BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESSWEEK INVESTOR -- THE BARKER PORTFOLIO

Quicken Finally Hits Web Speed
Its free online retirement planner is a winner--but beware the pitches

Among the many puzzles perplexing me is this: Why hasn't Intuit ( INTU), the pioneer behind such personal-finance software as Quicken and TurboTax, created a killer Web site? With 6.6 million monthly visitors, Quicken.com sees lots of traffic. But Chevrolet also sells lots of cars. For such key tools as fund or stock screeners and portfolio trackers, you'll find sleeker or smarter stuff at sites including Yahoo! ( YHOO), MSN, and Morningstar.com.

At last, though, Quicken.com has something it can truly boast about. The new version of its 401k Advisor, introduced on Nov. 7, adds features already in competing tools from Financial Engines and Morningstar, while building on a couple of its own. These services all are designed to specify how much money you should put in each of your 401(k)'s investment choices, given your financial goals and appetite for risk. For that, Financial Engines and Morningstar are charging a minimum of $59.80 and $31.80, respectively, a year. Now, Quicken.com is giving away similar fund-specific advice.

You're right--there's a catch. Quicken.com offers this free advice via a partner, TeamVest, which developed the tool with Intuit. In return, the Charlotte (N.C.) investment adviser hopes to convert free users into clients who will pay at least $239 a year for ongoing monitoring of their 401(k) accounts. That strikes me as steep for something easily done on your own, but Intuit says you can exploit the basic 401(k) checkup again and again for free.

On each page of the 401k Advisor you'll find links to live help from one of TeamVest's licensed advisers, a human touch not offered by rivals. They're available from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Eastern time, weekdays, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. You can call them, or they'll call you. Or, if your modem is using your only phone line, you can chat online via a window on your screen. I tried both methods several times. Each worked well. The initial consultation is free, and none of the four advisers I ''met'' bugged me with a hard sell.

The service's second unique edge is its database of 1,100 employers' 401(k) plan investment choices and contribution-matching policies. This neatly eliminates the dreary but crucial task of having to enter those particulars. That chore, demanded by rival services, can be time consuming, unless your company offers one of these tools as an employee benefit. In tests, I found Quicken.com came up with details of many company plans, from Alcoa ( AA) to Ziff-Davis ( ZD). I couldn't verify the database's accuracy, a caution one rival raised, but TeamVest claims to recheck each 401(k) plan quarterly. You can also use the tool on other accounts, such as individual retirement accounts, and plan for such big outlays as college tuition.

CHOICES. It doesn't analyze stock holdings, yet all in all I found the service rendered reasonable asset allocations and fund choices. For a well-off, moderately risk-taking fortysomething couple, it suggested 60% equities, 32% bonds, and 8% cash. It then said precisely how many dollars or shares to move and into which funds. Because it's for beginning as well as advanced investors, many geeky financial points that I was happy to find in rival tools' footnotes are absent here. Yet most people, I bet, will find the guidance and educational material clear and sufficient.

Next to retirement planning features at MSN, Yahoo!, and America Online ( AOL), Quicken.com finally has a killer tool. Does it blow away Financial Engines and Morningstar? No, not if your employer has given you free use of one of these tools, each of which is getting sharper. Financial Engines just unveiled a friendlier design and fine new features, such as ''scorecards'' rating 11,000 funds. Morningstar expects to update its ClearFuture tool in December and January.

These rivals and more are chiefly intent on selling their services directly to employers. I hope they succeed. Every 401(k) plan ought to offer one of these tools. Until yours does, Quicken.com's free service is the one worth using first.

Questions? Comments? Send an e-mail to barkerportfolio@businessweek.com or fax (321) 728-1711

By ROBERT BARKER

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