Online budgeting tools

Is your New Year’s resolution to get personal debt under control or simply to get a better handle on your finances? Online budgeting tools are a great way to get back on track — and stay on track — to help ensure a financially healthy New Year.

There are several different online tools available to you to help track your spending habits. Here are a few that are readily available and free (or inexpensive) to use.

Top online budgeting tools

Billster. Billster is geared towards helping you organize your personal and shared expenses. Let’s say that you decide to buy a joint gift for a co-worker or family member. This online program keeps track of who owes what and when. You can even keep track of recurring bills that you have each month, and set a reminder for yourself, so that you will not forget to pay them. With the bill tagging system you can categorize and group your bills to help keep track of where your money is going, and where it has gone.

BudgetPulse. Worried about linking your bank account to a website, or that your current data will be suddenly useless? BudgetPulse’s import capabilities solve both problems because you can load files such as spreadsheets and personal finance software files directly in to your account. There’s no need to worry about whether the service will accept your bank or credit union — simply use your online banking tool to export the data into a file you can upload to BudgetPulse.

BudgetTracker. From budgets to bills, this site helps you do it all — for home and for your small business. Sure, it’s a full money management service, but it also helps you stay organized in other areas of your life as well with shopping lists, a calendar, tasks, goals, notes and other features. If you’re tech savvy, you can even create your own custom application to use within the site.

Buxfer. It’s got all the functionality you’d expect from an online budgeting tool, plus a few features you won’t find elsewhere. For instance, Buxfer helps you manage group finances, like a bill you’re splitting with roommates or trip expenses you’re sharing with friends. Simply tag the item and they’ll receive a notification about their share — eliminating those awkward “here’s what you owe” conversations.

Another bonus: you don’t need to create a separate login — you can use your existing social media and email accounts to log in (like Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Windows Live, and AOL account).

Mint. For years, this popular name wasn’t available to Canadians — but that’s all changes. Now you can take advantage of this online budgeting tool which helps you manage your money in a ‘safe, reliable’ way. Mint allows you to see all of your credit card and banking transactions side by side. This feature allows you to see exactly what you are spending your money on by viewing each transaction as it takes place. Mint says ‘we make it easy for you to track down erroneous charges or bank fees, and keep a closer eye on your money.’

Mint also allows you to categorize each transaction — for example, if you need to expense it for business. One of the best features of this program is that it allows you to see your cash vs. debt ratio by downloading the purchases you make directly to your Mint account. (for U.S.) and (for Canadians).

moneyStrand. Now more accessible in Canada, this site gathers information from a variety of sources — like your banks, loans and credit cards, for instance — to give you an instant overview of your finances. You can also take the information anywhere with a widget for your smart phone, and receive text alerts when your balance is low or you’re approaching the limit of your budget category. One of its latest features is the ability to manually enter information in addition to (or instead of) linking to your bank.

RBC myFinanceTracker. Most online budgeting tools and desktop software give you the ability to download your online banking transactions, but what if you didn’t have to leave the bank at all? The Royal Bank of Canada was the first bank in Canada to launch its own online budgeting tool (assuming you’re a client, of course). Since its launch, the feature has added investments to the line up which included credit cards, bills, mortgages and loans. You can also track your spending, set up a calendar of payments and create a budget — and then use this information to project balances in the future.

Yodlee Money Center — This service has many of the features of other budgeting websites, and promises to let you view and manage all of your accounts in one place, and pay all of your bills online. You can assign categories to your spending and create detailed reports using that information as well.

Other online budgeting tools come with a monthly/yearly cost and offer a more in-depth look at your personal finances. (Don’t worry — most offer free trials so you can test them out before you buy.)

PearBudget. This service promises to be straightforward and easy to use — and it can be downloaded directly to your computer through Microsoft Excel. It allows you to keep track of your expenses through different categories. When you have downloaded the program, it will automatically open and take you through how to fill it in correctly. It takes about 20 minutes to fill out all the necessary information, but will save you a lot of time and money in the long run. After the 30-day trial period, the service costs $4.95 per month.

Mvelopes Personal. Reportedly one of the top products of its kind, Mvelopes Personal offers many of the same features as other online budgeting sites, but in greater detail. It also offers features such as mobile phone access and net worth tracking. However, if you’re outside of the U.S., be forewarned that the service may not include the companies you deal with.

Another word of caution: In January 2012, Mvelopes launched a free version of its services — along with free mobile apps — but with limited features compared to its previous offerings. Right now there is a lot of confusion over the new version versus the old, so you may want to wait this one out.

Before you sign up…

Online budgeting tools aren’t for everyone — so it’s important to weight the pros and cons to see if they’re right for you. Here are some things to consider:

– Look at more than just the money management features. Most sites offer the same basic features like tracking spending and bills, but it’s the “extras” that can make the difference — if you want them, of course.

In addition, more companies are offering mobile applications for tablets and smart phones — but you may be left out if you aren’t using the right tablet or smart phone.

– Do your research. Watch the online demonstrations, read through the features and try the training materials. Not only should the website meet your needs, it should also be easy to use.

– Read the user reviews too. Find out what’s being said about a particular tool or company in user reviews, forums and social media. Beware of new version releases — often companies rely on user feedback to improve their services, so you may want to wait until the bugs get worked out.

– Read the privacy policy and security information VERY carefully and make sure you’re comfortable with it. After all, you’ll be entering some sensitive information, so you want to make sure it’s secure and protected.

– Beware that not all services work with all banks. Many U.S.-based services don’t include some Canadian banks, or they may not be able to work with credit unions or local institutions.

– Think free first. Paying for software or services isn’t going to turn you into a budgeting guru any more than paying for a gym membership will help you get fit if you don’t use it. Take advantage of a free trial or a free service to see how much you use it before you spend.

However, make sure you understand when and how the company will start to bill you. Some companies ask for your credit card number when you sign, allowing them to start charging you if you don’t cancel by a certain date.

– Check into customer service and tech support before you start so you’ll know where to get help before you need it. Many companies now handle customer service via live chat, Twitter and Facebook in addition to phone and email.

One final word of advice: it doesn’t happen often, but online companies can shut down or change their offerings any time. (For example, all that’s left of Wesabe is its forums.) There’s no single right way to organize your finances, but online budget tools can be a help.

Updated January 2012 by staff.