Meanwhile, Ernst & Young LLP has been hard at work on the very problem identified by Merrill Lynch. It has developed personal financial counseling software. The firm is offering it to companies as a way of assisting their employees in financial planning.

According to an announcement, the program users simply point-and-click on icons to access up to 26 different module selections. Users can quickly compute a long list of commonly asked financial what-ifs such as mortgage rates, loan comparisons, and buy or lease choices.

"An employee's financial preparedness is often directly related to the type of benefits and services offered by their employers," said Robert J. Garner, national director of Ernst & Young's personal financial counseling practice.

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