The financial crisis has wised us all up about the need to save more, spend less and cut debt.
Now, with an impressive generation of new and free online tools launching this fall, it's getting easier to turn talk into action.
A Canadian version of the popular U.S. website Mint.com is scheduled to launch in late November. Mint aggregates all your bank and investment accounts into a single big picture of how much you're spending and saving.
About to launch is Know Your Financial Advisor ( kyfa.com), which will help connect people with an adviser suited to their needs. Already up and running is Optimize.ca, which will offer a second opinion on your investments.
Start your tour of these three websites with Mint.com, which quietly added many, but not all, Canadian financial firms to its database several weeks ago as part of what it calls a soft launch.
I took Mint for a fast test drive and had most of my accounts - two banks I use are not in the firm's database yet - loaded in minutes. Immediately, the website created an overall view of money coming in and out, the state of my savings and investments, my overall net worth and more.
Mint's most unique feature is the way it analyzes your spending by category. You'll see how much of your money goes to specific things like clothes, groceries, fast food, movies and DVDs and restaurant meals. "It pulls together all of your info in one place, with no data entry, to show how much you have, how much you owe and where all your money is going," said Aaron Patzer, Mint founder and now vice-president of the personal finance group for the software firm Intuit (Mint was bought by Intuit a year ago).
If you're looking for help in managing your finances, Know Your Financial Advisor is a place to start your search. Created by ex-broker Christian Gradley and some associates, KYFA is building a searchable database of investment advisers.
"It's all about helping to connect people with quality advisers," Mr. Gradley said.
KYFA is still building a database that will ultimately offer information about each adviser's qualifications, specialties and fees, as well as client reviews and ratings using an in-house grading system. Also part of the plan is the addition of information from regulators about advisers who have been sanctioned.
The idea is to create a database to help people either find an adviser, or vet an adviser they're considering or with whom they're already working.
Optimize.ca launched in Canada earlier this month with a service that highlights cheaper alternatives to the mutual funds, guaranteed investment certificates, credit cards and savings accounts you own. Coming improvements will add financial planning tools and, most notably, unbiased investment advice.
Users will choose from among 100 investing profiles to find the one most suitable, then have their portfolio analyzed by in-house experts to see how well it matches up. Changes will be suggested, and portfolios will be monitored to track returns and highlight any necessary adjustments.
"Everything they're getting from a pure portfolio management standpoint from their current adviser, we're replicating on this site," said Matthew McGrath, president of Optimize Inc.
I haven't had a chance to test Optimize.ca, but the Money Smarts blog did and came away unimpressed with its ability to provide alternatives to high-cost mutual funds (read the blog post here). New websites like Optimize need time to perfect their offerings, however.
Two questions you should be asking about these and other online financial tools: How private is my personal data, and how do they make money?
In the case of Mint and Optimize, you can read account information but not move money. No one can drain your account, in other words. Also, in both cases, full bank-level encryption is used to protect your password, username and other details.
In terms of how Mint and Optimize make money, the question is whether they're steering users to the financial products of companies that advertise on their sites. Both websites say that while they receive referral fees when customers click on ads, the data and information they present is assembled according to its usefulness to users.
Two years after the financial crisis began, people are still talking about the need to save more, spend less and cut debt. With handy tools like Mint.com, KYFA and Optimize.ca available, the excuses for not helping yourself are running out.
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It's An Online World
Three new online personal finance tools should find a receptive audience in Canada, where usage of online banking is the heaviest in the world according to the market research firm comScore Inc.
1. Canada 64.8 % reach
2. Netherlands 60.7 % reach
3. France 56.6 % reach
4. Sweden 53.9 % reach
5. Britain 51.1 % reach
6. New Zealand 49.8 % reach
7. Belgium 47.0 % reach
8. Spain 46.5 % reach
9. United States 45.1 % reach
10. Australia 44.2 % reach
* to any online banking website