Imagine meeting your doctor online for a virtual checkup. No sitting in traffic jams or languishing in waiting rooms strewn with three-month-old magazines and coughing babies. You buy into the process because it's simple and interactive. You're motivated to implement the lifestyle changes your doctor recommends. And, best of all, you could be in your bikini in Aruba or your bathrobe in Zanzibar.

The virtual house call from your doc may be a few years off, but the equivalent in financial planning has arrived. Once perceived as threatening, some feared the Web would make advisors obsolete. In fact, online collaboration may be just what the doctor ordered for these turbulent times. A soft stock market and post-September 11 soul-searching have forced many advisors to re-examine client relationships and find new ways of adding value. Like everyone else in America, clients are in more of a nesting mode these days

Online collaboration not only caters to clients by saving them a trip to an advisor's office, but it also allows advisors to retain clients anywhere in the world. That can expand an advisor's practice and even jack up its potential re-sale value. "The timing is right for these products," says Joel P. Bruckenstein, president of Global Financial Advisors Inc. in Miramar, Fla., and senior technology editor for "People have had life-altering experiences in the last few months and are ready to look at new ways of doing things."

At its most basic, online collaboration can simply be a matter of shuttling documents back and forth via e-mail and Excel spreadsheets. Clients often push for these paperless transactions, says Nancy Langdon Jones, of NLJones Inc. in Upland, Calif. This year, twice as many of her clients as last year use e-mail as their primary method of communication. After 18 years in business, she has taken on the second generation-her clients' children-who are more Internet-savvy and have helped inspire her move toward a paperless office.

In fact, Web publishing has been around for years, and many vendors now produce reports that can be shared online or delivered electronically. Tech-savvy advisors routinely have directed clients to their Web sites to read the latest newsletter or report. A pioneering online planning provider, Financeware ( of Richmond, Va., has signed up thousands of advisors in the past three years for its tools and document-management capabilities.

These days, even traditional companies are getting into the act. Morgan OnLine offers online advice for its affluent clients, who tend to be early adopters of technology. NaviPlan recently released its extended online version. Morningstar Workstation allows advisors to access client data on the road. And some advisors are using generic online meeting tools such as Collaborative Strategies ( and Power Meeting Online ( to communicate with clients.

Still, while many companies have tipped their hats to the online revolution, few have harnessed the power of the Web to create truly user-friendly environments. One company that has drawn rave reviews from advisors is MoneyGuidePro ( from PIE Technologies, a small software company in Midlothian, Va. The program is the first to deliver what the prophets of the profession have been preaching for years: an interactive financial planning program simple enough to appeal to clients yet sophisticated enough to satisfy advisors. Unlike most other planning programs that treat client goals in chronological order, MoneyGuidePro follows a "life planning" model that lets clients prioritize goals while graphically demonstrating how those goals compete for limited resources.

For example, if clients choose to fund their children's education first, they will instantly see that they may need help paying for their next vacation. In addition, the program allows advisors to alter assumptions in mere keystrokes. For example, an advisor could knock the rate of return from 10% to 6.5% and guide her client through the repercussions as they flow in real time through the plan. That functionality may be especially valuable today, with so many plans floating around based on overestimated stock returns. "With most programs like NaviPlan, you have to leave a trail of bread crumbs just to remember the path of assumptions you made," says Austin Gallaher, a financial plan designer for San Diego-based Comprehensive Financial Group, an agency of Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. "MoneyGuidePro lets you stay focused on the gestalt of planning rather than the metaphysics of data entry." Gallaher still considers NaviPlan an excellent tool for cash flow and estate planning (MoneyGuidePro does not currently include an estate-planning module) but says the latter wins hands-down for ease of use. "It takes three months of working several hours each day to master NaviPlan. Even a new advisor could learn MoneyGuidePro in 10 minutes."

The program's intuitive navigation can be explained partly by its genesis: MoneyGuidePro was created from scratch specifically for the Web. That means no pesky software installations or Office-based snafus and incompatibilities. Secondly, the program is the fruit of a 10-year collaboration between two husband-and-wife teams: Bob and Karla Curtis, owners of PIE Technologies and Harold Evensky and Deena Katz, partners in Evensky, Brown & Katz of Coral Gables, Fla.

