- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The numbers aren’t encouraging: 71 percent of American employees are living paycheck-to-paycheck, according to results of a 2008 Getting Paid in America survey, conducted online by the American Payroll Association, a trade group.

“An overwhelming 31,946 of more than 45,000 respondents said they’d find it difficult to meet their financial obligations if their paycheck were delayed for just one week, up four percent from 2007,” according to a 2008 news release.

Part of that paycheck-to-paycheck problem is that many of us — myself included — don’t always know what’s going on in our bank accounts, or even our wallets. I won’t confess all of my bad habits, but, to tell the truth, I’ve had the occasional anxious moment wondering whether something will cause my bill payments to go bounce in the night.

Turns out that there’s tons of help available online, including two key Web sites and mobile phone applications. Quicken Online, which claims 1.3 million users, is a free service from Intuit, which for more than 25 years has published Quicken financial software. Mint.com, also free online, is a relatively new startup created by Aaron Patzer, a computer whiz, who, press reports state, was frustrated at what he thought was the slowness of the Quicken software.

Both services will link in to your bank, credit card, auto loan and other accounts that are available online (suffice it to say each found my credit union), and download the data via secure links into a form you can view and analyze online. Each site also offers a “mobile” version for Web-ready cell phones, and each has a specialized application for Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

I’d stumbled upon Quicken Online (www.quickenonline.intuit. com) while searching for a Mac-compatible version of Quicken that was rated better by users than the 2007 Quicken Mac product. There isn’t any right now; the firm promises something new in 2010. (Windows users will have new Quicken versions this fall, spokeswoman Chelsea Marti said.)

But Quicken Online isn’t a Web-based doppelganger for the desktop product. Instead, it offers what is essentially a transaction register for each account and some analysis, as well as ways to set up recurring transactions and project a bit into the future.

Mint.com, which has been wooing users for about a year, bills itself as a way to use your money “for living.” According to the firm, “In five minutes or less, you’ll see where you’re spending your money, understand how your investments are performing, and set up realistic budgets.”

Both sites work about equally well in tracking and updating transactions. In each case, you can edit such things as a payee’s name, the date of an expenditure and its purpose: Something called “United” might be categorized as “travel,” for example, but it could be “United Bank” and a “financial” transaction instead. By editing the entries, your end-of-year analysis might be easier.

Although neither Web site will prepare specific reports online, such as tax-deductible transactions, both sites allow you to export your transactions in a form usable by spreadsheets or personal finance programs. That’s better than nothing, but it would be nice to see a path where you can get such analysis, and perhaps even online tax preparation, even if a fee is involved.

One thing Mint.com will do for you, if you ask, is offer ways to save on checking account fees, credit card interest and other services. The firm may make some money if you open a recommended account with Zions Bank or Discover card, however: “If you act on one of Mint’s personalized savings recommendations, we sometimes - but not always - earn a nominal fee. But you can always count on unbiased advice,” the Web site assures.

Quicken Online’s Barron Ernst says the firm may offer some extra services online at a future point, but that Intuit also hopes to convert some Web users to cash customers for its software.

Both sites will update your transactions and square things with your bank, etc. I wish this was a bit smoother at Quicken Online, but with a little editing of future transactions — which you can enter to see what next week’s paycheck will do for your bottom line — things should stay balanced. Quicken Online gives a far better appearance in Apple’s Safari browser, but Mint.com says any issues should be fixed with an August site update.

Both firms offer iPhone applications, and Quicken Online’s is marginally better than the Mint.com program, which only offers an overview of your finances and any alerts.

But all of these are far better than nothing. No one would mistake me for Warren Buffet, but I do feel more in control than I did before, and at no cost, no less.

E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.

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