smart spending

Can the Web solve your money woes?

White piggy bank standing on silver keyboard, top view
Highlights
  • Simply tracking your expenses will help you get control over finances.
  • When using online financial tools, keep your virus protection updated.
  • If your own bank doesn't offer the features you want, alternatives exist.

Life is busy; money management is complicated. Most of us would like to stick to a budget, but who can keep track of where every penny goes? And, no one wants to pay bills late, but it takes time to ensure you're on time. Enter the Web to help solve money woes.

Consumers are turning to the Internet to find virtual personal accountants who will nag, inform and warn them -- helping them overcome financial pitfalls.

Of course, you don't want to dangle information on the Web that can put your financial security at risk.

The following are some common excuses for not getting your finances in order, and some of the money woes the Web can put to rest.

"I can't budget."

Simply seeing where your money goes "provides insight and you start getting control (over spending)," says Emmett Higdon, senior analyst with consulting firm Forrester Research.

That's why Mint.com has a big following, he says. By tracking all your noncash spending, Mint provides updated breakdowns. If, for instance, you want to spend only $200 on clothing monthly, you can log on to the Web and see how much is left after a couple of mall visits. (Sometimes, you will have to allocate expenditures into categories, like whether a $50 Target tab was for clothes or groceries.)

You can also set up text or e-mail alerts when a category dips to a specified level. "Ninety percent of users say they've changed how they spend as a result of using Mint.com. The most common change is eating out less," says Mint founder Aaron Patzer.

Other banking sites on the Web are adopting similar tools, observes Mark Schwanhausser, analyst at consulting firm Javelin Strategy.

For security reasons, Lillie Coney, associate director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, doesn't recommend using any site except one sponsored by your bank, since government rules dictate certain online security standards.

However, many sites, such as Mint, provide software for banks, and thus are subject to the same rules, says Doug Johnson, vice president of risk management policy for the American Bankers Association.

Moreover, regulation requires that consumers who report fraud on their credit card or bank accounts within a reasonable time can recover their funds, says Johnson. Online customers tend to look at accounts frequently, a practice that alerts them to suspicious activity, he says.

When you use online financial tools, experts suggest keeping Web software and virus protection updated, using strong passwords composed of letters and numbers, and always typing in Web addresses rather than linking from an e-mail.

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"I don't pay bills on time."

A common online bank offering is the ability to set up automatic payments for recurring bills, says Higdon.

If you don't want funds automatically transferred, you could set up e-mail alerts at a certain interval before billing due dates informing you that it's time to make payment, says Schwanhausser.

 

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