28 November 2008

Budgeting for Dummies Series: Thrive.com

The last piece of my budgeting puzzle was justthrive.com. Thrive tracks your spending, savings, and gives you a score (out of 10) based on how much money you are stashing away and how much you are spending based on your income level.

After you've been in their system for a short time, thrive will have advice for you whenever you log in. Whether it's "you're meeting all of your spending goals, keep at it!" or "You're overspending. Slow down!" thrive is like your honest best friend who keeps track of all of your money.

Thrive was how I found my high yield savings account, and occasionally they suggest I move my money around so that I can accumulate more interest. When I decided to get a new credit card, I used thrive in conjunction with mint.com to shop around and find the best interest rate and rewards program.1

I highly recommend thrive.com, although it's system seems to update more slowly than either of the other websites I use for budgeting. I wouldn't use it alone, but your mileage may vary. It's very handy and very helpful in a refreshingly honest way (I was nearly offended once when the website told me to stop spending money, but then I realized that this was exactly why I needed budgeting software).

1I only applied for a new credit card because my old credit card's APR was alarmingly high, even after I called and asked to have it lowered. I have an impeccable credit rating, though, so this is definitely something I do not in any way endorse, because it's not my place to recommend getting a new credit card to anyone I don't know. Any time you apply for new lines of credit, your score can drop, and it's up to you to determine whether a new line of credit is a good thing. While "freecreditreport.com" gets a lot of airplay, I've found that Credit Karma is a much better way to keep tabs on this information - and it's actually free. For more credit advice, there is plenty of information on the web, but you can start here for some tips.

Thrive has recently added a feature that predicts your credit score based on the information they have, but personally I've found that it highly underestimates my score for whatever reason.

18 November 2008

Budgeting for Dummies Series: Mint.com

I have been using mint.com for nearly as long as I've been using Quicken online, since I joined mint about two weeks after I joined Quicken. Mint.com also has some pretty snazzy pie charts, and they have a very similar setup with the categorizing of transactions and budgets, although for me, the budgets on mint.com were more intuitive and easy to set up than the ones on Quicken.

The overview page allows you to set budgets by different categories and the bars will fill with color as you approach each limit, turning from green to yellow if you get too close, up until you hit the limit. It turns red if you go over your limit, and a little red number will pop up next to your budget, letting you know by exactly how much you went over.

Your accounts are listed in the left hand panel, and you can see transactions from each of them individually, or you can see all of them at once. The transactions tab allows you to categorize your expenditures and income, and all of this is very much like what I described in Quicken. Like Quicken, mint is also mostly intuitive, but some of the categories will need correcting at first. The only problem I've run into has to do with duplicate entries. I neglected to mention this last time, because Quicken is better about this than mint, but both systems have given me trouble with duplicates before. I assume this is because when I pay my credit card bills, it is seen as a debit from my savings account, but since my credit cards are also in the system, the actual purchase is also seen as a debit. Then the credit is only counted once, so I've had to hide some of my debits before - and I would recommend watching out for that, but it's pretty simple to catch.

The trends tab is where the fantastic pie chart lives. You can also analyze your expenses of each category by month in the bar chart at the bottom, and then compare your expenses to the averages in other cities in the U.S. If you click on a color of the pie chart, it will break it down further, and it lists the places you've spent money next to the pie chart, by frequency of your visits to each place. The sliding bar at the bottom lets you change the time frame from which the pie chart gathers its data, so you can see a few months at a time if you'd like.

But as I mentioned in my write-up about Quicken, the difference with mint.com is the next tab, where you can chart your retirement accounts. This can be a dangerous thing, maybe, especially in light of the recent economy...but on the other hand, it has been a blessing because of my recent employment status. I need to roll my former 401(K) into a traditional IRA, and mint.com has a lot of suggestions for doing just that.

The "Ways to Save" tab is the best part, so I've saved it for last. Since I started using mint.com, I have found a new credit card with better rewards (and 0%APR for a year, followed by the lowest APR I have ever seen after the year is up), and I have a new payment account that is accumulating a higher interest rate than my former one. Mint.com had all sorts of recommendations for me, and since I've moved on them, I've been happier with what my money is doing for me.

13 November 2008

Budgeting for Dummies Series: Quicken Online

I've never been very good at saving money - as a concept I understand, but it's never been at the forefront of my decision making process. Immediately out of college, I wasn't spending that much, and easily saved that "three months' rent" that was so crucial, but that changed after I got my second job - there was more shopping downtown, so I spent more on clothes, books, music. There were people my age at that company so I spent more on lunch, drinks, coffee. I was dating someone and we were going out for dinner, drinks, movies. And then we moved in together, and suddenly I was allowed to decorate the Whole Apartment, wow! and suddenly saving for three month's rent was the last thing on my mind. Then I lost my job.

