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Budgeting is a drag, but online personal financial management sites make the chore easier

FinanceMedia IndustryTechnology IndustryRestaurant and Catering IndustryConsumersCredit and Debt

Online budgeting sites aim to take the tedium out of money management, and the latest entry even tries to make a game of it with cash prizes.

Budgeting is such a turnoff that some financial professionals won't even use the term with clients.

But some online budgeting sites aim to take the tedium out of money management. And the latest entry even tries to make a game of it — with cash prizes.

Payoff.com, which helps users manage their way out of debt, officially launched at the end of June. You earn badges, like the Scouts, for making progress, and those trophies render you eligible to win money.

So far, Payoff says, it has disbursed $12,000 in $25 checks to members.

"Nobody really tells you that you are doing a good job with your money," says Scott Saunders, Payoff's 35-year-old founder, who was in and out of debt in his early 20s. "You only hear from the bank if you missed a payment or you're late.

"We want to clap for people when they are doing the right thing."

If you don't know where your paycheck goes — and financial planners say many of us don't — an online budgeting site can help. The sites gather transaction data daily from credit cards and online bank accounts and then put expenditures in categories such as groceries and gas. Through pie charts or graphs, the sites show how you spend your dollars month after month.

Most sites are free for the consumer. They typically receive revenue from ads or by offering their service to financial institutions.

To use them, though, you must provide usernames and passwords to your accounts. The sites say they have bank-quality security. Transactions are accessed on a read-only basis, so the sites can't be used to move money from account to account. The sites never ask for your Social Security number.

Jim Bruene, editor of Online Banking Report, says he knows of no security problems with the sites, although one now-defunct operation revealed users' purchases to others.

One of the earliest — and the most dominant budget site — is four-year-old Mint.com. It was purchased two years ago by Intuit, the tax software company, and claims to have more than 6 million registered users.

Among them is Patrick Collins, a financial planner in Towson. He has used Mint for years and advises his clients to do so, too.

"Most people don't either enjoy or have the time to figure out their budget," he says. "When you ask them to track three to six months' worth of expenses, it's a labor and a hard thing for them to do."

By having clients use Mint, Collins can quickly see what they spend money on and can make recommendations on where to cut back.

Faithful users say budgeting online works.

Lori Biancofiori of Chicago signed up for Mint after her wedding two years ago. The newlyweds used credit cards to partly pay for their nuptials, and later for living expenses when the groom lost his job after the honeymoon.

"We were freaked out and had no money in savings. I needed to understand what we are spending our money on," says Biancofiori, a 33-year-old software trainer.

With Mint, she says, they discovered they spent hundreds of dollars a month eating out, even though their monthly grocery bill was $700.

"It opened our eyes to everything we spend," says Biancofiori, who checks Mint daily. The couple's goal now is to spend no more than $100 a month at restaurants. Mint lets them know when they approach their limit.

Biancofiori also credits the site with helping them pay off $18,000 in credit card debt and establish an emergency fund equal to three months' worth of expenses.

There are about two dozen personal financial management sites, Bruene says, with some banks and credit unions adding such services, too. Some early entrants have shut down. But new ones have sprung up to replace them, adding some interesting twists.

Payoff, for instance, allows you to set goals and share your progress with friends who can cheer you on. Founder Saunders describes it as "Weight Watchers for finances."

But the unique feature is the game aspect, something Payoff adopted after seeing millions of people playing social media games such as Farmville.

The chance to win rewards increases consumers' engagement, Saunders says, but doesn't "make light of the fact that this is serious stuff."

Payoff investors include former presidents of Nordstrom and AT&T, a former chief executive of Pimco Advisors and a Goldman Sachs executive.

Bundle.com, which had a soft launch last year, also has some heavy-hitting investors: Citi, Microsoft and Morningstar. Bundle gets information on millions of transactions from Citi, which allows the site to tell you how your spending compares with others like you, Bundle editor Mike Dang says.

"Sometimes you don't know how much you should be spending," Dang says. Seeing how you rate with others can help.

Bundle also is building a database that will allow you to compare costs at merchants and restaurants nationwide before visiting them, Dang says. Currently, Bundle has price information for New York and San Francisco. (Tip: Don't pick up the check at New York's Per Se, where dinner per couple costs $987, according to the site.)

Some sites are supported by advertisements, often by banks. HelloWallet.com is ad-free but charges $8.95 a month for budgeting tools and financial advice on how to reach your goals.

Without ads, HelloWallet community manager Arielle Cote-Colisson says, "We are completely unbiased and not influenced by any banks and don't push any of their products."

HelloWallet, which started last year, markets its service to large employers as a benefit for their employees, although individuals can sign up on their own. The site offers a free one-month trial.

BillGuard.com isn't for budgeting, but it scans credit card transactions looking for scams, billing errors or hidden fees. The site mines Twitter and complaint boards for gripes about unauthorized and unwanted billings, and then flags similar charges found on members' accounts.

In its few months of operation, BillGuard has uncovered at least one questionable charge on more than 20 percent of users' cards and saved consumers more than $300,000, chief executive Yaron Samid says.

Mint, too, is evolving. In response to consumer demand, the site says, it is adding a feature this week that will remind users when bills are due.

When some of the budgeting sites started, they attracted a largely under-30 crowd. But the sites say they now are seeing those in their late 30s and 40s enrolling.

Payoff's Saunders see similarities to the growth of Facebook, whose early adopters were college students. Now, he notes, even grandparents are on Facebook.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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