Last June, Home Cents looked at the various free online tools available to manage your household budget and keep track of your saving, spending and investing habits. In the past year, many new websites for managing your personal finances have emerged, two well-known services have consolidated, and this week RBC became the first Canadian bank to launch a budgeting tool, so it's time to take another look at the best of the applications out there.
The high-profile budget tool news of the year was the acquisition of award-winning startup Mint.com by industry leader Intuit, maker of the popular Quicken tool. Intuit's basic software for home use - Quicken Cash Manager 2010 - is still available from Intuit for $44.99. Although it is a desktop application, you can use the Web Connect feature to download your bank and credit card transactions directly into Quicken. However, the free Quicken Online application that many Canadians enjoyed has now been replaced by the Mint.com product. The Intuit team promised that the best of both applications would be combined in Mint.com. Sadly, the ability to access Canadian banks and some Canadian credit cards did not make the migration from Quicken to the new tool.
For Canadians looking for free personal finance tools online, it is a challenge to find one that can integrate with our banks and credit cards.
One that does and does it well is Wesabe. The free service offers functionality similar to that found in Mint.com, but you can sync your banking data from most large Canadian banks. If you find your financial institution is not included, you can request that Wesabe add it and it will if the financial institution provides an "export" or "download your accounts" option in a friendly format. I was able to automatically upload my banking and credit card transactions and quickly start tracking my spending habits. The program defaulted to U.S. currency, but I was able to change it to Canadian in my personal settings.
moneyStrands is another contender for Canadians. The site launched at the start of 2009, but became more accessible to Canadians over the past few months. When you sign up for an account, you can plug in your contact information, including postal code, and move on to choosing your financial institution. The major Canadian banks are available and you can get details from your online bank and card accounts to give you an instant overview of your spending. Earlier this month, moneyStrands won a Webby award in the banking/bill paying category, giving it some street cred.
Although both Wesabe and moneyStrands are secure, you may not be comfortable linking your bank account directly to the site. If you want to use a free online tool but would prefer to manually input your information, you can try BudgetPulse. It lets you organize your cash flow, expenses and bank accounts in one place, and has easy-to-understand charts and graphs that let you see how you're spending your money month to month. You can personalize your budget by selecting your preferred currency type and time zone.
For RBC clients, you'll be happy to learn that on Monday the bank launched myFinanceTracker, Canada's first online financial management tool integrated into an online banking system. The tool will automatically categorize transactions, track expenses and provide advanced budgeting capabilities for all personal banking and credit card accounts. The bank is planning to roll out capabilities for investments, as part of a series of improvements, over the next six to 12 months.
RBC has partnered with a third-party provider to offer a customized version of an existing online budgeting tool. In the demo I saw, the site is slick and friendly, with colourful graphs that illustrate the finer points of your family's budget. The tool is populated with all of your spending information and categorizes your transactions, whether by debit or credit card, into such buckets as "travel" or "grocery." Categories can be customized even further and you can even split one bill (such as one for phone and Internet) into two categories. One of my favourite features allows users to project account balances based on an expense run-rate, in order to properly budget for upcoming expenses.
"Right now, there isn't anything that really compares to this offering," says James McGuire, vice-president, digital strategy and experience at RBC. "One of the pieces of feedback from clients is that making it easy for them to do this is really important. Most tools in the marketplace today require downloading or exporting from financial services companies into some other kind of web-based tool and then the often painful exercise of categorizing."
Given that so many of us are doing our banking online these days, it is a logical progression for banks to offer online personal budgeting tools to users as well. Hopefully, we'll see more banks make this a part of their service.