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Number Crunchers

Online calculators help you play "what if" games with your finances.

One of the joys of the internet is how it allows you to easily play "what if" games. Whether you're talking about the Electoral College, March Madness or personal finances, all you have to do is plug in the variables to see how different scenarios play out. With financial calculators in particular, you have plenty of places to play these games. Hundreds of websites offer rudimentary financial calculators that allow you to see the power of compounding, determine the true cost of a 15-year mortgage vs. a 30-year mortgage and figure out whether it's a better financial move to lease or buy your next car. You should still check the base assumptions built into each calculator, but most are pretty good. They'll help you get your financial house in order.

Here are a few that rise above the pack, either because of the breadth of calculators in one place or their specific usefulness:

  • Bankrate.com: Click on the "Calculators" tab at the top of the page and you'll find a few dozen calculators in nine categories, including all the old standbys. You'll also find ways to compare a great rebate offer with a lower interest rate (on cars), determine your net worth, decide whether a spouse should work, figure out how much you'd save by taking lunch to work instead of buying it, make a net-to-gross paycheck calculation and determine whether you should buy a hybrid car.
  • Morningstar.com: Click on the "Tools" tab and scroll down until you see "Financial Calculators." Here you'll find the Trade Analyzer, Cost Analyzer, Bond Calculator and IRA Calculator. My favorite is the IRA Calculator, which will tell you how much you can contribute to an IRA, whether it's better to go with a Roth or traditional, and whether you should convert all or a portion of your existing traditional account to a Roth.
  • ImmediateAnnuities.com: Go here if you have a lump sum and want to know how much of an annuity stream you could turn that into for the rest of your life--or, for example, if you want to find out how much a life insurance settlement might pay your survivors if annuitized. Enter some basic information, and up comes a page full of options telling you approximately how much you could expect to earn under a variety of scenarios.
  • fdic.gov/EDIE: Make sure you've maximized the level of government protection on your bank accounts with the Electronic Deposit Insurance Estimator, or EDIE. Turns out you can protect a lot more than $100,000 in one account, if you plan accordingly. EDIE will show you how.

Scott Bernard Nelson is a newspaper editor and freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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This article was originally published in the September 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Number Crunchers.

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