Minnesotan is a pioneer in online number-crunching

Karl Ebert can credit the Roth IRA for his success. It was 1998, and Ebert thought he might convert some money from a traditional IRA to a Roth.

But he couldn’t find a calculator to show him if it made financial sense.

So the computer science minor with an MBA in finance built one.

“It worked great. And my goal was to market it and sell it,” he said. “Having no contacts and no means of actually marketing that one little calculator, I quickly realized it was something to put on my website that was pretty cool.”


About that website: The University of Minnesota graduate, who bought a house a mile from campus in the area known as Dinkytown, purchased the URL in 1997.

He had hoped to turn it into a site for the area that made money from local advertisements. But he couldn’t persuade stores and restaurants to sign on.

“No one was using the Internet in 1998,” he said.

He decided to put his Roth IRA calculator and a few others he’d programmed on his website, along with information about how people could buy them and place them on their websites.


Then one day, his wife called and said someone had sent him a check. He doesn’t remember who first licensed his calculators, but they sent him $250. And a business was born.

Each time he created a calculator, he put it on, where people could use it for free.

“Search engines found them very well,” he said.

Clients small and large -- the ones who would pay to put it on their own sites -- did too, without Ebert having to hire a sales guy or advertise.


A dozen years later, Ebert has as many as 10,000 clients ranging in size from individual websites to financial institutions.

More than 1 million people visit each month, with spikes in traffic after people make new year’s resolutions to shore up finances. The retirement planner, mortgage qualifier and 1040 tax calculator are perennial favorites.

Thrivent has about 80 of Ebert’s financial calculators on its website. Scott Wisgerhof, director of advice tools strategy, said the calculators are valuable to time-strapped consumers who want to crunch numbers.

“These aren’t the end-all,” he said. “These aren’t financial planning by any means. But this is a good way for clients to get a directional read on where they’re heading on specific issues. We’d still like them to come talk to us to get more in-depth.”


Ebert has built 471 calculators on topics such as retirement planning, housing finance and debt payoff that are available to the public and dozens of customized projects for financial institutions.

He recently finished a series of calculators designed to help investors -- including himself -- decide whether to convert pretax retirement dollars to a Roth IRA. Now he’s working on one that figures out how looming tax changes in 2010 will affect an individual’s tax picture.

He’s a bit of a personal finance geek. In sixth grade, “I made a compounding interest calculator on my computer -- a TI-99/4A” and confronted his dad about how $1,000 invested on the day he was born could have grown in 11 years.

Still, while he’s not a penny pincher, he admits he’s naturally “pretty cheap.” He works in the basement of the house he has owned for 16 years, even though three children now rule the roost. He also drives a 1995 Explorer he bought from his sister-in-law.


If he had one piece of advice to share -- besides using his calculators -- it’s this against-the-grain wisdom: “Acquisition costs of things is where your money can really be sucked away fast. You could buy an awful lot of lattes for the financing of a new car. And you could buy a lot of new cars for the cost of financing that new house. So if you look at those top-level items first, then the day-to-day stuff doesn’t matter.”

McGuire writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune/McClatchy.