WANT TO SCORE a $250 massage for $30? Maximize your frequent-flier miles and be sure to use them before they expire? Or get notified the moment it makes sense to switch credit cards or refinance your mortgage? The world of online money management has expanded beyond checking the balances on your accounts to become a powerful tool for analyzing your investments, tracking your spending and finding the best deals.
If lingering fears about safety and privacy keep you away, get over them. While it’s true that no website is 100 percent safe, there are precautions you can take to minimize risk. Always read a site’s security policy; any site that handles sensitive information such as bank-account numbers should have one. It should tell you how the information is stored, who has access to it (company employees, for instance, should not) and what encryption is in place (128-bit SSL encryption is best—it’s what’s used by banks). You’ll also see a bevy of logos from security services like Truste and VeriSign. Click on them to make sure they’re not just JPEGs; if they’re legit, a new page will open, verifying that the site is certified by a security company. Also check that the site has https in the URL, not just http; the s stands for secure.
Here, with the help of some of my best sources, are my picks for sites designed to bolster your bottom line.
I like this site because it’s thorough. Load in a list of stocks, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds you own; Portfolio Monkey will score your portfolio based on its return potential, risk and diversification. (The site calls this your banana score. I guess someone thought stars were overrated.) Then it will suggest ways to fix your mix that will lower risk or improve returns and indicate how many shares you need to buy or sell to make that happen. The site can also analyze individual stocks or funds—if you aren’t sure, say, whether Dell or Microsoft is a better match for your portfolio (or if one mutual fund is better than another). Finally, it can suggest stocks or funds you may not have considered.
The site, which launched in 2008, is still in beta and free, but the company is considering a monthly subscription charge of about $20. Will it be worth the money? Only if the site helps you earn higher returns than you do already—and the site makes it easy to figure that out. Go to the “Optimize” page and use the Backtest function to compare your existing portfolio with Portfolio Monkey’s Optimal Portfolio over the previous one-, three- and five-year periods.
Of course, it’s wise to take the recommendations with a grain of salt, as the site says. I see it as a good tool for DIY investors and 401(k)-account holders who want to know if their investments are performing as well as they could. Don’t just do what the site says, but use its suggestions to inform the conversations you have with your financial adviser, your accountant, your spouse.
Keep Tabs On Your Spending: MINT.COM
(Also available in apps for the iPhone and Android)
This budgeting site tops the list of every expert I spoke to because of the terrific charts that show your spending by category. When you sign up, you register all your accounts: bank, credit cards, mortgage, car loan, investments, student loan and so on. (Safety isn’t an issue: The website takes the same precautions as your bank, and it can’t be used to move money, which means no one can clean out your accounts.) Mint will then use information from those accounts—like the fact that you charged $240 in theater tickets or spent $350 at Saks—to show you where your money goes and compare your spending with that of other people using the site. “Before I put my information in, I didn’t realize I was spending $60 more per month on coffee than the average New Yorker,” says Katie Linendoll, technology expert for the CBS Early Show. “And I like that you can sync with all your devices.”
Mint will suggest a budget appropriate for you based on your spending patterns and will point you toward savings accounts with higher interest rates and credit cards with lower ones (the company makes its money when you sign up for these). But before you dive in, understand that Mint is like a puppy: You only get as good as you give. “The site requires a sizable investment of time in order to get the most out of it,” says David-Michel Davies, executive director of the Webby Awards (which Mint has won several times). It will take a couple of hours to set up your accounts and spending categories; after that, maintenance is fairly minimal. You’ll have to disclose, for instance, exactly how you’re spending your cash in order for the site to get an accurate sense of your spending patterns. Otherwise, all it sees is that you pull money out of the ATM.
Save Money: BILLSHRINK.COM
(App coming later this year)
Consider this site an alternative to calling your phone company and asking for a better deal. Tell BillShrink what services or products you have and how you’re using them (in addition to cell phones, it sifts through rates on credit cards, cable TV, savings accounts, CDs and gasoline). If, for example, you’re a wireless user, it wants to know how many minutes you talk, if you roam, how much you text and if you have family who could be on the same plan. For cable, it needs to know how many boxes (regular or HD) and DVRs you have and whether premium channels are a must. Then it scours the marketplace and matches you with a better plan if one exists. For cell phones, it’s not just price that matters but signal strength at home, at work and on your commute.
I like that you can make a switch directly from the site; you don’t have to jump out and call the cable company. And there is follow-up if you want it. For example, every month BillShrink can reanalyze your cell phone bill to tell you the top five numbers you called. By making those your friends-and-family list, you may be able to change to a cheaper plan. The credit card widget is similarly detailed. It finds you a card based on whether you carry a balance, whether you care about rewards and, if you do, what form you want them in. If you have a preferred airline, it will recommend only cards that work with that airline.
