Archive for December, 2008

Wesabe Named Best Online Money Manager By Web User Magazine (Yip-pee!)

December 18, 2008

Web User, the largest selling Internet magazine in the UK, reviewed eight online money managers in its latest issue. Wesabe walked away with the Gold Award and five stars to boot.

gold_award-l-r.jpgThe full review appears in the magazine’s December 18 issue, on sale at UK newsstands now. The story will post online on January 2nd. In the meantime, here is a look at the magazine’s verdict, “Wesabe is a free and very friendly service and the site offers a wealth of fantastic features for managing your finances.” Our smart members also get a shout out: “The discussion groups are packed with cash-saving ideas and tips for bagging online bargains.”

Thanks to David Crookes and the team at Web User.

Introducing the Wesabe/CNBC "On The Money" Success Club

December 16, 2008

One of my favorite things about Wesabe Groups is reading the small (and large) victories of our members. Alibee really started working on her credit card debt in August and has chipped away thousands of dollars and built up an emergency fund, Joseph1976 rebounded after the loss of his job and is now employed again and making huge progress on his credit card bills, and nosirrahm just closed on a house last week.

These stories provide inspiration and proof that even in this uncertain economy, there are people taking control of their finances and making smart decisions. We’ve introduced our friends at CNBC’s On The Money, where Wesabe CEO Marc Hedlund is a regular contributor, to some of our members and… they are smitten! They have featured three of our members so far, and would like to tell more of your success stories on-air. (Congratulations to charter Success Club members CymbidiumKelly, allibee and GatorNation81.)

We’re very excited to introduce the Wesabe/On The Money Success Club. This is a great chance for you to share your financial milestones with others and get a well-deserved pat on the back for your progress. And you’ll also get some personal finance DVDs – if you are selected to call in and tell your story on-air, CNBC will send you DVDs as a thank you. And we’ll set you up with one of our sweet new Wesabe t-shirts.

Send an email to debbie at wesabe dot com with your story – what success you’ve experienced or strategy you’ve found to help you better manage your money, what challenges you’ve had to overcome to be successful, your age, name and contact information. I’ll pass your info on to a CNBC producer, who would then call you for more details. If you’re selected, On The Money will have you call in to the show and tell your story to the host, Carmen Wong Ulrich.

CNBC is particularly interested in talking to folks between the ages of 30 and 50, but recognize that success comes in all shapes, sizes and ages – so even if you don’t fit those parameters, feel free to send in your story.

Introducing the WesabeUpdates Twitter account

December 12, 2008

We’ve had a number of requests from the Wesabe community for more detailed information about what the Wesabe development team is working on. We’re going to address these requests in a few separate steps, and today we’re introducing the first of those steps.

Wesabe’s Twitter account has been a very popular way to get Wesabe news and money-related links. (We were even featured recently in O’Reilly’s Twitter for Business report as a great example of a business using Twitter.) We’ve also had a very enthusiastic response to our Twitter integration, which lets you add transactions to your Wesabe accounts. We’ve decided to keep going with our Twitter successes by introducing a new Twitter account for people interested in more frequent, detailed updates from our development team.

The new account is called WesabeUpdates. Following this new Twitter account will get you updates every time we deploy a new version of the site, and detailed messages about what’s going into those updates. Basically, this is to Wesabe’s blog the same thing Twitter usually is to blogs: a quicker, more frequently updated account that gives you what you want in very short messages.

To ensure we’re getting the detail people have asked for, we’ve set up a direct connection between our development chat room and this Twitter account, so any developer can easily add an update to the account. (By the way, we also just open-sourced our Campfire bot framework, Wesabot, written by the unstoppable Brad Greenlee, with small contributions from most of the Wesabe team. The framework has a bunch of plugins, including the Twitter update plugin.)

Check it out and let us know what you think. Of course, we’ll continue to provide updates to the main Wesabe Twitter account, and we’ll work to prevent too much overlap between the two.

Update: For those of you who don’t use Twitter or don’t want to use it for this purpose, we’ve added the three most recent WesabeUpdates posts to our Accounts index page (the page you see when you first log into Wesabe). Take a look in the left column, below your account links. Also, the idea for showing the number of developers contributing to a deploy of the site was shamelessly stolen from the good people at Flickr. I first saw the idea on their Flickr Code site. Thanks, Flickreenos!

