Looking back over 2012 one of the smarter things I did was start using some smarter tools to keep track of finances and make some decisions that I hope will pan out well for the future. All of what follows is personal observation and experiences. I don’t even play a financial advisor on an internet TV show so really… don’t make any decisions without engaging your brain and, where necessary, getting the right professional help.
Stocks, shares, trading, bonds, EFTs. I don’t pretend to know anything about them. Luckily Betterment not only understands but has done a really good job of putting a simple dashboard in place to let you balance your investment between bonds and the stock market and they take care of the rest. You can rebalance daily depending on your comfort (though they recommend to pick a profile and stick with it) and as well as the gains on the markets you get a small dividend income as well. Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a modest 3.5% return but that was because I ignored their advice and fiddled and made a bad decision which I didn’t correct soon enough… their what-if scenario view of how things would have panned out is a constant reminder that they know more than I do! [Free with a $100 monthly investment. Other plans available. Opening bonuses available]
One problem that has plagued us since we got to the US has been credit card fraud. 5 or 6 times in the last 6 years we’ve found spurious charges on different cards (two of which ended up with the abuser spending time in a correctional institution so it wasn’t all bad) but as a backup to the vigilance of our credit card providers (and I can’t rate Amex highly enough for that) I’ve been very happy with BillGuard for spotting some suspicious behavior. [Free, sponsor supported]
It always sucks to be paying too much. Cellphone, TV and Gas bills add up over time but BillShrink do a great job in helping you compare plans, options and savings. GasBuddy is another great way to compare gas prices on the go (and it has a really handy mobile app for most platforms). [Free, sponsor supported]
Credit scores are hugely important. They determine interest rates (and even if you can get a loan) and have an impact on insurance. Keeping track of them can be expensive, or if you’re trying to navigate the options to get your federally mandated once a year free reports often confusing. Luckily CreditKarma provides a service which tracks your score, as well as explains why it is what it is and makes suggestions on how to improve it. [Free, sponsor supported]
Planning for the future is tough, but if I could tell the 25 year old me one thing (apart from look after your teeth better) it would be start saving seriously now. The problem with most of the big 401(k) plans etc is that there’s so much information it’s hard to know if you’re making good decisions when it comes to balancing your portfolio, paying fees and maximizing your tax effectiveness. Luckily the team behind FutureAdvisor has made it their business to undertand this and provide some really simple tools to help you rebalance your portfolio to maximize your return (and keep reminding me how much more I need to save before I retire!). They helped me save on fees and improve the overall return on my 401(k) for a few minutes clicking through a wizard… a great investment of your time. [Free, though “pro” services coming soon]
Banks make their money by loaning your money to strangers and charging interest, and then paying you a tiny bit of it. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could lend money to random strangers and get most of that interest paid to you? Well, LendingClub facilitate just that. They review loan applicants and grade them based on a number of factors… the worse the risk the higher the interest rate they charge. Loans can be either for 36 or 60 months 9with the longer loans paying slightly higher interest rates). You select the loans you want to fund part of as a pool (in slices of $25) and they administer everything, hopefully returning principal and interest to your account every month which you can re-invest or bank. It’s a risk. Payments can be late and – as the banks know all too well – people can default on their loans. Over the last year I’ve seen a return of over 12% but have to balance that with 1 default and two or three loans that right now look like they’re heading the same way. 5 have fully paid off early though. There is a secondary market where you can trade loans if you need liquidity sooner than the term of the loan but it’s hit and miss what sort of return you’ll get there. [Free, with premier services available once you reach a certain investment level. Opening bonuses available]
Pretty much every bank gives you an online way to check balances and transactions but if you have more than a couple of accounts then it gets tedious. Mint brings all them together in one place as well as helps you categorize and track spending and prepare for up-coming bills. While the service is very broad supporting most financial institutions it seems to have some peculiarities in how it renames and categorizes items (and rather than getting better attempts by their new owners, Intuit, seem to be making things worse) which is creating opportunities for new services like Personal Capital. [Free, sponsor supported]
As a homeowner knowing what your house is worth, and deciding if it’s a good time to try and refinance, is tough. Sure, the council will put a number on it for tax but how realistic is that? Zillow is best known for helping people buy/sell houses but a really handy side-effect of that is their Zestimate service which tracks a valuation for your property that matched pretty well to the professional valuations we’ve had done.