NEW YORK -- Free budgeting sites continue to grow in popularity. One of the most well-known, Mint.com, says it now has more 1.2 million active users.
Among the benefits these sites offer is the ability to view multiple banking and investment accounts in one place. Users can also track spending habits and create budgets. But as much as they simplify financial planning, it's getting harder to pick a site from the field of options.
Complicating matters is the industry's shifting landscape, such as the recent exit of Wesabe.com, which coupled social networking options with its budgeting tools. Intuit is also phasing out its Quicken Online site and transitioning users to one-time rival Mint.com, which it bought last year.
Banks are getting into the game too and offering customers online budgeting tools. The drawback with those services is that they're limited to the user's accounts at that bank.
Here's what I found.
Mint.com: This site is the undisputed giant in the field; it was also the most comprehensive and easy to navigate among the three sites I tested.
Users set up a profile to which they can add various financial accounts, such as credit cards, loans, mortgages and investment accounts. Uploading an account is as simple as selecting the name of the financial institution, and entering your ID and password.
Note that the site doesn't let you pay bills or transfer funds; the purpose is solely to let users review and organize their finances.
To do this, Mint.com aggregates activity from all listed accounts. Transactions are automatically tagged under categories such as "groceries," ''bill pay" and "income."
The categories are fairly extensive, but users can also create their own. So you might designate that a certain check was for rent, or label a deli transaction as "work lunch." Cash transactions can be entered manually too.
This information can then be used to create a budget and track spending. If a budget limit is exceeded, an e-mail alert is sent. It won't be in real time, however, because account information is updated each evening.
Mint also reviews how much users earn or pay on various accounts, then lists suggestions on where they might get more for their money. Some of those suggestions are for advertisers, however, who pay Mint.com whenever users click through and sign up for an account.
Aaron Patzer, Mint.com's general manager, said the options are always listed with the most competitive offers at the top. Advertisers aren't given preferential treatment, he said.
Paid ads aren't a reason to avoid Mint.com. But keep in mind that the ads should only be a starting point for researching better options.
The site also lets users keep track of nonfinancial accounts, such as rewards and mileage programs.
There are no ads or referrals to other banks or services on the site. Instead, Yodlee earns money by providing its budgeting software to banks and other financial institutions.
Another neat function on Yodlee.com is the financial calendar, which gives users a monthly view of key transactions and due dates. So you might see that a rent check cleared on a certain date, or that you tend to go shopping on Fridays.
The automated transaction categories aren't as specific or accurate as with Mint.com, however. For instance, my paycheck was categorized as "groceries." A bank transfer into my savings account was listed as "ATM cash withdrawal."
Still, the mistakes were easy to fix and overall the site is intuitive and easy to navigate.
HelloWallet.com: This newcomer to the field launched in March, and charges $5 a month, or $4 a month if you sign up for a year. You can also sign up for a free 60-day trial.
It should be noted upfront that the site's founder, Matt Fellowes, says he's still working to make certain functions more user friendly. Before starting the site, Fellowes was a consumer finance scholar at the Brookings Institute.
That said, the site offers some unique services. Most notably, it pulls tuition data from nearly all post-secondary schools in the country to help users project how much they might need to save for college.
For example, let's say you wanted to save for tuition at Rutgers University in New Jersey, with enrollment starting in 2014.
For an out-of-stater, the site projects tuition at $29,000 in 2014. The total cost over four years -- including room, board and books -- is projected at about $227,000.
Alongside this cost summary, you also get a snapshot of how the average family pays for those costs. In this case, financial aid, scholarships and loans would typically pay for nearly half the estimated costs. That suggests that you'd only need to save about $118,000.
The site aggregates online rates offered by banks and other financial institutions and makes suggestions on where users might be able to earn more money. Unlike Mint.com, however, the site is independent and isn't paid for referrals.
The site earns money from subscriptions and received grant funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and other organizations.