With the slow economy and fast-approaching holidays, keeping track of your money can be like a stomach-churning roller-coaster ride.
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If you haven't already done it, now is the time to get your finances under control. The World Wide Web seems to crank out a new budgeting site every time there's a dip in the Dow. So to help settle your stomach and your accounts, we've picked the best Web sites to help you set a steady course for spending and saving.
For a fresh view of your big financial picture, Mint.com is our favorite. The online money-management tool lets you easily track all your accounts: checking, savings, credit, loan and investment. Signing up is fast and free; to get started, you need only provide an e-mail address and zip code, then select a password.
Next, link up your accounts. The site connects to more than 7,500 U.S. financial institutions and is adding more. You have to provide user names and passwords for all your bank accounts, but don't worry: The site maintains a secure connection. All user names and passwords are encrypted so that no one at Mint ever sees them. And you don't provide the site with any personal information besides your e-mail and zip code.
Mint updates all your accounts at least once a day and automatically labels each expense with a category -- groceries, credit-card payments, gas and so on. You can use customized tags to create more-specific categories, and you can add notes to each transaction. The site also offers personalized savings tips, such as suggesting better credit cards for cash rebates and travel rewards.
Mint's sleek screens make even the ugliest of finances just a little bit prettier. Under the Trends tab, the Where You Spend pie charts break down your expenses into a rainbow of categories. Click on a slice and you'll see a new, more-detailed pie chart with its own slices. For example, the food-and-dining category splits into groceries, restaurants, fast food, coffee shops and the like. And the site's SpendSpace bar graphs let you compare your spending habits with average outlays of people in selected cities or states -- or the whole country.
Unfortunately, you can't manually add transactions to your Mint account, so you can't project future costs or tally any extra cash or expenditures. To remedy the latter issue, the site suggests you split ATM withdrawals into separate cash transactions. The Mint's support forums are another weak aspect of the site.
If you're more interested in an online community, we suggest Geezeo.com or Wesabe.com. The latter keeps your budgeting focused. Although you can manage credit and savings accounts on the site, we had trouble uploading that data and stuck primarily to tracking our checking. However, Wesabe lets you manually enter cash accounts and transactions. You can link all your accounts to Geezeo, but we experienced some difficulty when trying to add more than one account from a single financial institution. Also, its investment-account tracker is rather bare bones, listing only your holdings' shares and market values–unlike Mint, whose investment tool tracks fund and stock performance and portfolio allocation. Like Mint, Geezeo automatically tags your expenses; Wesabe invites you to create your own labels.
But the power of Geezeo and Wesabe lies in its participants. Members set goals they share with the community and form groups in which they can support, inspire and advise one another. Wesabe provides tips tailored to your specific situation. Geezeo offers more: expert advice, community confessions, and a marketplace of financial products for you to review and compare.
Although all three of the above sites are secure, some people are still not comfortable linking bank accounts directly to a budgeting site. If that describes you, try BudgetTracker.com or BudgetPulse.com. Both sites let you manually enter your account balances and transactions. You can also schedule bill payments using the sites' calendar features. A limited free account with BudgetTracker includes up to ten bank accounts, 50 calendar reminders and 15 bill-payment entries; an unlimited account costs $2.95 per month. BudgetPulse, currently in beta testing, is free.
Buxfer.com is a site that specializes in group budgeting and IOUs among friends. Perfect for roommates or group vacations, you can invite contacts to join and track shared bills (you can even access Buxfer via a Facebook application). For your individual budget, you can choose either to provide your bank-account information -- as you would with Mint, Wesabe or Geezeo -- or manually add your accounts, as with BudgetTracker or BudgetPulse. Buxfer's free basic membership affords you five accounts, five budgets and five bill reminders; an upgrade to unlimited membership costs $2.79 a month or $21.48 a year. Invite friends to join and for each person who accepts you'll earn a 60-cent credit toward an upgrade.