Getting into financial shape is a New Year's resolution many of us make every year. But it can be tougher than losing weight or even quitting smoking, requiring discipline, difficult choices (no take-out dinners) and continual vigilance. However, there are some great free tools online to help you stick with the program and achieve your fiscal goals.
Kill that debt. For those who want to go straight to the heart of the problem -- too much debt -- there's ReadyForZero. Designed for people who want to shed some financial flab, the free Web site links to your credit card, loan, and bank accounts. It then totals what you owe and how long it will take you to pay off your debts depending on the interest rates attached to each account.
A sliding bar of what you can pay each month shows dynamically how you can shorten the time to pay off everything -- and save a lot of money. Graphs illustrate how at a glance you can improve your personal economic health.
ReadyForZero was originally aimed at attacking credit card debt, but it has been expanding its scope to include different types of loans. One excellent aspect is that it tracks your debt-reduction progress, which is encouraging rather than discouraging. There are also some recommendations for actions you can take to sharpen your financial picture, such as calling your credit card companies to arrange different statement dates so that you can stay organized. However, the site could use even more advice columns and tips tailored to specific situations.
Pay on time. Tardy payments can hurt your credit rating and cost you money in onerous late fees. Pageonce has a mobile app that is specifically aimed at "helping people do their finances" and stay on time, said Steve Schultz, COO of Pageonce.
Rather than acting as an automated wealth manager, Pageonce is a bill nanny, warning you that some charges are coming due and collecting all your monthly statements in a single, convenient place.
Pageonce's biggest advantage, however, is its ability to pay accounts directly from your Android or iPhone. This makes it easier for business travelers and family money managers who may be away from home to keep on top of bills and avoid late fees simply because they forgot, say, that the cell phone bill is due on the 16th of the month. (Pageonce will even tell you how long it takes for a payment to clear.) The catch: The mobile bill-pay feature costs $4.99 a month.
Plan ahead. If you want even more hand-holding in the form of budget planning, bill notifications, and financial advice, Mint is the most mature app and service online. The free software tracks bills and accounts for detailed expense balances.
Its claim to fame is that it also automatically categorizes certain charges or fees under headings such as "shopping" or "alcohol and bars" (ouch!). It also shows you in real time how much cash you have on hand, how much credit card debt, and how your cash flow looks.
Available for Android and iPhone handsets, Mint also has an extensive Web site. You'll find more advice there and the ability to set up goals and track your progress. You can build up savings toward buying a house, for example, or, like ReadyForZero, pay down credit card balances. Unfortunately, the software isn't integrated with parent company Intuit's Quicken desktop software.
Hire a coach. Signing up online and giving your account numbers and passwords to a third party like one of these services requires a leap of faith. If you find you aren't that trusting, you can still get a quick -- and perhaps frightening -- picture of your financial health by using DebtCoach at Bills.com.
You don't have to enter private account numbers here, simply put in what you owe, what you make, and your goal. The site may advise you to seek out professional counsel or suggest a do-it-yourself method, such as increasing payments, reducing your spending, and paying off debt early.
In using any of these tools, remember that many make their money with special offers from advertisers or financial consulting companies -- which means these additional offers are often not the best deals or best advice available. Furthermore, each individual's case is different. A payment plan that's good for a recent college graduate isn't necessarily right for a parent with a family to support.
I found that simply plugging in the numbers can be helpful -- and depressing. I owe more money than I thought, but that news alone inspired me to be more vigilant in the year ahead. Hopefully, it will inspire you too.