Personal Finance: Organize, Manage, Research, and Invest Online
The Internet can streamline your ongoing personal finance tasks and keep you informed about changes and opportunities in the financial world that may affect you. There are tools for learning the basics, doing your banking online, and managing your budget, credit, and loans.
Money makes the world go round, but leaves many of us in the dark. Understanding the nuances of personal finance can help you to make good short- and long-term decisions. And whether you're a novice or financial sophisticate, there's plenty of information available in terms you'll understand.
- If you're interested pursuing a financial education beyond the basics, check out the findingDulcinea Education Guide for information on undergraduate, graduate, and independent business courses.
To get a grasp of the basics ...
is the U.S. government's financial education Web site. The site offers information on all areas of money management. You'll get basic knowledge and you'll learn about the federal agencies that deal with your concerns. You can also order a free tool kit or take the interactive quiz to see how money-savvy you already are.
hits on all topics of financial education for kids, adults, and teachers. The site contains articles, advice, and links to financial education material. You can find ways to implement financial planning tools for kids in the classroom and for your family, and yourself, at home.
lets you research and compare rates for various bank products such as mortgages, CDs, and home equity lines of credit. Click on a topic and learn about the essential factors to consider. Then, use the site to compare national rates.
The market changes every day. To stay up-to-date on global and private economic conditions, read the financial sections of news outlets. Reading news online makes it easier to read several sources every day. Most print magazines have an online version and may offer extra content exclusively on the Web.
- In addition to reading papers online, many publications have e-mail newsletters that "push" information to you.
- Blogs are another useful way to gather information about the financial world. Although these are not official news sources, they are often written by qualified financial professionals sharing knowledge gathered during their careers and from personal experience.
For online news magazines ...
is one of the premier Web sites for business news. It's a comprehensive source of information on financial matters. Forbes provides not only market-watch and money-related news, but also opinions and insight. Forbes.com is the online home of Forbes magazine, a national business magazine founded in 1917.
is the Web site of the eponymous magazine, launched in 1992 by Dow Jones and the Hearst Corporation. A good chunk of the site is dedicated to the stock market, but on the right-hand side you can link to a personal finance section. There are also news articles concerning an array of financial subjects.
features the top stories from the print magazine, published by McGraw-Hill since 1929, along with exclusive Web content. The site divides news by tabs at the top of the page so you can choose to read only about Asia, Europe, or the Auto Market, to name just a few topics. But if you simply want to read the print edition on your computer screen, clicking on the "Magazine"
tab will take you there.
For a blog ...
is written by economics professors from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Their daily posts analyze current economic conditions and policy. Posts are succinct and provide links to further articles on the topics they discuss. A particularly helpful feature is the column on the left-hand side of the page that lists search topics. Click on a topic and you'll get all the related blog posts from the archives.
It's possible to conduct all your normal bank business from your own computer, 24 hours a day. Online banking allows you to pay all your bills electronically-and securely-with just a few mouse clicks. Before you begin banking online, do some research so you understand the process. Then, once you feel comfortable, explore all the online banking options.
- So many banks currently offer services online that you can begin online banking by going to your own bank's Web site and registering for an online account that will link to your existing bank accounts. Your bank's site probably provides FAQs and tutorials to familiarize you with their online services.
- Because Internet-only banks have low or no overhead, they are able to offer savings accounts with higher interest rates than most real-world banks. For similar reasons, some regular banks offer Internet-only savings accounts with higher interest rates than their standard accounts. Even if you're not comfortable doing serious banking online, you may want consider setting up one of these higher-interest savings account on the Internet.
- Make sure that any Internet bank you join is a member of the FDIC.
- Anyone who does online banking, or makes any financial transactions online should be aware of "phishing" schemes. Phishing is a type of e-mail scam where third parties attempt to fraudulently acquire private information from Web users, such as credit card details, social security numbers, and account numbers. Generally you'll receive an e-mail telling you that your bank account (or eBay or PayPal account) has been suspended and/or needs updating. Provided in the email is a link to a login page where you can access and fix your account. After clicking this link, the page you're directed to, although cunningly designed to approximate the real thing, is fake. So by entering your username and password, you're not logging on, but actually providing the phishers with your account information, and putting them in a position to access your account and steal your information. The FTC has more information on phishing, including how to avoid it. If an e-mail seems fishy (no pun intended), always close the browser window and log into an account directly. Just because the URL looks right doesn't mean it is.
