Organizing your personal finances

The state of the U.S. economy (and, realistically, the economy in most other nations throughout the world) has seen better days. Whether you need to or not, you are probably closely watching your money.

If you’re someone with “organize finances” at the top of your 2009 resolutions list, let me recommend a few products and services that might be able to help you keep better track of the money you earn, save, and spend:

  • Online banking. Most banks and credit unions have websites that let you track your accounts online. If you aren’t already, I suggest signing up for these services.
  • Online bill paying. To save money on postage, many utility companies and other service providers now allow you to pay your bills electronically. An automatic system can help you pay your bills on time, and also provide you with a second digital receipt of your money transfer.
  • Quicken online. You can track all of your personal finances through a free Quicken account. The service allows you to import all of your financial information and display it in a manner that is useful.
  • Mint online. If Quicken isn’t your style, you should definitely check out Mint. It’s also a free, online, personal finance program. Feel welcome to check out our review of an earlier version of Mint.
  • Personal finance blogs. Websites like Get Rich Slowly, Awake at the Wheel, The Motley Fool, The Simple Dollar, and Wise Bread are fantastic sources for product reviews, strategies, and tips and tricks for managing your money wisely.

What services do you use to help you organize your finances? Let us know about any programs or services that work for you in the comments.

33 Comments for “Organizing your personal finances”

  1. posted by Michele on

    Last time I looked it up, for me paying my bills online cost more than postage, because my bank or the utility or both charge a fee for the convenience. Also, I don’t think it takes much less time than writing a check.

  2. posted by Michele on

    I’m sorry; I hit “submit” before I was done, and I think I left my comment looking curt and unfriendly.

    What I meant to add is that, of course, your mileage may vary, and different banks and utilities have different schemes. Also, the cost difference between a stamp versus the online charge may not matter to everybody. I’m sure a lot of people appreciate not getting a paper bill in the mail every month, too! I only meant to point out that my utility bills always say “pay your bill online and save postage!” but they note only in the fine print that there’s usually a service charge involved, and the service charge is usually more than 42 cents.

    The reference to the Wise Bread blog is a good one. I read that one daily for money-saving advice.

  3. posted by drdrew on

    @Michele, My bank was like this too, charging for every online payment like it was a burden to them or something. All you have to do is contact who you’re trying to pay and have them send you an automatic draft form, fill it out, void a check (if necessary) or use a cc (rewards!), and send it in. Now everything gets paid on time with no time and effort on your part, or postage and unnecessary fees. Note: in the last year, I’ve written 4 checks total (only for charities). The cashiers at the bank can’t believe I’m still on the same (first) set of checks they game me about 10 years ago, lol.

  4. posted by anonymous on

    There’s a review comparing Quicken Online and Mint at arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20081015-hands-on-mint-com-vs-quicken-online.html

  5. posted by anonymous on

    Personal finance blogs

    And who could forget the Motley Fool?

    http://www.fool.com

  6. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @anonymous — Great addition! I love the Motley Fool.

  7. posted by gypsy packer on

    I certainly cannot forget the Motley Fool. They recommended Nvidia as a “bargain stock” and I purchased it. Two days later, Google News announced that Nvidia was being sued for misappropriating intellectual property and the stock plummeted. I suspect Fool’s reporter was paid off. Since that date, the company has been the subject of a class action suit, and I have lost $4 a share.

    This in addition to the other stock market problems. My IRA barely “r” now.

  8. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @gypsy packer — Any investment advice has to be taken with a grain of salt. (Additionally, $4 a share is NOTHING compared to what most stocks have lost in recent weeks.) The purpose of my article wasn’t to talk about investing advice, but the more concrete, hands on, day-to-day money management — bill paying, watching expenses, strategies for creating a personal budget.

  9. posted by timgray on

    Watch it for online bill paying. many places charge you a fee to do that. It saves the company money and yet they charge you more for it.

    Until companies stop being greedy and charging fees for online bill paying I’m sticking with mailing them checks that they have to have someone handle.

  10. posted by Pat on

    I use Money Manager EX for balancing the checkbook.

    http://www.codelathe.com/mmex/

    It is a lot like Quicken, but free and open-source. It also has an option for budgeting which is nice.

  11. posted by Stuart on

    My favorites are Mint and WiseBread.

  12. posted by Pascal Forget on

    Hello! For 2009, I want to organize my billing system.

