Fiscal Fitness

What's your million-dollar dream? Early retirement to a house by the sea? An open-ended world tour? The kids' education? You could trust your dreams to good fortune, but most of us prefer to take our financial fate into our own hands. That's where the Internet come in. Thousands of sites will help you sort your money matters. Plus, many are free - so using them has got to be good financial sense.

Make a personalfinancial plan

As well as making a budget, a good place to start the financial planning process is About.com's financial planning site. This page (http://financialplan.about.com) has stories to help various age groups identify their financial priorities.

Financial Passages (www.financial passages.com.au) also has content tailored to your stage in life ('Just Starting Out' through to 'Enjoying Retirement'). Each section has articles and checklists to help you work out your financial priorities.

Investment planning is particularly important for women. Taking time off work to have children, for example, can mean less superannuation by the time you retire - a major problem, given that women generally live longer than men. MsMoney (www.msmoney.com) is designed specifically to help women achieve their financial goals. The site offers a number of workshops that help you establish what you want to achieve and how to get there. Some of the content is a little too US-specific (401k plans instead of superannuation), but the general advice on topics like buying a car, establishing a portfolio and checking your financial health are eye-opening. Speaking of super, if you think you've lost track of a super account from a previous job, visit findmysuper (www.findmysuper.com.au) for help (registration fee is $55). You can also use the tax department's site to track down lost super - see the fact sheet at www.ato.gov.au/content.asp?doc=/ content/Professionals/super/16442.htm.

Another US site worth a look is ihatefinancialplanning.com (www.ihate financialplanning.com; registration required). The people behind this site know that many of us avoid financial planning because it's such a chore, and they've tailored the content to help motivate visitors. The 10-step financial planning tool is a highlight here - even if you end up seeing a professional it would pay to go through the process of determining your current financial state, your goals, spending and so on.

Fairfax's Moneymanager (www. moneymanager. com.au) has features on managing your money and investments (you will need to register for some services). The site has step-by-step guides to superannuation, shares, managed funds, buying property, and more.

AMP offers an online financial planning service at its site (www.amp. com.au, click on 'My Plan'). The more detailed e-Plan costs $55 for a year's access, but the shorter e-Consultation is free. "My plan only recommends products issued or managed by AMP and products (including from competing organisations) administered through AMP's investor directed portfolio service, AMP Investment Solutions," the site reads. Finally, if you want professional help, visit the Financial Planning Association of Australia at www.fpa.asn.au for help finding a professional planner.

Pay off your credit card debt

According to figures released by the Reserve Bank in February, Australia's credit card debt continues to rise at an alarming rate: during December last year, shoppers increased the nation's total credit card bill by $730 million to $20.1 billion. One of the best things you can do to improve your financial health is get credit card debt under control.

The great thing about the Net is that you can learn from others. Visit the Motley Fool's Web site for a helpful section on paying off debt, including a page with tips from the site's message boards (www.fool.com/credit/Tips.htm).

One of the tips you'll often see is to consolidate your credit card debt onto one, low-fee card. Sites like Ninemsn's finance site (http://ninemsn.com.au/finance), Moneymanager (www.moneymanager. com.au) and The Money Shop (www. themoneyshop.com.au) have tools to help you find a new credit card. Of these, Moneymanager probably has the edge in terms of overall presentation and the ability to drill down to find out each card's features.

Be sure to check your choice with the bank to see if all the information is still valid. One of the credit cards I use was listed as not having a charge if overdue - but it does.

Repay your mortgage early

You don't need a bank's mortgage simulator to learn how to take years off your loan - you can do it yourself with tools on the Web. Moneymanager.com.au has a calculator that gives you an indication of how much time and money you can save by increasing your fortnightly or monthly mortgage payments. Your Mortgage Magazine (www.your mortgage.com.au/calculators) has even more sophisticated tools that can show you the effects of extra payments and redraws.

Where will the extra money come from, you ask? The Net abounds in weird frugal sites (fancy making your own soap?), but there's some useful stuff out there. The Motley Fool, for example, has a messageboard with tips for living below your means and About's Frugal Living pages offer more advice (http://frugalliving.about.com).

Get advice for building an investment portfolioAt the height of the dot-com mania, sound investment practices were forgotten as people rushed to make a million on the share market. If you heard about investors duped by dodgy sites and e-mailed recommendations and thought it best to steer clear of the Web, it may be time to take another look. Just remember ASIC's golden rule: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

ASIC's site (www.asic.gov.au/fido/fido.nsf) has lots of useful information for would-be investors, including tips on getting good advice, researching and choosing an investment, as well as consumer warnings. The guide to buying and selling shares online is a good first stop for beginners. Infochoice (www.infochoice.com.au) has a tutorial for buying and selling shares online.

