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Still Balancing a Checkbook?

Terry Savage

As you pursue your business objectives, it’s important to set and maintain personal fi nancial goals—to make your money work for you as hard as you work for it! The reason most people don’t save enough or invest enough is that they have no idea what’s coming in—and how it’s fl owing out. Cash slips through their fingers. Multiple credit card statements make it tough to track spending. And somehow the money is gone!

Just as technology gives you an edge in your business life, it can save time and build wealth when it comes to managing your personal finances. Whether it's the mundane chores of tracking your daily spending or the more complicated tasks of tracking your investments and guiding your financial planning, tech tools not only save time but also help your money grow.

Here are some of my favorite technology tools that offer help with tasks ranging from daily money management to financial planning and investing.

Daily Basics

Pay bills online. Go to your bank’s Web site to sign up, if you aren't paying bills online already. It's easy, usually free and much safer than paper checks. You can make all sorts of payments—whether a credit card bill or your mortgage or the money you owe a friend. Most payments are made by electronic transfer, but the bank’s computer will print and mail a paper check if the recipient is not a business. Once you’re banking online, you can securely sign in from any computer at any hour to view your current balance or to give instructions for a payment.

View credit card statements online. Even if you choose to receive a paper bill each month, sign up at your card issuer’s Web site so you can track your balances online day or night. This will help you catch any fraud earlier, and keep you from expensive over-limit fees. Use your debit card. It’s great to rack up miles or points on a credit card. But for small purchases, use your debit card instead of cash at the grocers, dry cleaner or gas station. When you view your account online, those debits will all show up clearly labeled, so you’ll know where the money went. (Be aware that debit card protections against identity theft are not nearly as comprehensive as credit card guarantees.)

Organizing Your Personal Finances

It’s great to have information about where your money went, but it’s even more powerful to have that information organized so you can put your money to better use in the future. You’ll still need to keep paper files and records. But a lot of your money management can be done easily and securely on your computer.

Manage your money. Software programs such as Quicken and Microsoft Money provide the basic tools you’ll need to organize and manage your money. They can be purchased in stores or easily downloaded from their respective Web sites. The setup process is simple, and you’ll quickly be linked to your bank’s Web site. After that, it takes only a click to securely download all your online bank and credit card and investment information into the Quicken or Money program on your computer.

Tracking your checking account is the most basic application. It’s easy to create automatic categories for each payee. Then you can instantly view expenditures by category. View just the list of checks, or click to show the data in a colorful chart of your spending categories. The program even compares your actual spending to a planned expense budget. You can view payments by recipient so you never double-pay that doctor’s bill!

These popular money-management programs are also a huge help at tax time, working together with TurboTax and TaxCut software to identify deductions you might have missed and easily generate your own online tax return. Or you can just give the backup disc to your accountant and save on fees for time usually spent organizing your tax documentation.

Keep up with your financial information—from anywhere. The information in the Quicken or Microsoft Money programs resides securely in your computer. But what if you’re away from your desk and want information instantly? Web sites like Geezeo.com, Mint.com, or Wesabe.com aggregate all your financial information from various online financial-services companies and then send it to your cell phone or PDA on demand. Instant information is the latest advance in online money management.

These new online products may be evidence of a true financial generation gap. Adopted quickly by younger users, they instantly let spenders check balances when they’re near their credit card limit. Or when they’re about to overdraw their checking account! They let online traders know of stock price changes. For a generation that has never seen a paper bank statement or canceled check, online instant updates is the way banking works!

But an even faster-growing and more popular aspect of online fingertip financial information is the networking typically associated with these sites. Users post their own tips for managing money. Some sites allow members to compare their spending budgets with those in similar circumstances.

A new generation is educating itself with these instant comparisons and online conversations.

Planning for Your Future

The very best use of technology is for financial planning—whether for retirement or college financing or investing. The Internet is alive with sophisticated tools that give you financial-planning power. Here are a few of my favorites:

ChoosetoSave.org—This Web site created by the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute has the most comprehensive retirement planning tool. Just click on “Ballpark Estimate,” make sure to have your latest financial information at hand, and then enter it—privately and securely—into the online calculator. After you input your current income, retirement savings and saving rate, it will instantly calculate the shortfall in your planning—and let you know how much more you must contribute or how to change your risk profi le to reach your goals.

Morningstar.com—A well-known investment site, Morningstar.com is filled with information about mutual funds and stocks. You’ll have to register to use the free Portfolio Analysis tools and set up an online portfolio to track your investments (or import your data directly from Quicken or Microsoft Money). But this is more than a tracking service.

The Morningstar tools section allows you to analyze your portfolio in comparison to the weightings in the S&P 500. If you own mutual funds, it searches the stocks held within your funds to show you if you have an imbalance in any category—technology or energy stocks, for example—using the Portfolio X-ray tool. The premium membership even gives you tools to see how your portfolio might behave in a different type of market. If you bookmark only one investment site, this is the one to use.

Plannerfinder.com—If you’re still overwhelmed by the task of financial planning, technology comes to the rescue! This Web site allows you to search the Financial Planning Association’s registry of Certified Financial Planners by ZIP code and by specialty. These are the people trained to help you. These registered CFPs have a duty to put their clients’ interests first.

Post date: 
Aug 27, 2008

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