    I was wondering if there was a good and simple online Billing system for freelancers? I don’t bill by the hour, I have less than 20 clients, I don’t have to manage stock of merchandise. I’d simply like a simple system that allows me to quickly send a pdf bill to my client, from any of my computers (therefore a preference for an online system). At the end of the year, I’d love to be able to generate a list I can send to my accountant. No more, no less!

    I hope it’s ok to use the comments for my question – my quest!

    I need to charge Quebec and Canadian taxes.

    Thanks for your help!

  13. posted by Lana on

    I like buxfer.com better instead of mint.com because I use it to manually enter all my receipts and then cross check it with my statements.

  14. posted by Jackie on

    @Michelle – I use Citibank and they’ve never charged a fee for online banking. Maybe you need to sign up with a different bank!

  15. posted by L. on

    I also recommend creating a Google document explaining your personal finance organization in 1-2 pages and sharing it with your spouse and the executor of your Will. In it I have explained which bills are paid electronically, which bills come to the mail, and which bills are annual or semiannual or irregular (e.g. daycare, which I pay 5x per year). In case something happens to one or both partners, a Will isn’t quite enough information to leave one’s personal finances in decent working order.

  16. posted by Beth on

    Since I do this for a living for both businesses and personal clients – I have to add my $.02!

    [1] You should never pay for online bill pay at your bank. In fact, with the state of banking these days, you should be able to negotiate for no fees, no min balances and online bill pay. Check out various banks in your area. Believe me – knowing several bankers – they are all working deals to gain new clients. Plus, if you have direct deposit for your payroll – fees are usually waived.

    [2] Pay your bills once or twice a month – I usually do it 2x a month as this is when I get paid. Set aside a couple of hours to enter everything into your program and pay bills. I use Quick Books in my business – basically the business version of Quicken. This makes life much simpler at tax time – hand the file to the accountant!

    [3] Keep receipts in envelopes by month and file away at the end of the year. Receipts for major purchases should always be kept in your current filing system.

    [4] Check credit card statements for hidden fees. See point #1 – if you have good credit you should not be paying an annual charge and should be able to negotiate a good interest rate.

    [5] Resolve to EDUCATE yourself on personal finance for 2009! The websites listed above are great. I would also recommend Money Magazine or Kiplingers. I believe alot of the problems that exist today concerning foreclosures and personal debt are due to people being uneducated on these matters. So make it your personal responsibility to know what is going on and your what your financial picture looks like. Sorry – its time to be a grown up!

    Here’s to a healthy, happy and prosperous 2009!

  17. posted by Susan on

    I found a great little site called http://www.spendingprofile.com that helps you track your spending and whips up great little graphs so you can see how you’re doing. I started using it while I was following the advice in Your Money or Your Life, which is an amazing book about handling money in your life. The site is free and very easy to use. Maybe a bit clunky in some places but it does everything I need it to do!

  18. posted by Tanja on

    I live in the Netherlands, and not in the U.S. and things seem a bit different here. Your pay gets into your account by direct deposit (any other way is very unusual). Not everyone does online banking, but for most things as rent and utilities, people have set up direct debits. Paying for things usually gets done with the direct debit card (credit-cards are not very common for normal purchases) or with money from the ATM.

    I have nearly everything thing done automatically. Usually when I give a company a direct debit, it saves me on administration fees, not to mention time and effort on my part. Apart from this, it’s unthinkable for me that my bank would charge me for making an online payment (except maybe when the payment goes to a different country). One company that does not (yet) have a direct debit (because I’ve been lazy) sends me a bill into my online banking system, so I only have to click and pay it, changing the date perhaps. Little to no effort really.

    It works really well for me to have nearly everything automated. I had to spend some time in the hospital and some weeks after that recovering. I logged into my bank once to pay that one half-automatic bill, and everything went fine. All my bills got paid and I wasn’t even at home.
    For me this setup works really well and takes away lots of stress. I think it’s important to have the basics set up right, with little chance of failure.

    Staying on top of your finances takes away at least some of the stress caused my financial crisises, because you know what you’re up against.

    Have a happy 2009!

  19. posted by Cody on

    I have to throw in a few things too. I’ve just recently discovered and started using http://www.wesabe.com. It lets you track your spending so you can see exactly how much you’re spending on what. Great little tool!

    I also wanted to add that I use ING Direct for my direct deposit/billpay and never have to pay a fee. ING is awesome when it comes to low/no fees!

  20. posted by Tracy on

    Online banking and online bill pay changed my life (for the better)! It is so convenient and a great mirror to show you how much you really (should not) spend on incidentals. All of your tips are great! Thanks for sharing!