Lower Your Interest Rates: CREDITSESAME.COM
Like Credit.com and CreditKarma.com, this free site, launched last year, is worth a visit just to get a peek at your credit score, which would otherwise cost you $15 to $20. But I recommend it because of the other things it does. When you sign up, the engine takes you through six quick questions (one of which asks for your Social Security number, but it’s OK; the site is secure). Using your answers, the site will automatically gather information on all your debts—including balances, who owns the loans, your monthly payments and the progress you’re making in paying down your debts—and puts it all together, giving the most complete picture of a credit life I’ve ever seen. Then it figures out if you’d benefit from refinancing, consolidating or restructuring any of those loans. It may tell you, say, that you could swap your 30-year mortgage for a 20 at a lower interest rate or that you could get a better car loan by refinancing with a different bank.
Next, it asks if you want to apply for any of those loans. If it doesn’t find anything for you, or you decide you’d rather not make changes right now, it will continue tracking your financial situation, including your debt and credit score, and update you once a month (unless you ask to be updated more often). If something changes—for instance, if interest rates fall, which makes a new mortgage beneficial—the site will notify you.
Like many other sites, Credit Sesame makes its money by getting you to sign up for new credit. What is unusual is that Credit Sesame filters its offers by your credit score. Is it possible that you’ll be denied a new credit card or mortgage after you apply? Yes, says CEO Adrian Nazari, but the chance of being turned down is 50 percent, not 90 percent, as it is in much of the industry. Serial refinancers (like me) and consumers who want to get out of debt yesterday will love it.
Stash More Away: SMARTYPIG.COM
(Also available in app form)
The graphics are a little too cute for my taste, but the FDIC-insured savings account at this site has one of the best interest rates going (it’s currently 1.35 percent). And when rates rise, it will keep up. I also like that the site focuses on your goals. When you sign up, it asks what you’re saving for (25 percent of users say travel), how much it will cost and how long you’re giving yourself to get there. Then it will prompt you to set an amount that will be drawn automatically from your savings or checking account monthly or biweekly. Sound too childlike? It’s not—the average user is in her early thirties and working toward a goal of saving $3,500 for travel, home improvement or holiday gifts.
This simple approach is grounded in behavioral finance: Research has shown that setting a goal and breaking it down into benchmarks is the way to save successfully. You can also make your goal public, giving friends the opportunity to cheer you on (again, behaviorists have documented that this works) or kick in some cash themselves. Once you reach your goal (or if you haven’t but decide you want to withdraw the money anyway), you can use the cash to buy a gift card at a discount from a major retailer; amounts vary from 3 percent at Amazon to 5 percent at Marriott to 14 percent at Macy’s. You can also put the money on a debit card to use as cash or transfer it back to your checking account at any time.
Spend Less: DEALERY.COM
When Groupon debuted, I signed up immediately. Every morning, when the -e-mail landed, I would drop what I was doing to check it out. But I’d rarely buy, so after a while I started skimming. Then I stopped looking. When I’d hear from a friend about the 50 percent off she landed at this restaurant or that yoga class, I’d be peeved. And now the Groupon copycats—LivingSocial, KGBdeals and the like—have made the search more complicated. Bargains are out there, but finding them can take a lot of effort.
That’s why I’m high on Dealery: It operates in 87 U.S. and Canadian cities, has partnered with the big social buying sites and aggregates all the offerings in a single place every day. So if you live in Chicago, you don’t have to go to kgbdeals.com to snag the one-month membership plus personal-training session at GoTime for $35 (a $205 value) or to tippr.com to get 50 percent off Indian food at Viceroy. Dealery makes a commission on the products it sells.
Use Your Miles (And Other Loyalty Points) Before They Expire: USINGMILES.COM
On international flights, I fly business or first class. I justify it because if I sleep on the plane, I don’t lose the next day to jet lag—and I pay for these trips with miles. This has become much tougher to do. For my last few flights abroad, I had to ante up the dreaded anytime miles (double the usual number) far in advance to get the tickets. Was it a good deal? At that point, who knew. Next time, with this site, I will.
Enter all your loyalty-program account numbers, and the site starts pulling together your information, updating your balances each time you sign on, letting you know how close you are to achieving elite status and telling you what your points are worth in dollars. Then, if you want to book a flight or hotel, you can do so directly from the site (that’s how UsingMiles makes its money). When the site returns prices and availability, it will also let you know if you can travel free. And because award travel is sporadic, you can set an alert to notify you if a seat becomes available. By seeing both the prices and the miles it takes to fly free, you get into the habit of viewing points and miles like money. That way you can decide whether it makes sense to buy a cheap ticket or save the miles for another time. But if you can buy a cheap ticket and use the miles for an upgrade worth thousands of dollars, you’re reaping significant value. (And if you’re unsure, the engine will make a recommendation on using the miles or not.)
Jean Chatzky, More’s finance columnist, can relate: She has kids, a husband, a mortgage and an aging parent. She knows how far you need your money to go. For more of her advice, go here.