To learn about online banking ...
offers this guide to safe online banking. It tells you how to confirm that an online bank is legitimate, make sure your personal information is safe, understand your rights as a consumer, and how to get assistance from bank regulators if you need it.
outlines the essential elements of online banking and defines all the terms you need to know. The article is written for people who have never tried online banking, so it is easy to understand and quite clear. The left side bar allows you to select and learn about other related terms.
Money Central on MSN.com
describes the nuances of online banking and lists the top 10 online banks. In addition to the list, there are articles explaining the benefits of each bank so you choose what suits you best.
Since your allowance days, you've been on a budget. Then, you had to make tough choices like ... movies or candy? These days, things are a little more complicated. However, planning and sticking to a budget doesn't have to be difficult. If you do it right, you'll find you can get your finances running more smoothly than ever. In fact, with the right information and tools, the process can be simple and rewarding.
- You can make your own budget easily using any offline spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel. Excel has tools that allow you input formulas into cells, get the sum of rows and columns automatically, and even make charts of your spending.
- Many credit card companies will provide you with an end-of-year (or -month) summary of what categories you spent money on: groceries, clothing, furniture, electronics, restaurants, etc. Having information about where you've spent money in the past will help you to determine a reasonable plan for the future.
- Personal budgeting software can be customized based on your unique expenditures. For information on online budgeting, check out PersonalBudgetingSoftware.com, where you'll find articles like this one, which discusses why (and how) to get an "Online Budget Makeover."
- Some budgeting software programs ask that you enter your account information. Always make sure a site is secure before you input any personal information. If you feel skeptical, choose a software program that is less invasive. For more tips on protecting yourself online and spotting suspicious sites, consult the findingDulcinea Internet Security Guide.
- "Open source" is Internet language for free software. Some budgeting programs are free, and to download them, you'll be redirected to another Web site that hosts open source material; for example, sourceforge.net.
For budgeting tips ...
is the Web site of Living a Better Life, a free e-zine devoted to helping families save money. It's free and there are plenty of featured articles on a variety of pertinent money-saving topics. You can also search categories to find specific advice. Either way, the site offers plenty of helpful tips.
For budgeting software ...
is the Web site for Mvelopes, an online budget-management software program based on the premise that most people spend 10 percent more than they earn. Mvelopes seeks to determine where your 10 percent comes from and then help you eliminate it. There is a monthly fee for the service-charges start at $7.90 per month-but the program is comprehensive. It was rated one of the best products in 2006 by PC World magazine and will fully integrate your financial life for you. For example, you can set it up so that you can have information automatically entered from your bank or credit card.
offers budgeting software that works with any spreadsheet program. Once you download the software, you enter your predicted budget in the spreadsheet. Then, save your receipts and enter your expenses twice a month. The program gives you an analysis of your spending and shows you how you compared to your prediction. If you like the program, keep your eyes peeled for a Beta version coming soon.
is an open-source Windows application that helps you make a budget by allotting money in a variety of spending categories. Simply enter the sum that you have available in each category. Every time you spend money, enter the amount into the program, which will automatically deduct the purchase and then tell you how much money you have left in that category.
is another open-source budgeting program that you can download to your computer. It's designed for people with little to no financial experience and is simple to use. Simply input information about your accounts and spending habits and Buddi will keep track of where your money goes and how much you have available.
Nobody likes paying taxes, but being prepared and efficient can save you time, money, and prevent a lot of irritation. Not only can you use the Internet to get yourself up-to-date on policy and procedure, you can also file your taxes online.
- If you file your taxes online and provide your bank information, the money you owe will be deducted automatically from your account. Remember to keep track of the payments you authorize so you don't have any nasty surprises.
- Although you can file your taxes for free online, if you're feeling confused or uncertain about any part of the process, it might be worth spending the few extra dollars for assistance.
To get the basics ...
is the official government Web site of the Internal Revenue Service. You can get information about filing your taxes online for free and updates on how to get your tax refund-even from a few years ago. If you don't want to do your taxes online, it's possible to download all the forms and enter your information directly into the PDF document.
To calculate and file your taxes ...
H&R Block's TaxCut software
, like Intuit's, has versions both for online and desktop use. Unlike TurboTax, with TaxCut you get Federal and state preparation features together in one package, for flat rates, which range from $34.95 to $84.95. On the high end, you'll find a package with home and business tax capabilities.
allows you to prepare, print, and e-file your Federal tax return completely free of charge. For a fee, you can also file your state taxes and get extra benefits, such as phone support. TaxAct also has links to tax tips and a tax reference library. And, if you still have not filed your tax returns from the previous year, the necessary form is available for ordering.
