Online Finance Services Show Where Your Money Goes

Web-based services can help you get a handle on your personal finances. Here are three worth looking at.

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If you'd like help tracking income and expenses, you might find a simple, Web-based approach attractive--especially if you already monitor multiple bank and credit card accounts online. I found a lot to like in three such services: Intuit 's just-launched Quicken Online, the six-month-old, and Mvelopes Personal, to which we gave a World Class Award two years ago., which opened as a public beta in September, is a great way to dip your toe into managing your personal finances, mainly because it's free. During signup, you provide user ID and password info for your existing online accounts; Mint then grabs all the transaction information available (most institutions will provide 30 to 90 days' worth); assigns it a category; and gives you graphical snapshots of your income and spending habits based on those categories. Periodically thereafter, the service automatically updates your accounts.

Mint's categorizing is often wide of the mark, but you can easily override its choices with another of the service's 80-odd preset categories, or divide a transaction between two categories. However, you can't add or change categories; the best you can do is create a label to apply to the transaction, or append a descriptive note.

You can customize Mint to notify you via e-mail or text message when certain criteria are met--an account balance is too low or your credit card due dates are approaching, say. You can't use the service to make payments, however.

Mint makes money by presenting you with offers based on the categories you use and your transactions--for example, it showed me several>Verizon offers that supposedly would save me money on my current phone and cable TV services. You have to read the fine print carefully on such offers to determine if they would really save you money. But if you are diligent about properly categorizing transactions, Mint is an attractive and easy-to-use tool for seeing where your money is going--and finding suggestions for cutting costs.

Intuit's Quicken Online is handsome and easy to navigate. Like Mint, Quicken Online aggregates all your online account transactions, assigns them categories, and uses the categories (which you can override) to create charts showing income and expenses. But Quicken Online lets you add, delete, or edit its categories. You can also have it send you e-mail or SMS reminders for upcoming bills (you specify which ones, and how long before the due date to be reminded).

Quicken Online also helps you get a handle on your finances by letting you enter transactions that haven't shown up in your online accounts--a just-mailed check, say. But the service has no connection to the Quicken desktop application: You can't import data from one to the other. Furthermore, you can't access investment and loan accounts via Quicken Online; Intuit still recommends using its desktop app to track them.

Intuit charges $3 a month for Quicken Online; I saw no ads, and the customization capability is a real plus.

Virtual Budgeting

In2M's Mvelopes Personal is significantly more expensive--$8 a month for a two-year prepaid subscription. But it's both a more robust, Flash-based service that includes electronic bill payments (up to 15 a month, an extra-cost item at many banks) and a Web-based system to help you create and stick with a budget.

You develop a budget by creating virtual envelopes for all anticipated expenses (for large once-a-year items such as vacations, Mvelopes calculates how much you'll need to save each month), and then allocate your income to the envelopes, prioritizing those for required expenses (such as the mortgage and groceries). The service then compares your actual outlays based on transactions it retrieves from 14,000-plus institutions, far more than either Mint or Quicken Online support.

A mobile applet lets you view the Mvelopes you choose (for example, travel-related ones such as dining out) on a browser-equipped phone or device. Like Quicken Online, Mvelopes lacks tools for managing investments, but it's more of a true personal finance manager than Mint or Quicken Online.

Choose Mvelopes if you're willing to put in some time and effort on its budgeting tools and can make use of its bill-pay service; try the free if you just want a better handle on your finances and are willing to look at offers from services that compete with ones you use now. As for Quicken Online, its access-from-anywhere capability and reminders are nice, but I think its fees would be better spent on the company's much more complete desktop application.

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