Budgeting is such a turnoff that some financial professionals won't even use the term with clients.
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Payoff.com, which helps users manage their way out of debt, officially launched at the end of June. You earn badges, like the Scouts, for making progress, and those trophies render you eligible to win money.
So far, Payoff says, it has disbursed $12,000 in $25 checks to members.
"Nobody really tells you that you are doing a good job with your money," says Scott Saunders, Payoff's 35-year-old founder, who was in and out of debt in his early 20s. "You only hear from the bank if you missed a payment or you're late.
"We want to clap for people when they are doing the right thing."
If you don't know where your paycheck goes — and financial planners say many of us don't — an online budgeting site can help. The sites gather transaction data daily from credit cards and online bank accounts and then put expenditures in categories such as groceries and gas. Through pie charts or graphs, the sites show how you spend your dollars month after month.
Most sites are free for the consumer. They typically receive revenue from ads or by offering their service to financial institutions.
To use them, though, you must provide usernames and passwords to your accounts. The sites say they have bank-quality security. Transactions are accessed on a read-only basis, so the sites can't be used to move money from account to account. The sites never ask for your Social Security number.
Jim Bruene, editor of Online Banking Report, says he knows of no security problems with the sites, although one now-defunct operation revealed users' purchases to others.
One of the earliest — and the most dominant budget site — is four-year-old Mint.com. It was purchased two years ago by Intuit, the tax software company, and claims to have more than 6 million registered users.
Among them is Patrick Collins, a financial planner in Towson. He has used Mint for years and advises his clients to do so, too.
"Most people don't either enjoy or have the time to figure out their budget," he says. "When you ask them to track three to six months' worth of expenses, it's a labor and a hard thing for them to do."
By having clients use Mint, Collins can quickly see what they spend money on and can make recommendations on where to cut back.
Faithful users say budgeting online works.
Lori Biancofiori of Chicago signed up for Mint after her wedding two years ago. The newlyweds used credit cards to partly pay for their nuptials, and later for living expenses when the groom lost his job after the honeymoon.
"We were freaked out and had no money in savings. I needed to understand what we are spending our money on," says Biancofiori, a 33-year-old software trainer.
With Mint, she says, they discovered they spent hundreds of dollars a month eating out, even though their monthly grocery bill was $700.