Financial crisis a boon to money management websites

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By Ian Sherr

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – Balancing checkbooks and relying on paper bank statements is so last century.

Over the past two years, websites such as Mint, Buxfer, Geezeo and Wesabe are wooing users with powerful online money management tools and the promise of access to their financial information from anywhere in the world.

And it’s working.

New user signups have tripled for industry leader Mint.com since the financial crisis hit the United States in September, with 40,000 people joining in the last week alone.

Geezeo had 20,000 visitors a month back in May — today, they’re averaging 150,000.

And they’re by no means alone.

“You have this generation of people using debit and credit cards, but removed from where their money is going,” Geezeo.com co-founder Peter Glyman told AFP. “The silver lining is that it creates an excellent audit trail.”

The ability to aggregate credit card statements, checking account balances, and other financial data together into a simple interface was what attracted 32-year-old Kelly Whalen to Wesabe.com.

“With so many accounts all over the place, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on with just a pen and paper,” she said.

With the help of Wesabe’s financial tools, as well as its anonymous user discussion forums, the stay-at-home mother of four from Pennsylvania embarked upon a “No-spend Month.”

With some preparation, she was able to limit almost all of her extraneous spending for an entire month.

“We ended up saving 500 dollars, which was our Christmas budget,” Whalen said. “It showed just how much money goes out the door.”

Whalen is one of thousands of users who have cut down on their spending with help from the site.

“Half of our users have changed their spending as a result of using our program,” said Mint founder Aaron Patzer. “Average user spending has decreased by 300 dollars to 400 dollars per month over the last year.”

Additionally, while Mint, Buxfer.com and Intuit’s Quicken Online offer a host of spending analysis tools, Geezeo and Wesabe offer discussion forums akin to the social networking groups in Facebook.

“Money management is something people have been doing for years, but most of us aren’t trained on this,” said Wesabe’s vice president of marketing Gabriel Griego.

“Now, people can log on and post the most intimate details of their financial information anonymously, and get detailed and thoughtful advice from people who are going through the same thing.”

Most of the websites also offer the ability to send text messages to users warning about unusual spending or upcoming bill payments.

And some even offer support for Apple’s iPhone, giving users mobile access to their information.

Still, with all the benefits and tremendous growth of the new financial websites, the average age of its users has remained around 30 years old.

“Security is a big issue for all financial sites,” said Buxfer co-founder Shashank Pandit. “Some people are scared about this whole idea of putting finances on the Web. But it’s not any better or worse than their bank.”

Another barrier for customers has been that most of the websites cannot offer automated bank and credit card account synching outside North America or Britain, although some offer users the ability to manually upload their information.

Another thing that has left potential users uneasy has been the website’s business models.

While almost all of them are backed by venture capital money and have yet to become profitable, Mint makes its money by suggesting lower interest credit cards and higher yield savings accounts through its partners.

The others either have advertisements or tiered membership options. Still, the sites insist they are committed to free access for their users.

Whalen said her experience has been worthwhile.

“Having the ability to see this information is like personal finance 101,” she said. “I thought having credit card debt wasn’t a big deal, but when I saw how much of our monthly budget was going toward debt, that was a big wake-up call.”

(By Ian Sherr. Published on the wire at Agence France-Presse on December 31, 2009.)