Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Meet the robo-planner: Money answers with no push to buy investments

Two of the most important financial questions of our time are: Can I afford to buy a house, and do I have enough money to retire?

Rona Birenbaum and Seyon Vasantharajan are offering answers to these questions through their new robo-planning firm, Viviplan. For $450, you can get an online financial report that address two major financial decisions of your choosing. For $500, you get an additional 30-minute walk-through with an accredited financial planner. For $800, you get a full financial plan covering budgeting, estate planning, asset allocation and insurance.

The Canadian market currently has a strong contingent of robo-advisers, which use an online interface to build and manage investment portfolios at a low cost. The robo-planner is a new and complementary development that doesn't touch investments, choosing instead to focus on planning issues such as affording a house and retirement readiness.

Story continues below advertisement

Lots of human advisers offer both planning and investment-management services – the two naturally go together in that planning drives investing. But some people just need answers to their planning questions and are uncomfortable getting them from people who want to handle their investments as well.

"Viviplan is about access to comprehensive financial-planning advice without needing to deal with a product salesperson to get that advice," said Ms. Birenbaum, a certified financial planner (CFP) who founded the firm Caring for Clients 17 years ago.

As recently as a few years ago, there was a consensus that people wouldn't pay the flat or hourly fees charged by fee-for-service planners. Ms. Birenbaum said there's now so much demand for planning at her firm that she's turning clients away, even after doubling her planning staff to six.

Her firm charges about $4,500 for traditional financial plans done on a face-to-face basis, an amount she freely admits is expensive for people who don't have complicated requirements. Viviplan was developed over the past year with Mr. Vasantharajan, a financial engineering graduate of the University of Toronto, as a way to serve those people who don't need the full planning treatment.

Viviplan customers – there were 10 as of Monday morning – provide between 100 and 500 pieces of information through an online form that includes explanations for jargon terms. Ms. Birenbaum figures it takes one to two hours to complete the form if you have your financial details handy. If not, you can leave the form and come back another day.

The knock on robo-planners is going to be that technology can't substitute face-to-face fact gathering by a planner. Mr. Birenbaum said Viviplan's process is designed to provide the same detailed information that planners get through personal interviews. Once submitted, the data are fed into financial planning software and then reviewed by human planners to ensure it meets the client's needs.

The small number of clients who have used Viviplan so far are all between 28 and 35 years old, Ms. Birenbaum said. She thought the "standard plan" at $500 would be most popular, but everyone so far has gone for the comprehensive plan. Right now, Viviplan is running a promotion for early adopters where this plan costs $600 instead of the usual $800.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Birenbaum said young adults are a prime target for Viviplan – the $450 "lite plan" is aimed in particular at people wondering how to afford a first home. Another prime target are what she calls preretirees. "They have this huge question: Have I saved enough? And they have a short runway for figuring this out."

Ms. Birenbaum is bootstrapping Viviplan, which means she's using her own money. She intends to look for capital to help expand Viviplan by, among other things, hiring planners and offering a monthly subscription where clients receive regular informational e-mails as well as an annual review of their financial plan.

Robo-advisers have been in the Canadian market for four years and they're still in the early stages of building investor awareness and fighting uninformed naysayers. Robo-planning probably faces a bigger challenge in getting established because people often think financial planning and investing are the same thing.

Planning is all about answering money questions such as whether you can afford to buy a house and whether you are saving enough for retirement. Robo-planning offers the potential to bring you these answers at an affordable cost, no matter where you live.

While some industry watchers say yes, there’s growing evidence that investors still want that human touch – even while adopting more digital tools.
Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.