These days, financial help doesn't always come from behind a desk or over the phone. Do-it-yourself investors are using websites and online financial tools as virtual money experts.
In addition to information dispensed by banks, brokers and financial advisers, digital sources are giving consumers a wealth of free information – from getting out of debt to investing and planning for retirement.
“The overall effect is that people become more financially literate,” said Tom Hamza, president of the Investor Education Fund.
Online financial tools can provide a more “sophisticated” and in-depth look at whether a consumer really has enough money to handle buying a house and its related expenses, he said.
“If you do it by hand, there's definitely some value to that. But for most people, they will spend most of their time calculating instead of understanding the implications,” said Mr. Hamza, whose Toronto-based organization promotes unbiased, independent financial information.
The Investor Education Fund runs the GetSmarterAboutMoney.ca website with related money blogs and social media. Mr. Hamza said visits to all of the sites this year are expected to total well over a million.
“We're growing almost 40 per cent to 50 per cent per year because people are looking for that sober second thought.”
The Bank of Montreal has just launched an online tool to allow its customers to view, track and manage their spending and savings.
Called BMO MoneyLogic, customers can link their savings accounts, credit lines and credit cards to track how much is being spent on things like groceries, entertainment and coffee.
“It knows that if you go and spend $100 at the Home Depot, that it would be a home improvement,” said Andrew Irvine, vice-president of integrated distribution at BMO.
“You're kind of getting a financial trainer to help you do a better job in the financial gym,” Irvine said. “It doesn't just categorize expenses, but it also gives you an income versus expenses view, which is helpful.”
The Bank of Canada has said Canadians have the highest domestic debt burdens in history.
The ratio of household debt to disposable income has reached 148.1 per cent – or $1.48 for every dollar of disposable income, which excludes what must be spent on taxes and other government levies.
“We think it can make a really material difference to helping Canadians do a better job at managing money in these difficult times,” Mr. Irvine said.
David Newman, principal of Fiscalagents.com, said it's simply convenient to go online for financial information.
Fiscalagents.com has been online for about 12 years, providing customers with a wide array of financial information on everything from mortgage and loan calculators, interest rates on guaranteed investment certificates to understanding credit.
Mr. Newman's financial advice is simple and pertinent after the holiday season: “The first thing to do is to understand the amount of debt that you have in relationship to your income.”
He still sees a lot of value in writing things down.
“The paper and pen, to me, add that relationship to actual debt,” Mr. Newman said from Oakville, Ont.
“It's something you can look at and realize how long it's going to take to get rid of. To me, the computer is the detachment because you leave it.”