Fast Forward: Personal-Finance Tools Take to the Web

Users of online personal-finance applications, such as, from left, Mint, Quicken Online and Wesabe, don't have to buy software upgrades every few years -- in fact, they don't have to pay anything to use the services.
Users of online personal-finance applications, such as, from left, Mint, Quicken Online and Wesabe, don't have to buy software upgrades every few years -- in fact, they don't have to pay anything to use the services.
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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 19, 2009

More Americans feel uneasy about the state of their finances -- and not because of any change to their income or expenses.

Instead, the latest bad news concerns software that many people use to manage their cash flow. One of these applications, Microsoft Money, perished at the end of June after Microsoft chose to stop developing it. Another, the Mac version of Intuit's Quicken -- which needed a rewrite when it shipped in 2006-- now won't get its next update until February, the latest in a long string of delays.

The Windows version of Quicken continues to chug along, but its users have to buy a new version every few years to retain access to the online services that automate most of its work.

In this stagnant market, most of the signs of life lie not in disc-based programs (though smaller developers are doing interesting work) but on the Web. There a few sites provide simpler ways to manage your money -- and do so for free.

Mint (http://mint.com), Intuit's Quicken Online (http://quickenonline.com) and Wesabe (http://wesabe.com), among others, automatically synchronize their records with those of your financial institutions, then categorize transactions to track your spending. There's no extra software to install -- though these three provide basic, free iPhone applications for on-the-go access.

The only catch is that in most cases, you must store your bank account passwords on these sites. (All three say they encrypt these data to block them from being misused.)

I handed over many of my own log-ins to these sites in May 2008, and I found them promising but limited; this time around, two of the three did significantly better.

Mint.com is now closer to the utility of Money or Quicken, thanks to a series of updates that added support for mortgages and such assets as houses and cars. (It uses Web sources to estimate values for the former but not the latter.)

Mint connected to all the bank, credit card, investment and mortgage accounts I tested, then correctly categorized most transactions in each. It was even smart enough to split ATM surcharges into separate transactions, though it didn't then file those charges under its "ATM Fee" category.

The site will set up budget goals based on your past spending, which you can and should adjust yourself. But you can't enter a pending transaction; if you write a large check, you must remember it's out there. Mint's automatic alerts of upcoming bills also missed some of mine, and it doesn't let you fix any oversights by adding your own alerts.

Mint, based in Mountain View, Calif., now claims more than a million active users. It makes its money by suggesting credit cards, banks and investments to fit your habits, then collecting referrals on accounts opened through these "Ways to Save" tips. Keep this advice in context -- a credit card's points rewards aren't as useful as cash back.

Quicken Online got its biggest upgrade when Intuit, also in Mountain View, dropped a $2.99 monthly fee, helping it win more than 1.3 million users. This time around, Quicken Online automatically categorized almost as many transactions as Mint and easily outdid that site at warning me of upcoming bills.


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