  21. posted by sm on

    I use (and recommend) Moneydance. It’s simple to use but has lots of flexibility since you can add categories and tags that reflect your needs. Not to mention that it’s cross-platform, cheaper than Quicken, and downloads your transactions. I still find with tax-deductible expenses, listing each one in a spreadsheet is helpful and is an opportunity to make sure I have all the corresponding receipts. I pay my bills online for free (if your bank doesn’t let you, change banks!) which is also great because it won’t deduct money from your account unless you’re good for it, so it’s harder to bounce a check.

  22. posted by Joy (from Just Plain Joy) on

    I have been very happy with http://www.Mvelopes.com for several years! It automatically loads my transactions and uses the old-fashioned envelope budgeting system.

  23. posted by anonymous on

    “I’ve just recently discovered and started using http://www.wesabe.com . ”

    According to the comments section of the Ars Technica review linked to above, Wesabe has the best privacy and data rights policy.

  24. posted by Thedeise on

    You need a budget. http://Www.ynab.com. This is the best budgeting tool I’ve found.

  25. posted by Sue on

    We pay all our bills (including our church tithe) online, and have not been charged anything by the credit union nor by any recepients. We have it set up to shoot us an email when the payment processes. I use my debit card for purchases like groceries, gas, meds and other daily purchases and use QuickBooks to track our spending. Really simplifies things at tax time!

  26. posted by Catherine on

    I love online banking, period. I’ve been using it via Bank of America for years at this point, and other than needing to be vigilant about making a separate payment if an auto-payment is a holiday, I’ve never had an issue. In fact, with all the alerts set up it’s hard to make mistakes. This year means big budget changes, so thanks for all the great resources.

  27. posted by Alison on

    I’ve been playing with the online apps for a few months now, after becoming disgusted with Quicken, and I find them quite disappointingly ‘lite.’ Free Quicken Online is the most interesting to me, but it’s far from perfect.

  28. posted by Holly on

    Don’t forget Gail!!

    http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/

  29. posted by Jay on

    Consider using a spreadsheet program (like Excel) to balance your checkbook. Since I don’t need all the bells and whistles, Excel is much better for me than a more robust financial planning software like Quicken. Also, the checkbook file can fit on a thumb drive for easy use with all your home computers.

  30. posted by Elaine on

    I’ve been used a couple different personal systems in the past several years, and I’ve never paid a cent to pay my bills, and management of my finances takes about 15 minutes twice a month.

    1. There are several banks that do not charge a fee for auto bill pay. I used Bank of America bill pay for a couple years (they’re still my bank and I still use them for bill pay sometimes), and I’ve never been charged or had a problem. Obviously, if you don’t already use one of those banks, though, you probably don’t want to change banks.

    2. Here is what I now do: Every creditor I have–credit card, auto, insurance, electric company, etc.–has their own online bill pay and does not charge.

    What I have done is I have a secure location where I have stored account information, including logins and passwords, for all my debtors. I simply click on each account, a new window opens, log in, pay and log out. And again, 15 minutes, twice a month.

    Also, I have my checkbook in a spreadsheet program like Jay mentioned above.

  31. posted by Leslie on

    Great article and some great suggestions in the comments, too! I signed up for the free Quicken online. I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my Excel spreadsheet yet, as it’s worked well for me for many years, but I do love the spending graphs provided by Quicken. I’ll give it a few more months and see if it can replace my spreadsheet.

    I also like to read Everyday Cheapskate. The author also has a website with tools for budgeting and specifically for getting out of debt, but most of them require membership to access.

    My bank does charge a fee for online bill pay, so I use mycheckfree.com – most of the businesses I pay regularly (Qwest, Dish Network, my insurance, credit cards) are listed with them and there’s no fee. I like paying online not so much for the time savings, although that’s nice, too, but mostly because I can control exactly when the money will come out of my account and I don’t have to guess whether my check will get there in the mail after my paycheck is in the bank, but before the due date of the bill.

  32. posted by Marion on

    I’ve been paying bills on-line (free) for a couple of years but I’m having a problem of just using my on-line banking as a cheat. I stopped the checkbook register because I was basically copying what the bank had on-line.I need a new system. And I need to be able to see all my bills and when they are due so I can pay them when I’m sure the money is there. Some things are set up automatically so they won’t be late.

  33. posted by M Smith on

    As a freelancer, I have a bit of a hard time organising my finances. So, thanks for these tips!

    I actually found a feature that might help others out there as well (whether or not you’re a freelancer too) : Do not mix your finances!

    http://www.freelancesupermarke.....ances.aspx

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