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Using the Internet to get your finances in order shouldn't feel like balancing your checkbook in slow motion. The trick is to find sites that shorten the task and improve your results. Try the wallet test: after testing a particular Web offering, would you pay for it? Getting something for free is the Internet's great hook. But it's no bargain if it doesn't make life easier. Here are some of the best places to go for free tools that cost $29.95 to $425 - or more - in the real world.
Getting motivated: OK, maybe you wouldn't pay money to learn how to act responsibly about money. But lots of folks do just that when they spend $75 to $350 to consult a financial planner. The beauty of Financenter (www.financenter.com) is the simple way it spurs you to action. You pick a question from each of the site's 10 areas. Under retirement, for example, you can click on the always worrisome question "Am I saving enough?" or 15 other queries. Each question leads you to a financial calculatordesigned to pop out an answer once you plug in key pieces of information. Don't underestimate the power of fiddling with these what-if scenarios. I found out that it'll cost me $300 if I invest a slug of free cash rather than pay off my credit-card balance. An embedded tax code prevents you from making easy mistakes such as forecasting a SEP-IRA contribution that's too large for your income level. Most of the dozens of calculators on this site are fast, too. Best areas: budgeting, savings, credit cards, credit lines.
Locating money for college: "The Prentice Hall Guide to Scholarships and Fellowships for Math and Science Students" costs $29.95 at Barnes & Noble. But Mark Kantrowitz, one of its authors, reveals almost everything about scaring up scholarships, grants and loans for private high schools, colleges and graduate schools at FinAid (www.finaid.org). A key service: a calculator to help you figure your "expected family contribution," vital for aid applications. Consultants charge $150 to $250 for such estimates and advice. You can also find dollars-and-cents answers on an array of other issues, including how much debt you can afford, which loan deal is better and the minimum value for your house, used by many private colleges to weigh your family's need. In addition to puncturing financial-aid myths, FinAid customizes its advice for special groups, such as older, foreign and disabled students. But the site's not just for do-it-yourselfers. You'll find links to other sources of aid information as well as to consultants and commercial search services.
Finding a fund: It may come as no surprise that Morningstar (www.morningstar.net), long king of printed data on mutual funds, is tops for fund-crawling on the Web. What's startling is how much better the free Web site is compared with the $425 newsletter. Why? It has a clean design with plenty of space around the site's simple, short sentences. Your eyes cross and your fingers get smudged trying to decipher a print-crammed page in the newsletter. Morningstar's feature articles are more stylish than standard Web fare, but go directly to the research area, where you'll find Quicktakes, profiles of thousands of funds. Each Quicktake contains details on a fund's performance and riskiness, portfolio holdings and operations. You could probably get more up-to-the-second returns at a fund family's own Web site, but you won't get comparable details on funds with different pedigrees. Fidelity Latin America, for example, owes this year's 48.4 percent return to a portfolio consisting almost entirely of stocks, while Scudder Latin America has returned 44.2 percent with only 54 percent in equities. The rest is in cash and unidentified securities. You can also get decent details on stocks from Quicktakes and good portfolio tracking at Morningstar.Net.
Stock shopping: More is often less on the Internet. Daily Stocks (www.dailystocks.com) certainly could qualify as a massive data dump.
Type in the words "Intel Corp." (here's one site where you don't have to know the ticker symbol), and you'll get an avalanche of other Web sites pertaining to the stock. Two features save Daily Stocks from overkill. First, if you click on a link such as Zack's, which collects Wall Streeters' guesses on corporate earnings, estimates for Intel pop right up. No need to punch through three or four Zack's screens or re-enter Intel's name. Second, though the site offers more than you'll ever be able to read about Intel, it's easy to zero in on what you want. Choose stories about Intel from Reuters, CNNfn, Forbes, The Washington Post - or 14 other news outlets. You can pick from several sources for dividend information, company profiles or industry analysis. Oh, and there are 36 stock-price charts, too. You must become a paid subscriber to hop into a few of these sites, but most are free.
If you get tired just thinking about all those choices, Edgar (www.sec.gov/edgarhp.htm) may be for you. The repository of all public companies' filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, this is a site for purists. There's no Wall Street chatter and no flashing advertisements. What you get are the dry numbers in a company's annual and quarterly financial reports, as well as seven other filings. Those "fundamentals," in Wall Street speak, are all that investors needed in the olden days. Disclosure, a financial-information company based in Bethesda, Md., still charges $38 for a company's 10-K, a filing that contains annual figures. On Edgar, it's free.
Though you can get charts galore at Daily Stocks, none is quite so pleasing as those on NETworth (www.networth.galt.com). Here's why: you can customize them to your whim. A year-to-date chart of Apple's stock shows a modestly rocky year, for example. But call up the 10-year chart and you see that the stock's been on a series of rock slides ever since it took off like a rocket in 19911992. Gain further perspective by choosing to plot Apple's stock against the Dow Jones industrial average, the Standard & Poor's 500 or other market indexes. One caveat: a look at Intel's chart would convince you that July marked the company's last gasp. But the scary-looking price slide was actually a two-for-one stock split.
Tracking a portfolio: Now, here's a chore easily ignored. Exactly how many statements do you get from how many fund companies, retirement accounts and brokerage firms? For most of us monitoring means checking the financial pages to make sure our investments aren't too far behind the untouchable S&P 500. What you're really supposed to do is track gains and losses from the time of purchase to minimize taxes, assess performance and accurately rebalance lopsided portfolios. Microsoft Investor (www.investor.msn.com) can handle all this and more. You can create several portfolios containing up to 50 stocks or mutual funds. Though entering the data is laborious, you do it only once and then it's stored on your computer. After that, one click will update all prices and ripple through the rest of the tables. When you ask to see your portfolio's fundamentals, Microsoft Investor will show you if your stocks are getting riskier, pricier or near their 52-week high. Click on "valuation" to see your investment's cost basis, price appreciation and percentage gain.
Readying for retirement: The big headache in assessing the adequacy of your nest egg is gathering and entering the data. The Internet doesn't change that, but it can ease the job. Your first stop: the Social Security Administration's site (www.ssa.gov), where you can request a Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement. If you are skeptical that the government will make good on these estimates when you're retired, you can slice the official figures by half in your retirement calculations.
I thought Quicken's site (www.quicken.com) would be the hands-down winner in the retirement-planning category. And it is, but it took me four log-on sessions to discover that, because a planning quiz refused to materialize on my screen. The Retirement Planner is stuffed with Quicken software's friendly features: easy, readable language, simple bar charts and plenty of helpful windows to explain financial terms. Though the quiz takes about 10 minutes to fill out, it's painless. This planner's credibility is high, too, because it allows you to choose how fine a point to put on your answers. For example, you can guess at your life expectancy, or you can refer to a pop-up actuarial table. A close runner-up to Quicken: Financenter's retirement calculator. It demands lots of your data, but produces figures, advice and three great charts explaining in colorful detail how unrealistic your post-retirement expectations are. But take comfort. At least you didn't pay a financial planner to tell you that.