If you’re young, or simply don’t have an extra $1,100 to $5,600 a year on average lying around waiting to pay a financial planner, it can be difficult to know where to turn for financial guidance. Fortunately, several online financial planning companies have made financial planning more affordable. LearnVest is one of many such companies that have cropped up in recent years to provide the service at a lower cost.
What Is LearnVest?
LearnVest is an online financial planning company that was founded in 2009 with a mission to give young professionals access to affordable financial planning services. The platform combines budgeting tools with resources for financial information and the opportunity to gain access to an online financial planner if you upgrade your package. The startup went on to raise $75 million in venture capital until it was finally acquired in 2015 by Northwestern Mutual. The merger allowed LearnVest to develop and expand its offerings. Since its founding, the platform has developed into a more affordable way for members of either gender to gain access to a financial planner and to create and manage a personal financial plan.
How It Works
LearnVest offers both a paid and unpaid version of its services. The free version gives you access to the company’s online budgeting tool and dashboard to help you manage your budget, similar to popular budgeting platforms like Mint and YNAB.
You can also peruse LearnVest’s Knowledge Center, where you’ll find a wealth of articles and videos with information about several financial topics.
If you are looking for personalized financial advice from an expert, you’ll need to sign up for the paid version, called LearnVest Premium. For an initial payment of $299 plus $19/month, the premium service comes with access to a personal financial planner in addition to the online dashboard features.
MagnifyMoney tapped staff writer Brittney Laryea to test out LearnVest’s financial planning service, LearnVest Premium, and review it here. Find out more about LearnVest and Brittney’s review below.
The LearnVest Premium Review
As a 22-year-old recent college graduate, I am in that important stage in life. I reviewed LearnVest from the perspective of someone who has never gotten professional financial advice before and is looking to get her financial life in order as she starts her career. My experience will certainly be different from, say, a single mother or an elderly couple facing retirement. But I tried to demonstrate how each element of the LearnVest experience works so anyone reading will get a sense of what they offer.
For $299 up front, you’ll get access to a personal financial planner who will set up a time to speak with you on two separate occasions and work with you to create a personal financial plan. You can split the $299 payment into two payments of $149 or three payments of $99. After the two initial phone calls, you’ll pay LearnVest $19 each month for “ongoing support” from your planner via email.
At $299, LearnVest is certainly delivering when it promises to offer affordable financial planning services. The average financial planner charges an initial fee of $500 to $2,000 and then about $50 to $300 monthly for ongoing service.
$19 per month for ongoing financial planning is only a little more than Spotify premium customers pay for monthly subscriptions.
So far so good. But what are you really getting for that money?
Creating My “Smart Profile”
The first thing you're prompted to do when you sign up for LearnVest Premium is to fill out your financial profile, which is called your “Smart Profile.”
You’ll enter basic financial information for your planner such as your annual income, goals, and current budget if you have one. This is also when you would link all of your accounts — checking, savings, credit card, retirement, student loans, etc. — to your profile if you haven’t already done so. In addition to prepping your information for your planner, filling out the financial profile helps put your current finances in perspective in relation to your financial goals. This part was intuitive and took less than 15 minutes for me complete.
After that, I was eager to schedule my call with my planner, which I was prompted to do after filling out the Smart Profile.
The First Call: Strategy Session
The goal of the first call is to lay the foundation for what will become your complete financial action plan with your planner. But you won’t receive the actual plan until your second call. During the first call the planner gets an idea of your financial situation. Your final plan takes all of the details that you discuss with your planner in this first conversation and shows the smaller steps you’ll need to follow to reach your financial goals. For me, those were things like paying off my student loans and saving up for retirement, but for others it could be things like saving up to buy a new home or for your kid’s college education.
During the call, you’ll speak with your planner over the phone, while you both look at the plan-to-be in your LearnVest dashboard. The first thing my planner did was verify all of the information that I entered into my Smart Profile. He then asked if there were any other accounts or information that I needed to add or clarify. Your planner may also ask about your current insurance policies and important financial documents such as a regular or living will or power of attorney.
