Web aid for astute shoppers

The Baltimore Sun

While the Internet is a great distribution channel for businesses' products and services, it also has a plethora of Web sites useful for the smart-spending consumer. The problem is keeping up with all the new offerings, as great Web sites for consumers come and go.

A few of the old standbys are Amazon.com, where you can read product reviews and check prices; ConsumerSearch.com, which compiles product reviews; and ConsumerReports.org, whose $26-per-year online subscription can more than pay for itself with information gleaned from its unbiased reports.

Here is a sampling of new sites that can help you spend money smarter, along with others you might not have heard of. They're grouped by category. Remember, newer sites might have exciting features but some are experiencing growing pains and some might fail as businesses.

*Budgeting: To track finances, you can use pen and paper, a spreadsheet or software programs such as Quicken and Microsoft Money. But a relatively new crop of free online tools can be helpful. They include Mint.com, Wesabe.com, Yodlee.com, Buxfer.com and Geezeo.com. A new offering from Quicken, QuickenOnline.com, costs about $3 a month.

The sites can, to varying degrees, download and categorize your financial transactions from banks, credit card companies and investment houses.

How to decide which to use? It might come down to personal preference. So log on to each to read about its features and try out a few. All claim they will protect your privacy and account information. A new personal finance site by AOL is at WalletPop.com.

*Calendars: To organize your time rather than money, see the simple-and-easy Cozi.com. It allows busy families to plot their activities on a joint calendar and can even sync with Microsoft Outlook, among other features.

*Dining out: Consumers might know they can get restaurant discounts through such sites as Restaurant.com and OpenTable.com or they can order the ubiquitous Entertainment Book from Entertainment.com. A newly revamped site is RewardsNetwork.com, formerly iDine.com. It's a free and low-hassle program that gives you cash back when you dine out. You register your credit cards and debit cards. When you use them to pay for meals at participating restaurants, you get automatic rewards.

A typical cash-back reward would be 5 percent to 10 percent of your entire bill, including tip. You have no coupons or discount certificates to present. Like some credit cards, you can choose noncash rewards such as airline miles or charitable donations. If you're looking for a cheap way to take the kids out, look for special deals at KidsMealDeals.com.

*Travel: You might know of the big online travel sites such as Expedia.com, Orbitz.com and Travelocity.com, but you might find better flights and fares at such aggregation sites as Kayak.com, which searches 200 sites, and Mobissimo.com, which might be better for international flights. Both sites also search hotel and car-rental rates. If you don't know whether to book a flight now or later, check out Farecast.com, which helps you predict whether ticket prices will be going up or down. For travel reviews, see TripAdvisor.com.

*High-interest checking: You might know higher savings rates are available at such online banks as EmigrantDirect.com, INGdirect.com and HSBCdirect.com. But you can earn big interest on checking if you're willing to use your debit card often. See comparison site HighYieldCheckingDeals.com to get rates of more than 6 percent.

Catches? Many require you to make 10 debit card purchases per month, create a direct deposit and get an electronic statement instead of a paper one. Most will pay high rates on only the first $25,000 in the account.

*Gas prices: A number of scouting sites have cropped up to help you compare gasoline prices. Check out GasBuddy.com, GasPriceWatch.com and GasPrices.MapQuest.com. Use the one that has the most data on gas prices in your area.

*Selling stuff: eBay is the largest auction site, but other specialty sites can be useful, too. For example, Gazelle.com will buy your old electronic gadgets. You can get out of your vehicle lease at LeaseTrader.com, and you can ditch your wireless provider at CellTradeUSA.com.

*TV watching: If you keep missing your favorite shows but don't want to pay for a DVR service or TiVo, head to the small screen and go online. Several of the major broadcast networks show full-length shows on their Web sites. Also check out Hulu.com, which shows clips and full-length TV shows and movies for free.

*Eyewear: With online eyeglasses retailer ZenniOptical.com selling prescription glasses starting at $8, you would think it's difficult for another business to compete on price. But one did. EyeBuyDirect.com sells glasses starting at $7.95. Both sites charge about $5 for shipping.

*Corporate responsibility: Beyond price and quality, you might be concerned about what type of company you're giving money to when making a purchase. Recently overhauled and expanded ResponsibleShopper.org allows you to do that research on 150 major companies. It is operated by the not-for-profit Co-op America, an advocacy group.

Gregory Karp can be reached at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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