Death of the Checkbook - Budget Week

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS BTR Editorial

Photo by Heidi Elliott.

Written by: Margaret Jacobi

Once considered an intimidating task reserved mostly for budget saavy professionals, successfully managing your finances has never been easier. As banking and monetary transactions shifted from being physically recorded to chronicled online, numerous user-friendly websites now make budgeting a substantially easier experience. In an economy overwhelmed by debt, especially among jobless college graduates, some of these sites provide a concise overview of spending as well as financial recommendations to achieve budget goals.

“The checkbook is a limited way to manage your money because at its best, it tells you where you are,in terms of cash in a given account right now. But the secret to budgeting is understanding where you will be at a given point in the future IF you make a series of payments to your savings account, your credit cards, your car insurance, etc,” says SP Bourgeois, the manager of one of budgetEDGE.

Mint.com, boasting 7 million users, is at the forefront of this trend, but a simple Google search yields overwhelming results. Some other frontrunners include Yodlee, moneystrands, Buxfer, ClearCheckbook, BudgetPulse, myspendingplan, and budgetEDGE. Though each presents unique details that hone in on different demographics’ specific needs, most have overlapping features. The unifying feature among these sites is the centralization of all of the user’s financial accounts through either manual data entry or automatic linking to the user’s savings, checking, loans, etc.

Breakdowns of spending categories offer suggestions on the best way to save and pay off debts and loans. Some sites offer bill reminders via the website, iPhone app, or SMS, which always keeps users engaged in their financial obligations and credit scores. The organized and succinct manner the information is presented in allows for a more comprehensive understanding of where your money is being spent.

“The interface is simple and easy to use.” Says Mark Hollenbeck, recent college graduate and Mint.com user, “The tagging and categorical breakdown of spending is quite helpful, in that it provides me with the ability to understand my spending patterns. The best features of the site are the visual aids,pie charts, bar graphs, etc., as well as the tagging and filtering system — to make certain credits linked with a certain category.”

This sort of presentation of finances is a breath of fresh air for those who find basic spreadsheets to be tedious. Mint.com claims the website is so easy that an account can be setup in 5 minutes, while moneystrands asserts that their site makes money management “fun and easy.”

At a certain point though, when choosing between such sites, a decision must be made between the convenience of having automatic updates from bank accounts and complete anonymity.

Mint.com, Yodlee, moneystrands, and Buxfer are the lead contenders in the market for sites synced to account information and mostly offer different interfaces for a largely similar service. The differences lie in divergent roots. Yodlee, the aggregator Mint.com employed before Intuit purchased it, emphasizes recommendation less than the other sites. Buxfer was originally founded as a solution to dealing with I.O.U.s, what you owe and what is owed to you, but has since expanded its features.

Other sites, that require data entry for those who want to maintain anonymity, differentiate themselves in distinct niche markets. ClearCheckbook provides flexible format that allows users to customize their homepage to highlight whichever features they find to be important. BudgetPulse focuses on the best ways to save for specific items and has a fundraising feature. Myspendingplan, with its foundations in the principles of planning better, saving more, and living smart, seems to be a more family-oriented site that offers coupons, deals, and articles on effective ways to save. BudgetEDGE is a forward-looking. paycheck-driven site that shows how much money will be left after certain pay periods.

Sites that do access user’s bank information all have specific tabs that extensively chronicle safety measures that they employ to reassure their users. Both Mint.com and moneystrands utilize the same 128-bit encryption and physical security that banks use. All of Mint.com’s functions are monitored and verified by TRUSTe, VeriSign, and Hackersafe, and are supported by RSA Security as well. Buxfer has account information stored on the user’s computer, not on their servers and has McAfee conduct rigorous daily security scans daily.

If all this sounds a bit too invasive, loads of budgeting spreadsheet websites can easily accessed by a simple Google search. There are also several sites that provide the option of uploading your budget spreadsheet to their site for access to supplemental visual aids.

So, whether you’re handling several credit accounts, investments, or you’re a college student with one source of income and loans to manage, budgeting to save for that car or pay off all your debts might be a more accessible goal with any of these resources. Maybe a positive albeit late New Year’s resolution?

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