At the end of the call, you should have a general idea of the plan-to-be, and your planner may assign some follow-up homework for you to complete before your next call (ideally, about a week later) such as sending additional information that will help them create your action plan. Your planner may also assign you a challenge — which you can see when you log in to your dashboard. The challenge may be to practice a budget for the week or to create a bank account.
My first call was enjoyable, and we spoke for about an hour. My planner was patient as I clarified and adjusted information I entered into my Smart Profile.
After we sorted out my personal accounts and debts, my planner asked about my short- and long-term financial goals such as saving for an emergency fund or for travel. I’d given some thought to retirement before. I actually already started contributing to a 401(k) through my employer. I think of travel as more of a luxury, and definitely not a necessity. If I had extra money and the ability to travel, then I would, but everything else comes first. This would be the first time I’d specifically set aside funds to travel in the future. Keeping my savings goals in mind helped to inform the budget he would create for me. The planner made sure to factor in the monthly $19 for LearnVest’s ongoing support into my overall expenses.
Then he calculated a tentative weekly spending budget based on my outlined plan. The weekly spending number was the amount I could spend each week and still accomplish all of my monthly goals. It’s determined by splitting up what was left of my flexible spending over the number of weeks left in the month.
One aspect I appreciated was that my planner gave me three different budgets with varying levels of spending flexibility. I chose the budget that gave me the tightest weekly spending allowance, meaning more of my money was going toward my goals each month.
He also gave me a few financial tips during the first call. I’ve listed a few below, although there were many more.
- Freezing (in a bag of water, in my freezer) or hiding my credit card to trick myself into not using it to help with paying down the balance.
- Opening high-yield checking and savings accounts with an online bank. My planner recommended Ally Bank, where I could earn 1% on my savings, versus the 0.01% I earned at Wells Fargo. Luckily, I was already in the middle of switching to Ally from Wells Fargo. His encouragement gave me the extra boost I needed to get it done.
- Setting up two checking accounts — one as a regular checking account but without a physical debit card linked to it, the other a “spending” account that was linked to my debit card. Then I was to set up an automatic weekly transfer of my weekly budget into the spending account to use. This way, it would be impossible to go over my budget without deliberately transferring funds over to my spending account.
- Think about insurance options. He also explained to me the importance of having different types of insurance plans that many don’t get through an employer such as renters insurance or life and disability insurance. The explanation was helpful, and easy enough to understand. But I have to admit, I didn’t follow the advice. I hadn’t yet considered paying for what I see as “extras” like renters insurance or life and disability insurance. I rent, but I don’t own anything of substantial value so, for me, renters insurance is a waste. I figure I’ll just get it when I have something more valuable than my rice cooker to protect. One of my parents pays for a small life insurance policy that I’ve had since high school, and I’m young so here’s hoping I don’t suddenly become disabled while I look into it. I’ll likely start paying for disability insurance in February 2017.
After we covered those details, we scheduled a follow-up call, which would take place about a month later.
After our talk, my planner sent me a follow-up email with my homework for the week. I had two assignments: to open new checking and savings accounts and to double-check my existing insurance policies and coverage amounts.
He also assigned me a “challenge,” which are little tasks your adviser sets up for you on the LearnVest website. You can see your challenges when you are logged in to your LearnVest dashboard, and you’ll get email reminders when the deadline for the challenges are close. You can check off your challenges as you complete them, or mark them as missed. Be honest; your adviser will ask you about them in the follow-up call.
My first challenge was to practice the weekly spending budget he created for me during the initial call. The added challenge was to use cash only (so that I could physically see what I would be spending). Having the challenge helped me to keep my budget in mind; however, I didn’t complete it. My 22nd birthday was that week, and I take my birthday celebrations pretty seriously.
