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Putting your financial house in online order

Getting your finances in shape is a tall order. Faced with a sea of paper -- bills to be paid, check statements, brokerage transaction records, mutual fund reports -- most people want to abandon ship. Instead, look online for help.

Provided that you're comfortable with your PC and the Web, organizing your finances online can eliminate some financial drudgery and make the task easier and more convenient. And keeping track of your finances online offers an added bonus: With your data online, you'll free up storage space in your house.

So where to start? Most people begin where they have their money -- their bank.

Almost every bank offers some form of online banking, from the small community type such as Montana-based First Security Bank with seven branches to giants such as Bank of America with 5,700 retail banking offices. Find your bank's Web site, pick a user name and password and you're good to go.

Almost any financial transaction or bank activity that you carry out by mail or in person now can be completed online. Exceptions include check deposits and cash withdrawals. Banks haven't figured out how to give your PC a cash drawer.

"Twenty-four by seven Internet banking allows customers to view balances, transfer funds, pay bills, check past debits and credits, contact the bank, schedule reoccurring payments -- just about everything that you can do at a branch," says Lauren Camner, vice president of investor relations and Web site manager for Bank United, the largest community bank in Florida.

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The primary advantages of online banking are convenience, ease and speed. You pick when you want to bank. It takes less time to balance your checkbook online since the automation does all the calculations for you. And in many cases there's no charge for banking online; be sure to check your bank's fee policies.

E-paying bills
In addition to giving you access to your money, online banking also makes it easier to disburse your cash via electronic bill paying. You save time, money on postage (as long as the bank fee, if any, is minimal) and you can pay bills whenever you want.

But your bank isn't your only e-payment choice:

  • If your bank doesn't offer bill paying or you don't like its system, use another aggregator. This one-site-to-pay-all-bills approach does take time to set up, but once it's done, all your data is in a single, easy-to-access online locale.
  • Establish electronic accounts with each of your creditors. You'll have more control, but you'll need to remember different passwords, user names and the individual sites' methods of organization.
  • Set up automatic payments, either through an aggregator or individually. You won't have to remember to pay the bill with this option, but the transaction will go through regardless of whether you've got sufficient funds, so you could end up overdrawn.
  • Organize just-in-time payments. Pay each bill yourself each month. You can make sure you have enough dough in the bank, but you'll also have to remember to make the payments when they fall due.

To help you manage online bill paying, many sites let you sign up for e-mail alerts to remind you when to pay your bills.

Before you make the leap to online bill paying, find out what fees are involved. Most individual billers do not charge for online payments, but some do. Others have different charges for different customers. For example, Bank United doesn't charge its signature reserve customers (those who maintain balances in excess of $5,000) for online bill paying privileges. Customers with lower balances, however, must pay $5.95 per month for unlimited transactions.

If you are unwilling to pay any extra fees, don't lose heart. Double-check with your financial institution. Sometimes you can negotiate a waiver or otherwise strike a deal.

Managing other accounts
Similar to banking via the Web, you now can manage your stock, mutual funds and other financial accounts online.

At a minimum, you can oversee individual accounts separately. Like electronic bill paying or online banking, this will require setting up a password and user name and learning how to navigate the individual site.

The advantages of managing these accounts are similar to that of banking or electronic bill paying: speed, ease and convenience. The downside is you have to set up individual accounts, so it can get complicated. That means multiple passwords for your various accounts. Plus, you have to know how to navigate each site.

If you choose to manage your business accounts online, Debbie Stanley, author of "Organize Your Personal Finances in No Time," recommends recording passwords and user names in one convenient spot that can be secured. Stanley uses her password-protected Palm Pilot. Or, just keep a file folder with the required log-in information. The file folder can be stored in a locked drawer for the sake of security.

While most of us have to manage each of our business accounts separately, you may be in luck if you work with a smaller investment or financial services firm. These companies may be willing to help you organize your accounts online in exchange for getting your business and retaining you as a loyal customer.

Atlantic Financial Inc., an independent investment firm based in the Boston area, aggregates online accounts for its customers. "An investor who has a few mutual funds at Fidelity, one at Mainstay, two at ING and one at Dreyfus could consolidate all these into one account with one account number, Web site login, password and statement," says firm president Bruce Fenton.

Atlantic Financial does not charge customers for this service. Fenton says the company offers it because it makes customers happy and keeps them coming back.

Electronic links
Computer checkbook programs, such those offered by Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft Money, also can help you organize your online finances. They've built money management links into their software applications.

With Quicken 2005's checkbook register, for example, a click will take you to a creditor's Web site for easy bill payment.

In addition, Intuit and Microsoft are adapting their programs so they can download transactions for your financial accounts. So rather than recording a check payment yourself, the software will do it for you by accessing your bank account records online and transferring transaction information to your computer.

Additional financial management help
Feel like you need a little more guidance in handling your money online? Check out one of the financial "concierge" services, such as MyVesta.org and Mvelopes.com. Both help you master budgeting with books, articles and templates. They also offer advice and money coaching.

The basis for Mvelopes is the old-fashioned paper budgeting method; you use different envelopes, electronic in this case, to track your spending. In addition to budgeting, Mvelopes lets you pay bills, manage your financial assets and offers personal coaching on financial issues.

MyVesta focuses more on debt counseling and management. Much of its information is free, but there are charges for individual coaching and products such as its Debt Eliminator Report.

There's the catch. The individual attention is great, but it does carry a price tag. "You're going to have to pay for it," says Steve Rhode, money coach and founder of Myvesta. "Nobody's going to mow your lawn for free, and nobody's going to take care of your finances for free."

Mvelopes' fees vary, depending on whether you pay monthly, quarterly or yearly. The cheapest option -- paying in advance annually -- works out to $9.95 a month. It also offers a free trial so you can test-drive its financial management services before you buy.

In addition to pure financial sites, people who need help getting organized may want to check out www.myGoals.com. Its section on financial goals includes "buying a home" and "reducing debt."

You can use myGoals templates or create your own money management list. The site prompts you through the process; for example, it will ask you to state your goal and then list the obstacles facing you in meeting it. Mygoals.com will help you divide a big project into little, achievable goals and set a deadline for each task. You also can set up myGoals reminders, such as "clip coupons from Sunday's paper" in your quest to save money.

Some online money management tools have even been officially sanctioned by state officials. The New Mexico State Treasurer's Office, for example, has partnered with the national, nonprofit Bond Market Foundation to make online money management resources readily available.

For the New Mexico program, the Bond Market Foundation created both English and Spanish sites. The pages also are accessible from the state treasurer's home page. The sites offer information tailored for women, young people, Spanish-speaking Americans, American Indians, seniors and those who have suffered an unexpected change in their lives, such as the loss of a spouse or a job.

Individual work still required
Going online can be a great way to organize your finances, but it's not a money magic bullet. You still have to do the work.

"People start online banking thinking it will make them more financially savvy," says Rhode. "That's not the case at all. It's just getting your bills paid online."

Going online makes bill paying and record keeping easier, but it doesn't convey wisdom. In fact, Rhode argues that going online or using a software money management program can actually make you less likely to analyze your financial situation. You're one step further removed from the process. The computer does all the work, so it's easy to lose track of how much you're actually paying out in bills vs. how much you are taking in.

That caveat aside, provided you go online with your eyes open, electronic bill paying and record keeping can ease the burden of keeping your finances up-to-date and in order.

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

-- Posted: Dec. 1, 2004
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