Budgeting is hard. Don't bother!

December 12, 2008

When you hear the word “budget,” does your brain get thrown back into the foggy haze of tenth-grade algebra class, when the clock seemed to slow to a complete stop? Or worse, do you find yourself back at your algebra final, panicking over the red letter ‘F’ you could already see coming on your report card? You’re not alone.

Budgeting — and budgeting software — can be completely overwhelming. You finally decide to get your finances in order, you sit down to learn how, and the next thing you know you’re being asked to give a precise, to-the-penny guess for your lunch spending for each of the next 12 months. Um, $87.45? The joy repeats every month of the year, when you get to “rebalance” your budget to correct for your imprecise guesses. Hang on, let me spend five years becoming a Certified Public Accountant, and then I’ll get right on that.

For some people, a full budget of this kind is exactly the tool they need to keep track of their finances. I’ve met people who can tell me within a dollar how much they have left to spend on food for the month. Tracking every cent gives them a feeling of full control, and spending the time that takes to maintain keeps them focused. But I would estimate less than half of a percent of the people I’ve talked to about money management fall into this “amateur accountant” category. The rest of us need something easier — something that doesn’t require certification to operate.

targets

I’ve long advocated what I refer to as “hot spot budgeting” instead. Choose a couple of areas where you know you have trouble keeping your spending under control. Then focus your attention just on those targets. If you have trouble with a couple of areas, do one at a time instead.

Why does this work? Most of your regular expenses are fixed or non-discretionary — for instance, your rent or mortgage probably don’t vary every month, nor do most of your bills. A few, though, are relatively easy to change, and are big enough in your spending that changing them has a big effect. For me, it’s restaurants — when I eat out a lot, I have a bad month, and when I don’t, I have a good month. Likewise with books. If I keep my spending under control in just those two areas, the rest of my “budget” is painless.

Wesabe has long had a feature called “spending targets” to help you do hot spot budgeting. It has, though, been one of our best-kept secrets. Finding the feature (which was hidden in a drop-down menu on the spending summary page) was nearly impossible, and it was subtle enough in the interface that getting updates and keeping on track was tough.

Today, we changed all that, and made targets a ton easier and a lot more visible. You can now set and view your targets right from your Accounts home page, in a lovely set of graphs designed by our graph wizard, Tim. (These graphs are made completely in Javascript — no Flash plugin required.) You can view your targets in big, clear text; as pie charts; or as bar charts. Go ahead and add a couple and see how easy it is.

Also, when you’re just getting started with targets, seeing a big red mark on your home page when you overspend can be very discouraging. By default, we won’t show you overspending on targets — your graph will just show “$0 left” when you reach the amount you targeted. However, some people like seeing how far off they were in their guesses, so we’ve added a “show overspending” toggle. Click the gauge icon (the one that goes into the red) to enable display of overspending.

I’ll admit that I actually liked algebra, but I’ve never liked budgeting. Spending targets — focusing on just the “hot spots” in my budget — work for me in a way that budgets never did. Give it a try and you’ll see why. And nice work, Tim, in getting this great feature the exposure it deserves!

Lessons In Frugality

December 10, 2008

What can you gain by taking control of your money? A lot more than a fatter wallet! Wesabean CymbidiumKelly, or Kelly, shared that by not spending for a month, she and her family learned “A lot about ourselves, our habits, and the psychology behind our spending.” Read on for their top five lessons…

1. Competition breeds success.
It was fun to try to spend less than my husband on unnecessary expenses. It made the challenge exciting. If you don’t have a spouse or partner get a friend or family member involved. And for the record he won.

2. We usually spend when we are unsatisfied or unhappy.
Normally we spend on take-out, coffee, and snacks/treats for the family when we are feeling like we need time off or a break. By forcing ourselves to deal with any situation head-on we are happily exhausted by the end of the day, and the desire to spend is usually gone. When we did need a break we found ways to get that time, and we did spend some money on our  time off, but knowing it was our only time off made it so much more memorable.

