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How to get smarter at budgeting

So you're looking at your credit score, wondering how it's ever going to get better. Or you're thinking you should do something about socking away more money for that vacation.

For most Americans, fiddling with finances is not high on their to-do list. But, as we all know, there's an app for that. Or at the very least a website.

Among the latest: Two financial advisers have earned widespread attention for a new, free financial tool they call FlexScore. Co-founder Jason Gordo said he and his partner, Jeff Burrow, were often frustrated trying to cut through industry jargon and give people easy-to-comprehend answers to their most basic questions: "Where do I stand financially today and what do I do to improve my financial situation?"

Enter FlexScore. Acknowledging that budgets and finances can be flat-out boring, FlexScore's mission is to make a game of doing better at managing money.

FlexScore lets you plug in your financial accounts — income, bills, debts, investments and savings goals — as well as ZIP code, marital status, number of children, etc. Using what Gordo says is a patented algorithm, users get a score, from zero to 1,000, that's based on multiple financial factors and industry standards for retirement savings, mortgage and debt ratios, insurance amounts, and others.

Once you've got a score, you're given specific steps to boost it: lowering your credit-card rates, refinancing your mortgage, contributing to your company's 401(k), adding more life insurance.

For example, a 34-year-old with a new baby and a bigger mortgage might be recommended to up her life insurance coverage by $990,000. She can click on a link for comparative rates at Insure.com — or call "her brother-in-law, the insurance agent," to change her policy, Gordo said. "We don't care who you go to. You get the points for the activity."

In that case, she would have earned 16 points. If you hit 1,000, it means you're financially independent.

Like other personal finance sites, FlexScore lets you set specific goals and see how much you need to save monthly to reach it. Users can also plug in "what-ifs," such as what happens to your score if you buy the 5 Series BMW instead of a more economical Honda Accord.

Among other websites and apps out there to help us manage our money:

Mint.com lets people organize all their financial accounts in one place, both online and from a smartphone. It lets you easily track your spending by category, investments and bills, plus sign up for alerts when bills come due, your balance runs low, etc.

Manilla.com has a new "Bill Share" tool designed to help couples "minimize money arguments." It lets two people — spouses, partners, even parents and adult kids — view joint bills or accounts either online or from their smartphone.

LevelMoney.com: Like a money meter on your smartphone, this app lets you click to see how much you have in spendable cash for any given day, week or month. It aims to help 20- and 30-somethings keep their spending within bounds.

Earmark: Skip the cab or dinner out? This app lets you earmark what you didn't spend and transfer it (either mentally or literally) toward things you really want. Its intent: to keep us mindful of how eliminating everyday spending can add up.

YouNeedABudget.com: Known as YNAB, it's not free, but the $60 software is lauded for walking people through the budgeting process and helping them stick with it.

How to get smarter at budgeting 03/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 5:29pm]
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