Tax Help Online
offers definitions of tax terms, tips on saving money, and guidance on interacting with the IRS if you have a problem. The author of the site, a leading tax expert, also advertises free tax advice workshops, a free newsletter, and of course information on how to sign up and pay for his services.
To get outside help ...
is a popular service for handling yearly taxes. Through the company site, you can choose to file your own taxes online, file your taxes online with assistance, or visit an HR Block office for help. Before you sign up, you can take an online tour of the tax-filing program and use the site's tax calculators.
asks for your zip code and then finds you a certified public accountant in your neighborhood. The service promises a response within 24 hours and a free initial consultation with the accountant you select. If you prefer, you can call their 800 number to place your request.
Sometimes life costs more than you have in the bank. When the time comes to buy a house or car or pay for college, taking out a loan might be a necessary step. Before you apply for a loan, you will want to research all your options and understand the responsibilities and benefits involved. Not only can the Web supply useful information and help you compare statistics, but you can also apply for a loan online.
- Many Web sites help you find loans and rates. These sites can be useful, but unless you actually plan to apply for a loan, be sure not to enter any confidential information such as credit card details or your social security number.
- As with online banks accounts, online loans are often available at better rates than you'd find at bricks-and-mortar banks thanks to the very low overhead of such institutions.
- Most of the sites for home loans also provide information and rates on car loans and other types of loans.
- Disclosed fee mortgage brokers are an alternative to the standard mortgage broker that's worth considering. A typical mortgage broker has a financial incentive to squeeze as much money out of a client as possible, by tacking on fees and inflating others where possible. Using a disclosed-fee mortgage broker means you pay one fixed sum, so you can proceed with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you aren't being scammed. For more information about mortgages, see our findingDulcinea Mortgages Web Guide.
- Even if you don't intend to get your car loan online, you can use the Web to research the current rates before you negotiate with a dealer. Armed with a good idea of what a fair rate is, you'll be able to negotiate more effectively.
To decide what you can afford ...
links to the "How much house can you afford" calculator. Enter your income, the down payment you can afford, and the anticipated mortgage rate, and the quiz results will tell you how much you can afford to borrow for your new home.
For home loans ...
is one of the leading online loan services. At Lendingtree, banks compete for loans so every time you apply for a loan, you get four different options. Lendingtree.com also offers comprehensive realty services to help you buy or sell your home.
enables you to apply for various kinds of loans via the Web site. You can also compare rates, use the site's tools and calculators, or get a credit report. Although the site's specialty is mortgages, Eloan covers most topics in regard to lending. For example, the site has a whole section devoted to helping you pay for your motorcycle.
, also known as the Federal National Mortgage Association, offers a variety of mortgages through a national network of lender partners. The links in the "For Home Buyers and Home Owners" section, found on the left side of the page, towards the bottom, can help you find a mortgage, and find a FannieMae lender partner. There are also a myriad of articles worth reading about the home-buying process.
is another site that allows you to research and apply for mortgages online. The site has a number of calculators for different kinds of loans so you can determine what the best solution is and how much you'll be paying.
is a comprehensive site offering services for many aspects of investment and savings. It has a section devoted to mortgages and home equity
where you can apply online for a low-rate loan. In addition to 24-hour online access to your account, E-trade assigns you a mortgage advisor who will be available on the phone.
For student loans ...
is the nation's leading provider of student loans and the Web site describes methods for finding loans, financial services to aid in the process, and lets you set up an online account for loan applications and repayment.
allows you to compare student loan offers and get information about lenders so you can choose the one that fits you best. After you make a comparison, you can also get a loan through the site.
For a payment calculator ...
's free payment calculator can be used to determine what your loan payments will be and how much you can afford to borrow. All you need is a good idea of what interest rate you're getting. BankRate's calculator can even account for advanced payments, by showing how they will shorten the term of your loan.
Credit cards and loans are a great convenience, but you need to manage debt carefully. Staying attuned to your own financial situation and knowing the facts about credit can keep you on the right track. The Web offers many tools that will help you ensure that your credit never becomes a problem.
However, if you do find yourself in a difficult situation, help is available if you know where to look. For example, debt consolidation can lower payments significantly, and there are organizations devoted to helping people get out of debt. Research your options on the Internet and find out what you can do to change your current situation.
- Find out your credit score before you try to improve it. You can order a free copy of your credit report online.
- Even if you have good credit, you can still improve it. Scour your credit report for inaccuracies or credit accounts that you can close.