3. Not spending gives us freedom.
By not focusing on going out to run errands or pick up this, that or the other thing; we found ourselves with a lot more time on our hands. We used it to keep the house cleaner, play more with our kids, and fix up the house.

4. The time spent on buying and maintaining more stuff can be spent getting rid of stuff, and you can earn money!
When I had to go to the store I was in with a list in my hand and out with only everything on it, and in record time!  The time I saved I used to purge things we weren’t using, giving some away on Freecycle and others to friends and family members. I sold a few items (mostly toys) and netted about $45 for the month.

5. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again.
If your No Spend Month doesn’t work out, or even if it does, do it again! We have plans to do another No Spend Month in February, with hope that we’ll spend even less!

Inspired by the success of the No Spend Month, Kelly has launched The Centsible Life, a personal finance blog. We have no doubt it will be a grand success!

The "great" customers are the first to go

December 8, 2008

A few weeks ago, a number of newspapers reported that consumers were receiving letters from their credit card providers, cutting their credit limits — and some reports suggest that as much as $2 trillion more may be cut in the next year and a half. Wesabe employee Debbie posted a Wesabe Groups thread about the topic, asking if anyone had had their own limit cut — and so far, that thread has 50 comments from Wesabeans about getting notices like these.

Reading everyone’s comments, I noticed a pattern…

“American Express cut the credit limit for a small business from $25K to about $2K. And the guy’s credit record was perfect…”

“it was only my banana republic card, but they cut my limit by half, and i have a very good payment history with them…”

“I just got an email from AMEX saying they’ve cut my limit by about $10,000 on my amex blue card…I have had a perfect history with them and been a loyal customer for years…”

“My GE Money Bank (Banana Republic/GAP) was cut from $1500 to $300! The account was in great standing…”

“They also cut my limit also by $15,000. I have been with them for over 10 years, paid over the minimum and on time and have never been over the limit…”

“My Sears card limit was lowered from approx $5,000 to $3,000. I have had the account open for 5+ years, never missed a payment, and never been late.”

It goes on like that. Do you see what I see?

One person after another reports that they are a “great” customer, that they pay over the minimum or pay off their full bill every month, that they’re never late, and that they’ve had the card for years — and still, their limit was cut. Why would they cut my limit when I’m such a “great” customer?

Well, that’s just it. If you pay off your bill and never carry a balance, you’re not a “great” customer to a credit card company. In fact, they refer to you as a “deadbeat.” If you’re never late, or never go over your limit, you’re never paying late or overlimit fees. If you don’t use your card, you’re not incurring interest charges. You’re the worst kind of customer: an unprofitable customer.

Credit card companies make up to one-third of their revenue from fees (known as “fee revenue.”) The best customers for credit card issuers are those that max out their limit, pay the minimum every month, go over limit from time to time (incurring more fees), and best of all, pay late (more fees) but do pay eventually. (A customer who goes bankrupt is less profitable.) They call such customers “revolvers,” and revolvers — those with perpetual, high balances — are where the money is. (For more on this, see the excellent Frontline/New York Times series, “Secret History of the Credit Card” — which was one of the inspirations for me to start Wesabe.)

So, whose credit limits are being cut, now that the economy is turning down? The limits of the deadbeats, the unprofitable customers. Debbie’s post doesn’t have a single response from a “revolver” about their limit being cut, and no wonder. The credit card companies need all the profit they can get.

And don’t we all. A limit cut may feel punitive, especially if you were counting on your credit cards as emergency resources. Think of it instead as a blessing in disguise — the profit they’re missing is money you’re keeping in your pocket. Being a “deadbeat” credit card customer is a great accomplishment — savor it, and frame that letter from your credit card company.

7 Tips To A Successful No Spend Month… from the experts

December 8, 2008

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Those who joined Novembers ‘No Spend Month’ not only reported plumper bank accounts but a deeper understanding between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ and radically better spending habits. They also found themselves with a chunk of free time which they put towards more meaningful activities, like developing much loved hobbies and spending quality time with friends and family.

Here are 7 tips and tricks for a successful No Spend Month, from those who have done it before. A special thanks to GirlNextDoor and CymbidiumKelly for their interviews, where all of the following content came from. For more great advice, check out their new blogs, Girl Next Door Finance and The Centsible Life.

