Recently a good friend asked me if I had heard of "Mint.com" – which turned out to be a free online budgeting tool. I hadn't heard of it, and further investigation into the topic of personal finance management software opened a whole new world to me. I had no idea that there were so many online tools out there to help us with personal finance, and many of them are free.
In the wake of the recession, and acknowledging that most New Zealanders are not the best at managing their personal finances, I frankly cannot believe how little attention these tools have received.
And so I thought I would share some of my findings – with my primary focus on tools that are relevant to New Zealanders.
There are six tools that I will highlight:
- Xero Personal
- ANZ MoneyManager
- ASB Track My Spending
- Kiwibank heaps!
Why is Mint.com (mentioned at the outset) not on this list? Mint is probably the most widely known and popular tool in this area, but not in New Zealand. Mint requires automatic feeds of transaction data from banks before you can use their software – and they have not enabled support for any New Zealand banks yet for various reasons. With their recent takeover by Intuit (who make Quicken) who knows how long it will be before they look at supporting New Zealand.
I should also mention at this stage that each of the tools I am reviewing support transaction files from New Zealand banks. Some via manual import. Some via additional tools like a Firefox plugin to automate the process of exporting and importing data from your Internet Banking website. And yes, some do offer automatic transaction feeds from the bank.
Automatic transaction feeds are of course the ideal world, but traditionally online budgeting tools have not integrated with New Zealand bank feeds. But that is changing. You will find that one or more of the tools I review offer automatic transaction feeds for ANZ, ASB, BNZ, Kiwibank, Westpac, National Bank and TSB. I would recommend however that you do not limit your personal review of these tools to only those that offer automatic data feeds for your bank. Each of these tools are quite different in how they approach the problem of budgeting and personal finance. The basic concepts are of course the same, but I suggest you look at each one to see which interface and approach seems most logical and appealing to you.
So, on with the reviews…
Price: Basic: Free, Premium: NZ$8/month, Super: NZ$19/month
NZ Bank Feeds: None
Based in Dunedin, New Zealand, PocketSmith was launched in 2008 and is very popular. The secret to PocketSmith is its focus on budgeting events around your calendar, a familiar and intuitive interface to most users. By entering in your current, future and recurring financial events, PocketSmith can start to forecast and predict your spending and financial position at any point in time.
PocketSmith supports manual imports of OFX, QIF, or CSV files from your bank. It can then match your planned spending against your actual spend – allowing you to closely monitor your spending behaviour and learn from it.
One feature I really like about PocketSmith is ability to set goals – for example "Save $1000″ or "New Suit $500″. PocketSmith will tell you how long until it will be until you can afford the suit, or until you achieve your goal based on scheduled spending.
PocketSmith also offers optimised interfaces for the iPhone and any device that supports the Opera Mini browser.
PocketSmith Website: www.pocketsmith.com
Xero Personal (Coming early 2010)
Price: Unknown, estimates are less than NZ$5 per month
NZ Bank Feeds: BNZ initially, other banks to follow
Put your hand up if you have not heard of Xero? Xero was launched in 2006 and is one of the fastest growing online companies in New Zealand. Their primary focus has been on online accounting software for small businesses, and they have been very successful in this area. The good news is that Xero is currently building a new package, "Xero Personal", that is to be released "early 2010″. You can read the press release here.
What will Xero Personal offer in terms of functionality? Let Xero answer:
"In terms of what the software does, we wanted to go past the initial hit of just classifying transactions and seeing the depressing reality of what you spend your money on. We want to create a new service that people use each week to set their goals and track progress. We want to change how people save and how they act with their money. All of us were blown away when our interaction team walked us through the early designs several months ago. We think we’ve built a tool that people will enjoy using again and again."
Not very specific, but looking over the main Xero software certainly gives us an idea of what they can achieve. I am looking forward to seeing what Xero Personal will offer when it is released – but the reality is that I bank with ANZ, so the lack of automatic transaction feeds from ANZ will be a show-stopper for me in the short-term.
You can get notified when Xero Personal is released by registering your interest: http://www.xero.com/personal/
NZ Bank Feeds: ANZ, ASB, Westpac, TSB, National Bank
ANZ MoneyManager was launched in Beta in October 2008, and went live in February 2009. OK so this one blew me away when I found it. I could not believe the functionality offered, the fact that it was free, and that it automatically pulled transaction data down from five mainstream NZ banks. Since I am an ANZ customer I was initially incredulous that I had not heard of it before.
So what's the catch? Unfortunately there is one. ANZ MoneyManager has been targeting the Australian market, and so all transactions and dollar amounts are shown in AUD – even for New Zealand bank accounts. Fortunately this limitation is about to be fixed. I received an email from the Support Team at ANZ MoneyManager just today:
We are currently investigating having the option to change the base currency – and we endeavour to have this available early in the new year.
So – moving past the current AUD issue, what does this software offer in terms of functionality? Well the key features I like are:
- Categorise and colour-code your transactions to see where you are spending your money
- Set budget goals and category spending limits
- Receive automated Budget Alerts when you have an upcoming bill, when you are close to your budget limits or have spent over budget
- View a multitude of reports to analyse spending, expenses, planned vs actual spending
I like the fact that ANZ MoneyManager integrates with so many different New Zealand banks, not just ANZ. In reality many households use more than one bank and there is a definite advantage in being able to pull all accounts together into one system to get a combined view and manage them centrally.