Online brokerage firms like Commsec (www.commsec.com.au), TD Waterhouse ("www.tdwaterhouse. com.au) and eTrade (www.etrade. com.au) offer information along with a facility to make trades.

Make a savings plan

Last year the Sydney Morning Herald reported the results of a Hugh Mackay research report, which found that saving is now seen as "unfashionable".

"Today, the emphasis is on using money to create the kind of lifestyle you want," the researchers said. Trendy or not, if you take a look at AMP's savings calculators you'll see how a small commitment to saving over a long period can pay off (the magic of compound interest). There are lots of useful calculators at this site (www.amp.com.au) including one that compares the results of savings plans with the same contributions but started at different times.

To make your savings work even harder, find an account with a high interest rate. The sites mentioned in the credit card section above that help find the right card can also be used to find a savings account.

Find help with tax returns

If you face each year's tax returns with a jumbled mess of receipts and paperwork, it may be time to get organised.

E-businesses that help you submit your tax return have sprung up in recent times. Tax Returns Australia (www.taxreturnsaustralia.com.au) charges $35 or $40 to help you submit your return online, while eReturn (www.ereturn.com.au) charges from $55. You could also go to the source - the Australian Taxation Office - but be prepared to hunt around for the information you need. The site (www.ato.gov.au) features a search tool to find a registered tax agent in your area.

Banking online

Australians are avid e-bankers. A recent survey by research outfit Taylor Nelson Sofres found that 23 per cent of Australians use online banking services - nearly double the 12 per cent who use Internet banking in the United Kingdom and well above the 15 per cent figure for the United States.

For a comparison of online banking services go to Moneymanager (www. moneymanager.com.au/banking/comparison/internetbanking.html) or the banking section at Infochoice (www.infochoice.com.au/banking), but be sure to check with the bank before making a definite choice in case some features have changed.

Some banks also offer e-savings accounts that you can access on the Net or a phone - with limited, if any, services at the teller, but a higher interest rate than regular accounts. Moneymanager has a comparison table on these types of accounts (www. moneymanager.com.au/banking/comparison/online_savings.html).

Even if your bank doesn't offer an online service you can still pay bills over the Net. Ninemsn has a billpaying service to let you pay paper bills or receive electronic bills. Few of the listed billers offer electronic bills, however, and you may find some of the accounts you hold cannot be paid here. When we visited, for example, Telstra was not featured.

One area of online banking not as widely covered is account aggregation - where a company consolidates information on a variety of sources to give you a single page with all your account details. Alongside your banking details you may also be able to view other, non-financial accounts and services - such as your frequent flyer points total.

Some examples of these services are eWise (www.ewise.com.au), Financial Enrichment ($www.enrichment. com.au), AMP's Account Minder (www.amp.com.au), Commonwealth Bank's My Online Summary (www. commbank.com.au/myonline summary) and Ninemsn's Account Master (https://secure.ninemsn.com. au/money/accountmasterdev).

To set up an aggregated account you need to register, select your accounts and then enter your usernames and passwords. You need to carefully review these services' terms and conditions (for instance, who is liable if your information is used to make transactions you haven't authorised?). Plus, ask yourself whether you feel comfortable giving them sensitive information like PINs.

One issue highlighted by the Taylor Nelson Sofres survey - and one many online bankers will attest to - is the problem of downtime. Twelve per cent of those surveyed said they would switch banks for a reliable online banking facility, indicating that consumers are willing to vote with their feet.

Make a budget

We all know that sound financial management starts with a realistic budget, but they're a pain to create (not to mention sticking to!). Online tools aim to streamline the process and do some of the hard work for you.

About.com

You can read stories on the process of budgeting as well as access worksheets to get started.http://financialplan.about.com/cs/budgeting.

Ninemsn

Ninemsn's site builds on the resources of Money magazine and tools from major institutions.http://ninemsn.com.au.

The Money Shop

This site hosts a great budget tool. You'll need Excel, but it's easy to use and doesn't take page after page of steps to input data.www.themoneyshop.com.au.

Moneymanager.com.au

This Fairfax-run site has an "organise your finances" section that steps you through the budget process, alongside useful related features.www.moneymanager.com.au/advice/organise/index.html.

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Deanne McIntosh

PC World

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