With the unemployment rate in the United States hanging close to the 10 percent mark at the end of 2010, up from 2008's 7.4 percent, pinching pennies and sticking to a tight budget is as important as ever. Fifteen million people out of work is the sign of a struggling economy -- and even when the economy is healthy, knowing how to manage your money is a valuable skill [source: Trading Economics]. You may know you can afford to go out to eat and hit the movies every now and then, but do you know how much you should be saving for retirement? Do you even know how much money you spend on snack foods every month? Could you be using a credit card that gives you cash back for every purchase?
An amazing array of high-tech tools exists to help us answer every one of those questions. They range from the complex software applications like Quicken that offer precise control of every transaction coming and going through our bank accounts, to simple resources like AnnualCreditReport.com. Whether you need to craft a budget to plan for retirement or pick out a new credit card with a low interest rate, there's a tool out there waiting to be used. We'll start with powerful software that can take charge of your entire financial life, then move on to free Internet solutions that can also be incredibly useful.
Quicken may well be the single most ubiquitous piece of financial software on the market, and with good reason -- it's been around for more than 25 years. Originally sold in banks in 1984, Quicken grew alongside the software market, eventually adopting the Windows platform in 1991 and regularly adding new features and support for new operating systems [source: Intuit]. Quicken 2011 is just a bit more advanced than the now-ancient check-writing program that started it all in 1984.
If you're looking for a powerful piece of software to manage multiple checking accounts, savings accounts, online transactions and credit card bills -- pretty much every single dollar that goes in or out of your coffers -- Quicken is a good choice. You can use it to craft a budget, pay bills, and set goals to plan for retirement or that pool you've always wanted for the backyard. The basic version of Quicken 2011 costs $69.99, while the more powerful Quicken Premier costs $104.99. If you're interested in a tool to track and manage investments and stock market decisions, Quicken Premier is the better pick.
Quicken is a powerful money management application that may be a bit overwhelming for some users. If you need a simpler budgeting program and don't have multiple accounts to track, a less expensive solution may be for you. One last important thing to note: Quicken is primarily a Windows program, and the Mac software, Quicken Essentials, lacks the breadth of features available in the Windows version. With that in mind, let's take a look at one of Quicken's most popular competitors.
The no-frills alternative to Quicken, You Need a Budget (YNAB) lacks the scope of tools available in Intuit's famous budgeting software. YNAB doesn't track investments or offer as many options as Quicken; instead, it focuses on delivering a simple, robust financial application that's all about budgeting. More specifically, YNAB works on a zero-based budgeting system: You begin with one-month's income, then allocate all of that money into budget categories until every cent is accounted for [source: Fiscal Geek].
With YNAB, you can categorize and track transactions, divide spending brackets into sub-categories and view spending on a month-to-month basis. While Quicken can automatically import transaction data from a huge host of banks, expenditures must be manually entered into YNAB. That makes money management a more proactive effort, but YNAB is $10 cheaper than Quicken at $59.99. YNAB offers a week-long free trial on its Web site for those interested in trying the software before buying it.
Quicken and YNAB both excel at managing a wealth of transactions, which means they aren't for everyone. If all of your spending is tied up in one bank account, a piece of software dedicated to money management might be overkill. Why not handle transactions at the source, instead?
Approximately 80 percent of U.S. households used an online banking solution in 2010 [source: Fiserv]. Online services have become a standard feature of large and small banks across the country. Quicken is able to download transaction data from more than 12,000 banks [source: Quicken]. But if you use only one bank, why not capitalize on the online services it offers specifically for its customers?
Some banks facilitate online bill payments, move funds between accounts and setup alerts to monitor account balances. But online banking's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Because Internet services differ from bank to bank, your mileage may vary. If your bank offers useful online options, they could present an adequate and free alternative to a piece of software; you will just have to be the judge. Since online banking is accessible from any computer with Internet capabilities, it's a smart way to keep track of your finances while away from home.
But if you want the best of both worlds -- the power of a money managing application and the accessibility of a bank's Web site -- we'll show you two of the best options for replicating the benefits of Quicken and You Need a Budget online.
Mint.com offers the easy budgeting of You Need a Budget and the automatic transaction data importation of Quicken. Operating Mint.com is intuitive thanks to a simple, but powerful, user interface. Better yet, it's free. Once you sign up, you'll add in your bank, credit card or other financial data, and because Mint.com, like Quicken, is operated by Intuit, it features the same option to import automatically updated information from those accounts.
After Mint.com imports your financial data, the Web site automatically categorizes purchases into groups such as "Bills & Utilities" and "Food & Dining," and you can allocate a specific amount of money for each type of spending. Mint's Goals page ties into its budgeting system, allowing you to set specific milestones for monthly spending. In addition to its financial management, Mint.com offers charts so you can see your spending trends, and it can also recommend a credit card based on your finances.
If you're looking for a way to watch your spending and set goals, Mint.com is a great place to start. It's a free way to begin controlling your finances, and an excellent precursor to using a more complex pay-for utility like Quicken or You Need a Budget.
