Personal Finance: Manage Your Money Better Online

The number of sites and tools offering to help you manage your money can be as overwhelming as those newly-raised credit card interest rates. We've culled them and pointed out some of the best personal finance sites and tools.

Let's be honest. Most of us could do a better job handling our money. When times are good, we probably spend too much. When times are bad, too many of us stick our heads in the sand. Both, of course, are bad ideas. The Web has a wealth, indeed a surfeit, of tools and information to help you manage your personal finances.

To get an idea of just how much, simply take a look at Google's personal finance directory. It's overwhelming. So I've culled the list to find Web sites and tools that you'll find helpful and I find trustworthy. This is by no means "a best of the Web" list. It's too difficult to make that call, and I've avoided sites that have no free information.

Swiss Army Knives of Personal Finance

Kiplinger.com is a very deep site, ranging from short, newsy pieces like "A new ban on overdraft fees" to extensively reported features like this month's "Making the most of your benefits." The site tries hard to be helpful; for example a recent piece called "My Wallet was Stolen" gives bullet points about what to do right away and ends with the phone numbers of three major credit reporting agencies. The Web site is free, but the eighty-year-old company offers a variety of newsletters and magazines at various prices. One big benefit as outlined on the site: "Kiplinger answers the queries of its readers as a regular feature of their subscriptions, filling requests for additional information on any subject its publications cover, by phone, mail or email.

SmartMoney also has a well-deserved reputation for excellence and is notable for its wide-ranging information. Clicking on "personal finance," for example, brings up sections devoted to 13 different topics, including bank notes, debt, elder care, marriage and divorce. SmartMoney also offers a wealth of investment tools, including real-time quotes, analysis and stock screening, but those features are behind a pay wall.

College and Retirement Planning

With the price of tuition at even public universities moving into the five-figure range, it's never been more important to develop a plan to afford a college education. Even if the heir apparent is very close to graduating high school there are steps you can take to mitigate the financial pain. SmartMoney, for example, has an informative story about early decision students and financial aid. Indeed, the site has an entire section devoted to financial planning for college filled with actionable tips, newsy items and generally helpful stuff. Not to be outdone, Kiplinger has very meaty college-focused special report that includes pieces on comparing student loan packages and how best to use 529 (college savings) plans.

It may be somewhat early for you to file for Social Security, but if nothing else, this government site provides a great reality check. By entering your personal information, you'll get back an estimate of your (teensy) monthly benefits at various retirement ages. The site has a good deal of related information, including application forms.

There is a also a wealth of information for people approaching retirement on the Web site of the AARP. One feature I really liked that has use for a consumer of any age was called "The All Cash Challenge." As you'd expect it underlines something we all know, but probably don't put to use often enough: People who pay with cash spend less than those who pay with credit cards, because pulling those greenbacks out of your wallet hurts.

Best Rates on CDs

Finding a financial advisor is not easy and is a decision that has real consequences. One place to start: The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Its Web site lets you search for advisors by area and by specialty. NAPFA insists that its members be " fee only," which means the financial advisor is compensated "solely by the client with neither the advisor nor any related party receiving compensation that is contingent on the purchase or sale of a financial product."

CDs don't pay much these days, but they are a secure place to park your money until better opportunities arise. If that works for you, bankrate.com is a good place to shop. Its simple search tool includes clickable links, so if you see a deal you like, it's to take the next step. A similar tool on the site allows you to check fixed and adjustable mortgage rates for different durations and localities.

Any number of online sites help with basic financial chores, including budgets and expense tracking. But I have to say that security is a real concern. After all, you'll be entrusting credit card numbers, bank account and maybe investment account information to a company you don't know much about. That's not to cast aspersions on anyone; I'm just careful, and I hope you are as well. Certainly Quicken Online, owned by Intuit, is long established, and its Web site is now free. Mint.com, which has garnered some good reviews, is now owned by Intuit, so the combined site is worth a look.

Here's a final tip that I figured out after wasting too much money. My online life includes many services and publications that renew automatically. When I had a misunderstanding with a credit card company, my account was temporarily suspended. Suddenly a number of those automatic renewals bounced and I was prompted to update. I realized that I wasn't using some of those services and cancelled. My credit account was quickly restored, and as a result of that little mishap I saved hundreds of dollars.

(Thanks to Kathleen Pender, the long-time personal finance columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, for her helpful suggestions.)

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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