Over the past several years, few new players in the financial planning space have developed innovative software. Instead, innovation has mostly come from more established names, such as MoneyGuidePro, Finance Logix and Advicent (which makes NaviPlan).

So it’s refreshing to see a small startup, Advizr, enter the fray with a somewhat fresh approach to financial planning. Advizr aims to simplify the planning process, making it accessible to a wide range of financial service professionals while keeping costs low.

The Advizr interface is clean and simple, similar in some respects to the type of design favored by consumer-facing online advisors. The landing page clearly focuses on business growth opportunities; several gray boxes at the top provide such crucial information, including number of plans created, rollover assets, insurance and rollover opportunities, and potential income generation.

Below the boxes you’ll find a list of top clients by assets, and top life insurance and asset-gathering opportunities. The left navigation area has a list of recently accessed clients, a client-search bar and a button to add clients.

There are two ways to begin the planning process: Advisors can enter the data themselves, or generate an email invite to the client, who would then use the link to set goals and enter data. For this discussion, let’s assume the advisor is entering all data.

After you hit the add-client button and enter the name, an easy-to-follow new-client wizard is launched. It asks who the plan is for (client, spouse or partner, family member), then requests the name, date of birth and gender of each family member. Next, you’re asked to describe the client’s investment style (conservative, moderately conservative, moderate, moderately aggressive and aggressive). For each style, the software provides a brief description.

SELECTING GOALS

You then select goals for the financial plan. If you are creating a plan for a couple, goals are limited to retirement and life insurance. If you choose a family plan, you can create an education goal for each child.

The wizard then gathers the data it needs to complete the goals.

If there’s an education goal, you’re asked the desired type (community college, technical school, in-state/out-of-state public school, Ivy League). You’re also asked to submit the child’s age at enrollment.

The next step is data gathering. You’re prompted to type in the name of a financial institution, then the type of account, current balance and monthly contributions. For employer-sponsored plans such as 401(k)s, provide any match, along with match limitations. You can also earmark an account for a certain goal, or allow the application to allocate it as needed.

During my trial, all data were entered manually, but the page was clearly designed for aggregation.

Next, add personal loans, if any. Three types of loans are permitted from the drop-down menu: installment, line of credit and education. For each, the application requires type of loan, account holder, balance, monthly payment, interest rate and end date.

Next, enter any real estate owned. You provide a name, usage (personal or investment), owner and market value. You’re also asked to provide mortgage type (most common mortgage types are available from the drop-down list), outstanding balance, monthly payment and loan origination date.

For life insurance, provide insured and type (whole or term). If term, you enter the term, year purchased and amount; if whole, enter amount and cash value.

Entering earnings requires just a few keystrokes: Select the earner from a drop-down list, enter the salary and any bonus/commissions and select an associated retirement account from the list, if applicable. Any pensions are added next.

ON TO EXPENSES

Then, after state and filing status, the tool prompts you for expenses. There are two options here: Estimate total monthly expenses or provide a detailed list. If you choose the latter, a worksheet appears with all major expense categories. All that’s required is a number for the applicable ones.

That completes data entry. My sample case comprised education for two children and retirement for a couple. To see how smart the system was, I intentionally entered a college start age for one of the children that was younger than the child’s actual age. A red warning popped up on the screen, alerting me to the error, but there was no link to the data field that required correction, which would be optimal.

At the top of the calibrate section, three boxes indicate free cash flow amount, allocated cash flow and remaining cash (if any). Below are goals, with associated graphs and sliders.

The application automatically adds an emergency fund goal. To test the impact, you can allocate all free cash flow for a year to the emergency fund by moving the slider or typing the amount into the emergency fund box. When I did this, the application immediately said I would end up with about three months of cash reserves for my test case.

The calibrate section is interactive, so advisor and client can experiment in real time with different ways of allocating the available cash flow for the desired result. In my sample case, problems were immediately evident. The client had no emergency fund, and retirement and education were underfunded. I decided the client could establish a line of credit through a reverse mortgage in case of emergency, and opted to devote more cash toward retirement.

In my original scenario, the goal was only 36% funded to age 85, and the default Advizr recommendation for additional retirement saving only boosted it to 62%. If you can’t achieve all goals with the parameters originally set, you can edit the goal assumptions. I pushed back the retirement date for both spouses and lowered the acceptable income goal from 120% of current living expenses to 100%, for instance, and was able to fully fund the goal until age 97. With a few tweaks to education objectives, and through trial and error playing with the sliders, I achieved all goals.

Once you’ve settled on the cash flow allocation, you move to the asset-allocation screen, which separately identifies the allocation for each goal. Since I had chosen a moderately aggressive investment style, all goals initially had assets allocated to that model. However, by selecting a different model from the drop-down menu, I could still achieve one or more goals with less market risk.

The final step is to review and certify the plan. Each goal is listed, with the graph of current vs. recommended scenarios, suggested asset allocation and any proposed additional savings. The program can generate action steps and recommend lifestyle changes. Advisors can edit action items although, curiously, they can’t change lifestyle recommendations.

MUCH TO LIKE

Overall, there is much to like about Advizr. The clean, intuitive interface is easy to use for both advisors and clients. It should also appeal to those looking to leverage financial planning to build their business, and I expect pricing to be highly competitive.

There are weaknesses, however. The planning process is very much automated, and while that is a strength of the product, it can also produce unintended consequences or counterintuitive results.

An example of this was my experience with the education goal. When I reduced the education savings, my retirement success rates declined. This only made sense once I realized those education savings were being applied to retirement automatically after the college goal was attained. Competent advisors will understand this, but it may be difficult for a less experienced hand, and a client trying this without an advisor will likely come away puzzled. The folks at Advizr did say they’re working on an update that should clarify the methodology and give users more control over cash flow.

The Advizr defaults are also not always ideal. To cite one example, the retirement goal set 65 as the default age for both spouses. I suggested to Advizr that full Social Security retirement age might be more appropriate.

I had similar objections to the limited number of retirement expense options available. Currently, there is no provision to adjust expenses upon the death of a spouse.

And the insurance section is somewhat sparse. I would expect to enter the premiums associated with the policies on the insurance page and have them carry over to the expenses, but that’s not how it works. The choice of policies is also limited. This could likely easily be altered for an enterprise installation, but there are no known immediate plans to do so for the regular version.

In all fairness, Advizr, like any firm producing financial planning software, faces tough decisions. The more you simplify the process and automate, the fewer options you can usually provide to the end user. The more functions you add and options you provide, the more complex the calculations and the longer it takes to produce a plan.

Advizr has other impediments to wide adoption. To minimize data entry (a primary selling point) and maximize efficiency, they must build integration with major custodians, CRM providers and portfolio management providers.

Finally, Advizr is not the only firm striving to provide a simple, cost-effective, basic financial planning application to the masses. Finance Logix produces a fine basic retirement product. Advisor Software produces goalgamiPro. Advicent offers Profiles LEADS generator. And MoneyGuidePro is planning a product that targets the mass market.

Still, despite some rough edges and capable competition, Advizr offers a compelling user experience. It’s not the best tool for serious, comprehensive planners who serve high-net-worth clients, but it does have appeal for those who want to quickly produce basic plans for mass-market clients.

Joel Bruckenstein, a Financial Planning columnist, is co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today conference series and technology guides for advisors. For more information, visit JoelBruckenstein.com or follow him on Twitter at @FinTechie.

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