Q: My wife and I are in our mid-30s and are trying to find a way to track our overall financial standing. We have so many different bank and retirement accounts that it is extremely difficult to get the big picture or even a good breakdown of how much money we have in different asset classes. I have been reading about aggregate websites like Mint.com and PersonalCapital.com. This seems like a great way to pull our accounts together and see the big picture as well as get a better understanding of how our accounts compare in terms of the management fees we are paying. Is this a good approach?
A: Online technology is making it easier than ever to monitor your household finances in the aggregate. The key is coming up with a system that’s comfortable for you. I have a friend who loves the details revealed in her spreadsheet and there’s no way she’ll abandon the system. Me? I prefer an occasional look at some illuminating graphics generated by my bank.
My first reaction when reading your question was why so many bank accounts? Wouldn’t it be simpler to consolidate to a few at the most? The same goes with the retirement money. So, the first thing I would consider is paring down the accounts.
Quicken is the best-known, home-based finance and small-business data management software. Quicken can do heavy-duty work for those serious about their data management and planning. Many people have found that Web-based personal finance services like Mint, Personal Capital, Manilla and the like are easier to use. They offer good graphics and charts, personal finance information, and aggregate all your financial data, from credit cards to investments. Check them out.
I tend to look at Mint as a budgeting tool. Personal Capital is geared more toward investments and a better-off customer. (The finance tool is free at Personal Capital, but the company charges for its financial advice service.)
The Web-based budgeting sites keep improving. Nevertheless, a big caveat remains: You’re giving out the user names and passwords of your financial accounts so the sites can access the data. It’s a risk you don’t take with your spreadsheet.
Another alternative is to check out the products offered at your bank or credit union. Many offer simple online budgeting programs to customers. I find the budget-oriented service offered by my bank sufficient. My retirement savings plans are housed with a few mutual fund companies. Since I only check them periodically and make at most modest adjustments to my asset allocation, I don’t feel any need to consolidate and monitor investment performance on a more frequent basis.
By the way, some people reading this column might prefer tracking their budget the old-fashioned way with a notebook, pencil and cheap calculator. Remember, budgeting is a tool, not a goal.
Eric Tyson, the author of several best-selling personal finance books, once said something that has stuck with me. “Do you really need to be tracking all spending on a monthly basis?” he asked. “Because if you set a specific savings goal, like we’re going to save 10 percent of our income or 8 percent of our income each month, and you’re able to do that, then my feeling is who cares where it goes after you have accomplished that savings.”
I think he’s right on the money.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for “Marketplace Money.” His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.