I was managing my money using Quicken online, because it was free, but then digg turned me onto a whole slew of websites, and while I highly recommend Quicken for its charts and management system, some of these other websites felt more like "money management for the everyday person," whereas Quicken obviously already has a reputation as a money management system, and can be as complicated as you want it to be. But since I've been doing this for a few months now, I decided it couldn't hurt to share what I've learned while I'm trying to find one or two of these sites and stick to them.

I still check in on Quicken from time to time, although it kind of started taking the backseat last month. Since I started with Quicken online, though, I figured I'd begin this mini-series by sharing my experience with Quicken online.

Adding my accounts to Quicken was no problem, but my local bank still has a difficult time synching itself with Quicken's system, which can be an issue since I use this account to pay for all of my paypal transactions, and all of my outside income is deposited into this account. It was also the main debit card I used until very recently, so having transactions from this account missing from Quicken was obviously a problem.

The thing I love about Quicken is the pie charts. They're colorful, wonderful and easily accessible. There is a sliding bar at the top of each page which allows you to choose a custom range of dates to analyze. On your home page, you'll find an overview of everything. The tiny pie chart updates immediately giving you a very easy to understand visual of your finances by the largest categories. Plus, there are gigantic colored bubbles at the top: [Money in] - [Money Out] = [Money Spent (So I overspent by...) or (So I saved by...)], which gives you an even more general visual to rely on.

Hop on over to the next tab, where you can view an interactive list of your transactions, which are automatically categorized by Quicken, although you can change them manually if you need to (I needed to do this quite a bit at the beginning, but Quicken is intuitive, and eventually catches on). Break it down even further by using the list on the left to select an individual account to view, or organize the list by category, or date, or payee to easily find a specific transaction, and change the "uncategorized" options so that you know where your money is going, specifically.

The next tab allows you to track your spending on a page with an Even Bigger Pie Chart, and this page bullet points your categories by color to break it down for you even further. You can click on the pie chart or the bullets to get a graph that shows your expenditures by month, how they're adding up, and how you're averaging out.

Finally, you can set budgets by category, and Quicken will let you know how much you have left in each of those budgets. These are set automatically by Quicken, but it's fully customizable so you can prioritize your expenses and figure what kind of spending you need to cut back on.

Quicken definitely had it all, which was helpful but at times felt overwhelming. However, it did not allow me to add my 401(K), and the categories were a bit broad - I didn't know where some of my expenses fell in when they were investments in my future, or when they were just plain old shopping. This is not Quicken's fault, though, and that's just one of the many things I'm trying to figure out broadly, in life, although a website could be a little more help to a girl.

Quicken's system updates very quickly on a day-to-day basis, so you won't be wondering where certain expenses are, because they'll be there if you use big institutions like Bank of America or Capital One. Smaller local banks may have problems - mine still does.

All in all, Quicken is a good deal, given that it's currently free. They may start charging again in the future, though, and that would definitely turn me off when there are so many great free options out there. Chelsea from Quicken commented to assure me that there are no plans to start charging for Quicken's online service, so you can be assured that this free service will remain free after you become addicted to monitoring your money. Next: mint.com.

12 November 2008

Unemployment Insurance

I have been on hold with the Unemployment Insurance office for 39 minutes (as of now). The reason? Somehow when I signed up and claimed the severance from EYP, I was one week off, claiming two weeks' severance, when in reality my vacation payout counted as a third week of severance pay. After you lose your job, you are required to wait one week after your last paid week before you can start collecting Insurance. As a result of this incorrect reporting, I was paid a week early. This means that when I collected my first measly check three weeks after my last day at EYP, I was supposed to have waited one more week without an income. This all makes sense now, but I wish that someone had clued me in when I was filing my paperwork (where I was totally honest with $ amounts and was not trying to scam anyone, for the record).

I don't really know who to be more frustrated with, because this is all my fault in the end. Sure, the questions were "confusing," but maybe I could have asked. Although I was sure at the time that I was doing things correctly, I probably could have double and triple checked. I'm mad at myself, more than anyone.

But I'm also pissed at EYP. What kind of petty bullshit are they pulling over there that it has now been two weeks that I have had zero income because they can't deal with this crap in a timely manner. Hey, guys, as long as you're disputing claims over $300 whole miserable dollars, why don't you go ahead and do it asap - it must be nice not to give a shit about time lines since you're sitting all fat and sassy with your next paycheck on it's way this week, huh? That also goes for the Insurance office for not dealing with this in a timely fashion on my behalf.

If the money thing weren't such an issue, this would all be pretty awesome, no longer having to answer to a soulless corporate company, but they still have that hold over me, and that's about as frustrating as barely having enough to cover next month's rent and utilities right now.

Can't wait until this is completely behind me - and I can pretend never to have heard of EYP - "Isn't that the company that had the massive Gonorrhea outbreak? No? Then I've never heard of them." (47 minutes on hold)