Five Free Financial Favorites

One of the downsides of wandering the world at a very slow pace is the difficulty in managing finances long-term, when your needs, expenses and income radically change every three to five years. So here are my favorite ways to maintain financial sanity, and best of all, they’re free.

Self-made spreadsheet from OpenOffice

Yes, I know it’s boring, but the need to keep track of just how much everything really costs is vital to staying solvent.  I’ve put more detail here, but in a nutshell, you need to track your spending for two or three months to see where the money goes, and then start working on categories and a spending plan. And if the budget word fills you with horror, remember that it is your money, and you can spend it wherever you want. I don’t peek.  Here’s a copy of my  moneyminder spreadsheet to amuse you – worth noting are the ‘Reluctant Invitations” and “Bloopers” categories.. (You will need to ‘enable macros’ to open the spreadsheet.) Finally, here’s a set of tutorials, for those of you who are using that as an excuse..

Once you have put together a spending plan,  be prepared to get it badly wrong for at least six months, but the clarity you eventually gain is well worth it. My own spreadsheets have an ‘adjustment’ column, which allows you alter your spending allocation, without losing sight of what you initially thought you would spend. At first, my lack of accuracy was hugely frustrating; two years on, my adjustments are smaller, but the freedom to change my mind about where the money will go is liberating, especially when the children keep coming home with endless requests for sports equipment, book fairs, and other such ’emergencies’..

Internet Banking

Frankly, I hate most banks. (And for the record, Bank of America tops that list.) However, internet banking is right up there with email in terms of improving quality of life for global nomads, working families and insomniacs. It means that you can track your spending in real-time, manage savings, make bill payments and spot fraudulent transactions at 1 am in your pyjamas if you so choose. So when you choose which bank to open your new account with, make sure that it has a secure online banking facility with the ability to view transactions, pay bills and make fund transfers. It also helps if you have checking and savings accounts with the same bank so that  last-minute transfers to cover unexpected payments are possible – I have saved hundreds of dollars in bank fees with this facility alone. I have internet banking for both my home and host country accounts and my credit cards, so keeping track is a breeze. Remembering all the password, not so much..

Smartypig / ING

I have a credit union savings account, which makes it easy to move money between checking and savings. For the kids, however, the needs are different. I need them to easily see how much money they have, to learn to set savings goals, and for us to be able to deposit relatively small amounts of money frequently. Oh, and to make it interesting, and hopefully educational. My favorites for this are Smartypig, and ING. Smartypig is a savings account available to the residents of the US and Australia, with two key features; you can subdivide your savings goals into specific categories (e.g. Christmas, flights home, car, etc.) and you can share those goals via social media like Facebook and Twitter, so that others can contribute. For Third Culture Kids, who often miss out on birthday gifts, or for family and friends who struggle with postage or currency issues, this is a fantastic tool. ING offer a wider range of services and are global, but still have the convenience of internet based banking, and the ability to subdivide goals. They also offer child accounts, which allow transfers of funds either electronically, or by mail.

Credit Karma

A free credit history website which “allows consumers to get access to their credit score anytime they want for free without the sneaky “free” trials or subscription requirements”. It also suggests a million and one financial products that ‘might be of interest’, but I’m willing to ignore these to get what is a very good overview of my credit, and an understanding of how different financial behaviors (e.g. keeping my balance below 20% of my credit limit, opening another card) will affect my score. As I am currently preparing to buy a house, and my credit score affects my mortgage rate offers, I am finding it invaluable.

Learnvest / Mint / Quicken

All three of these bring all your financial accounts together online or on your mobile device, automatically categorize your transactions, let you set budgets and help you meet your savings goals. You have to be comfortable with letting a third-party access your accounts and transaction, but for those of you who hate inputting data into spreadsheets, they do the hard work for you. They take time to set up effectively, as you need to set budgets, but they do help you gain an understanding of where your money is really going. The first two are free, but if you don’t want your information stored online, Quicken does the same job for a fee, and will let you download information from your account so you don’t have to do everything the long way. Take note though; if you don’t take the time to set up a spending plan /budget, these only tell you where your money has gone, which is a little like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The first recommendation forms the backbone of your financial management – making decisions about your spending, and maintaining clarity and control over your finances.  The others are the icing on the cake, and make the process simpler by allowing you to track / manage / save your money more easily. They also all have the advantage of being portable – as long as you have a laptop / mobile device and internet access, financial wizardry is at your fingertips. Now if we could just make money magically appear…


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