As a capable alternative to Mint.com, Yodlee.com offers similar abilities: It's free and automatically imports account data from banks and credit cards. There's the same support for investments and real estate. You can use Yodlee.com to pay bills, transfer funds and budget your money. For users with multiple accounts to track, Mint.com and Yodlee.com both offer excellent online budgeting services for free. While Yodlee.com lacks the clean, slick interface of Mint.com, it's backed up by an impressive pedigree: The company's corporate solutions have powered a number of banks and large corporations since 1999 [source: Yodlee].
Some users have noted that Yodlee.com does a better job of properly labeling transactions than Mint.com [Sun Financial Diary]. For the management of multiple bank accounts and online bill paying, Yodlee.com may be the more powerful choice, while Mint.com may offer a more streamlined experience. If you're looking for an online banking solution, try them both and see which one fits. After all, they're free.
Proper money management is a huge step on the path to smart financial control, but it's not the only step. What if you need a new credit card or plan to buy a house and don't know a thing about mortgages? Now that we know what Web sites and programs to rely on for controlling our bills and bank accounts, let's delve into some of the best financial tip sites on the Internet.
BankRate.com offers news, statistics, and advice across a broad range of financial sectors, from mortgages and home equity to student loans. The credit card page highlights popular cards for low interest rates and cash back offers. The debt management hub offers advice on filing bankruptcy and consolidating credit card bills.
BankRate.com's calculators offer an interactive element to supplement its information resources. The calculator hub includes several different tools. For instance, the credit card debt calculator helps you figure out how much you really owe, interest included. And in addition to all the aggregated financial content from around the Web, BankRate.com includes a blogs page with financial advice and commentary covering the same range of topics as the rest of the site.
No matter what financial sector you're interested in exploring, BankRate.com is a great starting place for insightful articles and useful tools. Next we'll turn to a trusted expert for advice on bargains, scams and personal credit: Clark Howard.
Few names from the financial industry evoke the same respect as Clark Howard. Howard's radio show on saving money and avoiding scams is nationally syndicated, and he regularly appears on TV on HLN [source: ClarkHoward]. Clark Howard's Web site highlights travel deals and money savers; posts show notes from his radio and television appearances; and hosts a community message board for fan interaction.
One of the most useful sections of ClarkHoward.com is "Clark's Topics," a collection of articles and financial advice on personal money management, real estate, health care and more. For insight into which credit cards are smart deals and which ones are potential scams, look to Clark Howard's site for advice. If you're more Howard's podcast is updated daily with his radio program, "The Clark Howard Show." Howard continues to produce budget-conscious advice and guidelines for consumers; count on his site to offer solid advice on a regular basis.
Assuming you have a credit card, a mortgage or any type of loan, your credit score is one of the most important pieces of financial information for you to know. Horrifying jingles on TV for Web sites like FreeCreditReport.com will try to convince you to visit their sites for copies of your credit report, but it's completely unnecessary (and they're not really giving you copies for free). AnnualCreditReport.com is the only credit report site you need to know, and here's why: It's the only site that provides consumers the free credit reports they're entitled to annually, according to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) [source: AnnualCreditReport]. So once every 12 months, AnnualCreditReport.com will compile your credit report information from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion for free, and make it accessible to you online.
Significant purchases and loans will be impacted by the quality of your credit. Knowing it -- and knowing how to check it -- is an important part of fiscal responsibility. That brings us to another Web tool for smart money management, and it's a big one: PayPal.
PayPal originated as a payment company for trading startup eBay. As eBay grew, so did PayPal. By 2010, PayPal boasted more than 87 million active accounts across the globe [source: PayPal]. PayPal is a secure solution for online transactions that supports direct access to bank accounts for payments and sending money. Tons of online retailers support payment through PayPal; if you've ever been hesitant to use your credit card online, PayPal's a great way to use a secure source and bypass that issue.
Additionally, PayPal offers payment solutions for businesses that need to sell goods online. While it costs a fee to use PayPal for business, it's easier than building your own online market solution. Whether you're opening your own store, selling on eBay, trading on a site like Craigslist or simply shopping at popular retailers, PayPal is a speedy, secure way to handle your money.
PayPal is easily one of the most practical tech tools for handling money, but it's not very exciting. If you love technology, our last, most cutting-edge tech tool is sure to make you enthusiastic about the future of advanced finance technology.
Believe it or not, old-fashioned paper checks are still a big part of U.S. financial transactions. Despite the speed of credit and debit cards, we haven't quite done away with checks. However, a few inventive, tech-savvy financial institutions have put a modern twist on check payments with downloadable iPhone apps. It started with two financial institutions that each have a single physical location: WV United Federal Credit Union and USAA Federal Savings Bank. WV United was the first to offer an iPhone app that allowed its members to take pictures of both sides of a check and send a digital copy to the credit union [source: Bruene].
USAA launched its service soon after WV United, and PayPal introduced a similar feature in October 2010. Via the PayPal iPhone app, users can deposit up to $3,000 per month through photographed checks [source: Newman]. While the concept of photographing and depositing checks with a mobile app is still in its infancy, it presents an exciting (and convenient) future for paper checks.
HowStuffWorks talks to financial experts to find out the best ways to save money every day. And none of their advice includes giving up Starbucks.
More Great Links
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