ST. LOUIS — Few financial tasks are more important, or painstaking, than setting up a household budget.
A quick and easy way to get some impersonal, expert help is the Internet.
You'll still need to rummage through your spending records. But Cyberspace is full of helpful Web sites that can put your numbers in perspective.
They're not a substitute for the full-service expense tracking and check writing offered by software packages like Quicken and Microsoft Money. But they're free.
Choosing the right site depends on the kind of help you need. Some sites are geared for specific groups - women or college students - while others are more general.
For beginners, start at the Quicken Financial Network (www.qfn.com). This is not, strictly speaking, a budgeting site. But it does give users an important overview of their financial situation. Once you know where you are, then you can make out a budget to get where you want to go. Warning: Loading the online questionnaire can be slow and it will take about 20 minutes to answer everything. But the ratings and tips at the end make the process well worth it.
Once you know where you should be spending and saving, it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty. FinanCenter (www.financenter.com/budget.htm) maintains an excellent set of calculators to figure out what you're spending.
For a more colorful approach, try MetLife Online (www.metlife.com). The insurance company's site is full of Peanuts cartoon characters. Click on "life advice center," then "money," then "creating a budget." The one drawback is that you can't enter your numbers online.
Some sites cater to specific audiences. HomeArts Network offers "take-it-to-the-bank" advice for women. The Web site (homearts.com) includes a "money minded" section that discusses topics such as college financial aid and why women need more retirement money than men do. (Hint: It's demographics, not spending habits.) The site also includes a budget worksheet that's more interactive than MetLife's, but not as detailed.
Are you a college student? Try the Bank of Canada's section on financing college (www.bmo.com). The site contains a calculator to help students figure out where their college money is coming from and what, if anything, they'll have left over once they've paid for tuition, room and board, and books. To get there, click on "tools, calculators."
The Internet has several ways to teach children to budget their money. Kiplinger maintains a Dr. Tightwad column on its site (www.kiplinger.com/drt/), which offers advice and answers parents' questions. (Or, for budgeting calculators, click on www.kiplinger.com, then on "calculators.")
Prodigy offers Kids' Activities with links to articles about games and game suggestions for teaching the value of money to children (pages.prodigy.com/kidsmoney/act.htm).
Articles on kids and money are available at many sites, such as The Dollar Stretcher (www.stretcher.com/stories/970915c.htm). More budgeting-related sites are listed at www.hec.ohio-state.edu/cts/osue/budget.htm