By Claudia Buck The Sacramento Bee.
So you're looking at your credit score, wondering how it's ever going to get better. Or you're thinking you should do something about socking away more money for that South American vacation, the kids' college fund, your eventual retirement.
For most Americans, fiddling with finances is not high on their to-do list. But, as we all know, there's an app for that. Or at the very least a website.
Among the latest: Two financial advisers have earned attention for a new, free financial tool they call FlexScore.
Introduced last fall in New York at Finovate, the financial-tech conference, FlexScore has merited mention by tech writers in Forbes, U.S. News & World Report and Bloomberg Businessweek.
As financial advisers, co-founder Jason Gordo said he and his partner, certified financial planner Jeff Burrow, were often frustrated trying to cut through industry jargon and give people easy-to-comprehend answers to their most basic questions: "Where do I stand financially today and what do I do to improve my financial situation?"
Enter FlexScore. Acknowledging that budgets and finances can be flat-out boring, FlexScore's mission is to make a game of doing better at managing money.
"The average American doesn't want to do financial planning," said Gordo, 39. "Their eyes glaze over" when the topic is broached. Using friends-and-family funding, the pair developed their tool, which lets you plug in your financial accounts, income, bills, debts, investments and savings goals, as well as ZIP code, marital status, number of children, etc.
Using what Gordo says is a patented algorithm, users get a score, from zero to 1,000, that's based on multiple financial factors and industry standards for retirement savings, estate planning, mortgage and debt ratios, insurance amounts, and others.
Once you've got a score, you're given specific steps to boost it: lowering your credit-card rates, refinancing your mortgage, contributing to your company's 401(k), adding more life insurance.
"The feedback is immediate. The gaming element of this is fun," said Gordo, 39, who's a lifelong resident of Modesto, Calif.
For example, a 34-year-old with a new baby and a bigger mortgage might be recommended to up her life insurance coverage by $990,000. She can click on a link for comparative rates at Insure.com, or call "her brother-in-law, the insurance agent," to change her policy, Gordo said. "We don't care who you go to. You get the points for the activity."
In that case, she would have earned 16 points. Ultimately, if you hit 1,000, it means you're financially independent.
Like other personal finance sites, FlexScore lets you set specific goals and see how much you need to save monthly to reach it, whether it's a vacation next September or a kid starting college in 2020. Users can also plug in "what-ifs," such as what happens to your score if you buy the 5 Series BMW sedan instead of a more economical Honda Accord.
Based in Modesto with an office in San Francisco, FlexScore has signed up 20,000 users from across the country, according to Gordo.
Certainly, there are fistfuls of other financial tools and websites out there to help us manage our money, from the granddaddy, Mint.com, to new startups like FlexScore. For most people, it's a matter of finding the tool that suits your personality, your financial needs and your tech sensibilities.
Mint.com, for instance, which started in 2006, lets people organize all their financial accounts in one place, both online and from a smartphone. It lets you easily track your spending by category, investments and bills, plus sign up for 20 different email/text alerts when bills come due, your balance runs low, etc.
Started in 2006, the Mountain View, Calif.-based site claimed 10 million users, as of last November.
Last week, just in time for Valentine's Day, another personal finance site, Manilla.com, debuted its new "Bill Share" tool designed to help couples "minimize money arguments." It lets two people, spouses, partners, even parents and adult kids, view joint bills or accounts either online or from their smartphone.
Credit score experts say all of these types of tools have their place.
"They engage consumers and expose them to similar evaluations and important attributes used to measure financial health. ... We can never have too much of that," John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com, said in an email.
But, he added, they don't replace credit reports and FICO scores, which are used by "everyone from lenders to insurance providers to utility companies to landlords and employers." A credit score, he said, is "more important than any other consumer risk metric."
Here are other top-rated personal finance website and apps: _LevelMoney.com: Like a money meter on your smartphone, this San Francisco-based app lets you click to see how much you have in spendable cash for any given day, week or month. Proclaiming that "budgeting is dead," it aims to help 20- and 30-somethings keep their spending within bounds, based on their income and savings.
_Credit.com: Offers access to your credit score, plus tools and tips on how to improve it.
_Earmark: Skip the cab or dinner out? The mobile app lets you earmark what you didn't spend and transfer it (either mentally or literally) toward things you really want, like a major vacation or spending splurge. Its intent: to keep us mindful of how eliminating everyday spending can add up.
_Walla.by: Don't miss out on your credit card rewards. If you're pumping gas or buying shoes, the app, founded by two financial entrepreneurs, tells you which card to use to generate the best rewards or discounts.
_YouNeedABudget.com: Known as YNAB, it's not free, but the $60 software is lauded for walking people through the budgeting process and helping them stick with it.