Anya Kamenetz

Collectively, people spend 927 million hours a month playing casual games on Facebook. Is it possible for a website to make setting and achieving financial goals as fun, easy, and even as social as playing Farmville or Words with Friends? If you're smart about the way you try some new web features, maybe it can be.

Let's take a common goal: saving. Most people know that it's important to have six months' worth of expenses on hand in a liquid form, ideally earning interest, such as a savings account, checking or money market account. But how much do you really spend in six months? And how much do you need to put away each month in order to get to that finish line? Some popular websites can help.

Mint.com's Goals Feature.

Mint is one of the most popular money management tools online. It's free to use and a great first step to get started organizing your financial life, because it's a way to see all your spending, investments and credit accounts in one place. It automatically categorizes all your spending and spits out neat pie charts and line graphs.

Last year Mint added a tab called Goals that gives you a further nudge to transform all this information into action. When I clicked on the "Emergency Fund" goal, Mint gave me an estimate for a six-month emergency fund based on my actual monthly spending, which was both more realistic and more ambitious than my existing back-of-the-envelope calculations. You can't argue with real numbers. Within a few minutes I was clicking over to my bank's website and more than doubling my automatic recurring monthly transfer from checking to savings, a change that will have me sitting on a healthy savings fund by next fall. Every time I log on to Mint, the "Goals" page will remind me how I'm doing; they also send monthly e-mail reminders, and I can set up automatic alerts via text message.

Smartypig.com is designed for one thing: savings.

Unlike these other websites, which are just for tracking your finances, you can set up an actual online savings account with them, one with very competitive interest rates, and share your goals with friends and family, who can cheer you on or even send in contributions to your graduation trip or wedding. Smartypig even gives you a cash reward when you close out the account, which makes it most beneficial for those setting relatively short-term goals.

Payoff.com.

In January a new site called Payoff launched. "What if you could make finances more fun?" CEO Scott Saunders says he wanted to know. Like Mint, the site allows you to set goals like taking a vacation, paying off debt or improving your credit score. Taking the game component of financial planning even further, Payoff adds "badges" that you earn when taking a recommended action, like setting up a recurring monthly transfer (sense a theme here?). You can display these badges on your profile, where other Payoff members can see them. Some badges are even linked to surprise cash prizes.

There are lots more sites out there to help you save and track your progress toward goals, publicly or privately, like Thrive (www.justthrive.com), which gives you personalized financial goals based on your information and their calculations, and LearnVest (www.learnvest.com), which is aimed specifically at women. It's important to be conscious of safety whenever you give out account information online; change passwords often and be cautious about accessing your accounts on these sites from public places.

A website can't do all the savings work for you, but it can get you closer to reaching your goals, leaving more free time -- for games on Facebook, maybe.

 

Anya Kamenetz' latest book is DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

Available at Amazon.com:

Lifecycle Investing: A New, Safe, and Audacious Way to Improve the Performance of Your Retirement Portfolio

Worry-Free Investing: A Safe Approach to Achieving Your Lifetime Financial Goals

Spend 'Til the End: The Revolutionary Guide to Raising Your Living Standard--Today and When You Retire

The Hard Times Guide to Retirement Security: Practical Strategies for Money, Work, and Living

Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back

Happy at Work, Happy at Home: The Girl's Guide to Being a Working Mom

 

Personal Finance - Websites Make it Easy and Even Fun To Reach Savings Goals

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