Social Networking Meets Personal Finance

The economic crisis and the social networking craze have converged, spawning social networking websites aimed at helping their members to come up with and stick to a budget …

The economic crisis and the social networking craze have converged, spawning social networking websites aimed at helping their members to come up with and stick to a budget while sharing information, tips and goals with other members; congratulating other members when goals are reached; and commiserating with other members when they fall off the budget bandwagon.

Users on these websites can set a variety of goals, such as buying an item or paying off debt. There idea is that, by connecting users with other people striving for similar goals, the accountability will encourage users to stick to their budgets and achieve their goals. Plus, while a person’s friends or coworkers in the real world may not care that someone managed to save $20 by refraining from buying that fancy latte every day for a week, chances are that such an accomplishment would earn a pat on the back from the community of budgeters of which they’re a part.

Even if people choose not to participate in a community of other budgeters, these sites offer plenty of tools for budgeting that are targeted toward an individual.

Geezeo.com

Geezeo.com, launched last summer, is a wide-ranging collection of personal finance tools. In fact, "Geezeo is a free web-based personal finance application that makes it easy to track all your finances, see where all your money is going, set financial goals and learn from others," according to the site. Users can even learn what others are doing right that second; one of Geezeo’s features is a public feed that users can update with their activities. These updates can range from a user setting–or completing–a goal to commenting on a group to making a spending confession.

Geezeo users can organize their finances by using the Geezeo Dashboard, which provides a snapshot of a user’s finances and providing various methods for delving into the deeper picture. For example, Geezeo helps its users come up with a plan of action for their finances, including alerting them to upcoming payment dates for various bills and allowing users to set spending targets and goals.

In addition, Geezeo features a marketplace where users can comparison shop for–and write reviews for–different financial products, such as high interest savings accounts and student loans, a frequently-updated blog and even a live chat. Ask the Expert allows Geezeo users to pose questions to and participate in discussions with financial experts on topics ranging from a comparison between a Roth IRA and a Roth 401(k) to how to cut commuting costs. There are also tools for retirement planning and real estate investing.

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Geezeo is also a little bit more in line with typical social networking sites than many other personal finance and budgeting communities; Geezeo users can "friend" each other, just as they might on Facebook or MySpace, and can create and participate in groups–niche communities within the larger community.

Mint.com

Mint.com was launched in September 2007 and is bursting with crisp, easy-to-read graphs that lay users’ financial situations out for them plainly. People who digest information best by seeing it put into visual terms should consider looking into Mint. Others might be more intrigued by Mint’s wide-ranging blog.

Begun by Aaron Patzer, who has degrees in computer science and engineering, it is perhaps not surprising that one of this site’s defining features is a proprietary search algorithm which seeks out opportunities to save that are unique to each user. For example, it compares the terms of each user’s accounts with similar accounts at other companies so that users can see whether it makes sense to switch to another company.

"Mint downloads, categorizes, and graphs all of your finances automatically every day— so you don’t have to. Know where you’re spending, without spending any effort," Mint’s website says. "You’ll know what you spent on gas last month or groceries this month – with no bookkeeping required." Competitive users can also track how their spending habits compare with other users using the SendSpace feature.

Mint users can set goals such as spending a certain percentage less on a certain activity–eating out is a common choice. But goals aren’t limited to being measured in percentages; if a user wants to set a goal of going to a coffee shop once per week, Mint can track their progress toward that goal, too.

The goal of getting out of debt can often seem hard to reach, or even hard to break down into manageable components. Here again, Mint provides its users with a tool. "Mint shows you your total borrowings and the interest rate and balance on each of your credit cards, mortgage, student loans and auto loans," according to the site, "so you can identify and pay off the most expensive ones first."

For users who have a hard time keeping track of everything, Mint’s alerts could be extremely useful. E-mail or text messages let users know about low balances, low available credit, large transactions, suspicious activity, bill payment due dates and even interest rate changes on their credit card accounts.

Wesabe.com

Wesabe.com was founded in December 2005 by CEO and co-founder Marc Hedlund, who got fed up at his bank’s attempts to nickel-and-dime him by making surreptitious changes to his accounts, resulting in various fees. When he realized how many other people were also fed up with their banks, he wanted to bring people together so that everyone could benefit from other people’s knowledge of and experiences with businesses.

Wesabe places a lot of emphasis on its community. "Wesabe is part money management tool, part community," according to the site’s home page. "We believe that one person’s good financial decision can be leveraged to an entire community. Experts call this collective intelligence. And we have a whole community of people reaping the rewards of it every day."

To use Wesabe, users can download a program to their desktop (available for both Mac and PC users) or choose to upload their account information to a form on Wesabe’s site manually.

Bloggers and wiki users might both take to Wesabe because users can use tags to categorize each transaction they make. Users will be able to see a bank of the tags they have created and click on one, such as "gasoline," to see the details of all their transactions that fall under that category. Wesabe tracks how a user’s tags overlap with those of other users and, based on that overlap, filters through all of the user-submitted tips and advice to display relevant collective wisdom. Users can comment on the existing tips or add their own. Users can also see the goals set by other users who have tags similar to theirs, or just browse a list of popular goals.

And, of course, Wesabe has a blog of its own, called Wheaties for your Wallet. It’s written collectively by the team behind Wesabe.

And in this time of economic uncertainty and upheaval, Wesabe has one final feature to calm the nerves of its users: The bottom of each page has a button labeled "I’m freaking out." Clicking on that button takes the user to a Flickr slideshow of kittens in an effort to soothe panicked users.

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