online for budget help
You've heard the budget lecture before: Keep track
of everything you spend and don't spend more than you have.
Most of us, however, don't follow this advice. Part
of the reason is because our lives are complicated enough without
the extra task of monitoring every credit or debit charge, not to
mention electronically paid bills and paper checks.
To help you maneuver the money morass, a pre-packaged
budget program might be the answer. There are a lot of budget tools
available and the Internet is a good place to start your search.
But as you surf for online budget aid, there are a couple of things
First, evaluate your personal situation. Do you just
need some help in reining in periodic overspending on a hobby or
are you routinely running out of money to pay for necessities at
the end of each month? If the first case applies, then a simple
budgeting system should work just fine.
Now about locating that basic budgeting program: Get
ready to spend some time sifting through the choices. When you enter
the words "budget," "budgeting" or "budgeting
program" into any search engine, you'll find close to a million
options. An impressive compendium of budget programs can be found
Once you find a few that interest you, it's
time to compare, and that's not always easy. While the program's
main Web pages usually provide some general information, to get
details often requires additional steps. Very basic online budget
programs, such as iVillage's
cash-flow calculator, tend to be free. Others are free but require
registration before you can try them out.
And some sites charge you for access
to their budgeting software, either a flat download fee or a monthly
charge, which is something else you'll have to budget for. But it
may be a worthwhile expenditure if it keeps you from incurring more
debt or regularly being late with payments.
Paying to track your payments
Stephen B. Smith, author of "Money for Life," has created
the online budgeting tool Mvelopes.com.
Designed to look like an old-fashioned envelope system, Mvelopes
lets users keep track of how well they are sticking to a spending
plan. It's easy to learn and manage (no formulas like you encounter
with a spreadsheet), but there is a monthly charge for using the
software. It does, however, include a bill-paying component; if
you pay 25 bills a month and use the e-pay system instead of buying
stamps, you'll come close to recovering the budgeting tool cost.
Among the most popular, pay-for-use money management
choices are Intuit's
Quicken and Microsoft
Corp.'s Money. Their programs are very similar and costs are
comparable. Both Web sites provide details on the products and a
sample of their offerings via video tours and demonstrations.
If you decide to purchase either, you can order the
software online (and get a rebate for doing so). If you don't want
to wait for the software to arrive in the mail, Quicken gives you
the option to download its product. Depending on the version you
choose, your computer's operating system and your Internet service
provider, it could take from four minutes to four hours before you
have access to the budgeting tool. Microsoft Money offers a stripped
down, downloadable 60-day free trial version of its cash management
The bottom line: If either Quicken or Money came preloaded
on your computer, stick with it. You won't gain very much by switching.
And depending on your needs, you might not need to update the program
(or at least not every time an upgrade is offered).
Of course, specialty budget software does have some advantages.
The best thing about most of the more sophisticated
budgeting systems is that they have a direct connect feature that
allows you to transfer transactions directly from your bank to your
personal computer. Not all banks offer this, but most do. This link
cuts down tremendously on the drudgery of tracking expenses.
To set it up you'll need your bank's routing number
and your checking account number. Each time you connect, these programs
will query your bank's server for new transactions. With your approval,
they'll download them into your online check register. They are
generally smart enough to recognize duplicates.
One drawback is the sketchiness of the descriptions.
You could spend a lot of time trying to figure out what things like
"SH.MC 1005 ABN-AMRO BA04080908081633" really mean.
on next page)
Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing
editor based in Michigan.