Free Sites Help You Manage Your Money

Now that you've finally filed your 2008 taxes, how about starting out on a new foot and getting your finances organized? Next year when tax time rolls around, you could be sitting pretty while others sort through shoeboxes full of receipts.

Now that you've finally filed your 2008 taxes, how about starting out on a new foot and getting your finances organized? Next year when tax time rolls around, you could be sitting pretty while others sort through shoeboxes full of receipts.

There is no shortage of places to go to seek financial wisdom on how best to manage your money, but many people find that the best and least-expensive approach is to manage it themselves.

A number of free, personal financial management sites have popped up to help you do just that. These sites are no substitute for professional advice if your financial situation warrants it, nor are they even a replacement for more robust financial management applications such as Microsoft Money or Quicken. But they do offer a no-cost way to consolidate your financial information -- including credit card accounts, investments and loans -- into one easy-to-manage place.

These sites can also help you manage your bills, remind you when bills are due, help you set a budget and track where your money is going. Some even offer advice on how to save, get out of debt, lower your bills and save for retirement. A few center around online communities, where the power of social networking is harnessed to offer advice and tips from like-minded individuals.

Access to your information

For these sites to track your financial information, you first need to enable online access for your accounts on the Web sites of your respective financial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies. All of the sites that I looked at claim to work with thousands of major financial institutions, and all were able to successfully access my bank accounts and credit cards. However, not all of them can currently access investments or loans.

You enable access to your accounts by selecting the institution while you're in the personal financial management site and entering your log-in credentials. Sometimes that's all you need to do to enable access; other times, you might need to answer a few bank-provided challenge questions on the personal financial management site or enter an access code that your bank e-mails to you.

A natural concern is: How secure are these sites? Can you trust them with your information?

The sites that I looked at claim to use "bank-level" security with Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and up to 256-bit encryption. Most of the sites assert that even their employees don't have access to your financial institution log-in information. By default, the sites don't even show your full account numbers; they simply display information such as "Bank of America -- Checking xxx-1234." Most even let you edit an account name, so you can change it to say something like "joint checking."

It's important to note that these sites are only downloading information from your financial institutions -- this is a one-way, read-only communication. So if someone did get access to your financial management site account, they could certainly see where your paychecks come from and where you bank and shop, but they can't make any changes to any of the accounts.

However, this information could potentially be used for phishing attacks or social-engineering scams, so you still want to be sure to keep your log-in credentials secure as possible and use a difficult-to-guess, non-dictionary password.

Efficient organization

Once you've given a personal financial management site access to your online accounts and downloaded your financial transaction information, you still have some work to do. The power behind all these sites is the information and advice they can give you about your spending. In order to do this, the sites need to categorize your transactions.

You'll need to go through of all your downloaded transactions one by one and assign a category to each, such as "groceries," "car payment" or "rent." Some of the sites are good at guessing the proper categories, and all recognize repeating transactions, so you should need to make only a few edits that will automatically populate to other transactions. Once your transactions are categorized, the sites then have the information they need to show you how much you are spending on items such as groceries or entertainment and can help you set up a realistic budget.

The five sites I looked at were Geezeo, Mint, Quicken Online, Thrive, and Wesabe. They all offer the same basic functionality, but each does it in its own way, and some offer more features than others.

If you're interested in getting your personal economics in shape, one of these is sure to meet your needs.

Geezeo

Each of these personal financial management sites tries to carve out a unique niche for itself. Geezeo's standout trait is its set of community features, which put you in touch with other users who likely have many of your same financial concerns, questions or goals.

Of the five sites I looked at, I found Geezeo's user interface to be the least attractive and most confusing. It feels like the designers focused more on functionality than usability -- a telltale hallmark of the work of hard-core coders who think like programmers and not users. That said, I found the site's features were comprehensive and customizable.

After you log in to Geezeo, you land on the Dashboard page, with a Money Stream section running down the middle of the page. This section includes entries for each day that there is activity in your financial accounts or with any of your Geezeo social connections. The most recent day of activity has its details automatically displayed, but you can click on each day's entry to see the details of its events.

If you choose to, you can share any of your financial events (the vendor name and the amount you paid) from the Money Stream section with the Geezeo community -- perhaps you're proud that you just made the final payment on your credit card debt or you're outraged at how much day care costs.

The right side of the Dashboard includes a summary of your budget, your net worth, a snapshot of your total expenses and a few advertisements (Geezeo was the only site that had prominently displayed ads).

