If you're like many people, dieting and budgeting made your list of New Year's resolutions.
Neither word conjures up fun. And even with the best of intentions behind them, both resolutions stand a good chance of being broken before too long.
Drafting a budget and sticking to it might become more important, though. Sure, we've gone through worse economic times without having to change our spending. But the days of easy credit appear to be over. We're going to have to, gulp, live within our means.
If it has been a while since you attempted a budget, it's easier than ever. A number of newer money management Web sites are quick to use and less clunky than a lot of the budgeting tools in popular financial software programs.
Among the top sites are Mint.com, Geezeo.com and Wesabe.com, all launched within the past year.
They gather information from online bank and credit-card accounts and then show you through graphics just where your dollars go. The information is automatically updated so you can check your progress daily. Even better, these sites are free. And what can be better for a budget than that?
Of course, software programs have been around for years to make budgeting less of a chore. But many people complain that's not always the case. The programs can be time-consuming to use, and expense categories may not neatly match up with your spending habits.
Jim Bruene, editor of Online Banking Report, said there are at least two dozen budgeting sites. Some are more sophisticated than others.
Bruene said Quicken or Microsoft Money customers aren't likely to abandon their software programs that can do complicated tasks such as tax planning and asset allocation. The free sites, though, will appeal to young consumers who just need basic budgeting, he said.
Gary Ploski, an assistant director of academic computing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, has been using Geezeo for about six months.
The 32-year-old previously used Quicken. But his banks charged a fee to automatically download his information to Quicken.
Ploski had to input the information himself. Another drawback, he said: Quicken wasn't free. And he would have to shell out money for later updates. "I don't want to spend another $50," he said.
Ploski added information about his bank, credit, 401(k) and Roth IRA accounts to Geezeo. Geezeo also allows him to track his goals, such as saving enough so he and his wife can drop private mortgage insurance.
Geezeo allows you to decide how much you want to spend each month on different items. It gives color-coded warnings when you're near the limit or go over it.
"We create financial awareness," said Peter Glyman, the 33-year-old co-founder of Geezeo. "Our philosophy is to keep things fairly light and not to get too bogged down on budget details."
Just seeing where your money goes can be the gentle nudge you need to change your spending habits, he said. It also can help you avoid hefty overdraft fees.
Geezeo and Wesabe offer a social network where members can discuss their goals, share tips, ask each other for financial advice or give encouragement. Even in this social setting, privacy is maintained, the groups say.
"Nobody ever sees your spending," said Jason Knight, co-founder of Wesabe.
The three major sites don't ask for Social Security numbers or other personal information. You can't use them to move money from account to account. The data is collected on a read-only basis.
Bruene says he hasn't heard of any security problems with the sites. "I'm sure they have taken every precaution possible," he said.
"It would kill their business" if a breach ever occurred, he said.
Mint.com makes money by recommending products, such as an offer for a lower-rate credit card, and collects a commission if a member accepts a product. Wesabe expects to begin offering premium services for a fee next year, while still providing budgeting for free.
So, if you're among the many who don't know where their paycheck goes, check out one of these sites. After all, a budget is "the foundation of good personal financial decisions," Knight says. And no financial adviser would argue with that.
Eileen Ambrose is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, a Tribune Co. newspaper.