1.    Examine your spending habits for the past few months. Weed out all your non-essential expenditures and entertainment costs, such as movies, eating out and shopping. Settle on figure that covers all of your essential costs for the month.
Creator of the No Spend Month, Kelly, advises that after you come up with a figure, “scale it up by 25%… this is more manageable without being too constrictive.”

2.    Analyze your motives for ‘non-essential’ purchases. Think about why you swing by Peets everyday at 3 p.m., swift through the Sale rack at Old Navy or head to the movies. Since these are the purchases you’ll be cutting, it’s helpful to identify why you make them (you’re tired, you want to find a great deal, you want to get out of the house).

3.    Begin developing counter-habits. This way you’re prepared to battle impulse habits. Get a can of Maxwell’s for the office kitchen, plan to work on a new hobby each time your hit with the shopping bug, and have a stack of library books (or movies from the library) waiting each time a “night out at the movies” occurs to you.

4.    Choose a realistic time period to launch your No Spend Month. If you know the next month is filled unusual activities (or lots of extra spending), like out-of-town guests or a whirl of birthdays, start it next month. Then again, if you’re feeling tough, a month like December may be the ideal time to buck up on your discipline.

5.    Use a money management tool, like Wesabe or PearBudget, to track your spending. Set up budgets in each of your spending categories and check in daily to stay on top of your spending.

6.    Figure out the things you enjoy and how you can do them for free. Love buying books, stock up at your local library. Love to eat out? Invite friends over for a Potluck.

7.    Focus less on changing numbers and more on changing habits. GirlNextdoor wrote that she found this more beneficial than constantly working to keep spending to a bare minimum. She wrote:

“Instead of just trying not to spend money, evaluate what you want to spend money on and its relative importance to you. Focus on why you want to spend money on an item, rather than its cost…”

Instead of fixating on “but it’s only $3.50” or “but it’s 70% off! I will never get a deal like this again!” think about why you really want the item, what value will it add to your life, and evaluate if you really need it. One of the most powerful lessons reported by those who completed their own No Spend Month was a much deeper understanding of their “wants” and “needs”, and how easy it is to mix them up. Proactively thinking about this will help ingrain better spending habits for the future.

8.   Find a support network to check in with and post your progress. CymbidiumKelly shared that she started her No Spend Month in the Wesabe Community because she knew it would keep her honest with herself about her family’s spending. She shared that “It was great to know I could go to Wesabe when I was feeling frustrated or discouraged about financial matters. I always felt that everyone participating in the discussion was really supportive and encouraging. It kept me motivated when I would have otherwise wanted to give up.”

Wesabe's First No Spend Month Pulls Smashing Finish!

December 5, 2008

December has arrived and Wesabe’s first “No Spend Month” has finished with a bang.  As we told you earlier this week, the brains behind the Month, CymbidiumKelly, was featured in USA Today and on the Today Show and CNBC to talk about how her family is shaping up their finances.

Kelly launched her “No Spend Month” last month in Wesabe Groups as a way to get a hold on her family’s spending and pay off debt. She was inspired to start her project because she’d “have the support of other Wesabeans. I knew it would keep me honest.” She felt that tracking her spending in the Wesabe community was great way to hold herself accountable.

Within a day of Kelly’s first post, a flood of other Wesabeans followed suit, discussing ways to cut their spending to bare necessities.  They also began posting their progress in the “No Spend Month” discussion. Between the faltering economy and upcoming holiday season, many agreed that November was an ideal thirty-day stretch to buck up on discipline and get serious about curbing spending.

Member Ilovetea decided to join after seeing her 401(k) value plummet 48% and Wesabean AmilcarKabral began his month after losing his job. He wrote that though the month of November was already going to be tight, not spending “is more fun when you do it intentionally and not as a reaction.”

Member Maribeth said,“I think this is a great idea…however, I am frightened at the idea of holding myself accountable. I’m going to start on Sunday, November 26. I think eating/drinking out will be my main challenge. I’m sure most of you can relate. Football Sundays at the bar are a fall tradition. However, when I think of which goals I can accomplish within this month (saving $500 for an emergency fund, saving for a down payment on a house, cash for Christmas presents), I think it will be extremely rewarding in the end. This is one of the many great things about Wesabe. I continue to learn and never feel like I am going at it alone.”

