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Fiscally Fit

Cyber Budgeting

Published 08/19/2009 12:00 AM

WOULDN'T IT BE NICE IF someone could download all your finances, categorize each item (from dining out to monthly rent) and then graph all those finances automatically - each day - so you could really know what you're spending and where.

Well, there is someone - more like something - called Mint.com that offers to manage your money for free.

Mint.com is one of the more popular online budgeting services that allows you to download your financial information to its servers so you can see where your money is being spent, or budget where your future funds might go, so more money can go toward savings, rather than the corner pizza parlor.

The Web site offers a myriad of services, including information about personal finance, retiring and even student loans.

But its principal aim is to be an online budgeting service so you can see where your cash is going. And, if you don't like where it's heading, you can also use the site to set up some personal budgeting techniques to rein in spending.

Tobie Stanger says that Mint.com is one of the better-marketed online budgeting sites, but she says there are other sites worth checking out because there's a growing desire among some online users who want to know where their dollars are going each week, or month, or year.

Stanger, a senior editor with Consumer Reports, says these new sites do come with a few important caveats.

For starters, she says, you have to be comfortable with putting your financial information onto their Web servers. The various sites her organization tested all feature security-protected Web sites that are encrypted to protect against hackers. But these days, you never know about computer security, so carefully check out each Web site's information and policies about keeping your daily financial information safe and sound. It shouldn't be a deal breaker, because so many of us rely these days on Web services, such as online banking, online brokerage and online bill-paying.

"If you're comfortable with uploading your bank and credit card information to these various servers, try a bunch of them and see which one you like," she advises. "There's nothing wrong with trying."

Stanger says that the hardest part about these new online budgeting services is to simply get started. The amount of time it takes to download information isn't laborious, and once you do, you can get start putting your financial house, so to speak, in better order.

Consumer Reports' Money Adviser newsletter selected four online budgeting services to test, says Stanger: Mint.com, Quicken Online, Yodlee Money Center and Geezeo. Each of the services had their pluses and minuses, but Stanger says the organization's testing results showed the Yodlee site was among the most comprehensive, if not the most well known. It's free, and it doesn't feature any advertising, which is near and dear to Consumer Reports' heart, since that publication doesn't accept any advertising to ensure its editorial objectivity.

Most of these services, since they are free, make their money through online advertising on their sites or by creating various services for banks and brokerages, says Consumer Reports. And most are pretty simple by nature. They allow you to track your most common expenses, such as entertaining or dining. Getting into tracking and dissecting, say, your personal stock portfolio can get much trickier, and there are other online sites that let you do that.

Stanger says there are some nifty features associated with these Web sites, like getting cyber reminders about what bills need to be paid or the fact that your checking account balance may be getting dangerously low.

"Where these (sites) are most useful is to find out how much you are spending on entertainment, on groceries, on auto costs," she says.

"They are sensitive to what people want (from the sites), and generally the support was pretty good all around," Stanger says.

Anthony Cronin is The Day's business editor and personal-finance columnist for Grace magazine. He can be reached at a.cronin@theday.com.