Some advisors claim that the software has the same user-friendly feel of Katz's books. "You can feel the hand of a real financial planner in this," says Bill Bengen of Bengen Financial Services Inc., in El Cajon, Calif. Even more important, says Bengen, "clients are high on it." Bengen says he was able to work with a client in North Carolina thanks to the new program. At $750 a year, including training, ongoing support and continual updates, the program has already paid for itself with just that one client.

Granted, for some advisors, MoneyGuidePro will feel too simple without all the bells and whistles. Unlike Financeware, it does not offer a choice of stochastic modeling techniques but relies solely on randomized historical returns. Others, like Gallaher, consider MoneyGuidePro the ideal starting point, with tools like the "Monte Carlo card game" as a perfect introduction to more advanced stochastic modeling techniques later on. The choice is largely philosophical, according to Bruckenstein, who continues to use three or four different programs. "It depends on your target market and the level of sophistication you need. The fact is, most clients don't want to see reams and reams of calculations that may turn out to be wrong anyway."

Evensky agrees and puts his money where his mouth is: He has thrown out most of his fancy software and uses MoneyGuidePro for everything except short-term cash-flow calculations. "I had a lightning bolt about nine months ago," says Evensky, who cross-checked MoneyGuidePro against several heavy-duty number-crunching programs-and got similar results. "I realized that I was pretending to a level of technology that did not exist and sacrificing client education in the process."

Some advisors are using collaborative tools in innovative ways. Mark Freedman, a national FPA Board member and owner of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass., uses MoneyGuidePro as presentation software when he's addressing a large group. "I was looking for something interactive that I could use with an LCD projector in a conference room," says Freedman, who was hired last November by a company to work with a group of 40 employees being considered for early retirement. "We did a retirement-income analysis for each employee to see whether they could afford it. Fifteen had to sign the company's offer willingly or the poor HR guy would choose for them. The program enabled each employee to make a decision quickly."

Freedman considers MoneyGuidePro an excellent tool for retirement planning, but he uses other software programs for tax analysis and estate planning. He points out that 90% of his clients live within 10 miles of his practice and prefer to pay a personal visit. Nevertheless, Freedman, who owns the business with his father, Barry, says that MoneyGuidePro has allowed the elder Freedman to migrate south like a breeze. "Dad's a snowbird, and he's got a handful of snowbird clients in Florida. We do their plans up here, and Dad just goes live on the Internet and opens them live on the Internet. We don't even have to pay to have two versions of the software running."

With the markets in flux, clients and advisors are yearning for a new kind of simplicity. Whether online collaboration really takes off depends in large part on the perceived convenience and comfort level of the majority of advisors who tend to be late adopters of technology. "By their own admission, many financial planners are functionally computer illiterate," says Dave Loeper, chairman and CEO of Financeware. "We've been doing online collaboration for three years and still find that about half of all advisors aren't comfortable with it. Some are even embarrassed to meet clients online because their clients are more technologically sophisticated than they are."

For those advisors, he says, Financeware has initiated a service bureau approach, where, for $150, advisors can fax a three-page questionnaire and receive a custom-designed wealth-care plan. "No software program will replace the intellect. In the hands of an incompetent user, an automated answer is no better than going to see an incompetent advisor," Loeper says.

Still, many advisors are touting the benefits of telecommuting. Jones sees online collaboration as a way to reach a new generation of clients, even as she retains her elderly clients who retire and move out of state. "People are on the move, and the Web makes planning cost-effective for both client and advisor," says Bruckenstein, who recently moved to Florida after 20 years on Wall Street, and still maintains his New York clientele. Interactive tools save time by allowing clients to play with the "what ifs" at their leisure-instead of calling a week after the initial plan and returning for another office visit.

In addition, advisors can get others on the same page quickly by choosing to share parts of the plan with the client's other advisors, such as accountants and attorneys. "Even if I don't expand my practice, it creates a better working relationship," says Bengen. "It's more respectful of client's time. For Jones, conducting business over the Web has even helped her fulfill her personal goals. "I can travel more and get out of the office," she says. I can practice from home in my bathrobe, sipping coffee, as I've dreamed of doing all along.