Lit added, “We have been trying to drop our debt load by $1,200 a month for the last four months. Have not succeeded yet but this… might help. November 2008 here we go!”. And, QwnofCash wrote, “Wow!! What a great idea! I think it’s a good opportunity for all of us to discipline ourselves and to prepare our families to endure this dark period…”

While many of those who followed the No Spend Month reported plumper bank accounts, their results far exceeded an extra wad of cash. Bullshalo13 wrote that the month helped her “realize how much money I spend on things I don’t need.”

GirlNextDoor shared that the participating in the No Spend Month drastically changed her thought process around spending money: “Instead of asking ‘can I afford this right now?’ (to which the answer was usually ‘yes’ as my wants tend to be relatively inexpensive), I ask myself  ‘Do I really need this? Do I have a use for this? Is this going to add value to my life?’ – the answer is not so clearly ‘yes’ for these questions!”

Though GirlNextDoor has always tracked her money, the No Spend Month helped her curb impulse spending. Instead of tracking where her money was going (after the fact), she’s consciously thinking about where it will be going ahead of time.

Similarly, KristenR1010 reported that she “didn’t realize how much my little snacks have added up. It seems like nothing to run to the corner and get a cup of coffee or a bagel, but I’ve saved so much money this week by not going! As for clothes shopping, it’s been hard to resist the holiday sales that are starting, but I’ve managed not to spend a dime. I’m taking my ‘no-spend zone’ all the way until I have to buy a few (inexpensive) Christmas presents. The best Christmas present for myself will be when I save enough money to pay off the next credit card!”

And after the month, creator Kelly shared that her biggest realization was how much money you can save from all of those little purchases you make without thinking. “I learned that I am fairly dishonest with myself about money, thinking a want is a need or thinking we will make up for (indulgences by saving more) next month,” she said.

Participants also found themselves with a lot more time on their hands. Not spending money means forgoing activities like happy hours, nights at the movie theater, dinners out, and shopping with friends. GirlNextDoor commented, “Since I was actively trying not to spend money, I avoided situations where I would spend money as much as possible- which left me with more time at home. I finally took the leap and started a personal finance blog, which is something I’ve been contemplating for 6 months!”

Desertrat wrote that she and her significant other “both now have library cards, and we’ve taken to going on walks and playing board games, something we’ve also gotten our friends to do.”

Jessie88 shared that she and her fiancée are “curling up with hot coco and a good book or magazine, even a nice movie”. Like Desertrat, Jessie88 and her fiancée started becoming more acquainted with their neighborhood and parks. “Heck, we go swing…and I like to walk barefoot through the sand. It’s free, we also go there to look at the stars,” she said.

All seemed to agree that spending money can be a great distraction from more meaningful activities. Kelly wrote that her family often used to find themselves “going somewhere we can spend money when we need to get out of the house. The biggest thing I learned from the No Spend Month was to stay at home! We have so much to do and that needs to be done there, and, we spend the largest percentage of money on our home, so it makes sense to enjoy it as much as possible. I also realized that if we’re paying for something we should enjoy it! We have Internet access at home, a Wii, DVDs, etc. We were able to entertain ourselves and the kids with what was on hand.”

Interested in starting your own No Spend Month? Tune in Monday to read the tips and tricks of those who have successfully completed it!

Marc on CNBC Tonight; Wesabean on The Today Show

December 3, 2008

Marc Hedlund is in New York and will be a Money Expert on tonight’s episode of On the Money. Tune in to CNBC at 6 p.m. PT to check out Marc and always-insightful host Carmen Wong Ulrich.

And you know that whole “fifteen minutes of fame” thing? Well, the time limit clearly doesn’t apply to Wesabe member CymbidiumKelly. Earlier this week, USA Today included her and her No-Spend Month in a feature Money section article, and this morning, she and her absolutely beautiful family were featured on The Today Show. As in, you know, THE TODAY SHOW! We are thrilled that Kelly’s story of how she and her family are working to improve their finances is getting such broad attention. If you missed the segment, CNBC is planning to show parts of the interview tonight during On the Money.

