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Three Free Financial-Planning Tools

Online financial-planning tools are getting more personal. Plenty of Web sites crank out cookie-cutter plans, but three recent entrants give users more detailed advice. Voyant, SimpliFi and ESPlannerBasic provide something more than a quick-and-dirty look at your financial state of affairs -- for free.

These three sites cannot replace the personalized service of a financial planner, but they are helpful to most investors. You can use them to get a general idea of your finances and benchmark your progress without shelling out thousands of dollars for a session with an adviser. Those who use an adviser can treat the sites as a way to double-check their adviser's plans.

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VOYANT

PROS: Voyant is the best of the bunch. Its slick interface lets you map your financial goals, such as buying a home or saving for your kids' college, along an interactive timeline. It takes less than five minutes to enter the information needed to create a graphic display of your expected income and retirement savings.

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You can test what-if scenarios quickly without entering much new information. For example, you can easily adjust the growth-rate assumptions of your investment portfolio with a sliding bar on the right side of the planning tool. Most calculators make you plug in a different rate each time you want to test a new scenario. Voyant also supplies a menu of events, such as starting a business or having a child, to see how those decisions will affect your finances.

CONS: But some of Voyant's premade options are a little too cute. For instance, you click on an icon of a sports car to "plan" a midlife crisis. (If you could prepare for such a scenario, it wouldn't be a crisis.)

No Web site would be complete nowadays without an attempt at social networking -- in this case, a feeble one. Voyant lets you communicate with other users on the site's forums. A button on the tool lets you contact financial advisers who use Voyant's planning software. (The site is still struggling to sign up advisers. When I pushed the button, I was told "financial professionals" in my area -- Washington D.C. -- were not available for an online chat.)

SIMPLIFI

PROS: As the name suggests, SimpliFi is not complicated. The site does a decent job at the broad strokes of financial planning. Spend a couple of minutes entering your data and you get a snapshot of how your goals match up with your savings and investments. An animated guide named Sophie grades your financial well-being from A to F. SimpliFi provides a suggested investment mix for your portfolio and a to-do list for other financial tasks, such as paying down debt or buying insurance.

CONS: SimpliFi's advice is spotty in some areas. The site makes a big deal about its status as an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but its investing guidance is generic. Plus, it recommended that my wife and I buy term life insurance even though we have no children, no debt and more than enough savings to cover a funeral if one of us meets an untimely end.

ESPLANNERBASIC

PROS: ESPlannerBasic tackles financial planning from a different direction than the other sites. Instead of letting you set your own goals and working backward, the site asks you a series of questions to determine how much you can spend each year without compromising your lifestyle in retirement. The questionnaire takes about 30 minutes to complete. The site then generates annual spending, savings and life-insurance recommendations.

CONS: ESPlannerBasic's drab interface, similar to Microsoft Excel's, makes using this tool a chore. Plus, you have to estimate obscure statistics on your own, such as your salary in the year before retirement. (How many Gen Xers know that figure?) Granted, ESPlannerBasic is the bare-bones free version -- the advanced copy has more features, including Monte Carlo simulations to forecast various investment scenarios. But after slogging through the basic tool, I don't want to pay $149 for ESPlanner.


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