Since my weekly budget was determined by splitting up what was left of my flexible spending over the remaining weeks of the month, I just subtracted what I used up on my birthday celebrations and determined a new weekly budget for the rest of the month.
The Second Call: Getting My Action Plan
This is the call that solidifies your financial action plan. During the second call, your planner will explain to you all of the ins and outs of following the plan they have created for you to follow based on information from the first call.
The second call will be about a week or two later, depending on your scheduling availability and that of your planner. I scheduled my follow-up call at the end of our previous conversation for two weeks later, but I had to reschedule via email because I had other obligations come up. Rescheduling was painless and completed in less than 24 hours. My planner responded to my initial email with the times he would have available coming up, I emailed back with the time that worked for me best, and I was booked.
Because I had to reschedule our initial follow-up call, our second call was about a month later. By then, I was used to my new weekly budget and felt good and ready to begin my new action plan. Before we got to my actual action plan, my planner checked in with me to see how I did with my suggested weekly budget.
He even gave me the option to switch to one of the other versions he created with a little more flexible spending, but a longer road to my savings goals. I struggled a bit with my birthday spending and a few emergencies, but I knew those were outliers and I could easily stick to the weekly allotment in a regular week.
I chose to stick with my budget. He also asked me if anything about my financial situation had changed since we’d last spoken. One thing did change: I planned to move into a cheaper apartment the following month. My planner made a note to adjust my action plan accordingly and said the final plan would include the update. Afterward, he talked me through how to implement the action plan he created for me.
Toward the end of our conversation, he explained important financial documents I should have at any age such as a living will and where I could look for resources to complete them in my dashboard. In the dashboard, under the “Program” tab is a section called “Planner Picks” that has the company’s approved recommended resources.
Action Plan and a $2.5 Million Surprise
My planner delivered my action plan to me via my LearnVest dashboard. It was a PDF file of about 20 pages that I could download to my computer if I wanted. It was super simple to understand and split into three parts:
- A recap of my current financial situation
- My financial goals
- The action steps that would help me to reach my goals over time
The recap restated my weekly spending number (that’s the amount I was allowed to spend each week) and still accomplish all of my monthly goals.
The Goals Summary
The goals part broke down each of my stated savings and debt goals and showed how I would go about reaching them over five years.
The goals changed over time to reflect when smaller goals like my emergency fund and credit card payoff would be complete. Of course, this part also included my retirement needs.
I was shocked at his calculation: I would need to save more than $2.5 million to maintain my current income in retirement. To get there, I would need to continue contributing 10% towards my 401(k) and bump that contribution up by 2% every year or any time I get a raise. The idea here is that I would save more as I earned more over time. Sounds doable enough. Finally, it listed what estate documents I needed, such as a living will and beneficiary forms. To be honest, I haven't completed my living will yet. You can upload these documents to your dashboard once they are completed.
The Action Steps
The final part outlined the action steps that I would take monthly to reach my goals. It briefly reviewed my monthly budget and showed how I should set up my accounts so that each month of successful budgeting would contribute to my overall goals.
I had a few more challenges assigned to me, such as learning to categorize my purchases and create goals in the dashboard. My planner sent a follow-up email after both calls recapping what we discussed. Moving forward, I would have ongoing support from him via email and had a copy of my plan available to me in my LearnVest dashboard.
For now, I’m following the plan as best as I can. The first month was rough with moving expenses and holiday expenses, but I’m confident I’ll be able to beat my weekly spending target and pay down my debts even faster when life settles down a bit.
What Is Meant by “Ongoing Support”?
Ongoing support from LearnVest means that you can reach out to your planner for help or advice via email, anytime. Your planner will also continue setting up challenges for you in your dashboard and may, on occasion or when you email them, ask you about your progress.
I follow up with the challenges when they are assigned to me, but I’ve only had to contact my planner once via email to clarify my insurance needs. Other than those little questions, I don’t have much of a reason to contact the planner since my entire plan is on my dashboard, and I have a feeling I’ll be following the same plan for a while.
