NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Financially speaking, you grew up with these companies. You probably bought your first mutual fund from Fidelity or Vanguard. And when you were ready to try your hand at stocks, chances are you made your first trade through Charles Schwab, the pioneer in discount brokerage.
Now, though, you've got money issues that can't be solved with a stock trade or a wide selection of no-load funds. You're out of the do-it-yourself phase of financial services. You want help.
Well, it so happens that Fidelity, Vanguard and Schwab have grown up with you. Now mammoth institutions, they know that their customers need help, and each has recently begun promoting its ability to lend a hand.
The question is, can businesses designed to bring investment opportunity to the masses provide credible financial planning to individuals?
There's one way to find out: Test-drive offerings at all three firms. We hired a mystery shopper -- let's call him Ken -- to approach each company as a regular customer, seek advice based on his family's actual finances and then report back.
For second opinions on the advice Ken received, we asked two financial planners, at Legend Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh and Truepoint Capital in Cincinnati, to review his finances too.
So how did the big three make out? All delivered competent advice for less than you might pay an independent planner. (See details of the plans by clicking here.) That's the good news.
On the other hand, all three could have done a much better job of communicating with Ken. Part of the problem, clearly, was that the firms prefer to work mostly (or entirely) over the phone and the Web. That allows them to offer comprehensive plans at minimal costs, but it can be a difficult way to relay and absorb complex information.
Indeed, at times Ken seemed to be swept up in a comedy of errors. We had to send him back to every firm to get more information or even to rerun numbers. Had it not been for our pushing behind the scenes, Ken wouldn't have come away with advice that really met his needs.
Meet our shopper
Ken, 46, is married and has two teenage children. When he agreed to help us, he was in the midst of a lifestyle change that raised major financial issues. Weary of a pressure-cooker job and a long commute, Ken recently relocated to a rural area, where he started teaching college.
The move involved a huge income cut, from about $190,000 a year to $95,000. But after years of diligent saving, Ken and his wife, who's 44, have a nest egg of about $1 million, including the proceeds from the sale of their suburban home.
"My two big questions," says Ken, "were whether I can retire or at least scale back to occasional freelancing by age 57 and whether I can afford to pay for my kids' college education."
Ken also wanted to know how to invest his house-sale proceeds and the 401(k) savings he was rolling over to an IRA. Finally, Ken told each firm that he wasn't interested in managing his portfolio, so he would consider paying for ongoing investment advice.
In short, Ken was grappling with the kinds of issues that MONEY readers are likely to face -- and that any self-respecting financial services firm should be able to handle.
Ken got on-point advice at a reasonable cost from all the firms (actually, at virtually no cost in the case of Fidelity). Schwab's financial plan came in with the highest price tag: $2,000. But you might easily pay $1,000 more than that. You can also get a plan for less.
However, some advisers make up for their low initial fee by charging sales commissions on investments they sell you. All or virtually all of the advisers who do financial plans at Schwab and Vanguard are certified planners. Some but not all of Fidelity's consultants are.
We were encouraged by what Ken didn't get: a deluge of sales pitches for inappropriate investments. Granted, the firms made it clear they wanted to manage Ken's portfolio. But none pushed him to buy high-cost mutual funds, fee-ridden annuities or other dubious investments, and none hounded him after his consultations to move his money to their firm.
The three companies agreed Ken had a great shot at retiring or semi-retiring at 57. But there were significant differences in their assessments.
Schwab was by far the most cautious: It alone said that Ken really couldn't pull off early retirement and fully fund college for his kids. In fact, Schwab concluded he'd need another $225,000 to do it all. Schwab also recommended that Ken and his wife buy $1 million in additional life insurance.
The independent planners we consulted were split on the insurance issue. But both agreed with Schwab that Ken ought to consider scaling back his contribution to his kids' education. That approach struck us as prudent. After all, financial aid is readily available for college costs but not for retirement expenses.
The range of assessments may seem shocking, until you consider the length of the projections involved -- more than 40 years -- as well as differences in underlying assumptions such as the rate of return Ken might earn on his assets. (Schwab projected the lowest.)
Since all financial advice involves making judgments and estimates, different advisers can come up with different answers. That makes it all the more important to understand the rationale behind the assumptions, and to revisit the strategy outlined by the adviser at least every few years.
None of the firms did especially well in ascertaining Ken's needs and explaining their advice. The first person Ken spoke to at Fidelity apparently assumed he was interested primarily in having someone manage his investments, and thus referred him to a Fidelity service that charges an annual fee to run a portfolio of mutual funds. But that program doesn't address the main issues for which Ken was seeking help.
Only after MONEY told Ken to go back to Fidelity and emphasize that he needed planning advice did Ken get the guidance he wanted.
Fidelity executive vice president Robert Hedges told MONEY that, aside from the miscommunication, the rep Ken initially dealt with might also have been thrown off by the fact that Fidelity consultants have no tool for handling several goals at once. Hedges said Fidelity expects to introduce one next year. (In Ken's case, Fidelity was able to tweak an existing tool to address his situation.)
Ken ran into a similar problem at Schwab, where he felt he was initially being steered toward a program designed to offer ongoing investment advice.
We think that all three firms could have done a better job of walking Ken through the plans they produced.
After finishing up with Schwab, Ken gleefully told us he had been reassured "that I will not have to make radical changes to pay my kids' college expenses and that I can retire when I want to."
He clearly didn't understand that the plan said he needed a lot more cash if he really intended to pick up the entire tab for college.
And while Fidelity's and Vanguard's fund recommendations were sound, Ken felt he got no explanation of why those funds were chosen over others. "I had to trust them," he says.
What Ken can teach you
So what can you learn from Ken's experience? There are three big lessons, applicable whether you're dealing with any of the firms he tested or one of their competitors.
First, get advice your way Ken concluded that he'd rather work with an adviser face to face, even if he had to spend more money. But Ken doesn't have the level of financial expertise a knowledgeable do-it-yourselfer might. If you do, working via phone or Web might not be a problem, and it offers advantages.
Consider Fidelity. If financial calculators scare you, move on. If they don't, note that Fidelity's service will cost you nothing if you have an account there.
And as your situation changes -- say, a year or two later your income soars or your child attends an expensive private college instead of a state school -- you can rerun the numbers and reassess your prospects. At Schwab or Vanguard that would require a new plan and another fee.
Second, don't assume the adviser knows your finances as well as you do Ken figured that since advisers deal with clients every day, they would know what to ask about his expenses, spending habits and future plans.
"Only later," he says, "did I realize that their data was only as good as what I provided."
If you want the advice to reflect the way you live and handle your money, you must answer not only the questions the adviser asked but the ones he didn't ask as well.
Third, be demanding The firms' shortcomings notwithstanding, Ken needed to be more aggressive in asking for what he wanted.
Vanguard first handed Ken a plan that assumed he would retire at 65 instead of his target of 57. But Ken didn't ask the planner to correct it. Vanguard was happy to rerun the numbers after MONEY told Ken to ask.
In fact, after we sent him back to each firm with questions or demands, Ken ended up with usable advice -- and that was before any of the firms knew he was working with us.
That's encouraging, and it suggests that sophisticated financial planning once reserved for the wealthy is something the rest of us can do.
No doubt these leaders of the do-it-yourself movement have kinks to work out in their offerings. But it's worth remembering that 30 or so years ago, owning stock was something the rest of us didn't do either.
Next: How the Big Three stack up
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