TECH FRIENDLY - Where to manage your money online

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Tax season has just passed for another year, so the last thing you may want to be thinking about is finances, budgeting and money management.

But what better time than when the pressure has just recently been lifted?

It could be that your new year's resolution to better track your spending and savings has been pushed off to spring. So this week we're going to answer the question: What are my online options for budgeting, tracking my expenses and getting a big picture overview of my finances?

The world of online money management has grown exponentially in the past few years; about half of what are considered the top 20 sites were launched within the past year alone. What was once the provenance of banks and your hard copy accounting ledger is now crowded with options.

Security should always be the first and most significant hurdle for consumers to consider. While the companies listed below have the large incentive of your continued business to ensure tight security, your risk is obviously larger. This is personal: this is your money! It is important for you to be comfortable with the level of security these services provide, and to be assured of their security protocols before submitting personal information.

Each site I looked at has pros and cons, and since the field is rapidly growing, new options become available quite regularly (and some go away, as you'll see too). But hopefully this brief overview will give you enough information to go out and explore options for yourself.

Disclaimer: This information was gleaned through online research of the sites themselves and various sources related to money management. It is not intended as financial advice.

Mint.com has surged out front with the most users: 1 million joined the site in the last year and it has the highest name recognition. Free to use, it does have some limitations, as you can't upload credit union account info (just bank data), and many of their saving tips are actually links over to their advertisers. Creating pie charts and graphs, as well as the ability to categorize your spending is quick to learn. QuickenOnline has recently rolled into Mint, so if you've been familiar with Quicken, this might be a natural fit for you. Mint has struggled in their growth to continue to provide a high level of service, according to various online reviews.

Yodlee.com actually handles all of Mint.com's data extraction from Yodlee's MoneyCenter. But it has its own consumer money-managing portal as well and is the oldest and considered the most comprehensive money management site. Yodlee offers a big-picture view on all your assets, and allows you to then create budgets, track spending and pay bills, etc.

Moneystrands.com has both a basic (free) level of service, and then additional "premium" features that you pay for with a monthly subscription. Moneystrands offers personalized advice and recommendations, and allows you to compare your information anonymously with similar consumers.

Budgetpulse.com specializes in budget building and monitoring your finances, and can also help with forecasting and even assists with charitable giving for nonprofits. Budgetpulse does not link directly to your banking data, which is considered an added level of security.

Geezeo.com was listed as a definite contender when I started researching online budgeting tools. However, when I went to check out the site, it appeared to have changed directions and is now assisting financial institutions in serving their customers, rather than going directly to consumers. There's a link for "old users," but it will not accept new consumer at this time.

Buxfer.com can upload your bank information manually, which allows for users from smaller financial institutions and credit unions. Consumers keep their own login information on their computer, and only use it to connect and download recent data. Buxfer does charge to budget if you need more than five categories, but the cost is between $2 and $3 per month, so if you like Buxfer, that might be worth it. There is also a social aspect to the site through forums and discussion groups, and splitting transactions (maybe you spent $60 at WalMart on groceries and $30 on household supplies or kids clothes) is easily accomplished.

Wesebe.com has been known for combining social networking with money management and budget tracking. They have closed the money management side of their site though, and now just offer discussion boards and forums for consumers to share information on budgeting and saving.

Thrive (at justthrive.com) is rumored to be giving Mint a run for their money. They have taken the same back end data structure through Yodlee that Mint has, so the basic budgeting and tracking is similar. But they've added a component of advising, whether it's on college funds or retirement or just basic savings. While they may be a bit more limited than Mint in which accounts it allows you to upload, there is a toll-free number to customer service, a rarity in web-based commerce.

Other sites worth checking out:

  • Billeo.com (bill paying and password storage)
  • Onebudget.com (currently in beta, a general personal finance management tool)
  • Smartypig.com (savings-specific site, less about budgeting and tracking, but very goal-oriented)
  • Manageme.com (basic PFM tool, with added reminder tracking, everything from recurring bills to calendar items)
  • Pearbudget.com ($5/month, but billed as a Dave Ramsey approach to budgeting, and elegant interface)

Microsoft money management templates. If you'd prefer to keep your financial information completely offline, you can download free Excel templates (but you need Excel, of course) and get organized right on your desktop. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/templates/CL102207099.aspx

Things are rapidly changing with financial institutions and how they assist consumers with financial planning. It would definitely be a benefit to check with your bank or credit union to see what they offer in the way of tracking spending, budgeting and personal finance management tools as you're considering which method to choose.

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