Have you read so much about personal finance that you actually feel overwhelmed by it? Have all the many principles, strategies, and techniques for taking charge of your money become so confusing that you don’t quite know where to start applying them? If so, this article is here to help. The Internet is teeming with free tools, cheat sheets, and calculators that allow you to plug in your numbers and generate useful intelligence on what you should change (or start doing.) Here are 25 of the best and most essential. Try to find the ones most useful to you and, most importantly, use them!
We realize you may be fascinated with the wealth-building potential of stock market investing, but true financial success starts at home, with the money you already make. To that end, here are some of the best free budgeting tools on the web:
- Household budget worksheet — You may wish your monthly and weekly expenses were lower, but the only way to accomplish that is to face the reality of what they currently are. Kiplinger’s household budget worksheet makes this easier than ever by allowing you to plug in both your desired monthly spending and actual monthly spending in various categories. Once you’ve keyed in all your numbers, just click “Subtotal” and you will see how much more or less you’ll need to pay, per month, to reach your goals. It always helps to reduce guesswork and theorizing to actual numbers, and this worksheet will do just that.
- Free Personal Finance Software — Mint.com keeps track of all of your money (in real time), across all of your different checking, saving, credit card, loan, and investment accounts. Self-touted as “the best free way to manage your money” and described by Kiplinger’s as the “best budgeting site”, an account at Mint.com is a must-have for all personal finance junkies and budget-conscious individuals.
- What is my cost of living? — A truly accurate and reasonable budget should take into account your cost of living. But how can you possibly calculate such a complex number on your own? Simple — use Salary.com’s Cost of Living Calculator, which will compare the percentage of your income that goes to food, transportation, and other categories with how much the general population spends on those things. This should give you a rough idea of whether your cost of living is reasonable and, if not, show you where you might try to make cutbacks.
- How much will it cost to raise a child? — Bringing another life into the world is getting more expensive every year. And just when you think you’ve considered every expense, you realize one or two that you forgot. But no longer – this calculator from BabyCenter.com will let you run the numbers in almost every concievable category (from diapers to dental bills) and get a rough idea of what it will cost you to raise a child from birth to any age you specify (probably 18.)
- Can one of you afford to quit — A common question among spouses is whether one of them can afford to quit their jobs — perhaps to stay at home and raise a child. Well, thanks to this nifty calculator, you don’t have to wonder anymore. By showing you a snapshot of your expenses and cashflow before and after the loss of one of your incomes, you can gain an accurate reading on whether quitting is feasible. At the very least, you’ll know what must be done to make it feasible in the future.
Once you have established a reasonable budget, you can turn your attention to saving some of that money — be it for school, a home, vacation, or anything else you desire. Here are some useful tools for determining how much money to save and finding ways to save more:
- Fuel Economy — The federal government’s free fuel mileage calculator lets you quickly and easily compare how much gas various cars and trucks suck down. Gas prices might be down right now, but after experiencing $4.00/gallon prices less than six months ago, it still pays to take fuel economy into account. Letting this calculator help you decide which car to buy could save you thousands of dollars over many years!
- How much can you save in a year? — Most people underestimate how much money they could save if they really tried. This free calculator from MSN eliminates all the guesswork by letting you project how much you could save in the next year. Just input how much you have saved so far, what you think you can save regularly, how often you think you can save it, for how many years, and what interest rate you expect to get. Then click “Calculate” and out comes the money you will save this year if you follow through on those numbers.
- How long ’till you’re a millionaire? — Some people save money for rainy day funds, or to insure against catostrophic problems like the sudden loss of income. But what if you want to become a millionaire? This calculator will break down exactly how long it would take, given your current saving, spending, and investment habits. Try it out: you never know how reachable this lofty goal might be!
- How will taxes and inflation affect my savings? — One of the ever-present dangers — even to wise consumers who judiciously save and invest their money — is the risk of taxes and inflation eating away at your savings. Many people don’t like to think about this, so they just ignore it. But knowing how big a bite these twin monsters will take out of your assets is the first step toward making changes to minimize the damage, and this calculator will help you project it as accurately as possible.
- How will my 401(k) savings affect my take-home pay? — Another common question would-be savers ask is “well I’d like to start saving for retirement, but how would that effect my take-home pay?” The only way to answer that question is to run the numbers, which this AOL tool makes quite easy. Just plug in the relatively few numbers it asks for and your question will be answered definitively, once and for all!
