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They're the Web children of talk radio's investor call-in programs: online sites that offer free or low-cost personalized advice on taxes, investments, and financial planning. If you're financially savvy, these online advisers can help you make decisions without a trip to the accountant, attorney, or broker.
At Quicken.com, free message boards on personal finance are patrolled by prescreened moderators. Paid a nominal hourly rate, they start discussions and offer answers to questions on anything from saving for college to capital-gains taxes. Brian Borawski, a certified public accountant in Detroit who has been a Quicken moderator for a year, says he signed on because he was thinking of starting his own practice and thought he might drum up some business. He has taken a corporate job since joining Quicken. But he says he has stuck with the site because it "keeps me on my toes." In one posting entitled "My granddad is a sugar daddy now," one person asks what could happen to his grandfather's estate now that he's remarried to a woman 25 years his junior. A Quicken moderator with the handle QcomMiriam tells him that as long as his grandfather has not remade his will since his remarriage, his estate most likely will go to his offspring.
If message boards aren't your style, Errold Moody Jr., a financial planner and former University of California professor, has set up a virtual library and free advice service. At www.efmoody.com, you'll find around 1,000 pages of financial information, links, financial quizzes, and investment calculators, sprinkled with heavily opinionated advice to consumers. "There never has been, nor is there currently, any reason for ever buying an investment or insurance at a bank," he writes in one essay. Moody, who says he "doesn't think much of most financial planners," set up the site to "point people in the right direction" and "make them read and think." The ex-professor answers specific e-mailed questions on 401(k)s and other financial topics. But he declines to give specific investment recommendations unless you become a paying customer of his financial-planning practice. "I won't give investment advice to anyone I don't know," he says.
E-mail is also at the heart of Expert-central.com, where nearly 700 finance experts are available, and answers are provided overnight. Users rate the experts' answers on a scale of one to five, and the site has 6,300 more professionals advising on everything from pit bulls to prostate cancer.
Specific questions are answered for free--though responses may differ if you ask more than one expert. I asked three top-rated advisers: "What's a safe five-year investment that can be cashed out at the end for a home downpayment?" One recommended a Janus or Fidelity stock-mutual fund, the second a stock-and-bond fund, and the third suggested savings bonds. And each one provided detailed reasons. If you want more complicated advice, say, on writing a will, Expertcentral's advisers may charge you a fee. But the charge generally will be lower than what they would charge clients in person.
Expertcentral CEO Greg Schmergel, a former Bain & Co. strategy consultant, says some of his online experts have signed up to gain exposure for their businesses. But a "surprising" number sign on for "purely altruistic reasons," such as a retired Internal Revenue Service agent who now gives tax advice. Although the site screens experts' resumes, it doesn't do more thorough background checks.
As with any planner or accountant, there's always a risk that you could get the wrong advice. To reassure questioners that they're talking to a professional, most of the advisers at Expertcentral and Quicken provide real names and a summary of their professional experience. But will sites like these ultimately reduce the need for in-person financial consulting? Not necessarily, says Jeanne A. Robinson, a Doylestown (Pa.) certified financial planner. She says that with "so much information out there," some clients still need help sorting it out. But for anyone who is past the sorting-out stage, these sites can cut down on the need to pick up the phone or get in the car. And they're a lot easier on your wallet.