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.”