- Sometimes all it takes is a phone call to your credit card company to persuade them to lower your interest rate by a point or two. Calling to cancel a card almost always results in an incentive offer to keep the account open.
- In addition to Web sites devoted to debt, reading online financial newspapers is a useful to way to get tips.
- More information about loans and debt can be found in the section of this guide entitled, "How do I get a mortgage or loan?"
- Many Web sites that offer home loans and refinancing also offer debt consolidation loans.
To understand and improve your credit ...
is a place to order your free credit report. You can use the site once every 12 months to order a free credit file disclosure from the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
teaches you a number of ways to improve your credit. Select from the articles listed on the homepage or use one of the "Credit Worksheets" links in the right-hand bar to get started. Also be sure to check out the site's "How to read your credit report" tutorial.
reveals the secrets behind your credit card in this online companion to the TV special. Chances are you use a credit card and don't know too much about it. The video covers "eight things a credit card user should know." The Web site also has some useful companion articles by industry professionals.
To cope with debt ...
CNNMoney's Debt Calculator
uses your current debt and interest rate to calculate when you will be debt-free. Choose whether you'll make minimum monthly payments or pay higher installments and see how it affects the term of your loans. You can also find links to articles about debt solutions here.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling
is an association of consumer credit counseling agencies that contains information about getting a financial counselor, finding an agency near you, and other options for getting out of debt. They also have information about education opportunities concerning good financial planning.
With the variability of social security a constant topic of discussion, everyone should be aware of their own retirement needs. Still, the idea of extensive, long-term financial planning can be quite daunting. You have to begin somewhere, and the Internet provides many resources for understanding and preparing a retirement plan.
- Once you've started to think about retirement, you can begin executing your plan online. Many banks and brokerage houses will let you open an IRA online.
- Rather than go it alone, you may decide to hire a financial planner. Finding one who is trustworthy and unbiased is not always easy, but the Web sites described below can help by offering advice or directing you to prescreened professionals.
- Check with your bank or investment firm-it most likely offers retirement planning services.
- In addition to your own research and investments, signing up for your employer's 401(k) plan is often one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to save for retirement.
- In addition to sites devoted entirely to estate planning, most financial magazine Web sites and bank Web sites have sections devoted to estate planning.
- Part of planning your retirement may be deciding how you distribute your wealth to your heirs. Estate planning is an emotional and technical ordeal, but the Internet can be a good source of information and guidance. Of course, when you're ready to finalize arrangements, you're best off turning off the computer and talking to a lawyer.
For retirement basics ...
The AARP financial planning page
has an entire section on retiring that outlines all the necessary steps to take and questions to ask. You can start with the retirement planning calculator and then research the various elements of planning. Or for an overview, watch the "Mission: Retirement" video.
's "University" section has a retirement planner that provides information and a calculator that allows you to enter your current financial information and tells you how to change your lifestyle in order to adequately fund your retirement.
is the homepage of the Internet Retirement Alliance. You select a topic in retirement planning, such as IRAs, financial planners, social security, or insurance, and the site provides an explanation and advice. In addition to basic information, it also posts news briefs related to retirement and financial planning.
includes this handy section that answers, as its title indicates, "Nine Frequently Asked Questions About IRAs." This page provides a slightly deeper look into these cornerstones of retirement planning.
The Motley Fool
is a site devoted to providing you with smart, honest, and easy-to-understand financial advice. In the retirement planning section, everything you need to consider is broken down and explained in short, readable chunks. The Motley Fool also offers a paid service called "rule your retirement" that will help you plan.
To find a financial planner ...
The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards
site guides you through all aspects of financial planning including how to do research for yourself and how to find a trusted financial adviser. In addition to having a sidebar for basic information, the site also posts featured articles.
The National Financial Planning Support Center
hosts the Planner Search
, which gives you access to a nationwide database of financial planners. You can enter your zip code or city and then, if you want, refine your search by selecting the type of service you need. The service asks that you register an account but you can also elect to search anonymously.
CCH's Financial Planning Toolkit
calls itself "your personal financial adviser" and offers a planning guide, financial calculators, and tools for planning your future. It also highlights top financial news stories and allows you to search for help by topic with a clear table of contents.
For estate planning ...
has a section on estate planning that breaks down the subject into manageable elements and explains the importance of each step of the process. If you're not sure how estate planning should factor into your financial plan-or if it will-CNN is the place to find the basics.
teaches you about estate planning from the legal perspective. You can choose to read about the topics that pertain to you or you can check out the whole 23-page guide. You can also use the site to get a free online case review from an attorney.
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