Alexa von Tobel is fond of analogies. Blame her time at Harvard, as both an undergrad and in the university’s MBA program–before she won a business plan competition and took a leave of absence to launch LearnVest, a personalized financial tool for those who can’t spare the $2,000 to $3,000 to sit down with a financial planner. (“61 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” she noted from the company’s sunny new Soho office. For the former Morgan Stanley trader–and head of biz dev for Drop.io–statistics tend to roll off the tongue.)
In the past, Ms. von Tobel–the first in a growing line of local HBS female founders–has called LearnVest, “Weight Watchers meets personal finance.” In a recent TEDxTalk, she longs for a “Biggest Loser” for household budgets. But in demoing LearnVest’s revamped new platform and iPhone app last week–financed by a $19 million Series B led by Accel Partners last July–she opted for something more ambitious, describing it as “LegalZoom meets personal finance,” for its ability to take hard-to-parse documents and make them accessible to the masses.
All that relational thinking paid off when Ms. von Tobel showed us LearnVest’s souped-up new “Money Center,” a free personal financial tool that lets you synch up credit cards, savings accounts, 401ks, etc. Borrowing elements familiar to any Google user, the center uses its own internal categorization system to shuffle purchases into folders like food or utilities (à la Gmail) and, most importantly, lets you co-view your finances online while on the phone with a certified financial planner (like you’re sharing a Google Doc.)
As part of its new-and-greatly-improved service, the company also announced that has an official Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) status with the SEC, which means those CFPs can now offer investment advice. Ms. von Tobel mentioned that one recent LearnVest customer signed up with $12 million in assets, although some clients also come to the site hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
With the possibility of a expert lifeline, our heart palpitations over failing to meet LearnVest’s 50:20:30 ratio (to allocate towards essentials:savings: fun) abided. Momentarily.
LearnVest started offering phone and email consultation with human CFPs (heavily-vetted for their financial–and empathetic–prowess) earlier this year and is now up to a staff of 50, available around the clock. If you sign up for a premium plan, you’ll be assigned the same CFP so the expert is familiar with your finances. Users can choose from three plan options, ranging from a one-time $89 fee for one phone consultation and unlimited email support for three months, up to a $599 package for them to construct a five-year plan including investment advice, quarterly phone calls, and unlimited email with your CFP for a year.
“I wouldn’t even call Mint a true competitor,” she told Betabeat, after taking us through the revamped service and impending iPhone app. That’s not exactly true. A recent visit to Mint.com, which was acquired by Intuit in 2009 for $170 million, shows the company also offers an iPhone app, (less colorful) budgets, goal-setting graphs, and even email and SMS alerts about fees. But it also revealed that the last time Betabeat perused our Mint.com account was more than two years ago. It’s a good argument for the accountability of a human advisor.