Nine times out of 10, not spending is less fun than spending. But a crop of new online resources can help you budget on the cheap.
Tracking personal expenses used to mean meticulously writing down what you spent or entering everything in a spreadsheet. Now, personal finance websites can track your spending for you by summarizing what you have coming in and how you're spending it.
In May of 2010 the Royal Bank of Canada launched myFinance Tracker, an online service that lets customers track income and expenses. Jaime Notman, the bank's senior manager of digital strategy, says RBC did so after noticing many customers were taking advantage of an option to download their transactions so they could import them into spreadsheets or other budgeting software.
MyFinance Tracker categorizes transactions from bank accounts and credit cards under headings such as travel, movies and groceries. You can add categories and assign expenditures to any section.
From that information myFinance Tracker produces pie and bar charts that show what you spend on different categories.
Since December of 2011, myFinance Tracker has been able to import data from accounts and credit cards at other financial institutions. The Royal Bank also added a feature that allows customers to split withdrawals from bank machines across several categories.
The Bank of Montreal introduced BMO MoneyLogic in January of 2011. MoneyLogic offers the same ability to track income and expenses as the RBC offering. So far it works only with Bank of Montreal accounts, although Andrew Irvine, senior vice-president of North American integrated channels, says the bank is "actively considering" an aggregation feature to bring in data from other institutions' accounts.
MoneyLogic can also compare an individual's spending and saving habits against averages for similar customers. Customers can set savings goals and spending limits and have the system alert them when they approach those benchmarks.
MoneyLogic can show customers their investments, mortgages as well as current accounts, and Mr. Irvine hopes soon to see a "personal balance sheet" to show customers their personal net worth at a glance. Another likely enhancement is a "scenario analysis" that would show customers how particular decisions such as large purchases would affect their finances.
Possibly the best-known personal financial management website is mint.com, operated by the Mountain View, Calif., personal accounting and tax preparation software vendor Intuit Inc.
Like the Canadian banks' sites, Mint tracks expenses and savings. It can import transaction data from multiple institutions – customers must enter their online banking IDs and passwords in Mint for this to work – and you can add other assets such as houses and cars to get a complete picture of your assets.
Other Mint features include an Upcoming Bills display that alerts you to regular charges coming soon, and the ability to see trends in your financial activity. The Ways to Save feature seems, however, to be essentially pitches for platinum credit cards and other financial products.
New York-based LearnVest.com, launched in 2009, has a more narrow focus. Its target market is women aged 20 to 50 – "an audience that has been underserved when it comes to personal finance," says Alexa von Tobel, its founder and chief executive.
Besides tracking income and expenses as the other sites do, and providing a complete picture of an individual's net worth, LearnVest has education and advice components.
LearnVest publishes three newsletters. The LearnVest Daily offers financial tips from how to negotiate your salary to how to save on dry-cleaning, Ms. von Tobel says. There's also LearnVest Mom, designed expressly for mothers, and The Market, a weekly newsletter that deals with how financial market developments affect ordinary people.
LearnVest also has about 10 "boot camps," or courses made up of daily e-mails. Each e-mail contains 300 to 400 words of information and three specific actions for participants to take, Ms. von Tobel says. Among the topics are "Get Out of Debt" and "Ace Your Taxes." And for a fee, customers can consult with certified financial planners.
When RBC launched myFinance Tracker, Ms. Notman says bankers expected mostly younger people would use it. In fact, she says, "the folks using it kind of run the gamut." Twenty-somethings do use myFinance Tracker, but so do a lot of families in their late 30s, and even some seniors.
Mr. Irvine says MoneyLogic users average a bit younger than bank customers overall, but not dramatically.
Altogether, Ms. Notman says about a third of the Royal Bank customers who use online banking use myFinance Tracker. About 40 per cent of the bank's customers bank online, so between 10 and 15 per cent of customers use the service.
Mr. Irvine says about 350,000 BMO customers, or about 20 per cent of those using online banking, use MoneyLogic.
Learnvest says it has more than 250,000 customers. Mint did not respond to inquiries.
The banks say customers comment the most on how these services help them realize where they spend money.
"You need to do that before you start to do anything" to manage your budget, Ms. Notman says.
Mr. Irvine cites one customer's comment on Twitter: "#lovebmomoneylogic Didn't know how much money I spent on smoking. Quit yesterday."