4 free online personal finance tools

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I've recently dug in and decided to add some method to the madness that is my finances.

Perhaps not unlike many of you, I'm quite clueless when it comes to financial planning. It, in the same way as exercise, is one of those things I know I should do, I put large amounts of effort into thinking about doing, but never actually get off my ass and do it.

Well, no more. I'm power walking my dog twice a day and am going to contemplate my stock portfolio, or lack thereof, the entire trip!

To balance my virtual checkbook (I've not had an actual checkbook in nearly a decade) I decided to turn to the wonderful Web 2.0 world and see if it had a solution for me. Here are four free services I found and my notes on each.

A couple things first – (a) I'm Canadian, so being able to add Canadian banks is a must. (b) I use Paypal quite a lot and so used that as a bit of a litmus test for the various services.

Geezeo (www.geezeo.com)

Summary: Of the four, I liked Geezeo (pronounced G-Z-O) the most. It seemed to offer the best combination of practical features with superfluous tools.

  • Allows for auto-updating of transactions from most US and Canadian banks, but doesn't seem to offer connectivity outside of those two countries. However, you can upload an OFX file to import transaction histories and manually create accounts.
  • Because manual account creation is limited to the Open Financial Exchange (OFX) format, currently it can't handle Paypal accounts, or any account that doesn't export OFX format. Part of the blame goes to Paypal for not exporting to this format, and part goes to Quicken-creators Intuit for charging a licensing fee to financial institutions that use it – this is a big con for me as tracking Paypal is essential.
  • Geezeo's budgeting tools look nice and are straight-forward.
  • Allows mobile access to your account.
  • Offers a system to create goals (both unique or community generated) and track progress by assigning the goal to an account or tag (ie. if “savings” equals or is higher than $6000, “3-month cushion goal” is reached). However, despite adding several goals, I couldn't get them to display or access them after creation. Rather than having a page listing all your goals, the “My Goals” link oddly brings you to a sidebar module on the program's dashboard. Promising in concept, but falls short in actually working.
  • Inline editing of transactions for quick adding of tags, categories, amounts, etc.

A Geezeo tour video with painfully mixed “background” music can be found here – if you're able to hear half of what the screencast says over the music, you're doing better than me.

Wesabe (www.wesabe.com)

Summary: Wesabe is similar to Geezeo in a lot of ways. Both focus heavily on offering social networking features such as “groups” and “tips”.

  • No auto-update from bank. To create an account you must download the transaction history from your bank and then upload it to Wesabe. Supports OFX, QFX, QIF, OFC file formats.
  • Slick graphs and charts show you where your money is coming from and going to right from the dashboard.
  • Doesn't allow you to add individual transactions to your checking/saving accounts. Manual insertion of transactions is limited to “Cash Account” mode.
  • “Goals” system a bit clunky and confusing. I couldn't get my goals to connect to tags and I couldn't find a way to show the goal's progress over multiple months.
  • No intuitive budgeting tools.
  • Inline editing of tra

    nsactions for quick adding of tags, categories, amounts, etc.

Check out a video tour of Wesabe's features.

Mint (www.mint.com)

Summary: Mint.com was the site that originally kicked off my exploration of free online personal finance tools. I stumbled upon Mint while getting some financial advice at The Motely Fool. Sadly Mint is only available to users of US-based financial institutions with no way to manually create accounts with downloaded financial data. The site looks sharp though, and if the tour is anything to judge by, when Mint finally does burst out of Île de America they'll have a user in me.

Yodlee (www.yodlee.com)

Summary: My least favourite of the group. Whereas the others have focused on creating Web 2.0 Web app features (perhaps overly so), Yodlee's Moneycenter looks very much like an online banking interface – which, fittingly, is the company's core business.

  • Registration is stupid – no information is given about the program or its features. I had no choice but to sign up, just to find out if it was actually remotely the service I was looking for. And though registration allows you to choose one of a long list of countries, you MUST enter a valid US state and zip code. Clever, huh.
  • For what its worth, despite all the sites going to great lengths to tout their tight security measures, Yodlee really makes the user “feel” secure. Multiple security checks illustrate the site's all business.
  • The site will automatically download financial information from a number of accounts – including my Canadian accounts and Paypal – however, I had nothing but problems with the results of the downloads. It would only download the current month's transactions from my financial institution and only downloaded outgoing money from Paypal – additionally, wrongly indicating that I had a zero balance. This effectively ended my review of the site.

Conclusions

From my points above I feel that the sites have a little bit further to go before they replace their desktop counterparts. Online financial management is a service that virtually everyone can use – it's not limited to if you like digital photography, blogging, sharing videos – so that the sites haven't matured further than they have is a bit surprising, and I have to admit, a bit disappointing.

That said, they all (with the exception of Yodlee) show a lot of potential and will definitely be worth watching as they improve their features.

One thing that the sites will need to be careful to balance is the over-implementation of “web 2.0 features” such as “groups” “friends” etc. These are definitely interesting and appealing features, and I'm sure it's them that are bringing in the venture capital and keeping the lights on. However, when it comes to personal finance services, basic intuitive features that allow the inexperienced (like myself) to quickly understand their money are key – way key.

While writing this I came across the following comment on the Consumerist. Just FYI:

Be aware that when you store information online, it can be accessed by the government with a subpoena rather than with a search warrant. This doesn't matter to most people, and honestly they can get a lot of that information with subpoenas anyway by going directly to your financial institutions, but if you have any records that you don't want the government grabbing, I'd recommend against storing your financial life online.

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