Web tools make finances more personal

Logos of online personal finance Websites and tools, clockwise from upper left: Wesabe, Yodlee, HSH, Tipulator, Bankrate.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: I don't generally consider myself a Luddite.
But when it comes to tracking and managing our household finances. Apparently I am, because use an old-fashioned method, Quicken. On my home computer. Boy, am I behind the times!

I'm inexplicably -- inexcusably? -- missing out on the beauty of online money management. So here to give all of us dinosaurs an education is CNET's editor at large, Brian Cooley.

Let's start with the online Web sites. Let's use one of the more popular ones, Mint.com - this is for...

BRIAN COOLEY: It's for tracking, budgeting and managing money. You can categorize and graph finances. It'll do this automatically as well. You can track investments. It ties into a lot of different bank services and billing services. And that's another thing you want to check: Is how many billers and payers does the given online service you're considering tie into? It can range from a thousand or more for some of these sites, down to a few hundred for others. So they may miss the ones that you need tied in.

Vigeland: Are there specific sites that you can recommend that are more functional than others?

COOLEY: Well, Mint tends to be the one that has some of the most hooks in it. Yodlee. There are plenty of up-and-comers, because it's easy to launch a Web service, compared to launching software that you have to get people to buy and install.

If you go over to Webware.com, which is where our site that follows these kinds of online services, we have this constant ebb and flow as we watch these guys add services and have a nuclear arms race against each other of who has the latest in terms of functionality, who has the latest in terms of more and more bank and merchant partners. So you've got to bear that in mind as well. If the features not there, take three deep breaths and it might be there.

Vigeland: OK, well we'll have a link to Webware on our Web site as well. What about the services that banks themselves provide, in terms of allowing to keep track of all your finances in one place? Are those any better or any worse than a site like Yodlee?

COOLEY: Those have become very mature in the last, I want to say the last three years, I've really seen those jump ahead. Because that's about the same time we started to see research into the number of people who are using online banking really starting to arc. The banks began to notice this a few years ago and really started to spend, I think, more time and money on their site, making them feel like modern Web sites. Because prior to that, if you haven't done online banking in let's say, five years, you may recall a very klugey experience.

Vigeland: When we talk about the difference between the stuff that stays on your computer versus doing this kind of putting everything in one Web site, my first reaction is concern about having all of that information in one place. Now, you look into this kind of technology all the time, so can you tell me that these online banking sites are at least 99 percent safe?

COOLEY: Ah, no. It's the web. Whenever you put something out on a machine that you don't own and you don't have the controls to a server or a service, like any of these banking Web sites, yeah, you're taking a layer of the onion and peeling it away. You're taking away some of the insulation around your information.

But with that said the online banking Web sites, the bank services are they're younger, they're newer. We haven't seen the mother of all breaches of them yet and let's face it, that's where industries tend to learn how to do things better. So you know, I'd have a little trepidation about it myself.

Vigeland: Well there's another kind of avenue that people can take with this, which is the smart phone applications. Now there are all kinds of ways you can manage your money through your iPhone or your Palm Pre, whatever you've chosen to use -- what do you think of these?

COOLEY: I think that they go to the very core of online banking, which is location and moment. So if you need to do a financial transaction -- whether it's the idea of moving money around for a big purchase that you just realized you were going to make or whether it's covering a bill that you realize, whoops, was due yesterday -- having financial access, wherever you are, is very much the next big thing.

The idea here is to distill into the smart phone just the essential functions: check your balance, transfer money, make a payment. That's all you need on a smart phone application in many cases. You don't need to go and have a home budget tracker. You'll do that on your computer.

Vigeland: Right.

COOLEY: You don't need to have a stock portfolio builder and tracker. Maybe a simple version of it. There are applications, like there's a Bloomberg app for the iPhone that is really good. It's a great portal into looking at trades and the market trends. There are loan calculators for the iPhone that are really great and they're simple. So I hope it stays that way and that the developers out there don't' start making these things increasingly complex, just to show what they can do.

Vigeland: Alright, Brian Cooley is CNET's editor at large. Thanks for sniffing all this out with us.

COOLEY: Yes, you're welcome.


BRIAN COOLEY'S TOP 10 MONEY MANAGEMENT SITES

Mint.com:
Online budgeting site is one of the most popular for managing your finances, from banking to bill paying. Mint.com also has an iPhone app that gets rave reviews for allowing access wherever you are.

Yodlee.com:
By capturing all assets and liabilities, Yodlee provides more than a just an accurate net worth statement. It aims to quickly become an essential part of consumers' financial lives.

Tipulator:
Not free, but the nominal cost of this smartphone application will save you lots of headaches when the check comes at the end of your dinner with friends.

Bloomberg app:
Free smartphone app and another must-have for investors. Completely customizable homepage so you can read any headlines for any market or Bloomberg category of your choice.

Pageonce Personal Assistant:
keeps track of multiple accounts on a single page. Add credit card accounts, bank accounts, and normal things like RSS feeds, stocks and weather. Also has mobile apps that let you keep track of these things on the go.

Quicken Online:
An online version of the popular Quicken software. Similar to Mint in providing a very basic overview of accounts with a breakdown of what you're spending money on, and where your budgeting should go. Can be found with your Web browser, as well as on the iPhone.

Rudder:
E-mail-based personal finance manager. Unlike other sites which require you to go there to get information, Rudder operates via e-mail, and gives you breakdowns of account balances and activity. Killer app is "what's left," which estimates how much you have to spend after typical spending habits, and the eventual payments of outstanding debts in each of your accounts.

BillQ:
Bill tracking service that lets you schedule when bills need to be paid. You can even group together with other users in order to group together shared expenses. Good for roommates.

MoneyStrands:
Standard budgeting, alerts, and bank account sync. Also shows you how you stack up financially to other users in terms of what you have in savings and how much you're spending each month. Works with 11 different currencies too.

Billeo:
Another online payment helper. It's big feature is that you can have it automatically fill in personal financial information for you on shopping sites (using a browser add-on), then have it track expenses using its bill pay and reports features.

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