Over the last several years I’ve had the opportunity to look at a multitude of personal financial applications, all of which offer useful collections of tools for managing your money matters. Of all these apps, none comes close to offering the breadth of features and capabilities of the free, Web-based Personal Capital.
As is the case with all applications of this sort, setup is the initial hurdle you have to clear if you hope to track all of your financial data. Personal Capital makes this process incredibly easy, although it’s important to note that in order to use this application you will already have to have some kind of online relationship with all the financial institutions you want to track using Personal Capital.
Adding accounts to Personal Capital is easy, all you need to do is select or search for the bank, credit union, credit card, or investment company you want to track data for and then enter your current login information for that entity. Personal Capital will then log in to the site and begin aggregating your financial data. If the financial site you’re connecting to requires additional authentication information, like your mother’s maiden name or the first elementary school you attended, personal Capital can handle this too, without any problems. This is in stark contrast to Mint which always seems to need me to log in to fix some sort of authentication problem related to the extra questions banks require you to answer to see your financial information.
One problem I’ve had with every financial application I’ve used is their inability to automatically collect data from all the financial institutions I use. Most notably, my local credit union and the company holding the 401k money I had at a former employer. In short, I have never been able to connect to and retrieve data from these institutions no matter what application I’ve used. Personal Capital connects to them both without a hitch.
This isn’t to say that Personal Capital is perfect. It’s new enough that, while I was able to connect to all my bank accounts, I was not able to create links to the credit cards issued by some of those banks. I don’t expect this to be a persistent issue (when I contacted tech support at Personal Capital, they stated that the card was currently in beta and should be available soon.) But depending on the financial institutions you use, this could mean you may not initially be able track some of your financial information.
Once you’ve added all your accounts Personal Capital offers the usual graphs, charts and reports for tracking your financial data. You’ll receive automated messages when you have bills due and updates on the current status of your investments, including information about the stocks held within mutual funds or your 401k plan. The information offered about your accounts is detailed and, in some cases, broad investment guidance is offered. So, for example, if your 401k is over allocated in a certain area, you’ll see a message stating that your portfolio doesn’t meet Personal Capital’s baseline allocation expectations for your investments. But, no specific advice is given on how you should change those allocations.
Personal Capital is free, so you might expect that, much like Mint, every page you visit within the Personal Capital site will be filled with ads. But Personal Capital has no ads for interest free credit cards, banks that offer higher interest rates than your bank, or free checking when yours charges a fee. What you will see is offers to make a few bucks if you refer friends to Personal Capital. That’s it.
So, what’s the hook? Personal Capital is a registered investment advisor and the hope is that you’ll like what you’re getting for free enough that you’ll hire Personal Capital to manage your finances. In order to be a a potential customer you must have assets that exceed $100,000. If you do, you’re assigned an investment advisor who will make some initial contact with you. Interestingly, once that contact is made, there is no hard sell for these services. If you want more guidance you are welcome to contact the advisor with basic questions about your finances, but the onus is on you to pursue Personal Capital if you want them to mangage your assets.
Macworld’s buying advice
Having used Personal Capital to track my income and investments for several months now, I can say that this is by far the best personal financial tool that I’ve had the pleasure to use, on my Mac or on the Web. Minimal account connections hassles, detailed financial information, and the options to speak directly with a financial advisor make Personal Capital, hands down, the best free finance tracking app available.
[Jeffery Battersby is an Apple Certified Trainer, (very) smalltime actor, and regular contributor to Macworld. He writes about Macs and more at his blog. jeffbattersby.com.]