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Shopping 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 to consider.

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 at Shareware Connection.

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.

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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 tool.

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).

Special features
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.

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Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan.


-- Posted: Sept. 20, 2004
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2004 Debt Guide
30 yr fixed mtg 3.75%
15 yr fixed mtg 2.91%
5/1 jumbo ARM 3.34%
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Can you borrow from your home equity?

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