Props also to Wesabe member Cecil Bello. After she participated in the Wesabe discussion about credit card companies slashing credit limits, the Washington Post told her story. This is a really important issue affecting a lot of people, and we’re grateful to Cecil for sharing her experiences.

The Power Of Your Two Cents

December 1, 2008

The web has become the ‘go to’ place for anything and everything. Have a question? Ask Wikipedia. Want to find out what your vacation spot looks like? Search Flickr. Need to find a new restaurant? Head to Yelp. What makes this extraordinary is that this information is amassed you and I and not major corporations, advertising conglomerates or media companies.

By contributing our two cents to web-based communities, be it our opinion of a coffee shop, pictures from a Tahoe vacation, or feelings about a tardy morning bus, we’re adding a thought, opinion or image that can inform and potentially be of great value to others.  Though alone, these data points may seem relatively insignificant, when added to the web, they become part of a collective experience that others can draw on to inform their lives and make better decisions.

Community-based sites are like platforms, but organically so, hosting information about the world as we see and experience it, and freeing it up to be marked by anyone. Consider these examples:

–    When I add pictures of my wedding to a site like Flickr and tag them ‘fall wedding,’ ‘Sonoma,’ or ‘wine country wedding,’ I am contributing to a visual catalog about weddings. My pictures join thousands of other similarly tagged photographs and become almost a new breed of bridal magazine, though much more powerful than Modern Bride or Martha Stewart Weddings. The images on Flickr are not professional photo shoots, images of airbrushed models or advertisers trying to sell the perfect wedding, but real people, celebrating a day they poured their hearts and souls into creating. Further, people can comment on my photographs, contextualizing them even more.  Now blushing brides-to-be have a visual resource that is personal, useful and free, to call upon when planning their wedding.

–    When I spend time on Facebook, Twitter or Digg, I am choosing to actively participate in a larger conversation, rather than flip on the television and passively consume information. When I tweet about my evening walk with my dog, Riley, I am contributing a piece of data about myself, evenings and San Francisco to a larger database of information. This information can be sliced and diced to reveal patterns or social trends that can provide value to others as well as insight about the world around us.

–    When I write a review of my local dry cleaner on Yelp or recommend its services on Wesabe, my opinion joins thousands of other opinions about other dry cleaners in my area. Collectively, this data can be analyzed and presented in way that helps others make the best possible decision for their needs and budget.

In each of these examples trivial tidbits from our everyday lives collectively become quite valuable. By participating in community sites, we are shaping a larger social landscape. This landscape has the power to better illuminate the material world around us and provide us with information that can help us make more informed decisions about our lives.

A couple weeks ago, I read an article called “The Annotated World” over at Chris Brogan’s blog that illuminated the power of community-based sites. Brogan provides a great list of ways you can use social websites to enrich your and others’ lives. Wesabe, spanglish for “together we know,” stems from the concept that collective intelligence has the power to make people far better consumers. Thus, I thought I’d add to Brogan’s list, highlighting a few ways you can use Wesabe to contribute to this growing collective experience.

In my examples of Flickr and Yelp, I talked about the “pointillist” possibilities of the web, where tiny pieces of information come together to make richer, coherent pictures, much like the dots in a Seurat painting. Wesabe’s Community operates similarly. One person asks question about their financial situation and, often within a day, is greeted with a series of answers that collectively point to the best answer for that person. This information can then be leveraged to the entire community. For example, a person looking to start an emergency fund can search that term and find wealth of information, trued, tried and tested by other individuals. Here, tiny pieces of information join each other to make a much larger answer.

However, community sites are opinion based and objective answers can at times be hard to find. This is a common critique of sites like Yelp, where a restaurant can consistently vary between one and five stars.   Wesabe’s Tips feature provides a solution to this problem by pairing qualitative with quantitative information.  By analyzing your shopping patterns against hundreds of thousands of other people’s shopping patterns, Tips examines the average amount spent at various stores, how often people shop at these businesses, and whether they recommend them or not. It then provides you with comparisons between places you often shop at and other places that people in your area often shop at. People might spend less at this business, come back all the time and highly recommend it (you can learn more about Tips here). Thus, you’re given the information to make a better-informed financial decision – another case of the individual benefiting from the power of collective intelligence.