CANDIDATE HANDBOOK. Although you won’t need to memorize the information in the appendices, you must know how to use it.

The Bottom Line

You’ll need a sound understanding of how to translate client goals into specific financial recommendations using calculations. Get that sound understanding through our CFP® Curriculum when you consider CFP® certification. You’ll discover a select few of the reasons our students’ pass rates are much higher than the national averages.


The information presented herein is provided purely for educational purposes and to raise awareness of these issues; it is not meant to provide and should not be used to provide legal, identity theft protection, investment, income tax, risk management, retirement, estate, or financial planning advice of any kind. An experienced and credentialed expert should be consulted before making decisions relating to the topics covered herein. There are variations, alternatives, and exceptions to this material that could not be covered within the scope of this blog.