Credit & Debt Tools
With budgets and savings properly calculated and tallied up with free web tools, you can start to assess your creditworthiness. Here are some of the top free tools for getting a handle on your credit and debt:
- How much money will my FICO score cost or save me?” — We all know that our FICO scores influence whether we get loans and, if so, the interest we pay. But few are aware of exactly how the numbers are determined. Clearly, it would be helpful to know this before walking into a bank and taking out a mortgage or a car loan. And thanks to the free calculator on MyFICO.com, you can now calculate exactly how much your APR and monthly payments should be based on your FICO score and how much you are borrowing.
- Debt consolidation calculator — Everyone has seen the late-night TV commercials hawking debt consolidation as the answer to your prayers, but is it? No two financial situations are completely the same, so the fact is, you can’t know for sure whether debt consolidation makes sense without running your own numbers. This calculator from MSN MoneyCentral will untangle the hype and tell you whether it’s worth your time or not.
- Balance transfer calculator — Balance transfers are another alleged “solution” that is often sold to the debt-having public as a miracle solution to their problems. But just like debt consolidation, whether it makes sense for you can only be determined by you. This calculator from Bankrate.com will give you a better idea of whether a balance transfer would lighten your load or dig you further down into the hole of debt.
- Car Loan & Finance Calculator — Car loans are one of the most common forms of debt today, and it’s easy to get caught up in how “great” of a deal a dealership salesman says you’ll be getting. But only some serious number-crunching like that offered by Cars.com’s Loan and Finance calculator will cut through the clutter and determine whether the deal is worthwhile or not. Highly recommended for anything thinking of financing a new or used vehicle!
Committing to a 30 year home mortgage is the biggest financial decision most people ever make. Here are some the best free web tools for analyzing the various mortgages you are offered as well as calculating your housing costs:
- How much can I spend for housing? — The biggest question when it comes to housing and mortgages is how much you can spend on housing. That is exactly what this calculator answers by asking you for numbers pertinent to everything from your monthly mortgage payments to homeowners insurance to utilities and property taxes. Spend a few seconds plugging them all in and you’ll know once and for all how much house you can afford!
- How much should I put down on a home? — The size of your down payment is another common question answered by a free calculator from Mortgage-calc.com. Think of this as a home mortgage version of the Loan & Finance calculator from Cars.com. If you’re overwhelmed by sales pitches and hype about the “great deal” your lender is giving you, take a few minutes to run the numbers through this calculator. The results may surprise you!
- Mortgage Calculator — The mortgage calculator from MortgageCalculator.org is a great resource for visually-oriented people in that it breaks down your payment plans and projections into appealing charts and graphs. If you find these visual aids to be more helpful as motivators or planning tools, this calculator will serve you well!
- Fixed-rate or adjustable? — The age-old question of home mortgages is “should I get a fixed-rate or adjustable?” While it would be tough for any one calculator to answer this by itself, the good folks at Interest.com have posted an entire page of calculators aimed at helping you answer this difficult question. If any website is equipped to help you find an answer, it’s this one!
- Rent or Buy? — Should you buy a home or rent one? It’s a tough question to answer, and quite a few numbers need to be crunched to figure it out. Fortunately, this calculator is equipped to do just that, enabling you to project rent payments, interest rates, home equity, and more. Don’t make this decision without consulting this free tool first!
At long last, you are ready to use the web’s best free tools to analyze and improve your investment decisions! Here are some that we suggest:
- IRA Conversion Analyzer — Should you leave your retirement nest egg in a traditional IRA or convert to a Roth IRA? What are the costs, pros, and cons? Don’t wonder; find out with this free tool from HarborFunds.com!
- What is your risk tolerance? — No investment portfolio can be built without taking your risk preference into consideration. How willing are you to sacrifice risk for greater returns? When do you need to withdraw the money you are investing? How much of that money do you need to withdraw at that time? All of these questions and more must be answered to assess your risk tolerance and select investments that match it, and Kiplinger’s handy risk tolerance form will help greatly in this regard.
- Economic Forecast Calendar — Hands-on investors will greatly appreciate this economic forecast calendar courtesy of MarketWatch.com. Never again will you invest without a firm grasp on where the economy as a whole is headed, and you’ll wonder how you ever did before!
- IRA Selector — The IRA selector helps determine which type of IRA will provide you with the greatest amount of after-tax income upon your retirement. If this is a concern of yours, you would do well to see what this calculator has to say!
- How do fees affect my returns? — No mutual fund or index fund (or any other managed investment) can be evaluated without taking its fees into account. While some fees are innocuous enough to leave your returns mostly intact, others can take a gigantic bite out of your money thereby making an investment less attractive than you thought. This SEC calculator will help you determine whether the fees you pay are reasonable and show just how much of an impact they have on your returns.
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