The best college budgets in life are free

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checkbookRemember when your parents said that someday, you would have to learn how to balance a checkbook? Did you ever learn how? I didn't. Do you even use a checkbook? I don't.

The Internet, along with credit and debit cards, has (for the bulk of us) wiped out the need for checkbooks, let alone the need to know how to balance one. Today, all major banks, including Bank Of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and others, offer one-step access to records of every purchase and every transfer we make. Undeniably, this is a boon to the practice of making a budget. Learning how to take advantage of these tools though, can be difficult. And that's exactly where sites like Mint, SmartyPig, and Budgetpulse come in. Of course, this is the Internet we're talking about, and a host of other Web sites aim to help their customers follow a budget. However, I've narrowed the competition to these three, and for a few key reasons.
First, and most importantly: these guys are 100% FREE. They aren't, 7-day-trial-until-you-forget-to-cancel, free. They're just free. Secondly, compared to others I came across, these are, on average, simpler to use; I'll leave it in your hands to decide which works best for you. And third, whereas other sites can cost more, calculating your quarterly earnings from forever ago so you know just how good your nest egg is, these three really cater (intentionally or no) to the basic needs of college students.

Mint: Go ahead and judge this site by its home page, because Mint both looks and acts professional. With more than 1 million users, it bills itself as "America's No. 1 online personal finance service." The greatest advantage with Mint.com is also its greatest criticism: You link them to your bank account(s). In fact you can link Mint to monitor just about all of your financial data. They go to great lengths to assure customers that their information, and of course, money, is safe. But, when more than 300,000 Americans complained of identity theft in 2008 alone, one can never be too safe. Security concerns aside, the Web site uses its link to your accounts to the fullest. Every time you make a purchase, it shows up in Mint, just as it does on your bank's site, and allows you to create individual budgets for everything -- food, shoes, you name it. They even let you set up text and e-mail alerts so you know when you're about to go overboard on trips to Starbucks. Overall, Mint.com works great, but if you can't get beyond the idea of having yet another Web site know a lot about you, move right along to SmartyPig or Budgetpulse.

Budgetpulse: If you like the simplicity and aesthetics of Mint, but not the potential security risk, Budgetpulse is probably your niche. With almost uncanny similarity to Mint, Budgetpulse gives the user a dashboard equipped with graphs detailing current spending and the tools to help curb it. Slide the bar to decide what you want to spend on clothes, and slide the books bar in the opposite direction, lock it down, and voila! Remember though, with peace of mind comes a great deal more work. Without the direct connection to your financial institution, you have to enter all of your purchases manually (unless you have a Quicken subscription, which, by the way, acquired Mint). This doesn't necessarily mean purchase by purchase, but you must know how to export the statements from your bank (most specify how in their support sections) and do so on a regular basis. There isn't much by way of differences between Mint and Budgetpulse, but Internet security isn't something to take lightly, so choose carefully.

SmartyPig
: SmartyPig is probably the most interesting of the three sites (and not just by name). From the landing page, you know it has the same design care as Mint, but this website takes a different stance on budgeting altogether, and focuses on the goals their customers have, and gives you a high-interest savings account to boot! Whether you're working toward a car, house, or just a new cell phone, SmartyPig asks you the goal and time-frame, then gives you a variety of ways to make it happen. What's more, SmartyPig can actually integrate with Mint to calculate and advise you on necessary adjustments to your current budgets so you can achieve your goals. This different approach can stand alone or be used in tandem, but it's certainly not for everyone, especially if you don't have finite intentions for your money.

Designing a budget used to be the toughest part of college finance. With these sites though, it can be much easier. One thing hasn't changed though: ignoring what a website tells you is just as easy as ignoring what's written in a paper checkbook. Setting goals and sticking to them is where the real budgeting takes place.

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