Part of a series on young people and financial literacy
Personal finance websites such as Mint.com have gained fans for helping people sort out where their money goes. They can be a great way to track your savings, says Joan Goldwasser, a senior reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance.
The sites combine their members' banking, credit card and brokerage accounts into one composite picture by accessing those accounts online. To do that, members must share their account information, like user IDs and passwords. In return, they get an itemized view of their money.
One of the benefits of the services, Goldwasser says, is their ability to track spending and to help people save toward a goal — like buying a house, or taking a long vacation.
For instance, someone wanting to buy a house in five years "can put down how much you think you're going to spend on this house, and it will help you figure out what percentage down payment is reasonable, and then how much you need to save each month — so that in five years, you will have the money for the down payment."
And for anyone planning a vacation, Goldwasser says the services can help them save up for the trip, "so I can go out to eat and do whatever I want to do and not have an enormous credit card bill when I return."
Of course, to many people, handing over access to their financial life sounds like a huge security risk. To combat that, Goldwasser says, most of the personal finance sites promise "bank-level security."
"Most of the sites don't actually store your information," she says. "They do what's — the technical term is 'screen-scraping.' So they go to the bank's website and sort of pull the information in, but they don't store it themselves. So it's a little bit safer. But you obviously have to be comfortable with having information online."
And Goldwasser has some advice for anyone using a smartphone app from one of the services.
"You do want to be careful that you don't look at personal information in a public Wi-Fi spot," she says, "because that can be a little bit risky."
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
So for tech-savvy individuals like Sarah Marczynski, online tools can make budgeting much easier. Mint.com is only one of several Web-based personal financial management sites. There's also Thrive, Money Strands and Buxfer.
Joan Goldwasser is a senior reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance. She explains some of the benefits of using these programs.
Ms. JOAN GOLDWASSER (Kiplinger's Personal Finance): You're seeing sort of a complete financial picture - how much money you have, whether it's your paycheck coming in because it's getting deposited into your bank account; the money that's going out because the checks that you write are shown there; plus, your credit card bill shows up and you also can have, you know, a brokerage statement, so your long-term investments show up. So you can get sort of a total financial picture of how much money you have, how much you're spending, and where you're spending it.
MONTAGNE: Do you have any tips for how one would take best advantage of what -the features that most of these programs have?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, I mean, the main thing you want to do is pay attention to it. You know, if you're trying to save for a goal - and they will help you do this - you know, look at where you are. You know, I want to buy a house in five years, so you can, you know, put down, you know, how much you think you're going to spend on this house and it will help you figure out what percentage downpayment is reasonable and then how much you need to save each month so that in five years you will have the money for your downpayment for your house. Or you want to save for retirement - and it will help you figure out whether you're actually on track for meeting, you know, these goals.
MONTAGNE: And those are somewhat long-term goals. But for a very - what would be an example of a short-term goal?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Oh, you know, I'm going on vacation in six months. I want to make sure that I have enough cash so that I - you know, to spend when I take my vacation.
MONTAGNE: As opposed to putting it all on the credit card and not thinking about.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Exactly. Say, OK, you know, I want to have this money set aside so that I can go out to eat and do whatever I want to do and not have an enormous credit card bill when I return.
MONTAGNE: Now, since one needs to put so much, your financial information, onto these sites, what are the risks?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, they say that they have bank level security and that everything is encrypted. Most of the sites don't actually store your information. They do what the technical term is screen-scraping, so they go to the bank's website and sort of pull the information in. But you obviously have to be comfortable with having information online.
MONTAGNE: All in all, what's the profile of people who are really best suited to use these sites to really help them out and to keep at it?
Ms. GOLDWASSER: Well, I think anybody who does online banking probably would find it pretty seamless to, you know, move over into one of these sites and to get a better picture. Obviously it takes a little bit of motivation to go in every day or every week and check, but if you do, it does remind you of where you stand financially.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. GOLDWASSER: You're very welcome. Happy to be with you.
MONTAGNE: Joan Goldwasser is a senior reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.