Pros and Cons
Pro: Quick Responses
Having email access to your planner actually works out pretty well. I was impressed when I emailed my planner late in the day with a question and he got back to me via email in less than 24 hours.
Pro: Online and Mobile
LearnVest is accessible to you on the computer and in an app for your mobile device. Having both platforms makes it easy and convenient to check your progress toward your goals or edit your budget whenever or wherever.
Each time your planner sets up a new challenge for you, you’ll get an email. They will be challenges such as watching an educational video, practicing a shopping fast for a month, or automating contributions to one of your savings accounts. The challenges help in a couple of ways. They are a reminder to log in to your dashboard if you aren’t prone to doing so on your own. The challenges also serve as a way for your planner to contact you and keep you motivated with creative short-term financial goals.
Con: No Face Time
Both meetings with your financial planner will take place over the phone. You can’t video chat or otherwise see the person to whom you are giving your financial information face to face, which may make some feel cautious or uncomfortable. Your planner may do as mine did and exchange some polite banter or offer to answer any questions you may have about LearnVest or the process to help you feel more comfortable.
Con: No Credit Score Information
You’ll need to download a separate app it you want to monitor your credit score. Unlike other popular budgeting apps, such as Mint, you won’t be able to see any information related to credit score or credit report information with LearnVest.
Con: Can't Split Transactions on Mobile
The LearnVest mobile app’s budgeting software doesn’t allow you split up one transaction into multiple categories. So if you spent money on both clothes and food in one location, you’ll have to log in at a desktop computer to split the transaction.
Con: No Investment Management
Unlike the robo-advisers out there and some other financial planning platforms, LearnVest doesn’t manage your investments. You can check out this article for a few robo-advisers if investment management interests you.
Other Financial Planning Platforms to Consider
There are a host of other robo-advisers and online financial planning tools that target millennials cropping up to choose from that you may prefer over LearnVest.
A newer online financial planning platform, Stash Wealth, operates very similarly to LearnVest, but is aimed at what it calls H.E.N.R.Ys (High Earners Not Rich Yet). It costs $997 to get started, then $50/month to continue the service. Stash Wealth does do more of the work for you — like setting up automation for your savings and checking your tax information — so you don’t pay any taxes that you don’t have to pay. Once you’re ready, they start investing your money for you in accordance with your goals.
XY Planning Network
The XY Planning Network is a network of fee-only financial advisers who focus specifically on Gen X and Gen Y clients. There are no minimums required to get started as a client, and advisers in the XY Planning Network are not permitted to accept commissions, referral fees, or kickbacks. In other words, no high-pressure sales pitches or hidden agendas. Just practical financial advice doled out at a flat monthly rate. The organization is location independent, offering virtual services that enable any client to connect with any adviser regardless of where they reside.
Garrett Planning Network
A national network featuring hundreds of financial planners, the Garrett Planning Network checks many key boxes for millennials. All members of the Garrett Planning Network charge for their services by the hour on a fee-only basis. They do not accept commissions, and clients pay only for the time spent working with their adviser. Just as important for millennials, advisers in the Garrett Planning Network require no income or investment account minimums for their hourly services.
Mvelopes is an app that provides a spinoff of the cash envelope budgeting system popularized by Dave Ramsey. Like LearnVest, its basic version is free and allows you to link up to four bank accounts or credit cards. Mvelopes has a second tier called Mvelopes Premier. It costs $95 a year, and you can link an unlimited number of bank accounts and credit cards, among other features. Mvelopes’ top tier, Money4Life Coaching, adds one-on-one coaching tailored to your financial needs as LearnVest Premier does. However, there is no price for this tier specified on the website.
The Final Verdict
LearnVest Premium is a convenient and cheap alternative to an in-person financial adviser if you need a little additional help planning your finances or a convenient reminder to stick to your budget, but it’s not worth the $299 + $19 a month if you just want to keep an eye on your spending. For the latter, stick to the apps that do it better, like Mint and YNAB.