Most consumers could use a little financial handholding these days.
Nearly half of the workers recently surveyed by CareerBuilder.com said they live paycheck to paycheck. Even those who do have cash left after paying the bills are struggling -- 52% reported they have less than $100 per month to put into savings.
One silver lining to these tough economic times: a slew of new free online tools and services that help consumers save money and manage it wisely. Whether you're looking to track your credit score, find a better savings rate or finally balance that monthly budget, these nine sites can help:
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Worried you're paying more than you need to for your wireless plan? BillShrink searches various cell phone plans to find you the best deal. Answer five simple questions about your usage (or better yet, upload your latest bill), and this service searches plan and add-on service combinations at all providers. It even factors in call quality and the cost to switch. The site offers a similar tool for credit cards that tallies the cash you'd save -- in terms of interest rates and fees -- by switching to another card.
Thanks to the credit crunch, your credit score carries a lot more weight than it used to, especially when you want to land a loan or open a credit card. Credit Karma offers free daily access to your credit score from partner credit reporting bureau TransUnion. Most lenders use a different formula -- the so-called FICO from Fair Isaac Corp. -- but it's still an effective tool for keeping track of any score fluctuations. (Other sites charge $8.99 and up a month for continuous monitoring of your FICO score, or require you to sign up for other subscription services.) Credit Karma also offers a Credit Simulator that gauges the affect of such actions as opening a new credit card or paying your bills on time.
This site offers information on thousands of financial accounts, ranging from credit cards and checking accounts to 529 college savings plans. Search for the best balance transfer rates on credit cards or which CDs pay the most in interest. Also, find out about other consumers' experiences through the customer reviews and ratings. (Dow Jones owns half of FiLife, which launched in June; SmartMoney.com is a joint venture of Hearst and Dow Jones.)
Mint provides one-stop shopping for consumers who want to get a better handle on all of their household finances. Not only does it allow users to track their 401(k), but it also lets them customize their budget for specific expenses, including groceries and gas. One downside: the "Ways to Save" section only includes offers from partner credit card issuers.
Want to get the best rates on a CD, money market or high-yield savings account? MoneyAisle will pit participating financial institutions (mostly small community banks and credit unions) against one another in a real-time auction to compete for your business. The auctions take just a few minutes, and users can decline deals they don't like. For peace of mind, MoneyAisle only deals with FDIC-insured institutions that carry favorable safety ratings from industry experts.
The web-based version of the popular desktop software ditched its $2.99-a-month fee. Now users have access to an overview of all of their accounts, as well as a 10-day outlook that projects how upcoming expenses will impact account balances. Quicken also assesses user's risk level for incurring overdraft fees and will send text-message alerts when they're overspending.
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This combination search engine-online community helps users dig up the best mortgage rates. Enter a zip code to find out what rates and other terms lenders in the area are offering. Then find out what rates consumers with credit scores similar to yours are receiving at various banks.
Want to know where you stand in terms of fiscal fitness? This new budgeting and money management site, which is currently in beta testing, calculates your overall financial health. By looking at spending behaviors and other data, such as account balances, it determines how well equipped you are to meet certain financial goals like retirement or buying a home. Not financially fit enough? The site offers step-by-step advice for gradual improvement.
Like Quicken, Thrive and Mint, this site allows users to handle all of their accounts in one place and to set budget and savings goals. Users can also create their own categories for purchases and select statistics (say, the percentage of the family budget spent on gas) to display as a graphed comparison against those of other site users. The idea: see how others are managing their finances and take away lessons to improve your own.