Wednesday, August 25, 2010

personal finance budgets

Now that Wesabe is officially closed, many users are looking for an alternative that offers the same flexibility and features -- for many this alternative is, or should be MoneyStrands.

MoneyStrands is a free tool that has helped people manage their money online since it launched in March 2009 -- and in short order has won a Webby award for the best of the web in the banking and bill-pay category. This honor is no surprise when you consider that MoneyStrands offers features you won't find in many competing tools such as Mint.

Like all modern personal finance tools, MoneyStrands can connect to a large number of banking and financial institutions, but unlike most competitors gives users the ability to manually upload their account data. This option is a must-have for those who don't want to give their login info to a third party, or who bank at a smaller bank or credit union that personal finance tools cannot connect to for automatic updates.

MoneyStrands also sets itself apart from the competition because it is designed to make it easy for international and non-English speaking users to use the tool. The MoneyStrands website can be viewed in both English and Spanish with a toggle in the settings and users can choose their preferred currency from a long list. According to MoneyStrands, consumers use the service in 44 countries.

These features supplement the standard account linking and money management that the MoneyStrands tool handles well. Users can view spending and account history in one location as well as compare spending in categories such as shopping, food & dining and more to see how they stack up to the rest of the community. Filters allow you to compare yourself to other members based on age, gender, marital status, education and other variables.

MoneyStrands also has a budgeting tool that tracks spending and sets email alerts when a budget category reaches a certain level so spending can be put in check. The tool is fairly simple and requires users to figure out their own goals, but Atakan Cetinsoy, General Manager of MoneyStrands told WalletPop in a phone interview that an improved budgeting tool that walks users through the process is coming in the next few months.

MoneyStrands is easy to use and offers significant value to users; especially those who can't or don't want to link their accounts directly to a third-party service.

Some Republicans and Democrats can get their heads together now and then.

When I had the privilege of working for Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) in the US Senate, I had just moved over from serving as founding Executive Director of the Nixon Center for Peace & Freedom, later renamed (thankfully) "The Nixon Center".

Senator Bingaman at the time, along with his chief of staff Patrick Von Bargen, were asking key questions about the structure of international trade and finance and why such large bilateral deficits were building between the US and respectively Japan and China. University of Chicago-trained neoclassical economists regularly parroted the line that bilateral deficits were "meaningless" and would be balanced out over time with other global trade partners -- and would on a bilateral basis rise and fall, appearing and disappearing in a highly fluid global economic environment.

Bingaman's and Von Bargen's questions then are even more relevant today -- and given the time on the clock since, it's clear that the economists who argued that deficits were meaningless or that a job is a job is a job -- whether working as a wallet maker or a nano-technology app developer -- were wrong.

But Jeff Bingaman, even though skeptical about how the global economy was working in real rather than ideological terms, never turned his back on international engagement. In 1996, Bingaman, Von Bargen and I traveled to Japan, South Korea, China, and other parts of Asia. This, then, was an annual trip supplemented by his personal trips to Guatemala and trips to Europe, Russia and more. Bingaman, now Chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, remains deeply engaged and interested in international affairs.

And while most Senators and Congressman make a point of pushing 95% of their available press time towards the Bartlesville news outlet (in the case of Oklahoma) over the demands of the Yomiuri, Le Monde, Al Jazeera, or the People's Daily, Bingaman is one that does make time for international media.

The Nixon Center as well was stacked with big personalities who were then and remain deeply committed to America's engagement in global affairs. While the Nixon Center is actually fastidiously non-partisan and has key Dems and Republicans engaged with it, it's hard to hide all of its Republican stripes when in fact the institution's inspiration and founder was a powerful two-term winning Republican President of the United States.

My point is that there are Democrats and Republicans -- lots of them -- committed to robust international engagement, to smart foreign aid, and to coherent and sensible U.S. international public diplomacy.

But just as when I worked for Bingaman in the Senate and there were some Democrats and more Republicans who looked at having a passport as a political liability, many in the Tea Party movement are a manifestation of a similar pugnacious nationalism that disdains international institutions and US engagement abroad.

One of the major bipartisan NGOs committed to internationalism in Washington is the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. I attended the USGLC's gala dinner last year featuring NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But the guy who really impressed me was the charismatic Republican Congressman from Illinois, Aaron Schock -- who went on stage and made a case as strong as any liberal internationalist I have heard for the hard core national interest reasons that the U.S. should support global affairs and engagement -- and yes, foreign aid budgets.

Aaron Schock is a serious player on the way up -- and too many are distracted by his better than average looks and youth. I didn't support his approach to Honduras (for the most part) that he seemed to have jointly worked out with Senator Jim DeMint -- but that is beside the point. Schock is thinking hard about smart policy, not just coasting with his new found power and privileges in Washington.

If the USGLC can bring Hillary Clinton and the Republican House Deputy Whip together to sing from similar playbooks, then I have time for this private sector initiative to promote public support for international engagement.

If you are in DC (and if not, I am sure that there will be "live streaming" that I will arrange to have run here at TWN), you might want to attend the annual USGLC 2010 Washington Conference (registration information here) that takes place September 28-29, 2010 at Washington's Grand Hyatt.

I would support this meeting whether I was speaking or not -- but I happen to be on the program along with NBC Meet the Press' David Gregory, Under Secretary of the Treasury Lael Brainard, US AID Administrator Rajiv Shah, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and the indefatigable Joshua Rogin -- who writes Foreign Policy's "The Cable".

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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