The left side of Geezeo's pages includes account information and a set of site navigation tools. This section also offers the balances for all of your accounts, icons of Geezeo users you have "friended," and a Confession Booth, which includes posts such as this recent one from a Geezeo user: "I've been trying not to spend any money, but I feel a spending binge coming on." You can choose to confess anonymously, and you can even send your confession to your personal Twitter feed.

Each of your accounts has its own page, with a list of that account's transactions. Geezeo can track bank accounts, credit cards, investments and loans. If your financial institution is not supported by Geezeo, you can manually download transaction information from the institution's site as an OFX file (the format used by most financial institutions), and then upload the file to Geezeo. Geezeo and Wesabe were the only sites I looked at that supported OFX file uploads.

The account transaction lists are where you create categories for your transactions, which Geezeo calls "tags." Tags are text-based and completely user-created, so you can call your tags whatever you want to. You can even assign multiple tags to an entry in order to split the total cost of an entry across different categories (for example, a $50 purchase at Walgreens could be split between $30 on groceries and $20 on prescriptions). Geezeo will try to guess the appropriate category for some transactions, but I found that more often than not, Geezeo guessed wrong and I had to do a lot of editing.

Once your transactions are tagged, you can set up a budget for each tag on the My Budgets page. I found the My Budget feature to be confusing, and it required a considerable amount of manual entry, including having to enter all expected sources of income. However, once I got used to it, I quickly realized that I had a lot of fine-grained control over what information I could include in my budget and what it could track. The My Budget page also includes a calendar that shows upcoming income and bills.

You can also set goals on Geezeo, which is more of a social-networking feature than a financial one. It allows you to share similar goals with other Geezeo users, such as "buy a home."

The Community section of Geezeo includes Public Feed, Groups, Goals, Confessions, and Experts. During the time that I used Geezeo, five financial experts had created groups through which they answered questions and gave advice to Geezeo members. While much of the advice appeared sound, I was disappointed to see that a number of the experts hadn't responded to questions in at least a month.

Geezeo was one of two sites (Wesabe was the other) that did not automatically log me out after a period of inactivity -- if you use public computers or share a PC with others, you must make sure to remember to manually log off from the site. Geezeo allows you to check your account balances with a mobile phone via SMS text messaging.

Mint

Of all the sites I looked at, Mint had the cleanest-looking user interface, which translated into a site that was easy to navigate and use. The site heavily uses Web 2.0 technologies, which enables it to dynamically change how information is presented and lets you seamlessly input your information. Mint matches Quicken Online's extensive features and functionality, making Mint one of the more robust free personal finance management sites I looked at.

The main Overview page provides a lot of information; it might even strike some as information overload, but the page is laid out intelligently and provides a very good overall snapshot of your financial health. The top section of the page provides relevant alerts, such as if you have exceeded any of your budget categories or if you have any bills due soon. You can customize a number of the alerts to trigger, such as when your account balances drop below a specific amount or if any purchases are over a prespecified amount.

The left side of the Overview page lists all of your accounts. Mint can track bank accounts, credit cards, loans and investments. Below the account information is a cash flow chart that compares your cash (the combined balances of all of your bank accounts) with your credit card debt.

Mint also includes a Property section, which lets you manually add less traditional information, such as real estate, money or debt, vehicles, or other property such as appliances, artwork or jewelry. When you input the address of your home, Mint automatically calculates its estimated value, which you can edit if you disagree with the amount.

The Overview page also includes a Portfolio Movers & Shakers section. If you have investment accounts (retirement or otherwise), this section provides a brief summary of which of your securities and holdings have seen the greatest change (up or down) in the last seven days.

Below that is the Your Budget section. Budget items are presented in a bar graph, which are orange if you are over budget, green if you are under, or gray if no transactions for that category have posted for the month. You can add categories to your budget from any of your categorized transactions. I found that Mint did an acceptable job of guessing the categories to which my expenses should be categorized, but I still had to make a significant number of edits.

When you edit a transaction -- you do this on the Transactions page -- you can edit its description, assign a category or create a new category, and split the transaction amount between multiple categories (for example, $98 to "groceries" and $10 to "lottery tickets"). For transactions from vendors that repeat, you can set up rules that will automatically change how the name of the vendor appears and assign a category to it whenever transactions from that vendor appear (for example, a rule could be: "Always rename Shprt as ShopRite and categorize as 'groceries'").

In addition to categories, you can also assign tags to transactions; the default tags are "Reimbursable," "Tax Related" and "Vacation," but you can create new tags as well.

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