If the economic meltdown has taught us anything, it is to be in better control of our money. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

“It’s never too late, and it’s never too soon,” says Annika Ferris, CFP, CIMA, and partner at Brightworth, an independent wealth management firm that serves entrepreneurs and high net-worth families and individuals. “Really, as soon as you start earning money you should be figuring out what to do with it. It can be a short-term goal, such as saving for three years to buy a car, or long-term goals like retirement. But working with a financial planner is a good way to help you implement your goals.”

Donna G. Barwick, J.D., CFP, and senior fiduciary officer for Wilmington Trust, one of the nation’s leading wealth management companies, says that it’s a common misperception that only rich people need planners. “Yes, there are those in the high income brackets that need a comprehensive financial plan that covers budgets, retirement, estate planning, income tax strategies and other issues,” she says. “[Of course,] not everyone needs such a comprehensive financial plan but they can still use the services of a financial planner.”

So even if you’re not Donald Trump, what can a financial planner do for you?

First off, a planner will help you get on a budget — and stay on it, Ferris says. “So many people don’t know where their money is going, and that’s because they don’t have a plan. A planner also will help implement an investment strategy. The general wisdom was that everyone needs about three to six months of cash for unforeseen circumstances,” she continues. “[But] I think now, it’s better to plan for a year.”

In addition to having liquid cash on hand, it’s important to start building a nest egg. Where and how money will be invested depends on each person’s individual situation, she says. “You need short-term investments such as money market funds or CDs or a combination of both. And then for long-term goals like retirement, you should look into stocks, mutual funds, bonds.”

Of course, many would say that short of keeping your money under your mattress, investing any money is a gamble. While that may not be exactly true, a financial planner will help determine how much risk you’re able to bear. The general rule is the greater the risk, the greater the return. Knowing how much you can lose would have saved a lot of people – middle class and rich – these last couple of years.

Financial planners also may help with taxes, by informing you of  little-known tax deductions or deferrals, such as IRA and annuities, as well as helping to set up a charitable giving strategy. Ferris says, “People want to give some of their money to their favorite causes and [they] can do that even if [they] don’t have millions.”

Barwick says that it is as important — if not more — to correctly choose a financial planner as it is to decide on a financial plan. “Everyone should have a financial plan,” she says. “So the issue becomes do you need a financial planner who sets up a comprehensive plan and monitors it for you or do you need a basic plan that you will manage yourself? And, then you need to know about the planner’s compensation. It’s very important for a person to understand how his or her planner is being compensated. It could be fee-based or a flat charge, or you could be dealing with someone who makes money by selling you products. There’s a big ethical debate in the industry about compensation.”

In addition to understanding how the planner is compensated, Barwick suggests doing some research on the planner, including getting recommendations. “Find out the person’s background and what professional licenses and designations they have. If all those people who lost millions with Bernie Madoff had just scratched the surface a little bit, they would have seen that a certified CPA firm didn’t audit his reports. That should have told them something. Use common sense.”

Both women agree that it is beneficial to meet with a planner early on and to put together a financial outline that will grow and be ready for execution, when needed.

“As soon as you start a job, you start making choices about your retirement, your life insurance and your 401K, because it’s part of the benefit package,” says Barwick. “You really are planning your financial future from that point on. Everyone needs to pay attention to their money.”

And, with a proper plan, one doesn’t need a lot of money to create wealth. “Do you know how much a dollar compounded over a number of years turns out to be?” Ferris asks. “You’d be surprised.”

Mary Welch is a freelance writer whose work appears in a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was editor-in-chief of Atlanta Woman magazine and editor of Business to Business and Catalyst magazines.