Unlike PocketSmith however ANZ MoneyManager does not have a strong focus on forecasting and setting financial goals. Perhaps we will see this in the future.
ANZ MoneyManager Website: www.anzmoneymanager.com
Price: Basic: Free, Plus: US$2.79/month, Pro: US$3.79/month
NZ Bank Feeds: ANZ, Firefox plugin for other banks
Moving outside of New Zealand and Australian development efforts, there is a plethora of online budgeting tools. I found at least 20 very quickly. However it does not take long to narrow down the list based on features required and user feedback.
One tool that I zoomed in on is the very popular "Buxfer" – a name derived from the amalgamation of "bucks" and "transfer".
What attracted me to Buxfer?
- Security – Buxfer offers a lot of flexibility around how it handles your login credentials and how it stores your transaction data. You can have Buxfer encrypt and store your details on their servers, which is what most tools offer by default. Or you can optionally use Google Gears to store your bank account details and transaction data on your local computer, with nothing stored on Buxfer's servers. You can also optionally login to Buxfer using your existing Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Windows Live, AOL, or OpenID – your login is entirely processed by the corresponding service, and your password for that account is not stored by Buxfer.
- Automatic Transaction Feeds – Yes, Buxfer offers automatic data feeds for ANZ bank accounts. These are incredibly simple to set up inside Buxfer, which will then pull down the transactions each night. But what if you are not with ANZ? Buxfer also offers a Firefox Plugin called "Firebux" that can automatically pull down transaction data from any bank account. And it securely stores the sync details on your local computer – not on the Buxfer servers. And of course it allows manual import of data files from your bank as well.
- Simple Transaction Tagging – Buxfer shines at the simple way that it allows "tags" to be added to any transaction. And it remembers which tags were used for different transactions – so the next time you purchase food at McDonald's it will automatically tag it with "Food" or "Takeaways" or whatever you choose. It is quick and easy.
- Budgeting – You can create weekly, monthly and yearly budgets in Buxfer. Set per-category spending limits and Buxfer will help you stay within those limits by monitoring your expenses and sending real-time alerts on your mobile device. You can also receive a weekly Budget Report which gives a quick breakdown of your budgeted vs actual spending for the week.
- Bill Reminders – It is incredibly handy to be able to see a list of when your next bill is due, or to look at your Calendar to view bill payments for the month or week. Buxfer also optionally sends out email reminders when your bills are due.
- Forecasting (Pro version only) – You can pick any point in time, say 5 months away, and Buxfer will show you your forecast financial position based on today's balance, projected income, pending transactions, and scheduled bills.
- Reporting – Any budgeting tool needs solid reports, and Buxfer has all the basics covered and more. The ones I use on a daily basis include the Budget Progress, Income Breakdown, Expense Breakdown, Trend Report (Income vs Expenditure) and the Projections report. I also enjoy zooming in on the transaction categories and sub-categories to see where my money is going.
- Interfaces – You can interact with Buxfer in a multitude of ways – from any mobile, iPhone, Blackberry to using Twitter, Facebook, or SMS. There is a Google Gadget that can be integrated with your personalised iGoogle Home Page and other tools. There is even an API for developers to work with.
I am using Buxfer as my personal finance manager for the above reasons, so forgive me if I went into more detail on Buxfer than I have some of the other tools I am reviewing. The only feature I really miss from Buxfer is the ability to set goals such as a purchase, or savings goals – a bit like PocketSmith offers. The Projections/Forecasting functionality partially fills this gap in the meantime.
Buxfer Website: www.buxfer.com
ASB Track My Spending
Price: Free to ASB Customers
NZ Bank Feeds: ASB
In August 2009 ASB released the new "Track My Spending" functionality to their existing customers. The functionality offered by Track My Spending is very simple:
- Code items via your online bank statements into Categories
- View graphs that show exactly where your money goes (by Category)
- See whether you are getting ahead each month or spending more than you receive via the "Money-In vs Money-Out" report
I have wondered for a long time why this type of functionality is not offered by default on Internet Banking websites – they are after all supposed to be helping us with personal finance, so it seems a logical fit. So congratulations to ASB on being the first New Zealand bank to get this under way.
You can read the press release here: https://www.asb.co.nz/story18179.aspx
Price: Free to Kiwibank Customers
NZ Bank Feeds: Kiwibank
heaps! was launched on 26 November 2009, and is available to Kiwibank customers who are being progressively invited to participate. It is being developed Kiwibank in partnership with Social Capital.
heaps! has all your Kiwibank account and transactional information from internet banking, and it helps you to organise your spending into categories. You can then set and easily manage a budget, and also create and track your progress on goals.
Again, it is fantastic to see a bank offering this service to their clients.
heaps! Website: www.heaps.co.nz
It is very exciting to see this type of software becoming available, and at a price-point that there is no excuse for people not to budget and manage their finances better. Please spread the word!
Are there any other tools out there that I have missed? If so, please leave a comment and let me know.