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Online Financial Planning Services Taking Off

A growing number of websites is offering consumers tools for budgeting, goal planning, and investment trading. A few of these personal financial management (PFM) sites are drawing big numbers of clients.

Personal financial management doesn’t happen only in advisors’ offices anymore. There is a growing number of websites that offer consumers tools for budgeting, goal planning, and investment trading—sites with whimsical names like Bundle, Rudder, Wesabe, Geezeo, Greensherpa, and Smartypig. A few of these personal financial management (PFM) sites are drawing big numbers., a money management site that was bought last year by Intuit Inc. (the producers of TurboTax and Quicken spreadsheet programs), reports more than 1 million users. And while financial advisors are hardly likely to be replaced by such technology, industry observers say, advisors should consider incorporating similar web applications into their practices.

“It’s a real good sign that people are becoming more aware of the need to actively manage their finances,” says Bryan Link, chief executive and co-founder of SimpliFi LLC, which developed the PFM site “It creates a big opportunity for financial advisors who have tech-savvy clients to talk to them about this and use it as a way to inform the financial planning process. We are firmly on the same side of the table with advisors. A financial plan is what you should do first in terms of defining your goals, and then build a budget to support those goals, rather than the bottom-up approach which is, ‘Let’s take a look at how we’re spending our money and then we’ll try to tweak that and shoehorn it into what we want to do.’ That’s the tail wagging the dog.”

Neal Ringquist, president and chief operating officer of Advisor Software Inc. in Lafayette, Calif., sees investors heading to PFM websites in larger numbers. He says smartphone sales alone will grow at a compound annual rate of 21 percent through 2013, while global Internet traffic will rise 38 percent. People already are paying bills online from the convenience of the train they’re riding to work. “It argues for a multi-media strategy, the combination of Web and phone,” Ringquist says. “Advisors can take on many more clients if they can serve their clients more efficiently. And clients would prefer to see performance information, goal-based information, pushed out to them that they can access on demand.”

Advisor Software has a big stake in the trend. In March it launched, a free website that helps users set financial objectives and evaluate their progress by tracking the state of their household balance sheets. Ringquist describes it as “a missionary project to promote goal-based investing,” but he also hopes to market it to financial services companies in connection with a wealth management software program that the company has developed. Using a balance sheet as a starting point for reaching investment goals has certain advantages over the traditional risk tolerance questions that advisors pose to their clients, he says; the balance sheet shows how much risk you can actually afford to take, as opposed to risk that an investor is psychologically prepared to take. The exercise can help advisors better understand their customers, too, Ringquist adds. “As opposed to just having them fill out a risk tolerance questionnaire, maybe they could have a client build a balance sheet, print out the report, and then come and sit down. Isn’t that a better way to know your client?”

Just as individuals are seeking medical information online so they can ask more informed questions of doctors, investors are pursuing the same track just before their annual reviews with their advisors, Ringquist says. Sometimes investors are too embarrassed to ask questions of advisors, and working issues out on line becomes a less threatening substitute.

“We’re not trying to sell you anything,” Link says. “You don’t have to worry about being judged by anybody for not knowing what asset allocation models you should use. I think there’s a lot of psychological appeal to that.” About 80 percent of gosimplifi’s users are women; Link thinks the site’s demographics trend that way partly because women are running household finances more often than their spouses, but also because women are more honest about their lack of knowledge about financial issues. “It is a well-known male-driven business. It’s about beating the market,” Link says. “It’s a business built on technical expertise with a lot of jargon. It has a lot of things that scare people, not really understanding what this stuff is about, and being fearful about being taken advantage of.”

At the end of the day, however, most users of PFM sites are not consumers whose business is being sought by advisors, Link says. Average household income for gosimplifi users runs about $85,000, “solidly middle class” but not high net worth, he says.

“It’s called wealth management for a reason. It implies that you have some wealth to manage. Most of the folks that use our service are not ideal prospects for financial planners…It pretty much means if you make $75,000, $80,000 a year, and your don’t have a big kitty already saved up, you’re not really in that target market.”

Because the company is trying to serve what Link calls “the big middle,” gosimplifi has something else in common with RIAs; it’s a registered investment advisor with the SEC. Its Form ADV is posted on the site. “There’s not very many of us, but I firmly believe that as time goes on, there will be more. I’ve actually gotten a lot of inquiries, particularly over the last six months, from traditional advisors who are looking for ways to broaden their service platform, looking for ways to serve some of their lower-wealth clients, or the children of their clients. They recognize there’s a natural limitation in terms of how many clients you can actually serve,” Link says. Gosimplifi, in his view, is less competitive with the FA market than it is complimentary, although he adds. “Not all advisors believe me when I say that.”

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